Crossing Dividing Lines

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The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is one of the most interesting places on earth.

The northern part of the building is in Stanstead, Quebec. The southern part is in Derby Line, Vermont. The building has two different phone numbers and mailing addresses, each of which represents a different country. 

That was the plan from the get-go.

The building was erected in 1907 to commemorate the friendship between the United States and Canada. The front door is in English-speaking America. The back door, which is technically an emergency exit, leads to French-speaking Quebec. A resident of Vermont can check out a book or listen to a great opera, but only by stepping into Canada.

A thick black line, indicating the international border, crosses the floor of the library reading room.  All of the bookshelves happen to be on the north side, which is why the Haskell building is often called “the only library in the USA with no books.” 

The only way a Canadian can enter the building is by entering from the American side. To do so, he or she is permitted to walk along a special sidewalk to the southern (U.S.) side, on the condition that he or she immediately returns to Canada by means of the same sidewalk as soon as they exit the building. Citizens of both countries are likewise empowered to go back and forth with each other, browse in the local shops of either town, and occasionally sit down to enjoy some pizza.

It’s all based on trust. As long as people actually follow through concerning what they intend to do, there’s no need to go through customs or immigration.

It’s a lovely statement of mutual openness and shared democratic values along the world’s longest peaceful border.

Then, in 2003, it all came to a screeching halt.

America’s newly formed Department of Homeland Security, reeling from the shock of the 9/11 terror attacks and eager to lock down all US borders, dispatched a security team to the town of Derby Line. In the words of NY Times columnist James Risen in his book Pay Any Price, “this happy little place quickly became a zone of suspicion and anger.”

American agents closed the border and put up imposing checkpoints. This was frustrating for the dozens of residents whose daily routines took them back and forth between Quebec and Vermont, let alone the numerous Canadians who were suddenly under surveillance as potential Al Qaeda operatives. 

People who had mingled together for a century were now asked to keep an eye on each other. Risen calls it the War on Normalcy.

The Bible calls it the inevitable outcome of fear-based living.

Do we have to have boundaries? That seems sadly inevitable in a fallen world. Walls go up when people become anxious or fearful about differences in national priorities, ethnicity, class, or military stridency. Instead of building border-straddling opera houses, governments plunge into the grim business of building checkpoints.   

God, however, is in the business of building bridges.

In Bible times, no one could imagine that Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) could ever get along. Both sides stared at each other as if they were from different planets.

Jesus came to serve as a kind of living, breathing peace treaty. As the apostle Paul puts in Ephesians 2:14-15 (“The Message”):

“The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.”

The wonderful news is that normalcy has by and large returned to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. The building is once again a meeting place for border-crossing friends.

But things may be anything but normal in your own relational world.

Perhaps you’ve fallen out with an old friend. Or you and a sibling no longer trust each other. Or icicles are coating your relationship with a neighbor. Or you’re locked into a who’s-turn-is-it-to-apologize standoff with someone you love.

Who’s going to make the next move?

According to Jesus, if you’ve offended somebody, you should go first. And if somebody else has offended you, you should go first. 

To put that into plain English, the Bible has a very simple rule: We always go first. We don’t wait for someone else to come around, or come to their senses, or come knocking on our front door. That may never happen, for the simple reason that they may assume it’s never going to be “their turn” to choose the path of humility and reconciliation.

Our opportunity is to do what Christ commands. We have the chance to be the first one to cross the relational dividing line.

What would you gain if you were the first to demilitarize one of your most painful relationships? 

There’s no way to predict how the other party might respond. But you could go to bed knowing that you were endeavoring to plant yourself on God’s solution side – that you were acknowledging your role in That Thing That Went Wrong – and that you were hoping and praying that God, by his grace, might reopen doors and reopen hearts. 

Amazing things can happen if we refuse to let bitterness and fear have the last word. 

We might even experience the wonder of walking into a whole new country.