thinking about the three foot rule...

Those who read this post from time to time will recognize a familiar theme here:  the tension
that exists between going deeper into God's grace vs. being engaged in a wide smorgasbord of concerns and issues. In this case, I genuinely believe that it is nigh on to impossible to embrace a both/and option. I know that when I read the social justice updates from my national church offices, more often than not I wind up feeling overwhelmed: so much pain, so much work and so little time and too few resources to match the staggering need. Not that I want to remain ignorant of the suffering endured by God's creation, and I certainly don't want to ignore the anguish of my kin throughout creation. But  the sheer magnitude of the pain crying out for justice and mercy is spiritually and strategically oppressive. When considered cumulatively I find myself shutting down, feeling impotent and exasperated instead of compelled into tender action.

Carrie Newcomer, a favorite musician and artist, suggests the "three foot rule" as one solution: pay attention and respond to the realities around you that are three feet away.  In doing this you strengthen the movement of love in the real world while staying engaged in acts of tangible compassion. Pete Seeger spoke of this as "think globally, act locally." Jean Vanier of L'Arche came to much the say conclusion. He urges people of love to regularly shut down most of our Internet networks that market anxiety. Reading about or seeing images of the wounds of the world as the crisis of the moment leaves us heartbroken without effective ways of helping. And robbed of the ability to honestly respond beyond our emotions, but still filled with grief and rage, life is sucked out of our souls. With deadened hearts and exasperated minds, the various social justice catalogs render us listless, without the energy necessary to climb out of the pit of despair. So nothing changes.

So often I wonder why we persist in listing ALL the various ways to become engaged in the works of mercy? Too many options inhibit real action for me. It does nothing to impel me towards real change. If you think I exaggerate, just take a look at the recent Keeping You Posted memo from the national United Church of Christ (check it out:

This cornucopia of concern is just for one week - and it is exhausting. Further, I often sense that our need to know about the relevant social issues becomes a substitute for engaging in the time-tested traditional works of mercy as guided by the three foot rule. My hunch is that awareness of the world's wounds is often confused with literally caring for the dead, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick and refreshing the thirsty. More and more, as I wrestle with being faithful to the love of Jesus in my world,  I find that my focus becoming smaller and smaller. Maybe it is more focused. Certainly it is less grandiose.. 

Tonight our choir returned for a new season of worship leadership. It was a great rehearsal and equally wonderful seeing the 16 people who will make up this year's music leadership. One of our tenors announced:  "Last year at this time I was asking you for prayers for my daughter who was fighting for her life with cancer. Tonight I want to tell you that just one year later she is pregnant with her second child and ask your prayers of gratitude." Practicing the three foot rule is not the only approach to being engaged with Christ's compassion, but it is a great place to start. Focusing on going deeper rather than more broadly continues to make more and more sense to me at this late stage of ministry.


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