What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Family devotional life

December 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

After closing my first posting on the family, I realized that I had left out an important aspect—shared family devotional life and the ways that meetings might help families develop and deepen family religious practice.

The family used to be the home of religious life for Friends. Families prayed together, worshipped together, read the Bible together. And not just for Friends.

When I was a kid, we read straight through the Bible one and a half times or so, one chapter a night after dinner. We went to (Lutheran) church every Sunday. My brother and I had a paper route, and we would come back to the house Sunday morning to a big breakfast, usually with something my mother had specially baked or prepared. Her sticky buns were incredible. We dressed up, my parents went to choir rehearsal while my brother and I were in Sunday School, and then we all attended service. We prayed before meals, and my mom prayed with us at bedtime when we were little. Right out of Normal Rockwell. It was the 1950s.

This kind of family devotional life is mostly lost to us today, I fear. So we should explore new ways to share our Quakerism in the family. We will have to accommodate the crazy lifestyles that most of us live today, but it’s more important than it ever was, I think, to try.

So we have two problems to solve: content—what do you do as a family? and time—when do you do it?


FGC’s bookstore has a couple of resources to check out:

  • Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Well-being, by Margaret Crompton; a Pendle Hill Pamphlet.
  • One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist, by the incomparable Elise Boulding.

I’m not familiar with either one of these works, so I’m not sure whether they could serve as a practical guide for how to “organize” family devotional life. My guess is that we’re mostly going to have to make it up ourselves.

I see three possible places to start, three springboards families could use for conversation and practice around Quaker spirituality.

The first is a traditional one—reading the Bible (and other religious literature). The Bible has served Quaker families for generations as a reliable and powerful resource for religious life.

However, in my (adult) experience, the Bible is a dangerous book (that’s why I called my first blog BibleMonster): As soon as you get below the surface, it tends to raise more questions than it answers. And while we might believe, as a matter of faith, that the Bible is spirit-led, I personally treat its books and stories and poems the way I treat vocal ministry in meeting for worship: a given message may speak to someone in the meeting, while not speaking to me, or the other way around. A lot of the Bible probably spoke to readers when it was written, but that does not necessarily mean that it will speak to our condition today.

Furthermore, a lot of the Bible is just not appropriate for younger children at all (though I guess I was not so damaged by it myself, since I did hear it all—I think. Did my dad skip the very violent and bizarre stories in Judges or the esoteric rules of Leviticus? Did my parents discuss beforehand what was rated PG and what wasn’t?). Finally, parents might want to be fairly comfortable with the Bible themselves to present it confidently and usefully to their children, and many of us aren’t. However, this just means that we have a chance to explore it together. Still, reading and discussing the Bible together may not be as straightforward an option as it once was.

Then there’s Quaker faith and practice. That’s how my meeting organizes its First Day School, in a general way, and that works pretty well, touching in a more or less systematic way on the Quaker essentials over time. But First Day School is only once a week and First Day School is a school—kids come expecting to be taught in a way not too dissimilar from regular school. Family devotions should be more than just a teaching platform. It should be a time of sharing and of worship, as well.

The most useful approach, I think, might be to start with the spiritual lives of the family members. The parents can share what their spiritual lives mean to them—stories of the spiritual and religious experiences they’ve had, what they think they mean, what they do in meeting for worship—that kind of thing. A focus on personal sharing and stories means that the family devotional life stays real and concrete, and kids are always keen to learn about their parents’ lives. Hopefully, the stories generate questions and answers.

Then, more importantly, parents can ask their kids what’s going on inside of them, looking for opportunities to point out the Light at work within them, working with the kids’ accounts of their day and the day-to-day interactions of family life. My older son home-schooled his children and I was very impressed with how they could drop into school mode at the drop of a hat when he or his partner saw an opportunity to teach. We would be hiking in the California redwoods and suddenly we’re identifying trees or talking about the life cycle of the banana slug. It takes a little practice and attention, is all.

But I’m admittedly just groping here. I didn’t do this with my own children, who are grown now, until they were teenagers. Maybe I’m naive about what will work. All I know is that it would be worth a try to do something. And that you would probably have to stick with it for a while to find out whether you’re getting somewhere. Kids accept whatever you do up to a certain age, and then they reject whatever you do for a while. So this would be one protracted, basically life-long experiment.

Prayer. Finally, we have to talk about prayer. But when I started writing here about prayer in the context of family devotional life, the post started getting really long (and it’s already really long) and I found myself talking about other important related subjects, as well. So prayer will have to be its own post. More than one post, I suspect.

For I think that prayer is a really important topic that gets to the heart of our religious life. But as I said, prayer is too deep a subject to simply add to this entry. It deserves more, so it will have to wait. Meanwhile . . .


So when can families do whatever they might do together as a family practice? Not much time to work with, is there? Three time slots present themselves as possibilities for families with young children, two for those with older children.

Bedtime. I bet a lot of my parent readers read to their young children at bedtime. Here’s a chance to do something in addition to reading secular stories. I think it matters less how much time it gets, and matters more that it is regular and that it engages the imagination. At the least, there are quite a few children’s books written by and for Friends. We read the Obadiah series to our kids.

Dinnertime. Does your family regularly eat the dinner meal together at a table, without some media engaging everyone’s attention? I think this is really important to a family spiritually, whether or not anything “religious” takes place. If this is not your family’s practice, then maybe it would be good to check in with the testimony of simplicity, and ask the Light within yourself whether this feels right, to be so disjointed in lifestyle with your family that you can’t eat together. Just a thought.

Dinnertime, it seems to me, breaks down into three time slots: a chance to bless the food and the family before eating and to give thanks, a chance to talk during the meal, and a chance to do something more focused toward the end. Okay, so maybe not during the meal. And maybe not a chapter from the Bible every night. But something?

Sunday morning. If you’re coming to meeting anyway, then doing something together to prepare seems possible. No? Depends on your family, doesn’t it?

Mixed Quaker-nonQuaker families. I am married to a woman who appreciates Quakerism but she’s not gonna join herself. My children are grown and come from a previous marriage, but my ex and I both became Friends after a while, and we were always in tune about this kind of thing, anyway, so it worked out fairly well. Christine and I do not have children together, however. If we did have kids, I can see that it might be hard to get some family devotional life going. I honestly don’t know what you can do about that.

Even without kids, I find it very frustrating not to be able to share my religion with my spouse. I must pursue it on my own, and my married life necessarily competes with my meeting commitments—and my religious life competes with my family obligations, to Christine’s frustration.

This is presumably one of the reasons why Friends once disowned Friends when they married out of the meeting. “Yoke not thyself to an unbeliever,” said Paul somewhere in his letters.

Well, we do the best we can.

The meeting’s role. How can the meeting help their families with their shared devotional life? The obvious place to start, it seems to me, is with the religious education committee. These Friends presumably know the families already. At least, they know the kids.

The simplest thing would be to just hold a meeting about the subject for parents and even the children, at least the ones old enough to participate. At the least, you’ll have to provide childcare so that the parents can come.

Start, perhaps, with an open discussion. Find out whether the families are already doing something. Whether they want to do something. Discuss how to integrate the curriculum with activities at home. And take it from there.

The opportunity. One final opportunity for family practice, which I believe needs revival. Bill Taber, author of Four Doors into Quaker Worship and other really good writings and a long-time faculty member at Pendle Hill, was a Conservative Friend. He brought with him from his Conservative tradition the practice of the “opportunity”, the elder-days term for those times when a group of Friends found the Holy Spirit falling upon them spontaneously, unplanned and unexpected. Maybe while working, or whatever. Suddenly, everyone recognizes that they are called into worship, right then and there.

Bill Taber was keen to revive this practice and became its champion, so he was proactive about it. He would invite you to an “opportunity”. Or he would invite himself to your house for one. And this is what he would do:

Just talk for a few minutes to feel settled with each other. Then settle into worship. No agenda. No timeline, though usually twenty or thirty minutes or so would pass. Just sit together in the waiting, gathering silence, speaking if led, until it becomes clear that G*d is done with you. That simple. The powerful part is knowing when the Spirit is done with you. That part is not so simple. But extremely enlivening and deepening. Whoah—so good and powerful!

My opportunities with Bill were some of the most wonderful and worshipful experiences in my religious life. And it was great every single time. They deepened our relationship, they deepened my spiritual life, and they often led to real openings of the Spirit.

I encourage others to experiment with this practice, and especially in the family. Just a little informal meeting for worship together whenever you find the opportunity.


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§ 2 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Family devotional life

  • Steve, this question occurred to me recently. It is a different version, perhaps, of the question that you have asked and that you are answering through many posts.

    if Quaker faith is the answer, what is the question?

  • Bill says:

    Reading the autobiography of Allen Jay, I discovered that in the early 19th century family devotions were a little controversial among Quakers in the midwest. He wrote “It may appear strange that my father was often found fault with for introducing family worship into our house. Some Friends were uneasy, fearing it might result in reading the Bible formally and having formal worship.”

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