Of boundaries, growth, and Lent

By Marshall Scott

“Good fences make good neighbors,” so we say. “My rights stop at the end of your nose,” we say, or at least we used to. From clinical practice to business practice, from the grand scale of diplomacy to the intimacy of personal relationships, we extol the values and importance of good boundaries.

Boundaries protect us, of course. That’s usually the first reason we appeal for them. In current difficulties, there are dioceses that have tried to set boundaries to exclude the Episcopal Church. There are aspects of their lives they seek to protect; not least the sense of control to perpetuate themselves, to raise up bishops and other clergy carrying forward their particular perspective on the faith. In consequence, of course, the Episcopal Church has had to respond, asserting the established boundaries, and defending the integrity of Constitution and Canons and General Convention.

But if boundaries might protect us, they will certainly shape us in other ways. If we feel safer with them, we will also feel limited by them. That’s not always a bad thing. In Lent we realize our limitations – both those we choose and those that confront us when our choices fail. Our limits are real, and we can grow from recognizing them.

Or not. In anxious times it’s all too easy to choose the limitations in the interest of safety. But, when we do that we run the risk of defining our boundaries ever more tightly, and erecting new ones whenever there is a problem.

When I was a schoolchild, we lived on (what I think of, at least, as) a typical suburban block. It was long and more or less rectangular. Various configurations of ranch and split level homes looked across modest front lawns to one another’s front doors, separated by quiet streets.

But in back, it was quite different. In back the lawns were large and open. There were no fences, or almost none. Within the large boundaries all the lawns were connected. It was, for a small schoolchild, a vast kingdom – almost large enough to stretch beyond the sound of mother’s voice. And between the vast kingdom and the boundaries of the streets were the resources: houses, and parents in them who could safely monitor us, carry us beyond the boundaries when needed, and evaluate and license our own liberty along those boundaries as we grew. Granted, all parents weren’t equally available, or even interested. However, the assumption was clear (at least in my house): children had largely unlimited access within the kingdom, and all parents were to be respected at the boundaries.

Now, the boundaries were real: nothing brought out parental wrath like playing in the street. And, as the various parents frequently knew one another’s children better than they knew one another, the reality of the resource was pretty solid. But the boundaries were relatively few; and the expectation was that we would indeed take them on and, as we grew, cross them and eventually use them as means to go beyond.

We can grow from recognizing our limitations if we’re also willing to step up to them, look beyond them, and engage whatever, whoever is beyond them. We can grow if we see the anxiety involved in our limitations as opportunities and challenges to grow. If instead we see them as defenses for our vulnerabilities, our limits will in fact grow smaller, and we will grow smaller with them.

In a way, I think this is what can happen in Lent, this growing by facing and challenging our limitations. Many of us take on or add to disciplines of life. We choose to abstain from this, or to take on that. The intent is in fact to make us mindful of our limitations, and of our need for God. That happens, I think, in two ways. The first is the additional effort involved. That incremental change, that measure of extra effort keeps our attention, and calls us to focus that attention on our relationship with and our accountability to God. If we take on discipline, we can’t help but notice; and if we don’t notice, just what did we really take on?

The second and more important way that we can grow from our limitations is precisely when we fail. What can convict us of our limits more profoundly than running into them and falling down? While the extra effort may focus us to some extent on our relationship with God, it is our failure that focuses us on our need for a relationship with God. It is in failing that we fall over the boundaries of our sufficiency, and realize we are in fact dependent, contingent. We cannot will ourselves to perfection, much less to salvation; and when we try we fail. That is when we realize our need for our Parent, for our resource who will indeed challenge us, but will also love us, evaluate us, and encourage us to grow so as to open and expand our boundaries and discover in them pathways to new freedom.

It is entirely possible to misunderstand and to fail to grow from our limitations in Lent. It is possible to take on the challenges of Lent in a spirit of defensiveness and fear. Is the extra effort taken on to focus on God, or to make us look good to ourselves or someone else? When we fail, do we ask that God strengthen us to try again, or just that God not condemn us outright? In either case the latter attitude is more about protecting ourselves within our limits than about discovering what might be beyond them. And in those attitudes we will be shaped by our limitations rather than our relationship with God, and we will grow smaller in consequence.

We are struggling now within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion with issues of limits and boundaries. We are struggling now within ourselves with our own limits, and how we can find God at them and in God grow beyond them. I pray that both within and without we may see our limits, our boundaries, not as constraints that make us smaller but as challenges to move beyond with God’s help. I pray that in both spheres we will trust first in God to strengthen us to face our limits, evaluate us as we struggle, love us as we fail, and call us to rise again to discover wider boundaries and pathways to freedom.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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