It didn’t seem like much at first. On March 23, 2020, I decided to start walking daily. With the first wave of Covid-related lockdowns, I knew I would need to do something that would benefit both my physical and emotional health. So I put on my shoes and put one foot in front of the other.
For the first week or two, I would mostly walk for 30 minutes at a time. By mid-summer I was walking 60-90 minutes most days, and had very hesitantly started running—something I had not tried with any real consistency for quite a few years.
As I started into this new daily routine, I set a goal for how many steps I wanted to average per day. I had tried and failed to achieve that goal at different points during each of the previous three years. But with travel restrictions and other pandemic-related safety measures remaining in place, I found myself with more than enough time to walk. By the end of 2020, I had surpassed my goal by a sizable number of steps.
But this reflection isn’t really about how many steps I took during the unusual contours of the past year. Nor is it about how walking has magically become the secret to a healthier version of myself (it hasn’t). Occasionally I returned home from a walk with a story to tell. Most days, though, I just came back home, put my shoes away, took a shower, and went to work.
Rather, the daily practice of walking this past year has helped me understand at least three different ways that I can cultivate practices of prayer and spiritual disciplines in my life.
One, prayer and other spiritual disciplines require intentionality
Some days my only deliberate plan was to set aside time to walk; other days, I planned a route, made sure I had enough water with me, and downloaded podcasts before I left—which usually resulted in a more enriching experience.
Likewise, I am finding that my spiritual disciplines are more fruitful when I consistently reserve time for them. They often become even more robust when I do a bit of work to intentionally prepare for the practices, like making sure I have a notebook and pen available; putting my phone or laptop away so I won’t be distracted by email, texts, and the thousand things on my to-do list; and finding books and other resources that could help me to pray, engage Scripture, or do some of the attentive soul work that is needed in my life.
Two, cultivating spiritual disciplines, like prayer, takes lots of restarting
My goal for a certain daily average number of steps had been around for three years already before I finally reached it. During that time, I had come close to maintaining my desired average in a few different months, but never for a full year. In fact, I missed my goal horribly one year. To be honest, some days I just didn’t feel like walking, or other things came up that needed my urgent attention. Faith practices, like walking, can feel tedious and boring, and can be easily put off in order to finish other priorities.
But when the next day comes around, I have a choice again as to whether I am going to walk that day. The repeated choice to do what I can, when I can, has changed me. That seems a lot like my experience with prayer, engaging Scripture, fasting, and other disciplines. Some days I simply don’t want to engage my practices. By the Spirit’s help, however, I continue restarting. As I choose again to engage activities that will shape me in the image of Jesus Christ for years to come, I realize that failing and restarting is a practical aspect of following Jesus Christ. Eugene Peterson’s description of faith as “a long obedience in the same direction” seems to fit.
Three, faith practices include both personal and communal applications
During the pandemic, my wife and I started walking together a few evenings each week. Other friends and I found a way to walk on a weekly or monthly basis. Each time I walked, I made a point of greeting other people who also were out walking. Other times, especially on early morning and late night walks, I could go for an hour or more without seeing anybody else. Both the quiet, personal walk and the broader, communal walk are good and necessary.
Similarly, sometimes my faith is stirred and nurtured through a congregational prayer, through practicing silence with a room full of other believers in worship, through Scripture readings, or through participating in offerings. My attentiveness to the Holy Spirit also tends to grow when I am engaging faith formative practices in personal settings that others will likely never witness or know about. And yet, I also am formed in the image of Jesus Christ as I participate in faith practices, like prayer, on my own.
I am sure there are more insights I’ll gain from walking, including that walking itself can be a spiritual discipline. But for now I am thankful to see how the Spirit continues to shape and form me through the most ordinary of activities, like walking.
For more on faith practices, visit Faith Formation Ministries’ Faith Practices Project to find resources for individuals, groups, and families or explore collected resources from across the CRC for "cultivating practices of prayer and spiritual discipline, transforming our lives and communities by the power of the Holy Spirit" as part of Milestone 1 of Our Journey 2025.