The proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” dates to the 17th century. Robert Frost used it in the poem, Mending Wall. Like many proverbs we use the phrase often to describe relationships.
by Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
I live in a subdivision where each yard is fenced. The covenants of our homeowner’s association require that each yard be fenced, even describing the type and height of the fence. I guess the ‘founding homeowners’ took this proverb seriously. When a section of the fence between our yard and my friend Steve’s fell down in a windstorm and rotted fence posts, it felt like a rush of fresh air. It was freeing to walk between our yards for conversation and to admire the gardens between us.
The homeowners association sent Steve a compliance letter informing him that the fence must be restored or he must pay a fine. Needless to say, the fence was repaired and the fresh air and freedom of a few weeks was ended. What was it that we were to wall in or wall out?
We’ve been building fences since the dawn of humanity. Human sinfulness is our attempt to build walls or fences that would keep God out. It can also be our attempt to construct a cage built of our own prejudices and limited knowledge to wall God in.
We build fences because we don’t want to see our neighbor’s junk and we also don’t want the neighbors to see our treasures. We build fences to keep those who are unlike us in thought, word and deed out of our lives. We speak of “fencing the table” at church in order to keep those who are unworthy from the sacrament. Even our architecture uses fences, although we’d be loathe to call them that, to protect the “holy” from the “profane.”
One of the important aspects of being a Presbyterian is the acknowledgment that we are a connectional denomination. I am reminded of the connection we share each time I worship with the congregations in our presbytery. I am aware of the connection as I watch and participate in the engagement of the commissioners to presbytery meetings. I rejoice that God has given us a connection as I work with the Ruling and Teaching Elders of our churches in talking, planning and doing what Christ has commissioned us to do in our local communities.
Our constitution affirms that “the congregation is the basic form of the church, but it is not of itself a sufficient form of the church. Thus congregations are bound together in communion with one another, united in relationships of accountability and responsibility, contributing their strengths to the benefit of the whole, and are called, collectively, the church.” (G-1.0101)
I am worried for our denomination because I see the building of fences that we say will make us good neighbors, but really are being built to keep something in and something out. I am not so naive that I don’t recognize that fences have always been around. What concerns me is that I see churches and presbyteries where it appears that higher and stronger fences with narrower gates or in some cases no gate at all are being built. When affinity in theological issues or church size or type of ministry is given priority over unity in diversity, are we not building fences for the wrong purpose? Are the proposals to create non-geographic presbyteries and regional Administrative Commissions attempts at ‘fence-mending’ or to tear down one fence and build new walls that isolate us from one another still further?
The poem suggests the image of a fence or wall that is need of mending and the speaker questions the value of mending it. While our denomination’s fences are looking a bit worn and may be crumbling in places, it’s important that we begin asking ourselves why we need to rebuild them and if we do, how we will rebuild them. An even more important question we need to bear in mind, “Is it the fence that makes us good neighbors or is there something more?”