by Becky De Oliveira—
My family has a long-standing New Year’s Day tradition: We climb something. It used to be Mount Si, just outside the town of North Bend, Washington, near where both my parents grew up. When I lived in Michigan, we’d climb Tower Hill—the largest of the sand dunes at Warren Dunes State Park—and, if it happened to be a clear day, gaze at the faint skyline of Chicago on the other side of Lake Michigan. The last couple of years we’ve deviated from tradition somewhat and have simply walked rather than climbed. This New Year’s Day, my brother and I walked across Evergreen Point Bridge in Seattle (and back). It was a quiet morning punctuated occasionally by a single sports car revving its engine as it zoomed effortlessly across the empty bridge.
Climbing, hiking, walking, running—these all feel like wholesome ways to begin the year. They show intentionality, a commitment to exercise and fresh air, to the maintenance of the body. Given that I also ran my usual route in the morning, took a second walk with my oldest son later in the day, and puttered around grocery stores and a cinema, I managed to accumulate more than 45,000 steps over the course of the day. The tracking device I have recently taken to wearing on my arm tells me I travelled 23.1 miles. It gives me other information: my heart rate throughout the day, the number of calories I burned, the number of flights of stairs I climbed, and something called VO2 max, which measures cardiorespiratory fitness and is apparently a determinant of life expectancy.
My family and I are not the only people who tend to focus on the physical when it comes to approaching a new year. Gym memberships spike during the month of January. Many people join dieting programs like Weight Watchers. Resolutions often involve a commitment to changing the body in some way—taking up a new activity such as running, losing a certain amount of weight, vowing to drink more water or floss every day. Many people wear Fitbits or Apple watches or other devices, such as the one I wear, that give them tangible feedback regarding their success. Unless I’m faced with a particularly unusual day, such as one where I have to catch an early and long flight, there is no reason I can’t achieve my exercise goals; they are, after all, set by me in the first place. I decide what I’d like to do in a given day, considering all the other commitments I typically have, and choose a goal that is attainable, if slightly ambitious. The feeling of accomplishment is addictive; one of the main reasons I have gone running early every morning for most of the past 13 years is that I like feeling that I’ve achieved something tangible before 6:30 a.m. Whatever failures the rest of the day may hold, at least I have this one thing.
I’ve never been as careful or attentive to my spiritual well-being, and this year I’ve spent some time considering why that might be and how I might do better without becoming a spiritual Nazi of some kind. (I have in the past been a fitness Nazi and a food Nazi, so I am well aware of my own potential to go to extremes that are appreciated by no one and do little to enhance the quality of my own life.)
What if I had a device attached to my arm that tracked my prayer history or my record of good deeds? I’m not sure what I think about this. It reminds me of certain old-fashioned churches I used to attend in England where congregants were asked to report how many Bible studies they had given in the past week, how many leaflets they had delivered, etc. In my unscientific assessment, I have always had a hunch that there was an inverse correlation between outward expressions of spirituality or religiosity and human kindness. I don’t know that measuring my spirituality—i.e., counting the things I do—would make me a better Christian.
A few years ago, a colleague said, “We measure what we think is important.” I’m not sure this is true. Perhaps we merely measure what we canmeasure—that which is measurable. I suppose an observer, looking at my life, could conclude that what I most value is exercise. It is, after all, virtually the only thing I truly measure on a daily basis. But I absolutely do not consider it to be the most important thing in my life. It’s just an easy thing to measure. It might say something about my current fitness levels, but nothing of any great importance. Wearing it won’t necessarily add an hour to my life.
So I’m not going to measure my Christian growth this year. Instead, I’m vowing to begin each day with this prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10, KJV). This also creates the intentionality that I hope makes me more aware of my choices, attitudes, and behaviors, and that will gradually—perhaps in ways I don’t even notice—make me a “better” Christian.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado, studying research methods. She also has several jobs in teaching, writing, editing, graphic design, consulting, and podcasting. She does special projects for the Pacific Union Conference.