Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Christ Over the Coronavirus City Notes '20 | The Common Rule: Discovering the Freedom of Limitations


" ... Habitually choosing what is best over and above what is loud and urgent has never been more difficult than in a culture of perpetual distraction (as well as during a time of disruption like the coronavirus pandemic). But where do we begin? Justin Whitmel Earley reminds us we are humans being first, not just humans doing. Here is a way toward sanity in a frenetic world. ... " + The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction


To Lauren: "In binding love you set me free." What a great introduction to one of the books that I think will not only be greatly formational for me in 2020 and in the years beyond, but a book that I think can be greatly beneficial for many more people who are seeking to order their days in light of how the novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted so many of our schedules and ultimately our lives. (Another amazing book that complements the themes in The Common Rule is Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.)

If it is true that we are all living according to a specific regimen of habits, and those habits shape most of our life, then what are and what will be our "keystone habits," micro shifts that bring about macro effects during this shift globally as well as personally? And how do we seek to make shifts that are good and life giving for us and those we are neighbors with and love? In other ancient terminology, we might ask "what old and new liturgies have we formed for our days that reveal what we "worship" or "give the most worth to" whether we believe in a god or not? Justin Whitmel Earley writes, "Notice how similar the definition of liturgy is to the definition of habit. They're both something repeated over and over, which forms you: the only difference is that a liturgy admits that it's an act of worship." In The Common Rule's potent Introduction, he provides examples of what he means.

Small Habits as Powerful Liturgies

Habit 1: Wake up exhausted again, because I never get to bed on time. 
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 1: I am not a creature; I am infinite. I will be fine.  
Habit 2: Look at emails on my phone before getting out of bed. 
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 2: I can't miss a quick response. Unless I'm well regarded by others (ex. in the office), I'm not worth much.  
Habit 3: Grab breakfast on the go, while everyone else in my house scrambles to get somewhere. Eat lunch on go as well (if eaten at all).  
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 3: Being busy is normal, and maybe even desirable. I'm important if a lot of people want my time. To stay important, stay busy.  
Habit 4: Keep all computer notifications turned on, and keep my phone on and in sight at all waking hours. 
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 4: I need to know what's going on out there. The most recent thing is the most important thing. 
Habit 5: If someone asks for something late with an unrealistic deadline, always say yes. If a social invite comes up, always go for it. 
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 5: I will become the best version of myself by expanding my options, so I can't say no. I may be tired and busy, those near me may be exhausted by my unpredictability, but if I don't preserve "unlimited" choices, I can't become who I really am.  
Habit 6: Even when I sense life is getting out of control, when the best word to describe me is "scattered" or "busy," resist any rules. 
Liturgy of Harmful Belief 6: To limit myself is to restrict my freedom. I'm not fully human without my freedom of choice in every moment. The good life comes from choosing what you want.

Earley describes the viewpoints above as "an ode to worship of our omniscience, omnipresence, and limitlessness." And it's killing us. So instead, how are we set free to receive abundant life in the good limitations of the hours of our days?

"How the 'Freedom Liturgy' Perpetuates the Slavery to All Other Habits that can Shape us to Love Sacrificially" excerpts adapted from Justin Whitmel Earley's The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction


I decided limits were a better way of life, and that's when everything changed. I had lived my whole life thinking that all limits ruin freedom, when all along it's been the opposite: the right limits create freedom. 

The Two Reasons the Autonomous, Always Choosing Freedom Liturgy is Dangerous

1) It doesn't actually produce freedom. We think that by rejecting any limits on our habits, we remain free to choose. Actually, by barraging ourselves with so many choices, we get so decision-fatigued that we're unable to choose anything well. Since we're too tired to make any good decisions, we're extremely susceptible to letting other people  from manipulative bosses to invisible smartphone programmers  make our decisions for us. The dogged pursuit of this kind of freedom always collapses into slavery.

2) It blinds us to what good life really is. When we act out the "no-limits-none-ever" freedom liturgy, we assume that the good life comes from having the freedom to do whatever we want. So to ensure the good life, we have to ensure our ability to choose in each moment all the time.

What if the good life doesn't come from having the ability to do what we want but from having the ability to do what we were made for? What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations? I decided limits were a better way of life, and that's when everything changed. I had lived my whole life thinking that all limits ruin freedom, when all along it's been the opposite: the right limits create freedom.

Jesus as the Good Master

There's no one who surrendered more freedom than Jesus, who went from the all-powerful second person of the Trinity to the vulnerable form of a helpless infant. He went from speaking the universe into existence by his Word to not being able to speak a word. This is what the Scriptures mean when they say that he "emptied himself" (Philippians 2:7). But it doesn't stop there; he did not just become human. He became a poor human. A homeless human. A human who loved with such power that he became a threat to those in power, so they tortured and killed him. Jesus submitted to the ultimate limitation: to be snuffed out of the world in death. Why would he do this? For love of you and me. Philippians says that because he was willing to submit to the limitations of death, he was exalted. 

When Jesus got up and walked out of the grave, he exploded the limitations of what it means to be human by dancing on death itself. Now those who choose to surrender their life to Christ will also rise with Christ. By surrendering his freedom for the save of love, Christ saved the world. By surrendering our freedom to him, we participate in that love. 

The key thing to notice here is how Jesus' actions are the exact opposite of what humans did in the Garden of Eden. There, we tried to become gods by rejecting God's authority and eating the forbidden fruit. 

In trying to free ourselves from our limitations, we brought the ultimate limitation of death into the world. But Christ turns this human paradigm on its head. The way down is the way up. The way to victory is through surrender. The way to freedom is through submission. We, for our own sake, tried to become limitless, and the world was ruined. Jesus, for our sake, became limited and the world was saved. 

Discovering a Rule of Life

For thousands of years, spiritual communities have been using the frame of the rule of life as a mechanism of communal formation. Despite our understanding of the word "rule," a "rule of life" is about finding communal purpose together. They are about taking the small patterns of life and organizing them towards the big goal of life: to love God and neighbor. 

The word rule is used because it comes the Latin word regula, a word associated with a bar or trellis, the woodwork on which a plant grows. The idea is that we (like plants) are always growing and changing. But when there is no order, growth can take something that was supposed to produce fruit and turn it into a twisted vine of decay. The rule of life is intended to pattern communal life in the direction of purpose and love instead of chaos and decay. Author Annie Dillard wrote, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days."

By ignoring the ways habits shape us, we've assimilated to a hidden rule of life: the American rule of life. This rigorous program of habits forms us in all the anxiety, depression, consumerism, injustice, and vanity that are so typical in the contemporary American life. It's urgent then, that we recover the wisdom of crafting a gospel-(or good news-)based rule of life. We desperately need a set of counter-formative practices to become the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be. This is not just a personal matter. It is a public matter of neighbor love. 

Talking about Jesus while ignoring the way of Jesus has created an American Christianity that is far more American than it is Christian. Paying all our spiritual attention to the message of Jesus while ignoring his practices has not only led people like me into devastating life crises, it has also created Christians whose practical lives are divorced from their actual faith. How else do we explain American Christians who preach a radical gospel of Jesus while assimilating to the usual contours of American life? 
There is a better way. It is the way of Jesus. 
Let us see that habits shape the heart. Let us stop fearing that limits are threat to freedom. Let us see that the right limitations are the way to the good life. Let us build a trellis for love to grow on. Let us craft a common rule of life for our time, one that will unite our heads and our habits, growing us into the lovers of God and neighbor we were created to be.

Soli Jesu gloria.

Christ is all,


Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan

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