On the Subject of Altars

“Build for me an altar made of earth, and offer your sacrifices to me—your burnt offerings and peace offerings, your sheep and goats, and your cattle. Build my altar wherever I cause my name to be remembered, and I will come to you and bless you. If you use stones to build my altar, use only natural, uncut stones. Do not shape the stones with a tool, for that would make the altar unfit for holy use.” (Exodus 20:24, 25 NLT)

One of the things I love about the Old Testament is that it is all very existential, very present and earthy. It might be easy to get bogged down in the “begats” and the seemingly inane and endless levitical laws, but don’t get lost in the details because the big picture is beautiful. Sacrifices and altars might be part of the regulations that we want to skip because it doesn’t seem relevant to modern life. But we’d be wrong to miss something so essential.

God required the Israelites to present perfect sacrifices – unblemished lambs, the first crops harvested – not to punish them or to make their lives more difficult, but to acknowledge that God is holy and perfect and righteous. The sacrifices cover the fact that we are not holy or perfect or righteous without grace. It stands to reason that since God requires perfect sacrifices that he might want the altar they are offered on to be perfect, too. But we’d be wrong to miss something so essential.

These verses from Exodus have been a balm to my ailing self image of late. The post-partum body is a hilarious and embarrassing collection of weakened muscle, body fat, leaking parts, and shedding hair. It’s easy to stare at the topographical map of stretch marks in the mirror and wonder if the sagging belly will ever stop jiggling. Even more than body image, though, I have always wrestled with my to-do lists, thinking I will never be even half of the Proverbs 31 ideal. Most days “bringing her food from afar” means pick up instead of delivery, and “providing for her household” means nobody died that day. I am a broken altar.

Read these verses again, and read closely for any mention of perfection. You didn’t see it either, did you? The only requirements are build where I tell you, and use natural, uncut stones; in fact, shaping the stones with a tool would “make the altar unfit for holy use.” I see a lot of things that make me very happy to put away my tools. First, God provided good raw material. He has given us everything we need to build the perfect altar (ourselves) for his use; it’s all there, but it must be assembled according to his instructions (that’s the tough part). Second, my tools are wholly inadequate to improve on God’s craftsmanship. Any shaping or cutting must be an act of God, not man. Third, the altar was made of earth; it needed to be raw and natural because it merely acted as a table for the sacrifices.

As a very raw altar stone, I can stop trying to chisel away what I see as blemishes and rest in the grace that I am as God made me. This does NOT mean that I stop growing or trying to be better or exercising. It means that I can focus on building where God tells me to build and building what he tells me to build. For instance, I will never look like Heidi Klum; I will only ever look like me. Accepting that I will not grow another four inches and lose half my body weight frees me to be the healthiest I can be. That may include losing weight but will never require looking like a German underwear model. Another example: I will never be Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray or any other semi-put-together homemaker. Accepting that I will never be able to keep my house immaculately clean and/or cook dinner every night while also working full time, raising a child, and volunteering frees me to realize that there are a lot of ways to be a good wife without a spotless house. My poor husband has resigned himself to sharing his living quarters with the occasional (or semi-permanent) dust bunny and a wife who will never be a German underwear model. He seems to have made his peace with that.

What matters most is that I am following God as closely as I can and that my family reflects that faith and love. It matters that this earthy altar gets used to glorify God more than it matters that each stone block was perfectly cubed before it got used. It matters that the altar is raw material, malleable and natural without the facades we humans use to hide our inglorious imperfections. That kind of altar is ready to offer up holy sacrifices of service and worship – ready to accept that Jesus made one perfect sacrifice for all humanity and my sacrifices are merely offerings of thanksgiving for what has been done already. It matters that I am fit for holy use just the way I am, regardless of what I see as my blemishes. Those extra pounds, my mound of stretch marks, my total lack of discipline in the presence of chocolate, my impatience, my humanity – those are God’s raw materials to shape as he sees fit. And underneath the imperfections that always catch my attention are some pretty neat building stones: creativity, humor and empathy to name a few. While it may be obvious to me how God is using those good things, it is less apparent to me that he is also using my broken bits, often in bigger ways than what I see as my strengths.

So, build where God tells you to build. Build according to his instructions, and remember that your raw materials are both worthy and holy if you allow God to shape them. Allow your altar to be used just as it is.