Wineskins Archive

December 21, 2013

The Write Site: Bad Dreams (Dec 1992)

Filed under: — @ 11:03 pm and

by Steve Weathers
December, 1992

Note: The following essay is an unsolicited submission which we believe provides some excellent food for thought. We are always eager to receive short works of fiction (2,000 words or less), poetry (one page or less), and essays (2,000 words or less) for evaluation as Write Side features.

8The 10 lepers give me bad dreams.

The story is a familiar one. En route to Jerusalem and passing through Samaria, Christ encounters a band of walking corpses. maintaining the required sanitary margin, they call out to him from across the roadway: “Jesus, Master, have mercy upon us!” Without delay, Christ tels them to go and present themselves to the priest – the approved ritual for declaring oneself healed of the life-wasting illness. All 10 set out to obey Jesus’ command. “And as they went,” the Gospel writer says, “they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14).

Countless sermons have rendered the final scene in the episode unforgettable: only one of the now-restored lepers, a Samaritan, turns back to his benefactor in spontaneous praise. “Were not all 10 cleansed?” Christ asks the lone figure at his knees. “Where are the other nine?”

As I hear that last haunting question, my bad dream begins. In this nightmare, the restored leper peers into the face of the Master and answers, “Lord, you’ll have to overlook the other nine. You see, they’re strict followers of what is known as the Restoration Movement. They were afraid to add anything to your explicit commandment. You did say, after all, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priest.’ You said nothing about interrupting our journey to return here and offer thanks. Consequently, the other nine are still priest-bound.”

In my frightening reverie, the healed man continues: “Be it said to their credit, Lord, that they too almost turned back. When they looked down and saw that those missing digits had miraculously sprouted anew – when they realized their faces had blossomed with fine fresh noses – they too almost turned back in an act of spontaneous worship. But then they remembered their Restorationist roots. I overheard talk of ‘neither adding to nor taking away from the Lord’s commands.’ Some issued dark warnings about ‘unauthorized additions to worship.’ I heard heated debate on the prohibitive nature of God’s silence. And after the wrangling was over, all nine settled on a safe path: to do just what you had commanded, nothing more and nothing less.

“They disfellowshipped me,” the fellow says at last, shaking his head sadly, “when I called them ‘spiritual neurotics’ and turned back to find you.”

I often have such nightmares when reading the Bible. It’s because I so often see that if its characters had bound themselves by God’s silence the results could have been disastrous. The beauty and moral of many Bible stories would have been marred or undermined by a strict Restorationist response.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that our movement’s concerns are unbiblical. Far from it. Numerous verses stress conservatism, the merit of sticking to God-approved paths. That emphasis is unmistakable. But if there is a voice in Scripture crying for the restoration and maintenance of holy traditions – and there is – there is also a balancing, complementary voice. This other voice warns us how dangerous it can be, spiritually speaking, to play it safe. This other voice stresses the risks and uncertainties involved in meeting a living God. This other voice, in fact, insists that spontaneity and innovation are at times the only way to win heaven’s blessing.

The Canaanite woman was innovative. She had no choice. With a demon-wracked daughter at home and the Nazarene giving her the silent treatment, she had to be creative. So she shouted. And she shouted. And she shouted some more – until Christ finally turned and faced her. yet, even then it was merely to clarify heaven’s official policy: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to her firmly. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Matthew 15:24, 26). His message was clear: for the moment, at least, Canaanites need not apply.

It’s here that I have another of my nightmares. For it’s just here, you see, that Restorationist sentiments might have doomed that bedeviled girl. In my bad dream, the Canaanite woman is one of us. She has heard lesson after lesson on proper respect for God’s ways. In one particularly memorable sermon she recalls the speaker saying, “When God states his terms for salvation, we have no right to ask that he make exceptions.” That idea struck her as strange at the time. As a mother, after all, she knew how natural it is for a child to ask that exceptions to the rule be granted. But who was she to argue with the preacher? having now met with Christ’s firm rebuff, she responds in keeping with that religious training she has received. Rather than press her suit with Jesus, rather than grapple with the living God will-to-will, she turns sadly away. A loyal Restorationist, she goes home to her still-demonic daughter without a fight.

No, that’s not really the way the story ends. Fortunately, this Canaanite woman knew that God’s dealings with humanity are not purely contractual. She knew that heaven’s official policy is sometimes negotiable because the policy-maker is a living being – not an inflexible text. She knew too that the Lord has a lot of personality and that people with personality value spontaneity and innovation in others. So she hazarded a creative comeback: “… but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). And as a reward for quick thinking, the woman won the blessing she sought.

Restorationists have at times oversimplified the nature of spiritual living. We have, I’m afraid, so emphasized our Father’s awesome sovereignty that we’ve lost sight of his breathtaking flexibility. That’s not to say, of course, that our heritage is without virtue. To be sure, a nonchalant approach to God’s requirements is disastrous. Many Bible people suffered for apathetic inattention to his demands. So the Restoration impulse can be both wise and valid. But doesn’t an unbiased reading of Scripture tell us that knowing God is more complex than a game of “Simon Says”? Doesn’t it suggest that we may be unsafe in following the Bible as a nervous new chef might follow a cookbook? The Lord wants us to follow his recipe, I’m convinced, but he also allows for a spoonful of innovation and generous pinch of human spontaneity.

If he didn’t, the Christian life could easily turn into a bad dream.Wineskins Magazine

Steve Weathers teaches English at Abilene Christian University. He has previously published short works of fiction in various literary journals.

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