In today’s world, there’s little room for gray area between obsessing over perfection and seeing any sort of half-baked effort as worthy of praise. Either we insist on stark separation between successes and failures or we give everyone a participation ribbon and say that quality doesn’t matter. We fixate on outcomes: what was our race time? What grade did we receive on the project? How did the band sound at the concert? When we will earn an annual salary that allows us to live comfortably? Amid the chaos, it’s easy to lose track of the beginning and the importance of beginning well.
It’s school concert season. We’re looking forward to attending the plethora concerts at the school where Lindsey teaches. Lindsey’s dad once remarked that the true measure of a parent’s devotion is the sixth grade orchestra concert. We’re sure that any parent who has heard the squeaks, creaks, screeches, squeals, and other indescribable utterances of new strings and brass players has some sympathy for Lindsey’s dad’s position. But beginning bands and orchestras everywhere have something to tell us about the joy of beginnings.
Making beginnings is hard. Taking first steps involves a lot of falling flat on your behind. Sitting with a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old just learning how to read can try the patience of many people. Learning to tie your shoes is hard. Trying to figure out why math suddenly has letters in it when you get to 7th, 8th, or 9th grade has never been easy. Declaring a college major can be a major cause for existential crises. Beginnings are rarely glamorous.
Sizing beginning steps for another person is even harder than determining what you need when starting something for yourself. Do you throw new language learners into the deep end of an immersion experience? Do you risk picking repertoire so easy that a musician doesn’t have to practice at all? Do you seek objective measures of “talent” before indicating that a person has potential? Do you take the attitude that everyone is constantly beginning?
Beginning anything that’s positive, godly, or holy is a joyous experience. When you get started, you expect that it’s going to be hard. There’s something about knowing just enough to make an honest attempt, however falteringly. Beginnings can be fragile. What beginner wants to continue trying when he or she is being held to an impossible standard by someone unwilling to nurture the effort? Conversely, what happens when a person’s natural aptitude and circumstances make a particular beginning relatively easy and straightforward? What about the risk of developing an entitled, “I’m invincible!” attitude?” Trying to find the balance between recognizing the effort and fostering growth is hard.
In terms of fostering spiritual growth, it’s no surprise that churches and their clergy have trouble finding the sweet spot between giving everyone a pat on the head accompanied by, “God loves you. Don’t worry about your sins,” and praising an exalted ideal that is anything but obtainable. There are Christians who are terrified of saying the word sin because they don’t want to drive others away from the church. When this happens, churches can neglect serious conversations about important subjects in the interest of trying to get along. Conversely, there are Christians who are absolutely willing to play hard ball at all times lest they become complicit with someone else’s sin. Conversations happen in these circumstances, but they’re detached from any sense of lived experience. Exclusive use of either approach fails at providing appropriate spiritual guidance. With the first approach, any spiritual growth that occurs seems to be by happenstance rather than challenge toward spiritual maturity. With the second, people often feel so much pressure to put on their “perfect Christian” masks that they fail to share life together.
Remembering that we’re all beginners at Christlikeness can do a lot to help us grow closer to God. Preparatory seasons like Advent and Lent are a great time to think about making a beginning. Even though Lindsey’s faith journey started in a church with a liturgical calendar, it took Lindsey 7 years to have any sense of personal Advent devotion. During Lindsey’s senior year of college, Lindsey felt a strong need to observe the season and fashioned dorm-friendly candles from construction paper. Each Sunday leading up to Christmas, Lindsey would tape a flame in place. Lindsey has never quite figured out why observing Advent as Advent is so important, but something keeps gnawing a bit inside every year about why preparing for Christmas matters. If someone would have given Lindsey an extended lecture about the importance of using real candles, praying exclusively from one particular prayer book, or attending services at churches that use the right rubrics for Advent, then the joy of Lindsey’s effort with construction paper would have been lost.
Beginnings can also be broadenings. Sharing our life together has given the two of us opportunities to broaden our spiritual practices. Sarah has taught Lindsey a lot about how the rosary can foster devotion to God and understands that Lindsey does not have the same kinds of experiences in praying the rosary. Sometimes a beginning remains a beginning. Other times, a beginning fosters something new. Lindsey grew up praying whatever came to mind in freely-formed prayers. When we met, Sarah didn’t exactly know what to make of Lindsey’s prayerful outbursts. Sarah was hesitant about free-formed prayer and was cautious about praying aloud. Lindsey understood where Sarah was coming from, so we spent time together discerning how free-formed prayer would be a part of our shared spiritual life. There have been many times in our life together where we have wanted different ways to share Sarah’s health needs with God. Sarah has often used periods of illness to experiment with free-formed prayer. As a consequence of using free-form prayer more regularly, Sarah’s prayer discipline has broadened to include spontaneous prayers with traditional prayers. If we were not patient with each other regarding differences in spiritual practice, both of us would feel discouraged. At the same time, if we did not challenge each other to explore new ways of connecting with God, neither of us would experience much development in our prayer lives.
Advent and school concert seasons have some things in common. In Advent, we wait. We wait for Christ who is to be fully revealed to us in the fullness of time. We have the prophesies, and we hope with big expectant hopes. Our Advent efforts are feeble and often out of tune. By observing Advent each year, we hope to get just that much better. Marking Advent creates space for celebrating the joy of beginnings, even if we know that there’s far more to the story. Christ’s incarnation is a story of meeting people where we are while simultaneously inviting us to participate in a much larger story.
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