A New Year – Time to Discover Old Paths (and a new resource to help you)
Whether it’s Beauty and the Beast and the transformation of relationship, A Christmas Carol and the transformation of values, or The King’s Speech and a king’s movement from fear to courage, stories of change for the better inspire and resonate with our deepest longings. This is because something deep inside all of us realizes that the world, and we ourselves as individuals can be better. At an even more fundamental level, these desires for upward movement resonate because transformation is the central good news that Jesus brings us. “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly” is how Jesus put it one day when talking with a crowd. Later, Paul would say it this way: “He [God] made him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the very righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). Our destiny is to become nothing less than “the righteousness of God,” which means that God’s desire is that justice, mercy, hospitality, peacemaking, generosity, and hope pour through our very being so that those in our lives can be blessed. That same Paul would tell us that we’re called to swim upstream against the prevailing currents of culture, not being conformed to the dominant taboos and mores, but being “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).
How? We’ll start by saying that the narrative of culture won’t get us there. We’re increasingly stressed out, addicted, anxious, lonely, and afraid. It appears that wealth and hyper-connectivity aren’t providing a pathway to the lives of peace, intimacy, and meaning. Jesus compared our life journeys to walking, and suggested that we’re often standing in front of two doors. One door is huge, well-lit, inviting, and the masses are clamoring to get through it. The other door is small, unassuming, and a bit “out of the way.” Jesus has an opinion about this choice: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). It’s as if Jesus is telling us that defaulting to conventional assumptions won’t get us where we want to go, and won’t enable us to build the life for which we’re created.
A crusty prophet of old hinted at the same mentality, using a road metaphor, rather than gates or doors. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16)
All of us could use a little more rest in our lives, or so it seems at least. This picture is painted by Jeremiah and Jesus, who shares a similar message, when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The promise is that those who are weighed down by carrying heavy burdens will be able to find rest if they can develop a consistent and real relationship with Christ (hence the phrase “learn from me” in the same invitation). A consistent and real relationship with Christ, though, is like any relationship that’s going to be consistent and real. Relationships take time and require the development of habits.
The process of developing spiritual habits on the ancient path has been called the creation of a rule of life throughout the history of the church. At the end of this book, there’s a tool that will help you in creating your own rule of life, and such a creation is precisely where everything we’ve considered has been leading. So let’s dive in and consider the what, why, and how, of that ancient path called “the rule of life.”
What is a rule of life?
A rule of life is your declared intention regarding the habits you seek to make real in your daily life. Jesus, for example, gathered with other worshippers on the sabbath, not just when he felt like it, or if the weather was just right. According to Luke 4:16, Jesus gathered with others “as was his custom.” He had a habit of worshipping with others. Habits are brilliant, because once they become a natural part of our lives, they bring both order to our time use, and free our minds for other pursuits, as mental energy is no longer wasted on decisions. They’re already made because you’ve developed habits!
God is simply telling us that what we already know to be true physiologically is also true spiritually: “use it or lose it!” The challenge is that we also know from history that the default for us as fallen humans is to stop using it. We stop exercising. We stop eating mindfully. We stop praying. We stop taking the stairs. We stop. Develop life-giving practices so that they become habits, and they strengthen and multiply. Neglect them, and they atrophy and decay.
In addition to habits, your rule of life will consist of an intention to fan certain attitudes from a tiny spark into a full, raging fire. Attitudes are different than habits, in that they’re more a way of looking at and responding to the world. They could almost be called values, and they’re fanned into flame by putting them in front of you on a regular basis. Our minds are renewed and transformed by choosing wisely day after day: contentment over consumerism, hospitality over isolation, silence over noise. For example, by being mindful of Christ’s hospitality and care for people who are weary and downtrodden, I’m sensitized to the practice of hospitality, and this changes the way I relate to people.
Intentionally choosing to build certain habits and affirm certain attitudes is what it means to build a rule of life. One author writes that a rule of life serves as a framework for freedom – not as a set of rules that restrict or deny life, but as a way of living our vocation alone and in community. It is rooted in Scripture, pointing always to Christ, and in the words of Saint Benedict, it is “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
Why is a rule of life important?
One of the most famous parables in the Bible is the story about the seed and the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed” is how it begins, and by the end of the tale we discover that not all the seeds reached their full potential. The seed, though, was never the problem; it was the soil. Too many rocks. Too many thorns. Not enough depth. It’s a powerful tale, because later in the Bible we’re told that “His seed abides in us.” The astonishing reality is that nothing less than the life of the resurrected Jesus has found a home “in us.” This means that His seed, if allowed to grow, will find unique expression through each of our lives, so that the joy, hope, mercy, justice, sacrifice, love, and generosity of Christ can continue to be revealed in this dark and broken world. Each of us has a part to play, and when we do this, we’re living the lives for which we’re created!
Some people recoil at the word “rule,” because they believe that since we’re saved by grace, there’s actually nothing we need to do other than receive what God has freely given. My response: “Yes. Just receive the seed, the same way soil receives the seed.” What farmer do you know who plants seeds without preparing the soil? The reality is that the seed of Christ’s life is God’s rich gift to us; the life is in the seed, the growth is in the seed, and the fruit is in the seed. Farmers don’t randomly toss seeds out from the window of their houses and say, “There’s really nothing more I can do, because it’s all about the seed.” Rubbish. Of course there’s no fruit without the seed. But there’s no fruit in your life without the union of seed and soil, and who needs to take responsibility for the soil that is your soul? You do! Your habits and attitudes will determine the quality of the soil, and hence the fruitfulness of Christ’s seed flowering in your life, so that you can enjoy the kind of life for which you were created, a life overflowing with meaning, joy, and love.
Soil care happens. Either we’re fortifying the soil through life-giving habits and attitudes, or we’re allowing rocks, weeds, and thorns to choke the seed by neglecting soil care habits. The whole project is a lot like exercise; sometimes energizing, sometimes not so much. And yet, by faith, I’ve come to believe that it’s always valuable. Now the question is much less “How was my time of Bible reading?” because I know, through experience, that what matters isn’t the particular experience of any single day. It’s the trend line that counts.
Soil problems in the physical worlds stem from neglect of the elements that produce long-term value in the soil in favor of policies and practices that provide instant gratification and short-term profit. The results are clear to everyone, yet everyone keeps neglecting the future in favor of the immediate. Sound familiar? It’s not just a soil problem. It’s a soul problem.
How do we care for the soil of our souls? I’m glad you asked!