Mending (or Tearing Down) Walls

Surprised by the Spirit

Robert Frost eloquently wrote:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
(Mending Wall)

That “something” is nothing less than the Holy Spirit!

Read the book of Acts and you’ll discover that the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time is surprising Jesus’ first followers (all of whom were Jews) with the formerly excluded people who get welcomed into the Body of Christ.

It happened on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit blew into the lives of the apostles with wind and fire and all sorts of people, from all sorts of places and cultures, speaking all sorts of languages, of all sorts of ages and genders, heard and responded to the good news of what God had done in Jesus Christ.

It happened on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (where Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other right now) when Phillip ran into (or was almost run over by) an Ethiopian, a black man, a eunuch, who was Secretary of the Treasury for the Ethiopian queen. Any one of those facts excluded him from the Temple. He heard the story of Jesus, was baptized right then and there, and “went on his way rejoicing.”

It happened again on a rooftop in Joppa when the Spirit told Peter to break the Old Testament laws and welcome a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his whole family into the Body of Christ. A totally flabbergasted Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partially to one group of people over another.” (Acts 10:34)

Luke summed up the whole story of Acts when he wrote,

“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45)

It kept happening everywhere that Paul traveled. He declared that “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:11-22)

And it has kept happening ever since. When people take the bible seriously, they are astonished to discover that the Spirit of God is more interested in tearing down the walls that separate us than building walls up.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

And yet…

Our tragic history is the way we continue to build walls where the Holy Spirit wants them down.

There is a devilish tendency in us — the bible calls it sin — that is relentlessly at work to build walls around our own race, culture, nationality, gender or socio-economic group. We build walls that exclude, or at least ignore, people who are outside the tiny circle of our own kind.

I know that I have received benefits and opportunities that I never earned or deserved because I was born inside the wall of white, straight, American male privilege. (Read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.)

Frost expressed our spiritual pathology when he had the wall-building neighbor say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But he disagreed.

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.

Permanently Scared and Permanently Blessed

The history of Methodism in America is permanently scared by the way the church refused to acknowledge the sin of racism, divided over it 1844, and, when we reunited in 1939 structured itself for segregation. But our history is also permanently blessed by Spirit-inspired leaders who never stopped reaching across the walls to bind us together in the spirit of John Wesley who said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”

Today, the church again faces the same issue the early church confronted following Peter’s experience with Cornelius. (Acts 11:1-18, 15:1-21) This time the question is whether we will fully welcome LGBTQ people into the life and ministry of the church.

Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ sincerely believe they cannot remain part of a church that tears down this wall. They are preparing to leave The United Methodist Church to form a new denomination. It’s happened before. It will probably happen again.

Having done everything we could to try to stay together, sometimes the only thing left to do is shake hands across the wall and let them go, praying that the same Spirit that surprised the church in the past will continue to surprise us in the future.

Having been astonished myself by the way the Spirit has been tearing down the walls in my own life, I expect that we will once again be astonished in the future.

Grace and peace,


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5 thoughts on “Mending (or Tearing Down) Walls

  1. David Brownlee May 17, 2021 — 4:04 pm

    Jim, your gift of writing and humbly articulating an expanding prophetic view of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is encouraging to me and I am grateful. Many thanks!

    1. David: It’s always good to be in touch with you. I’m grateful for where our journey began and for where it has led.

  2. Jim Well written as usual. Your confession “Having been astonished myself by the way the Spirit has been tearing down the walls in my own life, I expect that we will once again be astonished in the future.” speaks very clearly to me. I hope you and Martha and your family are well. SHALOM, Tom Mc

    1. Thanks, Tom. I’m grateful that we’ve followed the same path together.

  3. Greetings, Jim – We met years ago at a conference in central MA – at that time, was the treasurer of my church – since then, I’ve retired as Moderator and am now Stewardship Chair – leading the efforts to knock down walls – building a new ministry – a café in the church. I’m also serving as Treasurer on the NEUMFoundation Exec Board with Ted Crass, President.

    Since I first was blessed with your wise words, I’ve answered an ask to give a message during the month of June. Being a person of the LGBTqia community, your message struck hard – my church, The United Parish of Upton is a federated church joining UCC and UMC congregations for now 51 years. Our current pastor, Rev Lourey Savick, is of UMC and is a blessing to our Open and Affirming/Reconciling congregation

    With that being said, I’m writing to ask if I may quote and/or read aloud your post published May 17th. Our service is livestreamed thereby recorded and would certainly credit your writing appropriately.

    I look forward to your response at your earliest convenience.

    Best regards,

    Elizabeth Alletto

    Cell: 585.781.0675

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