Friday, February 19, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

Perfect? Really? Don't you think we're aiming a little high? Is there a less responsible thing you could say to another human than to suggest that perfection should be the goal, much less that it is even attainable? I'm not trying to be a rain cloud on your efforts, but perfection just isn't in the cards...take it from someone who knows. By the time I finish this blog, it will be, by unanimous acknowledgement (Hi, mom), "perfect" but it will still sport no fewer than 4 run-on sentences.

By my discerningly captivating eyes, there are at least three things wrong with this colloquialism, which given it is made up of only three words, exceeds my personally preferred word-to-error ratio.

First, the word "perfect" is hardly the perfect word to describe the product of practice. Most often the word doesn't actually mean "perfect." It most nearly means very good or well above average or best in your over-60 bowling league. Like "most popular kid at band camp," this title of perfection is dubious at best. Also, in the case of this catchphrase, perfection always refers to performance within a finite set of parameters. Perfect games last nine innings and perfect seasons framed by the calendar. These windows indicate that perfection is more a statement about luck than affirmation of the quality of the subject. There are no perfect teams or perfect pitchers; only good teams and good pitchers upon whom the sun shines for a moment.

Then, there's the word "practice." If you're sold on the idea that perfection is within grasp, you must be crazy should be scratching your head wondering: practice what? practice how? Silly questions, eh? If you want to be a perfect pitcher, you must practice pitching and you must practice so to improve. That was easy. But, again I ask: how? How do you grip the ball, adjust your arm angle, rotate your hips, snap your wrist, follow through, etc? It is not enough to simply practice your bad habits over and over. You need instruction and you need instruction from someone who knows how to pitch. Ms. Jefferson may be a great piano tutor but she won't add two inches to your curve ball.

My final complaint, finally, is actually with what is not said. Practice makes perfect is not only wrong but it is also incomplete. All the practice in the world won't make a hill of beans difference if you never perform. You have to suit up. You have to get in the game. Performance in the vacuum that is practice does not guarantee any level of success in the garbage disposal of reality. When we try new techniques and work out bad habits, we do so in the safety and isolation of a practice environment but we must put these adjustments to the test on the field of play. History is full of men and women who practiced perfectly but performed poorly.

Great, I'm a constant rain cloud but what does any of this have to do with fear and trembling? I'm glad you asked...I was having trouble making the transition. Everything. You see, I buy into this pragmatism. I practice Christianity as if to become perfect. I don't mean perfect like Jesus was perfect; I simply mean more Christiany than dregs who share my pew. I read the bible so I can name drop a minor prophet. I serve the community so I can be seen serving the community. I'm in three Bible studies so I can tell people I'm in three Bible studies. I work and strive and hustle not so God will put me to His uses, but so I can show Man (and God, though He should be paying attention anyway) how perfect I'm becoming. I want to perfect my faith so I can bask in the sunshine of my peer's admiration. That's Heaven and it's here on Earth. But...

I'm exhausted and I perform poorly. A thought! Is Christ the founder and perfecter of our faith? Another! Is the chief end of man is to glorify God?

There is a happy medium. Practice is a part of a perfect faith but perfect faith is not simply the result of practice. True, our five talents are our five talents, and we should want to use them to yield five more. But, we must remember that ours is to plant and water, it is God's to grow. All the effort in the world won't squeeze out an apple without God's consent. No fruit or small fruit? First, stop comparing your fruit to that of the stronger branches which surround you and then find a gardener and get some instruction. But, the most important thing Christians can do is remember Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. We are made in God's image so we ache for perfection--C.S. Lewis called it an inconsolable longing--but it is God's gift of mediation between a holy God and corrupt sinners, not our work that makes our practice efficacious.

Practice makes perfect? Not hardly. Practice, instructed by the Holy Spirit, empowered by God, made effective by Christ, will end in our perfection. Better.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I'm just talking about practice

I took piano lessons when I was in like 3rd grade. That’s one of those things that I hated at the time, like reading Huckleberry Finn, that I wish now I had paid more attention as a kid. I wanted to play like Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder (I was a precocious little kid). Of course, since I didn’t have prodigious musical talent, I would have to practice a lot in order to get there. My story is the same as everyone else’s; practice is boring and Schubert’s Lullaby did not sound anything like Superstition.

Perspective, though, tells me now that I’m older and wiser (well, the former for sure) that neither Billy nor Stevie got there either without that kind of practice, either. They just were committed enough to realize their goals and put in the work to make that happen. They were also blessed with loads of that prodigious talent that I was not.

As far as growing the same way as people of faith, we are told pretty clearly that we need to practice. 2 Peter Chapter one talks about this, as do a number of other places (Galatians 5, James 1 and 2 are a few that come to mind). The thing is, how do you know what that looks like? John 14:15 says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” That’s good advice, but we also are told how hard that is to do by Christ himself, pretty much continually.

This also reminds me of the various cute but meaningless clich├ęs churches like to throw out there to make us feel better: “God is my co-pilot” or “Give your decisions up to God.” I can’t think of a third one, but I’m sure they’re out there. What does that look like? How can we identify the spiritual equivalent of Stevie Wonder at the piano? How do we even know if we are making progress?

Tiger Woods, arguably the best golfer ever, doesn’t win every tournament he plays in; the best out there have their bad days, too. What does that mean for us? Especially when in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains the expression of the Spirit in believers looks different, how do I know what that kind of progress should look like in me? The easy answer is when you are walking in the Spirit or living in God’s Will, you’ll just know it. And sometimes that’s inarguably true. But there’re a lot of times where it’s just not that clear. Those are the times when identifying the right way to go isn’t something you just know. Those are the times I am talking about.

The promise that comes with doing this right is so dramatic, that asking these questions to get it right is very important, and certainly worth the effort. In John 14:23, Jesus explains the conclusion to 14:15: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, even if I can’t play River of Dreams.