“I want my inner truth to be the plumb line for the choices I make about my life – about the work that I do and how I do it, about the relationships I enter into and how I conduct them.” — Parker J. Palmer
I first heard the term “plumb line” when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was in the process of finishing our basement – building out a bedroom for my then college-aged brother. It made no sense to me then what a purple fruit that little Jack Horner pulled out of his Christmas pie had to do with construction!
The next time I encountered the term “plumb line” it was in a completely different context. I had just turned 43 and a family friend who was also a personally influential pastor told me about his week-long “Plumb-Line” seminars and how they changed people’s lives. I had not yet started my in-depth studies of the biblical prophets for my Lay Pastoral Associate program nor had I furthered my construction career past hammering my thumb, so this idea was still a fairly new concept to me. I’ve now reached a point in my life where I’m ready to be “plumbed” and once again encountered the concept in a recent reading of mine.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, the prophet Amos spoke of God establishing a plumb line by which the people of Israel would be measured. (Amos 7: 7-17). “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
A plumb line – for those of you who may still be wondering – is a tool used by builders to find the true vertical using the force of gravity and a weight hanging from a cord. A plumb line ensures the wall or structure you are building is at a perfect right angle to the earth. The plumb line Amos spoke of God setting served three purposes: construction, testing what is built, and destruction – or the casting down what cannot stand. God has always had a plumbline in his hand. God is not a careless creator.
The above message comes to Amos at a time of prosperity and peace – when it seems everything is right; but in reality, all is not well – not well at all. The “wall” is crooked and will fall. Just as his listeners were then, people can be manipulated into believing all is well, but the plumb line – the standard of good – cannot be manipulated and God’s justness cannot be manipulated.
Whether you are aware of them or not (like me for the first 43 years of my life), we all have multiple plumb lines in our lives. The values, qualities, beliefs, and priorities that guide our lives all serve as plumb lines. As a modern-day level shows us when our lines are not straight, our plumb lines serve as minders when our lives are out of whack and off kilter. They help us focus on what really matters and offer us strength and stability.
Plumb lines don’t just apply to or matter to the individual. As with the Israelites in the book of Amos, plumb lines are also communal in nature. Our communities, states, and nations have plumb lines in the form of laws and constitutions.
The plumb lines we set for our lives matter not only for us as individuals but also for our communities and our relationships. At their highest purpose, they serve as relational guides, promoting life and human dignity. In the hands of our flawed humanity, they can also diminish life and human dignity – individually and communally.
I wasn’t ready to hear about the plumb lines of life when my pastor friend shared what his plumb-line seminars entailed. I had just uprooted my life and moved at the time; and frankly, I couldn’t handle any more change in my life, nor did I have the will or the time to examine it – though in hindsight that would have been the ideal time to do so.
Sometimes we choose to reset the plumb lines in our lives. We sense that something just isn’t right – there is a gnawing restlessness bothering our souls. So, we make an effort to change – get away for a while – take a break – perhaps seek counseling – and reassess. Other times we don’t have a say in the matter. Other times events, circumstances, or experiences – pivotal points in our lives – start the plumb line swinging and we are forced to rethink everything. It’s as if there is a reset on everything, including our plumb lines.
Our country, our world, is at one of these pivotal points – just look at any newspaper or news program or social media feed. Grief; suffering; immense loss of purpose, place, and life; chaos and confusion; distrust and insecurity reign. The U.S. Supreme Court alone has provided a wealth of material in just the past few weeks while Congress follows in fast pursuit. Live video feeds capture the consequences of continued gun violence, followed by modern day “prophets” spouting words that are no less destructive. The plumb lines of our country have been swinging wildly and crashing into each other as our ideals and traditions are challenged. From mass shootings and civil & political unrest to economic instability and ecclesial division, who among us today doesn’t feel like he or she is having to reset the plumb lines of life?
But this is nothing new. Resetting plumb lines is a part of every life in every place and in every time. It is how we grow and evolve. Done well, a reset enlarges life – done carelessly it defeats it. Will the standards to which we align ourselves equate to common flourishing, personal responsibility and personal authority or the forces of control, power, economy, affluence, and narcissism? These are the questions our nation faces in the coming days, weeks, and years.
As anyone who has found their life in complete chaos knows, you can’t do much when the plumb line is swinging wildly about. It would be nice and convenient if we all had the same plumb lines – our world would be a much more peaceful place. But as it were – we do not. We might think we share common ideals but our alignment to them will always be unique and even in conflict at times. Setting and resetting plumb lines is a process that takes time. It takes reflection, listening, hearing, experiencing, thinking and then, even more thinking. We aren’t, however, left to our own devices and thumb-hammering ways. There are numerous sources offering guidance to wondering souls, but I have a favorite recommendation.
The Bible provides us with adequate plumb line words of wisdom – perhaps the simplest and most concise advice for life in Jesus’ response in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus resets the plumb lines of the lawyer (and us!) who inquired about what he must do to inherit eternal life. The plumb line is revealed in the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” It’s a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” “Who is not deserving of my love?” “Whose life is not worthy of my time and effort?” “Who can I ignore, denigrate, hate, or pass by?” The plumb line Jesus resets declares, “No one.” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 93). No one. These are good plumb-lines to live by and if I may opine – govern a country by.
Our plumb lines reflect where our focus is, where our hearts find succor, and what matters to us. They reveal our aspirations and our fears and they direct the course of our lives. Is your plumb line swinging about? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What questions are you asking? What answers do you seek? What do your fears reveal? What is number one on your to-do list? As you look back on your life, what used to matter and what matters to you now? Are you enlarging life with each passing day, week, month and year or finding it diminishing?
I’ve been posing these questions to myself of late.
Healing from major surgery has given me the opportunity to quit swinging wildly about, to slow down, and to rest. Both by choice and due to critical circumstances, I’ve had to reset what has gotten out of whack and way off kilter in my life. My desire is for a more meaningful and more purposeful approach to living the second half of my life.
Both endeavors are incredibly hard work!
Healing from a hip replacement is complex. It requires lots of rest as well as exercise. It requires good fuel and incredible focus – one wrong step and I could mess the whole thing up! It’s the torture and heaven of physical therapy. It is discipline and grace. It is the constant challenge of knowing your limits, but also not being afraid to test them.
However, the arduous work of excavating one’s life down to its foundation and doing a “reset of the plumb lines” in all honesty, is the most painful, critical and promising work of all. This “new life” of mine won’t just be a replay of my past mistakes.
It’s not all gut searching and wrenching work though. At times, it’s as simple as listening to the bees quiet down as the sun sets on another day. Grateful for nature’s little reminders of the proper order of life and the simple serenity of a quiet summer evening.
Let your light so shine!