A month or so ago, my wife pointed me to a website called The Common Rule. I was fascinated by what I read there, especially since we explore the role of a rule of life at Gospel for Life and in my upcoming book.
I contacted the Justin Whitmel Earley, the person behind the website, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Justin lives in Richmond, VA with his wife, Lauren, and his three (soon to be four!) sons Whit, Asher and Colt. He is a corporate lawyer and a writer. His fiction and poetry have been published periodically, but The Common Rule – Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is his first book length project and is coming out with with InterVarsity Press in early 2019. Read more at thecommonrule.org.
What is The Common Rule?
The Common Rule a set of daily and weekly habits designed to form us in the love of God and neighbor. We are always being formed by something, especially our habits. In fact, our habits tend to form us even more than we form them, which is why we need to pay close attention to them. The Common Rule uses ordinary daily and weekly habit creation to try and guide that inevitable formation towards love.
What made you interested in developing the common rule? Is there a story behind it?
My life fell apart, that’s why. I used to be a missionary in China until through a series of events, God called me to be a missionary to law and business. I began pursing law as a someone with a calling would — I threw my everything into it. I graduated at the top of my class and got a high profile job as an international M&A lawyer. What I didn’t realize is that while the house of my life was decorated with this Christian calling, the architecture of my habits was just like everyone else’s. The incessant busyness, the non-stop phone checking, the around the clock work was doing something to my heart and my body that I never noticed until it was too late. In the end, I crashed. After a period of severe anxiety where I couldn’t sleep without pills or alcohol, I finally realized that it was the missionary that had become converted. Habits form the heart.
As my wife and some of my closet friends helped me put my life back together, one of the things we did was create a set of daily and weekly habits directed towards embracing the worship of God, and resisting the worship of a limitlessness self. After a couple months of practicing these habits, a friend asked me one day how I was doing. I remember joyfully answering – “Never better!” – and thinking to myself that something significant was happening. For one of the first times in my life my heart and my habits were being united, and in some ways I felt like a whole person for the first time.
Where does the name “common rule” come from?
The idea of a “common rule” comes from an ancient concept called a “rule of life.” A rule of life is a set of practices adopted for spiritual formation. Historically this has been more prevalent in monastic communities, the most famous ones probably being the ones written by St. Augustine or St. Benedict. If you read those rules of life, you will most likely be perplexed at how both ambitious and boring they are. They are ambitious in that they claim to guide a community towards the love of God and neighbor. The goal is lofty. But they are boring in that they are full of meticulous details like what kind of belt to wear or how many beers a monk can have on a hot day at lunch. We might be perplexed by the way they pair the spiritual and the ordinary, but that is only because we no longer understand what they understood – that our spiritual life is built on a thousand ordinary habits.
I called this The Common Rule as a nod to the ancient precedents, but I wanted this to be something for the “common” man and woman. The Common Rule is for those of us who want to bring the monastery to our offices and homes.
How can a common rule help us grow love for God and neighbor?
Contemporary western life is not neutral. It might be invisible because it is the water we swim in, but like all water there are currents. Water forms and erodes. By doing nothing we do something very significant; we assimilate.
When we have no set of formational practices to follow, we always end up following our culture’s set of practices, and they are designed to make us individualistic, consumeristic, vain and angry. In short, we are being formed in the worship of self, which isolates us from God and neighbor. We need a set of counter-formational practices where the Gospel gets embodied in daily and weekly rhythms of life. The Common Rule is designed to do that.
The Common Rule is broken up into four habits for the love of God, four habits for the love of neighbor. Each of these habits also has a direction of resistance and embrace. Some habits try to get us to cling to good. Others remind us to resist evil.
Here are a couple of examples: We tend to center life around our busy schedules instead of a common table. The Common Rule daily habit of a meal together tries to flip that. We also tend to wake up to our phones and all the social media designed to make us envious and the news alerts designed to make us angry. The Common Rule habit of scripture before phone tries to resist that. We often intend to be with our families, friends and neighbors more, and we long to actually say what we mean. But our phones distract us, our schedules prohibit it. The daily habit of turning your phone off and the weekly habit of making an hour for meaningful conversation create grooves in our life where the love of neighbor can actually run. There are more habits, but these are some good examples.
What’s the vision for your website, thecommonrule.org?
The vision of the website is to be a companion to trying The Common Rule. The book comes out with InterVarsity Press in February of 2019, and it will be an in depth look at the power of habit, the importance of formation, and will explain the vision behind each habit along with tips for practice.
The website allows you to explore the habits in brief, and download the PDF guides in order to try The Common Rule with a community. Convincing someone to buy a book can take some time, but sending a link to a friend is easy – I just want as many people to be exposed to the goodness of formational habits. The book will offer much more, but the website is a great landing place for people who would like to get an overview or experiment with trying a couple of habits. All the resources are free, and I also put up other resources related to habit – such as family liturgies for small children or habit audit resources for someone who wants to look at where their time is going.
As the book gets closer to being published, I’ll be adding a lot more resources to the website. The Common Rule is not for individuals, it’s for communities. So I’ll be putting up guides for congregations or ways for coworkers to adapt it to an office setting.
I’m a very visual person, so the ability to interact graphically with the rule is important. I expect this part of the website to develop more as I go along. In the meantime, I’d encourage everyone to go there now, poke around, download the free resources and get in touch – I’d love to hear your community’s feedback.
How can we pray for you?
Writing the book has been way harder than I thought! I am writing a book about not trying to be limitless, while having a demanding full-time job and three (soon to be four) little sons running around the house. The irony is not lost on me.
At the same time, I have been so blessed by The Common Rule and I deeply sense the Lord blessing others through it, so I will keep working unless he tells me otherwise. What’s neat is that even in a tough season, practicing The Common Rule while writing about it has been a great way to set up boundaries that are keeping me close to the Lord, even though the process is hard. So please pray that would continue.
Please also pray that me and my family would find the presence of Jesus each day, and that the love we find there would be extended to our neighbors, co-workers and friends. Also pray that whatever comes of this book would be a blessing to those who find it. Pray that the habits would help people find a deeper relationship with the God that made them, and a deeper love for the neighbors God has sent to them. Finally, pray that the western church would become a light in the darkness, not just because of what we say, but because of the very way we live. The heart of The Common Rule after all is not to turn inward and make us better, it’s to turn outward and love God and neighbor.