The Gift of Good Fences

Just beyond a bend in the road, a small brick church sits in a mountain hollow, between a cemetery and an open field. The church property was once a part of this field, but when the members organized nearly a century ago, the farmer offered them a piece of it for the official asking price of one dollar. Today a wooden fence forms the boundary between the field and the church’s parking lot.

For the most part, this boundary stands, but sometimes it’s hopped by children in their Sunday best, searching for minnows and wildflowers. Other times, it’s crossed by the combined cast and choir of the church’s seasonal passion play. The ground just beyond the fence rises to create a natural amphitheater, where the field below becomes the landscape of ancient Israel, and the stream that runs through it becomes the Sea of Galilee.

We know the boundaries and are at peace. Until an outsider shows up. And then we instinctively bolt for safety.

Shortly after my husband became the pastor of this community, I found myself in the middle of this field one early spring Saturday morning, shivering with the rest of the choir as we sat on metal bleachers there. We had been practicing indoors for several weeks, but it was now time for the dress rehearsal. We dragged out the costumes, erected the walls of Jerusalem, adjusted the sound, and got to work. But we didn’t account for one factor—the cows.

The field next to the church is a pasture where cows freely roam. And for us, the fence is simply a property line, one we can cross with the farmer’s permission. But for the animals, it represents more. Behind this fence, they are safe. Safe from passing vehicles that whip around the mountain curves. Safe from wandering off into neighboring fields. Safe from the harassment of pastors’ wives.

Halfway through rehearsal, a pretty young heifer wandered near the hillock that represented Golgotha. At first she was cautious, but then she became emboldened, strode over to the cross, and proceeded to nibble the fabric that draped it. Instantly, I turned from polite pastor’s wife to rodeo clown. Jumping off the top row of bleachers, I ran toward her, my arms waving. “Hey, get on, girl!” I yelled. “Get moving!” The heifer swung her head in my direction, fear and shock in her eyes. She stood frozen for a split second, but then she jerked her body, clicked up her hooves, and bolted for a corner of the field far from this raving mad woman.

Like the heifer, many of us have safe spaces in our lives—fields that are carefully bounded by good God-given fences. Within them, we are free to graze among the wildflowers, to care for our young, to wander down to the creek when the heat of summer comes. Our field may be a church community, a family, a lifestyle, or daily routine, but within these limits, we know what to expect. We know the boundaries and are at peace.

Ultimately, we are kept safe not by our fences, but by the One who established them.

Until an outsider shows up. And then, like that young heifer, we instinctively bolt for safety.

The thing about good fences is that they also have gates, and sometimes the Farmer grants permission for outsiders to come into our field. Sometimes He will even call us out from behind them. But we know that the world is a wild, dangerous place full of predators. If the Farmer creates fences for our own safety, how can we be secure when He invites a stranger to cross them or when He calls us out?

Ultimately, we are kept safe not by our fences, but by the One who established them. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds us that true rest and safety comes from surrendering to Him. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden,” He invites, “and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me … and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).

In the ancient world, cattle did more than graze; they also were beasts of burden. Farmers regularly took them from the security of sheds and hedged fields to yoke them to plows and carts and threshing wheels. But despite the wild world around them, these cattle would remain safe as long as they stayed yoked. As long as they were connected to their master, they’d be at peace.

 In the end, safety does not come from fencing ourselves off from the world. It comes from submitting to the One who owns the world. It comes from “taking His yoke,” from surrendering ourselves to Him. Sometimes that means embracing the limits He has placed around us; sometimes it means following Him out into the harvest field. And sometimes it might even mean letting a stranger come into our safe spaces.

 

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28 Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.

29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

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