Back in college, I was involved in a prison ministry program that put on retreat weekends for boys in a nearby juvenile prison. Which, much as I loved it, seems not to have been especially appealing to most of the other college students on campus. We always struggled to keep our numbers up and eventually reached out to nearby Wheaton College for help. It turns out that putting on retreats for juvenile delinquents wasn’t anymore appealing to college students at Wheaton either. (Wheaton College is a well regarded traditionally white, evangelical Christian college, for those of ya who aren’t familiar with the Christian college scene.)
The only thing I really knew about Wheaton was that the kids who went there were freaks. The whole place was a freakshow, really. (I really like freaks, btw.) I attended a Rich Mullins concert there and they had people patrolling the aisles making sure no one was dancing. Seriously. Because apparently there was always a concern that some kids would get carried away and start twerking to “Awesome God” and “God, You Are My God”. So, really the anti-dance patrol wasn’t weird, it was protecting us from a whole other realm of uncomfortable that the human mind cannot comprehend.
I never got all the details, but it turned out that everyone who was enrolled or employed at Wheaton had to sign a morality pledge which included agreeing not to dance. I think there was some exception that was made for married couples who wanted to waltz together off campus or something. Otherwise, no dancing, on campus or off, for any reason, in any season, if you were affiliated with Wheaton.
Fortunately, the Wheaton College kids never said a word or looked particularly uncomfortable when we swore and made dirty jokes and sat all leaned up against each other and danced like fiends to “Blister in the Sun” at the end of a long day on retreat. Although they may have decided to go find a quiet room to pray in once they listened to the lyrics.
Then, one night back at the church where we roomed while doing the retreat, one of the young Wheaton women bopped a little too deliberately to the music. Shook her tushy a little back and forth while snapping her fingers even. And a young man from Wheaton looked at her in shock. She was violating their pledge. He was required to report her come Monday morning. And she knew it. Not only was she dancing, but she was putting him in the position of having to choose what to do about it. You could almost see his world starting to come unhinged.
“Uh, what are you doing?” he asked her, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he clearly felt.
“Oh come on. It’s harmless. Move a little.”
And I watched him stand there, trying to decide what to do.
“It’s enough that I’m supposed to report you.”
“Aw, come on. You know it’s a dumb rule. King David danced through the streets in his underwear.”
She stopped dancing and looked at him. Finally he lifted his arms a little, snapped a little to the music and quickly stopped laughing at himself.
“She’s corrupted you!” I exclaimed, laughing, “next time I see you you’ll have tattoos and be drinking fuzzy navels!”
This was the same guy who had just that morning stood in front of a room full of juvenile delinquents and shared his story of being a bad boy who pulled his sister’s pigtails and made her cry until he accepted Jesus into his heart. Like that was literally the story he told. Too a room full of young criminals. I had just seen what was probably the first time that young man had deliberately and openly chosen to break a rule. And while he certainly never showed up with tattoos or fuzzy navels in hand, every time I saw him after that, he seemed to be more of who he was. He was a little more confident, a little more real, able to connect with people at a deeper level.
I think every Christian needs to be an iffy-rule follower. Not because we should just do whatever we want, but because we are so prone to turning a way of relating to God, man and self – ie Christianity – into a bunch of rules, principles and concepts to adhere to. If we can’t break even the most absurd rules as a matter of honor with a stamp of religious obligation to match, how can we follow God’s lead? How can we experience the full range of experiences, emotions and relationships that he has so graciously allowed for us if our faith tradition demands that we cut ourselves off from them as a price of membership?
Frankly, if you look at nearly every heinous event in human history, you’ll find a bunch of rule followers who have become convinced that the rules deserve absolute fealty. The original Christians, on the other hand, had a long history as subversives. Paul said not to be concerned with things that don’t really matter like whether the man who butchered your meat offered a portion to his imaginary god. Peter was told not to worry about the clean/unclean distinction that had been handed down by God himself at Mount Sinai and had shaped his whole life. They stole the language of the Roman empire praising Caesar and used it for Jesus. The desert mothers and fathers engaged in all manner of creative spiritual disciplines that were often radical departures from tradition. All throughout the ancient Christian church, you saw people refusing to be restrained by the rules and expectations that held the ancient world together.
But that’s what God’s power does – it changes, subverts, disrupts. Every time God shows up, things change. We are supposed to be like our father. When we show up, things are supposed to change. The powers of this world are supposed to come away from an encounter with us weaker, less powerful. We’re supposed to be disrupting enemy strongholds. But we can’t do that without breaking a few rules, simply because the Spirit is no real respecter of any rule but love. And really, that’s as it should be.