Rule of Life

November 24, 2002



Rule of Life (11/24/02)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This is the week of Thanksgiving. As Congregationalists, this holiday holds a special significance, since the men and women of the Mayflower were the original Congregationalists. Ours is a proud tradition, and more than almost any other religious tradition it is founded on the principle that faith is as important as life itself. Of the 101 settlers who boarded the Mayflower and set sail for the New World in 1620, only fifty survived the first winter. With some help from the natives of this land they learned how to grow corn, and after that first winter were able to survive by growing and storing that crop, and by fishing and hunting.

These pilgrims became the symbol of the flight from religious and political oppression. It was their conviction that the church should exist free from the powers of both king and pope, and they felt strongly enough about that subject to risk everything to pursue the dream of religious freedom. Their puritanical approach to the faith would later come under justifiable attack, but we should never belittle the depth of their convictions, nor the significance of what they accomplished.

It is not my Congregational heart alone that makes Thanksgiving such a special day for me. I love Thanksgiving because it is the last unspoiled holiday. I’m glad we don’t send Thanksgiving cards to one another. I’m glad our children don’t awaken on Thanksgiving morning expecting to see dozens of Thanksgiving gifts in front of the fireplace, beneath some giant plastic turkey covered with flashing lights.

Even in this society where Wall Street and Madison Avenue always find a way to commercialize every occasion—even the holiest of days—Christmas and Easter; and even in a society where we allow those commercial forces to create holidays for financial purposes—Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Boss’s Day, Secretary’s Day—this list goes on and on; even in America our best and brightest—that’s right—our marketing geniuses—haven’t figured out a way to turn Thanksgiving into a money-maker. Okay, maybe Thanksgiving is a goldmine for Turkey farmers, but that is due more to happenstance than brilliant marketing.

Thanksgiving. The word itself sort of rolls off the tongue and hangs in the air almost magically. Why are we here? Not here in church on Sunday morning, but here in this strange and wondrous world, hurtling through space on this little speck of dust we call planet earth, seeing creation through the miracle of vision from bodies called forth from the dust…why are we here?
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We all get to answer that question for ourselves. I doubt if any of us have narrowed our answer down to a single word; in fact, if any of you have narrowed the answer to the question, “Why are we here,” down to even a paragraph or two, I’d very much appreciate you writing it down and giving it to me after the service. But I hope that no matter how complex and no matter how confusing your answer may be, the words love and thanksgiving make an appearance somewhere in your answer.

When I sit back and really think about life; when I open myself to the mysteries of life and death in the unfathomable vastness of this universe, there are three things that quickly become evident. First, I didn’t do any of this. I’m not responsible for the fact this universe exists. In fact, not only am I unable to make this universe exist, I can’t even make myself exist. If I could make myself exist, I would probably just keep on doing so forever. But I don’t have the power of life and death. There is something else keeping me alive, and I am totally dependent upon that power.

That’s the first thing that really hits me when I stop and think about things. I am totally dependent on some power beyond myself for my very life. And the second thing that becomes evident is this: I am thankful that power is giving me life. I’m thankful. I may not have asked to be born, and I may not have the power to hold myself in being, but this isn’t some sort of trap I find myself in. This is great. This is amazing. This is nothing short of miraculous, and I am thankful for the opportunity to experience it.

And the third thing I realize when I sort of shut out the commotion of the world and think hard about life is this: I am thankful for people to love, because life would be hell if not for other people. Seriously! Even more miraculous than my life itself is the fact that you are here! And I can open these eyes and see you looking back at me. And I can vibrate these vocal folds in my throat and send vibrations through the air that you can actually understand. And you can respond, vibrating my eardrums in return, and we can actually get a glimpse inside each other’s minds through all these strange vibrations we send out through the space between us.

That’s the world we’ve been given, and it is an amazing thing. We should never take it for granted. The day will come when our voices will be stilled, when our vocal cords and eardrums will vibrate no more, when this gift of life as we know it will be transformed into something else, beyond our ability to comprehend just as life in this world is beyond our ability to control or understand. In the meantime, we should approach every day, every hour, every breath with true thanksgiving.

I think most of us have spent some time seriously thinking about this gift of life. And I think in those important moments when we take the time to be radically amazed at the fact we can actually stop and think about how radically amazed we are, we reach a similar conclusion. We know we can’t answer all the questions life throws at us, but we decide, somewhere deep within, to try to live good lives. We want to do what’s right. Given the choice between right and wrong, it is our intention to do what’s right.

I would love to say everybody in the world comes to that conclusion, but they obviously don’t. There are people in this world—people both in positions of power and people whom life has left in its wake—there are people in this world for whom right and wrong are meaningless. Or at the very least, their view of right and wrong revolves entirely around self-interest. I am happy to say we have no such people in this congregation.

But even among those of us who have looked life squarely in the eye and decided to discern right from wrong and honestly attempt to choose the right path, we have no easy time figuring out the difference between right and wrong. I’ve mentioned before that of all the seminary classes I took, I loved every single one of them except ethics. In Theological Ethics it was our assignment to develop a rule of life. It sounds easy, but trust me, it was a nightmare. There are a lot of different philosophies on the subject of right and wrong. It was our job, in that class, to study every principle of ethics that has every been put forward, and then to write a 25-page paper in which every situation we ever encountered for the rest of our lives could be systematically resolved by applying the principles of that paper.

I don’t want to go into this too deeply. Oh, you could understand everything written on the subject, but to dredge the subject up too thoroughly would probably leave me lying awake at night, just as I did when attempting to formulate my own rule of life in seminary. Still, after all was said and done I did indeed arrive at a rule of life, and I can state it in much less than 25 pages. Before I reveal that rule, however, I would like for us to dip our toes into this subject of ethics for just a moment.

Now, I’ll throw a couple of words out that you may or may not be familiar with. These aren’t words that pop up in everyday language, so unless you have a love of philosophy they will be foreign. Still, you are very familiar with the concepts these words represent, so don’t be put off by the words themselves. The words are deontology and teleology.

Bear with me, because these represent important ideas. When push comes to shove, there are two basic ways of determining the right course of action in a given situation. Deontology says that there is right, and there is wrong, and in all cases one should do what’s right. For example, it can never be right to tell a lie. Never. It can never be right to kill. Never. This perspective holds that there is a pure, perfect truth in this universe, and it is our responsibility to always remain in that truth, regardless of the consequences.

Well that sounds pretty good. That sounds like a good place to start building a rule of life. Enter teleology. Teleology, based on the word telos, meaning ending, says that right and wrong are determined by the end result. One could oversimplify this by saying one group (the deontologists) claim that right action is the ultimate determining factor in discerning right from wrong; and the other group (the teleologist) says there are times when the ends justify the means. It’s the end result that counts, not the pure intentions of the person making the decision.

Okay, enough of the philosophy, let’s put this in terms that make sense to those of us who don’t spend our lives pouring over philosophy text books. A woman comes running to your front door and says, “My husband is trying to kill me! Quick, hide me, please!” And you hide her in the basement. A few minutes later her husband comes banging on the door with a gun in his hand and says, “Is my wife in here?” Technically, the deontologist cannot tell a lie, so he would have to say, “Yes, she’s in the basement.” The teleologist, who looks at the end result, would gladly lie to that husband in order to save the life of the women.

Before we all run out and claim that we are teleologists, let me remind you that the philosophy, “the ends justify the means,” has been used to commit countless atrocities through the ages. For example, every innocent child who is being killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a casualty of that philosophy—the ends justify the means.

And deciding that we don’t need to idealistically stick to the truth in all situations leads to what is called moral relativism. Moral relativism says that there’s really no such thing as truth, and there’s really no such thing as right and wrong. What’s true for you might not be true for me, and what’s right for you might be wrong for me. There is certainly some truth in the idea that every situation we face in life is not black and white, and notions about right and wrong can vary somewhat from culture to culture. But to make moral relativism a rule of life would be the same thing as having no rule of life at all, unless we insist that our rule is simply to make up the rules as we go along.

Developing a rule of life is not easy. Think about it, though. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every time you faced a real dilemma in your life, you had a short rule that you could apply, and having applied that rule of life to the situation, feel like you had done everything in your power to do what is right?

Before I get to my personal rule of life, allow me to share a story I received over the internet that was called Philosophy of Life. The story goes that a professor stood before his class with several items on a large table in front of him. When the class began, he picked up a huge five-gallon glass jar, set it on the table, and began filling it with large rocks, about two or three inches in diameter. When the rocks began to spill over the top of the jar, he asked his students if the jar was full, and they all agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box filled with fairly large pebbles, and poured that entire box of pebbles into the glass jar. The pebbles of course, sifted through the larger rocks and filled the gaps between them. Once again he asked the students if the jar was full, and this time they once again said that is was.

Next, the professor grabbled a bag full of tiny pebbles—not much bigger than grains of sand, and poured the bag into the glass jar. Of course, the bag was soon empty as those tiny pebbles finished filling the spaces in the jar. He asked yet again if the jar was full, and this time the class responded with a resounding “yes,” seeing no other items on the table to be poured into the jar.

The professor then reached beneath the table and pulled out two cans of beer. He slowly poured the two beers into the jar, and sure enough, there was just enough room between the tiny pebbles to absorb the contents of those two cans.

Then the professor said, “I want you to understand that this jar represents your life. The big rocks are the important things—your family, your partner, your children, your friends, your health—things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

The bigger pebbles are the other things that matter in your life, things like your job, your house, and your car. And the tiny pebbles are everything else in your life. If you put the tiny pebbles into the jar first, you can fill it up and leave no room for the rocks, or even for the bigger pebbles. And the same thing goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you’ll never have room for the things that are important.

Play with your children—the broken garbage disposal can wait.

Take you spouse out dancing—you can clean the house later.

Go out to eat with your family—you can miss the evening news now

and then.

Take care of the rocks first—the things that matter—and the pebbles

will fall into place.

I should end the story there, because the message is complete. But I know many of you have undoubtedly received this same story over the internet, and I will catch all manner of grief if I don’t’ tell you the way the story ends. After this beautiful lesson, one of the students raises her hand and says, “Professor, I understand the story, and it is wonderful. But what about the beer? What does the beer represent?”

And the professor answers, “Why the answer is obvious. No matter how full your life may seem, there is always room for a couple of beers.”

I really like that story, and I don’t mind the ending, either, because the rule of life I finally developed back in seminary doesn’t have much to say about drinking a couple of beers, or having a good time. After more than my share of sleepless nights, I arrived at a rule of life that I can live with, and one that has been helpful to me on many occasions.

My rule of life takes into consideration that in this strange and sometimes frustrating world I simply cannot always determine right from wrong. So I put the deontology and the teleology and the moral relativism back in the philosophy text books where they belong, and when faced with a moral dilemma, I simply ask myself this question: What is the most loving response? What can I do that will bring the most love into the world?

You may be thinking that sounds too simple, but it works for me. I simply look at each situation that arises and ask myself what I can do, that at the end of the day, will have brought the most love into the world. I don’t worry about right and wrong so much, because I’m just not wise enough to come up with a rule that makes that distinction. But I can usually figure out the most loving response to a given situation.

Well, you may want to try to come up with a rule of life if you don’t already have one. I hope you have an easier time than I had coming up with mine. And if you’d like to borrow mine, feel free. It doesn’t work in all situations. Sometimes it isn’t even possible to determine the most loving response to a particular situation. But I figure if we make our decision based on the honest attempt to discern the most loving response, God will understand whatever course we choose.

It may be simple-minded. But whether the subject is politics, religion, family relationships, or anything else…I have a feeling God would prefer us to be kind than right, any day.