Spiritual Practices

3 Practices for Effective Spiritual Endurance Training

Spiritual Endurance Title
Dear Leona,

You had your first gymnastics class last week, and it was SO FUN to watch you climb, bounce, and swing with all the joy on your face that I remember feeling in my heart in all my years in the sport.

Even though it would be difficult, there is a big part of me that hopes you choose gymnastics for a time in your extra-curricular activities. 

However, there is a definite flat side to gymnastics as a physical sport. Even though growing up I was extremely athletic, I lacked a very essential athletic skill– endurance.

It was so bad that in my short stint in track and field, I could barely complete the 100 meter sprint (that’s literally 1/4 of the track) without feeling like my heart was going to explode out of my chest. Don’t even ask me about running a mile. I once almost drowned at a pool party because the boys were rough-housing too much and I ran out of breath while trying to make my way to the side to catch a break.

Though gymnastics is a powerhouse sport for strength, flexibility, grace, and grit… Due to the short time of each routine, there is not really much need to stretch your lungs in the way of endurance.

Child Climbing up Slide

The interesting thing is, lack of endurance is sort of a characteristic of my emotional and spiritual life as well. I do not sit well. I do not wait well. I have an idea, and I run with it.

When I hear stories of someone having an idea that they ponder for several years before making a decision with it, I can’t even admire it because that concept is so entirely foreign to me.

Growing up, we moved a lot. No, we’re not a military family. No, we weren’t in the witness protection program. We just moved. Each move had its own rationale, and in small steps it always seemed logical and understandable. But as I zoom out to the grand scheme of my life, I realize at the ripe age of 28 I am currently living in my thirty-fifth home.

There were so many fun things about this– new beginnings carry some fear, but also excitement and bright-eyed anticipation at the possibilities in what’s to come. I think all this moving produced in me an adaptability that serves me well in adulthood, and the ability to consider taking risks (even though I naturally avoid risks like the plague). Because of my experience, I recognize that change isn’t all bad, and sometimes it’s really good.

But it’s also produced in me an inability to sit still. To endure. I have realized about my spiritual life lately, that I am constantly on the go and searching for that finish-line feeling where I can finally just settle down and live without all the struggles and difficulties. Each natural transition in life has awakened my love of new beginnings, filling me with secret hope that this will be the place I finally can rest…

Out of college… Nope.

Married… Nope.

Finished with my master’s degree… Nope.

Working full-time in a good job… Nope.

Working in a ministry-type job… Nope.

Having kids… Nope.

Child Falling down slide

So, on my quest for this finish-line feeling, I am constantly driven to seek out more of those intoxicating new beginnings in the face of hardship or discomfort, rather than hunker down and be where I am. Unhappy in a job? Quit. Unhappy in a relationship? Leave. Uncomfortable in a situation? Work and hustle until you relieve the distress.

The problem is, there are some things in life that aren’t so easily escaped. You can’t just stop your marriage when it gets hard. You can’t just stop being a parent. You can’t just leave a place or church each time your feathers get ruffled. Ok, well… you could do most of those things, but there is a kindness in longevity because stopping generally just increases difficulty instead of solving the problems we think we have.

I am a strong woman raised by a strong woman in a very long line of strong independent women… We get stuff done. We don’t mess around. In some ways, Leona, I’m so happy you are in this line of strong women because I can already see your strength oozing out of your personality. Though it challenges me today, I know it will serve you well in life as you navigate the uncertain world ahead.

But there is a different kind of strength that our genealogy has not honed as well. We may have strength, flexibility, and balance– great for the balance beam… But we lack the skills to endure. To sit. To listen. To quiet. This deficit becomes glaringly clear when we aim to engage in relationship with a Father who asks us to “Be still and know…,” to “Be still” while he fights for us.

You see, the strength of the women in our lineage is beautiful and good, but un-surrendered to the Creator, it’s the same strength that launches us into self-sufficiency in the face of our uncertainties and reaches our hands upward to take and eat of the fruit that allows us to define life on our own terms.

Our strength is only true strength when we bring it before the Lord in surrender. Not that we lie down and become some passive shadow of ourselves, but that we bring our personality before the throne of God and allow his Spirit to round out our strength with the endurance that brings us to the crown of life.

We’ll be doing a deep dive into the scriptural references to endurance, and what they mean for us, in my weekly Thriving Friday email. If you’re not signed up to receive that, make sure you do! I send weekly reflections on scripture, some practical tips and tricks for keeping life manageable, and share my favorite books, podcasts, and other resources.

Maybe you don’t resonate with the idea of lacking physical endurance. Maybe you ran cross country or swam in high school, so you are snickering at the thought of someone struggling to run a measly mile.

But, my guess is that you’ve had, at least at some point, a “rubber meets the road moment in your faith. You’ve had moments, days, or even seasons of life where you realize that this walk with the Lord is less of a sprint and more of a marathon. You’ve likely stood, hands on knees, gasping for air and wondering if this workout was over. You’ve been tired, overwhelmed, maybe even done. You’ve felt the weight of moving forward, doing the next right thing, and longed for the days when things felt easier.

Growing in the spiritual discipline of endurance takes time, it takes living life on purpose, and it takes grit. When you’re in the throes of spiritual endurance training, here are 3 practices to prime the right spiritual muscles to get the most out of the race.

First, establish landmarks.

In the midst of spiritual endurance training, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. Disoriented, wandering, and lacking the familiar points of comfort, the days and weeks may start to blur together and leave you feeling discouraged.

For me, I found this to be true in recent months as I was a new mother– parenting a toddler– welcoming a second baby into our lives, and trying to navigate all things “pandemic” related. Each day started to feel more and more disorienting, and I found myself losing a sense of purpose in my day to day living.

It’s at this point that it’s wise to establish some “landmarks” in your daily, weekly, and monthly routines. For the endurance trainer (I’m told…) landmarks give you a place of rest and relief from the race, give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and revitalize your energy and motivation to keep moving forward.

Time with Coffee

In my life, these landmarks are flexible, but I try to mark them regularly.

Daily, I wake up at relatively the same time, drink hot coffee, read my bible, eat breakfast with the family. Later in the day, I usually make a cup of tea, try to accomplish some constant tasks with the kids, make dinner, drink more tea and rest after the kids go to bed.

Weekly, I try to enjoy regularity as well– on Saturday’s we go to the Farmer’s Market. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I teach. On Sundays, church.

Monthly, I complete my Powersheets Tending Lists, mark the “months” since babies were born, and celebrate birthdays and holidays.

I don’t know what landmarks will make sense for you, but I encourage you to mark at least a few.

In some phases of life, establishing landmarks may feel natural– naptimes, bedtime, mealtimes… But other landmarks may require some additional intentionality to land on. Maybe it’s establishing a family game night, deciding on a weekly treat, or reaching out to your spouse or roommate for a daily connection time over tea.

Instead of zooming all the way out to the “what even is life” perspective in the middle of spiritual endurance training, take solace in the small victories, and allow them to revitalize your resolve to keep going. Each landmark is a reminder that time is passing, and with that reminder we can rest assured that we are that much closer to seeing the goodness of the Lord revealed in the chaos we are enduring.

Next, make sure you're breathing.

I’m not sure how else I can communicate the fact that I am not an endurance trainer. My athletic life as a child and teenager was characterized by resisting this training any time it was attempted to be enforced for me

(Sorry Coach)

What I remember hating the most was the point at which my lungs seemed to shrink to the size of raisins, and gasping for air felt impossible. I vaguely remember someone trying to teach me how to breathe in these moments, but it wasn’t until I was working to become licensed as a Clinical Social Worker that the whole breathing thing really began to come into focus.

Proper breath has the power to calm the central nervous system, tame the fight or flight response, and prepare your brain to receive essential information for rational decision making. In running, breathing keeps essential oxygen flowing throughout your body, allowing your muscles and organs to continue functioning through the hard times.

Breath is powerful. This is true physically, but it's also true spiritually.

One of my favorite practices in times of spiritual endurance training is the breath prayer. Mostly because generally my spiritual heart feels something like my lungs do anytime I try to run– it shrinks up to the size of a raisin, and my soul feels like it simply cannot breathe. I can’t come up with lengthy prayers because my vision is starting to blur from lack of oxygen, but I can’t keep going without a prayer because I need help.

The breath prayer is like a back pocket phrase that grounds us both in physical breath, and creates spiritual space for soul to expand once again. It is a quick rest that is essential for drawing in the proper nutrients to keep mind and heart engaged fully in the task, ensuring that we won’t pass out along the way.

The practice of breath prayer is simple. To start, take one cleansing breath—all the way in, and all the way out. On the breath in, feel your lungs expand to their fullest capacity, and invite your diaphragm and mid-back to fill out as well. On the exhale, go slow. Notice the air flowing out of your mouth and control the pace with gentleness. 

On the next breath in, internally whisper a word of prayer to the Lord. I like to use already crafted words from scripture because, like I said, I am not generally in a highly creative space when I’m needing to engage in this practice. As you breathe out, breath the next line of your prayer. Repeat this process 3-5 times until you sense your central nervous system slowing down and experience the clearing of spiritual and mental clutter.

 

This two-line prayer system grounds mind, body, and spirit in the realities of your physical breath as well as the spiritual truths that spur us forward in the hard times. It’s a holistic, contemplative practice that can re-boot your system and keep you from being hijacked by emotions, fear, and even the Enemy himself.

Breath Prayer Psalm 46:10

I have created some breath prayers here for you to download. You can choose to save them to your phone, or even print them out and have them posted in places where your spiritual endurance training generally kicks up a notch (for me, this is at the kitchen sink).

Or, I’ve also created them in lock screen size, so that when you’re tempted to pull out your phone and avoid the feelings of overwhelm, you can be reminded that it would be far more beneficial to breath in actual oxygen along with actual words of truth.

Which brings us to our final practice for effective spiritual endurance training.

Lean in.

Remember when I said I spent my entire athletic life avoiding endurance training? I’m not exaggerating. It’s real. And, unfortunately, I’ve discovered that I do the same thing when God is calling me to expand my spiritual endurance.

In so many ways, I’d rather seek comfort through escape than experience the growth and benefits of engaging in and completing the training to its fullness.

My default response to discomfort is either frantic pursuits to work my way back to comfort, or to pull out my pocket-sized distraction device and scroll my way to numbness.

Maybe you can relate to that desire to escape. In real life, there is a healthy level of disconnection to find rest from the daily grind. Read a book. Watch a funny TV show. Play a game with friends or family. But, taken too far this can result in extreme forms of disconnection in the form of substance misuse, or even dissociation.

Most of us live somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. We don’t identify our escape tactics as problematic because they don’t rise to the levels of pathology. If you told your doctor that sometimes you scroll on your phone for several hours on end, or Netflix binge after a stressful day, they’d probably laugh and say, “Me too.”

But what we don’t understand is that when we seek to escape our discomfort in spiritual endurance training instead of leaning in, we are missing out on the growth required to truly experience life-giving change.

Escape leads to temporary resolve of the overwhelm, but can ultimately prolong our feelings of discomfort by keeping us stuck in our habits of self-sufficiency and loop us back around to this same spot in just a small matter of time.

When we choose, instead, to lean in, pay attention to our feelings, feel them fully, and bring them to the feet of Jesus, we start to experience the lifegiving change that comes with a life lived well and intentionally in communion with the Creator. The Spirit has time to open the eyes of our heart to the spaces that still need refining, and can call us out of the habits that keep us bound to the life he already redeemed us from.

I realize that “lean in” might seem a little theoretical, and lacking practicality, so I’ll try to walk it out for a minute. Think of the last time your felt that twinge of anxiety, pang of depression, exasperating sense of overwhelm… What did you do with it?

Did you focus on what you could do to change that feeling? Did you grab your phone, pop on the radio, or call a friend? What would it look like for you to instead sit still for a few moments? Grab a journal and scribble a few lines about how you’re feeling? Notice. Pray.

I will admit that this is the hardest step for me in my spiritual endurance training.

But, I also believe that this is the step that will ultimately grow our spiritual lung capacity beyond what we might expect. I believe that by leaning in, sitting in the stuff we feel, and allowing God to meet us there, we will find a level of peace that we’ve never known.

Instead of feeling frantic, overwhelmed, frustrated… We will instead learn just how high, and wide, and long, and deep is the love Christ– even in the midst of our hardest days.

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