I found a neat book today. It was called How to Build a Fire: and Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew. It claims to be based on information and interviews with actual old men. What I liked was that it wasn’t another one of those “be manly and do manly things!” books. For instance, one topic was “How to Talk to a Mechanic.” It had things like “be nice to the guy; it’s not his fault your car broke down,” “don’t hestitate to use onomatopoeia when describing a problem,” (it actually said onomatopoeia!) and “make him give you an estimate before he starts the work.” It was a subtle little argument that “your grandfather” thought that being polite and conscientious was worth more than knowing “manly” things, like how to fix a car.

And then there was the topic, “How to be brave.” Seriously, that’s what it was called. Some of the pointers were philosophical (“Bravery isn’t the same thing as fearlessness”), and some of it was practical (“Figure out how to use the adrenaline rush to your advantage”). One point was,”Practice.” It was the idea that, if you practice keeping your calm and evaluating the situation, you’ll be able to do it in a crisis. Which is what EMTs learn. Or soldiers. You do the training over and over again not just so you know it, but so that when you need it, it’s as natural as breathing. When your frontal lobe has gone all Blue Screen of Death, your reflex is going, “Wait a minute, I know this one…!”

It works in other places, too. What you practice becomes your default. I’ve practiced articulation and intonation and so on so much that if you hand me a piece of music I don’t know, I’ll give it a straight-up American Classical style, all pure and sweet—which is completely wrong for pop music. (It’s somewhere to start, anyway.) Point is, I don’t have to try. I don’t have to think about it. My throat and my lungs and my brain all go straight into good singing habits because it’s reflex. It’s programmed in.

Practice anything enough, study anything enough, rehearse anything enough, repeat anything enough, and it will get hardwired into your brain.

The other thing I spent my college education on was Biblical studies. (Well, it was a Bible college.) We did Old Testament (two semesters) and Theology (two semesters) and Hermeneutics (one semester) and a lot more. I did a few electives on top of that, focusing on specific books, or how theology related to certain subjects. Being a Bible college, theology bled into the rest of our subjects (well, it should). For five years, I worked on sticky questions, tensions, controversies, points of view, and hashed out Scripture in as many different ways as the classes had time for. I loved it.

But I could never really articulate why a music education major would spend all that time and effort on Biblical studies. I wasn’t going into ministry. I wasn’t going into missions. And though I didn’t go into music education either, theology is my hobby. I dropped several thousand dollars on a thing I never planned to “use”.

So it might seem.

Life right now is difficult. I have been stripped of a lot of things people associate with faith: thinking about God is more likely to bring me to tears than joy. There are a lot of times I don’t feel what I believe. I feel like I’m at the bottom of a hole. When you’re at the bottom of a hole, you start questioning why you’re there. Which can be good, but the nature of that hole is such that you question everything, all the things you have believed for a long time, and random theories grow up, based on this idea or that. Some are good. Others, not so much. We’re hungry for explanations and we’re hungry for solutions and we search. Anything to shed light. Anything to ease pain. Anything to make the world look bright again. At the same time, all the fears crowd in. Phantoms and doubts and nasty slimy things claw at the back of our brains and weave horrors and snares and shadows. There’s no telling what we’ll meet, or what we’ll find, so long as we’re there.

Someone on a site I visit has been asking a lot of theological questions, basic stuff. Stuff I studied in college. And I’ve been answering a lot of it from memory, pulling out verses and passages I hadn’t memorized but I knew what was in them, recalling arguments and counter-arguments and addressing them to the subject at hand. The hardwiring laid by practice and memory came to life and went, “Hey, I know this one…!”

If nothing else, the doubt that goes, “Things were awesome back in college, and things are bad now because you’ve forgotten it all!” doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

As I sit at the bottom of this hole, and I’m questioning these things, I’m finding answers. Some of them, anyway. Not because I memorized all the doubts a person could possibly have, but because I have a starting point. I have the tools. I know how it works. If you know how to build a fifty-foot bridge, you only know how to build a fifty-foot bridge. If you know the theory and practice of bridge-building, it doesn’t matter how big the gap is. You’ll span it eventually. This gap’s bigger than I’ve ever known. I’ll get there.

I spent five years practicing. Where I’m rusty, I know what to fall back on. I know which arguments make sense and which ones I should just tell to shut up. Sometimes I feel about as confident as a blind guy on a trapeze. Sometimes I can’t take it anymore and start attacking my precepts with wild accusations. They don’t give. They’re built on something a lot stronger than me. I can dig straight through my own suppositions, but then I start running into the reality, and sometimes it’s so terribly comforting to know you can’t escape.

Practice, practice, practice. I learned theology because I loved it. I thought it might be useful, but I had no idea it would save me. Not this way. The study of Scripture is best done out of love (and maybe curiosity), but it’s also a need. Not when we’re safe and happy and feel no fear sinking our teeth into the meaty bits, and enjoy arguing with the parts we don’t understand. It comes in when we lose everything else and we’re used up and cold and completely turned around. Weird, horrid things lean in on you and nasty gnawing things creep in at you and hard, numbing things rain down on you, and a little part in the back of your brain, that part that isn’t crying or panicking or trying to hide, goes, “Wait a minute. I know this one…!”