Guest writer Jeffrey Jou is a Chinese American effect pigments research scientist as well as a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, New York City. He has been married to his wife, Jamie, for three years, and they are expecting their first child sometime in January. They attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church – East Side in New York City.
This is part two of a two-part series on cultivating regular spiritual disciplines. My previous post highlighted praying through the Psalms and remembering Christ. How do we do that when our circle expands beyond ourselves? What exactly is family worship? How do I even start?
Family Worship: Modeled
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6 ESV
For as long as I can remember, our family would gather nightly around my father’s bed and get on our knees and pray: my father, my sister, my brother, and me. We would usually go in order, from the youngest to the oldest, with my father closing out the prayer. However, now that I think about it, this was not a practice of my early childhood, but rather a later one. The fact that I don’t remember my mom participating in this practice seems to bring to the forefront that perhaps my father started doing this because she had left. Looking back, I realize now that it was a sudden family crisis, the departure of a spouse and parent, that jolted my father into gathering the family for prayer.
I am reminded of the apostle Paul, who said, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are for your glory. For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:12-19 NIV). Like Paul for the Ephesians, my father felt the weight to pray for his children in a time of extreme need. Like Paul for himself, my father needed to pray for himself, to be reminded of the height and depth of the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.
And so, this became a regular practice. Every night, we would gather right before bedtime. This time was filled with solemnity and sometimes hilarity. Where else could you get something like the following?
Sister: Didi (little brother in Chinese) didn’t have his eyes closed while praying!
Dad: Oh really? How did you know?
The regularity at some point, however, had become a trap for me. I found myself repeating the same prayers almost every night. I had almost grown numb to the practice of prayer, and it became a dead habit. Did I really believe that God could answer my prayers? As I got older, with the weight of schoolwork and eventually a work schedule, I found my desire to pray wax and wane. Exhaustion would take over, and I would often be passed out on my bed before nightly family prayer time. I would feel the guilt as either my sibling or my father would pull the covers over me, but my body was simply too tired to even wake up. Unfortunately, the phrase, “My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak” did not even apply here. Often times, my spirit was not willing. My spirit had grown so disillusioned, and even when I did gather for nightly family prayer, it felt like a chore.
Family Worship: Implemented
That is, until I met my own crisis and need. Through the many trials, dangers, toils, and snares of college, Christ had not only brought me back to the fold as I wandered away from him, but He had refreshed me with the gospel and the truth of the Word in ways that I am still learning to grasp. As I look back on my childhood and what we did together as a family, few things stand out more than that nightly family prayer. That is not to say the family vacations and Sunday night Star Wars movie times were not memorable or even formative. What was impressed upon my mind above all else, however, was the regularity and the habitual routine of daily prayer. When it was bedtime, it was time to pray. Why did we pray? Because we were acknowledging that we needed God. Because we were speaking to our Heavenly Father. Because He loves us.
In my walk of faith, that regularity has served me well. I am reminded of the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” My father was a constant worker—a workaholic, almost. This was typical of an Asian parent. What was also typical was the affirmation of love not through words, but rather through actions. The way my father modeled his own love for God was through gathering his family in prayer. I didn’t need him to tell me that. It simply became obvious as I grew older. Becoming a husband brought more than a million thoughts through my mind: “How will I lead my wife? What if I’m not godly enough? Who are my role models? What does it mean for me to love my wife as Christ loves the church?” It was the nightly regularity that gave me at least part of an answer to one of these questions. Family worship.
One time I had attended a conference where the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Donald Whitney spoke on the importance and necessity of family worship. He outlined it in 3 simple ways: Read, Sing, and Pray. I have since adopted that model from the outset of our marriage. As much as it is possible, I aim to have family worship every night except Sundays. Of course, that is not always achieved. The hecticness and grind of living and working in New York tend to get to you in a plethora of ways. Yet that is the goal. Family worship every night. It also doesn’t look complicated. My wife and I will read a passage of Scripture, discuss it, sing a song or hymn together, and then we pray. We alternate on who prays. We also throw in readings of other books in addition to Scripture sometimes. Recently, we read a devotional on Thessalonians written by one of my professors in seminary and Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. We’ve also built in a Bible memory verse system that we try to go through every other week. My wife has come up with extremely memorable jingles that help us memorize the verses. I keep pushing her to record and publish a sing-along Bible memory verse system. She has declined. I’ll get to her eventually.
Family Worship: With Children
Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.Deuteronomy 6:1-3 ESV
Pampers has a commercial advertising its diapers and showcasing all these adorable babies with their parents, and a line flashes through: “A baby doesn’t just change your life. A baby changes everything.” In this season of anticipation of the birth of my child, I can’t help but reflect on that statement: babies change everything. Also, every parent around me says the same, so it must be true!
A new set of more than a million thoughts are constantly flooding my mind now: “What will regularity look like? What will become of family worship? How do I foster a rhythm of spiritual disciplines when my wife and I will be attending to a crying baby? How do I stop myself from being a negligent father?” Bookending the first three verses of Deuteronomy 6 are the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael, a Jewish prayer of their morning and evening services that captures the monotheism of Israel: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4 ESV). As I pray for my child, the one thing I desire above all for him, even above him becoming an NFL kicker or an NBA star or the recipient of a Nobel Prize, is that he may fear the LORD his God. That he may love his Heavenly Father. That he may experience what union with Christ truly is. That the law of the Lord would be a delight to him. And also maybe an NBA star.
John Calvin spoke of the responsibility of rearing children with the utmost seriousness,
“… unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring. Farther, he who thus reflects upon the goodness of God in giving him children, will readily and with a settled mind look for the continuance of God’s grace; and although he may have but a small inheritance to leave them, he will not be unduly careful on that account.”
Speaking on the wishes of parents regarding their children, Calvin continues,
“… the children which we ought to wish for, are not such as may violently oppress the wretched and suffering, or overreach others by craft and deceit, or accumulate great riches by unlawful means, or acquire for themselves tyrannical authority, but such as will practice uprightness, and be willing to live in obedience to the laws, and prepared to render an account of their life. Farther, although fathers ought diligently to form their children under a system of holy discipline, yet let them remember that they will never succeed in attaining the object aimed at, save by the pure and special grace of God.”
I have already started catechizing my child in his mom’s womb. I have successfully read through the Westminster Shorter Catechism to him. Hopefully he will grow up to love order and become a good Presbyterian like his father. Honestly speaking, he probably can’t understand a thing. He probably doesn’t even know it’s my voice. Yet this is a reminder more so for my wife and me—that the responsibility of raising a child is great and that we are in utter need of the grace of Christ for our next season as parents and stewards. Our prayer is that our child would know and experience that “pure and special grace of God.”
As I come back to the question of, “How do we cultivate spiritual regularity?”, I am reminded that spiritual disciplines affect not just my own life but also those who are in my sphere of influence. This may not have been the exact question my dad was asking himself when he started praying nightly with the family, but it inherently became a pattern for me as his son. This is a question that we all need to be asking because as Christians, we should all be in community with other believers and interacting with non-believers. What will our witness look like as Christians?
Paul exhorts the church in Rome in this way: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1 ESV). Our mindset as the body of believers should be that of a singular sacrifice offered as spiritual worship. If all of life is worship to God, let us then be disciplined, as the people of God, in our daily practices, being reminded that we can encourage others by the spiritual regularity we implement and be encouraged by the regularity shown by the brothers and sisters around us.