Recently I got to baptize a new member at our church. As we talked about faith and what the act of baptism represented, he shared with me that he hadn’t grown up in the Christian church, but that it was studying Kierkegaard when he was in college which led him to following the way of Jesus. We bonded over a love for existentialism, Christian and otherwise, and I was privileged to get to be a part of his “passing through the waters.”
Kierkegaard came to my mind again recently. I was gathered with a few thousand others in Atlanta for the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. That time of worship and celebration is a highlight for me, but as a pastor of congregation where a large percentage of our church identifies as LGBTQ and non-gender conforming, the assembly last year and this year have carried a particular weight.
The CBF has never been a monolithic group and that diversity and complexity has been part of the joy of a vibrant fellowship. The work of the Illumination Project and the conversation and tensions surrounding that process palpably brought to the forefront that small measure of insecurity we all feel when wondering how far the rubber band of cooperation can stretch before breaking or feeling the tension release as individuals and churches remove themselves from the Fellowship. I felt that tension, but my LGBTQ colleagues and lay leaders felt it all the more acutely as they were often spoken of as an “issue” or an object of debate instead of living, breathing human beings occupying sacred space together in fellowship. Recognizing that these statements often come not from malice but from unintended ignorance, they courageously worshipped, prayed, spoke and shared in an effort to embody the beloved community.
Witnessing this up close was a glimpse of the Kingdom. Watching members of the Illumination Project and others in CBF life seek to listen and to understand, hearing the phrases “Thank you for telling me that. I had no idea,” “I’m sorry” and “You’re right, we could have said that better. Thank you telling me” — all of these modeled a kind of self-emptying humility that draws us closer to Christ and to one another.
But as we entered into worship each time, the sense that all hearts and minds are not in one accord was clear, and the fear that this conversation might drive yet another wedge in yet another Baptist body was always just beneath the surface. There were prophetic words and calls for unity that were compelling, convicting and challenging. But then there were the songs.
Oh, how good it is when the family of God dwells together in spirit in faith and unity. … Where the bonds of peace, acceptance and love are the fruit of God’s presence here among us.
Oh, how good it is when we offer the blessing of belonging. … When we live as one we all share in the love of Christ with our God and the Spirit.
For everyone born, a place at the table.
When fear is not allowed to tie the hands of ministry, our arms, outstretched, embrace the person whom the world won’t see. Christ’s love compels us. Christ’s love sustains us, Christ’s love unleashes heaven’s kingdom here on earth!
In a story attributed to Kierkegaard, he once entered the cathedral in Copenhagen. “I sat in a cushioned seat and watched as sunlight streamed through stained glass windows. I saw the pastor, dressed in a velvet robe, take his place behind the mahogany pulpit, open a gilded Bible, mark it with a silk marker and read, ‘Jesus said, “If any man be my disciple he must deny himself, sell whatsoever he has, give to the poor and take up his cross and follow me.”’ Kierkegaard said, ‘As I looked around the room I was amazed that nobody was laughing.’”
As the words of the hymns rolled across the screen, I thought about Kierkegaard. I wasn’t entirely sure how we were to sing these songs with a straight face. For a moment I felt like the Holy Spirit was trolling us, like a snarky friend when you make a typo on social media. And then I prayed to suspend my own cynicism and listen. I chose to believe that whatever was happening, God was — and yet is — in it.
I tried to imagine what it could mean if everyone in that room meant with all of their heart that for everyone born, there is a seat at God’s table. And I continue to pray that there is a seat for everyone born at all of the tables within CBF life — the ministries and missions councils, the governing board, on the platform at General Assembly and other gatherings, in national and state offices, among the global missions field personnel.
I neither expect nor desire unanimity across CBF life. I personally don’t seek position statements and believe the kinds of statements made by other Baptist groups threaten the autonomy of the local church. At one breakout, a leader within CBF life said that at its beginning the decision to call ourselves Cooperative Baptist was deliberate — and that there are other groups on the right and the left you can join, but if you want to cooperate then CBF was the place for you. That might sound good, but like singing songs of acceptance while weighing policies of exclusion, it rings hollow for me. As long as “cooperation” prevents those whom God has called from serving as God has called them, the word might as well have an asterisk by it. As long as that separation and segregation continues we will be hard pressed to sing of God’s table as we relegate LGBTQ and gender non-conforming Christians to the kids’ table.
I pray that we can change the policies that hinder Christian flourishing in our Fellowship. I pray that we can all live lives worthy of the high calling we have received in Christ Jesus. I pray for true cooperation and the trust that makes that possible. I pray that even if you do not believe exactly as I do we might trust each other and the Spirit of God enough to know we are all seeking to follow Christ and do his work in this world and that we may do it together, with dignity and respect for one another’s calling. Most of all I pray we can live up to the promises we sing about — or else find the courage to sing a more truthful song.