-Ralph Johnson


The boy was out doing a bit of hunting, hoping to scare up a grouse or maybe a rabbit. He cautiously worked his way along the brush at the end of the meadow. Nothing stirred except an old crow that lit on a tree limb a little way off.  It flapped it's wings a couple of times and scolded him with a series of ruckatious squawks.

The sun was hot and the other side of the brush the boy saw a clump of trees that could provide a mite cooler hunting. He shoved through some of the bushes but suddenly something snagged into his Levi's just below the knee and made a slashing gash in his leg. Ouch! That really smarted! He disentangled himself and backed away to nurse his wound and stop the blood.

He had forgotten, the old rusty barbed wire fence! Farther on he could see one of the old posts leaning at a steep angle. The brush line was the result of the sagging old fence but most of the wire had either fallen out of the posts or the posts themselves were rotted and broken down.

That old fence had been there before he had been born. He had heard rumors that it was put up when his dad and his uncle had a nasty disagreement years ago. They had originally inherited the ranch from their dad. He had been a successful sheep rancher. His holdings had grown until he owned almost the whole valley. He was highly respected and looked up to for miles around.

However, after his death his seven sons got into a difference as to how things should be run. Some thought they should set up a corporation and introduce some of the methods used by other successful ranchers. Others felt that this was dad's farm and since his methods had made it a success, they should be followed--if for no other reason, out of respect for him! The others responded that dad never intended to bind upon them everything he had done. He had used the best methods to meet the situation of the time. The others maintained that he was smart enough to know what was best and to deny this was to reject his judgment and to desecrate his memory! Anyone who would deny this was not being honest!!

Well, four of the boys got together and decided to organize and modernize. The other three balked flatly. Things got so hot between them that finally they split and a big costly fence was put across the valley and up the hill. They would no longer have anything to do with each other and continued blaming one another for the fence. Certainly it would not be good to have the sheep mingling together!

It seemed like the only time they saw each other was at the fence as they yelled across it waving their shovels and hammers at each other while keeping it in repair, each blaming the other and trying to get the sheep to join them. It became quite a spectacle!

The division between the heirs became the talk of the county. The cattlemen especially enjoyed it. This sheep rancher's success had been opposed by them but while the old man lived the thing just seemed to keep growing. Now they could see some real hope for them in the old saying, "A house divided cannot stand."

Well, sure enough, this was a divided house! Some of the boys took the others to court. When that was exhausted they challenged each other to debate the issue publicly in the old schoolhouse. They wrote angry articles and even started papers to inform people of their positions. It didn't make them more successful but it sure let others know what they thought.

The one side argued that only what dad authorized was acceptable. The others responded that dad's will intended to limit only what he specified. They both claimed to "speak where dad speaks and be silent where he is silent." But one side thought that meant to not do what he did not tell them. The other thought it meant not to prohibit what he had not prohibited. One side said organization was against his will and the other maintained dad was never against it. One side wanted to have recorded music in the barn and the others insisted that only bleating of the sheep was authorized.

It was a great show! At first Ranchers came from miles around to cheer them on as they battered each other--not that they really understood or cared what it was all about. It made good entertainment to break the ranching monotony. (That was before the gas buggy and television.)

They got so involved battling each other that often the sheep were neglected. Some were lost to the wolves. Some ended up as leg-of-lamb on other ranchers tables. Some got tangled in the barbed wire and either died there or became weakened or lame from their injuries. The battles over their fence and water-rights cut some off from good pure water and tender grass. Fewer lambs were born and many did not survive. In spite of the claim that they had the only pure-bred sheep, most were stunted.

However, they only went at their feud more ferociously, each becoming more convinced that he was right and the others to blame for all of the problems. Some gained a list of debates long enough to make the fastest gunslinger in the West green with envy. Anyone who wouldn't join in the battle was accused of, "not having the courage of his convictions."

As time went on outsiders began to lose interest in the squabble. The ranch was little threat to them any more. People just stayed away and shook their heads at how relatives could nurse a feud for so long over playing music to some sheep--especially since the issue seemed more important than the animals!

In fact, even those who took the sides eventually began to quarrel over how the principles applied to other issues. Those who were against having "unauthorized" music began to disagree over such things as whether to have one watering trough or for sheep each to drink from his own. Dad had a single trough. Some argued that dad had also never authorized the sheep to be divided into separate areas in the barn. Some insisted that dad never authorized that money be paid to a veterinary. In time, they and their families split up and put up more fences.

Those who accepted recorded music also had their problems. Some of them organized  as a co-op which began to take control and dominate others. There was a growing concern about liberal attitudes which discounted the reliability and authority of dad's will. A growing feeling that the provisions of the will were being changed brought about another division. Up went another fence. The "other side" said, "See what happens when you do things which have not been authorized!"

There. were disputes among those who separated as to softness in not keeping out neighbor's dogs that were destroying the sheep. Charges were made of neglecting the sheep while wasting time watching T.V., going to the "picher show" and dancing. Some had also endangered the barn with cigarettes and put unqualified shepherds in charge. Indeed, it was so bad that the jobs were even being given to women! So another fence went up. One group called themselves, "FATHERLY FARMS". The others called themselves, 'FARMS OF THE FATHER." This way people could distinguish one from the other. It was important not to make a mistake!

Well, anyone who has lived on a ranch knows the problems with fences. They are expensive to build and costly to maintain. Somebody or some thing is always going under over or through them, in spite of all you do. They rust. The poles fall over. The wire comes loose. Even the brush and trees seem to grow up and push them over. Except maybe down in Texas where it is too hot to live, or Alaska, where it is too cold to survive, most of us don't have to go very far to find an old fence laying almost on its side, providing no real protection and mostly just an eye-sore and a nuisance--if not a real threat.

Most people may not even know it is there and few care, But all it takes is for someone to go out and start trying to remove the nuisance and you can be sure that someone will be out there questioning your right to touch it! There will be threats of lawsuits and even bodily harm. That fence is important. It may have a dozen holes in it through which the neighbor kids wear a path from yard to yard but often it is important to symbolizes our difference.

And so, like the boy sitting nursing his wounds from the old rusty fence, often a new generation does not understand what it is all about. Can we play the music in the church or must we only sing? Can we play Christian music outside of the church building? Can we play only the first note to get the pitch or can we play them all to help with the melody or harmony? Can we use instrumental music to help in learning if we are careful not to mean the words we are saying?

The world around us looks on and wonders while we try to explain it. Our own children have difficulty believing it. We talk of unity yet we are divided. We talk about being brothers but we won't associate with each other. We preach one church yet we are fragmented. We speak of loving God yet we do not show love for his children. We teach against sectarianism but are torn by schism. Why should people want to join our dispute?

Most people don't know why it is there. The thing makes little sense. There is so much which could be accomplished together if it could be removed. Why is it so important to keep it there? Isn't there something we can do about the OLD RUSTY FENCE?