Pacing for Distance

by Joann Neuroth

Carolyn and I just returned from a glorious bucket-list trip to Alaska, where among other indelible memories, we learned to mush a four-sled-dog team. The excitement of the dogs was palpable – they’re race dogs after all, who were dragging their handlers toward the harness in order to get
underway. Carolyn had clear instructions to squeeze the daylights out of the hand-brakes that moderated their pace, and we learned that our target was to hold them at a steady 8 miles-per-hour – much slower than they were dreaming of. That, it turns out, is the pace they’re trained to; it is sustainable over the 8-15 days of the Iditarod Trail, which traverses roughly 1000 miles of rugged Alaskan landscape.

I feel like God might be leaning hard on our hand-brakes these days, encouraging us to slow down the urgency that drives us to take on too much, to try too hard, to expect the impossible of ourselves, which often causes us to sink into despair when we fail. Instead, I wonder if our collective frustration, bafflement, and helplessness might be clues by which God is reminding us to slow down and remember that the deadly, tragic conflicts and issues around us are not humanly solvable.

Our cultural commitment to Empire – to dominating each other and the earth – is bigger than human effort can dismantle. Only the God of history can end racism or injustice, can turn Middle-East weapons into plowshares, can pull us back from the brink of extinguishing life on the planet, and open our hearts to inclusive community.

Martin Luther King told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But it does so on God’s timetable, not ours. The driver knows, as the sled-dogs do not, that there are a thousand miles still to cover, with pain and exhaustion ahead … and chooses the pace accordingly. And we are called to a very specific kind of work if we hope to participate in that long-range bending toward justice. Like the sled-dogs, we are called to lean into the weight of what we’re asked to do. . . and not one thing (or mile per hour) more. We are asked to leave the rest – whatever else needs to be done beyond our own unique mix of gift and call – to God, in relaxed (even if anguished) trust and confidence that God will call others to that work. Here are some skills that need to be beefed up, I think, if we’re to learn to run at God’s sustainable speed for the whole 1000-mile trail:

  • We need to develop a capacity for lamentation, keening, weeping, grieving. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian, writes in his book Faith In The Face of Empire that living under waves of oppressive occupiers (the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Tartars, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British before the Israelis) for generations, his people have learned viscerally that their God stays with them in despair, through desperate grief. We too need to internalize our conviction that before the promised justice, God promises to hold us through the truly intolerable. We need to know in our bones that God is here and still in charge in the hard times. I aspire to holding fast this vision of mercy and comfort and acceptance of shared pain.
  • At the same time, we need to voice our protests loudly and continually … but with the goal of affirming our own dignity and claiming our Spirit-given freedom rather than because we expect Empire to change. In the 1940s, Coretta Scott King was told that she would not be allowed to student teach because of her race. After unsuccessfully appealing to the school board, her college authorities and her fellow students, she bowed to the inevitable alternative assignment, though she insisted she wouldn’t teach in a segregated school. But first she wrote a fiery public letter of protest, saying later, “This was the first time I stood up publicly against discrimination, and I found that I rather liked making waves. . . . I knew that I would be black the rest of my life, so I could not back down or remain silent in the face of the injustice I would inevitably face.”  She left the (agonizingly slow) timeline for justice to God but raised her voice to assert her own Truth/experience about injustice. I aspire to this mix of endurance with outrage.

Joanna Macy, in her poem “From the Council of All Beings,” asks our fellow creatures how they endure our wreckage of the world, and what they can teach us about living through ecological disaster. To paraphrase, the lichen advises working very, very slowly with patience and perseverance. The deep-diving trout models fearlessness of the dark. The lion encourages roaring – to speak truth and be heard. The caterpillar suggests willingness to dissolve and transform, and – because we do not know the end –courage. I think the sled-dogs might counsel trust: just go where He says and keep pulling. He’ll get us home.

May we all become so wise.

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2 thoughts on “Pacing for Distance”

  1. julia giordano

    Joann, thank you for this. It was just what I needed this July 4th, to learn from dogs! I have sent it on to my spiritual nurture group. I hope we can use it together to nurture hope — which is what it did for me.

    1. Keeping each other’s hope alive is part of what we’re called to in community. Perhaps again like a pack of dogs, one or the other of us can lean into the traces while someone else is flagging. Glad you liked the story!

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