I quit the piano when I was in the 7th grade. You did too, right? I quit because the practicing was boring and difficult, and even when I thought I had done well, I would listen to the other students play at concerts and realize that my playing was inadequate. I slowly stopped practicing and months later gave up lessons completely.
It didn’t feel like anything big was missing from my life when I quit. In fact, I suddenly had more time for other things I enjoyed like basketball and tennis and books. But in some small way, something was missing. Even today when I walk by a piano (Nordstrom, where have your piano players gone?) I want to sit down and pound out Phantom of the Opera. But I can’t. My fingers don’t remember the way.
To this day, I regret quitting. So do many of you, I bet. It seems like almost everybody who quit playing piano regrets that they did. It is a regret we share, but why is this the one we’re all willing to talk about? Why don’t we regret that we weren’t nicer to others, or worked harder in school? Why don’t we regret our wild (or not so wild) teenage years? The chorus is loud, all of us wishing together that we had continued on with this particular goal. I think it might be because we know that if we had continued our practice, we would be good at it right now. We know deep down that hard work does pay off in the end, and learning to play the piano is something every single one of us is capable of doing. We only need to put the time and effort into the practice.
Faith is also something that needs practicing.
I spend my days surrounded by teenagers whose lives are filled with so many activities it makes my head spin and my heart ache. They push through the dense shrubbery of school, work, sports, arts, friends and family, tenuously holding back branches that hinder their progress. Something shiny and bright draws them forward, a goal they may or may not have set for themselves, but which lies up ahead, nonetheless. As they struggle, they thoughtlessly catch the fruit that falls from the branches for sustenance, and journey on.
This fruit is their faith. They need it to survive, but only recognize it as a way to take one more step towards an elusive future.
Fruit is our faith, too. When times are good, we forget we need it, a side dish for an elaborate meal, pretty, but tossed aside when the main dish arrives. When times are bad, the fruit is what we crave, sweetness in the form of health, nature’s energy, and a sure way to improve our day.
Recognizing that we need it may be the biggest struggle to religiously practicing faith. Even that phrase, religiously practicing, indicates the way people once viewed faith. Once upon a time, the religious practiced. And they practiced often. They didn’t simply proclaim to believe in the hopes that this proclaimed belief was enough to get them to heaven. They knew that a complete faith meant both belief and action. They knew that to reach the goal, they needed to sustain themselves with the fruit found in both scripture and the Sacraments.
Just as our ancestors did, we, too, need to practice. Somewhere along the way, we stopped believing that practice was important. We convinced ourselves that belief in itself is enough. Jesus died for us, gifting us with salvation, undeserved and unearned, purely out of love. He didn’t ask us for anything but belief in him. But I don’t think this belief Jesus asked for is as simple as saying “I believe” and moving on with the day. When we truly believe, we want to be more like the man God gave us as an example. We want to be more like Jesus. The only way to become more like Jesus is to get to know him better.
And so we need to practice.
When we meet somebody new and see the spark of potential, we yearn for their presence. It should be this way with Jesus, too, but often, because Jesus isn’t sitting visibly across the table from us, it’s not. We have to do the work to get to know Jesus better. We have to be willing to enter into conversation with him. We have to show up at church and give him the time and the place to speak to us. We need to practice.
Nobody is born a concert pianist. They discover a love and discover a skill and then set to work. They sit down daily in front of the keys, in joy and in strife. Day after day, practice becomes a nearly unbreakable habit. They practice because they love. This is who they are. Practicing faith is not much different than practicing the piano, but instead of eventually playing at Carnegie Hall, we find ourselves playing in heaven with our God.
The promise of heaven isn’t the only reason to practice, though. Our practice is what makes us better. It’s why we all regret quitting piano. We know that if our piano practice had continued, today we would be great. I think it’s the same with our faith. If we let our busy-ness push our practice aside, someday we’ll realize we made it through life just fine, but we no longer know how to play Phantom of the Opera. And we miss it. We miss God. We miss church. We miss one another and the support we give each other. We miss our faith. We miss what we love.
I don’t practice my faith because I’m afraid I won’t make it to heaven. I practice my faith because it makes me better and it reminds me how to love.