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Description: Pitch Tents, Build Altars!

Pitch Tents, Build Altars!

by Rev. Eu Hong Seng

Two very different structures are mentioned in Gen 12:8 - "he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord." (NKJV)

Portability is the defining characteristic of a tent, whether it's made of canvas or goat's hair. It is not a permanent structure and is an appropriate dwelling only for people on the move.

Altars, on the other hand, are more permanent structures. They are not as portable as tents. Altars represent the deep commitments that people make that binds them to the particular deity whom they believe has the power to give them stability, permanence and meaning. Altars express our desire for a link with the eternal.

In this verse, we see the contrast between the portability and transience of tents and the solidity and permanence of altars. Three times in Gen 12:1-9 we find that Abraham moved on, in response to God's call, and went to a new place, and "there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord."

This activity of pitching tents and building altars is a very appropriate metaphor for the Christian life. However, we frequently get it backwards. We do it wrong much of the time. As we move through our life's journey, we often make the mistake of pitching our altars and building our tents.

Why do I say that? I see the top five issues that plague the church of Jesus Christ in this nation today as the following:

  1. Prayerlessness - just look at the attendance of prayer meetings in most churches, if they still hold them. Most believers would hardly spend more than 15 minutes in prayer daily. Where is the altar in our lives?
  2. Migration - this is symptomatic of lack of trust in God who has placed us in this country for good and not for evil. Barring a sovereign word, every migration speaks of our unhappiness with our lot in life in the country God has placed us in. We worship our happiness rather than obey the will of God.
  3. Materialism - we succumb more and more to the desire to acquire and enjoy. We are more holiday conscious. We have no qualms about spending thousands of ringgit on ourselves but gripe so vehemently about the few dollars we have to pay for Christian courses and seminars which we need to improve ourselves.
  4. Content to be Christians, but not disciples - lukewarmness characterizes so many in our churches. We are prepared to "surrender" a few hours to our God on Sundays and no more. Many could be mistaken as "Christian atheists", as far as their lifestyle and faithlessness is concerned.
  5. Reluctance to be sent - Jesus Christ's command to "Go…make disciples" wherever He sends us is but a good suggestion for a few to do. The church has become "immoveable" for the wrong reasons.


The call to Abraham, and to us, is to get up and move out. Abraham could, because he pitched his tents. Today, far too many build our tents and pitch our altars.

Where is that life of faith, where we are willing to move in response to God's leading? God's call is always a call to trust, to be a pilgrim, to travel lightly (and to live modestly) so we can be open to the unforeseen future toward which He beckons us. Only when we have learned to pitch our tents and build our altars will God's blessings for us and for our nation, become a reality as it was for Abraham and his people.

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