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 http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dualism-and-identity


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

Susan and I just saw a great movie from the middle of the last decade (2005). Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I recommend it highly. I consider it one of the best theological films of this century so far.

It’s called Elizabethtown, and is about a young man named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who fails so monumentally in his work that he wants to kill himself. But then a call comes that changes, and saves, his life.

The story follows the classic, archetypal course of the hero’s journey. Drew must go from his home in Oregon to a strange land (Kentucky, specifically, Elizabethtown) to complete a task for which he is totally unprepared. Along the way he meets a wise guide, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who helps him navigate both the unfamiliar physical and emotional landscape. Living up to her name, she makes things clear for Drew, but not so much by telling him what he needs to know as by guiding him to discover the possibilities of life—his life–for himself. Drew, so prepared to end his existence, finds in and through his failure new possibilities.

One of the key themes of the film is remembrance and the different ways we do that. The climax of the story is a memorial, which features different characters recounting their experiences with the deceased. Earlier, Claire speaks an enigmatic line, which somehow feels to me central to the tale: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” What is the difference between not forgetting and remembering? I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Another theological theme is the Holy Spirit, present in unpredictable ways and at odd moments. I love the scene in the Brown Hotel ballroom where a special effect goes awry as the band Ruckus plays “Free Bird.” A gigantic white dove catches on fire as it flies across the room, setting off sprinklers, then crashes to the ground. Most people run. But Drew’s sister Heather (Judy Greer) stands under the shower from the sprinklers with oransher hands in the orans position (see picture for an ancient example) , eyes closed, as if being baptized. Is this rebirth what she has been yearning for? How do you and I respond when the Spirit comes in crazy ways?

It’ was interesting to see this movie while I’m reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which also has to do with the hero’s journey. Rohr points out that it is through suffering that we move into the second half of life, our further journey. “One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight,” he writes, “is that the way up is the way down. Or if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” He continues: “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

“Normally a job, a fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern is in fact so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson” (xviii-xix).

The lesson from Rohr and from Elizabethtown is that God comes to us sideways, from sources we don’t expect, on a journey we did not or would not choose. He is not absent from suffering; in fact, it may be through the experience of loss, failure (even fiasco), sadness, and strangeness that his greatest lessons of the soul are taught and learned. As Claire urges Drew: “I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.”

God give us grace to receive what he gives.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham