September 2013

If “’good fences make good neighbors,’” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), what do the way our wooden fences are oriented reveal about our attitudes toward our neighbors? (Of course, Frost began the poem with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” so should we put up barriers at all?)

Anyway, I’ve noticed that when we build fences they face one of two ways. One is with the panels out toward the street or the neighbor in the next house, so that the pretty side of the fence is seen by those who pass by and by the people on either side of us. I call these “outies.” The other is with the rails and posts—the raw side—toward them, so that we enjoy the nice-looking fence. I term this orientation “innie.”

Isn’t that rather the way we tend to think about relationships with others? The nice-side-toward-the-neighbor fences might indicate that we value our neighbors’ need for beauty and a pleasant life more highly than our own. We also want to make a good impression and contribute to the well-being and aesthetics of our community.

On the other hand, the raw-side-toward the neighbor, the street, could stand for the tendency we all have to think first of what’s good and enjoyable for ourselves. We want to see beauty and enjoy the good life, while we expect our neighbors to deal with the raw edges. Who cares if they have to look at the posts and rails and concrete? We have what we need and want.

But I wonder if there isn’t a third way. Richard Rohr, the contemplative Catholic priest, talks about the danger of dualistic, childish thinking. Everything is either/or, good/bad, us/them. He suggests that the contemplative way, as classically understood, detaches from such bifurcated ideas and embraces an inclusive way of both/and (see endnote).

So the contemplative fence might be one with the panels on both sides, loving ourselves and our neighbor, loving ourselves as we love our neighbor, doing good for ourselves by loving our neighbor. We realize that it is in our interest that the neighbor live a full and good life. How much crime and disharmony arise from people struggling to have the bare necessities? And when a variety of ideas are in the mix, instead of just one or two choices, and a solution arises beyond any of them, the community benefits and is enriched.

Of course, a fence with panels on both sides is more costly. But isn’t this the reality of true discipleship? Can we render unto the Lord that which costs us nothing (cf. 2 Samuel 24:24)?

Innie? Outie? Try the third way.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Endnote: Rohr made the comments in the short film “Dualism and Identity,” at


“…[W]icked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

I can barely stand to watch or read the news anymore. Why? More mass shootings, like the recent ones in Chicago and Nairobi. Congressmen who quote the Bible while they take food from the mouths of poor children in working families by cutting funds from the SNAP program (note 1). People who call themselves Christians but actually act exactly the opposite from the way of love Jesus taught and practiced, all the while claiming to be persecuted for their faith (note 2). The new Miss America called a terrorist by racist hatemongers because she has brown skin. Rancor, greed, selfishness, posturing, and on and on.

So I have to wonder what the proponents of a view popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries (the latter was supposed to be “the Christian century”) were thinking. They believed that as a result of the preaching of the gospel by the church, the world and people would keep getting better and better until a literal thousand-year reign of Christ (Revelation 20) marked by perfect peace and righteousness, was ushered in. During those halcyon days, Jesus would reign from heaven, then return to Earth. At that time, Satan, having reared his ugly head one more time, would be defeated.

The view was dealt a death blow, of course, by WWI and WWII, the Holocaust, and nuclear weapons, but even without any of those, the idea (known as “postmillennialism”) would eventually have been shown to be the silly piece of rosy-colored glasses optimism it is. We have actually gotten worse and worse as a species, as evidenced by a brief look at the news any day. And far from things being made better by Christians preaching the gospel, so-called “believers” have actually contributed to the malaise of this nation and the world, with their intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and bigotry. It’s no wonder so many are turning against the Church, but not Jesus.

If our Lord is to be honored, and at least little corners of the world are to be made a bit better, it’s all the more incumbent on those who claim to follow Jesus to live authentically, loving their neighbors as the sign that they love God. I still have hope, a little glowing ember somewhere deep down, that people like that can make a difference, even if they don’t bring in the millennium.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Note 1

Note 2

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33).

My small congregation has received four new members this year, from three different generations, and in the past month, I’ve baptized three children. So I’ve been thinking a good bit about how churches welcome new people.

That’s why a brief article in this week’s The Christian Century caught my eye and pointed me to the blog of the online journal Ministry Matters. In the August 13 post, Matt Rosine noted that churches are still trying to answer questions visitors aren’t asking:

  1. So how soon can I get involved with your committees?
  2. Can I get a longer bulletin—maybe something with more detail?
  3. Will you please single me out in front of all the people during worship this morning?
  4. Will you please send some "callers" by my house later and interrupt me while I fix dinner?
  5. Can you please seat us in those uncomfortable pews with our fidgety kids and aging parents?
  6. How quickly can I fill out a pledge card?
  7. Does this church have weekly meetings, rehearsals and other activities that will consume most of our family’s free time?
  8. I need more paperwork! Can you give me a folder filled with glossy pamphlets, old newsletters and denominational statements of belief?
  9. During the worship service, can someone with a monotone voice speak (at length) about all the insider church happenings and people’s private health matters? I find this so inspiring.

Of course, these are all the wrong questions, arising out of the congregation’s need to perpetuate itself as an institution through the accumulation of “nickels and noses” as a minister colleague of mine quipped recently. The questions I have discovered over my 35+ years of ministry that people are actually asking, no matter what their age, are all about finding a place to belong, a community that cares for them, a sense of continuity with what they have known in other places, hospitality to their spoken needs,  discernment about their unspoken ones, and a safe place to express their fears and doubts. They don’t want to be descended on, singled out or deluged with paper. They simply want to be cared for, valued for who they are (not as replacements for those who have died or departed to other churches), and welcomed with all their gifts and questions and ideas.

Jesus may have been talking about individuals in the Luke text cited at the beginning of this post, but his gracious warning and promise also applies to institutions. It is only when churches are willing to lose their lives for the sake of hospitality and mission that they will truly find them.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


I wonder if you approach big tasks the way I usually do. I see a gigantic, overwhelming monster in front of me, and I shrink back in fear and almost give up any effort to conquer it because the job will take too long or it’s too complicated or I’ve never done anything like it before. That goes for anything from cleaning out a house to preparing a church school lesson series to acquiring some new skill. To change the metaphor, I look way, way down the road at the destination and despair of ever reaching it. It will take too much time and too many resources. Why not turn back now?

Our recent hiking vacation, about which I told a little last week, reminded me that worthy goals are not accomplished in one fell swoop, with minimal effort or time. But they need not overwhelm. On the trails, we stopped often, sometimes going just 20 feet over rough rocks and uneven steps. A round-trip hike of a mile on one day took three hours. But we made it, little by little.

Do we eat a big burger all in one bite? Do we learn a new language by starting with obscure words and difficult constructions? Do we clean out a shed or a home all at once? No, we don’t “bite off more than we can chew.” We begin with the easier words and constructions in a language and move on to the harder ones. (“Ubi est agricola?” I remember from Latin class. “Where is the farmer?”)  We make a plan for the mass of stuff, tackling one corner of a shed or one room of a house. Little by little we make progress. We go by increments.

Life can be overwhelming. No, not can be. Is. What if we broke down the tasks we are called on to accomplish every day into smaller steps, as on that state park trail, and celebrated what we did? Looked not so much at the many, many agenda items we have yet to finish, the miles yet to go, but the opportunity right in front of us for service, for growth, for relationship? What would our lives be like then?

Easier said than done. But do we really prefer to stumble along the trail, exhausted, anxious, and frustrated? Why not give ourselves small victories on  the way, then when finally we do reach our goal (and we will), we will not only have gotten to the destination, but enjoyed the journey.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Stone Door” photo © 2013 Susan Cheatham. All rights reserved.