Mending Identity – a Remembrance

Originally posted in the Fall 2011 Issue of The Scrawl, a publication of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

I recently took a trip to upstate NY to mourn my fiancée’s grandfather’s passing. On that trip two streams of thought which I had been chasing converged. The first stream: I love poetry. Walking about in the New York’s autumn foliage and rustling breezes reminded me of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”. The second: this fall I’ve been spending some time slowly working through Ephesians. Finally, Grandpa Cahoon’s memorial service pointed me toward some reflection on death.

Memorial services, like the one I witnessed, often focus on identity. Who the person was, what they did and why they will be remembered. These thoughts introduce other thoughts: who we are – or rather, who we meant to be. Relationships are rooted in identity. We have so many ways of securing identity, or rather, of defining identity. We exclude certain things and persons, we include others. We are vagrants seeking definition, seeking rest, seeking home. These distinctions, these separations – what we exclude – make up so much of our identity.

Frost’s “Mending Wall” tells a story of two landowners. One, the narrator, owns an apple orchard. His neighbor owns a pine forest, and between them there is a stone wall which every year falls into disrepair.

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. 

But, the narrator wonders,

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’. 

This statement – that proper boundaries make for peaceable relations – has merit. And yet, the narrator struggles, questions even:

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.’. . .

This passage in particular touched me. I turned the question inward and asked what it might be that I was ‘walling in’ or ‘walling out’ and ‘to whom I was like to give offense’. There are things (the poet admits exceptions) that need walls or boundaries – cows, in the poem. The question is not whether relationships can be helped by proper boundaries, but rather: what are proper boundaries? What defines us?

I am afraid, and I imagine that others might be as well, that if I were to surrender all fences, all boundaries and all exclusion that I should be a shiftless and vague shadow of a man, ghostlike. In fear, I think, we turn to religion, or fashion, or any number of things to determine the proper boundaries. But is that how God defines us? What if we sought to define ourselves not by a principle of exclusion, but rather by relationship.

But “we know that!” you will surely say – as I do, so often. It is by Christ that we are defined, yes? It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship! And if you said so, you would be right. But I asked myself, and I wonder if it might be worth another asking as well, whether I was anything at all like the Pine Forest Neighbor when it comes to my walk with Christ. Do I think that placing boundaries on my borders with the Kingdom ‘make good neighbors?’

As I draw near the end of my time at TEDS, I face a question faced by most everyone I imagine. A mentor of mine in Oregon pointed out that, whilst in my twenties, I would essentially always be trying to prove myself and to establish my identity. In his words “so, just expect that, and get over it.” This struggle is over identity – and that is the question we face as we enter the working world (whether again, or for the first time). I will (Lord willing) graduate and face yet another stage in the lifelong pursuit of my own identity in the context of Christ’s.

When I looked in the first few verses of Ephesians something stuck out to me. I’ve learned by now how unlikely it is that such an idea originates with me, yet here it is all the same. As you may recall, four times Paul locates his audience “in [Christ]”. Remember the Ephesian context from Acts – a small, beleaguered church, infamous for destroying the profitable silver and idol business of the town and disrupting its patriotic fervor. In their context, all the tools that they had for determining and assigning themselves a “name” were stripped from them. They certainly weren’t proper “Romans.” They were terrible citizens – they had openly attacked the major revenue source for the city. Finally, they were religious heretics who refused to recognize Artemis’ patronage of the city! Yet Paul encourages them in this manner: their identity is based on none of those things.

When we leave this institution, even while we are here, we face financial hardship, divided attention and various noble causes that are constantly competing for our attention and allegiance. Personally, it has been a struggle for me to persevere in trusting my God to uphold the boundaries that He sets on my life. When I stop trusting Him, I start trying to set my own boundaries. When I erect those fences to try and protect myself, I cut myself off from key aspects of my relationship with Christ.

Paul asserts that we share the fate of Christ. Our ability to live confidently in this present age is tied to our trust in Christ: his work, his person and ultimately, his promise. We can’t just exclude ‘the world’, defining ourselves by what we are not, nor can we have a docile relationship with Christ – where he stays with his apple orchard and we our pine copse. We’re invited to carry on the work of Christ who “broke down the middle wall of separation” by refusing to build walls between us and our neighbor (Eph. 2:14). So when, I found myself standing alongside a New England fence, with the world cloaked in an autumnal tapestry, looking hopefully for gaps in the walls of my heart in hopes that I might catch a glimpse of my Neighbor and take a walk in His orchard.

Comments are closed.