One of the things you come to find out very quickly about small children is they thrive on repetition, pattern and ritual. The way they learn best is by building daily, consistent habits that help reinforce specific truths and characteristics. The other thing you discover is they love it this way. They want their breakfast at 7:30, their lunch at noon, their lesson at 1, dinner at 5, playtime with daddy at 5:30 and Good Night Moon every evening just before bed. If you miss a step, they’ll be the first ones to correct you.
This is their liturgy—their pattern, service and rhythm of life, composed of specific tasks, behaviors and routines. Everyone, in fact, has a liturgy—not just children. We are all, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. And we are all serving something. At home, work or in the Lord’s service on Sunday, we all have an order and cadence to our lives. The real question about liturgy is not ‘Do we have one?’ but ‘Is it biblical?’
If we form our daily liturgies from biblical principle and model them after a life of sacrificial worship, they have a tremendous way of forming us in the shape of gospel truths. So as we carry out familial rituals like practicing forgiveness or praying together or singing the doxology before we eat, we’re learning right along with our children what it actually means for God’s word to penetrate and rule in every sphere of our lives. We become the singing, forgiving, praying, worshipping, covenant people of God.
Let me give you just one example of how this works out in daily life. The other day as my wife was preparing dinner, I was in charge of wrangling the wild ones (i.e. our children). A baby cried, another frolicked with his usual deafening volume and the third thought this was an incredible time to play 20 questions. Mommy burned her hand, daddy lost it, yelled, threw a coaster and a book, and then felt like a total moron (because he is).
My anger subsided, we sat down to eat and I had the distinct privilege of asking for forgiveness from my 3- and 5-year-old, as well as my wife. They know this ritual well, of course, because every time we discipline them we go through it. “Please forgive me.” “Yes, I forgive you, as Christ also forgives me.” It’s always humbling when you’re on the other side of things and the one in need of a spanking. So we pray and remember God’s promise to forgive and cleanse those who confess and turn to Jesus (1 John 1:9). This is one aspect of our familial liturgy, the heartbeat of everyday life. We do a lot of sinning, but we also have the opportunity to do a lot of confessing and repenting and forgiving.
But then daddy still feels guilty and embarrassed. His countenance falls, and the shame wells up in his heart. ‘How could I act like that?’ he thinks to himself, silent at the table. He’s not focused on God’s promise, just his own epic failure. So he turns to each of the boys again and says, “Daddy is really sorry.”
And the 3-year-old turns to him with as serious a face as ever was and says, “Daddy, you don’t need to ask me that again. I already forgave you. That’s behind us now.”
The liturgy isn’t just for the children. Oh no, it’s for us too. As we teach them gospel liturgies in everyday life, they’re also holding us accountable to those same truths. When I dwelt on my sin even after confessing and asking for forgiveness, the liturgically instructed and gospel savvy 3-year-old was there with a promise and reminder that I often give him. “Look to the promise, Daddy. He forgives. You confessed. It’s over. It is finished. We’re welcoming you back into fellowship.”
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 reasonable service (or liturgy) (Romans 12:1).