The Altar of Normal

Originally published Thursday, 24 June 2021.

If I could go back 25 years, and talk to the naïve 14-year-old who was setting foot into the big leagues of high school, I would tell that smart, athletic, ambitious, excited little girl to stop trying to be normal. I’d tell her that normal is just a word we use for comfortable. I don’t think she would understand, but I’d tell her this story…

In late February 2019, I left a doctor’s appointment with my oldest son. We had been to several appointments with various specialists and meetings with his pediatrician leading up to this appointment. That day we left a pediatric neurologist’s office with an anti-seizure medication prescription in hand, and my mind was flooded with questions. What side effects? Would there be any? Was medication best? Would medication even work? They said it might not. Trial and error they said. Seemed a little shaky when we were talking about my five-year-old. Should we get a second opinion? Would insurance cover it? What just happened? I finally looked at my husband and said, “Does he have epilepsy?” He did. 

Right there in the parking garage of a big hospital, I realized that my prayers for what I deemed “normal” were answered with a no. The way I had so carefully constructed my life, my kid’s lives, was breaking down. We now had to live with something that was very abnormal in my mind. In that moment a thought echoed in my mind. “You have been worshiping at the altar of normal for far too long.” 

When I think of an altar, I picture the altar on which the Israelites used to offer sacrifices. The altar in the Tent of Meeting. You can find a description of it in Exodus 27. There, in the Old Testament, we find a perfect and holy God who is jealous for our worship and adoration. He desires that we worship Him alone, at His altar. And while I believe that my heart genuinely desires that pure worship, I still erect other altars; ones that serve my selfish purpose and make me feel in control–frequently they are altars of normalcy and comfort.

The altar of normal is where I take my hopes and dreams and filter them through the lens of what I think and feel is status quo. What I assume to be acceptable and due to me. Where I offer the thoughts “I just want to feel, act, look, sound, and be normal.” I rehearse and worship my fears in a desperate attempt to appear moderate and like everyone else—when really, I feel anything but ordinary, and even less like everyone else. At this altar, I judge others who don’t think, act, or talk like I do. It’s the altar where I sacrifice my mind and well-being and receive nothing but anger, doubt, frustration, and self-loathing in return. An altar where I bring my kids, my marriage, and my life to see if we measure up. We never do. The altar of normal is everything but normal in the upside-down economy of God. It is a petty game, an insolent rebuke, and an ignorant stand-in for the truth and true worship of the Living God.

I find myself coming to this altar daily, if I’m honest. I don’t think I mean to, and I don’t think I even realized it until I found myself in a situation to which there was (and is) no easy answer. Until I found no platitude that could put a bandaid on my feelings, and there was nowhere to look but to Jesus—to what I believe of Him.

Next to the self-built altar of normal, stands the true altar, not made with my broken human hands. The altar where the very personal, intimate, and holy God asks me to lay down my idols and come into communion with Him. The altar where I can offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Psalm 50:14), even when the path is rocky. Where I can exchange the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness (Isaiah 61:3), even when just getting up in the morning is heavy. 

Here, I can lay down my hopes, dreams, and aspirations of normal and allow them to be changed into the good gifts of trial, refinement, and closeness with my Savior. The altar where I can lose my life but gain my soul. The sacred place where Jesus has done it all, and all I have to do is accept His love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. His altar doesn’t suck me dry like mine does. His altar leaves me full when I move away from my worship. Full, even when the storm rages. Satisfied in Him, even if I am not with the trial I’m walking. Confident that even the darkest day is going to glorify God, even when I don’t feel and see the glory or the good. Worshiping at the altar of the Living God has never left me empty, unfulfilled, and thirsty as my self-built altar has.

I would go back and tell that young girl about to embark into the land of trying to fit in, trying to be noticed; the girl who often felt that she was too much for many, and not enough for others, that normal is a sham. A shallow stand-in for the truth. I’d tell her that God’s economy is not hers. I’d tell her that boys aren’t worthy of an altar; academics and sports, even though she is good, make a poor place to worship. I’d tell her that she has been given everything she needs for life and godliness in the person and work of Christ, and to live that way. (2 Peter 1:3) I’d tell her to practice replacing the lies of normal with the truth of scripture. The truth found in Colossians 1:12 that she has an eternal inheritance that doesn’t depend on her performance, that the Father has already qualified her. I’d tell her that whatever normal seems, really isn’t. What Jesus did for us wasn’t normal. It was costly mercy, great grace, and faithful love. I’d tell her to live in awe of it. If I’m honest, deep down, I’m still that 14-year-old girl. I still wonder if I’m too much, or not enough. I still have to do business with that altar of normal, built so many years ago. Not unlike Elijah, who spurned the prophets of Baal, and proved the mighty power of the Most High God through fire on an altar; I too must prove Him—even to myself. That self-built altar of normal, the imitation of honest worship that has held my heart, my intentions, and my life? It must be destroyed. I cannot serve God and serve my sin. Like Jacob, in Genesis 35:3, I have to come to a true altar of worship—leaving behind the old; the false gods of control, normal, and self-reliance, to come to “the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”  I know that the lust for control, thinking I have it figured out, worshipping self and ability and normal—their pull will never go away on this side of Heaven. But God, in His marvelous grace has revealed it, and He has overcome it. And by His power, I will have victory. One abnormal diagnosis at a time.

Laci Steed is a stay at home, homeschooling mom of two boys. She is passionate about motherhood, truth, and creating community around God’s Word. She serves in women’s ministry at her church and recently wrote her first book a Christmas devotional called Emmanuel: 25 Days of Anticipating Jesus. Laci enjoys doing house projects, reading, and finding ways to be creative in the chaos that is the little years of parenthood.