Alison Marie Smith

Life, Leadership & Spiritual Formation in Lonely Places

Month: June 2014 (page 1 of 2)

All Things Are Passing, God Never Changes

Celtic Daily PrayerToday, I had a great plan to write a *hopefully* great post about limitations. But like most plans that I think are great, God had a different idea.

This morning was blessedly peaceful- I had a slow and quiet breakfast followed by an exciting and invigorating work meeting. An hour later, my bubble of peace and contentment threatened to pop when I received an unexpected phone call from a loved one.  I can’t go into many details but it revolved around a miscommunication that resulted in some off-putting consequences in our relationship which, over the last year, has been riddled with tension. Feelings were hurt and circumstances prohibited us from reconciling during the conversation. After I got off the phone, those familiar feelings of unease, anxiety, and loneliness, with hints of hopelessness, began to creep in. All of a sudden, my peaceful day threatened to collapse after one, unexpected phone call.

In God’s crazy way, right after this phone call, as I was contemplating who I could reach out to for prayer and wisdom, a mentor of mine called and told me I had been on her mind all day! It was helpful to talk with her, process, and gain a

Image by NBC Oh Michael, you just get me!

Image by NBC
Oh Michael, you just get me!

fresh perspective. God knew exactly in that moment and he provided.

But I’m still feeling weirded out. If you watch The Office, Michael Scott would describe this feeling as “eerie”- pronounced “EYE-ree”. I’m sick of feeling “EYE-ree”- so much so that I find funny ways to talk about it. (I am convinced that levity is crucial in seasons of waiting and uncertainty. But I digress.) This phone call is just one part of a long season of waiting and uncertainty. Will my relationships always be this way? Will I continue to feel stuck in my job and personal life? The title of my blog is fitting, water in the desert, because God and I have been wandering around in this desert for awhile and I’m not sure when he’s going to lead us out of it.

All of this has me continually asking the questions: Where are you at in this, God? What are you doing? And he keeps bringing me back to the same truth. This truth has been presenting itself to me over and over, through various conversations with friends, through sermons at church, through passages I’m reading in the Bible, and everyday in a book of prayers called Celtic Daily Prayer.

Later in the day, I turned to the afternoon prayer in Celtic Daily Prayer. As I read the final blessing, again God spoke this truth to me.

Let nothing disturb thee,
nothing affright thee;
all things are passing,
God never changes!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
who God possesses
in nothing is wanting;
alone God suffices.

God was again, reminding me that no matter how unsteady my life feels or how uncertain my present and future are, he is steady, he is constant. All things are passing, God never changes. Some days I believe this deep down in my bones. Other days, it’s a struggle to even whisper these words under my breath. Today was the latter. But I have to believe it’s true, I have to believe that in this season of wandering and waiting, on the other side is deeper patience and greater endurance. That, alone, God truly does suffice.

If this is not true, if our life and its struggles are meaningless, if God is anemic and not all-powerful, then what’s the point? I have to, I need to, believe in a God that sees our seasons of pain, uncertainty and waiting with a greater purpose in mind. A God that is active and not passive. A God that is Emmanuel, God with us.

So I will keep speaking this truth, over and over, trusting in my God to make good on his word.

Let nothing disturb thee,
nothing affright thee;
all things are passing,
God never changes!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
who God possesses
in nothing is wanting;
alone God suffices.


 

How do you deal with uncertainty in your life? Share your experiences below.

Discipline of the Week: Lectio Divina

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

-Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

A couple of years ago, I answered the three questions posed in that passage with a guilt-ridden, “Yes.”

I was exhausted, worn-out, and definitely headed toward burn-out. The ways that I connected with God in the past- prayer, Bible study, and journalling- weren’t working anymore. Prayer felt cold, studying the Bible was a chore, and journalling- rather than cathartic- was emotionally exhausting. God seemed distant in a way that I had never experienced. It was disorienting. What was wrong with me? I felt like a horrible Christian for not wanting to pray or read my Bible. As a Christian minister, I felt even worse that I was encouraging my students to study the Bible and pray when my own devotional life was in shambles.

It was in the thick of this negative self-talk and shame that I read Matthew 11:28-30 again.

Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life…

Ugh, but how Jesus?

Walk with and work with me- watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

That word, unforced, jumped off the page at me. Unforced. My devotional life seemed pretty forced to me. I expended so much energy doing what I thought I should be doing that my relationship with God turned into a duty, a check-list. Rather than an unforced rhythm of grace, it was a forced regimen marked by guilt- something had to change.

At the time I was reading a book about the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina- a combination of prayer and Bible study. Lectio Divina, meaning “Divine Reading” in Latin, is a 3rd century practice combining prayer and Bible reading. This is largely used in Benedictine orders of monks but is also practiced among evangelical Christ followers who are looking for different ways to engage God’s Word other than traditional Bible study. Think of this discipline not so much as an intellectual exercise but as engaging in an experiential way, seeking out the Bible as God’s Living Word, his very breath. The goal of Lectio Divina is not necessarily to gain more knowledge of the Bible but to connect with the Holy Spirit through the book he inspired and to commune with God through his Word for us.

After talking with some good friends and my husband, I came to an important realization. The fact that I no longer connected with God through my typical Bible study methods wasn’t a reflection of any character deficiencies or inadequacies. God didn’t want me to be stuck in shame about this. Rather, God used these feelings of disconnectedness to lead me in new ways of engaging in prayer and Bible reading. Like a snail that had outgrown its shell, I needed to leave behind my old ways of connecting with God in order to grow and develop.

I began to incorporate lectio divina and other meditative approached to prayer and Bible reading in my devotional life. It was freeing and rejuvenating. My relationship with God deepened and I began to see my life with him, not as a place where I had to fulfill deadlines or checklists, but as a place of rest and sanctuary. I still enjoy intense Bible study and I occasionally journal, but those are no longer the exclusive ways that God develops my relationship with him.

Are your routine spiritual practices feeling a little dull or dry? Are you feeling “tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?” Maybe God is leading you into a season of encountering new ways of connecting with him. Try Lectio Divina once this week and see what you think.

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina has 4 movements: Lectio (read/attend), Meditatio (meditate/ponder), Oratio (respond in prayer), & Contemplatio (contemplate)

Start by quieting your mind and your heart for a couple of minutes, maybe use a breath prayer to slow down. Sometimes I like to light a candle to remind me of God’s presence.

Try this using the familiar Psalm 23 (NIV)

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Other recommended passages: 1 Corinthians 13, Isaiah 40: 21-31, Colossians 1:15-23

Lectio: Read the text once or twice out loud (or listen to it using a recording of the Bible), allow yourself to simply listen and not try and figure out what it means. Thank God silently for his Word.

Meditatio: Read the text again, paying attention to any words or phrases that light up for you, that are resonating for you or just seem to stick out.

Sit in silence for a couple more seconds, thinking about the words and phrases that stick out, maybe say them or think them in your head. 

Oratio: Read the text again, being mindful of the words or phrases that are lighting up to you. When the text has been read, respond to God in prayer. Thank him for revealing himself to you in his Word.

Contemplatio: Read the text a final time. When finished, ponder over what God is communicating to you through his Word. Sit in the knowledge that God is with you and that is Word is living and active.

Finish by thanking God and perhaps using a breath prayer a couple of times.


 

What I love about Lectio Divina is that I can just come as I am. I don’t have to pour over commentaries (although commentaries are wonderful) and I don’t have to summon intellectual energy if I don’t have any to give. The practice is completely dependent on God to show up. I can’t make God to speak through the text and I can’t force the passage to present a certain meaning to me. I simply have to wait for God. All that is required of me is to be open as I read the passage. For some this might be uncomfortable and that’s ok. I challenge you to set aside 10 minutes and try this practice. Come with an openness to God and free yourself from any expectations of how you think it should go. Allow yourself to come to Jesus and rest.

Share your experiences with Lectio Divina in the comments section. Or if you have other disciplines that have been helpful in seasons of disconnectedness with God, share about those.

 

Ten Reasons Why I Love Utah

On Tuesday, I shared vulnerably about how difficult is has been living in Utah.  During our first year, I wrote a bunch of haikus for fun. For a little levity, here is a funny and honest haiku I wrote during our first year in Utah. I realize it doesn’t quite meet the syllable requirements for a haiku but who cares!

I hate the mountains
No I don’t; that doesn’t make sense
They are unfamiliar

(It’s ok, you can laugh)

It can take a long time for a new place to truly feel like “Home”- I’ve learned I have to be patient and seek out God in the midst of discontent and unfamiliarity. Even though I don’t feel quite settled here, I really do love Utah. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Healthy Lifestyles are a high value in Utah.

Sean at the top of the "Living Room" hike in SLC. Rocks have been set up like sofas and arm chairs.

Sean at the top of the “Living Room” hike in SLC. Rocks have been set up like sofas and arm chairs.

Utah is an amazing place to live because there are so many ways to pursue health. Living in Salt Lake City, we are 30 minutes from the nearest ski resorts, 10 minutes from the nearest hiking trails, and within walking distance of several well-maintained parks. Utah is also incredibly bike-friendly. There are several nationally ranked and locally owned running stores. My favorite, Salt Lake Running Company, offers free yoga every week, free running groups, and free informational classes such as nutrition for runners, foam rolling workshops, injury evaluations, etc… Did I mention all of that was free?

2. Along with #1, Utah is one of the coolest places to be a runner.

From the SLC Half Marathon. I included this awkward finish line photo just for you. You're welcome.

From the SLC Half Marathon. I included this awkward finish line photo just for you. You’re welcome.

Running is so much fun in Utah. You feel pretty BA knowing that you can run a 10 min/mile at 4,200 ft. There are several parks with paved trails that make running safe. My favorite place to run is Sugarhouse Park; it has a 1.4 mile paved loop. I also love running in my neighborhood and running up by the University. There are tons of races you can sign up for, including several nationally ranked half-marathons through the National Parks. How could you not love running here with views like these?

Sugarhouse Park, my favorite running spot.

Sugarhouse Park, my favorite running spot.

A pic from a run last summer

A pic from a run last summer

3. There is a large refugee community.

In a previous post, I shared about how I have volunteered with a local refugee non-profit for the past 3 years. Refugees are people who have been displaced from their home countries because of war and persecution. There are over 43.7 million refugees world-wide. Since 1985, Utah has welcomed over 50,000 refugees and settles between 1,000 & 1,200 refugees each year. I love that I have met people from countries such as Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Iran, Nepal, and Vietnam.

This is the family I mentor. Amisi, 2nd from the left, graduated high school this year!

This is the family I mentor. Amisi, 2nd from the left, graduated high school this year!

Refugees are among the most resilient, strong, and determined people I have ever met. Imagine experiencing war, torture, and persecution to such a degree that you have to flee from your home country. Often, you might be placed in a “temporary” refugee camp for years before being allowed to return home or being placed somewhere else permanently. Then imagine being permanently placed in a country where you don’t know the language or anything about how to get your needs met. Intense right?

Once refugees are settled, they have to learn quickly- the language, the cultural expectations, etc…- in order to adapt and thrive in their new home. Refugees are amazingly. To learn more about refugees, click here to read some inspiring stories.

4. There are FIVE National Parks

Yes, Utah is home to FIVE National Parks, wow! All of the parks are in Southern Utah, about a 4-hour drive from Salt Lake City- Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. When my husband and I travelled to our first National Park, Bryce Canyon, 3 years ago, my feelings toward Utah shifted- from hate, to like, to love. The parks in Utah make you feel like you are on a different planet. The colors and features and amazing, unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

My man and I in a slot canyon in Southern Utah.

My man and I in a slot canyon in Southern Utah.

In addition to the National Parks, there are many beautiful state parks, such as Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake and Coral Pink Sand Dunes. There are also several nature preserves and national monuments. My favorite is the Grand Escalante National Monument where you can hike to see The Wave. This was the coolest place I have ever been:

The Wave, in Grand Escalante National Monument, picture by my husband, Sean Smith.

The Wave, in Grand Escalante National Monument, picture by my husband, Sean Smith.

5. The climate is fantastic

Blue Bird Day in the middle of winter.

Blue Bird Day in the middle of winter.

Growing up in Michigan, I was used to frigid, icy winters and horribly humid summers. Salt Lake City is considered the high desert, with dry summers and FEW mosquitos (hallelujah!) and fairly mild winters. We have beautiful white winters but the temperature rarely dips below 20. Last winter I scraped my windshield a total of 2 times- crazy huh? Most of the snow accumulates in the mountains which is why our license plates brag that we have “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” We get to experience all four seasons and the sun is almost always shining. Cloudy days are few and far between, blue-bird skies are the norm.

6. Utah college students are the best

I love these humans!

I love these humans!

Utah is a hard place to start a Christian ministry. Many people have invested here for years without seeing any progress or growth. I am so blessed to have such amazing students who are part of Greek InterVarsity. I have wanted to quit many times over the last 4 years and my students are often one of the only reasons why I don’t. Students who go to school in Utah know how to serve, persevere and take risks. They care for me in such amazing ways and lead with integrity and passion.

7. In-N-Out Burger

The coveted burger place of the west has several locations in Utah. My favorite is the cheese burger, animal style, with no pickles or tomatoes. That is heaven on a bun right there.

Animal Style, om nom

Animal Style, om nom

In addition to In-N-Out there are SO many good restaurants in Utah owned by well-known chefs and celebrities. Ty Burrell, who plays Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, owns 2 local bars, Bar X and Beer Bar, that frequently win dining awards. Because of the high refugee population, we also have a diversity of dining experiences such as Ethiopian, Tibetan, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. There is a Salvadoran restaurant right down the street from my house- mmmm pupusas… Here are just five of my favorite restaurants:

Forage

The Wild Grape

9th South Deli

The Chow Truck – AMAZING Asian fusion food truck

Bruges Waffles & Frites

8. Our church community and friends are wonderful

Sean and I have been members of Capital Church for the last 2 years. Capital is a growing church in Salt Lake City that is incredibly hospitable and cares in sacrificial ways for the community of Salt Lake City. The women’s ministry has been such a support system for me and they serve my students with prayer, home-cooked meals, and lots of love. The church as a whole is very supportive of InterVarsity and loves college students. Most of my students attend Capital Church and serve in various ways.

We also have supportive and encouraging friends. My BFF Mariah is my running buddy and soul sister. And my sorority has a wonderful local alumnae club. We are blessed by the community the God is beginning to grow.

Mariah and I after the SLC Color Run- love this lady!

Mariah and I after the SLC Color Run- love this lady!

Sweet Valentine from my Pi Phi sister, Ashlee.

Sweet Valentine from my Pi Phi sister, Ashlee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. It is good for my marriage.

Moving across the country was one of the best things for our marriage. Without friends or family nearby, this transition forced us to rely and depend on each other, growing our trust and respect for one another. For the first year or so we would joke that we had no friends but each other; moving not only deepened our love but it also strengthened our friendship. Also, while being away from family has been difficult, it’s also been a blessing in many ways. I have some complicated relationships in my own family. I certainly love my family but it would have been difficult for us to establish healthy boundaries and ways of relating to my loved ones had we stayed in Michigan. The geographic distance gave us a chance to develop as a couple and define what we value and how we want our family to operate.

You know you married a winner when they take you to urgent care AND take this beautiful picture of you.

You know you married a winner when he takes you to urgent care AND take this beautiful picture of you.

10. It is good for me. 

An award I got for work a last year- yes our awards are wooden paddles...

An award I got for work a last year- yes our awards are wooden paddles…

This is probably the best and hardest part about living in Utah. As I’ve stated in previous posts, the last 4 years in Utah have been hard and painful- both personally and professionally. I’ve battled anxiety and harbored feelings of anger, bitterness, hopelessness and uncertainly. Even though it was been so hard, I would not trade any of it for how it has formed me as a person.

Over these last 4 years, insecurities have been exposed and healed. God has developed me into a more confident and assertive person. I am more secure in my identity and I feel empowered as a woman in ministry. I have encountered God in new ways that have deepened my relationship with him and strengthened my faith. I’ve experienced God’s peace in amazing ways and I’ve learned what it means to be content and patient in times of uncertainty and confusion. I love myself and God far more than I did when we lived in Michigan. If we had never moved to Utah, I’m not sure if I would have grown in the ways I have. I am grateful to God that in his sovereignty knew that moving would be deeply painful but deeply good for me.

For all of its heartache and loneliness, I love living in Utah because it is good for me. 

 

What do you love about where you live? Share your thoughts.

When Home Isn’t Home

Main Street at Mackinac Island. The island is about 10 miles around and no motorized vehicles are allowed! So peaceful!

Main Street at Mackinac Island. The island is about 10 miles around and no motorized vehicles are allowed! So peaceful!

Four years ago, my husband and I moved from Michigan to Utah. It was an exciting time and the last four years have been anything but boring. I love our new home but I always look forward to visiting my first home. In June, my husband and I travelled back to Michigan for an entire week. It was a wonderful trip; we visited Mackinac Island, drove to the Upper Penninsula to visit my parents and spent time with his family and our friends in West Michigan.

Whenever we go back, I love seeing family and friends, it’s refreshing and life-giving. But it’s bittersweet. The week sped by; we were able to see almost everyone we wanted but it was exhausting. Every day was planned down to the minute and we got little sleep. Before I knew it, we were dropping off our rental car and hopping on the plane back to Utah.

After every trip home, I feel a little sad about leaving but generally happy to be heading back to Utah. For some reason, after this trip I felt really sad. As I’ve been processing this, I think the deeper sadness has a little bit to do with how tired I was from the trip. But another reason is because we got to spend quality time with all of our family members and friends. Normally we stay in one location- either my husband’s parents’ home in Kalamazoo or my parents’ home, 6 hours north in the Upper Penninsula.  This means one of these groups inevitably gets less time than the others. This time, because we rented a car, we were able to travel to see everyone, spending a couple of days with each.

My husband enjoying Oberon on our anniversary. Oberon is an amazing craft beer made in Kalamazoo, the city where we went to college and met.

My husband enjoying Oberon on our anniversary. Oberon is an amazing craft beer made in Kalamazoo, the city where we went to college and met.

I was struck by how easy and effortless my conversations were, how comfortable I was each day. Even though we hadn’t seen some of these people for a few years, we connected again like we had never left. I didn’t realize how little I experienced these feelings of belonging in Utah.

What it boiled down to was I felt like I was home. My real home, where I belong, where I fit, where I can simply be.

As I’ve shared in a previous post, this year in Utah has been the most difficult, personally and professionally. Over the last 4 years, I have struggled to find community, frequently feeling like an outsider. Utah is a strange place to live as a woman in Christian ministry. The majority of people who live in Utah are members of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) faith. My husband and I, being in our late 20s/early 30s without kids, were fairly normal in Michigan. In Utah, we are an oddity. I know very few women my age who do not have children. Also, the majority of leadership positions, both in the secular and religious sectors, are held by men. I am a strange bird here in Utah. Just ask the 30 or so people over the years who’ve looked at me in disbelief when I told them I was a college minister.

This year in particular, I have felt loneliness keenly. This was our hardest year of marriage and I received some hard and confusing feedback at work. I felt disconnected from my husband and my job. Thankfully, our marriage has gotten better and I have wonderful friends who loved and supported me in amazing ways. But this year, and the previous 3 years, have hurt.

On the banks of Lake Huron, you can just see the Mackinac Bridge in the distance.

On the banks of Lake Huron, you can just see the Mackinac Bridge in the distance.

This is why I felt so sad leaving home. I forgot what being home really felt like. I do love Utah and it is home in its own way. But as my therapist aptly put it, “It’s lowercase ‘home’, not ‘Home’.”

Since our move, I’ve felt a connection to the Old Testament Hebrews. I haven’t experienced slavery and I haven’t been wandering in a literal desert. But I do know what it’s like to miss your old life and long for a “promised land.” These last 4 years have felt like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness with God. I’m not sure where I’m going, I’m not sure if and when I’ll feel settled. The only thing, like the Hebrews, that is certain, is that God is with me. In this season of wandering, God has provided what I need- manna in the form of friends, a church home, a great therapist, and new hobbies that refresh me. And like the Hebrews, I need to cling to God’s promises, that I will have glimpses of Home in the here and now, that God will lead me out of this wilderness and into his promised land for me. These feelings of loneliness will not last forever, God is, and will finish, making all things new.

So today, I am reflecting on my Michigan trip with mixed emotions- happiness, nostalgia, longing, and sadness. And I’m holding on to the hope that one day, God will restore and renew all things and that I will finally be Home.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And that fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in everything I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire and I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-Thomas Merton Thoughts in Solitude


 

How have you dealt with longing in your life? Have you experienced homesickness or loneliness keenly? Share your experience below.

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