Conversatio Divina

Pedaling in God’s Presence

Discipline for Body and Soul

Nathan Foster

01.  Introduction

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.

02.  Winter

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.

03.  Spring

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 one-hundred—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 twenty-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.

04.  Summer

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.

Meditation: When I walk out the door to bike, hike, run, or swim, I almost always see this as a time for quiet reflection. There was a day when I used exercise for weight control, but through the years I’ve found it to be so much more helpful for other things. I now seldom think about how exercise is serving to enhance my body, but rather I see it as a chance to reset my head. When I welcome silence, I soon find my mind turning to God. It feels a little needy to say so, but I really like being reminded of how I’m loved. It’s like eating a piece of decadent cake. And so, like an aspiring Brother Lawrence, I pedal in God’s presence.

Worship: When I exercise, it almost always involves Nature. The woods are alive, a thoughtful blend of beauty, wildness, mystery, and wonder. Nature displays some of the characteristics of God by which I’m totally smitten. I once heard it said that Nature instinctively obeys the will of God. I find it difficult to be immersed in the creative order and not admire the Creator. Jesus talked about the rocks crying out in worship. I know I’m a little strange, but I’d love to hear the rocks.

Prayer: As my soul and mind ease, worship often turns to prayer, usually without words, but with gentle nudges of my soul. The wannabe artist in me paints a portrait with prayer. Intently listening to God’s direction, I create images and movements in my imagination.
I hesitate to write this, as I’m sure some will label me crazy, and they’re probably right, but I find God’s pleasure in co-laboring prayer, much richer than when I used to recite a laundry list of desires without offering God a space to respond.

Study: I once met a woman who had the entire New Testament memorized. I was so inspired that I began working on some memorization myself. It seems to take me hours and hours to lock in a couple of verses. I have found that exercise not only offers the time to recite Scripture, but the repetitive movement of the body seems to aid in laying down the new neural pathways. Sometimes I attach a note card of Bible verses to my handlebars. The wind often borrows it, but for some reason I don’t mind littering Bible verses.

Solitude: Of all the spiritual disciplines, solitude is the most natural for me. I spontaneously practice it with great regularity. The introvert in me craves extended time alone to sit in silence and rest. Cycling is great venue for solitude.

I’m really not sure how I missed the spiritual aspects of my exercise, but before I got injured, I was largely unaware of how integral exercise was in the formation of my soul. Maybe I’m not such a slacker in my spiritual life, after all. Could it be that a few little habits had become ingrained and were now an instinctive part of working out? I think the fact that I enjoy exercise so much threw me off. I was under the impression that spiritual disciplines were supposed to have at least some element of drudgery. Of course my riding doesn’t always maintain a spiritual element. Sometimes I blare music from my phone or hammer the pedals until I’m breathless. However, I wonder if fun and sheer enjoyment in active doing might also hold a flavor of the holy.

As I spent the summer nursing my knee, I was glad to discover that I could get the medicine I craved from exercise through practicing spiritual disciplines. My wife was pretty thankful as well; my unmedicated moods can be quite unbearable to live with.


05.  Fall

The wind continues to foretell yet another change. The leaves pre-pare for death, revealing their glory, shown bright and dull, yellow and orange.

An occasional tree is bold enough to display a red as rich as blood. Patiently they wait for just the right moment, and then, one by one, they answer the call of the wind and leap into the air, their first and only great flight. I watch their ballet as they dive to their deaths with freedom and grace. Soon they will decay, their energy seeping into the ground, providing the rich nutrients necessary for the forest life to live on. Life from death; even creation resonates the Jesus Narrative.

Through the years I’ve had a lot of differing beliefs about the way God sees me. A striking parallel has emerged between the way I perceive God’s thoughts about me and the way I treat my body with food and exercise. Like the changing of the seasons, or the growth of a child, the shifts are always gradual.

  • When I believed God wanted nothing to do with me, I left my body completely alone. I gave no attention to exercise or what I consumed.
  • When I believed God was interested in me but angry, I begrudgingly tried to make good choices and cursed my lack of control. Exercise was my penance; pain was purifying. Healthy food was my punishment for obsessive sugar consumption.
  • When I believed God was looking to me for results and I thought I had to achieve something for him, I was driven in the way I approached exercise. I competed against both myself and others trying to perform athletically. I was angry at my body when it failed my expectations. Judgment of others entered in. I began to compare my ability and my body to those around me. I ate healthier, but was bitter and resentful, longing for the days when I ate whatever I wanted to.
  • When I learned I was loved unconditionally, just as I am, my exercise became gentle and meditative. I grew to look forward to exercise. It became my motivation to finish difficult tasks. I began viewing food in terms of what was good for me for the sake of being good to myself, not because I had to, but because I wanted to oil the machine with the best I could find. I began to find it impossible to hate what God has created and loves. Grace taught me to treat my body with love and respect. Health became a way to honor something God had created with much detail and precision.

This summer I learned that God’s love goes beyond acceptance of me, but in his care he delights in joining me on the bike. Being injured was horrible, but good worked its way in, as it always seems to be in the habit of doing. How fantastic of God to use something I love as a medium to teach and guide!


Nathan Foster works as an assistant professor of social work at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. He is a licensed clinical social worker and senior level certified addictions counselor. Nathan is married and has two children. He is the author of Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet. His website is