This is the season of the Spirit. The longest season of the church year. Longest because it is where we live everyday, not the hurry and rush of the holidays. It does not have the magic of Christmas, nor the spring burst of Easter. It is the season of the hard work of bringing in the crops, when the sun beats down on the long days of labor. It is the productive season, tending the sustenance for the lean seasons to come. The high holidays may be glorious, but it is the daily walk through these long days in the power of the Spirit, which describe the days of the church.
Last week, this productive season was characterized by the image of the vine and the branches. We learned that living in the way of Jesus means staying connected to the living source, the life-blood of Jesus moving through us like sap through the vine. Today we explore another metaphor for life in the Spirit – the metaphor of walking.
The Spirit was poured out on all flesh. The prophet Joel said it would happen (Joel 2:28). Peter, on the day of Pentecost, announced that it was happening – at that very moment. And now we live in that outpouring. The presence of the Spirit within us makes all the difference. We are transformed from the inside out. Walking is how we describe this transformation. It may be the most common metaphor in the Bible for how this inner life translates into action.
To Abram, God said, get up and go to the land I will show you. And when Abram arrived, God instructed him to walk around it – all the way around its borders. Abram was a herdsman, a nomad and a wanderer. His tents were his home, but the tents were always on the move. The people walked into Egypt, to avoid starvation. Then, centuries later, they walked out of Egypt. They had been there too long. The land had begun to take them for granted, to enslave them. But God reminded them that they were still people on a journey. The wilderness journey saved their lives, and at the same time, cost them their lives. The adults who began the journey, who knew the life in Egypt, died on the way to the next thing. Does that mean they were failures? Perhaps not, though we often judge them that way. They were courageous visionary people, who took some wrong turns. But through it all, they birthed a whole new generation of children of God, who would know the promised land, who would be grateful for God’s care in the wilderness, who would receive the way of life God was teaching them and hand it down for generations to come! We would not be here if not for the transformative journey of that first group of slaves who walked out of Egypt, no matter how imperfect. They walked into the wilderness and were forever changed. That is what walking does.
Once in the land, God instructed the people to reconnect with who they were through a rhythm of walking to Jerusalem three times a year, to gather with the whole people of God in gratitude and celebration and reunion. Then there was the trail of tears from Jerusalem to Babylon – a forced march across the desert to a new, unchosen home. In this captivity, they soon forgot to keep walking. So much so that when the road was re-opened for them to return, most did not go. Only a few engaged that walk toward a new, unknown life in a broken and battered Israel. Walking to the next thing, being always on the move can be a difficult life.
Jesus’ story is full of walking. He walked around Judah and its neighboring states, with no place to lay his head, engaging people in conversation, inviting them to walk with him as he made his way. To be a disciple means to walk in the footsteps of a mentor. Walk in the Spirit, Paul tells us. The New Testament is full of walking images. Walk in the light. Walk in love. Walk in newness of life. Walk by faith. Walk in good works. Walk in truth. The image is simple: one step at a time, following our guide, doing the next good thing, looking ahead and not behind, not necessarily knowing where the path might lead. “Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer of the way of faith,” according to the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:2).
I am impressed by people who walk the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to British Columbia. Some do it every year – how many, I don’t know. Cheryl Strayed wrote the story of her PCT pilgrimage in her best-seller, Wild, a book which became a movie. If you have read or seen it, one thing can be observed: she was changed. Did she take wrong turns, make mistakes? Of course! But the walking changed her. It got her out of her stuck, depressed loop of pain and set a life-giving rhythm to her steps. As you read the book, your see that the change happened in her as she established her rhythm in the walking life. You can feel it as you read. As her walking became more ordinary, her spirit settled and the emotionality of the writing even calms down.
So why is walking is so central to the spiritual life?
First of all, walking connects our minds and hearts to our bodies. We, especially in the West, live in our heads most of the time. Walking can change that. Walking is one of the key activities of the human body. It is the primary form of locomotion for all legged animals. It is usually slower than running, as one foot is always touching the ground.
Walking says a lot about us. Walking is one of the key ways we exhibit our choices. You have heard the saying, “People vote with their feet.” We live our choices, literally, by moving our bodies from one place to another.
Jesus intended the disciples to do more and greater things than he ever did. He expected that walking in his footsteps would change the world. Jesus had no intention of us getting caught up in theological debates or sitting in prayer removed from the world. You may have heard the critique of Christians that we are so heavenly minded, that we are of no earthly good. Walking in the Spirit is an earthly thing. It is where the rubber meets the road.
I have often commented about the tragedy that Buddhism is called a “practice,” while Christianity is called a “religion,” because Jesus intended it to be a practice! Jesus called people to take up their crosses and follow him, said they would do more to change the world than he did, sent them out to do his work of healing and training others. Christianity is about the practice of love, not about ideologies, or getting others to agree with us about statements of faith. It is good to know the teachings of Jesus, but unless we do them, unless we walk in the way of Jesus, those teachings do us and the world no good. Walking in the Spirit, we can return to the practice of Jesus’ way.
Another thing about walking, which I seem to hear nearly every day: walking keeps us healthy. Health studies show that walking is good for us. It can improve confidence, stamina, energy, weight control, life expectancy and reduce stress. Scientific studies have shown that walking, is also beneficial for the mind, improving memory skills, learning ability, concentration and abstract reasoning, as well as reducing stress and lifting the spirits.
What does this have to do with walking in the Spirit? Mind, heart and body all work better when we are taking care of our bodies. We are better able to deal with life’s up’s and down’s.
That walking keeps us healthy is also meaningful if we look at it as a metaphor. Being active in the way of the Spirit keeps our Body of Christ healthy and growing. Activity creates energy. Have you ever noticed that? Getting out and doing something is energizing. People are drawn to energy. We need to keep our spiritual muscles toned and the blood vessels clear for the movement of God’s Spirit among us. We do this as we welcome the neighbors we meet in our space, or in the grocery store; we strengthen our walking as we pray, as we light candles and sing to God, as we deliver food to the hungry, as we listen to the stories of the hurting. And the list could go on. With the Spirit, we set up a healthy rhythm of doing and resting, gathering and scattering.
And another thing: describing our faith as “walking in the Spirit” reminds us that we are to be always moving – following the wind of the Spirit. The Spirit is never still; neither are we. Walking with Jesus is an adventure. I learned an interesting thing about adventure from my Mom. She has continued to travel, mostly by herself, into her 80’s. And not cruises, either. She is willing to drive her vehicle into the back country, lonely roads, many of them not intended for a vehicle like hers. Friends would warn her not to go alone. What if something happens? Mom loves to say, “Not if. Something will happen, and then I will deal with it!” Do we want a journey to be exactly as expected? Completely predictable? Then it would not be an adventure. There would be few stories to tell. My Mom always comes back with stories. My brother-in-law, who lives with her, used to greet her return with something like: What kind of trouble did you get into that needs fixing this time? And then there would be stories – of adventure, of grace, of beauty.
As the church, we must keep on walking. The Spirit is alive and well, like a wind blowing across the face of our planet. The Spirit will always move. We can never pin her down. Spirit is always blowing the love of God to the greatest place of need. If we walk the path, it will not be straight. It will look like the wake of a sailboat tacking back and forth across sand. So here’s the thing: it is the walking, not the destination which matters.
Last week, I left you with a practice for staying connected to the Spirit, the vine: simply waking up in gratitude to God for another day, and offering ourselves to be a channel of the Spirit. I want to leave us today with a practice for walking in the Spirit called “walking meditation.”
I first became aware of the practice of walking meditation through walking the labyrinth. Then I read a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh on walking meditation. He says: In order to have peace and joy, you must succeed in having peace within each of your steps. Your steps are the most important thing. They decide everything. Take short steps in complete relaxation; go slowly with a smile on your lips, with your heart open to an experience of peace…. To have peace of mind, to attain self-liberation, learn to walk in this way.
So much of the time we are caught up in our mental worlds — thinking of the past or future, planning, imagining… Paying attention to the body as you walk will help you to enjoy simply being alive.
There is a hand-out in the bulletin which is a guide to walking meditation. I encourage you to take it home and practice. In this beautiful summer weather, it is a good time to learn. This practice offers us a great pause, which connects us to our bodies. It is enough of a pause to teach us to notice, in our walking, when the Spirit is on the move. Literally, it gives us the opportunity to walk in the Spirit, one step at a time.