As a dyed-in-the-wool Baptist kid from Tennessee, it wasn’t until seminary that I attended my first Ash Wednesday service. I have to admit I thought it was kind of trendy and ancient-future cool — right up until the moment that my friend Michael imposed ashes on my forehead. “From dust you were made and to dust you will return.”
“Well, that sounds serious,” I thought.
As I sit writing this there are ashes on my forehead, but I have to admit I’ve been feeling ashy for a while now. I’m an unabashed centrist when it comes to the fellowship of people that are a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Given our distinctive polity, I had high hopes when we launched the Illumination Project that we could find some kind of third-way compromise which would respect the breadth of our Fellowship when it came to certain questions of sexuality. I know and trust the people that served on the team, and I know how hard they worked to bridge the divides in their own breadth of convictions. And so when I read their report, I saw the recommendations as an obvious attempt at compromise based on shared sacrifice. I was hopeful.
But in the last few days, I’ve come to wonder if that hope was naïve. I’ve read the words voicing anger and frustration. I’ve spoken with people who are considering leaving CBF. Maybe Al Mohler is right. Perhaps our attempts to partner together are “ridiculous,” “incoherent” and “unstable.” From dust you were made and to dust you will return.
But maybe not. Maybe instead of grounding our unity in a shared certainty helpfully interpreted by one seminary president, or even a shared certainty about matters including sexuality, we ground our unity in the shared humility of Christ “who considered equality with God as something not to be grasped but instead took on the form of a servant even unto death on the cross.”
No one on the Illumination Project team or on the CBF Governing Board claims that the IP’s report will settle our differences. They merely reflect an attempt to hold together as much as the Fellowship as possible to do those things upon which we fully agree.
But even more than its aim to provide suggestions for how we might keep from dividing over questions related to sexuality, the Illumination Project was also supposed to provide a witness to the world in the midst of this larger toxic moment of cultural fragmentation. If I am convinced of anything, I am convinced of the need for the Church to offer hope for reconciliation for a world that feels like it is coming apart at the seams. And yet if I read my Bible correctly (and if I read my American history correctly), the only real hope we have for reconciliation isn’t actually through reading our Bible correctly. And it isn’t through winning an argument with someone who disagrees with us. Reconciliation only seems to happen in one way — through carrying crosses.
Martin Luther King Jr. said if you want to change someone then first you have to love them. And for followers of Christ, we have one supreme example of what that looks like, the cross. And on this day after Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, can we all agree on that?
For the traditionalists among us, can we agree that if we have any hope of convincing the world that the authority of scripture is more than just a conviction but a life-giving mixture of truth and love, then we’d better be able to convince not only our progressive brothers and sisters but our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the Fellowship with whom we already hold so much in common. If we can’t demonstrate that our convictions are not only true but loving, then maybe we need better convictions.
For the progressives among us, can we agree that if we have any hope of demonstrating that soul freedom and the diversity that accompanies is more than just an anemic, laissez-faire tolerance of a world badly in need of something more truthful, then we have to be able to demonstrate that to our traditionalist brothers and sisters with whom we already hold so much in common. If we can’t demonstrate that a whole-hearted embrace of God’s good creation goes far beyond live-and-let-live to eternal, abundant life for all, then maybe love is not enough and we need more truth in what we’re offering.
And I say maybe, because honestly sometimes my notions of what to do and how to respond in the midst of diversity are “incoherent” and “unstable.” I suspect yours are, too. I suspect all of ours are, too (except for Al’s of course). My extended family disagrees about a lot of issues including sexuality. My church disagrees about a lot of issues including sexuality. And no one should be surprised that CBF does, too. And that will obviously create difficulties and disagreements.
Which leads me back to humility and carrying our crosses.
I don’t think it’s possible for us to work together as a Fellowship unless we’re willing to hold deeply to both of those things. We’ll just go our separate ways and add one more example to the long and growing list of division and fragmentation. But I think that would be a grave mistake. The world is in desperate need of reconciliation and not only do we need to be reconciled to one another but God has given us that ministry for the world as well.
Having said that, let me acknowledge that in the context of our shared disagreement over questions of sexuality, the people we’ve asked to carry the largest and heaviest crosses are you, our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. And if I’m going to be appropriately humble, then I can’t tell you with certainty that you’re called to keep carrying that particular cross. What I can tell you with certainty, however, is that I’m sorry for the things I’ve done and left undone where it comes to loving them as Christ does, and I dearly hope you’ll stay in the Fellowship so that we can all listen for the voice of Christ together in each other.
In his wonderful book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about what it means to deal with the most profound hardships of a shared life. And so he quotes Martin Luther: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared.”
Our German brothers put it a little more pungently than I would have — but you get the idea. On this day, covered in ashes, wearing the cross, I have to try. I hope you’ll join me, even if — perhaps especially if — “I” am the cross you have to bear.