I taught Sunday School online for the first time in my life this past Sunday. (Praise the Lord, it went better than I had even hoped it would!) We are working through a broad overview of the Bible that helps everyone master a very basic framework for the grand narrative of Scripture. This past week was focused on the return to Jerusalem in Ezra and Nehemiah. In this part of the story, the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Since teaching Sunday School, I keep thinking of Nehemiah 3. This is the part where they begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in earnest. It is a remarkable effort in terms of the scope of what they do and how quickly they do it. One commentary says that 42 groups of people work on the walls and complete the rebuilding and repair in 52 days – a very short amount of time for a project of this scope!
Chapter 3 describes in detail the different people who worked on different parts of the walls. 3:22 and following has particularly grabbed my attention:
The next repairs were made by the priests from the surrounding region. After them, Benjamin and Hasshub repaired the section across from their house, and Azariah son of Maaseiah and grandson of Ananiah repaired the section across from his house…. Above the Horse Gate, the priests repaired the wall. Each one repaired the section immediately across from his own house. (Nehemiah 3:22-23, 28)
Over the past two weeks, I have had a wide range of thoughts and emotions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is one that has been at the forefront of my mind more than anything else: This unexpected and unwanted interruption to our lives and normal routines is an opportunity to focus on the work of God in our own house.
There is so much that we cannot control in this season. But in this time when many parts of the United States are under orders to shelter in place, what if we focused on rebuilding the foundations of our faith right outside of our house? What if we started with our families?
Family and private prayer
“Family and private prayer” is a phrase that was frequently used by John Wesley and early Methodists. The phrase was used in almost every discussion of the basic practices of the Christian faith. Today, we usually just say that prayer is one of the basic practices of the faith. But early Methodists were more specific.
A Methodist was expected to spend focused time in private prayer every day. And they were also expected to spend time every day in prayer with their families. (This would obviously be different for people who are single and living on their own, though I suspect most single Christians would affirm that value of communal rhythms of prayer themselves.)
I talked about a handful of practical ways that Christians can focus on their faith in the midst of this unprecedented and surreal season in last week’s post. I found my mind returning to the part about families praying together over and over again this past week. I am writing about it again this week because the more I think about parents praying together with their children the more certain I am that this would fundamentally change things in the American Church.
Many of you already do this faithfully. My message to you is: Keep it up! Maybe this is an opportunity to ask if there is something fruitful you could add to your rhythm in this season where you are spending so much time together as a family.
If you don’t spend time praying together as a family, that is ok. I want to encourage you to think about steps you can take moving forward, rather than spending time thinking about missed opportunities in the past.
I want to reiterate a few specific practices I mentioned in last week’s post because they are ideal for implementing in this season.
Pray together as a family before meals.
Even if the entire family is not eating together at the same time, commit to say a prayer together before you eat. This prayer can be short and sweet, particularly if you are not used to praying aloud. In my family, we all take turns praying before meals and the basic content of the prayer is basically giving God thanks for providing the food we are about to eat and asking that God bless it to the nourishment of our bodies.
One of my favorite things that happens in these times is when one of my kids uses this time as an opportunity to also pray for something that is on their hearts.
Pray together before your children go to sleep.
My family has a routine where everyone shares at least one specific thing they are thankful for from the day. After each person has shared, one of us closes in prayer. Like praying before meals, this is not complicated. It is powerful because it is teaching our kids to pray and giving them opportunities to pray with us. It is also a way of showing our kids the priority that our faith plays in our lives. As Christians, we make time to give thanks to God for our food before we eat it. And we make time to thank God for events in each day at the end of the day and lift up the day in prayer before we go to sleep.
My favorite part about this nighttime prayer routine is when we have guests stay at our house. I love inviting them into this rhythm with our kids and having the chance for all of us to hear what each person is thankful for from the day.
Read Scripture together as a family.
We read a passage from a children’s Bible that our kids like before we share what we are thankful for and pray. The key here is simply to spend time together reading Scripture as a family. Last week I recommended starting by reading the Gospel of John. It is less important where you start than that you start. If you are drawn to a particular book of the Bible, start there by all means.
We need purpose and focus in this season.
We are wired for struggle and for a purpose. For some of you, committing to pray together and read Scripture as a family may not seem big enough or profound enough. In times of crisis and uncertainty, prayer often takes on a new and deeper level of meaning. It is often easier to pray authentic and focused prayers. I have certainly found that to be the case in my own life over the past two weeks.
I believe this is a season to fight to put God in the center of Christian families. For those of us who are used to the church leading our children for us, this may initially be uncomfortable or challenging. But you can do it. And you need to do it.
Praying with your family will renew your own faith and it will change your children’s lives in ways you cannot anticipate.
Our kids are picking up on our anxiety and fears. This is an unsettling time for them. They need us to lead them to the creator of the universe. The Lord is not sleeping through this season. He is with us. He sees us. He cares about what we are experiencing and feeling.
It is time for those of us who have taken on the name of Christ to complete the work that is right in front of us in our own homes.
We need to become active in practicing our faith and finding rhythms to honor Jesus and invite the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our lives day after day, moment by moment.
As we do, we will find that the Holy Spirit produces his fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Come Holy Spirit! Help those of us who follow Jesus and have families to return to the practice of both family and private prayer.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.