I went to a reunion of a group of 30-somethings who had been the teenagers in the church where I had been the youth minister.  It was exhilarating and humbling to see these people after almost 20 years.  We had grown up together.  Though I was supposedly their “leader”, I was only a few years older than many of them.  We had come through four years of wonderful, joyful, confusing, and painful times together; they as junior high, high school, and college students, I as a recent seminary graduate.

When I was asked to say a few words at the Saturday evening gathering, I stood for several seconds looking out over the 75 or so gathered there, overwhelmed with the sight and unable to speak.  When I got my wits about me, I told them how much they had meant to me using an Old Testament metaphor.

There are many stories of people constructing altars to commemorate significant events.  Those altars were sometimes carefully constructed.  At other times they were simply rocks piled up.  Often the altars were anointed with oil or incense.  Sometimes animals were sacrificed.  Whatever was available was used to make the altar and the occasion special, memorable.  Sometimes those altars were built in the middle of the desert during the travels of some nomadic group such as the Children of Israel on their 40-year journey.  Often all that was left of their travel and their stay at a particular spot was the altar.  Years later, when another band of travelers ventured by, they would see the pile of rocks.  They might know what happened there.  They might not.  Legends may have grown out of some of those altars.  Regardless of what was not known, what was known was that something significant happened there.

I told this group of 30-something “kids” that in our time together, we were piling up rocks in each other’s lives.  We were constructing altars for each other.  Each of them had certainly contributed rocks to my altar I call “Woodlawn.”  The fact that each of them showed up was a clear sign that they each had their own altar that others in the room had helped them construct.

Whether or not we remember the details or even the specific people, each of us has had others at work in our lives.  Each of us is the beneficiary of the efforts of others who simply did their job to contribute rocks to our altar.  And our task is to make sure we are doing the same for others.  By showing up when we know we are needed, even if we don’t know what to say or do.  By providing a shoulder to lean on or cry on even when we feel inadequate or scared.  By challenging or confronting when we know that being nice would be easier but less compassionate.  By simply letting the person know you are there and they are not alone.

Our paths have altars along the way, landmarks in the middle of nowhere, made possible by others.  I can look back on those altars and be reminded that something important happened then and there, and I’m a different person because of it.