I am remembering a walk one day along the fence line of a family farm. The farm has since passed to other hands, but the lessons of that fence have stayed with me. I offer these principles here for those looking for direction for a new year and a fresh start:
First, walk your fence line and look for gaps. Fences are important to the work of a farm. A weak fence is an open invitation to a predator. It’s also an invitation for a horse or cow to go where they shouldn’t. Checking the fence line for gaps is an important part of farming. Likewise, checking spiritual fence lines is an important part of personal growth. Checking the fence line is about getting our motives right. When our motives are prideful (we want to win) or selfish (we want what we want), then God will step back and let us do our own thing. But when our motives are right (we’re after things God values) then we can be confident He’s in there with us.
This is straight out of the Bible. We are encouraged to test ourselves — to be fearless in looking for spiritual gaps and places where the enemy can get to us. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
If you’re hoping to be more effective, more productive, more in tune with God’s will in 2016, then start with David’s prayer. “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” Walk the fence lines; look for gaps. Be ruthless in shaking the posts to ensure the weak places get reinforced. We don’t have anything to fear when we walk the fence lines. We may have have gaps, but gaps we know about can be fixed. We can begin again.
Some gaps have a purpose (but even planned gaps need tending). At my father-in-law’s farm, there was one place in the fence where the gap was wide and obviously there on purpose. Joe had an agreement with the guy who owned the pasture next to his, so the neighbor’s cows were able to come and go freely between the two pastures. But even planned gaps have limits. Joe pointed out a couple of issues with the gap we were looking at and said he was going to have to tell the guy that if he didn’t take care of those issues, he would have to close the gap and the cows wouldn’t have access to his pasture any more. Weakened gaps in your fence — even planned gaps — and the whole point of the fence is lost.
Where have you allowed unhealthy gaps — too many commitments, too much on your plate for you to do any of it well?
Firebreaks serve not just us but those around us. A firebreak is a shallow trench dug into the ground about five feet inside the fence line. When a property owner has a planned burn to clear out the underbrush in an area, they build a firebreak to keep the fire from jumping over onto the neighbor’s property. Don’t dig a firebreak on the property line; dig inside the property line.
What a great word for those of us who tend to live at our limits. If we’re going to be respectful of the people around us, we’ve got know our limits and live not at them but inside them. Build a fire break not just for your own sanity but for everyone else’s, too. Maybe James had this at least partly in mind when he said, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5). When we get past our limits emotionally, we too easily end up blowing sparks in the direction of people who don’t deserve to be burned.
Practice controlled burns. After digging a firebreak a few feet in from the fence line, a property owner will set their own woods on fire. On purpose. The point is to clear out the underbrush, get rid of dead trees and limbs and stimulate seed germination. As a metaphor, this is such a rich idea. This is about getting rid of the stuff that seems harmless but is actually sapping the life out of us. It’s also about getting rid of the stuff we know is hurting us. Jesus said (Matthew 5:29-30), “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Jesus is talking here about a controlled burn — about getting rid of anything that might start a fire in your life or sap nutrients from the more important stuff. What needs to go (even good stuff), so more productive things can flourish?
I want to challenge you early in this new year to take some time apart to walk your fence line and look for the gaps that need repair. Dig a firebreak well inside your property line not just for yourself, but for the people around you. Do a controlled burn; get rid of the underbrush and the dead wood. Prime your soil for new growth.
A new year is a great time for a new start. Are you with me?