Sled Dogs

All the snow that’s fallen on the east coast lately has clearly affected people’s thinking.  For instance, I read in the New York Times recently a piece about dog sledding that would normally seem somewhat esoteric.  But all the recent snowfall, and my pack of two dogs, has got me wondering.

In the Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote about the wonder of being pulled on a sled by a team of dogs: “They don’t run for a reward or toward a goal — the greyhound’s mechanical rabbit. They get yelled at when they chew on the gangline and petted when the run is over. They don’t catch or flee anything. They would keep running if the musher fell off his sled.”[i] 

And he wonders, “Why do sled dogs run?” which they do with such un-restrained zeal.  He can only think of one-word answers: “love, joy, duty, obedience.”

I have friends in suburban Philadelphia with a Husky who corroborate this assessment of a sled dog: he lives to run.  They are very cautious not to let him run in unconfined areas or off the leash, they tell me, because once he starts running it is hard to get him to stop.

Most of us do not approach Lent with the zeal of a sled dog straining at his harness to begin a race.  We have devised Lent as a dreary time, when we tell ourselves that we are restrained, harnessed as it were to some unfortunate discipline.  Certainly we devise the rituals of our worship to underscore this idea.  The old fashioned prayers we sometimes say here, go on and on about our bodily fasting.

But, while I grew up in a house where we were very likely to be given Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks on a Friday in Lent, I doubt my parents are as scrupulous about the observance of meatless Fridays these days as they used to be, and I know that I am often careless in the observance.  I am guessing that perhaps your Lenten disciplines do not cramp your style too much.  And I know there is a city out there, and beyond, that would merely giggle at such thoughts.

The Gospel today invites us to consider temptations, but we are mostly so accustomed to yielding to our desires – because we can – that we hardly even know what temptation is any more, other than the occasional wish to consume more chocolate or more ice cream than we should.  Besides, Jesus’ temptation by Satan is of such a particular and scripted variety that it can seem to have little to do with us.

So I could enjoin you to be strict on your fasting, or whatever it is you have given up for Lent (if anything); and I could warn you against the power of Satan to tempt you.  But I doubt I would be getting very far or sound very compelling.  And since I normally preach to myself, I can tell you that I know I wouldn’t be making much headway with myself!

Which brings me back to the sled dogs, and that interesting comment: “They would keep running if the musher fell off his sled.”  This is not how I thought of a team of animals pulling a heavy sled.  I rather imagined that there was a whip involved, and a great deal of demanding, ordering, coercing, maybe even some denial of food – to keep the dogs hungry.  It’s hard for me to imagine the dogs enjoying being harnessed, longing for the run, the cold, the ice, the snow, the panting.  Very hard for me to imagine them simply wanting to run when it is not even required of them – for what?  The love, the joy, the duty, the obedience of it?  Can it be that there are creatures like this?  I confess I am not at all sure I see these traits in my own dogs.  But then, they were not made for it.

And what of you and me?  What were we made for?  This is a question so many of us struggle with, and many feel doomed to spend their whole lives wandering, not knowing the answer, since we are certain that it must have something to do with what we used to call our occupation, but now we imagine must be our passion.

During Lent, the Church suggests that whatever your occupation, you try living like a sled dog.  Which is to say, try living in the harness; listening for the call to go where you are instructed, rather than wherever you please; running hard, part of a team that is also harnessed; doing it not for the benefit of a reward, nor because of a whip that threatens you, but for the love of it, the joy of it, the duty of it, even the obedience of it.

This might mean taking something on during Lent, or giving something up.  It might mean doing something you have been avoiding, but that you know will be good for you or for those you love.  It clearly means testing a life that is different than the one we have been living.  Unlike a sled dog, it depends on each of us taking the time to think about what should or could be different, better in our lives, how we could become the better selves that we suspect lurk somewhere under the more selfish selves we see most often.

Would that involve a diet?  Fewer cigarettes?  A decision to go to an AA meeting for the first time?  Would it mean treating your partner or your spouse differently?  Calling your mother for the first time since who knows when?  Could it mean coming to church more often, or saying your prayers at home every day?  Might you decide to give some of your time to a cause or another person who needs you?  Is it possible it will cost you money as you learn to be more generous with others?  Only you will know, if you take the time to be honest with yourself.

And if you do, you may consider the possibility of changing your life with a certain dread, a wistfulness for giving up whatever ease, or indulgence, or habit, or wastefulness you are loathe to let go of.  It may seem to you that life could only be darker, smaller, less delightful if you are strapped into a harness and called on to run.

But it may be that you discover how wonderful it is to feel the cold air in your lungs, and your heart beating fast and strong, and the scenery whizzing by, and your team mates around you running hard and happily too.  Not because we are forced too, or because we are late, or because we are trying to catch or flee anything... but just for the love, joy, duty, and, yes, the obedience of living life more nearly to the way God made us to live it – with a bit less of us and a bit more of him.

And wouldn’t it be something if people saw the way you and I live our lives – with less of ourselves, and more of God – and wondered why; why do they run like that?  Would they suspect that it is because we have submitted to the whippings of an angry, demanding, and coercive God?

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to show that we could choose to live this way – making better choices, being our better selves – even when Lent is over?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover that we could run just for the love, joy, duty, and obedience of it; that we would run even if the musher fell off his sled?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

21 February 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia



[i] Klinkenborg, Verlyn.  “Why Do Sled Dogs Run?”  In The New York Times. 13 February 2010

Posted on February 21, 2010 .