I’m far from the perfect parent. In fact, I’d say the things I must improve on far outnumber the things I’m good at. That makes me hesitant to write today and tell you of a good decision I’ve made. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to tell you about our attempt at family worship; not to elevate myself—quite the contrary—but rather to encourage you in it. Because brothers and sisters, I have found great joy indeed!
In addition to my three newly adopted little ones (ages 3, 6, and 8) I have an older son (age 18). I raised him, mostly, as a single father. I’ll tell you first hand that single parenthood is tremendously difficult; full of pitfalls and stress, and easy to get wrong. God, simply, did not design parents to raise their children alone. He also, simply, designed children to need an ever-present father and mother. Take away those fundamental things and everything involved in parenting is suddenly even more difficult. Mistakes will be made. Opportunities will inevitably be missed. Children will be scarred. I’m sorrowful to realize that this difficult situation has undoubtedly taken its toll on my dear son.
I’m also ashamed to admit that, even in those difficult circumstances, I could have done better. Despite the difficulties, I could have been more consistent and focused. I could have been a better Dad. When that boy was a newborn baby I remember holding him and feeling my entire life change before my eyes. I loved him instantly and still feel those same feelings when I think about him. He was instantly my whole world, and he’ll always be a big part of my life. I always describe that moment as when I finally shook off the last vestiges of being a boy and embraced being a man.
If I could go back, I would have been a better man.
When I remarried, new challenges and difficulties arose that we did not predict. We, like all newlyweds, believed we’d just have kids. It really wasn’t a very thoughtful assumption. I think the Lord, among other things, wanted us both to put a lot more thought into it than we realized and to this day He has prevented us from having biological children. There have been few scars deeper than infertility, particularly for my wife.
Yet, the Lord turned our mourning into dancing (Psa 30:11). He used our disappointment and pain to soften our hearts for orphans. In fact, He downright broke our hearts for those children. In that brokenness and pain, He focused our minds on how to raise them, love them, and tackle the unique challenges abused and neglected children bring. He put us through trials and burned off our dross. He put people and resources in our path and forced us to think.
One of the things I mourn in my failure with my oldest son is that I did not make scripture and prayer a regular, predictable thing in our home. It would be tremendously unfair to say that we did not pray and read scripture. We certainly went to church, I homeschooled him and included a lot of Bible into his curriculum, and I remember many moments of discussing what the Bible said about this or that. Even as a young boy, when I would discipline him, or talk with him, or just be riding in the car together there were plenty of times when I would at least try to turn the conversation to the things of God.
I also remember praying often and encouraging him to pray often. So, it’s not that his childhood was devoid of Scripture and prayer. However, that regular, predictable, reliable time in the Word and prayer as a father and son? Nightly devotions? Family worship? It’s fair to say I wanted to do those things, but be it single fatherhood taking its toll, laziness, or sin, it’s equally fair to say I never really did that — and it is to my shame.
So into my life come three little souls, battered and beaten by the world. Little ones who’ve seen far too much already and the first thing on my mind is how much I need to teach them about God’s goodness, truth, comfort, mercy, and holiness. How much they need, like David, to be concealed in His holy tabernacle and lifted up on a rock (Psa 27:5). Great is their need to believe that God will do good in their time and in their land, lest their only recourse be to despair (Psa 27:13).
To do all of that, they need to hear God’s Word, have it explained so they understand it, trained in patience to listen. They should be taught how to pray. Not least of all they need to sing and worship and praise His holy name — the God who heals broken hearts, the God of redemption, the Father of the fatherless.
I can’t think of a better way to give them all of those things than to organize our family’s day-to-day so we have a regular time of worship together as a family.
Therefore, I decided to do just that; and brothers and sisters, I have found great joy! I decided to be the man I should have been for my older son, to make it a point to commit to regular time to sit with them, open the Bible, and go through the whole thing. Give them the whole nine yards, night after night, week after week, year after year.
I started by deciding they would get ready for bed faster than they were used to. So, between 7:30 and 8 the TV shuts off (even if I want to watch football), toys get picked up, and we start running bathwater. The goal is to have baths done, PJs on, teeth brushed, and hair combed by no later than 8:30. Then we all sit in the living room together and begin. I decided that they need to exercise their “listen attentively” muscles (and secondarily, I want them to be exposed to good literature) so I usually read a chapter of a book while they sit quietly. Currently, we’re in the middle of The Chronicles of Narnia. Then I open the Bible and read one chapter in its entirety; currently the Gospel of Luke as we work our way through all four gospels.
Afterward, we sing a hymn or two from “Hymns of Grace.” I choose one song I know well enough to sing acapella. We’ll sing it for a solid week choosing a new song every Sunday or Monday. Early in the week, I’m mostly singing a solo or with my wife but by the end of the week I usually have a full chorus (even the 3-year-old!) singing along. During Christmas time this year, I focused in on Christmas songs and sang 2 or 3 of them together. Then we pray; and when I say “WE” pray, I mean it. Prayer is a discipline and to be good at it you must start young. So, everyone prays.
Now, I don’t think anyone is going to write prayer books based on what any of us say, but the kids are trying and most importantly they get better. When they struggle I give them a template by saying “What are you thankful for”, then “What are you sorry for”, then “What do you need help with”, then “Who else needs God’s help?”, and so on. It’s sometimes remarkable how prescient and insightful are their prayers, and yes, it’s sometimes comical how they pray.
We have a joke about our daughter who almost mindlessly starts all of her prayers by quickly saying “thank you for all the things thank you for all the things we do thank you for all the things we don’t do” before giving her mind time to settle and realize what she wants to say. Our 3-year-old melts our heart by thanking God for “diggers” and “doggies” and “momma” and “grandma’s black horse midnight”. The middle guy often thanks God for his books, his dogs, church, and family. He is usually the one that prays God would help me at work and help Momma to get rest (oh, my heart!). After all of that, it’s goodnight kisses and lights out.
Here’s the truth: Some nights are better than others. Sometimes I’m struggling to get them to sit still and stop goofing around. We’ve taken plenty of breaks to discipline one, two, or all of them. Sometimes I’m struggling with wanting to get on with my to-do list. Sometimes bathtime doesn’t go well and we can’t sing or pray as much as I’d like. And yes, sometimes life happens and we get home late with everyone so dead tired that we just go to bed. But, here’s some truth as well: Those things are exceptions, not the rule. Family worship is possible, it is worth it, and it is a tremendous source of joy.
The greatest joy in all of this is when it spills over to day to day life. I think I first noticed it when my middle guy was randomly singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as he went out to play. It took all of 10 seconds for his older sister and even his little brother to join him and sing along. I often hear requests to sing songs with them that I taught them in family worship. It becomes a part of their thinking and they get excited when we sing those songs in church.
My daughter LOVES to sing (even if she has no rhythm or sense of key) and her creative mind often causes her to riff from one of the hymns and sing her own lyrics that usually fit the hymn’s theme. I like to think of her improvised riffs as the things taught in those hymns taking root in her mind. And it is glorious!
I call my 3-year-old our family prayer warrior. He refuses to eat until we pray. On the occasional nights when life gets in the way and family worship doesn’t happen, he wants to pray with me while I tuck him in. Prayer is a part of his life! Even at 3 years old. Even if, at this stage it’s just routine, his life includes prayer. God will fill in the rest in His good timing.
As for the 6-year-old, his retention skills are incredible even if understanding what he retains is often another matter. He’ll recall things about passages in the Bible that I didn’t recall even though we read them in our family worship time. He’ll retell me stories from the narratives and make comparisons. One day he found me in the house to tell me something important: The bad guys in his cartoon were making fun of the hero just like the Roman soldiers made fun of Jesus. “I hope they don’t whip (the cartoon hero whose name I don’t recall) like they whipped Jesus, Daddy.” See, it’s part of his thinking. The Bible is starting to define his world.
Look, I don’t have super children or something. They’re mostly normal kids. I’m certainly not “Superdad”. Lots of dads do what I’m doing and didn’t have to learn a painful 18-year lesson to do it! It’s also worth noting their world is full of faithful children’s teachers at church; believing grandparents, aunts, and uncles; and most importantly a believing, faithful, and dutiful mother. I’d venture to say that most of you reading this have done this sort of thing with your kids for some time. It’s not news to you, and I’m shamefully late to the party. Nonetheless, I have found great joy; and if, like I was, you are late to the family worship party then I urge you to go and find your own great joy. It’s never too late to get started, and believe me, you will not regret it.