New Series - Lowell begins a series on prayer in worship that every Christian needs to read - The Forgotten Altar. In this first segment, he depicts a young priest as he enters the Old Testament temple for the first time. There he realizes that God is more interested in relationship than ritual.
New Format - The Prayer Guide Newsletter has been trimmed down so more folks will receive it.
New book! - Lowell has published a new book titled, Hearing God Speak. Do you pray for God’s guidance, but struggle to hear His response? Like the static that prevents you from hearing a program on the radio; the world produces all kinds of interference that prevents you from Hearing God Speak...
A young priest stands on a raised porch with his back to huge golden doors. On either side, bronze pillars stand three stories in height. From a distance he appears to be in a blazing fire, engulfed in dazzling golden light as the mid- morning sun reflects off the gold and polished bronze.
But for the slow swinging of his bronze censer, he is motionless. A curl of smoke wafts from the censer and is carried away by the cool morning breeze as his eyes follow a clean white lamb that’s being carried across the small courtyard. The lamb looks up and bleats fearfully. “Does it know?”
Motion catches his attention and he looks over the wall of this courtyard to the one beyond. Two priests are opening the gates. As worshipers pour in, he looks beyond that gate to the outer courtyard. The white pillars of the porches are a vivid contrast to surrounding Judean sandstone hills. In the porch shadows, venders are already selling their wares. Even though they’re a hundred cubits away, he can hear the den of their commerce, punctuated with laughter and shouting. “Do they know?”
Scattered among them are pilgrims. Some are men with children on their shoulders. They’re looking in this direction, trying to see over the walls that separate them from this temple of Jehovah God. “Gentiles,” thinks the priest by the golden doors, “Do they know?”
Within the central courtyard, the crowd of Jewish worshipers is growing. Most, like the Gentile pilgrims in the outer courtyard, hang back, hoping to get a better view over the wall that separates even them from their own temple. Many of the men have their sons beside them, perhaps their first experience so close to the earthly dwelling of the Almighty. Some have tethered lambs, while many carry little cages with sacrificial birds bought from the venders. “Do they know?”
Everything’s ready within the inner courtyard of the priests. Ripples of heat rise from the blazing fire within the altar of sacrifice. The lamb is bleating continually as a priest holds a knife to its throat. Everyone, even the vendors in the outer courtyard, grows quiet now. The only sound is the bleating of the lamb.
Then silence. No laughter, no talking, no bleating, as the life blood of the lamb flows away.
The priests by the altar begin to prepare the limp body with swift efficiency. Shortly, one of them carries the carcass of the lamb up the steps of the altar, holds it high and announces that the morning sacrifice has been made on behalf of the priests. Then he places it on the grate directly over the fire. It crackles and sizzles as a column of pungent smoke rises.
The vendors turn back to their work, and pilgrims begin talking again as they point toward the golden doors. The priest with the censer watches the smoke ascend toward the heavens, then takes another look at the worshipers. Most of them are still watching the doors, hoping for a glimpse inside. He turns as assistants strain against the massive weight and the doors creek open allowing sunshine to flood in. Reflecting off the gold covered floor, every corner of this sacred room is filled with shafts of brilliant light. Ooos and ahs can be heard from the courtyards.
The doors open, the assistants stand motionless, waiting to close them as soon as the priest enters with the morning incense. Standing now before perhaps the most beautiful display of wealth on earth, he looks down at the censer and gives it a little shake. A whiff of smoke emerges, accompanied by a few sparks. All seems ready. He glances at the assistants, but they are spell-bound by the golden glory within the doorway. "Do they know?"
He steps in and is welcomed by the smell of bread and incense. As he walks slowly into this sanctuary of holy solitude, the doors close behind him and the golden opulence is suddenly transformed into silent reverence. Halfway across the room, he stops, gaze fixed on the object of his assignment, the altar of incense.
All of his life he’s waited for this moment. Ever since his father explained the sacrificial system to him as a boy, he’s yearned for the opportunity to enter the Holy Place and offer the incense of prayer. His father had said, “You will offer a thousand animals at the altar of sacrifice, but until you stand before the altar of incense, the golden altar of prayer, and realize you’re only steps from the Shekinah, only then will you know. Only then will you understand.”
“Know what, father?” he had asked those many years ago.
“I can’t tell you my son, for there are no words to describe the heart of God.”
His trembling legs lose their strength and he falls to his knees, ten steps short of his task. He stares at the floor, no longer able to raise his eyes to the altar. He feels alone, sinful, afraid. In his mind the ancient names of Nadab and Abihu wrap themselves around his deepest fears. Those early priests were both killed by God because they came before this altar inappropriately.
He thinks of the pilgrims in the courtyards, now reaching out to touch the walls that separate them from this sacred place. He’s watched them countless times. Some will kneel, others will stand, but they all will try to touch the wall. Some are sick. Others are broken hearted or afraid. A few are just thankful. All are seeking an encounter with God.
"Do they know? Do they know the heart of God? Do they know what I don’t? How am I different from them? Oh God, I am not righteous. The gentiles praying in the outer court may be more worthy than I." He wishes for his father.
As he stoops lower and lower he begins to weep, then feels the heat of the censer next to his face. Turning to the hot globe, he finds the glowing coals greeting his gaze through the perforations of the censer.
“Holy fire.” The words of his father come to him. “None of us is worthy to approach the holiness of the Lord. When it comes your time to stand before the veil, you will carry holy fire from the altar of sacrifice. By His grace, it will protect you from the Shekinah.”
Slowly he stands and walks the final steps to the far end of the temple. Before him, a small golden altar. Behind that, the veil, stretching upward toward the gilded ceiling. Behind that…God.
Hands shaking slightly, he pours the coals from the censer into the shallow bowl, which is the top of the altar. Every motion is the exact replica of those rehearsed over and over with his father, but his thoughts are random, out of control. Every sense is heightened. However, one thought, one emotion, one sense saturates every other; God is only steps away, waiting, watching.
The fire ready, he hangs the golden tongs back in their place.
He jerks back toward the altar. Had he heard something? He’s confused. It was something, but maybe not a sound that he heard with his ears. He stares at the veil. There’s no sound from within the temple, only the distant murmuring of the pilgrims praying in the courtyards.
Glancing back and forth between the veil and altar, he retrieves a bag of incense from his belt, opens it and prepares to pour it on the fire. As he holds it over the coals, suddenly his thoughts fall into place: the glory of the temple, the blood of the sacrificial lamb, the holy fire, the pilgrims praying in the courtyards, the altar of prayer here only steps from the veil, and now the incense.
His father had been right. Only now does he understand. Only now does he know the heart of God. The Father wants to talk with His children. He truly loves this. Not the blood and death, not the gold and splendor, the prayer. It’s all about the prayers.
Paralyzed by the revelation, he feels like Adam in the Garden of Eden, waiting for God to come strolling by for a casual conversation. How had he missed this? All his life he had said ritualistic prayers. Never had he thought that God wanted to communicate with him personally.
Now he gazes at the veil, mouth open, trying to turn his thoughts into words. “Lord, I see now that you are a gracious Father who loves to talk with His children. Many of them have gathered today and are calling out to you, which I now realize brings you great pleasure. This incense represents their prayers.”
As he shakes the incense onto the glowing coals, the sweet smoke rises before the veil and drifts out the windows next to the ceiling, ascending toward the heavens.
Over the next few months, I’ll explore the Forgotten Altar of prayer. Not just the Old Testament version, but it’s modern counterpart. I hope you’ll join me.
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I’ve simplified the format of the Prayer Guide newsletter so more folks will get it. The previous version got blocked by many servers because it had so many links and pictures. In the new format, you'll only receive a 'tease' for each segment of the newsletter. You'll click on the segment you want to read which will take you to that segment of the complete newsletter which will be on my web site. My prayer is that this will work better for more folks.
This spring we published this short work intended to clarify a subject that’s confusing to many - How can you know when God is speaking to you? Here’s the promo from the back cover:
Do you pray for God’s guidance, but struggle to hear His response? Like the static that prevents you from hearing a program on the radio; the world produces all kinds of interference that prevents you from Hearing God Speak.
With a radio, the solution is to adjust it for maximum reception and remove the interference. Hearing God Speak uses that analogy to help you adjust your life so that you can best hear God’s instructions.
This simple way of understanding your relationship with God can have a profound effect on your life. Take the journey within these pages. Almighty God wants to guide you on an epic adventure, but first you must learn to hear Him speak.
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