Growing a Rule of Life
"The parish church’s primary task is the spiritual formation of its people." - Michelle Heyne, In Your Holy Spirit, Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life
Is that right? What about worship? What about working for social justice? What about all the other things we do to join with God’s mission in the world?
Of course all those and many more tasks and practices we undertake in our churches are very important. But I have become increasingly convinced that Heyne is correct: our primary task is the spiritual formation of our members. The reason is simple: our corporate and individual relationships with God are the deepest and most fertile grounds from which all else we do can possibly grow.
This year we undertook a diocesan-wide Lenten program called Growing a Rule of Life which was developed by the Society of St. John the Evangelist and Virginia Theological Seminary. The program was intended to help nurture our foundational relationships with God, self, each other, and creation. Sixty-five parishes purchased 4,000 participant books to offer members of their congregations. Churches engaged in the process in a variety of ways. Below are the experiences of three participating congregations:
• At Christ Church, Oberlin, we happily and thankfully signed up and joined members of our wider diocesan family in looking at spiritual rules of life and what a sustainable rule of life might be for us as individual members of the body of Christ. Our goal was to cast the seeds of this process as wide as we could by offering many small group opportunities. Based on those who expressed interest, we offered four different gatherings. On Sunday mornings, Robert and Barbara Pierce led sessions in between our two worship services; on Monday mornings, Barbara Pierce and I led a group at Kendal at Oberlin, a retirement community; on Mondays at noon, Midge Brittingham and I facilitated a group for Oberlin College students and faculty; and on Wednesday evenings, DeSales Harrison facilitated our fourth group. All told, forty-three members of our parish joined one of these groups and an additional five members worked through the material on their own. The process engaged those who participated in ways which surprised and delighted me. I don’t know why I suspected that college students and senior saints would be hesitant to engage but I could not have been more wrong. The process gave us the “garden tools” to cultivate growth in our relationships with God, self, others, and creation. It made my heart glad to be a fellow gardener with those who walked this Lenten journey: watching the videos, reading and praying with the written material, doing the ‘home work,’ and faithfully coming together week by week to share with each other. In addition to growing our individual rules of life during Lent 2016, we also risked sharing our stories and fostering the growth of spiritual formation in ourselves and our community. This process was a great gift to us at Christ Church, in our diocese and, indeed, in the wider community of The Episcopal Church. - The Rev. Brian Wilbert, Rector, Christ Church, Oberlin
• At St. Paul’s, Medina, our children participated each Sunday during Lent in Growing a Rule of Life. We started each morning by reading the children’s book “The Song of Creation” with the children participating using the response of “Praise Him and Magnify Him Forever.” We talked about rules: God's rules, our parents' rules, and why we need rules. We also discussed our God-given talents and made them into a picture to hang on our garden fence that we built as a class the first week. During week two, we discussed our relationships with God, God loves you, God made you, and God wants you to grow. The children drew self-portraits growing in God’s garden as a flower or a tree and adding God’s creation around them. These were then added to our fence. It was interesting to see how each child saw themselves in the garden. We continued to add to the fence, always discussing what we need to help it grow and what we need from God to help us grow. We explored our relationship with self through meditation and yoga in week three. During week four, we played a game by creating a web with yarn and saying who we felt most connected with and removed from amongst our family and friends. The following week, we talked about our relationship with nature and used the Godly Play story “The Parable of the Sower." This gave the children a concrete vision of planting our gardens in the good, rich soil that is needed along with sun and water. Then we planted flower seeds in little pots which would be planted around the church once they sprouted. In the final week, we talked about living in rhythm. Activities included making collages about what the children needed to grow and making self-portraits which included what they needed to grow physically and spiritually. The children could visit the "Tool Shed" if time allowed after our lessons to write prayers for themselves or someone they felt needed a prayer. These were written on post-its and attached to our fence. They could also write get well cards or notes of encouragement to someone in need or make prayer bracelets or friendship necklaces. This program was enjoyed by the children and Sunday School teachers. It really opened the children up to prayer and a sense of purpose. - Mary Anthony, Director of Religious Education, St. Paul’s, Medina
• I began Growing a Rule of Life with high hopes and I wasn't disappointed. The deep, abiding, monastic spirituality and the poetic, natural metaphors that are the basis of the program are foundational and vocational pieces in my puzzle as well. I jumped at the chance to facilitate the six-week Lenten program in my home church of St. Alban's, Cleveland Heights. Before I could even plan it completely, Lent was upon us. And there we were, sitting in the cozy attic scriptorium, with a space heater humming in the corner, asking each other the question, “How do we build a trellis in our daily, weekly, and monthly life that helps us to grow into the fullness God desires for us?” We thought we'd have to start from scratch. Surprisingly, blessedly, we found that the seeds were already there. Spending the next few weeks in that attic exploring our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with creation, we saw the little things that we already do to grow into the fullness God desires for us, and not all of them “spiritual.” Things like taking three breaths before we automatically say “yes” to a request, gifting a plant to someone once a week, or setting aside time to journal. Gathered together, and held before God in community, these small seeds grow into a Rule of Life. - Josh Handley, St. Alban's, Cleveland Heights
Here on the bishop’s program staff, we also used Growing a Rule of Life for our shared Lenten practice. Each week we devote the first forty-five minutes or so of our staff meeting to Scripture, prayer, and spiritual conversation. During Lent, we committed to engage the daily videos from the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) and to spend that weekly time using the Growing a Rule of Life materials.
Our experience was similar to many I heard from congregations: like any other such program there were moments that spoke deeply to some of us and less so to others. Sometimes we followed the program exactly and sometimes hardly at all. We joked about hearing the bell ringing in our sleep. We wondered at times if we were going anywhere at all while at other times shared fresh and lasting insights. There were a couple of "aha" moments as far as the process itself went, one of which was right where you would hope it to be: at the very end. For us, all the reflection and conversation came into focus when we finally expressed it in terms of actual and personal Rules of Life. We found ourselves making individual commitments to do things like spend additional time in daily prayer, move away from damaging self-talk, engage in a personal ministry of service, seek to be more mindful of God’s daily presence, and even move to organic lawn care.
We agreed to jointly revisit our rules periodically to encourage and support each other. Too often experiences like this end up as one-time, pleasant church events rather than genuine tools that move us toward deeper relationships with God and each other in Christ. Together, let’s pray and act so that the work God’s Spirit did in us this Lent ends up not only agreeable but transformative. The opening invitation from SSJE was, “Join us to dig deep and dream big about ways to live into a more abundant life with Christ.” That’s what we all want for ourselves and each other. Let’s not only talk our rule but live it so that abundant life increasingly overflows through us into God’s good world.