Everyone knows how people become great musicians or athletes or mathematician or writers: they practice. A lot. And in my unscientific survey of greats, I’ve discovered a basic truth: some days, that practice is pure delight. It’s effortless; gliding; flowing. You’re in the zone. But other days, it feels like a duty. You feel sluggish, irritable and mistake-prone, and you can’t wait for it to be over.
I recently read Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, about the U.S. Crew team from the University of Washington who won gold at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. My favorite parts were the descriptions of their training rows. Some days, the eight rowers were so in-sync and focused, they experienced what rowers call “swing,” gliding across the water with dreamlike efficiency. Other days, for no apparent reason, they found themselves fighting one another and the water. Their times suffered and their tempers flared.
I’ve experienced these ups and downs in my own pursuits: long-distance running, guitar playing, writing. Some days I just have it: momentum, creativity, energy. Other days…not so much.
And here’s what I’m learning: the difference between success and mediocrity often comes down to what we do on the dry days.
This spring our church is studying the classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, studying Scripture and fasting. We’re learning that when we engage in these habits, we are “raising our sails” so God’s Spirit can fill and change us (thanks to John Ortberg for the metaphor). Some days, raising our sails is pure delight. On those days, “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16), and it feels awesome. But other days, we resonate more with the Psalmist: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” (Psalm 10:1). It all feels flat and lifeless, and we question whether God is even listening.
The question is, will I raise my sails even when I don’t particularly feel like it?
I love how C.S. Lewis addressed this: “The prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please [God] the best.”
But the Apostle Paul said it better: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24) Remember: “the prize” is not a feeling of accomplishment or a mastery of theological facts; it’s a deeper, more personal connection with God himself. And if I only pursue Him when conditions are ideal, I won’t experience much of that.
One last thought: sometimes on dry days, I dutifully raise my sails by opening the Bible or going on a prayer walk or following through on my plans to fast…and God surprises me. The Word comes alive; the prayer flows effortlessly. And just like that, duty become delight…and the entire trajectory of my day is changed for the better. Makes me want to keep raising my sails.