How long has it been since you’ve ridden a bicycle? In cities in other states and in other countries, bicycles are a lot more common than here in Ohio. Katie Melua claims there are “nine million” in Beijing.
I used to ride mine pretty regularly. I bought it about five years ago when I was having constant car troubles. There was a trail in Toledo I would take that ran along a railroad track from the university to King Road. Actually, it went beyond the university, but I didn’t like to venture into that part of town. I couldn’t ride fast enough if I needed to.
These days I ride the stationary bike at the YMCA, which, unlike a bike with wheels, doesn’t require any balance—the hardest part about getting on a bike when it’s been awhile.
Can you forget how to ride a bike?
Can a musician forget how to play?
Playing by Feel
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! —Psalm 137:5 ESV
Since music is my day gig and not a hobby I can set down and take up when I have time, I haven’t ever stopped playing music long enough to know whether you can forget your skill. Do learned physical movements cease to be learned? Can you forget how to play a chord or a scale you’d memorized? Do notes on the page become like a foreign language?
When you’ve been playing awhile, you approach your instrument, whatever it is, by feel. The reason I can play keys blindly (after 23 years) is because I know the distance from one octave to another by feel. Violinists, who have no frets (!!), know the positions by feel. I’m starting to get this sense on guitar. It’s different than on piano, though. On the keyboard, every key is the same distance from one another, with the exceptions of B-C and F-G, but those intervals you also memorize. Every octave is the same. On the guitar, the further you go up the neck the width between the frets decreases. Whereas on piano I never have to wonder whether I’m playing the right note, on guitar I’m never quite sure.
A musician can certainly fall out of practice. Don’t ask me to play anything classical for you unless you want to hear me hack away at Chopin. The calluses on my fingers, if I don’t play guitar for a while, can start to soften, which is bad news, unless you enjoy the pain of steel strings on soft flesh.
As followers of Jesus we can also fall out of practice.
Like Lance Armstrong
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. —Philippians 2:12-13 ESV
This passage is a little difficult. Basically: work to show the results of your salvation with reverence before God, who is the one that gives us the desire and the ability to do what pleases him.
When we live in an attitude of reverence for God, when, as the psalmist said, we live always remembering Jerusalem (where the Temple was, the symbol of God’s presence), then God continually plants in us the desire to do what pleases him. Not only does God give us the longing to ride this “bicycle,” but he also trains us in how to balance and pedal faster and breathe correctly and close your mouth so you don’t swallow bugs. We become like the Lance Armstrong of spiritual cycling, except without doping allegations.
But we have to keep pedaling, because when we stop, our muscles lose their memory. We fall in step with the world, which does not live to please God.
So what does this look like practically?
Earlier in my life as a believer, I was convinced this was a daily quiet time. I’d wake up early before everyone else and plod my way through a devotional book or a portion of Scripture. I still wake up early most days—I cherish my times of solitude—but my approach isn’t always the same. Further, this spiritual cycling isn’t just a once-a-day regimen but a living with Jesus in every moment. Am I always aware of God’s presence? No. But can I be? Yes, and that’s what I want to strive for.
What do you think? Can you as a believer “forget your skill”? What does spiritual cycling look like for you?