Friday, November 2, 2012

Perfect Makes Practice

Does being a Christian take practice? This question, though it might seem absurd on the surface, seems to inform a lot of what we spend our time as Christians doing. At a recent gathering, a speaker told a group of clergy something that we’d heard many times: that our relationship with Christ is much like any relationship we have in our lives. Like friendships, familial relationships, and intimate relationships, our bond with Christ must be managed, tended, and cultivated, or else it might wither and die away. In other words, in the same way that old friends can grow apart, Christians can become estranged from their Savior.

The ways in which we Christians endeavor to remain (or become) close to Jesus are often referred to as spiritual “disciplines” (or “practices,” for those for whom “discipline” is a dirty word).  Meditation, prayer, fasting, and solitude are just some of the “practices” that Christians engage in to cultivate “A Closer Walk with Thee.” Yours and mine might be different, but we all have things that we do to get the thing that we want most: intimacy with Jesus. In other words, practice makes perfect.  The better you practice, the more perfect your relationship with Christ becomes.

Let me suggest to you that, while spiritual practice can help you feel closer to Christ (which is a wonderful thing!), they are completely impotent in achieving that closeness.

Let us take St. Peter as our example. Selected as a disciple, Peter was as close to Christ, physically and personally, as anyone has ever been. Yet he consistently misunderstood Jesus’ teaching, to the point that Jesus once referred to him as Satan himself (Matt 16:23)!  Famously, Peter’s last experience of the pre-crucified Christ was his promise to never leave or forsake him, even unto prison or death (Luke 22:33). This proclamation didn’t stop Peter from fulfilling Jesus’ prediction about his faithfulness, denying him three times that very evening.  Peter’s practice was far from perfect!

By our every word and action, we, like Peter, run from God. Paul makes this clear in Romans 3:10-11: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” We live our lives and make our decisions as though there is no God; we consistently think of ourselves first, before God and others; and when we regard God at all, we form him into our own image.

But, as always, there is Good News! When the women find the tomb empty on Easter morning, it is presided over by a young man with a message. “Tell the disciples, and Peter,” he says, “that Jesus is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus preserves and cements what ought to be a broken relationship with Peter! By all rights, Peter should be very worried about the state of his friendship with this risen Christ he denied knowing. But their relationship doesn’t depend on Peter; it depends solely on Christ.

The same is true of us. We pray, we have quiet times, we walk labyrinths, we do myriad things to cultivate our relationship with our savior. But let us never worry that he is absent or estranged, for he has assured us that he will be with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). For Christians, then, it is not “practice makes perfect.” It’s something closer to “Christ’s perfection frees you to practice.” In him, our relationship is always secure, and in him, our practice, whatever it is, is made perfect.

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