During my seminary studies I had an assignment which required me to spend a day visiting a Christian living community to learn about their rhythms of prayer and work. After joining the community’s time of morning prayer, I was able to speak with an older believer named Peter over a leisurely breakfast. The longer I interviewed Peter, the more I sensed a desire rising in me to move beyond simply asking questions to complete my assignment. I really wanted to know more about his life of prayer, which I hoped would enrich my own. I wanted to know what methods of prayer he enjoyed most, how his prayer life had changed since joining the community, really anything he wanted to share. So I asked him to elaborate on how he prayed outside of the community’s corporate worship times, when he was alone with God. He began by answering, “I have been practicing...”
I don’t remember much of what he said after that.
I used to “zone out” a lot in conversations during my childhood years, but that was definitely not what was happening here. I had given my full attention to a word that was big enough to chew on for quite a while. That word was practice.
Up to that point, the idea of prayer being something one “practices” had not been my experience at all. You might say I thought of prayer more as a “prescription.”
A prescription is a one-size-fits-all product meant to alleviate a certain problem so that a person can get on with their life. A prescription comes from someone we’ve allowed to have a position of authority over us. And while a prescriptive spiritual discipline can be helpful at times, we sometimes forget that we are also experts; only you are the expert at what it’s like to be you, to know intimately your own desires, life situations, and abilities.
A practice, on the other hand, is an ongoing process that helps us pay attention to all parts of an experience, thus developing the posture of listening attentively to one’s own life. There’s still a desire for growth, but with an important difference—the desire to maintain control over specific results is released in favor of an open-ended acceptance of the good that is developing. “I have been practicing,” not, “I have achieved.”
If I’d understood Peter correctly, he was essentially saying that he lives in a place of perpetual beginning in prayer. What I heard next cleared up my confusion: “We all remain at the level of ‘practitioner’ for the rest of our lives.”
We all live together in the place of perpetual beginnings.
Years later, these words speak to me in a fresh way as the sun begins to rise on a new season of life and ministry. At age 39, I’m having to relearn what it means to be an adult living in the United States. I’m once again changing roles—this time, from pastoral ministry in a local congregation, to caring for other people in ministry positions. Some days I look wistfully at others my age who appear well-established in their work and communities, wondering why I wasn’t given a similar path.
I think we’d all love to be able to say that we have arrived or “mastered” a certain area of life—Bible study, time management, parenting, etc. But no matter how far we seem to get, it remains clear to us that there’s still a long way to go. Having just completed a hard-fought masters degree last year, I realize that even this step, though significant, remains a beginning for what is yet to come.
It’s easy to view “beginning again” as negative when we hold on to the prescriptive mentality of spiritual engagement. Here accomplishment is paramount. Seen through this framework, beginning again means that I haven’t achieved what I set out to achieve, which often leads us to question whether or not anything is even happening in our spiritual life! But if we look through the framework of spiritual practices, “beginning again” is a positive experience. It means I am paying attention to what I need, adjusting my spiritual exercises to something new if the Spirit so leads or the need arises. It acknowledges that something is happening in my spiritual life, even if I am not yet fully transformed into the person God is creating me to be.
So as you consider which spiritual practices to incorporate in your life, I would like to offer a word of encouragement. Some practices may be things for you try out right now. Other practices may be more of a first encounter, something that God may bring back into your life at a later time. Either way, it can be helpful to view your practices in spiritual formation as experiments. Any time we view these new practices as a standard to measure ourselves against, we either measure up or we don’t. And most of the time, we don’t! But if we “experiment” with a certain practice over time, we’re always learning, always receiving new feedback about what works best for us at the stage of life we’re in right now.
Toward the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi was said to have often encouraged others with these words: “Let us begin again, brothers, for up to now, we have done little or nothing.” To willingly accept the place of being a beginner places us in a position to receive God’s grace. Beginners need a lot of patience—patience that God continually shows us. Do we treat ourselves with that same patience?
Recognizing ourselves as perpetual beginners means recognizing that in fact all things are new to us, since God, even now, is making all things new. Starting with us. As we take each faithful step into the future, we move not into old, tired routines, but fresh, Spirit-led opportunities that will feel new because we are always beginning again. Let’s take a moment to respond together with thanks for such a wonderful place of loving community with God and each other.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
Ask yourself, “What has been my response lately toward myself as I engage with formational activities like prayer, scripture reading, spending time in silence and solitude, etc? How has that posture shaped my ability to receive God’s grace?”
Ask God to help you name an underlying perspective that has framed how you view your own spiritual formation up to this point. What would it feel like to be a practitioner, beginner, or experimenter?
Being a perpetual beginner leaves us in good company! We may find ourselves connected in a new way to our sisters and brothers here as well as other believers who have gone before us. Abba Antony of the Desert was also known to say, “Every morning I must say again to myself, today I start.” You may want to experiment with using this phrase yourself for the next few mornings. How does that change your expectations toward yourself and God throughout your day?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Mettler is part of the ChurchNEXT ReNew team and has a M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. David spent over 13 years in cross-cultural ministry in Germany, where he developed a conviction that Christ-centered ministry springs from cultivating a Christ-centered life. He and his wife Melissa now live in the Pacific Northwest with their two children.