If I received a report card as an adult today, I’d still be accused of hastiness and carelessness.
by the Rev. Scott Brown
Before I even open up my son’s quarterly report card, I know what it will say. Since the first grade, every teacher has made the same comments. “Parker is smart and extremely capable. He just needs to take his time and avoid making careless mistakes.” Truthfully, I can’t blame him. I repeatedly received those same comments on my grade school report cards. But even more so, if I received a report card as an adult today, I’d still be accused of hastiness and carelessness.
We live in an over stimulated culture, thriving on efficiency over effectiveness. We are impressed with the speed in which things are accomplished. The quicker we get things done, the quicker we can move on to the next task. Our need for speed causes us to operate in a continual state of distraction. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to take our time.
I admire people who have mastered a task. Whether it’s a professional golfer shaping his shots on a difficult fairway or an amazing artist turning a canvas into a piece of beauty, those who seem to do what they do flawlessly and effortlessly amaze me. Behind every person who has mastered a task are years of practice, learning, and attention to details.
There is an ancient legend concerning the “black belt” used in martial arts. All beginners wore white uniforms with white belts. And although the uniform was to be washed on a regular basis, the tradition was that the belt was never to be cleaned. Therefore the more time one spent practicing, the more blood, sweat, and dirt would stick to the belt and the darker the belt would become. Therefore a black belt was a symbol of years of devotion and dedication.
Whether our goal is martial arts, parenting, or selling widgets, we all want the black belt of our profession. The desire for success is universal. But to truly master any skill, one must be willing to slow down long enough to practice and to learn. Stepping away from our fast paced lives to spend time reflecting is not our typical way of living life. Yet this is exactly the model Jesus calls us to follow.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus made time to get away, to retreat, to process and pray and think. “Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16). Just like Jesus, our souls crave times of reflection and rest. These moments, though rarely taken, allow us to observe an experience or event, reflect on that event, interpret our observations and then learn from them. Instead of honoring our bodies desire to slow down and process, we are guilty of living life from experience to experience with no real learning occurring. We live by the classic definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results) simply because we don’t take the time to process and learn from our experiences.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the people whom I look up to and admire for their faithfulness and non anxious presence are neither hasty nor careless. Instead, they are deliberate, intentional, considerate, and peaceful.
One of my spiritual heroes is Dr. Bob Hatcher, a retired physician and member of St. Alban’s Church in Harlingen. Spend five minutes in Bob’s presence and your worries seem to float away as his peaceful presence transcends and takes root in you. Every time Bob is scheduled to lay read at a service, I find him in the chapel, sitting silently in prayer. As I scurry to prepare the altar, check the pews, give last minute instructions to the ushers, and shake hands with the guests, Bob sits and prays and prepares his heart for worship. Ask Bob about his spiritual practices and he’ll humbly say he’s spent a lifetime developing them. He is undoubtedly a black belt in the art of peacefulness. A deeper look into the practices of any of our spiritual heroes reveals habits like Jesus’, practices such as journaling, meditation, and silence.
Learning and growing in any area requires a conscious commitment to close the gap between aspiration and ability. I don’t want to be in a constant hurry. I don’t want to miss out on life because of my carelessness. I want to be intentional and peaceful. Yet I can’t be Bob Hatcher. God didn’t make me that way. Likewise I can’t be Jesus; Lord knows I’m far from perfect. But what I can do is deliberately practice slowing down, staying alert, paying attention, and giving thanks in all things. I can be conscious about learning from my life’s experiences instead of wondering when my life will have something to teach me.
Black belts aren’t freely given to those who race through life. High marks on report cards are awarded to the capable. They are earned by those who have worked hard and committed themselves to learning. So slip away, retreat, pray and process. Slow down and practice being present. Practice may not always make perfect but it’s the first step toward permanent.
The Rev. Scott Brown is rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Harlingen TX. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org