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September 24, 2012

When the Going Gets Tough: How Training for Marathons Is a lot like Life

Why it’s important to push through when all you want to do is quit.

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I’ve been training all summer for my third Chicago marathon. For the most part, my runs have gone well. Until recently when I hit a wall—the one runners always talk about.

I was attempting to do a 23 mile run. I was about 16 miles into it when I snapped. Something inside me begged like a baby to be done—not just with this one run, but with the whole business of marathoning.

You don’t even like to run, my brain whined. Stop now, and make up the miles tomorrow or next weekend.

I tried to rationalize quitting: I don’t really have to run all 23 miles. Besides, adrenaline will carry me the last few miles of the marathon, so even if I don’t get all my training runs done, I’ll still be able to finish the race.

Last year, I made the mistake of going to my high school reunion the night before a race, which meant I stayed out too late and never ate a proper dinner. Between my extreme fatigue and lack of fuel the next day, my brain got caught in a loop of negativity, further fueled by my overheating body and aching hips and feet. I was delirious with discouragement. I pulled over to stretch—then I broke down.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to do 10 more miles,” I told Anne, my running partner. I desperately wanted her to leave me and run ahead. I thought I could walk the rest of the miles and cross the finish line at my leisure.

Anne said, “I’m not leaving you. We’re going to finish this race, and we’re doing it together.”

I hated Anne in that moment. But because of her, I got up, put one foot in front of the other, and together we made it the last 10 miles. It took every act of my will and a ridiculous amount of prayer to get to the finish line. But we did it.

We was the key. Anne was willing to stay with me to make sure I got over the mental hump that was making me want to quit. Yes, I was facing a wall that ultimately only I could choose to break through. But Anne’s commitment to help me break through made all the difference.

The other key was methodically breaking through the wall. When I was doing my training run, I got out of my funk by breaking down the remaining miles into bite size pieces. Instead of thinking I still had seven more miles to do, I focused on getting the next three minutes under my belt. Then I thought about doing one mile seven times, as opposed to seven whole miles. Reducing a long-term goal into fractions of the whole sometimes helps us make steady progress overall. Debt reduction counselors preach the same concept: Pay down the smaller bills first so you have a sense of accomplishing your overall goal. By breaking a mega-deficit into manageable, attainable goals, before you know it, you’re on your way to being debt-free.

On a larger scale, the biggest aid for pushing through a wall is maintaining a vision for why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. I never liked to run—I couldn’t even run one mile when I signed up for my first marathon three years ago. The reason I run is to raise money for clean water projects in Kenya through World Vision. When I learned that women and children were spending hours each day hauling jugs in search of water, only to retrieve bacteria-infested water from mostly dried-up riverbeds and creeks, I couldn’t shake the horror of it.

When I ran my first marathon, it was the vision of these women with jugs on their backs that pushed me across the finish line. When I hit my wall during my training run recently, I wondered whether these women hit a wall going so many miles each day in search of water. How do they push through? Quitting the quest for water would mean death to their families. For me, quitting the marathon will mean death to families too. By keeping this vision front and center, the wall pushes further and further back for me, and I have a greater reason than myself to break through it.

Walls pop up when we hit our limits, and the lies I tell myself on the marathon course sound suspiciously similar to the lies I tell myself in life. Like when I hit a wall at work and immediately attempt to justify my procrastination with personal affirmations: I deserve a break. I’ve been working hard. . .

And in my marriage, I opt to slack off, thinking I can make up for my relational laziness later: I’m tired of working on our marriage. Dan won’t notice if I spend more time on Facebook instead of with him. I’ll spend time with him tomorrow.

What kind of wall are you facing? Do you have a friend who can help you push through? What small steps can you take to keep moving toward your goal? What’s the bigger vision that’s compelling you to keep going?

Marian V. Liautaud is a regular contributor for Today’s Christian Woman. She also serves as editor of church management resources for Christianity Today.

September 18, 2012

Is Missional Living Really All about Coffee?

There's a difference between consumerism and faith-based contributions.

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My husband nudged me, and I gave him an amused glance. We were sitting through another Sunday-morning presentation by a worthy ministry looking for donations. The guest speaker had just spoken the words we had been waiting for:

“All we ask is for you to give up one cup of coffee each week.”

My husband and I don’t drink coffee, so we laugh partly because the national obsession is completely lost on us. We also laugh because all this talk about coffee is completely missing the point. It suggests missional living is about simply giving up a small luxury so we can feel less guilty about continuing our consumerist habits, but in a way we can feel good about.

Most of us genuinely want to make a difference. We want our lives to count, and we want to live missionally. But what does that mean?

Unfortunately, in typical American fashion, we assume the answer to that question is in our wallets. In doing so, we play right into the hands of peddlers who are happy to capitalize on our lazy, but well-intentioned, living.

With so many people wanting to be caught doing the right thing, it’s a great corporate marketing tool. Buy that yogurt and you’ll be making a donation to medical research. Choose this store and you’ll contribute money to your local schools. Go ahead and buy another pair of shoes you don’t need—you’re really doing it for someone else!

Genuine charity is wonderful, and financial sacrifice is admirable. The danger lies in consumerism masked as Christ-like living, which is a completely empty pursuit. Without genuine love, financial contributions mean nothing in God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Though my husband and I shared a laugh over the speaker’s coffee comment, the heart behind money and missional living is no laughing matter. Our hearts’ desires should not be found in spending money—or in saving it. Missional living is found rather in being. It’s about who we are and how we are, regardless of how much money we have. Our relationship with money will naturally flow from the relationship between God and our hearts.

Luke 10:27, 1 Corinthians 10:31, Colossians 3:23, and 1 Peter 2:15 all give examples of what it means to live missionally, to live as a person of loving integrity, letting God change you, and living as the new person he has made you to be. Our everyday lives should match our beliefs, and what we give lip service to should be apparent in our habits.

True missional living is not about what we can acquire. It’s about who we are—and sometimes about giving away parts of ourselves or the gifts God has given us, expecting nothing in return. Doing laundry, going to the grocery store, working, paying bills, and interacting with family, friends, and strangers can all be missional activities, done in sync with a heart that is right with God.

Want to do the right thing? Start making a difference by being different. Listen to the Holy Spirit rather than the voices of brilliant marketing campaigns. And when you share that cup of coffee, do it not to appease your conscience: instead, do it in Jesus’ name, and for him.

Amy Simpson is managing editor of Gifted for Leadership.

September 4, 2012

33 Days of Spending Less

What I’m learning about simplicity and Target through my shopping fast

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I worry about what others think. I don't like being inconvenienced. I may be addicted to “new” and “more.”

And I learned it all while fasting . . . from spending.

This summer I read 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker. In the book, she shares her experiences in seven different month-long fasts to combat the tug of greed, materialism, and overindulgence on her life. She fasted from food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

During her food fast, she stuck to seven foods: chicken, avocado, apples, whole wheat bread, eggs, sweet potatoes, and spinach. Then she chose seven articles of clothing to wear for a month, and spent money at only seven places for a month. She gave away seven items a day for a month, picked up seven green habits for a month, and observed the (seven) “hours of prayer” for a month.

As I read through her honest and funny accounts while I laid on the beach—on vacation—I teetered between full conviction, wanting to start my own fast that day (God has spoken!), to laughing at the prospect of eating only seven foods (absolutely ridiculous!).

With a clearer, post-vacation mind, I decided I definitely needed to fast. I needed a kick in the pants, more clarity in my relationship with God, and an opportunity to grow. And that’s what fasting, and other spiritual disciplines, can offer.

I began weighing my options. A food fast? Maybe I could limit myself to 77 foods.

A stress fast? I’m not waking up in the middle of the night for a scripted prayer!

A clothes fast? Two words: cold sweat.

After much deliberation, I decided on a spending fast. I would pay any bills that came in, and I would continue to tithe, but I would only buy things at four places: our local farmer’s market, Trader Joe’s, Target, and the neighborhood gas station (but only for gas).

Now before you giggle too much at including Target on the list, I did place further spending requirements on myself. Target would be a last resort. If we needed something, the first place to shop for it was the farmer's market. If it wasn’'t available there, we could get it at Trader Joe’s. And if it still wasn’t available there, I could shop at Target. In other words, no going to Target just to shop around for clothes, home decorating, or electronics.

Now I’d like to point out a few things about this fast (because I am still in the midst of it, and I want you to know how much I’m suffering). No Starbucks. No trips to JoAnn Fabrics or Hobby Lobby or any other crafting store to get supplies for that Pinterest project. No waiting until the last minute to fill up the tank (because I probably won’t be close to home and my approved gas station). No quick trips to the neighborhood grocery store when I forget an item for a recipe.

This fast has caused a deep craving for a specific, local ice cream shop and their incredibly rich, limited-edition, seasonal flavors. I’ve pouted as I drive past favorite restaurants. I’ve deleted countless e-mails about sales I “need” to attend. I’ve missed great sales on things I could actually use. I’ve had super awkward conversations with people who don’t understand what I’m doing. I’ve realized I can’t make some of my favorite recipes because I can’t get the ingredients at my approved stores. I’ve attended a lunch meeting at Potbelly without ordering anything. I have an incredible urge to buy anything from Target that is not food or toiletries. I’ve been tempted just to get that one little thing that no one will ever know about.

On the other hand, I’ve made more coffee at home than ever before— locally roasted coffee I bought at the farmer’s market. I’ve found time to read and journal and relax. I’ve cooked more. I’ve baked more. I’ve whipped together odd meals of things we have in the house: yogurt and string cheese and carrot sticks, anyone? I’ve become familiar with what the farmer’s market and Trader Joe’s offer. I’ve eaten more whole grains and whole foods than I have in a long time. I’ve discovered what I already own. I’ve invited people over for coffee instead of meeting them at a restaurant. I’ve rediscovered simplicity.

Most of all, though, it’s made space for God, and that’s brought clarity. When our routines are jostled, we gain new perspective: Why do I always stop at Starbucks on the way home? Why do I eat out so often? Why do I go to Target three times a week? Why do I buy new items instead of repurposing old ones?

That perspective shift allows space for us to meet with God, for him to show us who we really are, and for us to confess our all-consuming consumerist urges. This clear picture of myself keeps me running back to God, convinced of my desperate need for him.

I’ve got several days left in this spending fast, and I’ll admit I’m reaching a point where I’m tired of it. The novelty has worn off, and the reality has sunk it: this stinks. This stinks because it’s hard. This stinks because there are more things I’ll have to turn down in the days ahead. This stinks because God’s showing me just how sinful and broken I am.

But I’ve also felt a twinge of hope. God has reminded me that true transformation comes when we allow ourselves to die. The dying hurts. It’s painful. But the new life is completely worth it.

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