Joyce Ho—Hong Kong
The family altar refers to a designated time where the family reads the Bible, sings hymns, shares God’s word, and prays together. As a third-generation True Jesus Church member, the family altar represents some of my most cherished childhood memories.
MEMORIES OF THE FAMILY ALTAR
When my maternal grandmother stayed with us, she would join us for our nightly family altar. Although illiterate, she could sing a few hymns and listened intently as we read a Bible chapter. Once, we talked about our favorite Bible verses, and I asked, “Grandma, what is your favorite Bible verse?”
She paused, smiled, and quoted:
Give me neither poverty nor riches—
Feed me with the food allotted to me;
Lest I be full and deny You,
And say, “Who is the LORD?”
Or lest I be poor and steal,
And profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:8b–9)
I had never heard of this verse before, so I asked her why she liked it. She replied that it reminds us that the most important thing was to bring glory to God’s name regardless of our circumstances. I was very moved. My grandmother was a young widow and had suffered much poverty to raise six children on her own. I remember her tales of her tough past, of times so desperate she had to borrow rice from her neighbors to feed her family. And yet, despite all her struggles, she was contented. Her words echoed those of the apostle Paul, that we should be content in all circumstances and to trust in God (Phil 4:11–12). On that occasion, she taught us this message in real life. Today, whenever I reminisce about that time, her words still touch me.
In the Old Testament, Moses addressed the Israelites and reviewed the Ten Commandments before they crossed the Jordan River. They were to heed, keep, and not forget nor depart from God’s statutes. Not only that, but they also had the responsibility to teach these things to their children and grandchildren.
“And teach them to your children and your grandchildren, especially concerning the day you stood before the LORD your God in Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ ” (Deut 4:9b–10)
We should not underestimate how important this is. Keeping God’s word and teaching them to the next generation were commanded by God.
“These are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you…that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.” (Deut 6:1–2)
Building the Altar
During the mid-eighties, a preacher visiting my hometown of Elgin, Scotland, spoke about the importance of establishing a family altar. Encouraged by this, my father decided to institute a pre-bedtime family altar. We would read a chapter of the Bible, talk about it briefly, and then pray together. If we sang a hymn, my sister and I would take turns playing the piano accompaniment. If friends or extended family were visiting, they would be roped in to join our family altar. When we got older, and our parents were both working the late shift in their takeaway food business, my siblings and I would take turns to lead the family altar.
Our favorite sessions were when our mum led the family service because we loved hearing the testimonies that she shared. I remember arguing with my siblings about which one of us would get to snuggle up to her as she read testimonies from the Holy Spirit Monthly magazine or recounted her personal experiences and memories. We would listen, wide-eyed, and filled with awe and thankfulness, as she testified to the grace of God. One of these testimonies involved the early workers in Taiwan. During a spiritual convocation, a hunchbacked woman came forward to pray. The preacher found the sight of a woman kneeling with her forehead to the floor strange. He asked the woman to straighten her back, not realizing that she was physically unable to. Miraculously, during the prayer, the woman’s back was straightened! Thirty years later, I listened with the same awe when that very preacher, now an elder, visited my church and recounted the exact testimony my mother had shared with us.
Although my childhood family altar was simple, its activities—Bible reading, sharing God’s word, testimonies, and praying together as a family—sowed and nurtured the seeds of faith in us. Growing up, as we navigated through the angst of teenage years, the uncertainty of college exams, and challenging career decisions, the family altar was a spiritual anchor that constantly reminded us of God’s word and promises. Regardless of what stage of life we were at, we could always find strength and encouragement from sharing God’s word and mighty works and praying together. Even now, decades later, these fond memories of the family altar are my strength during the various storms of life that we all invariably encounter.
AN ALTAR FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
Years later, after I married and became a mother of two, I found myself on the other side of the family altar. Knowing that our children are a heritage from the Lord (Ps 127:3), there was (and still is) a looming sense of responsibility and duty to bring them up properly in the faith. Of course, the best time to start is when they are young.
Train up a child in the way he should go,
And when he is old he will not depart from it. (Prov 22:6)
When my children were younger, it was reasonably easy to build in family altar time. It became part of the nightly routine, and, like most families, the time before bed and lights out was a natural time for stories. My husband and I took turns to incorporate Bible stories into the routine and end with a short prayer, with the children repeating our spoken phrases. Eventually, when they could read independently, we progressed to reading chapters from the Bible and praying using the word “Hallelujah.” As my children got older, everyone would take turns to lead the family altar. The format of our family altar has largely remained the same as the one of my childhood. The only variation is that for one evening a week, we sing hymns instead of Bible reading, as a visiting preacher had encouraged us to use different ways to share God’s word with our children. On Hymn Sunday (as we call it), each of us chooses a hymn, and we sing it together. This allows us to receive God’s word and learn some of the infrequently sung hymns in our hymnal. Our occasional attempts to sing the more familiar hymns in four-part harmony produce interesting results!
Our family altar includes a reflection component. We discuss our encounters, count our blessings, and thank God for His providence and guidance during the week. Sometimes we share our concerns, discuss issues and identify people who need intercession. Such sharing also gives us parents an insight into where our teenagers are, spiritually and emotionally. In our busy lives, we may have inadvertently overlooked an issue that was important to them. Perpetual busyness is an unfortunate attribute of modern lifestyles; we are constantly pulled in different directions, be it work, study, church, or family-related matters. Hence, the family altar is a critical respite from the madness—a time for us to quieten down and recharge our spiritual batteries.
Nevertheless, I feel that there is always room for improvement in our family altar. With our children’s study and exam pressures, and our ever-changing work schedules and deadlines, it can be a battle to find and devote time for the family altar. In moments like these, I question our family altar's effectiveness since I cannot gauge how much my children have taken God’s word onboard. Perhaps it is my impatience. But I thank God, at such times, Paul’s words encourage me to continue, and to have faith and trust in God.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. (1 Cor 3:6)
The process of a plant growing from a seed cannot be hurried. Much patience and effort are needed—first, preparing the soil and, second, striving to ensure the conditions are optimal for the seed to grow. Ultimately, it is God who grants the growth. Similarly, for the family altar, we must make an effort to plant the word of God in our children; and do it with faith that God will give the growth. When God’s words have germinated in our children’s hearts, His teachings will come to their minds and guide them in their times of need.
Parenting comes with many different challenges, and at each stage of our children’s development, there is much joy and despair. There have been times when I doubt my parenting skills and worry about my children's spiritual state. However, God’s grace is indeed sufficient. Let me share two incidents where God's word spoke to my children. These have reassured me during my times of doubt.
Once, my then fourteen-year-old son shared that a boy in his class (known to be a bully) had made fun of his subject choices, saying they would never get him a decent-paying job. He was upset by the boy’s words, so a few of his classmates suggested that my son “get back” at the bully by tackling him roughly in the following physical education lesson. However, my son told me he had considered this matter and concluded, “I shouldn’t do that if I’m a Christian. The Bible teaches us we shouldn’t think about getting even with others even though they treat us badly.” Better yet, he decided to pray about it and ask God to help this classmate change his ways.
A while back, at my daughter’s school, a special assembly was held to honor and recognize the years of service of the departing headteacher. The program included performances by the school orchestra, and strict adherence to the dress code was expected. As a teacher in the same school, I attended the morning rehearsal, and could see that my daughter–the first violinist of the orchestra—was without her tie! I later found out that someone had stolen her tie from her locker. Fortunately, a kind classmate lent her his tie for the actual performance.
As things turned out, a boy had taken her tie from her locker, and this was not the first time he had done this to someone. But when he was caught red-handed by another student, he begged, “Don’t tell anyone! I’ll get in trouble.” My daughter was infuriated. Even after she had gone home, I knew from her messages that she was still seething. But since I was still working at school, the only thing that I could do was pray in my heart that she would not do something that she would later regret. After a long break, she sent me a message: “I have thought about it. I will buy him a tie.” She explained her plan to pay for the tie herself and leave it in his locker, with an anonymous message: “I have bought you a tie. You do not need to take anyone’s tie again.”
At that moment, I was stunned but touched. I truly felt that the word of God was speaking to her. Later, she shared with me that, although she was still angry with the boy, deep down, she just wanted to put a stop to him taking other students’ ties and causing trouble. When she was thinking over what to do, she recalled a Bible verse about heaping coals on your enemy's head (Prov 25:21–22; Rom 12:20). When asked what it means, she replied, “It’s something about how we should do good even when people don’t do good to us; it’s like heaping coals on their head.” To this day, the boy has never stolen anyone’s tie again.
As parents, we have dreams and aspirations for our children. Quite naturally, we want to pave a smooth path for them and help them to avoid difficulties and hurt. But this is neither healthy nor helpful for their spiritual growth and emotional well-being. In the long term, it is not sustainable for us to shelter our children from the harsh realities of life. The struggles we encountered ourselves were integral for building our faith and developing a personal relationship with God.
With this in mind, a proactive approach to help our children would be to nurture and empower them with God’s word. We can do this through the family altar, where we can read the Bible, encourage each other, and pray together. We must persevere and have faith that God will grant the growth at the appropriate time—both for our children and ourselves—to help us weather the inevitable storms in our lives.
EXPERIENCING GOD’S PROTECTION
One lesson we learned from the family altar was not to treat the word Hallelujah—which means “praise the Lord”—in a cavalier fashion. We heard several testimonies where members were protected from danger after calling out to the Lord for help by saying, “Hallelujah.” As a child, this was valuable to me. Whenever I felt afraid, I would feel safe and comforted after saying “Hallelujah.” Or if I was woken up by a nightmare, calling out “Hallelujah” would enable me to fall back to sleep quickly.
One winter, we had to drive about three and a half hours to Edinburgh to attend a family funeral. Although it was not late, it was already getting dark and, out of the blue, it started to snow heavily. My father was not driving on a main road, and visibility was greatly reduced. We only realized a car was right in front of us when its rear lights suddenly came on. Our car jolted as my father braked sharply to avoid hitting the car. In the back seat, my siblings and I heard our parents simultaneously cry out, “Hallelujah!” I recall looking ahead, startled by my parents’ cry, and, with my heart pounding, I knew a collision was inevitable. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion but, strangely, I felt protected.
When we got out of the car to check, the front of the car was badly dented but, thank God, though slightly shaken, nobody was injured. However, with the vehicle in such a state, we had to turn back. On the way home, we stopped by a church member’s takeaway shop. After hearing about the accident, the brother immediately offered his car for my father to drive down to Edinburgh. With God’s protection and this church brother’s love, we were able to continue our journey and then return home safely afterward. I thank God for this. The power of God’s protection was something that we spoke about during family altar time and personally experienced as a family.