Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelite people constructed altars. Altars not so much for God as for themselves. They built altars in places where God had delivered them, so that whenever they passed back across those particular locations, they could see the victorious altars of yesteryear and remember.
Remember the victory, remember the Victor.
Last summer I helped construct my own physical altar while hiking a Pacific coast trail with some beloved brothers. Several months later, I unwittingly passed that same altar and remembered.
Today, I start a new blogging series called “Song Altars,” featuring pivotal songs I’ve encountered along my journey. You might call such songs the “soundtrack of my life.” Here’s one that first hit me in the fall of 2012 during an uncertain awful time. It’s called “In the Dust” by Brandon Heath.
The above picture is from a park adjoined to a railroad in the dusty mountainous outskirts of southern California. Across the street is a two-story house where I lived for three months in the fall of 2012. They were among the hardest three months of my life.
I’d just returned to the west coast after a summer at Camp Ridgecrest in North Carolina. Actually, I’d just spent two months back home in Georgia trying to figure out if I even wanted to return westward. Or how I could.
You see, my wonderful roommates of the past two years no longer called southern California home. I only knew a handful of people from my church and life group. They were solid people, sure, but were they enough to drive 2,000 miles back across America? What about the money? What about a job? What about a freaking place to live?
When I finally summoned the courage to drive back across America, I got in touch with a woman who’d read my desperate ad posting. She told me I could stay in the upper floor of her home for an affordable rate. Desperate for any immediate support I could muster, I jumped on the opportunity. I met her and her husband, two lovely people, and within two days I had unloaded my car’s belongings into their vacant upper floor bedroom.
I then proceeded to weep for days on end.
There I was, inhabiting some strange married couple’s home whose walls were adorned with African masks and whose tables were filled with bowls upon bowls of lemons. I was alone and lost in the arid foothills, miles from the civilization I’d driven a continent across to reintegrate into, thirty minutes down the God-forsaken 91.
Surely I was meant for more than this.
It was there in that dusty desolate backdrop that I first encountered Brandon Heath’s “In the Dust.” It has since become my favorite track on his folksy Blue Mountain album. But it’s also become so much more. An altar of sorts.
I must have listened to that song dozens of times in the three months I called this lonely mountainous place home. I found myself often weeping over the reality of my situation: of being somewhere I knew I didn’t quite belong, of hoping for a better place over the horizon, yet of feeling stuck in that present imperfect place. Of wanting so much more than this.
Of leaving my broken vessel on the shore.
Of abandoning shadows down below.
Of seeing shackles turn to rust.
Of stepping into light and letting my bones go to dust.
Eventually, I found the opportunity to flee that home by the railroad. It would still be another seven months yet before I found a healthy living situation, but it was a step in the right direction.
As I drove toward civilization down the 91, away from this dusty place I’d reluctantly called home, I played this song once more, remembering my three months of difficulty there. An altar of the loneliness and despair and heartache and ultimate rescue.
I didn’t want to forget the misery. I never want to forget the magnitude of the deliverance.
To dust we will return, yes. The other side of eternity beckons me, beckons you.
But I think God intends us to bury certain places in the dust on this side of eternity, too. Physical places like my former home in the arid mountains, yes. But also emotionally devastating places like lost friendship and broken marriage and death and betrayal and rejection and utter unending hopelessness.
He’ll come riding in and steal me up in a rush.
Take my place in the light.
Leave my bones in the dust.
This song, “In the Dust” — may it always serve as an altar of my time in the lonely mountains. A memorial to God’s faithfulness and a reminder to keep going until to dust I gleefully return.
What’s a song or a book or a something that has inspired you to keep going during the hard times?