My sermon today is part of our Lenten preaching series on the theme of “growing a Rule of Life.” I want to explore how growing a personal rule of Life can transform our relationship with God.
At the age of 17 I went hitchhiking and backpacking through Europe with a friend of mine called Ian. We had amazing adventures, and several disasters. One of the disasters happened in Munich. We got to the Youth Hostel too late and they wouldn’t let us in, and suggested we put up our tent in the park opposite. We unpacked the tent, but we were so tired that we didn’t bother to bang in all the tent pegs. “That’ll do!” We got into our sleeping bags and fell asleep at once. And of course the worst happened. In the middle of the night there was a storm and terrific winds, and at 3:00 in the morning the tent fell on top of us, and we were soaked. That experience reminded me of the words from today’s Gospel – about the wise man who built his house on the rock – who put his roots deeply into the rock of faith. And when the wind and rain and storms came his house stood firm. Ian and I were like the foolish man who built his house on sand, and when the storm came it fell down – like our tent.
The theme of these Lenten sermons is how we might build strong foundations in our lives of faith – how we might bang in tent pegs, so that when the storms of life come we stay upright, and don’t collapse.
One of the great ways of doing that, is to create for ourselves what’s called a Rule of Life – certain practices which we choose to take on in order to strengthen our lives of faith. Each practice is like a tent peg, grounding and strengthening our life in Christ. Primarily a Rule of Life can, I believe, strengthen and deepen our relationship with God.
The word Rule doesn’t sound very appealing. But it’s not a legalistic thing. It comes from the Latin word regula – and it’s about taking on certain practices and disciplines which help me to regularize or order my life. To help me focus my time and my energy on what is most important to me.
So the first question to ask ourselves before we do anything else, is “what is most important to me?” It’s to do with vision. What sort of person do I want to become? How is God calling me to grow? Only then can you ask the question, “How can I order my life, how can I live out my daily life in such a way that I can grow into that person that I feel God wants me to be?”
So we need a vision first. That vision for ourselves comes from God – deepening our life with God in prayer, and listening to God’s vision for who we are meant to be. In our reading from Jeremiah God says, “I know the plans I have for you – to give you a future with hope”(29:11). God has a vision for us, and we can catch that vision if we listen. Proverbs says, “Without vision the people will perish”(29:18). A vision for where we are going is fundamental in creating a Rule of Life. That vision can help us see where my life is out of balance, where my life has taken some wrong directions, and where I believe I want to go. As Ella Fitzgerald put it, “It isn’t where you come from, it’s where you’re going the counts.”
Growing a Rule of Life for ourselves is rather like a gardener growing a garden. The first thing she does, is spend a long time simply gazing at the piece of land. What sort of land is it? What sort of soil? How might it become more beautiful? And slowly a vision begins to grow. Trees over there, flowerbeds here, a lake, a lawn. It will take a lot of work and a lot of time. There will be digging, and planting, and uprooting, cutting, tending, fertilizing. But slowly, rather wonderfully, her vision for a beautiful garden will take shape.
And so too, in our life with God. Once we have a vision for our Life – “this is the person I want to be” – it will take discipline and often hard work to grow. Our Rule of Life will be the description of the various disciplines we take on – the spiritual digging and planting and uprooting and tending and fertilizing, which will help us grow spiritually to become more Christ-like, so that we may better glorify God.
As our own monastic Rule puts it, “A Rule is there to strengthen our life in Christ by bringing rhythm, discipline and order to our discipleship. A Rule helps us to offer the whole of ourselves to God each day and keeps us open to God’s love and God’s will for us.”
So what tent pegs might we choose to hammer in, in order to deepen our relationship with God? Here are three suggestions.
First and foremost: Daily prayer.
There is the story of a monk who went to see his abbot, and asked him, “Father, can I pray while I’m smoking?” The abbot said, “Sure you can pray while you’re smoking, or while you’re doing anything. But – you can’t smoke while you are praying!”
He meant, that, if you want to grow your relationship with God, if you’re really serious about it, there should be a time each day when all you are doing is praying. Praying and nothing else. Even 5 minutes, where your attention is wholly on God. It can be quite difficult. Perhaps you might create a prayer corner, or light a candle, or simply sit quietly, or read from the Bible. Be with God. Decide when, and for how long. Then stick to it. That’s the tent peg.
Second: Honor your body.
There’s a great moment in the movie “Chariots of Fire” when Eric Liddell is trying to explain to his sister Jenny why running is so important to him. He says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” God has created us body and soul. And deepening our relationship with God involves more than just what happens from the neck up! Our bodies are temples for God: God dwells within us. So our whole life can be a prayer. But that means we need to honor our bodies. Am I failing to look after my body? Do I overwork? Too much TV, alcohol? Food? Not enough sleep? These are all matters for a Rule of Life – for tending, planting, and maybe uprooting bad habits. We need to exercise our miraculous bodies, and glorify God by being healthy and fully alive. So in your Rule – when will you exercise your body? Run, swim, walk, garden? Be specific. Exactly when will I stop working? How much will I eat/drink? When will I exercise – and for how long? Decide, andstick to it. That’s another tent peg.
My third suggestion for deepening your relationship with God is getting in touch with wonder.
In our Psalm this evening we read, “When I consider your heavens, the works of your fingers: the moon and the stars you have set in their courses.” Our lives are often so busy: we hurtle along from one thing to the next, that we rarely have time to simply stop and wonder. The poet William Davies wrote, “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Jesus himself tells us to do this. “Consider the lilies of the field – consider the birds of the air”(Matt. 26-28). It’s a strong word – not glance, but gaze. You will draw close to God, their creator.
So part of a Rule of Life should include a time each day to “consider the works of your fingers.” Take a walk in the garden, listen to some music, look at a bird, a flower, a painting. And simply gaze. Say, “What a wonderful world you have created Lord.” Wonder, staring, gazing – they are the gateway to prayer.
And you might put in your Rule something like “once a week, a walk in the countryside, or by the ocean, or a visit to an art gallery.” Somewhere to inspire awe and wonder. Perhaps once or twice a year a day, or several days of retreat, to draw very close to God.
Decide when you are going to stop – to gaze and to wonder – daily, weekly, monthly – and stick to it. That’s another tent peg.
So three suggestions for deepening your relationship to God, as you consider growing a Rule of Life: daily prayer, honoring our bodies, and stopping, to gaze and wonder.
May your life in Christ grow like a beautiful garden, that you may glorify him and magnify his holy name.