This week I have invited my friend, Matt Johnson, to stop by. I asked Matt, "What would you say to someone looking to compose a rule of life, perhaps who was doing so for the first time?" A rule is a simple approach to one's spiritual formation, a self-composed guide to spending time with God for facilitating growth in Christlikeness. With a BA in Religious Studies from Friends University, Matt has served at Andover United Methodist Church (Kansas) for almost a decade and has led several Apprentice groups. He received training in spiritual direction through the Souljourners program in Atchison, Kansas. He is a good friend and an excellent listener. I hope you enjoy his words.
I am sitting at my laptop looking out my bedroom window at my friend Merle’s garden. One of the most fascinating plants is a vining gourd called a dinosaur gourd (is that the scientific name?). It gets its name from the dark green, wrinkled skin that covers the gourd, making it look like a dinosaur (yes, definitely scientific). This peculiar vining plant has been very happy with the hot summer we’ve had. As a result, it surpassed its six foot tomato cage and began growing over the yellow squash and amaranth that are nearby. Fortunately, Merle is not only a good gardener, he is also creative. Using a fence post and some plastic twine he created a support for the dinosaur gourd vine, so that it would grow up and away from his other plants. Because of his work all the plants are doing well.
In modern language a rule of spiritual practices can be compared to Merle’s temporary support for the dinosaur gourd plant. Its purpose is to help create structure and space so your soul may grow toward the sun of God’s love. As we work with our individual rules they help us set boundaries so that various aspects of our lives do not overrun other areas. Of course, grace directs all that we do and outweighs even our personal rules, but on a general basis, the rule can help us dedicate time to spiritual practices and relationships that might otherwise be neglected. Ultimately, the rule of life should lead to a deeper relationship with God and resulting joy, peace, and love.
Right away you can see that I’m pushing for the rule to sound more like a nurturing device, rather than an oppressive and rigid obligation. Please hear this difference, because if you can start seeing the rule as a healthy and life-nurturing document you’ll be more inclined to engage this practice and discover the gifts it can bring.
First, let’s consider a simplified approach to creating a rule for life. Begin by writing a list of the spiritual practices that are most nurturing to your soul and help you awaken to God’s work in your life. This list will include your favorite practices, but it should also include those practices that stretch and challenge you to a new depth of awareness of God’s presence. The list could include personal practices such as solitude and meditation as well as corporate practices such as worship or meeting with an accountability group.
Next, add to the list items that are not considered classic spiritual practices, but that give you a sense of joy, peace or connection to God, family, or friends. On my list you’ll find guitar playing, jogging, and a weekly date night with my wife. Sometimes in our zeal to achieve spiritual perfection we ignore our basic human needs. Adding these non-traditional practices will help you keep your feet planted on the ground.
Look over your list and in a column next to each practice write how often this particular practice can be done. Then create a second column noting how much time this practice requires. So in the row next to “worship” the first column might contain “once a week” and the second column would specify, “75 minutes.” [insert denominational-worship joke here]
Hopefully as you begin creating these two columns you’ll start to see the tension that exists when it comes to creating a rule: while spiritual exercises are good for our soul, we are finite beings and cannot do all of them. Here are two ideas that have helped me in shaping my rule. First, there is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us—so whether you live like Benedict of Nursia, or a scallywag, God loves you and delights in your very existence. Second, you are simply looking for the practices that connect most powerfully with this season of your faith journey in this season of life.
With this grace applied it is now time to narrow the rule down to a feasible number of practices. Prayerfully look over your lists and notice the practices that God seems to be drawing to your attention, if any surface put a star beside them. Next, consider any practices that don’t seem to resonate with your soul, these practices could be removed from your rule. Once you’ve emphasized the key practices and removed the misfires, you need to make adjustments with the columns that line out the frequency of the practice and the duration. Be realistic and practical in how often you will engage each practice and how long you will spend with that particular practice. My experience is that when people first attempt to write a rule, they often create an impossible ideal and proceed to not follow their rule.
Depending on the types of practices you include you may have a very short rule or you may have many practices listed. Either is fine.
Once you feel the rule is set, make copies of it and keep it where you will see it often. My first rule was hidden inside a few cupboard doors, my Bible, and my car. We need these constant visual reminders to help us frame our days.
Decide how long you want to practice your rule before you come back to it for revisions. I would recommend that you work with your rule for a month and then give it a thorough revision, removing the lifeless practices and adding the disciplines that your soul longs for.
For a more detailed process for writing a rule I would recommend the ninth chapter of Jim Smith’s book, The Good and Beautiful Community.