Center Lines - August 2007

Some years ago I read Robert M. Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Pirsig noted at the time, it had little to do with either zen or motorcycle maintenance. Though never a motorcycle rider myself, I found it to be an interesting read.

I remembered that book when for Father's Day this year Suzette gave me a copy of the book Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo.  I am not a student of zen, and so was especially intrigued at this point much later in life to come across other title sporting "zen."  Unlike Pirsig's book, however, this one was about zen and it was about guitar playing.  Suzette selected it, I think, in the (now obviously vain) hope that it would improve my guitar playing.  I began right away to read it diligently and could not wait to demonstrate how much more capable a guitarist I had become.

Alas, I have not yet dared to call Suzette into the music studio to hear the results for I am disappointed that the book has not improved my guitar playing.  Though I read it over two full weeks (I was diligent, but slow); though I had guitar in hand and practiced nearly every day; and though I graced the instrument with new strings, my playing has not appreciably improved!

Oh, I have re-nimbled some fingers a little, relearned a couple of forgotten chords and remembered some even longer-forgotten lyrics, but that is about it.  I became especially discouraged when Sudo said over and over again that to become truly accomplished and at ease with ones instrument takes work.  It requires on-going practice and concentration until the mechanics are second-nature.  It requires "feeling" what one is doing (as opposed to just doing it).  It requires being alert and responsive to ones audience; adapting to the ambience at the particular moment one is playing.

Alas, simply "wanting to" play the guitar better or just reading a book about better guitar playing, does not make it so.  Apparently what I used to tell my children was true: proficiency requires practice, practice, and more practice.  It requires trying and failing, and trying again, over and over and over.

I have come to see the same dynamic at work with discipleship and congregational development.  Neither congregations nor disciples live in vacuums.  Each lives, moves and has its being in a particular, unique environment.  Growth- whether in numbers or in spirit- does not happen automatically or by accident.  For congregations to "build up," to grow in spirit and to nurture disciples in the faith requires attentiveness to their locations- the "ambiance" around them if you will; the community that surrounds them, the people who live in and near them, their needs and struggles.  Disciples will mature and grow only if and when they deliberately deploy their unique gifts and graces in response to the particular needs lifted up before them.

And this takes practice.  It means seeking God's will, on purpose.  It means intentional prayer.  It means patient listening to God and to the communities that are our environment.  There are fine programs and books to encourage and guide us: the Natural Church Development program, Power Surge, Deep Dive, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith and others.  But, like musical instruments, these "tools" will minister to us, our communities, and the world only when we work at them, when we "practice" what we profess, when we try and try and try again, using our "almosts" and our "not quites" as continual incentives, directives, and guides to ever sharpen our focus and move us forward.

While this can be involved and risky work, the rewards are life-saving and life-giving.  We see the results in churches that are vital, alive, and growing into the vital futures God has for them.  We see the results in energized disciples who bring healing, wholeness, and belonging to hungry and hurting communities.  We see the results in lives touched, changed, and emboldened by the experience of knowing Christ.

It won't happen on its own.  It requires initiative on our part.
A cruise ship company in its advertisements' closing lines uses the enthusiastic phrase "Just get out there!"  Yes, let's us do that, too.  May we "get out there" with our Savior's confidence and surety so we can bring healing and hope to a world so desperately in search for them. 

By: Reverend Mark Marino On 8/1/2007