I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.
We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.
One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.
Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.
But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.
I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.
But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.
We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.
In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.
But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.
May the peace of God be with you.