Nathan has been writing his first five-paragraph essay in school in which he is asked to describe the person he admires most. That person is, without question, his father, and the first of his paragraphs begins like this: "I admire my dad because he is patient." When he reads it aloud to us over dinner, Ryan and I shoot each other bemused looks. Neither of us claims any measure of saintly patience. Both of us have been cut from the cloth of pragmatists: we love our efficiencies, and whenever it feels as if something is slowing us down, patience is not generally our default response.
Practicing the piano this week (in preparation to accompany Audrey for her clarinet recital) has been an object lesson in my stubborn impatience. I want this piece to come together so much more quickly than it actually is and I find I'm fighting the discipline that it is requiring of me. There are measures that I have parsed out, separating the right and left hands, working over again and again, and still, when it comes time for my right hand, stretched over an octave, to jump from the d-flat to the a-flat, inevitably I will miss and come crashing down on the g-flat. And when the left hand plays its three measures of broken chords, following a rather predictable pattern of descent, still my fifth finger forgets to move from the e-flat to the d-flat and finally to c. I have played those measures scores of times, and still, they feel new. Tonight is our debut performance with Audrey's clarinet teacher, and the third page has been hardly worked. I've reassured myself that it's just chords, although they are not chords I yet know how to play. There is substantial work to be done today.
Piano, like spiritual life, demands a kind of focused attention and incremental effort. There's so much to be said for spiritual life as rehearsal rather than performance, and I can remember an important book I read years ago that shaped my thinking about this. Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald examines the premise that we've been called to spiritual practices that form our habits in the everyday, and those practices, those daily rehearsals provide the foundation of courage and resilience, tender grace and forgiving love that we need when "performance" days come. It's an inside-out kind of living that requires the discipline of daily training rather than the occasional sprint.
Parsing out measures isn't playing beautiful music, but beautiful music requires the parsing.
And spiritual practices, like solitude and silence, prayer and study, are the necessary kind of parsing we do in our spiritual life; they are the prelude to the beautiful music of the sustained melodies of love, hope and joy.
If you're interested in learning more about spiritual practices, tune in to John Ortberg's current sermon series entitled, The Great Experiment, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. You can find it here.