Alison Marie Smith

Life, Leadership & Spiritual Formation in Lonely Places

Month: May 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Running: An Unexpected Spiritual Discipline

Three years ago I would have told you that running just wasn’t for me. If I felt like being blunt, I actually would have said, “I hate running!” But something shifted. I was coming out of an intense season of transition and I was filled with complex, unprocessed emotions. The only thing that seemed to help was physical activity, mainly walking in the nature area near our house. Pairing physical activity with prayer helped me to be honest with God in a way I had not experienced before. Rather than venting, it was constructive and cathartic.

What? Isn't this how you do yoga? Workin' on my night cheese...

What? Isn’t this how you do yoga? Workin’ on my night cheese…

At some point, I got the idea that maybe I should run a 5k. I’d never run further than a mile- at that time I was more of a lay on the couch and binge watch 30 Rock yoga person. In my past attempts at running, I would just do it and then feel horrible- I had no foundation. I needed a plan, something to keep me accountable and on track. I chose a free weekly schedule that progressed from walking to running (Thank you Runner’s World!). The plan instructed you to alternate running and walking, slowly increasing your running time. By the end of 8 weeks, you would be able to run for 20 minutes. The plan urged you not to increase too quickly; if you really wanted to be a runner you had to be patient with your body.

It was often boring and tedious, patiently sticking to this plan. There were many times, especially when I was tasked with running 10 minutes, resting for 1, and then running another 10, that I wanted to fudge. Walking for that 1 minute felt like torture. But the plan worked. Finally, my breathing and heart rate could sustain running for 20 minutes! And better yet, my muscles were less sore after my runs. A few months later I ran my first 5k. And a few years later, I ran my first half marathon.

My friend Mariah & I at the 2014 SLC Half Marathon. We did it!

My friend Mariah & I at the 2014 SLC Half Marathon. We did it!

Running is a discipline that is hard, tedious, and sometimes boring. But it is also a discipline that is fun, cathartic, freeing, and refreshing. By now you’re probably able to see how this connects to our relationship with God. You’ve probably experienced the joy, freedom and life that comes from a relationship with God. But if we’re honest, we know that, like running, our relationship with God can be hard, tedious and sometimes boring.

How do we deal with seasons of blandness in our spirituality? I think my experience with running speaks to this. Like with our bodies, we have to be patient with the way we interact with God and how he is interacting with us. We have to keep putting aside intentional time, trusting that God is working in us, even when we can’t see it. We have to stick to our plan, even when it gets tough. Paul knew all about this:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, NIV)

But what if after exerting discipline and self-control, the blandness persists? In running, cross training is crucial to building endurance and preventing injuries. Sometimes seasons of blandness can be an indication that we need some cross training in our relationship with God. Maybe we need to try a new way to pray or a different approach to reading the Bible. (For some ideas, check out “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook” by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Running has been a gift to me. God has used it to teach me about myself- my ability to achieve things I never thought possible as well as my limitations (sometime I’ll write about how shin splints recently took over my life). And he has used it to teach me about him- how he is the perfect example of perseverance and faithfulness.

What has been an unexpected way that God has connected with you? What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about God?

Sabbath Experiments: Creating with the Creator

IMG_3670Starting about a year ago, I have attempted to incorporate a weekly Sabbath into my life. Setting aside a day of rest and without work requires intentionality and forethought but, so far, the benefits have been wonderful. Each month I will share some of my attempts- some successful and some awkward- at engaging in this discipline. 

One of my favorite things to do on the Sabbath is bake and cook. I love the ritual of making something with my hands. Chopping fresh vegetables, the curls of butternut squash skin piling up, rolling out dough on my floured butcher block counter- all of these rituals help me to slow down and pay attention.

I love my kitchen; it’s filled with natural light that delicately falls on my countertops, which can be good or bad depending on how clean my kitchen is!  I connect to God through my senses. The smell, sight, and feel of cooking is restful to me, not to mention the *hopefully* delicious tastes that follow.

This past Sabbath, I made a strawberry rhubarb pie, which happens to be my husband’s favorite type of pie. We have rhubarb that grows wildly in our backyard. I enjoy the time it takes to wash and chop the rhubarb, I even like how it stains my hands red. My least favorite part is making the crust, mostly because it requires a lot of concentration and precision to make it look pretty. But even this is a part of the ritual that I love. I love that it forces me to slow, to breathe, to take my time.

Once the top of the crust is carefully placed, I use a sharp knife to cut away the excess. I cut 4 small slits on the top and finish it with an egg wash and a dusting of sugar.  Once I place it in the oven, I begin to feel the contentment of creating. The hard part is over, the oven does the rest. I made something and it was good.

The finished product, voila!

Creating gives us a glimpse into the pleasure that God must feel as the Creator. Whether it’s a piece of art, a set of blueprints, a garden bed, or a science experiment, it is an act of creation. The patience, the precision, the care, the creativity, it is good. 

Creating can be refreshing but it can also be frustrating. Images that come to mind are the half-finished projects that pile up in the basement or the birdhouse that doesn’t turn out quite right. Last fall I attempted to make caramel apples. I read the recipe incorrectly and the proportion of caramel to cream was off; I was left with caramel goo that wouldn’t harden. I was irritated that it didn’t turn out the way I expected and frustrated that I wasted ingredients. However, the experiment actually worked out. I used the caramel sauce as a dip for the apples and other fruits instead, salvaging the ingredients, even though it was not the outcome I would have preferred.

As I thought about it, even if I couldn’t have eaten the finished product, it wouldn’t have cancelled out the enjoyment I felt in the process of creating. In our failed attempts at creating, we still get a glimpse of our Creator. Even if the outcome is not what we hope or expect, even if my pie catches fire in the oven, the process itself connects us with God, it is good.


 

How have you connected to God through creating something? Share your experiences below.

 

 

Discipline of the Week: Breath Prayer

Each week, I’ll share with you a spiritual discipline that I’ve found helpful. Some may be considered “classical” spiritual disciplines, such as types of prayer or Bible study. Others may be more unorthodox. Either way, spiritual disciplines are activities that are meant to draw us closer to God. They aren’t meant to manipulate or control God or our relationship with him. Rather, they are meant to bring life, refreshment and renewal to our relationship with him and others.

“Mom, today I feel electric!”

According to my mother, 6-year-old me spoke these words to her after a fantastic day at school. If I could pick a phrase that best described me as a child, it would be those 3 words: I feel electric! I was always busy, filled with energy and enthusiasm. I wanted to experience everything. Today, that “electricity” still presents itself. But I’ve found that “I feel electric” has evolved into “I feel anxious.”

Anxiety has been something that has invaded my life. It comes and goes, I might have a few weeks or months where that gnawing in my chest and stomach is absent. But more often than not I struggle with anxiousness. Whether it’s obsessing over events or conversations to come or replaying past conversations obsessively, anxiety can control my life. When anxiety takes over, it robs me of peace and joy. It effects my relationship with my husband and I am less present in my friendships. It also impacts my quality of sleep. In short, I hate it.

Through different spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, I’ve found some relief from anxiety. Breath prayer especially has been helpful. It is simple and easy to incorporate into my life. Even better, it doesn’t requiring large amounts of time or effort to practice.

Breath Prayer

This is a great prayer method to try right before you read the Bible or throughout the day. Try it while in the shower or when you begin to feel anxious or stressed. I enjoy praying this way while I’m doing the dishes or driving.

Spiritual Exercise #1

Pick a meaningful name for God and a short phrase, from the Bible or something that is meaningful to you and expresses a desire you have.

Examples:

  • God, you are my provider.
  • Father, you are in control of my life. (This is typically my breath prayer)
  • Abba, help me to trust you.
  • Shepherd, you take care of my family and me.
  • Jesus, have mercy on me.
  • Lord, I’m here.

Breathe in, thinking the name for God you have chosen:

[Inhale] “God”

Breathe out, thinking the simple phrase.

[Exhale] “you are my provider”

For your first time, try and do this for 5 minutes. You will get distracted and that’s ok! Rather than beat yourself up and get discouraged, each time you get distracted tell God “thank you for bringing my attention back to you!” Take another breath and start again.

 

Spiritual Exercise #2 (from Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook)

Is there someone for whom you wish to pray ceaselessly? Listen deeply to what Jesus’ desire for this person might be. Form a breath prayer naming God’s adequacy and your desire for that person. Throughout the day as they come to mind, offer up your prayer. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into long prayer dialogues about what you want God to do in this person’s life. Let breath prayer carry all your desires to God.

 

This is also something you can do with your children. In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun suggests helping your kids craft their own breath prayer that they can say while at school or before bed.


 

Breath prayer has removed the pressure that I sometimes feel to perform for God. God has used it to help me slow down and trust him. We are forgetful people, breath prayer helps us to remember. Simply acknowledging truths about God in the form of a breath prayer has brought peace and trust into my fears and anxiety.

What are some spiritual disciplines that you’ve found helpful? Share your favorite practices and what they mean to you.

The Worst (and Best) Thing About Working for InterVarsity

This year I completed 5 years of ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I wish I could say I feel like a million bucks. But honestly, I feel like a dish towel that’s been wrung out after washing a particularly grungy set of dishes. Working in ministry is fun, rewarding, surprising, and rarely ever dull. But I love the way that Ruth Haley Barton describes it in her book “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.”  She describes leadership, particularly in ministry, as a crucible:

Crucible: A place or set of circumstances where people or things are subjected to forces that test them and often make them change.

I couldn’t agree more with this image. I used crucibles in high school chemistry class. Do you remember what element was used to force change in the chemicals in the crucible? Fire. Fire is a common image that God uses throughout the Bible. In many circumstances, it is used as a purifying agent. But obviously, fire burns. Never in my life have I been placed in so many situations where I have been forced to change or adapt, where God has used situations as metaphorical fire, burning away false parts of myself and leaving behind the purist parts of who he created me to be.

This is the worst and best thing about working for InterVarsity. It is a life inside a crucible. Through InterVarsity, God is constantly plopping me into the middle of situations that expose a part of me that requires development, healing, affirmation, or total removal.

It’s like God is constantly asking me to look at my life through a magnifying glass. This helps me to see the beautiful parts of myself that might not be in plain site. I grow to understand God more deeply. I learn more about myself, how God created me, what I am good at, what I love, what causes me to thrive. I become a more free, more alive person. But it also causes me to see the hairs I forgot to pluck, the gunk in my teeth that need flossing, the blemishes that are normally hidden. It is the worst because it brings to light unhealthy coping patterns that no longer serve me but feel comfortable. It exposes behaviors and thought patterns I’m clinging to that hurt my relationship with God and others.

It is rarely a pleasant experience to discover hidden brokenness but it always ends with freedom and life.

I experienced this poignantly when my husband and I moved to Utah. We had no family or friend connections in the state. Every relationship we made was new, this was exciting. Part of my personality is that I love dreaming of new possibilities. But I had no idea how long building deep and meaningful relationships could take. Within the first few months of the move, I experienced deep loneliness and I felt distant from God in a way I hadn’t felt before. In college, I was used to experiencing God almost exclusively through community- communal prayer, musical worship at church, leading Bible studies with a sorority sister. When friendships didn’t come quickly, I thought something was wrong with me. I had no basis for spiritual development without strong friendships; I didn’t know how to connect with God anymore.

It wasn’t until a Christian Life Coach posed the question, “What if God is intentionally making it hard for you to develop friendships? What if the problem isn’t you?” that I started paying attention to what God might be doing. God used the isolation I felt as a crucible. My situation of isolation and loneliness was a place that forced me to engage with spiritual disciplines that I had little exposure to during college. God led me into a time of discovery- learning about solitude, centering prayer, and silence. It was incredibly painful but it forced me to discover spiritual rhythms that brought life and renewal. It freed me from shame- Is there something wrong with me?- to seeing the situation as an opportunity, a crucible from God to develop into a more whole person.

Through this experience, God has helped me identify a passion for spiritual formation- helping college students become more like Jesus for the sake of othersI’ve discovered that I love hearing their stories, what they love, what brings them joy. And what sucks the life out of them. I love helping them connect the dots of where God has been present and what it looks like tangibly to experience a relationship with him. I love helping people engage with God in new ways, helping them to look beyond the shame and see God’s invitation to them. Without the crucible of leadership, I’m not sure if I would have discovered this about myself.

There are many days where I want to quit and do something that doesn’t require so much self-examination. Maybe I could work at Petco? Or the running store I love to shop at? Retail isn’t that bad, right? At least I’d have a steady pay check! But God reminds me that this, in the heart of ministry through InterVarsity, is where he has called me. Ruth Haley Barton aptly describes it this way:

Some people seem to make it through life without ever having to wrestle with the fatal question [of calling]. They seem to move through life with ease- making a living, enjoying the fruits of their labor, taking what seems to be an easy or at least a rather clearly marked path to security and success- while others seem to be called to make commitments that require us to do strange things and orient our lives toward realities that others do not even see.  It’s hard to be this kind of person… It’s hard to keep answering a calling that continually takes us right out to the edge of our faith and our human limitations… But a true leader is one who has heard the fatal question… For better and for worse, we say yes to meaning. We say yes to God.

So I’ll keep saying yes to God, because I know that provides freedom, meaning, intimacy with him and others, and ultimately life. I’ll keep peering through the magnifying glass with him, trusting that beauty comes with brokenness. I’ll follow him into the crucible, sometimes at a sprint, sometimes walking with my eyes closed, sometimes crawling.

For better or for worse, I’m sticking with him.

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