Boundaries and Practices

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 19, 2015)

Remember last week I told you I usually come up with a little paragraph and the bible text we are using for a particular Sunday?

Remember how I said sometimes it changes a lot when the week actually comes? Well this week, I realized I needed to add a whole other message to the plan, and bump the rest of them back a bit.

Last week I spoke about the importance of questions over creeds, about choosing not to enforce boundaries on other people in order to conform them to the image of Christ, but to trust God to do that transformation work. I challenged all of us to not take advantage of that lack of boundaries, not to see how far we could be away from Christ and still be “in”…but rather to do everything in us to seek the center of God’s will, pursuing Christ, searching the scriptures, asking community to help us do that.

I stand by what I said. Somebody externally giving me boundaries and rules has not been as effective at bringing change in my life as seeking God’s transformation and being obedient to what the Holy Spirit challenges me with.

But when we got home last week, Elaine said, “You kinda threw me at the end of the message. I thought you were going to talk about when boundaries ARE helpful.” 

Her question stayed with me all week, and I realized I needed to address it this week before we move on in this series. There are benefits to boundaries, and I want to talk about that and try to integrate it with what I said last week.

I used Psalm 139 last week, and 139:5 actually gets at this issue. The Psalmist is praying to God and says, “you hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” Clearly there is an affirmation there of God giving boundaries that are helpful.

This week, one of the places in the bible we are looking is also in the Psalms, Psalm 16. 

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6, TNIV)

Here the psalmist celebrates what we also said last week, that God’s ways are good and helpful for us… “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” Last week, when I challenged us as a church to not put boundaries on others, I want you to know I did not mean that boundaries are always bad. Boundaries can be extremely helpful and important…when we take them on for ourselves.

The other place we’re looking today is the end of Matthew 11, some of Jesus’ words.

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30, TNIV)

“Take my yoke upon you”… “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When we choose to place Christ’s yoke, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s boundaries, Christ’s practices…when we choose those for ourselves, they can be extremely helpful in putting us in the position to be changed and transformed by God. That’s what we want to talk about today. May God be speaking to us all as we continue worshipping through song.

Elaine’s question wasn’t the only nudge that caused me to adapt our plan for teaching in this series.

Another nudge was a Facebook message I got from Lisby Rogers, a young adult who grew up here at NFC. Listen to part of what she wrote to me:

We love being a part of the Quaker movement, but I remember growing up and not being super sure where I should land about hot issues because I wasn’t being told what to believe. This was good, but I wanted SOME discussion around things that any teenager is faced with.

There is a lot of wisdom there! It makes me want to clarify a few things. First, I was assuming last week (but I didn’t say so) that I was applying those thoughts to adults. Lisby’s message got me thinking about children and youth, got me asking the question of what, if anything, should be different.

Second, her comment about wanting some discussion is a key point, and raises the importance of community in our journey of trying to live in the center of obedience to Jesus. We need each other! We need our different experiences and beliefs to be shared as we are doing the challenging work of listening to Jesus. One danger of trying not to place our boundaries on somebody else is that it can silence us completely about issues and choices. This isn’t healthy.

There’s a difference between telling others how they must live out their obedience to God, and sharing with others what things have helped you hear and obey Jesus. We want to avoid the former, but be diligent to keep doing the latter.

When are boundaries a good thing?

I think parents have a responsibility and are most helpful to their own children when they set appropriate boundaries. Some of this is so obvious. There’s not a discussion about running in the street as a preschooler. You don’t leave that for the preschooler to decide, you say “no” and you grab their hand. You bring your children to church because you find the community valuable for you and you want them to experience that too…and you do it even if the 8 year old “just ain’t feelin’ it” today.

At every point along the way, though, I would hope we as parents are keeping last week’s message in mind. Outside boundaries are not effective at bringing lasting change. At every step along the parenting journey, it’s best if we clearly communicate things like, “This boundary is in place because we believe it will help you, and it has proven helpful to us.” “We have this expectation as a way to show you our love and our care for your safety and health.”

I think it’s important to regularly communicate that we expect that one day our kids will make all of their own choices, to communicate that we realize some of those choices may be different from our own, as they hopefully find what best helps them pursue God. I think it’s important to always have the goal of raising children who internalize their own boundaries, make their own choices for actions, and understand why they are making them.

I think it’s important to steadily give more and more opportunity for kids to make more and more of their own choices; that the general trajectory is toward more independence and toward them discovering for themselves how to seek God, listen to others they respect, study the bible and make good choices.

If a child breaks trust, it can be appropriate to go the other way, and take away some of the previous freedom they’ve earned. Not necessarily as a punishment, but as a reminder that the ultimate goal is the son or daughter’s healthy growth and safety…reminding that we believe God’s way to be the best way toward healthy growth and safety.

The goal is always for each person to choose the boundaries and practices they believe to be the best way to live in the center of God’s will. As we get older, as the lobes of our brain fuse together, we gain more and more ability to articulate those reasons. It’s a process, and boundaries can be helpful in putting us in the place for God to transform us, even if we don’t fully understand the reasons why.

Let me give an example from my own life.

When I went back to church on my own in high school, that community was very influential in a positive way. I took on a lot of their boundaries and standards and rules. I didn’t fully understand “why” for all of them, but I respected how those friends lived. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to be like how they lived for God.

So I adopted the community’s very strong boundary not to have sex before marriage. Today, I have well thought out reasons why I believe that to be helpful, but if I’m honest, back then it was pretty much just a rule that I was afraid of breaking. I think it would have been better if I had heard people give me a lot of the good reasons for why, better if I had made those reasons my own back then. But even without that, there was benefit to having the boundary.

One of my best friends my senior year was a girl where it seemed like we just kept being “off” all year: when she wanted to date me, I wasn’t interested in her, and vice versa. But after we graduated, her family was moving away…in fact her parents and brother had already left, and she was in her house by herself. I was there to say good bye, and she made it clear she was interested in more than friendship.

And I was so scared of crossing my boundary, that I got up and left the house.

At this stage of my life, I do not regret that choice at all.

I don’t look back and see it as a freedom I missed by leaving. I do wish I would have made that choice for positive reasons instead of fear. But I don’t regret choosing to leave. I’m glad I had that boundary in place.

Maybe a better word for boundary is a “practice”. We look to Jesus and we look to other people we respect, people we want to be like, and we take on their practices. We do what they do, and we don’t do what they don’t do. We make these determinations as thoughtfully and prayerfully as we can ahead of time.

This is one place where boundaries and practices are extremely helpful; a decision and a plan of action can be made ahead of time, ahead of when the moment arises.

Parents can give some of these early in life. And as children become youth, we need a church community that challenges them to think and discuss and pray and look for what boundaries and practices they want to take on and try in their desire and effort to listen to Christ and obey.

With so many things…not just sexuality…with so many things it is much easier to hear God’s direction when we aren’t in the heat of the moment. I think it’s important for children and youth and adults to think and wrestle beforehand, to put some boundaries and practices in place.

I think this is exactly where Jesus’ words in Matthew come in. 

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30, TNIV)

I learned something studying this passage on Friday. I’ve heard so many people talk about this passage…for that matter, I’ve probably talked about this passage… as if we are yoked to Jesus like a young ox is yoked to a more experienced ox. We learn by doing life alongside Jesus. Such a beautiful picture!

And one of the commentaries I read shot that beautiful picture down. Listen to this:

“The animal yoke, which harnesses two animals together to pull a plow or cart, is to be distinguished from the human yoke, which is worn by a single person to distribute the weight of a load across the shoulders…If there is a burden to be borne, it is better with a yoke than without…Here, as in most Jewish usage, it is more likely the single human yoke which is in view. However appealing the idea of being in ‘double harness with Jesus’ may be, that is not the point.” (R.T. France in the Matthew volume of the New International Commentary of the New Testament)

These bible scholars! Where are Brian Doak and Howard Macy? You bible scholars! Always ruining the beautiful images we preachers want to use, just because you’re concerned with, you know, truth and accuracy. So annoying.

I’m kidding. Scholars add tons to my understanding, and I learned this week that Jesus’ words here in Matthew are very closely connected to Jewish Wisdom tradition, specifically to a book in the Apocrypha called “Sirach”. Wisdom is seen as more than just truth, but actually personified as God. Wisdom always invites people to learn and grow and follow. Jesus and the Jews of his time would have known Sirach well…listen for the parallels between Matthew and Sirach 51:

Draw near to me, you who are untaught, and lodge in my school. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why are your souls very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Get these things for yourselves without money. Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. See with your eyes that I have labored little and found myself much rest.’

Jesus is making a strong claim to being Wisdom, to being God with his words in Matthew 11.

And his words would have caused people to think of following the path of wisdom, taking on the yoke, the discipline of solid teaching. Sometimes it isn’t comfortable and feels unnatural…but following Jesus’ teaching, taking on practices that Christ and other mentors do…this “yoke” helps us bear what we must bear.

Last weekend’s conference with Nathan and Richard Foster reminded us of this. There are things we can do, actions we can choose, that put us in the place for God to transform our hearts and minds. These practices, these boundaries that we choose for ourselves are ways for us to move toward the heart of God. It’s not these practices themselves that make us worthy or saved or even that change us. They are actions that place us close to God, where God can change our hearts.

So let me give just a couple of practical examples of boundaries and practices I’ve chosen for myself.

Not to impose them on you or say this is the only way to live faithfully…but as a testimony to what I’ve found helpful in my pursuit of God, and to encourage you to think of your own ways.

A simple one first: If I’m angry, I make it a practice/set a boundary that I will not send an email without letting it sit overnight, so I can read it in the calm light of day.

If someone comes to me angry, I make it a practice to focus solely on clarifying and understanding what they’ve said. I focus on reflective and active listening, asking clarification, making sure they know they are heard. Inside, I want to argue my case! But I make it a practice to listen and make sure I’ve got it right, so that I can take the time later to best respond to what they have actually said, not what I heard in my anger or fear.

If someone comes to me confronting me about something I’ve done wrong, I make it a practice to find what I need to apologize for. My fear in this is that I’ll get walked on, that my own hurt won’t be heard, that I’ll be unjustly taking the blame. But the people I respect, the ones who defuse disagreements and admit their mistakes are the ones who seem able to maintain relationships. I want that for myself. So in the moment, I set a boundary of focusing on what I may have done wrong.

And I find that after I’ve fulfilled the practice of owning my mistakes and asking forgiveness, there is always time later to go back…when I’m not as angry, when I’ve checked my motives, when I’ve prayed…there’s always time later to go back and share how I’ve felt hurt. It’s not that I always have to take all the blame, but my practice is to look first for honest places where I need to start taking responsibility.

Finally, I’ve said before that I believe the bible teaches freedom to use alcohol in moderation, avoiding drunkenness and the damage that can come from our mistakes in that state. But for myself, I’ve set a boundary of not drinking alcohol. I’ve chosen that because my grandfather was an alcoholic, and I’ve seen many signs of addictive behavior in myself in other ways over the years, and I don’t want to find out if I’m an alcoholic myself.

Choosing not to partake of the freedom that I have to drink is part of how God has led me to follow Christ and pursue the center.

All of these things, and so many more, are places where boundaries can be helpful.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll look at different issues that we face. Whoever gives the message will offer some of what they have found helpful, and hopefully we’ll have opportunities for some of you to share as well. We will use some of the questions or queries our Yearly Meeting offers to help us pursue God’s will.

I’ll close with words from Cyril of Alexandria, from the early 400’s…16oo years ago:

Stand apart from the inclination to love sin and to love the flesh. Turn to deeds worthy of praise. Draw near to me, so that you may become sharers of the divine nature and partakers of the Holy Spirit. (As quoted in the Matthew volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

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