Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

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?

10 Responses to Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

  1. Steve Scoggin says:

    Will Willimon has good articel on “practices” in recent edition of Christian Century.

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  2. Steve Scoggin says:

    Will Willimon has good article on “practices” in recent edition of the Christian Century.

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  3. Mickey Mugan says:

    Amen. You again has verbalized so beautifully why I arise early each morning to become more conscious of Ruah flowing in us and among us. May you continue to gift us with your wisdom and love in these posts. Namaste, Mickey

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  4. Ben Wagener says:

    Inhis parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl, I believe Jesus says that when we discover and rediscover how much God loves us then our cost of discipleship will result in “selling everything we have.”
    For me Centering prayer is one way for me to receive such healing grace.
    Ben Wagener

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  5. Mary Moore says:

    Mahan,
    You have articulated something wonderful here, something hard to describe and seldom discussed, I think — “that place.” You’ve given me a new name for this wonderful gift–one that only comes by grace. This is only my first reading in Anam Cara, and I’m hooked. Hope you won’t mind lay lurkers!

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  6. Greg Cochran says:

    Thanks Mahan, The word “flow” immediately caught my attention and took me to a river just outside the Smokies where my family tubed last summer. On our second “run,” I wiped out in a rapid run I had smoothly sailed through the first time. I was working to hard to avoid it. Once I steadied myself (as much as you can) of slippery river rocks, I chose to make my way to the “safety” of the bank. “I” could make it. I eventually slipped and cut my shin pretty badly on the “safe” rocks of the river bank. As I walked to where my tube had drifted…it hit me…if I had just stayed in the “flow” – let it carry me – I would have been just fine. Thanks for your reminder that the grace-filled flow will carry us where we need to go…even though scary at times.

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  7. Mahan, many thanks. It reminds me of something on my office door, by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

    Sometimes, as we practice whatever it is that we name “excellence,” the grace you wrote about comes in and transforms us, the event, the very practice itself.

    Marc

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  8. Bill Yates says:

    Mahan,

    I resonate well with what you say as well the other responders and like others I am grateful.

    For me, one of the best “tools” I have benefited the most from is the “emwave” device made by the Heart Math organization. It’s Heart Math purpose is to help one lower their stress level which it does. However, rather serendipitously I discovered how valuable it can be during one’s solitude/listening to God practice. In quick summary, as you center down it gives you an external alert on how well you are moving toward having a quiet internal receptivity and alerts you when you begin to move away from it….i.e., mind wandering, compulsive thinking, etc.

    The emwave is a little expensive but to me its value far exceeds the cost.

    Bill Yates

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  9. Stan Dotson says:

    My cousin Larry always loved the old axiom “practice makes perfect.” He was close to perfect in horseshoes, and he has bowled several perfect games. Jesus told us to be perfect. Maybe what he was saying was “practice!”

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  10. Mahan Siler says:

    All of you, thank you for building on my reflection in such interesting ways. I appreciate you taking the time to share what this invoked in you. Collectively I hope we have contributed to what seems to be a current challenge, how to talk and write about the discipline of practicing in graceful ways.

    Mahan

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