The Power of Small Things

Mom on piano

When I was in the third grade my parents made me take piano lessons.  I didn’t ask to take them. I didn’t have a burning desire to play the piano.  I’m not sure I had any desire.  They just thought it was a good idea.

It was no surprise, though.  A couple of years before they signed up my older brother Mickey for piano lessons, and he was still taking them, so I knew my time was coming and that it wouldn’t be a one-year gig.  They also signed up my little brother Greg at the same time. Misery loves company, right?  Not really.

I was supposed to practice for 30 minutes a day. I’m sure Mom wanted to make us practice for an hour a day but she figured that 30 minutes was all she could get out of us. Of course, 30 minutes isn’t very long for an adult, but for a kid it’s a lifetime.  Sentence. 

That’s what it felt like, a lifetime sentence, thirty minutes of hell after I had already spent the day in school and was ready to watch TV or play.  Banging my head against the wall for 30 minutes a day would have been better than practicing piano.  Less painful.

After five years they let me quit.  So I started speaking to them again.

As a freshman in college I became good friends with a guy who was a really good guitar player.  When hanging out with him in his dorm room it was natural to pick up one of his guitars and mess around with it.  Two years later I bought my own guitar, and was good enough to lead singing for a church youth group.

The more I played, the more I enjoyed it, but after college Pam and I were married and entered seminary. Wife, work, and studies left little time for playing, much less practicing.  Then came children, full-time pastoring and there was even less time.

It was frustrating.  I was finally mature enough and disciplined enough to practice 30 minutes a day, even an hour a day, but life didn’t afford me the time I wanted.  I found myself wishing that I had taken up guitar when I was young and had the time to practice for hours a day.

As I later discovered, however, it turns out you don’t need hours a day to improve. You don’t even need 30 minutes. You know the optimal amount of time needed to improve?

Fifteen minutes.  That’s right.  I found that when I practiced an exercise  on the guitar, after about 15 minutes I would actually get worse.  It would frustrate me so much that I would have to put the guitar down and walk away.

But then a funny thing would happen. I’d come back about 30 minutes later and nail it.  It’s like my brain and fingers needed time to process this new thing I was trying to do.

Then I read an article which validated my experience.  The writer said that, even if you are practicing an hour a day, it’s better to do it in four concentrated 15-minute periods, and do something else in between.  Fold laundry.  Read a magazine.  Then come back and practice something else for 15 minutes.

They real key is consistency. 15 minutes of daily practice leads to greater performance than an hour of practice every few days. Over time, those 15 minutes add up.

This is true as well in the Christian life; it’s the daily practices that have the biggest impact.  Among the significant things about Lord’s Prayer is its brevity.  It can be prayed every day, several times a day.  In the space in between we give the Holy Spirit room to work the prayer out in us.

While most of us can probably point to a few milestone events that significantly impacted our followship of Jesus, most of the work of transformation is accomplished in us little by little over the course of a lifetime.  As Eugene Peterson states it in the title to his wonderful book on discipleship, the Christian life is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

In the end, what we become is the result of little things applied consistently over a long time.  In a world that trumpets big and flashy, it’s the power of small things that matters most.

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