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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Practice Makes Possible

One of the vivid memories I associate with being nine years old is hearing my mom say to me, seemingly out of the blue, “Good news! I’ve signed you up for piano lessons, beginning next week.”


I did not in fact receive that as particularly good news.


In fact I fought my mother with everything I had in my nine-year-old arsenal: reason, emotion, and, as a last-ditch Hail Mary, pathetic pleading. “Please don’t make me do this!” I cried. 


But Mom was determined, and within a week I found myself sitting on a piano bench next to Mrs. Chenoweth in the family room of her house on North Central Avenue in Indianapolis.


To make things worse, beginning piano students don’t get to play Beethoven sonatas. No one learns to play Bach by playing Bach. Instead, piano students begin by learning scales, finger drills, and arpeggios. Gradually, over many weeks and months, they’re introduced to the same simple pieces all their friends are playing: The Spinning Song, Alley Cat, and My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic.


We commit ourselves to the scales and to those simple songs so that one day we might be able to play Beethoven.


It can be a painfully slow process. I have no doubt my endless finger exercises were a painful listening experience for my parents and brothers. Mom, however, lived in the hope that one day I would not only become proficient, but would even love to play the piano. That imposed a new order on my life:


My days and weeks were shaped by the need to practice.


In his book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren makes the case that practice is also the key that opens the door to a deeper walk with God.


He notes that there is a difference between trying and training. Lots of people desire to draw closer to God, and to become the person they know he has called them to be. They try. They make decisions to do better. They resolve to knock it out of the park spiritually.


But simply trying, in the end, is always a futile strategy. We don’t have the natural inner character that will allow us to imitate the life of Christ just by “doing our best.”


As Mark Twain put it, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” Human experience demonstrates that merely making a decision – trying really hard this time – is rarely transformative.


But training – choosing to wrap our lives around certain spiritual practices – holds great promise. McLaren defines training as “employing appropriate actions within our power by which we become capable of doing things beyond our power, and by which we become people we are currently incapable of being.”


What kinds of practices are we talking about?


There is no official list of “spiritual scales” that followers of Jesus are called to practice. But over the centuries, a number of Christians have found that certain activities have helped deepen their awareness of God’s presence and power. They include worship, prayer, service, fasting, generosity, spiritual direction, journaling, celebrating, contemplation, study, and a host of others.


Such practices are incapable of making anyone perfect. We won’t reach perfection until we stand before the Lord in the next world.


But practice does make good things possible. Spiritual disciplines gradually bring us to a place where we can, by God’s grace, begin to fall deeper in love with God.


By the time I entered high school, it was obvious that my piano lessons were paying off. I had mastered a repertoire of classical music. I auditioned for regional judges and earned surprisingly good marks. Most amazing of all: I actually began to love playing the piano.


But high school is a crazy time of life. I asked for some time off. “How about if I quit taking lessons for just one year, take a breather, get my life together, and then resume?”


That’s exactly what I did. And I’ve not taken a single lesson since.


I still know how to place my hands on the keys. I can still generate a smattering of chords. But over the passing decades my fingers have forgotten how to play most of those songs. I used to have a skill. But then I stopped practicing. 


And now I have to ask myself: How do I know the same thing isn’t going to happen to my relationship with God?


God has promised to be faithful to me. That’s the only real guarantee that I will still be walking with God one year from today. But something else is also true: My determination to be disciplined in my spiritual life – in other words, not to stop practicing – is the primary way within my own power to continue experiencing the fullness of God’s faithfulness.


Discipline is difficult.  In some contexts the word has even become synonymous with punishment. For some of us, a week of spiritual discipline sounds about as enticing as standing in line at the BMV seven days in a row.


But we’re not in this alone. 


God’s Spirit sustains our motivation when we want to give up – to take time off from being God’s person.


And the same Spirit reminds us that if our days and weeks are gradually shaped by spiritual practice, something wonderful will begin to happen.


We will find ourselves more deeply drawn to God than we ever thought possible.


And we won’t be stuck playing spiritual chopsticks the rest of our lives.

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