It’s only practice. I have to remember this.
Whether we’re wrangling restless kids at church or prompting bedtime blessings when we’re overtired ourselves, all this work of trying to raise our family in the way of faith is practice.
It’s not a performance, with cameras flashing in the front row or critics poised to write a review. It’s the everyday training of practice, with sweaty brows and tired muscles and hopes of doing better tomorrow.
When a friend first clued me in to the work of Practicing Families, this was what I loved most about its inspiration. Here were stories of everyday parents just like us, wondering what it means to walk in the way of Christ, stumbling as they go but still trying. We’re practicing what it means to be family at the same time we’re practicing what it means to be Christian.
I love the idea of practice. It’s a popular topic in practical theology these days. Theologians are interested in exploring the concrete activities and communal traditions that deepen our beliefs into a way of life. Lately I’ve been devouring books on the religious practice of Sabbath, the spiritual practice of mindfulness, and the vocational practice of discernment.
But other meanings of the word “practice” matter, too. Repetition. Rehearsal. Exercise, not expertise. Preparation, not perfection. I look at my kids and realize that their childhood and adolescence will be full of practice—piano scales and soccer drills and spelling lists and school plays. Why should faith be any different? It all takes years and years of practice.
So when I sit down to read Scripture with my boys and they scamper off, I remember it’s practice. When I try to engage them at church and they throw a tantrum in the pew, I tell myself it’s practice. When I ask them before dinner what they want to thank God for and they yell nothing, I laugh that it’s only practice.
The old adage wags its finger at me that “practice makes perfect.” Just like the line from Matthew’s Gospel—“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”—that makes me cringe at the ideals that fall far short of my life’s messy reality. But I know there’s deeper truth to the good of practice. It makes our muscles strong. It trains our thinking. It strengthens our resolve.
For this family, practice will always be imperfect. We will show up to church five minutes late. We will not always pay attention. We will sometimes skip out after communion when the kids are just too cranky. But next Sunday we will try all over again. We’re practicing.
And this whole Christian life – isn’t it about practice? It’s our humble attempts, tinged with failure and grubby with sin, to keep on following Christ. The Christ who loved and forgave and ate dinner with sinners.
I love that Christ. And I love this church. Because no matter our tradition or denomination, the heart of our Christian practice—of praying and serving and blessing and forgiving—strives to be faithful. The purpose of this practice is not polished success. It’s the grit that comes with living as people of faith in a society as broken as ourselves. But it’s good grit, the sweat you wipe from your forehead on your dirt-streaked t-shirt when you’re in the midst of practice so hard it takes your breath away but leaves you yearning for more.
Athletes and musicians, professionals and amateurs alike—they all understand the importance of practice. It becomes a way of life when it’s done for the love of the game or the sport or the song, and not for any other reward or recognition.
Maybe it’s time to reclaim this sense of practice for our churches. Not just as titles that define who’s in and who’s out (“They used to go to church, but they’re not practicing anymore”) but as part of our collective identity as people who dedicate themselves out of love. People who raise their kids to keep trying.
We’re all just practicing. Thank God for that.
Laura Kelly Fanucci is a Catholic wife and mother of two who writes about faith and family life at Mothering Spirit. She is a Research Associate with the Collegeville Institute Seminars at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.