Pace, Not Race

My wife and I met Francisco the first day of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in the Pyrenees mountains. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. We had begun that first day of trekking around 7:00 a.m. following a simple breakfast. We had been preparing for this moment for two years and were finally ready. Full of anticipation, we took our first steps. As we walked, our bodies were adjusting to the weight we were carrying, and we were finding a rhythm. We walked through small villages, stopping one or two times for coffee and to adjust our packs. At about noon, we joined other pilgrims for lunch.

The Basque village where we had stopped was at the base of a mountain. From the courtyard where we were eating, we kept eyeing the steep path that meandered up the mountain and out of sight. When we finished lunch, we put the packs on our backs and started out on the path. The grade was significant and after about an hour of climbing, having rounded what seemed like endless corners, we had grown tired and began to look for a place to rest. But, upon rounding a corner, I thought I saw the summit. Encouraged, we decided to dig deep and make it there before stopping. I was sure it would then be all downhill to our evening destination. It took about another 30 minutes of trudging uphill to realize that what I had seen was merely a false summit, the first of several that would fool me during the early portion of the trek. Disappointed and trying to catch our breath, we knew we needed to stop. After rounding one more corner, we saw a fallen tree on the side of the path with the trunk being supported at just the right height to serve as a bench for our tired bodies. As we drew nearer, we saw Francisco from Puerto Rico already sitting on the trunk. As we made eye contact with one another, he motioned for us to join him. He had been sitting for some time and, like the kind gentleman he was, stood so that my wife could sit down. We rested for about thirty minutes and had a wonderful conversation. We learned that he had just retired as a school principal, and had similarly been preparing for this trip for several years. Here we were, on the first afternoon of a 500 mile trek, meeting a fellow peregrino—a pilgrim.

Francisco was about our age, and as we stood there talking, we noticed quite a few younger peregrinos  hurrying by in an attempt to secure a good bed at the evening hostel. As we prepared to resume our journey, Francisco said something profound that forever shaped our lives. “Remember: pace, not race. It is all about the pace. There are no winners or losers—it is about completing the trek. Do not get caught up in the rush of others.”

That mantra might as well have been a bumper sticker applied to our backpacks for the remainder of the trek. “Pace, not race” we would keep repeating to one another. Coming from a culture where racing is the normal way of life, I have been experimenting ever since our return with ways to avoid being drawn into the race of those around me. I often fail, but I’m making progress.

The more I observe our culture, the more I’m convinced there is a peculiar art to 21st-century living that is dark. That art form is the desouling of our collective souls. Fortunately, there is great news: biblical, Christian spirituality has a practice for dealing with the desouling forces so prevalent at this time. These forces are arrayed powerfully against human souls, such that if we ignore this practice, we will likely miss the spiritual pilgrimage before it ever starts within us. What is this spiritual practice? It can be stated in two words: slow down.

I can imagine at this point that you may be underwhelmed by this practice, but don’t be. It is more profound and more challenging than you think.

I have learned more about the 21st-century art of desouling by dialoguing with graduate students in programs related to biblical studies, ministry, and spiritual formation. Let me take you inside one of those classes, typically comprised of pastors, church leaders, and men and women seeking to deepen their understanding of Christian faith and spirituality. In one class called “Discipleship Tools for the Missional Church,” I lead the class through a conversation about four images and five words during one session. I begin with the four images and ask them to take their time and identify all the things they see.
  • The first image is of a person lounging on a hammock. A floppy hat is covering the face. You can tell the person is a female. An open book is lying face down on her chest. Shade is covering the hammock, which could be in any backyard, though most of the students surmise the setting is coastal.
  • The second image is of a park bench with a solitary person lounging on the bench. A male is sitting on the bench, which is clearly under a large tree. There is a fountain spraying water gently in the air nearby. The man has one leg extended on the bench.
brown wooden bench on gray concrete floorPhoto by Frédéric Barriol on Unsplash
  • The third image is of a backpacker in the mountains sitting on a large rock looking out at a stunning vista. The hiker is alone, backpack off, sitting on a rock—no earphones, no phone, no book, not eating—just looking out at the horizon.
  • The fourth image is of a person sitting in a canoe on a remote lake fishing. There are no other boats on the lake and no signs of any campers, picnickers, or swimmers.

Following the discussion that identifies many interesting facts about the images, I ask the class to go back and answer one question about each picture: What does lying on a hammock, lounging on a park bench, sitting on a rock in the mountains, or relaxing in a canoe have to do with the deep missional work of God in the world and in the human soul?

In nearly every class, none of the students can make the connection between the mission of God and any of the referenced activities—to them, none seem remotely connected.

It is not difficult for me, as both a professor and pastor, to be sympathetic to very contemporary students who struggle with connecting these images to the mission of God. Most pastors I know are devoted to that mission—as they understand it. They work hard, rarely taking time off. In fact, 90% of pastors in the U.S. work between 55 and 70 hours each week. Not surprisingly, 90% also feel fatigued.

I then ask them to consider five words, and to tell me what those words have to do with the deep missional work of God in the human soul.
  • The first word is “overworking.” I ask them to find synonyms for overworking. They come up with words such as “overextending,” “overburdening,” and “overloading.” I hear them talking about exhaustion and burnout. I keep them focused on the question: What does overworking have to do with the deep missional work of God in the human soul?
  • The second word is “narcissism.” They come up with words and phrases like “self-absorption,” “excessive fascination with my success,” “taking the air out of the room,” and “attempting to turn everything back on me.”
  • The third word is “insecurity.” They identify phrases such as “inability to be confident,” “running around asking others if you’re appreciated,” and “needing to prove you’re invaluable.”
  • The fourth word is “anger.” I explain that anger is a natural part of the human psyche. It is directly connected to the fight and flight mechanism hardwired into us for the purpose of facing potentially dangerous or difficult situations. But it can also be a flashpoint that leads to out-of-control behaviors. I ask for synonyms that reflect anger. The class offers up words and phrases like “resentment,” “irritation,” “deep feelings of displeasure,” and “strong feelings of exasperation.”
  • The last word is “aggressive.” The groups of pastors think of words such as “forceful,” “pushy,” “unrelenting,” and “dominant.”

As we talk, the light slowly goes on and the pastors begin to see that these five words are symptoms of a life that is off track. They are verbal signals that the transformative work of God has not gone deep into the persons whose lives are defined by these characteristics.

I invite the class to enter a space of vulnerability and transparency. We tell stories of driving ourselves—and others—too hard. We admit to crippling insecurities. We wonder how we got trapped in a race to be the pastor of the fastest growing church. We recount stories from within the pastoral and church culture of the leader who admitted, after a string of angry and abusive outbursts led to his firing, that he had lost his way in the race to become the first pastor in the U.S. with a 100,000-member congregation.

It is always a time filled with deep emotion, as we admit to how malformed lives, leading to malformed living, have dominated our ministry vocation. We pray for associates and colleagues who have pushed to do more and work longer hours. Somewhere in the middle of that confessional conversation and repentant praying, a bridge begins to form from the four images of a hammock, park bench, mountain rock, and canoe to those five key words. Pastors who spend their lives in front of people come to the realization that finding a solitary rock in the mountains creates intentional time to be still and silent so that God has space and time to do restorative work within them. Pastors who read bibles and pray begin to see that lying on a hammock is an essential part of finding a deeper life with God.

Tomorrow, I’ll share six steps that will help you build the kind of pace of life that gives God ample opportunity to restore the soul that 21-st century culture has sought to stripped from you.

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