The Family Altar

If you’ve read my posts lately I mentioned our Advent tradition of the Advent log, a couple times. I was thinking about how this is one form of the idea of a family altar- an ancient and venerable custom. I don’t hear much about it nowadays, but in the early years of my Christian walk, in the seventies, we often heard it mentioned. The time we spend as a family centered formally around the table to worship God and consider scripture is what is meant by “family altar”. Too many times we isolate our experience of worship to church buildings and officially constructed services or meetings, but stretching back through time it was an accepted form to have a private altar in ones own home- you might see it in movies that depict life in Medieval or Renaissance castles, in M’Lady’s private chambers.

I think it is an idea to consider again.

In our own history of trying to have family worship time, there have been many starts and long pauses. It is especially difficult for passive men, men who leave the religious leadership to the moms, to incorporate this into their days- but to the degree they do, it becomes one of those pursuits that are looked back upon as a truly worthwhile use of effort and time. Who couldn’t use more of those times in their lives?

During the year if you find yourself successful even a quarter of the time- one week out of four- it builds a great deal into the life of the whole family and cements relationships. It doesn’t have to be fancy, either. Simple Bible readings from Proverbs and Psalms are what our family normally utilizes. Although like everything else, the more you put in, the more productive the outcome. That is why it is apparent during our Advent season, we put more time and focus into gathering around the Lord.

I know it can be challenging. It is not easy to start new things, especially when you have ideas of how uplifting it will be…only to be faced by distracting toddler fidgety-ness or sullen teenage “I don’t want to be here doing this”-ness. But if you persevere you can find creative work-arounds that end up making it something everyone eventually appreciates. And you get a little more practical-minded about what real spirituality is, as well. Don’t underestimate that lesson!

A few of the ideas that work with toddlers is to keep it short- and involve some entertainment. Something like teaching the nursery-toddler class at church. Puppets, felt boards, or just having some songs. The key? Habit, really. When children have the habit of listening and sitting quietly for something… it isn’t so much work. That takes making a habit. Someone somewhere said it takes twenty-one days to form a habit. So there you go- try to have family altar time for twenty-one days in fairly close proximity.

If we once get some believing prayer as part of it- I think it really takes off. But like other types of exercise ( this is sort of like spiritual exercise) you have times when you …fall off the wagon? Is that a good phrase for it…hm… You just get busy, actually. And then you start over, forgetting those things and moving on ahead. I’m sure there are some disciplined people who don’t do that… but they don’t live at my house. Anyway, the best recommendation is always success in action. The “just do it” approach. So if you are having an Advent time of family worship, maybe you could consider working that into your year. This is probably more important for those of us not in the mainstream denominations, since they have regular church calendar activities through out the year that (traditionally anyway) used to encourage families to have meditations and readings at home. It could end up being the best gift that you give to each other this year: More of Jesus.