Saturday, August 15, 2009

Practice Makes...

“Practice makes perfect.” We’ve all heard that saying. And it’s not true.

Practice something the wrong way, and all you will have learned is how to do it the wrong way. You may perfectly perform it the wrong way, but I don’t think that’s the point, either of the saying or of what it is you are trying to do.

Who wants to be really good at making mistakes?

Cal Ripken Jr. used to say that his father changed the saying to “Perfect practice makes perfect.” His point, of course, is that it is important to practice doing something the right way if you want to learn to do it the right way. When I was a kid forced to take piano lessons my teacher and my mother was always telling me to slow down when I practiced. I kept trying to play the song up to speed when I couldn’t play it perfectly at a slower tempo. But slow seemed wrong, also. It was boring, and it was, well, slow. But all I was doing was making mistakes and, worse, actually entrenching my mistakes into my muscle memory, guaranteeing that I would continue to make the same mistakes. Perfect practice makes perfect.

But, honestly, perfection occurs in so little areas in our lives. It’s a worthy goal, but sometimes it can get in the way. When I was building my first guitar I kept having problems with the pearl position markers on the fretboard, so I kept re-doing them, seeking perfection. They were good, but I wanted perfect. Well, in guitar-building, little is perfect. All things need to be done well, and a few things need to be done with excellence, but the perfect guitar has yet to be built, and certainly not by a novice working on his first guitar. Finally my instructor had to come over and say, “Why don’t you fix that on your next guitar.” In other words, you did your best on this part. Accept that, and let’s finish the guitar.

But here’s a saying that is true: practice makes possible. I may never build a perfect guitar, but I’ll never build any guitars without practice. I may never play lead guitar like Erick Clapton or, for that matter, like Billy Winpigler, no matter how much I practice, but one thing is for sure, I won’t play any lead guitar without practicing. If I were to go out and try to run a marathon this weekend, I would collapse into a groaning, sweating, pathetic mess after a few miles because I haven’t trained for a marathon.

But if I were to decide that I wanted to run a marathon, and actually trained for it, I could do it, barring injury. I could run 26.2 miles without stopping if I trained for it.
It’s not enough to decide to do it, however. It’s not enough to want to do it really bad. I would have to actually train for it. Then, and only then, would it be possible.

All of us have decided at one time or another to learn a skill, whether that be to learn the violin or to play soccer; to learn trout fishing or tai chi. In each case, that decision led us to a community that carried the tradition of how to learn the skill. To be successful, we entered into the practice of that community and tradition by submitting ourselves to the authority to those who had become proficient in the skill.

At the beginning, what they have us do is boring and tedious and only remotely related to what we ultimately want to do. To play Bach, you don’t start with Bach. You start with the C Major scale and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” If you are a couch potato who is in your first day of marathon training, you don’t start by running 26.2 miles, you start by walking for 30 minutes without stopping. If you can. Real slow. Because no one plays Bach who can’t play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, and no one runs a marathon who can’t walk for 30 minutes. The spiritual life is no different. You may want to grow closer to God, and more like Christ. You may even have decided to do it. But it’s not going to happen because you want it or because you have decided to do it. There are certain practices you have to incorporate into your life. Spiritual Disciplines, they are called. And at first, they will seem tedious, repetitive, boring, and far removed from your ultimate goal.

But these are things that the Christian tradition says are necessary practices for growth. Prayer. Sabbath. Study, both in solitude and in group. Service. Silence. Meditation. Fasting. Worship. And the list is longer. Some are necessary, and you will need to do them all your life, like the master pianist doing her scales or the professional basketball player doing the same passing and dribbling drills that he’s been doing since elementary school. Some are seasonal, to help with a particular issue or a particular skill.

But all are necessary. Because what is possible is only possible through practice

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