Illumination / Illumination Project

Illuminations: The Healing Space between “Good” and “Bad”

By Julie Pennington-Russell              


Julie Pennington-Russell, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.

Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit priest and spiritual director, told the story of an elderly Chinese farmer who had a horse for tilling his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills. When the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the runaway horse returned, leading a large herd of wild horses from the hills. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck, to which the man replied, “Good luck?  Bad luck? Who knows?” Later that week, when the farmer’s son was trying to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off and broke his leg. Neighbors said, “Oh, what bad luck.” The farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” Then the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied young person they found there. When the soldiers saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they passed him by. Was it good luck? Bad luck? Who knows…

This story came to mind as I read the report of the Illumination Project Committee. While scrolling through the pages, my opinion pile began to grow: Good decision; bad decision. I like this; I don’t like that. This is progressive; that is regressive, etc. But as I quieted my own internal committee and let myself become still, I felt the Spirit pressing a cool cloth to my fevered, dualistic mind. “God is at work and more will be revealed” is the word that came.

I offer here a few modest thoughts on the Illumination Project recommendation:

I have confidence in the character and work of the committee.

Stand at the crossroads and look,” says Jeremiah. “Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it…” (Jer. 6:16) For the past 18 months, this group of women and men have stood together at the crossroads and asked for the “good way.” They have listened for the Spirit, and they’ve listened as well to CBF field personnel, staff, and hundreds of individuals from CBF churches all over the country. There is broad theological diversity among the committee members, representative of our diverse Fellowship. They have conducted their work with perseverance, integrity and courage, for which I am grateful.

The new hiring policy represents genuine change.

The freighted “don’t ask, don’t tell” era in the CBF office is behind us. The dreadful language in the old hiring policy is gone. (And the fact that many of us who, 18 years ago, regarded the language as merely problematic, but now find it appalling is itself a sign of transformation). The majority of positions at CBF (though not all) are available to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians, single or married, with a priority on members of CBF churches. LGBTQ chaplains may now be endorsed, and LGBTQ students may receive scholarships. These are major developments.

There is room for shared disappointment.

Those who regard LGBTQ inclusion as a sin issue may feel that these changes reach too far. Those who regard LGBTQ inclusion as a justice and hospitality issue may feel that the implementation procedure doesn’t reach far enough.

So here we are. What now?

If the 15th chapter of Acts serves as a touchstone, it’s worth noting that nobody walked away from the infamous church business meeting in Jerusalem feeling completely satisfied. On both sides of the “Gentile argument” were sincere and devout Christians, each pointing to Scripture and appealing to tradition. Finally, after “no small dissension and debate,” it was decided: We’re not going to require circumcision for salvation—which had to have angered the Pharisees. But also: The Gentiles must keep kosher—which had to have rankled Peter and Paul. No one came away completely happy. And yet, on the far side of the debate, all of them recognized that the ground had shifted and the Spirit was, indeed, weaving something new.

God is in the stories.

At the Jerusalem Council, it wasn’t the disciples’ arguments about the Bible or tradition that eventually cracked the church open. As Willie Jennings puts it, “The debate itself brought no light, only the need for light.”

Ultimately, it was the stories that healed them. Peter’s testimony of God’s presence in the lives of his new Gentile friends created a space for Holy Spirit to speak a new word. Could this be our way forward? I suppose that, like the farmer’s neighbors in de Mello’s parable, we could choose to see the hiring policy from a dualistic perspective—good/bad, right/wrong—maybe leading us to pack up our principles and leave the Fellowship.

But what if we didn’t walk away? What if instead we held these outcomes lightly, turned toward each other and kept telling our stories? I have my own to share. Like most pastors, I could tell stories of queer brothers and sisters with tears running down their faces as they described the heartbreak of visiting church after church, looking for even one open door. I could tell you of walking with two congregations as they engaged in “The Talk,” and of deep anguish in the midst of it and utter joy on the far side. I could tell of congregational transformation as the gifts of all members were encouraged and honored. You have stories, too. Share them.

Remember who is in the room.

Advocating for patience is easy enough from the privileged perch of a straight, cisgender, white, married, employed pastor like me. And LGBTQ Christians have reason to be weary and wary of being spoken about but not spoken with. As long as our words turn people into objects, our love has not yet reached maturity in Christ.

Churches: CBF cannot do for us our own sacred work.

The Illumination Project Committee was asked to address the broadly unpopular CBF hiring policy. That was the scope of their assignment and they fulfilled their task.

The most spiritually demanding enterprise lies ahead—at the congregational level. There is soul work for everyone. Some progressive churches are passionate about inclusion and yet draw a line at valuing the conservative convictions of others. What is the Spirit saying here?

Some conservative churches are passionate about Christ’s welcome for everybody and yet draw a line when some of the “everybodies” turn out to be gay. What is the Spirit saying here?

And many, maybe most, CBF churches are so anxious about jeopardizing a fragile harmony that they avoid even the mildest conversation about human sexuality, even as their LGBTQ brothers and sisters suffer outside the gate. What is the Spirit saying here?

CBF took a risk and waded into the river. I hope more churches will take a deep breath, trust God and do the same.

Julie Pennington-Russell serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. 

Additional reading: 

6 thoughts on “Illuminations: The Healing Space between “Good” and “Bad”

  1. Pingback: Illuminations: On cooperation, transformation and hope | CBFblog

  2. Wading into the water sounds noble until you realize that some of our brothers and sisters are drowning as their heads are being held under in the name of unity or “meeting people where they are.” If this is the will of the fellowship, I cannot walk in step as the CBF marches into their Jim Crow era for LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

  3. Actually, Acts presents the Jerusalem Council as producing unity — everyone’s happy and unified under the authority of the apostles. I prefer Paul’s account in Galatians, which shows the Council didn’t produce unity. The people from James continued to cause division in Antioch, causing Cephas and Barnabas to back away from fellowship with Gentile believers. Today the CBF is the Cephas and Barnabas Fellowship, happy to be inclusive until the high rollers show up.

  4. Such disappointing rationalization from you, Julie, whom I have long admired. LGBTQ brothers and sisters have “reason to be wary” indeed. Breathtaking hypocrisy.

  5. Pingback: Illuminations: I am sticking with CBF | CBFblog

  6. Timely, delivered with a purpose driven vehicle that comes to break the hardened soil of hearts & minds.

    Thank Pastor Julie for willingness to share from God’s heart. In His time He does make all things beautiful in His time.

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