With the word, “practice,” have I lost you already?
Spiritual practices can be heavy with expectation, especially self-expectation: “I should pray more, more Sabbath time, more rest, more exercise—more, more, more.” Practices, so subtly, become something you do to reach where you ought to be spiritually. This has a whiff of acquiring, accomplishing, “works righteousness,” to use a traditional phrase.
Wonder with me, can spiritual practicing be graceful, grace-fueled?
We were wrapping up another banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing together again and again—all in preparation for the final recording session.
“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording, she admitted. “Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?” Her response was profound beyond her knowing. When I can get to that place where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”
You have been to that place. Recall a time in the pulpit when an inner shift occurs. You get to that place where the “message” becomes more important than your delivery. Self-consciousness fades; “other”-consciousness arises. You feel carried by Something larger, unpredictable, mysterious. It’s no longer, you preaching a sermon. The sermon, it seems, is being preached through you. There is a flow, a freedom, a sense of participating in a Force not your own. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.
Or, in the midst of an intense pastoral situation, you find yourself at loss for words. Anxiety churns within. You don’t know what to say. Then, on occasion, from that silent place of emptiness and yearning, words come, right words, words that carry grace and truth. You walk away knowing you had received a gift beyond your wisdom. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.
Or, even in the midst of a committee or congregational meeting “It” can happen. Anxiety is high. Differences are polarizing. Reactivity abounds. Then, miraculously it seems, enough people get to that place beyond self-serving. Here and there, listening happens; truth telling is risked; options surface. Something More than our selves, a Spirit, seems to be at work. The mutual possibilities, the hopes (the Music) become more important than personal points of view (the players). How often have I seen church members get to that place? Not often.
Consider this: spiritual practices help you experience that place more often. All of us from time to time, as noted, know moments of self-transcendence when we cease to be the center of the action. I’m saying that practices help move us from “time to time” to “often,” from occasional “peak experiences” to daily experiences. Spiritual practices develop an inner capacity for detecting and surrendering to the Holy. They sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit at work in the world. Like with a musician, practicing doesn’t make the Music happen; rather, it allows the Music to be heard and played.
How then can this practicing be graceful and grace-fueled? Well, it’s a matter of where we start. A musician is first captivated by the music, then she begins practicing. We were first loved, then we began learning how to love. You and I were captivated by the Way of Jesus, then we began to practice our vocation of ministry. We start with Grace. You were brought to your knees before this amazement: you are, along with every living being, unconditionally beloved, valued, forgiven, and delighted in—- all gift, not achievement. Made in the image of God, your true nature is to love, to create, and give. This is who you are. This is who I am at my core. This news about you, and all creation, is the Music that resonates deeply and profoundly.
So, practices ring the bell that awakens us to what we already are. Again and again, they break through the amnesia, reminding us of what is given, not achieved. They recall us to our deepest identity as beloved of God. Practices in this sense don’t get us somewhere; they remind us we are already at home in a love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. Spiritual practices invite us to fall into that Love, regularly as a daily discipline.
Simple? Yes, radically simple, as simple as waking up or putting on a pair of glasses or remembering something forgotten.
Simple, but, oh, so costly. By waking up to our true identity in God’s love, we then begin to practice dis-identifying from every dependency on others to validate us, including ministry. By recognizing our given worth, we then begin to practice letting go of all the ways we attempt to earn our worth, including ministry. By becoming aware of grace, we then begin to practice dying to our ego’s claim as center of our lives.
Grace is the starting point. Grace fuels the practicing. But it is a costly grace. It costs the surrender of every effort at self-justification along the way of transformation.
Seems to me that it’s all about getting to that place where the Music is more important than me. How about you?