Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Why I don't go to the altar
I started thinking for myself.
That might sound weird, or elementary, but it is true. Thinking for oneself can be liberating, terrifying, and dangerous. I learned quickly that thinking for myself should line up with what God says, not what my family or church says. I decided I didn't want to be the status quo, a robot who just marched along doing what everyone tells me to do. Believing everything everyone tells me.
Does that make me a rebel? Maybe in some ways. The word rebel gets a bad rap. When we think of rebels, we thing of Samuel telling Saul in the Bible that rebellion is of the sin of witchcraft. We think of teenagers going against everything they are told to do.
But where would we be without rebels? America wouldn't exist. We would still be ruled by England. We would still be under the rule of a church who ruled people with an iron fist. We would not have the freedoms we have. Rebels have their place. It depends on what you are rebelling against, who, and why.
Me? I am rebelling against being a robot. I am rebelling against man telling me how I should live, instead of allowing room for God to tell me.
Now for the point of my blog. I may as well put on my heretic t-shirt.... yeah, they actually have one, though I don't own one. :-)
For me, the altar holds bad memories. It is a place I equate with judgement, not a place to get help. I got to the point that I decided not to go anymore. Don't consign me to hell, but it is true. There have been times when I felt God speak to me and knew I needed to straighten up things with Him, so I waited until I got home and did it. Yeah, that goes against everything we have been told.
Maybe it is unfair to blame the altar. The reason I avoid the altar has more to do with preachers and altar calls.
I grew up in a conservative church, what many refer to as fundamentalist. Pastors did their share of altar calls and of trying to scare people into going to the altar, but it was revival services and camp meetings where the heavy guns were brought out.
It may not be a fair observation to make, and it does come from the part of me that is cynical, but it seems there are some preachers who want to put more notches on their gun belt at the end of a camp meeting or revival, of how many people were at the altar. I see this with Christian music groups. They will announce on line and in concerts how many decisions for Christ had been made at their concerts..... why give numbers?
Anyway, these preachers would often preach "hell and brimstone" messages. Often throughout the meeting, but there was one night you could guarantee the preacher would being out the heavy artillery: the last service of the meeting.
These last services always had a few things in common:
1) A fiery message with themes of hell, the second coming, or both. My best friend remarked sarcastically, that isn't it amazing how God has inspired so many preachers to preach on Lazarus and the rich man on the last night of a meeting. True.
2) Scary stories. Sprinkle some scary stories throughout the message, but save the best one for during the altar call. And if it is the last altar call of the meeting, then they pull out the heavy artillery. I'll never forget the one I heard several times. Sometimes it was told during the sermon, but often during the altar call itself:
A young man worked in some kind of place where there were a lot of chemicals. He stole some and took home with him that was a powder that when water touched it, it burst into flames. I can't remember all of the details, but I think he was showing off for some friends and accidentally dropped the whole supply into the sink where he was demonstrating. It exploded, going all over him, setting him on fire. The doctors had to peel the skin from his body because they would get the fire out until he started to sweat. His sweat would ignite the chemical and catch him on fire.
I don't know if the guy died or not. That wasn't the aim of the story. The aim was to emphasize how horrible hell will be, and they used that illustration to help scare people. And it worked.
3) And the coup de grace: the altar call. Told with the before mentioned scary story or stories. The longer the altar call, the more people you could usually get to go. Beg, threaten.
Bring out the guilt inspiring songs: Just As I Am, Pass Me Not, and my favorite: Almost Persuaded. I heard more than one preacher tell the song leader to wait on verse three, and then have it sung to thrust the spear of guilt and fear the deepest at the right moment:
“Almost persuaded,” harvest is past!
“Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last!
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail—
“Almost,” but lost!
I believe there is a psychological deal with these songs. To this day, I associate them with fear, guilt, altar calls, and discomfort. I don't like to hear some of these songs, for the way they make me feel.
And what altar call would be complete without a story of some poor soul who had been in such a service, said "no" and left, only to die under some extreme circumstance a week or month later.
And more than once, the biggest gun of all: "God just revealed to me that there is someone in this service who is getting their last chance to make things right with God." Could God do that? Yes. I am not saying these preachers lied, but it was all part of the "get people to the altar no matter what scary tactics you have to use."
I was a vulnerable kid, who is now a vulnerable adult. I didn't think anyone liked me, including God. It didn't take much for me to give up on being a Christian, and it didn't take much to convince me I needed to go to the altar, so I went. A lot. I don't say this to exaggerate, but I firmly believe that as a teenager and well into my adult years, I could have walked away from the altar knowing all was right with me and God, and if they had another altar call, the preacher could have preached away my confidence, and scared me into going to the altar again.
The central theme of the Bible is God's love for man. His mercy and grace. I never heard the message of God's love, mercy, and grace during those meetings. They weren't mentioned during the altar calls. But hell and God's judgement were. A lot. Why didn't these preachers try to get people to the altar with messages of God's love? Why not sing a song like "Amazing love, how can it be? That thou my God, should die for me?" Or "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound." I can't remember altar calls with those kind of songs.
And why not? Are we trying to win people to a judgmental and hateful God like I tried to serve for most of my life, or are we trying to win people to a God of love, who is the right God we need to serve and seek after.
Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Yes, Jesus talked about hell, but He talked about love a whole lot more, and showed love by dying for us.
So here is why I don't go to the altar in a nutshell:
1) I am weary of being scared into going
2) I am weary of long, drawn out altar calls. If you have to beg and threaten, the people don't want to come to God bad enough for it to take or last in a lot of cases
3) I got so tired of going to the altar during long altar calls. I'd get my business with God done, than what was I supposed to do? I would feel weird going back to my seat, so I'd kneel there while a bunch of people came up to pray with me. I was done praying, so I'd kneel there while people prayed for me....and feel weird and uncomfortable.
4) I heard more than one preacher, not all in these words, say you shouldn't hang over the altar like a sack of feed. You should pray out loud, lift your head, your arms...... uh, the stuff I was praying about was things I didn't want people to hear. Gossip is one sin allowed in our churches, and those gossips go up to pray with people...... I wasn't about to give them material. Besides, some things really aren't meant to be mentioned in church out loud, even in prayer.
The altar should be a place where people can seek help, be prayed for if they want that. It shouldn't be a place that people are scared into going to, but a place where people feel safe, where they can talk to God and feel His love, not His judgement.
I have done my best praying, done my best business with God at home, by myself.
2013 was a journey for me. A journey to find God's love, to believe it, and embrace it. There are multiple reasons I struggled to believe God's love for all of these years, but I firmly believe one major reason revolves around the altar. I heard too many messages of God's judgment, was in too many long altar calls where preachers tried to scare me into going to the altar..... and it scarred me. It helped cause spiritual problems, and doubts of God's love.
I am still waiting for the service where a preacher appeals to people to come to the altar with the same appeal God makes: with love. No, it may not line the altars as much as a hell and brimstone message with scary stories, but it may bring more true converts, and not give people a wrong view of God.
I doubt many will agree with me on this, and that is OK. It is my soul, not yours. And the church altar isn't the only altar to pray at. An altar can be anywhere where I and God am, which is anywhere I go.