It occurs to me that there are two ways to read the word “practice,” as written by Paul and Timothy in the book of Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:4-9)”
First, there is the surface. To “put it into practice,” literally means “apply it.” Simple. Just do it. Here’s how to live: take what we have told you today, and Get. It. Done.
Another way to read it is with the more colloquial, modern sense of the word. To repeat an exercise over and over and over again until it is second nature; do it until you can do it without thinking. Play the guitar until you can play it in your sleep. Plane wooden boards flat until you can do it swiftly and without hesitation.
The first definition is what we should strive for in theory. Love each other as yourselves. Walk humbly before the Lord. Be merciful in all things. Do these things, and the Lord will be with you.
In practice (see what I did there?), the struggles to overcome my humanity and chains to imperfection are much harder to overcome. So I must practice these skills of the heart and soul to surmount my shortcomings. Repeat kindness as a skill until I am good at it. Worship until I can do it without hesitating. Forgive a slight, and if I cannot, try again until I get it right.
I am still very new to this, and I had never prayed regularly before (occasionally, at best). I am still clumsy and slow to find the words to express my heart. There is no wrong way to pray to God if you do it in Christ’s name, but the point is that only through regular practice will I become more comfortable with prayer. For me, there must be diligence involved. Try it, and then try it again. Even in the act of opening my heart to God there must be practice; it won’t do to simply say words without a spirit-filled heart of faith. And sometimes that is hard. I am humbly imperfect, and thankful to be so.
So when I write that I am a practicing Christian, I mean it in both ways.