(I’m posting here my homily for today’s Ash Wednesday service at Southern Methodist University. It is based on two verses from Hebrews 12.)
“Endure trials for the sake of discipline (paideia). God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7)
“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Her. 12:11)
I do not go to a concert to listen to the performers play scales, nor, I’m guessing, do you. But practicing scales for musicians is an essential part of their discipline. Practice of this sort frees them for the goal, which is, in one obvious sense, the performance, but in a larger sense, it is the music itself. We don’t go to concerts to hear performances. We go to hear music. Something ineffable, something transcendent happens, as we experience music.
Case in point: Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing “The Prayer” brings me to tears just about every time I hear it. If you know the song, there is a bridge in which the music rises and swells in crescendo while the singers voice these words, (which they sing in Italian):
“We dream a world without violence any longer, a world of justice and hope, every day near your hand, symbol of peace and fraternity.”
Of course, it’s much more beautiful in Italian and the force of the rhyme comes through:
Sogniamo un mondo senza più violenza
Un mondo di giustizia e di speranza
Ognuno dia la mano al suo vicino
Simbolo di pace, di fraternità
The skill of Bocelli and Dion is beyond question. Their discipline in developing their technique would be interesting to observe, but it’s the music that is their goal. Listening to them make music takes us out of ourselves to something more, something bigger.
We may be tempted to focus on the Lenten discipline, perhaps, too much as an end rather than the means, as if, like going over the scales again and again, the point of practicing was the practicing itself. We don’t practice the Lenten discipline for the sake of the discipline, crucial though it is. We observe Lent for something bigger, for, as this text calls it, the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
How do we bear this fruit?
Discipline. Discipline is the means. The end is righteousness. The Greek term for which “discipline” is the translation is a word familiar to educators. It is the word paideia, well-known in Greco-Roman culture as the education an aristocrat’s son would undergo to prepare to govern. The young one enters into paideia, undergoes the process, endures it. In a quite literal way, one suffers this discipline, using that word in the same sense as the one who does not suffer fools gladly. Paideia can be difficult and stressful, pushing the student beyond her preconceived limits.
Likewise with Christian discipleship. Paideia in our scripture, applied to the Christian community, keeps the basic meaning of the word and aims it toward God’s comprehensive will. Our paideia, our training, is for something bigger than just our own personal, spiritual benefit. As daughters and sons of God, our aim in the Christian life is perfect love, love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The goal is love of God and neighbor, holiness of heart and life. The goal is conformity to the image of God for the sake of God’s purposes in the world.
In short, the goal of our Lenten discipline, indeed all our spiritual disciplines, is the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Righteousness is not just for us; it is intended as a blessing for others. Our keeping the discipline of Lent is as much for the world as it is for ourselves.
Discipline, though it is sometimes, even often, painful, is essential to the Christian life. Divine grace is the source of our strength, the reason we can stay faithful, but the discipline is essential. We are, as Saint Paul says, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us both to will and to do for God’s good pleasure, not ours.
And so, as you keep the Lenten discipline:
Perhaps as you fast from eating a meal, OR
If you abstain from some other activity (some of my friends “fast” from Facebook)…
…when you feel discouraged by the hassle of the Lenten discipline, when the way grows wearisome and you are tempted to break it, take the opportunity to pray for our campus. Pray that our students who undergo the paideia we create for them, would flourish. Students, may your keeping this discipline be a blessing to others.
May the goal of this scripture – the peaceful fruit of righteousness – be ours in abundance as we journey toward Easter’s victory.