The latest post in our series comes from Eric Hutchinson.
In “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” Bob Dylan says that the subject of the song “knows there’s no success like failure/and that failure’s no success at all.” I’d like to apply the first part–that there’s no success like failure–to the practice of family worship, which I have now been trying to lead regularly for about nine years or so. Though I refuse, stubbornly, to quote G.K. Chesterton on this point, in respect at least to this practice it is a truism that it is worth doing even if done badly.
At the same time, I want to share a few things that I’ve learned both from experience and (especially) from others over the years.
Find a regular format that you can use: one that will be consistent and reliable over the long haul.
But, don’t over-do it. With a bunch of kids under ten, you’re probably not going to have success if you try to do the entire Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom; but if, like me, you’re not Orthodox–hey, no biggie.
What I’ve found to be most useful–really, an ideal combination of non-trivial solemnity (that is, language that elevates and ennobles) and brevity, is the Brief Order of Worship in the original Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (1906), a book that draws fairly heavily on the Book of Common Prayer. The order is: opening sentences, prayer (invocation, confession, Lord’s Prayer), Psalms, Gloria Patri, Creed, Scripture, hymn, prayers, ascription of praise.
But also remember to be flexible. On some days my family can’t do all of these. That’s ok. It’s better to do 4 minutes of something than no minutes of nothing. No time for two Scripture readings? Do one. Can’t fit it an entire hymn? Sing one verse of something you know. Sing “Jesus Loves Me,” because he does, and you’re not too “mature” to sing about it like a child. Trying to learn a catechism? Substitute Q/A review for the Creed. Want to learn to sing more parts of the liturgy? Substitute a sung version of the Creed for the recited one (we’re doing this right now with this setting).
That reminds me, kids like singing, including the non-metrical ancient hymns of the church. Learn the Te Deum. Learn the Venite.Learn a sung version of the Lord’s Prayer. They will stay with you.
Don’t forget to include ex tempore prayer and to allow your kids to tell you what they want to pray about. I have not done a good job of this, but am trying to get better.
But no matter what, read the Bible. Read whole books consecutively. Learn the Scriptures, and help your wife and children to learn them too.
The Bible can stand on its own, without your feeling a need to “say something” about what you’ve read. Sometimes you’ll be running on empty. Sometimes you won’t have anything edifying to say. That’s ok. God’s Word is sufficient, so whether you “teach” about it or not, it can still do its work.
If you do want to talk about it, try something simple. After you’ve finished reading, ask your kids who the main characters were. Ask them what happened. Ask them what we learn from the passage. Texts like Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible can be useful for finding pithy points of teaching and application.
It won’t go the way you idealize it in your mind. Your kids won’t pay attention sometimes. You will think nothing is getting through. There will be times when you will be discouraged and will wonder what the point is. Press on. The Lord will work through it and will use your very far-from-perfect efforts. Daily discipline does not lend itself to idealism. The sooner you learn that, the better. And the times at which it seems pointless are the most important times to be persistent.
I said above that I wanted to focus on Dylan’s first line; but now I’m going to say something about the second. There is also a sense in which it is true that “failure’s no success at all.” The fact that I often do this badly is not an excuse for doing it badly, even though God often works through our failures. Some sinful pitfalls to which I am prone are: impatience, which leads to frustration; an overly scrupulous attention to attitudes and whether the kids are behaving in the way I want them to down to the jot and tittle of my unspoken code–that is to say, unreasonable expectations; and a tendency to go through the motions without manifesting any joy over what is actually a rich and wonderful responsibility God has given to heads of households. I know these things about myself. Some of them might apply to you too. Ask God to give you grace to be and do better. Humble yourself, so that the Lord can work.
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.