When I attended Concordia Seminary I heard much about having “family devotions” and the importance of them for students. Single students (like me) were also encouraged to have our private devotions as well as to make use of time with fellow students, formally or informally.
I didn’t hear much about a “family altar” until a few years ago. It’s a common enough phrase, but when I did an internet search for it, I was amused to find at the top of the list many articles written by Protestants which described the “family altar” in metaphorical terms. They all had variations of “‘family altar’ means ‘devotion/private time.’” An altar without an altar. Of course many Protestant churches do not have an altar, so why would one have one in their home?
The importance of praying devotions with the family is given, but having a place to pray, a specific area set aside as sacred within the home–a concrete place–is nearly as important. Our religion is not abstract, after all. Our Lord was incarnate with a specific body received from His Virgin Mother. He had family and extended family. He may not have had a place to lay his head (Mat. 8:20), but He slept, ate and drank. Our religion is concrete. We have four Gospels, and water and bread and wine made holy by Our Lord which work salvation in our souls. Christianity is not “spiritual,” meaning incorporeal and intangible, it is of the Spirit and Truth revealed to us through holy men, prophets, apostles. It is physical…but not of the flesh.
What is it?
A family altar–a place to worship in the home is a great aid and reminder to pray devotions with your family. An altar could be placed anywhere, but tradition suggests an East wall in your home, the traditional direction for prayer (”For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:27 )). A family altar need not be hidden away from public view, but do place it in a room away from the general hubbub of life.
The altar consists of a table or a shelf on which you may place a Bible, a prayer book or hymnal, and one or two candles. On the wall in front of the table you may hang a crucifix. If you have icons or devotional “artwork” these may be hung near the crucifix as well (A recent CPH publication entitled The Baptism of Your Child gives some similar suggestions).
How do you use it?
First, choose a consistent time that the family can gather together, without too many other distractions. Devotions are not primarily about hearing stories, receiving instruction or reading edifying material, instead, they are prayed. Choose then an order which emphasizes prayer. In Lutheran Service Book one may use Matins, Morning Prayer, Vespers, Evening Prayer, or the shorter, one-page, orders for Morning, Noon or Night. A devotional writing is not out of place, by any means, but ought never replace prayer and Scripture–indeed it is of tertiary importance.
Begin with lighting the candles. This is important, for it prepares us physically and spiritually. Christ is the Light of the World, and lighting candles reminds us that what we are about to do is significant and set aside from everyday life.
If you are not in the habit of praying regular devotions, do not attempt to use the entire service (especially Matins or Vespers), especially if you have young children. Children should not be unduly taxed (Eph. 6:4), and if a devotional life is to be cultivated in them, keeping the prayers within their attention span is critical. Over the course of a month or two an additional element may be added, gradually lengthening the time spent in prayer. Praying the entire Vespers service is about the maximum length devotions should last, and that would be much too long for children under 12! Above all, ask your pastor for advice and follow his guidelines.
A Word on Prayer Posture
Stand, and teach your children to stand. We stand at attention for the flag, the President, ladies entering a room, your boss and so forth. Standing for prayer before the Holy Trinity is not too much to ask. Standing is also a helpful reminder for small children that what you are doing is special (If you are unable to stand for any length of time, obviously use your sanctified common sense.)
Praying your devotions in a structured time and place helps enormously in making this time for prayer a priority for your family. Children especially are helped by having a predicable ritual and process for prayer, and despite how “sophisticated” we believe ourselves to be as adults, we could learn from our children in the benefits of structure, predictability and consistency.