St Stephen’s Lewisham

27th January 2007

Rules OK?


Last week a group of my fellow Street Pastors were talking about ‘successful’ churches. By successful we meant churches which attract hundreds of worshippers every Sunday. Of course this is only one measure of success, and not a wholly reliable one, but the question was asked ‘How do they manage (in this way at least) to be so successful’? The answer of my colleagues came up with surprised me. They attributed the success, not – as I expected – for example to charismatic worship, friendly congregations or gospel songs – but to the quality of the Preaching; above all that the preaching in these churches was aimed at helping people live their everyday Christian Life in the world. In other words, it was practical.

Well this morning I shall be very practical: my subject is our personal Rule of Life.

Now, in case you don’t know what a Rule of Life is; or if you used to have one long ago, let me explain the good idea behind it.

A Rule of Life is about our relationship with God. It’s made up of a number of commitments which individual Christians take upon themselves. As no two of us are the same this means that no two of us will have precisely the same Rule. Everyone’s Rule should be ‘tailor-made’ to suit our particular circumstances. You can indeed find ready-made, off-the-peg Rules in books about the Christian life; but that ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach often ends up by people adopting a ready-made rule that doesn’t suit them and soon give it up.

So let’s think why we need rules in our lives. The answer to that is that God has made us to be creatures of habit, and Rules help us learn and practice good habits. If we fail to do so we shall soon start learning bad ones. Like a garden needs working on if it’s to produce flowers (or else those flowers will quickly be overgrown by weeds), our Rule needs to be applied, not just thought up and put on one side, which means we shall quickly forget or ignore it.. But once our Rule has become our habits we shall apply it without having to think about it.

If we think about our everyday life we can see we’ve developed a whole series of Rules over the years. Further thought will show that the Rules we live by today have developed significantly beyond the ones we lived by ten, twenty or thirty years ago. An obvious example is bed-time. As children, our bedtime was, perhaps, half-past seven in the evening. Now it’s 11pm or later. This should warn us that Rules can, and should change – for example. So those Rules we made at our Confirmation may urgently need updating!.

But where do Rules come from in the first place? Well, we were taught them, by our parents, our teachers, our family or, later on, by our fellow employees at work. We didn’t just think them up for ourselves. We got the ideas from someone else. Try to imagine what a child would be like who is brought up to make its own rules without any help. It would turn into an unhealthy, dishonest, unsociable, smelly little brat, wouldn’t it? And that suggests, doesn’t it, that in setting-up our God-Rule (as one might call it) we should get help and suggestions from someone besides ourself – a priest perhaps, or a Christian friend whose lifestyle we admire.

There’s another reason for all of us to have a God-Rule. If everyone’s God-Rule is based on what God has taught us is right, then however much our Rules differ in detail (as they should do), we shall find our family, our church, and ourselves living a much more satisfactory life. Just imagine if everyone decided whether to drive on the left or the right hand side of the road ‘because they happened to feel like it today’. The result would be chaos. The same is true of God-Rules: if everybody came to Mass only when they felt like it, the chances of our communicating with God (or one another) are nil. Experience proves that the things we do ‘just when we feel like it’, we do less and less often, and eventually not at all.

But like all good things Rules and Habits can have their Down- as well as their Up-side. What sort of things? We’ve already dealt with the need for Rules to be updated. Don’t expect Nursery Rules to apply without modification at your place of work, for example.

Every Rule needs adapting to our changing circumstances. Starting a new school, getting married, becoming a parent, leaving home, moving house, changing jobs or, perhaps most importantly, being bereaved are just seven common experiences which often result in people abandoning (rather than updating) the Rule which has served them well till then. So be aware: a change of life calls for a change of Rule!

The second down-side is when a Christian adopts a rule which is either too difficult, or too undemanding, for them. If it’s too difficult then people are tempted to give it up altogether; what they should be doing is seeking some advice about gently modifying it. If our God-Rule is too easy we become self-satisfied and feel that we’re doing God an enormous favour. That’s called complacency. It’s only a short step away from Pride – the most serious sin which we human beings can commit. So those of us who have a rule should ask ourselves whether our Rule is proving too difficult or easy, and give it a tweak in the opposite direction.

But there’s another misunderstanding many people have about Rules. They believe that the Christian faith is all about Keeping Rules and nothing more. But they are confusing the means with the end.

God never designed our lives to be just a matter of keeping Rules. He meant us to have relationships, firstly with Him, and secondly with each another. Now, you don’t create a relationship with someone by having a card of Rules which you have to refer when you first meet them – a card which says ‘Rule One: Smile politely’, ‘Rule Two: Ask them how they are’. Both are Good Rules; but they’re not the same thing as the relationships we want to develop, least of all with our Creator, but the means we use do so. Rules help us, yes; but only when they become good habits by practising them until they become like second-nature to us. When we reach that stage it’s a sure sign that any Relationship with that Person, whether God or man, is growing satisfactorily. That’s why it’s so important to keep our God-Rules under regular revision.

What better occasion to make such a Revision than the season of Lent? Lent begins on Wednesday-week.

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