Borderlands

September 18th, 2017

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“The divine Marquis de la Fayette is in town, and is quite the thing.” An Annapolis resident, Mrs. Benjamin Ogle, wrote this in 1781. She was right. A Marquis is divine.

My wife Kathy and I live in Annapolis, a town Lafayette frequented with his friend, George Washington. Lafayette served Washington and the Continental Army with distinction during the American Revolutionary War. That’s why America honors The Marquis de la Fayette to this day.

France conferred the title Marquis on Lafayette as a young man. It’s derived from the Old French word marchis “march, borderland,” referring to someone who ruled on the borderlands of a realm. Borderlands are contested areas, wide or small, between countries or armies (such as the British and Patriot army in Lafayette’s day).

Borderlands exist between God’s kingdom and the domain of darkness. They’re contested areas such as sexuality or, a few years back, drinking and movies. Small-minded folks imagine these borderlands as narrow and dangerous. Can’t get close to hem. Can’t talk about erotic desire for fear you’ll get sucked into pornography.

I didn’t say that. The Apostle Paul did. He planted the Corinthian church but it floundered for many years. Paul said the problem was “small-minded people” (10:28) who were “reducing God to something they can use or control” (10:14).[1] Or someone.

Narrow-minded people seek to take others “emotional hostage.” They cross-examine other believers on the ethical purity of many things. Paul calls this “bad manners and bad spirituality.” For instance, small-minded people are uncomfortable talking about sexuality. Yet scripture pictures God’s love for us as the erotic union between man and woman. The Song of Songs is intensely erotic series of poems about the passion between two young people who are patently not married. Narrow-minded Christians are uneasy talking about this. They fear this fills young minds with dirty thoughts.

In Corinth, narrow Christians frowned on other believers who enjoyed eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul enjoyed eating it as well, for he felt God “lurks” in everything, even in this meat. It is not profaned. It is sacramental (this is where we get the idea of life as sacramental). All of life is a “sacrament,” a revelation of God’s presence.

Paul was a broad-minded believer. “The earth is God’s, and everything in it” (10:26). That “everything” includes sexuality (or  few glasses of wine – or, in C. S. Lewis’ case, a few pints of beer). The borderlands between God’s kingdom and the darkness are very wide and, as Dallas Willard noted, “a perfectly safe place for us to be.”[2]

Broad-minded Christians know this because they see the presence of God in the world. Our homes, work, and schools are “haunted” by God. Small-minded Christians emphasize the absence of God. There is a “spiritual” part of life where God is present and a “secular” part where he is, at best, only marginally present. In this small world, the borderlands are narrow and best avoided. Too easy to get drawn to the dark side.

This is why narrow-minded believers are uncomfortable with Bernini’s statue of Saint Therese being transfixed by the arrow of divine love. It dares to portray her ecstasy as orgasmic. The saint herself was not hesitant about the use of erotic vocabulary in her description of her relationship with God. Narrow-minded believers can’t go there. They “argue that the borderland between the erotic and a pornographic is so narrow and so dubious that the erotic must be avoided,” writes Andrew Greeley, “lest it be perceived as pornographic.” But in fact, the borders are wide and “easily distinguish from one another by those who do not have prurient minds.”[3]

Ah… prurient minds. Paul said the narrow-minded Corinthians suffered from a “defiled conscience” (8:7). It’s usually the result of terrible tragedies such as sexual abuse, porn, or alcoholism. Terribly hurt and scarred, narrow-minded believers are terrified of the borderlands. Get too close to the other side and you get burned.

Not true. Paul wrote that, for those with pure consciences, “all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). The borderlands are broad and safe. That’s why Paul could wander around Athens, the most pornographic city of his day, “examining closely” its artwork (Acts 17:23). He lived his entire life with a clear conscience (Acts 23:1).

I’m encouraged by the millennial believers I am meeting here in Annapolis. They know we are to heartily and freely enjoy God’s world. They know we shouldn’t be callous in our exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free, but neither should we be taken “emotional hostage” by them. God made us to rule over all creation. Yes, in a fallen world there are two kingdoms. But these millennials are like a Marquis, knowing how to rule the borderlands. In that sense, Mrs. Ogle was right about the Marquis de Lafayette.

 

[1] This is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of I Corinthians in The Message.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 321.

[3] Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 62.

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9 Responses to “Borderlands”

  1. Gerard says:

    This helps me think about my own life and a way to dialogue with others with language beyond law and grace.

    Last week a friend shared he doesn’t allow his children to listen to contemporary Christian music because it sounds to much like secular music and listening to the first would create a desire for the second.

    Before believing in Christ he and his wife were avid listeners of secular music.

    Ironically his wife shared what final helped her hear the gospel in a meaningful way was listening to a worship band that sounded like David Bowe sing Jesus Paid It All. She was a huge David Bowe fan.

    Yet somewhere a lie crept in that says the style of music is dangerous because it appeals to non-believers, as if to say we should not breathe air or live in houses because that also appeals to non-believers.

    I didn’t have a good way to communicate the disconnect I saw in what they shared, but framing music in terms of borderlands helps with that – so thanks!

  2. Barnabas says:

    Prompts thoughts of Shadowlands, as well. Thanks, Mike.

  3. Marc Horton says:

    “In it, but not of it”, sounds more narrow-minded than freely borderland, yet may be useful. The apostle Paul, while disciplining himself regarding his conscience (Acts 24:16), nevertheless abundantly understood his old nature, and that his conscience could be cleared only in Christ (Romans 7). Considering some of our ingrained habits that lead us into sin, we would be wise to consider that the borderlands appropriate for us to negotiate will vary.

  4. marble says:

    This is certainly an area of tension – approaching paradox. . . . I remember the special interview process I went through because of so-called “questionable areas” in my staff application. A lovely woman with a very southern accent questioned me about alcohol and whether I understood the stumbling block teaching of 1 Cor 8. . . . We talked about it and then she asked me if I wanted to change my answer as to my attitude about alcohol.

    “Does staff require that I refrain from alcohol?” I asked.

    “No.” She answered, after a hesitation.

    “Then no, my answer stands.”

    Then she asked me again about the weaker brother and the stumbling block teaching. . . . We talked about it. We talked about not leading weaker brothers into error or danger, and seemed to be getting somewhere towards mutual understanding.

    “OK then,” she said. “Do you now wish to change your answer about alcohol, then?”

    We did that at least 3 more times. She didn’t see how I could understand stumbling blocks and weaker brothers and not stay clear of those dangerous lands myself. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I’d be accepted on staff! I made her admit that a promise of abstinence was not required, but that she did hope I’d volunteer it.

    I’ve come to see more of the danger as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser). It’s still a real area of tension, isn’t it? To take your military analogy a little further, we should perhaps consider that only the well-armed, trained soldier should venture alone into the borderlands, or with a patrol close by. Perhaps we shouldn’t turn the borderlands into the equivalent of a destination resort. . . .

    Then again, I remember that in Christ, we are “more than conquerors” and I remember the promise He gave to Joshua as they were in the borderland that “I will give you every place where you have set your foot, as I promised Moses.” Joshua 1:3.

    So there’s that. . . . A land to be regarded with some respect, I’d say! And a special harkening to the Spirit. I remember our old friend Polly pointing out the difference between promise and presumption.

  5. marble says:

    Perhaps there’s more to be learned in the story of Numbers 14? God wanted to take the Jews into the land, but they refused. Then they said they’d go – but by then it was too late; it was presumption. God had already said they couldn’t go, their children would.

    Moses told them: “Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies.” And they were.

    To ponder. . . .

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Good thoughts, Marble. I still think it mainly comes back to whether you see the presence of God in all things (sacramentalism) or more the absence of God (more prevalent in Protestantism).

  7. brian says:

    Mike…
    always enjoy your thoughts. Wonder if you could provide a quick reply to a question from your post.

    Where do you get the conclusion that: “The Song of Songs is intensely erotic series of poems about the passion between two young people who are patently not married.”

    Is it in the text itself? Maybe I’ve missed something obvious. Not questioning your conclusion but asking a question. I’ve heard you say that a few times.

  8. brian says:

    Of course my question surrounds the statement that they were “patently not married.”

  9. marble says:

    Good point, Metz! And right back to the story of Moses and the Jews – looking at the border. . . .

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