It felt a little like watching the odometer turn over in my car. For when my watch hit “1,461 days” this morning it seemed momentous to me indeed. Because for four years now—through hurricanes, heat waves, and hotel parking lots—I’ve not missed a single day walking at least five miles, usually six or seven. And hitting that four-year mark on my streak, going almost 9,000 miles or so now, has been a little like finishing college and earning a bachelor’s degree in walking.
To be sure, it’s only been by the grace of God. For those that know me well will probably agree that I’m not the most athletic person around and getting up early to walk before the heat comes on does not exactly come naturally to me. But then the streak too has had a way of self-perpetuating itself, joined by my smart—sometimes smart-aleck–watch, which has taunted me with messages like “You’re usually farther along by now…”
In the end, however, it’s all been a reminder about the power of a habit. And in that regard, it’s not just our physical health that needs consistency, but it’s our mental, relational and spiritual conditions, as well. The pandemic, for instance, broke the pattern of physically coming to church for some folks, and they’ve never quite gotten it back. And others have unfortunately abandoned such spiritual disciplines as spending time in the scriptures with God each day.
Some twenty years ago, however, Eugene Peterson found a time-tested tonic for staying strong in our faith in what he called an “old dog-eared songbook,” that portion of the Psalms, chapters 120-134, known as the Songs of Ascents. For it’s believed that these fifteen psalms were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the festivals that were held there some three times a year, and similarly, they may have been chanted by the Levite priests who climbed the sacred steps to serve at the Temple itself.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” one of them begins, “where does my help come from?” And another starts simply by saying, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” And still a third reminds us that “those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion which cannot be shaken but endures forever.” They are short passages, to be sure, but all of them are hopeful. And all of them remind us that we too have been called to be pilgrims in this world, whether we ever actually go up to Jerusalem ourselves or not.
Maybe that’s why Peterson entitled his classic book simply, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. For that’s what it takes to faithfully follow the Lord in a frightfully fickle time indeed. It’s not about running like a graceful gazelle, in fact, but simply about putting one foot in front of the other and plodding on, even when you don’t particularly feel inspired to do so.
Tomorrow morning, thus, I’ll hit the pavement again, though I’m also going to think about some new routines as well for the year ahead. For though keeping a streak going can be a powerful motivator in itself, remembering just where you are headed can similarly put us on the right track. And in that respect, a long obedience is not really for just four years… it’s for a lifetime.