Putting it in Practice

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never really learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons are practiced.

I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale.  Over and over she plays, usually faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the falter will return.

The learning is only safe within the practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades.  The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me.  I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care.  As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years.  It’s been cyclical.  I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy.  I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually devolve to that pre-set.  I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many.   I am sure I am not even aware of all of them.  First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have somehow been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site.  The pain then slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction is delivered through my practice of yoga.  So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my breathing, being very intentional about every move I make.  Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible.  It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand.  Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third —  and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx.  As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

Seriously.  I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.

So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much.  I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness.  She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives.  We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor.  I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way.  I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

Psalm 46:10

 Be still, and know that I am God…

The Bonus Lesson

Right after Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, right after they cleaned up the leftovers and packaged them into twelve baskets, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side while He dismissed the crowds.”

First of all, let’s talk about that for a minute.  I have worked on lots of committees and been at lots of school and church functions and potlucks, and I don’t ever remember my leader sending me away ‘immediately’ so that he or she could dismiss the crowds.  I may have snuck away early of my own volition a few times (sorry, boss), but never have I seen a leader send away all his workers right after an event of this magnitude.

We might be tempted to think Jesus thought they’d had enough for the day — He’d proven He was God in a BIG way.  Who else but God could feed 5,000 men plus the women and children attached to them with five loaves of bread and two fish and have twelve baskets of food to pick up??? If we stop at Matthew 14:22 and see that He sent them away, we may think, “Oh, that was nice of Jesus to give them a break.”   But if you read a little further, like I did this afternoon, you’ll see that Jesus was not finished with them.  He had saved the bonus lesson for the twelve.

As a teacher I prepare lessons for a class — usually 90 minutes of activities that, together, are designed to teach a certain objective or set of objectives. These lessons have to take into consideration the spectrum of abilities and learning styles present in my classroom.  These whole class lessons stem from course objectives, which stem from departmental objectives, which are in line with the mission of the school.  They are very structured and intentional — as I imagine was the Feeding of the 5,000.

But often I get the pleasure of teaching a bonus lesson.  These lessons are often impromptu.  A student drops in before or after school and wants advice on a college essay, or a college choice, or a prom dress.  A grad emails me to talk about something that happened in class, or on a date, or in her family.  And sometimes  right in the middle of class an opportunity presents itself — a comment is made that I wasn’t expecting, a student asks a particularly relevant question, or a particularly irrelevant question, or an event happens in the world that demands us to leave the prepared lesson and seize the opportunity.  I have been known to close my computer and say, “Ok, guys, this is a bonus lesson — don’t worry, I’m not going to charge you extra.”

I imagine that is what happened after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus wasn’t tired.  He didn’t want to go home, sit in his recliner, and watch Monday Night Football.  He had been watching His disciples all day and He knew they were ready for –The Bonus Lesson.

I mean, earlier in the day they had freaked out just a little bit. “Hey, Jesus, what are we going to do with all these people!!! They are getting hungry!  Let’s get them out of here!”

Jesus had other plans.  “No, don’t send them away. Feed them.”

“Uh, there’s like 5,000 of them.  We only have five loaves and two fish.”

“That’ll do.”

They didn’t see how in the world He, Jesus, who was also God, Creator of the world, Provider of every breath and every bite, could feed the people He had created. Yeah, I’ve been there.

So He proved that He was God and that He could and would provide.

They saw it and were amazed, but not too amazed, because a short while later, they were out in the boat that He had put them in, in the water that He had created, when a storm blew in.  (In case you aren’t following — God controls storms.) And of course they responded by recognizing that He is God and that He would protect them, right?

Nope.

They were sitting in the boat terrified and He walked on the water to them. And they didn’t recognize Him.  Who else could be walking on the water?  “It’s a ghost!” Seriously?

Jesus had to roll His eyes.  I have been known to roll mine.  I have just completed a lesson on in-text documentation —  the why, the how, the where — and a student says something like, “But do I have to cite my sources?” Eye roll.

It was dark and stormy, so if He rolled His eyes, we will never know.  We do know that He said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And still, Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Really?  You need proof?  Today? He just fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.

(Eye roll?) “Come.”  (I am think it was more like, “Come on, then.” But let me not add to Scripture.)

Peter started walking and “came to Jesus.” And then still, he became afraid and began to sink. “Lord, save me!”

(Eye roll.) “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  (Seriously, didn’t you see the fishes thing?  Didn’t you see me walk on the water?  Didn’t you see yourself walk on the water?)

Finally, they got in the boat and the wind ceased.  (He can do that whenever He wants, you know.) And then, “those in the boat worshiped Him saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”

Why do we wait until we are fed?  Why do we wait until the wind has ceased?  Why do we doubt until God proves Himself? Over and over and over.

Because He is God and we are not.  We need Him.  We need our Teacher.  We need The Bonus Lesson.

Mark 9:24

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.