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Making Exceptions to Our Rules

When I was a youth minister for a Baptist church, our church’s youth group went to a summer camp with other churches at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. With more than 300 young people from across the state, ages 12 to 18, co-existing on a college campus for six days, we had to have rules—lots of rules. Every adult chaperone was accountable to upholding those rules, not just for maintaining consistent messaging to the teens and preteens in our care whether they were from our church or not, but for honoring our Christian tie to covenant.

Wait for it. I broke a rule.

Everyone was required to attend evening worship. I had done a sweep of our dorms to make sure no one was hanging back and was running late to the service when I spotted a girl sitting by herself outside on the steps of her dorm. I recognized her from another church’s youth group.

“Hi, Jenni. It’s time for worship.” Jenni didn’t move. “What do you say we head over there together?” Jenni shrugged her shoulders. “Are you okay?” Jenni was crying.

I decided to stop talking and sit down on the steps a foot or so away from Jenni. After a long silence, she spoke. Her voice was shaky and timid. She talked about how things were not going well back home, about how she didn’t really want to be at summer camp, about how she felt completely alone despite being surrounded by so many people. She said that even though she didn’t feel comfortable at camp, she was scared to go back home, because that meant she’d have to face reality: her senior year of high school, making decisions for her future, and a growing feeling of suffocation under the weight of all that pressure, both real and perceived.

I had made an exception to the rule by allowing Jenni to skip worship and stay where she was. I’d also shirked my own responsibility to attend worship, but that’s what was needed. The longer I stayed in that unorthodox moment, the more Jenni felt safe and free to let out everything she’d kept hidden that had been weighing her down. Eventually, she stopped crying, her shoulders straightened, and we walked to the auditorium for what was left of the worship service.

A few years later, I was the minister for Jenni’s wedding. We still get her family’s Christmas card every year.

I read a novel recently by Fatima Farheen Mirza called A Place for Us. It’s about a Muslim family with a devout father who expects his three children to abide by the rules of their religion to the letter, and how that steadfastness on his part is noble, but it also causes him to fail to see the forest for the trees in his relationship with his youngest child, Amar. Later in life, when an adult Amar is estranged from his family due in large part to his father’s legalistic religious stance, the narrator ponders the state of things faithfully: “Maybe it was the exceptions we made for one another that brought God more pride than when we stood firm, maybe His heart opened when His creations opened their hearts to one another, and maybe that is why the boy was switched with the ram: so a father would not have to choose between his boy and his belief. There was another way. Amar was sure of it. He wanted them to find it together.”

There are guidelines for how we are to live. From the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ teachings to the stories of the first Apostles to Paul’s letters for the earliest churches, we have instructions for practicing our faith and for living well with one another. Those tenets are rooted in justice, mercy, and love, and they call us to show one another compassion, kindness, generosity, and grace above all. Grace will force us to make exceptions to the very rules established by the religion we espouse (or the rules we interpret our religion requiring), and those exceptions might bring God more pride than anything else when they end up saving a life, saving a relationship, saving a community, saving the world from fear, despair, and any death-dealing form of hopelessness that is not of God.


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