Breathing in a New Rule of Life

No matter what airline we’ve traveled on, we have all heard the cautionary announcement at the beginning of the flight: “In an emergency, make sure you secure your own oxygen mask before you assist others.”

It might seem like the ultimate act of service to meet your traveling companion’s need without regard for your own safety, but in this case, you risk falling unconscious before you can complete this act of service. No matter how much we love the person traveling with us, we must acknowledge that we best serve them by making sure we will still be well enough to weather the storm.

We hear this warning on every flight because we are prone to forget this when we and everyone else around us are panic-stricken. While we associate this advice with an emergency in the air, it applies much more broadly to our day-to-day lives here on the ground as well.

Those of us who are pastors or leaders are shepherds who care for those under our leadership. But as we navigate this seemingly endless maze of overlapping crises, we have to ask ourselves—have we deferred our own needs for too long? In our desire to guide our churches and organizations through endless change, are we slowly suffocating?

This is a particular danger as we move into the fall facing new transitions and troubles. If we are truly concerned for the welfare of those around us, we will not compound the crisis for them by neglecting ourselves. In this prolonged season of instability, have we paused to make sure our metaphorical oxygen mask is on and secure? And when did you last check? In this prolonged season of instability, have we paused to make sure our metaphorical oxygen mask is on and secure? Click To Tweet

Starved for Oxygen

In this pandemic reality, many of our usual rhythms for prayer, Bible reading, and self-care have been stripped away with no advance warning. We have tried to cling to the few practices that remain, but over this prolonged season they have provided diminishing benefits. We have modified as many of our favorite activities as we could, but we are running at a deficit.

As we move toward fall, what would it look like to pause and reexamine our practices and routines? What would it mean to proactively find a rhythm of practices that will sustain our ministry and leadership in the months to come? What would it mean to proactively find a rhythm of practices that will sustain our ministry and leadership in the months to come? Click To Tweet

At New Life Fellowship, we have embraced the framework provided by a Rule of Life. We have a distinct Rule of Life for our congregation, for our pastoral team, and we encourage each person at New Life to develop a personal one as well. The habit of revisiting it regularly provides us with a gift of reflection:

  • Where is God at work in my life?
  • What priorities is God calling me to?
  • What will I need in the next season of my life?
  • What can I let go of as I move forward?

I had heard of this framework prior to my time at New Life, but honestly, I struggled with it. In my time as a seminary student or in my work toward ordination, I just couldn’t seem to make a Rule of Life work for me. My attempts often ended with a long list of activities that maybe Jesus could manage but that were seemingly impossible for me. Somehow, overnight, I would have to get in great shape and be a prayer warrior for hours a day, while also fitting in Greek and Hebrew readings, being completely present for work and family, and enjoying eight hours of sleep each night. Simple, right?

The way I understood it at the time, the Rule of Life just amplified all the things I should have been doing but wasn’t. I clearly couldn’t check off all the boxes, so I would just wind up feeling like a failure. Rather than even try, I left these documents dormant on my hard drive. It felt too planned and structured, reducing the spiritual life to an impossible task list absent of grace. However, I have since learned that nothing could be further from the truth.

A Living Document

The word “Rule” in the phrase “Rule of Life” is from Latin and means to control, guide, or direct, and in this usage, it is connected to the concept of a trellis. Think of it more as supportive, guarding us from chaos instead of implying control in an authoritarian sense.

Consider the function of a trellis: it is meant to direct a vine by lifting it up and keeping it off the ground. A vine, like a grapevine, would normally crawl along the ground without the appropriate structure, exposing it to damaging forces like pests, mold, or disease. Even if it attaches itself to something else, like a tree or another plant, it would not get the ideal airflow and still be prone to destructive effects of moisture.

The construction of the trellis varies by the needs of the plant it supports; a trellis for a green bean vine will be taller than one for a grapevine, for example. Over time, farmers who tend to particular vines have perfected the template so that it is perfectly shaped for the plant’s needs, optimizing its potential and allowing it to be as fruitful as possible.

In the same way, the Rule of Life should be customized to suit you and your unique needs and call, to allow you the space and circumstances to thrive and be fruitful. It should lift you up and support you in exactly the ways you need for your spiritual growth, rather than a one-size-fits-all, burdensome to-do list. It should create space in your life for the wind of the Spirit, conforming you to the image of Christ rather than confining you. As you revisit it, it can help you live a life in God that is as fruitful as possible. We don’t exist to serve the Rule of Life; the Rule of Life exists to serve us. We don’t exist to serve the Rule of Life; the Rule of Life exists to serve us. Click To Tweet

Shaping Your Trellis

Once I saw how this Rule is meant to conform to my season of life and sustain me, I began to shape it accordingly. I looked at my favorite practices and made sure I included them as a reminder of what disciplines I could revisit when I felt stagnant in my relationship with God. I determined what relationships I wanted to prioritize and invest in. I proactively made room for rest. I embraced my limits. I found I could slowly stretch myself in one or two areas without overwhelming myself. I could find renewed focus and encouragement every time I reviewed this Rule.

At New Life, we use a very simple framework of Prayer, Work, Rest, and Relationships. When you begin to add things to each quadrant, they might overlap sometimes, but the goal isn’t precision—these four categories provide flexibility without neglecting a major area of our formation. Whether you choose this structure or another, here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin to shape your own personal Rule of Life:

  • What are you already doing in each of these areas that helps you grow in your walk with Christ? What are your favorite practices and disciplines?
  • Reviewing what you have so far, what are one or two areas in which you would like to grow? Are there practices or rhythms that you feel would especially support you in this season?
  • When you are under stress, what keeps you anchored to Christ?

As you start, review your Rule to remind you of all the things that give you life in a time of languishing. It is time to put on your mask and ensure it is secure. Give yourself the gift of this process—to pause, to reflect, and to rebuild some new rhythms that can sustain you whether in times of ease or in times of prolonged crisis.

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