When Hard Lines Fade

Of late, the term, “Stay in your lane” is heard often. It translates roughly to “You do your job, I’ll do mine.”  At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll consider when this is helpful guidance, when it’s not, and reflect on what helps us decide how far to extend our reach. The choir will sing.


Text of Sermon 

When Hard Lines Fade

About two years ago that I started hearing references to ‘stay in your lane.’ I was at a church leadership conference and ‘stay in your lane’ was used by several presenters to emphasize the value of thinking through roles and responsibilities before jumping into a mess.

‘Stay in your lane’ was code to ask – is this mine to do? Why is it mine? It was a reminder that not every email which comes across your screen needs your response, even if you have an incredibly clever solution to the situation. Your role is not to offer advice to every problem shared by a friend is yours to offer advice.

In a church situation asking ‘stay in your lane’ may lead to questions: what’s the Board’s to do? The committees and volunteers? The minister to do?

There is an implicit an assumption is people figure out which lane they are in. There is a perceived advantage to knowing how the parts of a system fit together – things work better, people feel empowered and less time is spend detangling well intended efforts mucked up together.

You can picture the siblings devolving into argument, and a flippant sibling offering: “Who died and left you king?” … or the “You’re not the boss of me.”  Retorts which are versions of ‘stay in your lane.’ During Holiday season we at times have this heightened awareness of who says what to whom, and why, and self-reminders to bite your tongue. Keep the peace. Limit unhelpful interaction. A mantra even.

I also started to hear the phrase ‘stay in your lane’ used in another way – in the work of social justice.

While ‘Stay in your lane’ is a phrase that looks at function and role, it also looks at expertise. I started hearing ‘stay in your lane’ as a pushing back and declaring ‘Your expertise is not welcome here; is not helpful here.”

For example, a calling out of a man during a meeting for explaining how women tend to react to things. Or a white person summarizing some part of the black experience. In these cases, ‘stay in your lane’ is a shorthand reminding people to speak from their own experience, and importantly to allow others – particularly to make room for voices which aren’t heard regularly; those who are dismissed in society. Those who are heard from least, or who are listened to least have a lane, and the capacity to advocate and speak. Give them space to lead. Don’t crowd the lane.

Advice from therapists, wise ones, and even ministers, is to keep good limitations around you – to keep good boundaries. Don’t dive head into what is not yours. When engaging, be direct, be clear, speak of your own needs rather than declare what others should stop doing. Boundaries – even firm ones at times are a reminder: Don’t tell others how to live or think. Be clear on how you are affected by a situation… ‘own’ your needs, and be clear where you end and others begin.

So helpful in some instances, yet, ‘stay in your lane’ can be code to stop interaction which is in fact needed interaction. We at times tightly define roles and put up barriers in the name of clarity where hard lines are not called for – where the messiness of overlap is needed.

Recently the American College of Physicians released a policy statement finding gun violence a “public health crisis” that “requires the nations immediate attention.” The NRA responded to the physicians with this Tweet: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.”

Many in the medical community jumped on the tweet, using the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane: “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my f**** highway,” wrote Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist, in a tweet that went viral. Melinek, who regularly appears as an expert witness in homicide cases involving guns, estimates she’s autopsied about 300 bodies that were victims of firearm violence.”

In a follow-up interview with CBS Judy Melinek noted, “That’s the absurdity of some of the criticism, we know exactly what damage they do to the human body.”

It’s the NRA staking out turf – gun policy. One senses the doctor’s group is getting under their skin. And I for one welcome a review of gun policy from angles which broaden the conversation and debate. While this is not a sermon on gun policy, it has been six years this month since the Newtown shootings, and work in networks and in partnerships has energized many to enter the NRA’s self-declared territory.

This NRA example is a powerful is reminder that life’s challenges don’t come in neat and tidy lanes. It gets messy. There is going to be overlap. So possibly the question is not, “How do we continually mind our own business” but more, “How might we, with some planning, change lanes effectively?”

How did you learn to change lanes when driving? What skills do you employ?

A holiday memory for me is learning to drive during Christmas season. In NJ you get your permit, at the earliest, on your 17th birthday, and you can make your appt for the test 6 weeks later…for me December 27 was to be the road test. When I complained to my father (the parent who do the short straw on teaching us to drive) that I wasn’t getting enough practice, He said “fine – we’ll go out tomorrow.” And we found ourselves out in Saturday holiday traffic, on Route 22. Staying just in your lane is not an option – eventually you need to learn to change lanes.

It’s how we make our way on the journey.

At times for long stretches we might have the comfort of the right lane for us – the right speed, well painted lines, no accidents or construction. A good radio station or book tape, and we stay in our lane grateful for the steady progress. Maybe there have been periods in your family or work life when your role was clear – you had autonomy over your king or queen-dom, no more obstacles than you could comfortably handle? The lanes were clearly defined. Maybe all found a rhythm of efficiency and you entered the illusion of the comfort and safety in your fenced off world?

For most, this is temporary. Hard lines need to fade. We’re awakened, at times abruptly, to what is near us, around us. We need to get on and get off-highways. We need to change lanes on four lane and six land roads. We need to turn into chaotic shopping centers and make our way. (Back to the holiday driving story –  as a 17 year old the moment of truth on changing lanes and getting off the highway ended in the unpredictability of the Korvette’s parking lot.)

The doctors pressing back on the NRA are declaring improving human health is their job. The doctors are saying reducing risks is their job. They are shifting lanes and I predict they won’t be deterred. And it sets up conflict, in this case competition about how we talk of gun violence. I hope for a path to a more sane policy.

Some lane changes are more difficult than others.

We need to take the risk of lane changes. We need to look beyond our defined portion of the whole and ask, where is the overlap? where is there interconnection? Ideally, we learn the skills of ‘butting in’ in light traffic. At times we need to ask permission to play in another’s sandbox. Other times we need to know the sandbox is open to all – permission is not needed. And if we’re already in a sandbox, or a lane that is working for us, we learn to make room graciously for others as they make changes. We make room for other cars.

At times we make risky lane changes and we pray the other driver anticipated our tight maneuver.

Think for a moment about the choice of changing lanes – the preparation for making a transition. There is a time – called the liminal time – when we are on the threshold of a next step, yet not yet in the next phase, not yet the next lane – anticipating what’s next, and yet “between.”

At this time, we are aware the line lanes are dotted lines and we are not bound by rigid limits. We have a focus on where we are – still in the lane we’ve been driving, but with clarity on the other lane also in our view.

Where are the thresholds in your life? Each morning we close out the night and in the blurry moments of waking up step into the plans and unexpected of a new day. Are there bigger lane changes you are considering? Are their places we’re your opting to stay firmly in a lane? Are you noticing thresholds and holding gently to see what might be?

In this season of ‘almost the shortest night’ we’re reminded of these between times – often called liminal times. What can we learn from times when we’ve been between, and in the act of crossing over?

Picture the longer Olympic races, where after a lap in their lanes, the runners collapse into a pack, and it’s a bit messier, and more exciting. When does the comfort of having our own defined path blur to times of connection? The liminal times of our lives are as we enter the blur and don’t quite know where we are headed.

These can be anxious times – before a geographic move, before retirement, before a new school year. And while anxiety may be present, these are times when we learn of the needs of a neighbor, can see the world through a child’s eyes. Times when we are open to the mystery – the world of the mystics we considered earlier this month.

When we stand on threshold we come with more questions than answers. We can’t do otherwise. We are trying to get our bearings on an unknowing, and mystery of sorts. There is power in naming our doubts, and in trusting that a foundation way below us will provide us help.

In our responsive reading we considered how much we don’t know between the harvest and the planting. From our reading…For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes… In the garden, there are liminal times. Between planting and harvest.

And at times in our lives the ‘between’ times is a long– a wide reach – times of wilderness, or times of one chaotic lane change, after lane change. We are separated from comfort and predictability, and we can change—society can change.

Out of our lanes, we learn differently.

What today feels liminal? What holds you in these times? What connections are deep below (or above) which are your foundation during these in-between times?

Where is ‘stay in your lane’ in its helpful version – helpful on roles and expertise, and when is the courage of connection needed? Times when ‘staying in your lane’ is too restrictive – too safe. When are you ready to cross between?

I close with a reading for reflection…a take on lane changing


By Rev.  Kate R. Walker

In between, liminal, that space where we wait.
Between moments; events, results, action, no action.
To stand on the threshold, waiting for something to end,
And something new to arrive, a pause in the rumble of time.
Awareness claims us, alert, a shadow of something different.

In between invitation and acceptance.
In between symptom and diagnosis.
In between send and receipt of inquiry and question.
In between love given and love received.

Liminality, a letting go, entering into confusion,
ambiguity and disorientation.
A ritual begun, pause … look back at what once was,
Look forward into what becomes.
Identity sheds a layer, reaches into something uncomfortable to wear.

In between lighting of the match and the kindling of oil.
In between choosing of text and the reading of words.
In between voices and notes carried through the air into ears to hear.
In between creation thrusts ever forward.

Social hierarchies may disassemble and structures may fall.
Communities may revolt or tempt trust.
Tradition may falter or creativity crashes forward.
Leaders may step down or take charge.
The people may choose or refuse.

In between, storm predicted, the horizon beacons.
In between, theology of process reminds us to step back.
In between, where minutia and galaxies intermingle with microbes and mysteries.
In between, liminal, that space where we wait: Look, listen, feel, breathe.

May It Be So

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