One of the many reasons I am not a great drummer is I’m not disciplined about practicing the rudiments. Rudiments are individual sticking techniques that drummers perfect in order to become better. Oftentimes, those maneuvers are not just to give them better sticking technique, but they become almost second nature so the drummers can employ them while playing. One of my favorite to do – when I actually spent time doing them – was a paradiddle.
A paradiddle, for those of you unfamiliar, is a sticking technique where you play a four-stroke repetition, alternating sticks on the first two strokes and repeat the second two strokes on the first stick. You then alternate using the opposite hands. In conventional transcription you would show a paradiddle by the sticks used, such as L-R-L-L, R-L-R-R, L-R-L-L, R-L-R-R, and so on. Usually, you start sticking drills like a paradiddle slowly, perfecting the pattern, and then gradually increase the speed more and more. As the speed increases, it’s important to keep the influence of each individual stroke consistent. This is generally true of all sticking exercises, including variations of paradiddles, of which there are many.
The greatest of drummers on planet earth all have the skill and dedication to not just practice the rudiments, but to master them. Hours and hours and hours are spent daily to make the rudiments routine and automatic. The objective is to create muscle memory. This is a level of familiarity that our bodies can achieve whereby they quite literally become normalized to a movement that otherwise wasn’t. Athletes do the same thing. Depending on the sport, there are multitudes of drills, exercises, movements, etc., that help create muscle memory. Like with drumming, once the muscle memory is created, the musician, athlete, performer can then tap into the movement without almost even thinking about it. Muscle memory means that when the situation necessitates it, the body is conditioned to react automatically in a beneficial way.
Muscle memory has spiritual applications as well, a fact I was reminded of this past week not just during my reading but circumstantially through the unfortunate situations of friends. The idea was triggered during my daily reading nonetheless, as I started a new reading plan (chronologically – meaning, with the books organized in the order in which the events actually occurred – through the Bible) in 2017. This week, my reading took me through Genesis 1-11 and Job 1-20, and the idea of muscle memory was triggered as I read through Job, but particularly Job chapter 1, verses 1-5.
There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil. He had seven sons and three daughters. He owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, and 500 female donkeys. He also had many servants. He was, in fact, the richest person in that entire area. Job’s sons would take turns preparing feasts in their homes, and they would also invite their three sisters to celebrate with them. When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.
Job had it all. As the passage says, he was “the richest person” in the area in which he lived. He had a big, healthy, solid family. He had everything a man could want, and more, as they say. What he also had was a “regular practice” of petitioning God on behalf of his kids. He did this just in case … not because, but in the event … his kids “sinned and … cursed God in their hearts.” Why did he have that regular practice? It says right up front in verse 1, “he feared God and stayed away from evil,” but I think these went hand-in-hand. In other words, he had the regular practice because he desired a condition of his heart, and he had the condition of his heart because he had the regular practice. That is, Job built up spiritual muscle memory.
It’s important that Job did this, too, because we find out in that very same first chapter that Job lost all his possessions AND all his children in one fell swoop. These events happened so quickly that the Bible says, “While he was still speaking,” to show how immediate the next messenger’s dreadful news to Job occurred. If that wasn’t enough, he soon lost his health to the point of wanting to die if necessary to get rid of his condition. However, this is where Job’s muscle memory kicked in … the Bible says “Job did not sin by blaming God,” (Job 1:22) and Job “said nothing wrong.” (Job 2:10). None of this is to say that Job was perfect in his affliction, or that was somehow an unfeeling, emotionless automaton. Not at all. What Job did was develop spiritual muscle memory so that when the situation necessitated it, he was spiritually conditioned to react automatically in a beneficial way. Muscle memory.
We need spiritual muscle memory too. Rough stuff happens in life. Earlier today I spent two hours at City of Hope, visiting a friend that I used to work with several years ago. He has a late-stage lymphoma that has claimed his health in ways he would never have envisioned even five years ago. When I walked in the room I saw an array of tubes, machines, and indicator lights. He had a tracheotomy tube inserted into his neck to help him breath, he was gaunt and partially aware, and able to talk inaudibly three words at time because there wasn’t enough energy or oxygen available to him to communicate more. Rough stuff happens in life.
Last week I met with a dear friend who was reduced to rubble because of choices he’s made that will likely have a destructive effect on his marriage and his family. The fear and shame was not only visible on him but palpable in him, and my prayers for him have been that he will repent to God, and stand tall in the face of circumstances that are yet to occur but are certain to be among the most fearsome of his life to date. Rough stuff happens in life.
Hence, we must develop spiritual muscle memory so that when inevitable situations necessitate it, we will be spiritually conditioned to react automatically in a beneficial way. Health issues arise. Marriages struggle. Kids make choices with adverse consequences. People lose jobs. Family members die. Every single one of these situations is actively ongoing in Helen’s and my social circle at current. Perhaps you can say the same. If not, you will at some point in the near future. Rough stuff happens in life. That’s not the question. The question is, what will you be conditioned to do when it happens?
Our spiritual muscle memory gets developed when – like an aspiring drummer – we work tirelessly on the rudiments. If you want to be an exceptional drummer, you work on your sticking rudiments. If you want to be an exceptional Christian in the face of the tumult of life, you work on your spiritual rudiments. Relying on the strength and truth of God’s word requires daily reading and reflection. Communing with God in prayer requires regularity and a rhythm of speaking with and listening to Him. Having a support system in place to hold us up when we’ve not got the strength to go through a situation on our own means cultivating relationships with friends of common Christian faith. These practices, individually, are important. Doing them regularly is key. Building muscle memory means committed, disciplined, intentional devotion to the practice of each of them. And muscle memory means being able to rely on the strength and fortitude they provide to carry us through the rough stuff in life.
My urging for all of us is to build spiritual muscle memory. Given we’re at the beginning of a new year, what better resolution is there? Eating better and losing weight will serve for a time. But that will not result in the spiritual muscle memory that the hard circumstances in life will require. Yeah, some practices may not seem appealing at first, but just like the rudiments in drumming, the payoff in muscle memory is exponential.
Soli Deo gloria!