When I was a basketball player my high school coach made us shoot hundreds of free throws. Over the years I’ve probably shot thousands of them. Typically we would run a drill or a scrimmage, and then he would call out “free throws” and obediently we would match up with a partner or two at the several baskets around the gym, shooting two each, rotating until we each shot ten of them. Our team did this while still huffing and puffing from whatever it was we had just been doing. Our coach’s message was clear. We needed to shoot free throws while we were tired, while we were sweating and our heart rates were up, because this simulated game play. And we needed to shoot a lot of them. He said it would form “muscle memory” in our arms and legs, if not our psyche, so that no matter how tired we were, or at what point in a game it was, our physiology would take over, all that practice would take over, and our bodies would shoot and make the shots, just as we had in practice. With our basketball hoop outside and over twenty years later, I’ve discovered my body still knows how to shoot a free throw, even if I miss a bunch in a row (as my nine-year old son is quick to point out).
Muscle memory is powerful. Athletes know this; that is why practice is so critical to the performance they are looking for on game day. Musicians know it as well. Those long hours playing the same notes over and over, getting your body, or fingers, or lips to move along with where your brain is leading and your eyes are reading – can produce the sounds that inspire. We form muscle memory in our lives of faith as well. The same prayers or songs or Bible verses we think are rote and sometimes devoid of meaning take on a deep value in a time of crisis, when recall brings them to the heat of the moment. On more than one occasion I have personally witnessed people as their lives slip toward death the value of these prayers, tunes and words. I have also had the privilege of knowing folks who have slipped into dementia, or have brain traumas and trouble communicating with others call up these prayers or songs or Bible verses as they battle through, their days, when suddenly on the free throw line of life, their muscle memory (or better yet, their faith recovery) comes right to the fore – and they do not miss a beat, or shot for that matter. They drain ten out of ten.
On Sunday I had the opportunity along with about twenty others from St. Michael’s to go Christmas caroling around town. We visited one of our shut-ins and two of our elderly centers. Our fellowship was great. We sounded pretty good too, I thought. The chili lunch prepared for us when we returned really hit the spot (thank you!), and as it continues to happen around here, people lingered to enjoy one another’s company. For all these things I am grateful.
Something else happened Sunday that I didn’t notice at first. Tammie pointed it out to me in passing. At each stop, people sang along. Without judging or assessing anyone’s medical condition, it really was quite exquisite. People joined in the singing. They knew the carols by heart. One woman in particular closed her eyes as if to tune out everything else and focus on this one moment in time, a moment across time, to the Christmas’ she used to know perhaps – and her lips were reciting the words as our little merry band sang. Muscle memory. Faith recovery. Not a shot missed on the line.
In order to have muscle memory (or faith recovery for that matter) it requires the practice of shooting all those free throws, thousands perhaps. As a kid I remember the weeks learning the Christmas pageant songs, and my affinity for Christmas has me playing them a lot in the background right now. Do we think much of the muscle memory we continue to learn or are teaching others? Sometimes I worry that we learn a lack of focus in our busy days and our desire for all things new teaches a lack of grounding. Where can the faith recovery be learned and taught living this way? Getting caught up in life’s constant pace myself, I long for the simplicity of shooting free throws.
Last year when my wife was away, the kids, my mother-in-law and I spent an evening in front of the tree. No TV. No electronic gizmos. Just telling stories and singing Christmas carols. We fondly remember it as one of our best nights together before Tammie got home. I’m looking forward to having an evening together like this again (wife included), soon before the time slips away.
Advent is about getting ready after all, so why not spend some time on the free throw line? Or sit by the tree telling stories, sharing prayers, and singing the songs that carry us late into the game. It might seem like work now. You might be really tired. There might not seem like there is any time to do it. You might not even know where to start. But lay aside your anxieties, step up to the line and take your shots. You’ll be glad you did. Someday you can sit, with eyes closed, and belt the words out from memory. Maybe if you are lucky, your heart rate will go up.
Christ is coming.
“The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” (Psalm 111:7-10)