Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Practice of Family Prayers

I have benefitted a lot from reading James K. A. Smith ever since I read his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy about five years ago. As a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, he sets in proper philosophical context many of the issues facing today’s church in a “postmodern” world. His philosophical perspective is a helpful supplement to the biblicist perspective I favor most highly, given by the likes of James Jordan and Peter Leithart.

Naturally, when just over two years ago he published Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, I immediately bought and read it. In that book, he lays the conceptual foundation for understanding man primarily as a desiring, affective being. He argues that our pedagogies should grapple with the reality that education is more about formation than information, that a person is defined by not so much simply what he knows and believes but, rather, what he loves, and that repeated rituals are more formative of our affections than anything else, truths that liturgists have known for thousands of years.

My response to Smith’s book was an intense desire that God form my own affections as well as those of my family, through daily liturgies, that are oriented toward Him.

Because Lord’s Day worship is the most relevant activity for cultural transformation that Christ’s church performs, believers must become skilled at it. Even more important than our ability to know our cultural milieu, to “engage” in or critically evaluate that culture, to argue for our faith—even more important than all these laudable activities is our ability to worship God skillfully.

The primary goal of our education programs must be to produce skillful worshipers.

During the season of Lent following my reading of Desiring the Kingdom, I decided to put into practice this belief. I bought The Divine Hours, Pocket Edition by Phyllis Tickle, and for the 40 days of Lent I observed the seven daily offices of prayer: Midnight, Night Watch, Dawn, Morning, Midday, Vespers, and Compline. These divine hours are ancient practices of the church and continue to be practiced in portions of Christ’s body.

“Seven times a day do I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:164).

“Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Psalm 55:17).

Those brief six weeks were truly transformative for me.  They produced in me the same desire as the psalmist for both myself and my family.

Thus, I put together a series of family prayers that we could perform as a family, and for almost two years now, we have thoroughly enjoyed performing them. Here’s how they work:

  • We have four offices every day (Matins, Midday, Vesper, and Compline) performed before each meal and before bed. Each office includes at least one Psalm, which is read, sung, or chanted, a song, and a corporate prayer (except Compline).
  • Our corporate prayer for Matins is a confession of sins and is followed by a promise of forgiveness. It is also during Matins that we perform our family Bible reading. We read about a chapter every day (except Sundays) and should make it through the Bible in four years (one year for each “testament” of Scripture).
  • Midday office is the shortest and usually doesn’t take more than 2-3 minutes.
  • Compline includes any one of longer ecclesiastical songs (a through-composed version of the Nicene Creed, the “Te Deum,” or a chanted version of the Anathansian Creed). We also sing several Psalms or hymns around the piano. Because our church publishes the following week’s music a week early, we practice the corporate worship music all week long.
  • The cycle revolves around our progress through the Psalms. We read all the Psalms every five weeks. When we complete the 5-week cycle, we start over.
The biggest need for improvement is in the area of praying. My next project is to work on an organized system for specific requests for which to pray in our extemporaneous prayers rather than just addressing things as they come to mind. Also, I would like to replace some of the oft-repeated ecclesiastical corporate prayers with prayers directly from the Psalms.

I could note many benefits that I have noticed from our performance of our family prayers, but I will just mention a few the come immediately to mind. First, because we perform them at the same time everyday, it is much easier to be consistent. Indeed, because children are always involved, it would be nearly impossible to skip them. They wouldn’t hear of it!

Second, and most important, because these times are practice for Lord’s Day corporate worship, we expect our children to behave as they should in church. That is, they participate. They also learn how to sit quietly when expected to do so. Because rehearsal is similar in many ways to the actual performance, they have learned how to bring their best to God on Sunday.

The last benefit I will mention is “intellectual.” They are learning all the Psalms by heart. The Scripture reading is frequently the topic of discussion at breakfast. They know the songs we sing at church, even the ones who can’t read. They know a creeds of the church, long ones. They can pray many traditional prayers of the church, which will remain with them for many years.

Recently, I typeset our “Family Prayers” and had them printed. It was my Epiphany gift to my family. I am pleased with the outcome and am thankful that we no longer have to find the Keynote slide on the laptop before every meal. If you think it would be helpful for yourself and your family, you can purchase one of your own. Simply follow the link to the left.

1 comment:

  1. So inspiring, Joe! We've consistently done prayers and singing before bed, and now - with the help of your book! - we hope to begin incorporating the rest. My prayer is that this will be a habit for our family by Easter.