VIEW VIDEO One of the curious things about living in the town where you grew up is the flashbacks, past incidents recurring vividly in the mind. One of my best friends growing up, who remains a close friend today, Bill Eddy, was raised in the house across from where Joan and I live now, except our house didn’t exist when we were kids. It was Sam Anderson’s cow pasture then. When Bill and I were in the 5th grade, I told a girl in our class that he loved her, which was true, but not for publication. He invited me over to his house after school and we went for a hike through Sam Anderson’s pasture, where our home now sits. And just about where our front door is now, Bill turned around and punched me smack in the nose, knocking me to the ground, then said, “That’s for blabbing your mouth off.” To this day, whenever I walk out our front door, my nose twitches, still reminding me, after all these years, to mind my own business.
George Evanoff was our 5th grade teacher, and taught us arcane tidbits of American history, one of which was the fascinating history of the Michigan-Ohio War of 1835-36, when both Michigan and Ohio claimed a 486 square-mile region along their common boundary. Unable to resolve their differences, the governors sent their state militias to battle, the troops gathering on either side of the Maumee River near present-day Toledo, where they traded insults and got drunk.
Congress intervened, granting the disputed territory to Ohio, in recompense carving off the Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin and giving it to Michigan, who at first refused to accept it, thinking the land worthless, but eventually, albeit begrudgingly, accepted the deal, shortly afterwards discovering rich deposits of iron ore, lead, and copper, fueling the American Industrial Revolution, in the process making Michigan one of our most affluent states. Don’t ever let anyone tell you boundaries don’t matter.
We’ve been talking about maps, and how the earliest maps in our lives, be they people or paper, have such a profound effect on our lives. We’ve since been thinking about those characteristics of maps that mirror our own lives, so today I want to talk about one feature of maps we would do well to include in our lives and that is boundaries, clear lines of demarcation that mark our business and the business of others, so the two are never confused, lest we end up getting punched in the nose.
On maps, boundaries are the lines separating cities, counties, states, and nations, but when we speak of boundaries in our relationships, we mean the personal limits and rules we establish within relationships. An example of a personal boundary would be a parent’s decision to remain disconnected from their adult children’s finances. I have a friend who gifted her child with a house downpayment but refused to co-sign on her mortgage. That’s a boundary.
Another friend not only refused to help with his son’s house downpayment, he also wouldn’t co-sign on the mortgage, telling his son, “You’ll know you’re ready to own your own home when you can buy it without my assistance.” That’s also a boundary. My eight-year-old granddaughter doesn’t like being hugged without first being asked. “My body, my rules,” she says. That’s a boundary her Nana Joan taught her, and it’s a good boundary. A person with healthy boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to closer relationships when they’re ready. To be clear, boundaries aren’t the same as solid walls. Walls keep everyone out, which isn’t desirable. Boundaries are different. They teach us where the doors are. Do you remember in the Bible when Jesus went away by himself to quieter places? Boundaries allow us to disengage, so that when it is necessary or desirable, we can engage, we can open the door.
Beware of people who always ask you to violate the personal limits you’ve set for yourself. I knew a person whose life was an economic train wreck, and often asked me for money. I would always give it to him, until I realized my generosity was enabling his irresponsibility, so I started telling him no. The first time I told him no, he said, “Thank you for holding me accountable. You have inspired me to conduct myself more appropriately.” Nah, I’m just kidding. He was, as it says in the Old Testament, pisseth off, and said, “I thought you were a Christian.”
I told him, “I am a Christian, and am therefore committed to your growth, which will only happen when you accept responsibility for your life.”
When we don’t have boundaries, we allow other people, often less healthy people, to rule, and sometimes ruin, our lives. Boundaries are not mean, nor are they selfish or snobbish. They are the fences that make good neighbors. Remember this: If someone throws a fit because you set boundaries, it is more evidence the boundary is needed.
Just as it is important to have financial and emotional boundaries, it is also imperative to have religious and spiritual boundaries. Religion makes some people think they have the right, and not just the right, but the sacred duty, to tell the rest of us what we must believe, think, and feel? If you think about it, religions are mostly codified boundaries, imposed by leaders on the followers. Believe this, not that. Do this, not that. Say this, not that. But healthy spirituality begins when we find within ourselves the strength, courage, and independence to follow our Light, not someone else’s.
It is never selfish to say, “My conscience will not permit me to do what you are asking. My discernment will not permit me to believe what you believe. My self-respect will not permit me to be led by someone who has no respect for me.”
Establishing and maintaining our boundaries is an ongoing work. In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost wrote about the damage done to stone walls by frost-heave and hunters. He described meeting with his neighbor each spring to walk the wall and repair the gaps.
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.
Boundaries are a gift to ourselves and others. They make possible civility, responsibility, autonomy, and relationship.
I asked our experts on artificial intelligence, John Essex and Treg Hopkins, to use AI to discern what Jesus might have said about personal boundaries if he had only gotten around to it. Five minutes later, Treg sent back an entire sermon, along with a centering thought and a pastoral prayer, which made me feel as if my life’s work and study were utterly inconsequential. John sent this snippet of Jesus talking about the wisdom of boundaries. “Be wise in your associations. Do not cast your pearls before swine, for they will trample them under their feet. Recognize the value of the treasure within you and share it with those who honor and respect it.”
So, Friends, know well the line where your life ends, and another begins. Mind that line, and tend it daily, knowing good boundaries do not constrain us, but set us free.