Editor’s Note: Over the next two days, we’ll be posting the entirety of Nathan Foster’s wonderful article from Issue 9.1: Spirituality & the Body. Please enjoy “Pedaling In God’s Presence: Discipline for Body and Soul.” If you like it, there’s much, much more where it came from. We’re very excited about the current issue.
Pedaling in God’s Presence:
Discipline for Body and Soul
by Nathan Foster
It’s ten miles to work by bike on a wooded path. Steadying my cadence, I pound out the first few miles while a confident breeze begins its arduous process of ripping the stress and worries from my scattered mind. Somewhere between miles two and four I stop asking why I didn’t drive or wear warmer clothes, and I melt into the hum of my tires gently caressing the smooth blacktop. It is here that God’s great book of Nature weaves a kind of magic, and the remaining miles often become a mix of birthed ideas, untangled problems, and chapters I mean to write.
An array of wildlife joins me on my commuting adventure. I’ve seen turtles, frogs, beaver, cats, muskrats, foxes, marmots, mice, and even a few snakes. I can count on hearing birds chirping about and watching the occasional eagle or hawk gliding above. There are always deer. Because I want to be like St. Francis, I talk and sing to my deer. I even slow down to give space for their replies. They respond only with fear and gallop away.
Of all the wonders the trail offers, it’s the subtle shift of the seasons that most captivates me; no two days are alike. Change is always brewing.
Nature’s quiet brutality is on full display in a Michigan winter. The ground is covered with snow for all but a handful of days, while the sun sleeps behind the clouds. Life is a blurry mix of cold and grey. The angst and sadness of winter is what first drove me outdoors to exercise.
Running and biking in a blizzard were my way of declaring independence from winter’s spell. Winter doesn’t have to own me; circumstances don’t always have to dictate my life. My body can adapt. Whatever it is that drives young men off to war drives me into the cruel cold. Biking in the winter addresses my frustration at living the life of an emasculated male slaving away at a desk.
During winter, Nature is busy. Trees do most of their growing as roots search deep, plumbing the earth in search of nutrients. In a season that seems dormant, asleep, God is active. These are good metaphors for formation.
As harsh as Michigan winter is, its spring is equally glorious. Sure, green covers the rest of the country a good month before it reaches Michigan, but nowhere except up north does such magic permeate the air. Winter’s cruel curse is released. Down every street herds of resurrected people emerge. Cheerfully they rake fall’s leftover moldy leaves, plant bulbs, walk, and play. Frost subsiding is a truly communal form of awakening—one of the few I’ve experienced. The older deer, with their winter-battered coats, walk with a sense of pride. They are parading their delicately spotted young. The fruit of winter’s labor is on display.
I’d made it through the winter on my bike; my body was strong. I was ready and excited to sign up for a number of 100-mile rides for the summer. However, while spring was bursting around me, my own personal winter had just begun: a debilitated knee and extreme back pain. To me, physical ailments seemed like nothing more than an obstacle that kept me from having my own way. Despite my efforts to conquer my limitations, I had pushed myself too far. I was about to learn that part of being kind to my body means accepting and respecting weaknesses. I would spend at a week confined to bed and over a month off of the bike. It would be fall before I would be able to handle the 20-mile round trip to work.
I’m often riddled with debilitating anxiety and the occasional depressive spell. The normal chaos of life, work, and family feels unbearable at times. Exercise is my treatment, a medicine upon which I have become incredibly dependent in order to function in life. My therapist says exercise is a way of cooking chemicals in my head that have a sedating effect; to some extent I think she’s right. Exercise is a natural way for my body to regulate mood. Having the ability to exercise taken away was, in a sense, similar to denying insulin to a diabetic.
In excruciating pain, I lay in bed jealously watching my community come alive on a pristine 70-degree day. In my pain and disappointment I planted frustration. Self-pity nurtured and watered it; soon it was budding with anger, and within days bitterness was in full bloom. Bitterness, of course, effectively functioned as a poison to myself and bled onto everyone around. I was irritable and didn’t know how to live peaceably without exercise.
I had been working on a book where I spent time practicing the spiritual disciplines my father, Richard J. Foster, wrote about in his book Celebration of Discipline. And so, in the midst of an argument, my brilliantly insightful wife suggested that it might be time to work on the chapter on meditation. I quickly explained that she obviously didn’t understand my situation. Gracefully she reminded me that somewhere there was someone in a hospital bed begging God to have what I had.
After my pride subsided, I decided to give meditation a try.
In silence I gently turned my attention away from my pitiful self and toward God. I let my barrage of thoughts drift by. I breathed, and I listened. After some time, my mind shifted to my current predicament, and a smile burst forth. I found myself reminded of God’s uncanny ability to make good out of bad, reminded that love calls me to grow, die to self, and suffer well. Soon I was overcome with calm. My edges were softened. Life felt workable.
My attention turned to the seldom quoted verses of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer”:
…Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
Within days I found that spiritual practices filled the mental void that my injury had left. I quickly began to realize the discipline of meditation mirrored my experience on the bike. Now that I began to think about it, I saw that much of my biking had meditative qualities. It was a time to still my soul, to listen and gently respond. Could it be possible that my commute had actually become an unintentional period of practicing spiritual disciplines? Isn’t intentionality supposed to be a part of the process? Do meditation and exercise cook similar chemicals? I began to think it might be worth the effort to reflect on my exercise through a spiritual formation lens. And so, as I lay in bed, I started to examine the spiritual disciplines I might be practicing when I exercise.
Come back tomorrow to read the second half of Nathan Foster’s article, “Pedaling In God’s Presence.”
Nathan Foster is assistant professor of social work at Spring Arbor University (Spring Arbor, Michigan). He has been a counselor and founded/directed Door of Hope Counseling (Arvada, Colorado). He is married and has two children. He is an avid cyclist and still dreams of mountain adventures. His most recent book is Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet.