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A Trellis to Live By

25 Jun Spiritual Formation | Comments Off on A Trellis to Live By
A Trellis to Live By

No More Sagging Tomatoes

This summer I’m doing a bit of an experiment in my backyard garden. Instead of using cages to support my tomato plants, I’m taking the advice of a tomato farmer I talked to last year and have decided to use stakes and twine to support the plants.

Picture a row of tomato plants between two large metal stakes. Every few inches a line of twine runs horizontally between the stakes. The tomato plants are woven amongst the twine and will supposedly thrive over time. Do you want to know what I’ve learned about this new technique so far? It takes constant, daily attention, much more so than the old cages… but it’s also working. I’ve got these large, healthy tomato plants getting ready to bear much fruit.

A few weeks ago I was in Israel with a group of students from LBC. One day we stopped at an organization in Nazareth that recreates a first century Palestine experience. They have carpenters, weavers, and farmers demonstrating 1st century techniques. Along the trail, I noticed some vines supported by stakes and twine just like the tomatoes in the back yard. It’s called a trellis, and you’ve likely seen them if you’ve every driven by a vineyard.

Interestingly, the word “trellis” has at it’s root in both Latin and Greek the idea of “rule”. It’s where we get the Christian formation term, “Rule of Life.”

What is a Rule of Life?

It’s important to keep the imagery of a trellis when thinking about a Rule of Life, because the word “Rule” can throw us for a loop. If you grew up in an overbearing or oppressive community, you might bristle at the word as your mind immediately turns to seemingly arbitrary rules about styles of music, clothing, etc. It might bring to a slew of “Thou shalt’s” spoken in deep angry tones.

But this is not that. A rule is a guide, an intentional structure, a regular rhythm to our spiritual practices. Maybe a definition would help…

A Rule of Life is “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provide space and structure for growth in Christ-likeness” or to put it another way, “It’s an intentional, conscious, Spirit-directed plan to keep God at the center of everything we say and do.” In the same way that the stakes and twine provide support and structure for my tomatoes to grow, a rule of life can provide structure and support for our souls.

A Little Bit of History

Throughout the history of God’s people, various people and groups have committed themselves to a set of regular spiritual practices for the purpose of loving God more fully in their daily lives. At times these individuals and groups have identified it as a “Rule” and at other times their example simply models it.

You needn’t go further than Daniel living as a refugee in Babylon.

“Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Dan. 6:10).

Here’s Daniel praying at multiple regular times in a set place facing a specific direction every day. It was a structured order for his prayers. We can think of those who took the Nazarite vow or even Peter heading to the temple at the fixed hour of prayer (Acts 3:1) God’s people using specific practices in an intentional way to grow spiritually.

One of the most famous communal rules comes from Benedict in the sixth century. Benedict, upset with the moral corruption of Rome, sets out to live a life as a hermit. In time, his example attracted disciples and they formed an early monastic community. Benedict’s Rule became their shared structure for spiritual growth and communal living. It’s a fascinating read and definitely worth taking a browse through if you never had. Click here to read Benedict’s Rule.

One author reflecting on Benedict’s Rule said this, “Saint Benedict was not promulgating rules for living; he was establishing a framework on which a life can grow. While a branch of a plant climbing a trellis cannot go in any direction it wants, you cannot know in advance just which way it will go. The plant is finding its own path, within a structure. The space in which it moves is open, though not without boundaries.”

Developing a Rule

More recently, Christians have been rediscovering and embracing this spiritual practice as a way of organizing and ordering their own spiritual habits. I’ve meet individuals, couples, families, and small groups that have all developed and adopted various Rules for their lives.

I think one of the greatest blessings of living a Rule is its inherent intentionality. Too often, my consistency in any spiritual discipline is determined by my emotions – whether I feel like doing it or not, whether I feel like I’m being fed adequately through this practice or not. Unfortunately, those temporary and often fickle emotions can tempt us to stop short in a formative work that God is doing in our hearts and minds.

William Pausell offers a challenging thought on this: “It is unlikely that we will deepen our relationship with God in a casual or haphazard manner. There will be a need for some intentional commitment and some reorganization of our own lives. But there is nothing that will enrich our lives more than a deeper and clearer perception of God’s presence in the routine of daily living.”

A rule of life, no matter how simple or complex, invites us to live intentionally on a daily basis.

Steps in Forming a Rule of Life

It’s ultimately not about you.

When you start crafting a rule of life, it’s important to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about loving God with everything that you are, loving your neighbor as yourself, and in both reflecting the beauty of Jesus more clearly every day. God as the focus, motivation, and goal.

Discern your rule, don’t decide it.

It’s often tempting to build a rule of life that “feels” spiritual, rigorous, perhaps, even radical as if we needed to prove our sincerity or devotion. We can be tempted to prove something, validate something, or even justify something by shouldering ourselves with a heavy load of religious obligations. Stop. Release that feeling.

The reality is God knows you better than you know yourself, and His Spirit will know what practices and disciplines you need better than you do. A Rule of Life should be something that’s written through prayer and discernment, not born out of my own innovation or opinion. Chances are you’re already practicing some regular disciplines, start with those. Name them for what they are , describe how they fit into your life, and prayerful consider what God might be inviting you to through them.

It’s a living document written in pencil not chiseled in stone.

A rule of life will change as we grow spiritually. What God was doing in your life as a college student is different from what He is doing now that you’re married. What He was teaching you as a young couple is now different as a parent of teenagers. Commit to living your initial rule for a set period (3-6 months) and then plan a time to review it and make revisions if necessary.

It should reflect the rhythms of your day, week, month, and year.

There will be some disciplines and practices that you need every day (Scripture, prayer, silence and solitude, etc.), but there may be some others that are good to incorporate once a week or once a month. Be sure to include them all in an appropriate manner. You might not be able to carve out sixty minutes of silent mediation every day, but you can plan on going for a long silent walk every Saturday morning.

For example,you might not be able to get away for a regular retreat, but if you plan head, you can carve out time to do a personal silence and solitude retreat twice a year. Too often we simply haven’t left ourselves enough time or margin for the disciplines or activities that would truly fill and restore us. A regular rule can help us be intentional about planning ahead and creating the necessary space.

It should reflect balance.

Chances are if you like reading books, you read books to grow spiritually. If you feel moved by worshiping through music, you find yourself singing all the time. We gravitate to disciplines that we enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with that because God’s wired us each uniquely and our spiritual practices reflect that.

However, sometimes we use that as an excuse to avoid challenging disciplines that God desires to use in our lives. I might avoid some kinds of disciplines because they rub to close to areas of unhealthiness in my heart, unresolved issues in my life. When you develop a rule of life, consider using a framework or grid to make sure you’re incorporating a variety of practices (for example, disciplines that focus inwardly, outwardly, and disciplines that are communal)

Some Questions to Get You Started

  • What practices am I attracted to and why?
  • What practices do I find myself resistant to and why?
  • Where is God calling me to grow or be stretched?
  • What kind of balance do I need in my life?
  • What has God been showing me about myself and how should that affect the way I pray?

Remember, a Rule of Life is not a series of rules that you have to live by. It’s an intentional rhythm, a regular pattern, a discerned structure that God has led you to live by for a season of your life so that you can live and love more like His Son Jesus.

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.