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Illuminations: Dealing With a Messy Smudge of Ash

I wonder who awoke this morning to find a smudge of ash still haunting the hairline.

My children have been known to want to keep the ashen cross on their foreheads overnight, but I protest; it will get all over everything.

Remembrances of our dusty humanity, our being formed from the “adamah” (Hebrew for “ground” or “earth”) and careening our entire lives toward death have a way of doing that – getting all over everything.

Living with the bodies we inhabit and learning to love them as they are and remembering that they will die and cannot be saved forever is messy.

But our hope has nothing to do with our bodies and everything to do with Christ Jesus who saves us, who redeems us, who became flesh to show us the way out of ours.

Not because our bodies are ugly or shameful, because they are not, but because they are dust. Their eternal significance is limited.

It would be careless, of course, to suggest that Jesus was not concerned with bodies.

Everything changed because of the respect that Jesus showed bodies – eating with outcasts, feeding 5,000, stopping for a bleeding woman, touching dead people (and oozing people whose bodies were broken and contorted.)

“Get up and walk,” said Jesus to Jarius’ dead daughter. And she did.

To be clear, a Christ-centered reading of Scripture reminds us that in all of Jesus’ healing and transforming, Jesus never once identified homosexuality or transgender identity as signs of a broken body.

But as far as bodies go, Jesus was not squeamish about or dismissive toward the realities of flesh.

When given the opportunity to describe a good neighbor, Jesus told a story of two religious figures who bypassed a wounded and broken body lying in the road, and the one good Samaritan who bandaged the wounds and carried the body to safety.

One should not miss, of course, the reality that the Samaritan and the one who was wounded were not socially compatible (according to the standards of the time).

And the Jericho Road was notoriously dangerous. Stopping to tend wounds was risky. Obviously. Because the religious leaders passed on by.

“Which of the three do you think was a neighbor,” asked Jesus.

“The one who had mercy on him,” replied the legal expert.

It’s almost as if Jesus knew that for centuries people would use bodies as a reason for excluding people from work and worth.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been talking a whole lot about bodies. And what has come out of it is a good hiring policy, which is undermined by an overly broad implementation plan that scripts rather than reflects, and demurs rather than leads.

The new hiring policy is a good one. It excludes no one from work and worth on the basis of her/his/their body.

Thank you, governing board, for voting this into being. “Get up and walk,” I heard you whisper.

But I could barely hear it over the din of restrictions set forth in the implementation plan. “Get up and walk, but not there, or there, or there. And don’t touch the good china,” I heard you say more loudly.

The implementation plan undermines the hiring policy. The language of the implementation plan, as well as the language used publicly to describe it in blog and video, undermines everything about work and worth that is whispered in the hiring policy.

Indeed, it is so restrictive that one might find the changes to the hiring policy to be purely pretext.

In an interview with EthicsDaily.com released this week, I heard that LGBT (not Q, notably) individuals are now fully eligible for scholarships to divinity school and can be commissioned for chaplaincy, but that in reality there are very few ordained LGBT CBF clergy, and that the only church work that is really acceptable for them is I.T., accounting and marketing/event planning.

Those two statements perfectly summed up the problem. If the hiring policy is more than a pretextual attempt to get people to stop talking about bodies, all of the back peddling of the implementation plan must be rejected.

The implementation plan is overly broad. Few would argue that contextual realities must be observed when hiring or commissioning.

But determining that LGBT Christians will never be the best choice for any ministerial or global missions placement is misguided. It fails to wonder at what God might be doing.

The implementation plan scripts more than it reflects. Whatever reflecting the implementation plan accomplishes (we see in a mirror dimly), it certainly signals a weary distaste for the leadership of our LGBTQ clergy.

They aren’t likely to be in ministry positions, it says, and therefore breathes into reality for so many churches who are timidly watching, and so many LGBTQ individuals who have called CBF home.

The implementation plan demurs rather than leads. All of this talk of reflecting the local church is so out of character for CBF.

Our churches consist largely of white people privileged by either economic security or the ease with which they navigate shopping, police stops, courts and airports.

Most of our pastors are white men, and very few are millennials. Less than 6 percent of our churches have women as lead pastors.

But, despite what our congregations reflect, CBF champions women in ministry, and refugees and immigrants, and racial reconciliation. CBF does not demur to the naysayers, but leads with prophetic vision.

And in a world where people who are LGBTQ are regularly murdered and raped in other parts of the world (and really, in our own), is it fair to suggest that modeling faithful embrace of LGBTQ leadership is colonizing rather than life-saving?

Our task is to reject those ideas that limit God’s work in the world to specific kinds of bodies while simultaneously tending faithfully to the bodies God has given to us and to the body of Christ.

Go and look in the mirror: Look for those specks of ash, traces of the messy remembering that the eternal significance of our bodies is limited, and that our hope is in the wild and mysterious movement of the Spirit. But remember how dimly we see.

And as you turn to face Jesus who makes all things new, stop and tend mercifully to the wounded lying at your feet. Because this has been a bloody week on our road.

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is the program associate for legislative advocacy and interfaith outreach at the North Carolina Council of Churches. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. She was a CBF Leadership Scholar and is a member of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, where she has taught music to children for nearly two decades. You can follow her on Twitter @mehanchey.

This column is part of a series of articles on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project. Other articles in the series are:

Illuminations: Seeking Guidance of God’s Spirit by Sara Powell

Illuminations: Spiritual Equality of All Christians by George Mason

Illuminations: The Long Struggle Against Discrimination by Colin Harris

Illuminations: Agree to Disagree – Agreeably by Steve Wells