Christian practices are not just about making the right moves. They force us to confront our own hearts and allow light to be shed on our motivations. Christian learning is not just about learning the right things; it is about guarding our hearts.
Some readings in a Bible class led to a discussion about what motivates our prayers. The conversation turned to how it can look as if we are praying for others, when really, deep down, we are praying for a benefit for ourselves. We can pray that things go well for our loved ones so that our own life does not become painful. We can pray that things go well for our own group without thinking much about the effects for others. While God cares about our particular concerns, there is a risk of treating God as if he circles around our own interests. In the days that followed, the class experimented with the practice of praying briefly every day for someone in their environment whom they knew by sight but whose name they did not know. This made it less likely that there would be a direct benefit to them if their prayers were answered. After a week, Camila reflected in her journal:
I learned that it is a humbling experience to pray for someone you don’t know. I have to be totally selfless, because I get nothing from the transaction. This other, this nameless other, will be more important than I. But I feel better when I am not so self-centered. It directs my attention more to God and to his big world and not so much to myself. Then my problems and life are not so important and that frees me. If I am not so important, my mistakes are not so important. And when I am not the center I am not as alone.
At the end of the school day, Nate had a geometry class. At the end of that class on most days, the teacher had the students reflect on words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Sometimes.” The poem advises that we should “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell someone.” The students were encouraged to journal about something that they learned that day in any of their classes (not just geometry) and how they were amazed by it in some way. They were then to share their brief reflection with a partner in class.
At first, Nate thought this was a bit weird – even childish. He didn’t think of his classes in terms of wonder or astonishment and mostly focused on getting tasks completed. His courses were simply required subjects he had to take to graduate and the material was to be learned mainly to maintain his GPA.
Over time, however, he found that he began to enjoy the few minutes of quiet at the end of the day to review the day. He found that as he got into the habit of reflecting, he began to find things to be astonished by even in courses that he didn’t particularly enjoy. A note of gratitude started to creep into his relationship to learning as he realized what he had been taking for granted.