Introductory Note:

Mark Buchanan joined Nathan Foster on the podcast this week to discuss his newest book, God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul.

In this article, first published in Faith Today, Mark shares his hypothesis that walking was an assumed discipline in the life of Jesus and his first followers. Walking isn’t as much of a necessity now as it was in times past, but Mark makes a strong case for reclaiming it as a spiritual practice, as we are able.

Renovaré Team

I have two doc­tors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quar­ters that the one always catch­es the melan­choly from the oth­er) I know that I shall have only to call in my doc­tors and I shall be well again…. My thoughts start out with me like blood-stained muti­neers debauch­ing them­selves on board the ship they have cap­tured, but I bring them home at night­fall, lark­ing and tum­bling over each oth­er like hap­py lit­tle boy scouts at play.”
G. M. Trevelyan

My friend Norm can’t walk.

He once walked. He strode the earth with vig­or and ease, with effort­less bal­ance. But in as much time as it takes you to read this sen­tence, he stopped walk­ing. Not by choice. He lost the use of both legs, and most of the use of both arms, when his horse flung him sky­ward, and grav­i­ty pulled him earth­ward, and he hit the ground at an angle that broke things inside him. In a blink, he went from agili­ty to paral­y­sis, from mobil­i­ty to con­fine­ment, from stand­ing most of his days to sit­ting all of them. One moment, his legs went wher­ev­er he told them. The next, they refused.

Norm once walked all the time but nev­er much thought about it. He rarely con­tem­plat­ed the sim­ple joy, the gid­dy free­dom, the every­day mag­ic of walk­ing. Now, it’s almost all he thinks about.

Until recent­ly, I was the oppo­site: I walked a lot, but thought about it almost nev­er. I had lost, if ever I pos­sessed, sheer won­der at the sim­ple, hum­ble mir­a­cle of car­ry­ing myself around. Legs are more won­drous than a mag­ic car­pet, more regal than a king’s palan­quin. But I thought of them, if at all, as things I was forced to use only after I’d found the park­ing spot clos­est to the mall.

But then I start­ed walk­ing because I want­ed to. Because I saw things dif­fer­ent­ly when I did. I felt more deeply, thought more clear­ly. I fig­ured things out. I sort­ed myself out. Walk­ing helped me stay in shape — it helped me shed 30 pounds and keep it off. It gave me a sense of the actu­al scale of things — the big­ness of trees, the small­ness of bee­tles, the real dis­tance between places. Afoot, I expe­ri­enced land and sky and light in fresh ways — in ways, I am tempt­ed to say, clos­er to reality. 

Now I walk because 3‑miles an hour, as the writer Rebec­ca Sol­nit says, is about the speed of my thought, and maybe the speed of my soul. And I walk because, as the the­olo­gian Kosuke Koya­ma says, I fol­low a three-mile-an-hour God.

I need­ed to slow down to catch up. I was going too fast for a God who seems in no par­tic­u­lar hur­ry, who seems to enjoy the going there as much as the get­ting there. The God who, incar­nate in Jesus, keeps turn­ing to me and say­ing, sim­ply and sub­ver­sive­ly, Come, fol­low me.”

He’s not dri­ving when he says it. He’s walk­ing, always walking.

***

But the truth is, I first start­ed to think hard about walk­ing because I was annoyed. I was annoyed that many spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tions have a cor­re­spond­ing phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline and Chris­tian­i­ty has noth­ing. Hin­duism has yoga. Tao­ism has tai chi. Shin­to­ism has karate.

Chris­tian­i­ty has… nothing.

This is odd. The very core of Chris­t­ian faith is incar­na­tion — God comes among us as one of us to walk with us. Incar­na­tion is Christianity’s flesh and blood, lit­er­al­ly. And every part of Chris­t­ian faith seeks embod­i­ment, a way of being lived out here, now, in per­son. The church has fought tena­cious­ly against any­thing that con­tra­dicts this. Christianity’s ear­li­est, most nox­ious, and most per­sis­tent heresy is gnos­ti­cism. Gnos­ti­cism says the body doesn’t mat­ter, or worse: it’s evil. It’s a thing to be despised, maybe used, maybe indulged, but even­tu­al­ly dis­card­ed. It has no inher­ent value.

Gnos­ti­cism is incarnation’s mor­tal enemy.

Chris­tian­i­ty insists that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, walked among us. And it insists that all words, all ideas, all the­o­ries, all the­olo­gies, all doc­trines, must become flesh and dwell among us. It calls us to embody our faith, not just know it or speak it or argue it.

So it’s odd that a faith so insis­tent on these things, a faith so inescapably incar­na­tion­al, nev­er devel­oped a match­ing phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline to help its fol­low­ers yoke their faith to prac­tice: body to mind, holi­ness to breath, thought to move­ment, the inward to the outward.

Or, did it? Did the Chris­t­ian faith have a cor­re­spond­ing phys­i­cal dis­ci­pline that has been lost?

That’s what I now think. And the dis­ci­pline Chris­tian­i­ty had and then lost is the old­est, sim­plest and most uni­ver­sal prac­tice around.

It’s walking.

***

How Pedes­tri­an.

Pedes­tri­an means bor­ing, bland, dull, deriv­a­tive. The oppo­site of exot­ic, thrilling, dar­ing, orig­i­nal. No one wants to be pedes­tri­an. No one wants to make things or think things or do things that are pedestrian.

But pedes­tri­an used to mean one who walks. And I think I am bor­ing, bland, dull and deriv­a­tive to the extent that I am not pedes­tri­an enough. When I walk too lit­tle, I reflect too lit­tle, and many things that could help me be wis­er, kinder, braver — a sus­tained and immersed atten­tion to cre­ation, for instance, or a good long talk with a friend — just fly past me.

A seden­tary life makes for a slug­gish soul.

A hur­ried life pro­duces an unqui­et mind.

Both kinds of lives put our hearts at risk, lit­er­al­ly and figuratively.

But the walk­ing life — it slows down and wakes up and works out all man­ner of things in us. Three-miles-an-hour is the pace of wholeness.

***

I start­ed think­ing hard about walk­ing, as I already said, because I was annoyed.

But the cat­a­lyst for writ­ing about it was some­thing else: the sus­pi­cion that when the Bible talks about walk­ing in the Spir­it, or walk­ing in the light, or walk­ing in truth, and so on, it means this in more than a fig­u­ra­tive way. My sus­pi­cion was that the Bible means walk­ing in a lit­er­al way, too.

After all, Bible peo­ple most­ly walked.

There’s Paul. He cov­ered a lot of ground on foot. Some­one has cal­cu­lat­ed that his mis­sion­ary trav­els alone cov­ered 10,000 miles. So when he exhorts, say, the church in Gala­tia to keep in step with the Spir­it, it’s like­ly that his exhor­ta­tion is root­ed in his actu­al expe­ri­ence. As you walk,” he is say­ing, from your house to your neighbour’s house, or from this town to that town, do as I do: be atten­tive to the nudges and whis­pers of God’s spir­it. Be lis­ten­ing and speak­ing to the One who walks with you. Fol­low his lead.”

I am pret­ty sure this is how Paul worked out his own faith. He walked it out. Indeed, the ear­li­est name for Chris­tian­i­ty was The Way — sug­gest­ing that it was not a set of doc­trines to mas­ter but a path to trav­el. Sug­gest­ing that each step deep­ened the famil­iar and opened up the new. Sug­gest­ing that walk­ing threw wide the door that sit­ting could only strain against.

I pic­ture Paul, say, after he saw the vision of a man from Mace­do­nia. There he is, mak­ing his way up the coast from Troas to Philip­pi, some­times trav­el­ing by boat, but oth­er­wise on foot. Luke is with him, and Silas. A few oth­ers. Some­times, espe­cial­ly when rain falls hard and slant­i­ng, they walk in brood­ing silence, their faces pulled deep into their hoods, each dream­ing of warmth and food. But then one of them says, The farm­ers need this rain. It is God’s grace.” And then they all remem­ber all the ways God’s grace is poured out on them, and through them.

But it doesn’t rain much in those parts, so usu­al­ly they walk on the shady side of the road and talk about every­thing — peo­ple they know, hopes they cher­ish, places they’ve been, things they’ve seen. But always, their talk cir­cles back to one thing: Christ, his life and death and res­ur­rec­tion, and all the ways he’s changed every­thing. This is nev­er far from their thoughts, or lips, or hearts.

Each step deep­ens the famil­iar and opens up the new. Each step throws wide a door that sit­ting only strains against.

All of it unfold­ing at rough­ly three miles an hour.

***

And then there’s Jesus.

He walks and walks. Matthew and Luke men­tion Jesus say­ing, Fox­es have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” but Mark is the one who pro­vides most of the doc­u­men­tary evi­dence. In Mark, Jesus blazes about. His feet are a blur of move­ment. The one time we see him sleep­ing is on a boat that oth­ers are nav­i­gat­ing. He goes to sleep, it seems, because for once he can’t walk. The next time the dis­ci­ples cross that lake in a boat, Jesus walks on water through a crash­ing storm rather than ride with them — cer­tain­ly, a mirac­u­lous dis­play of his divine pow­er and author­i­ty over the ele­ments, nat­ur­al and spir­i­tu­al, but also per­haps a sly com­ment about how pedes­tri­an he is, how much he prefers walk­ing to every oth­er mode of get­ting around (and maybe an even sly­er com­ment about how, once in a while, he need­ed a break from those men he trav­eled with, whose argu­ments and bick­er­ing and rival­ries and goofy ques­tions wore him down).

The few times we see Jesus sit — to teach, to eat, to hang out — there’s a sense that he’s both exhaust­ed from all that walk­ing and yet itch­ing to get back on his feet and on with the next leg of the journey.

A car, a train, a bus, a small sin­gle-prop air­plane — these weren’t options for Jesus. A car­a­van, yes, or a don­key, maybe. But Jesus eschewed these for rea­sons we don’t know but can like­ly guess: he was keep­ing pace with the three-mile-an-hour God, and shap­ing, slow­ly, slow­ly, the lives of those he walked with. Those men seemed about as thick as me, and so prob­a­bly need­ed the extra time that walk­ing gave them to let things sink in, take hold.

The Son of Man — the Human One, as one trans­la­tion has it — is afoot. The per­fect man, the man rep­re­sent­ing human­i­ty, the man who is our broth­er, our spokesman, our rep­re­sen­ta­tive, our exem­plar: that man walks and walks. And all along the way he invites us to fol­low him, and in the fol­low­ing to become like him.

We know that fol­low­ing him is not lit­er­al anymore.

But does it still involve walking?

The Apos­tle Peter sug­gests it does. He sums up the whole mis­sion of Jesus in one pithy sen­tence, con­tained in a sin­gle verse of Scripture:

God anoint­ed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spir­it and pow­er, and he went around doing good and heal­ing all who were under the pow­er of the dev­il, because God was with him (Acts 10:38)

And he went around doing good.

As the father has sent me,” Jesus says to his first dis­ci­ples, so I am send­ing you.” Then he breathed on them the Holy Spir­it, and gave them his pow­er (John 20:21 – 23). 

Our mis­sion is the same: to receive God’s anoint­ing, his Holy Spir­it, his pow­er. To do good, and to heal.

But let’s not miss one thing else: we’re to go around, place to place, per­son to per­son, God with us.

Most days, the pace of that will be about three miles an hour.

Related Podcast

Shared with the author’s per­mis­sion. Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Faith Today, May/​June 2019.

Pho­to by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Text First Published May 2019 · Last Featured on Renovare.org October 2022

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