Practice, Practice, Practice

15 May

I grew up playing the piano.  My instructor, Mrs. Oriente, gave me her own variation on that stock phrase every musician knows well:  Practice makes Perfect.   Adding a layer of challenge to those words, she would iterate often, “Perfect Practice makes Perfect”.  The point she tried to make was that one should take a practice session as seriously as the official performance itself.  Practice is the process of habit formation, and if you practice bad habits consistently, they will be reflected when it is time for you to perform.

Mrs. Oriente’s sage advice came to mind as I heard John Weborg’s homily during the closing worship of our Spiritual Formation class at North Park Seminary last week.   For the past academic year, I have participated in a spiritual formation group spanning two courses.  We met weekly, reflecting on the various rhythms, seasons and practices of the spiritual life.  We spoke candidly about our struggles and our successes.  Chief among the disciplines we engaged was holy, careful listening to one another.  Let me say how much of a privilege it is to have people you barely know earnestly pray for and listen to you.

So in light of this experience, John encouraged us to be faithful in practicing spiritual disciplines.  He offered an eloquent and insightful testimony to the contribution the Pietist tradition in Christianity makes to elevating the role of practice in our theological discourse.  Practice is its own form of interpretation, of the bible, of faith, and of life.  In John 7:16-17, Jesus says it is by “doing the Word that you will know my message is not of me, but from God.”  When it comes to God, or any source of ultimate compassion or purpose, our society is skeptical, we are prone to look twice, or maybe several times, before committing or trusting to such radical ideas.  But as any number of daily decisions we make reveal, we act in trust and faith daily on matters which we from another angle have no business doing.   Stepping on a morning train, receiving lunch from a cook we never see, driving through afternoon traffic we necessarily act to get through the day.  We put our trust in things we can have no assurance will pan out well.  First we act in faith, then we reflect to seek understanding.

I think this idea of first practicing the Word in order to interpret it is something the global Christian community sorely needs to do with greater frequency.   Even as we are divided by theology, practice and ideologies, we need to see our interactions with others as an act of investment in the Gospel we have come to know through Christ.  Even among my own tradition, the Presbyterians, who are now taking new approaches to ordination, church governance and confessions, I hope that we might take this compassion, generosity and commitment we all talk about and truly practice it among one another.  Oh that those we disagree with would nevertheless say as Paul did in Philippians, “It was good of you to share in my troubles” (Phil. 4:14)  How many of us can say we share the burdens of those who our opinions and theology adversely affect?  Do we walk the second mile with them in daily life?  If we cannot practice in this way, then exactly what kind of Good News are we sharing? It may be a hard kind of love to practice, but trust me, if practiced that is the kind of love that can raise the dead.

The spiritual practice I undertook this semester, honoring the body, taught far more than I even wanted to know about practicing such a difficult kind of love.  Truth be told, I failed at the practice more often than I care to admit.  More on that in the next post.

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