It was a bloody battle in a wood outside a small French village, near the end of WWII. When the battle ended one young American soldier knelt beside the body of his best friend and wept. The thought of his friend lying in an unmarked grave was not acceptable and he lifted his friend’s body to his shoulder and began to walk toward a village nearly four miles away.
As he neared the village he saw the steeple of a chapel rising above the trees and turned his weary steps toward the church. He soon saw that it was a monastery and that beside the chapel was a little cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence. The graves were marked with stones and the grounds were well-tended. The young soldier thought, “If only I can bury my friend here in this little cemetery, I’ll know I can return to visit his grave someday.”
He approached the chapel and gently laid his friend’s body on the ground, then stepped up to the rough wooden door and knocked. Almost immediately the door opened and a monk, a young man about the age of the soldier, stepped out and greeted him. As he was about to ask if he could help the soldier in some way, the monk saw the body of the dead man lying on the ground just at the cemetery gate.
The soldier said, “Please Father, may I bury my friend in your cemetery? He was a good man, a good friend, and I can’t bear to think of his body lying in an unmarked grave here in these woods, so far from our home in America.”
“Was your friend a Catholic?” the monk asked?
“No, Father, he was not Catholic but he was a Christian and he loved God with all his heart.”
The monk looked at the soldier with obvious regret and said, “I’m sorry, friend. The rules are clear and I don’t have the authority to make exceptions. Only Catholics can be buried in the cemetery. I’m so sorry!”
As a look first of disappointment and then pain passed across the face of the soldier, the monk continued, “Would it be alright with you if we buried your friend just outside the cemetery gate? We could put a nice stone at his head and clearly mark the grave.”
The soldier said, “Thank you, Father. You’re kind and I appreciate it so much. I’ve just got to be able to find my friend’s grave when I return after this terrible war is finally over.”
Together they dug a grave just outside the fence. Together they laid the dead soldier’s body gently in the ground. Together they carried a heavy stone and placed it at the head of the grave. With bowed heads they stood and the priest prayed for the young soldier’s safety as he endeavored to find his way back to Allied lines through dangerous enemy territory.
The soldier made it to safety and he survived the terrors of the war and at war’s end he returned to his home town in America.
Over twenty years had passed before the not-quite so young man managed to save up the money to visit his friend’s grave just outside the little cemetery near the French village. His ticket bought, he flew to Paris and traveled by train to the village. As he left the station, he could see the spire of the little chapel in the woods near the town. With the steeple as his guide he walked quickly to the monastery and rushed over to the fence of the cemetery and walked quickly along to the gate.
He looked all around – the grass was still carefully tended – but he couldn’t find the headstone. He couldn’t find his friend’s grave. He soon realized that something was wrong! The grave simply wasn’t there!
His initial confusion turned to disappointment and disappointment to pain as he walked quickly to the door of the chapel and knocked again as he had so many years before. Almost as quickly as before the door was answered – answered by the same monk he had met after the battle that took his friend’s life.
He hardly greeted the monk and then his disappointment tumbled out in a torrent of words, “It’s gone! My friend’s grave is gone! You helped me bury him after that awful battle so many years ago. We put a stone at his head just outside the fence so I could find the grave when I returned. But it’s gone! What has happened to the grave?”
The monk gently took his arm and led him toward the cemetery gate. “You’ll find your friend’s grave just inside the fence. Go ahead, it’s just over there. Do you see it now?”
“Oh Father,” he cried, “Have you moved my friend’s grave?”
“No, friend,” the monk replied. “I moved the fence.”
I was raised in a segment of Evangelical Christianity that specialized in fences. We had fences that were put in place by the rules we made, kind of like the fence around the little cemetery in France that was put in place by a rule to only allow a certain kind of person to be buried there. Our fences and rules weren’t about who got to be buried in our church, but were certainly about who got to be counted as part of our church. And I suppose that can be a good thing. But our rules and fences were pretty technical. Not so much about heart condition but more about things one should or shouldn’t do, places one should or shouldn’t go, and doctrinal belief requirements that were pretty far from the basics on simple faith in Jesus.
I know, “broad road to destruction and narrow road to life”, but this wasn’t really that. I guess we thought it was, but it wasn’t. So there were a lot of really genuine Christians, Christ-followers, that we didn’t fellowship with because they baptized differently or had a different approach to church structure, or whatever.
Later, when I was in the Army and met other kinds of Christians and when I was in Vietnam and worked with a chaplain of a different denomination, and then met and learned from a Vietnamese Catholic priest who had established a refugee village near our battalion HQ, I realized that my fences were too narrow and had been put in place by the wrong kinds of rules.
Anyhow, I’ve been moving fences for quite a few years now. I realize I could get carried away with fence moving or maybe even tear the fences down altogether and it could lead to a bad result. But so far, I have no regrets about the fences I’ve moved. There’s room for a lot more diversity than I realized in those early days.
Here’s a thought: Is there a fence that you could move to make a little more room on the inside of your heart, in your circle of fellowship?
Father, I’m so thankful that when I don’t quite measure up to Your standards and there is nothing I can do to help myself that You find a way to satisfy Your righteousness and to manifest Your mercy toward me. Thank You that in Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins, you “moved the fence” to include me.
Please help me to be willing “to move the fence” for others as You have for me. Fill me with Your compassion and grace that I may never exclude others simply because they somehow don’t measure up to the requirements of “the rules”. May I always look for creative ways to bring others in and not fence them out.
For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17 NLT)
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