Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith

In the Christian Church, Lent is often seen as a season of deprivation. We give up earthly pleasures like chocolate or wine. We cut down on screen time or social media. Even the word itself refers to the “lengthening” of daylight (in the northern hemisphere anyway) –a gradual antidote to wintry shadows. And these deprivations are supposed to be good for us, serving a bigger purpose of self-examination and self-correction.

In this spirit, a number of years ago I got the Men’s Night Out group to meet me in the sanctuary early on the first Sunday of Lent to remove all the pew cushions so that worshipers might sit a little less comfortably; a little more penitently with their backsides against hardwood.

Well. A lot of water has gone over the dam since then. Global pandemic. Global warming. The Big Lie of a stolen election, insurrection at our nation’s capital, and unprecedented division and dysfunction in our democracy. A looming national election sure to be contentious and possibly disastrous. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and war entering its bloody third year. Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack on Israel, and Israel’s brutal retaliation that shows no sign of letting up.

Meanwhile, we have our own lives and families and church community experiencing a normal menu of highs and lows, challenges and milestones, births and deaths and marriages and divorces, illness and adventures.

I actually don’t think we have to cook up discomfort and disequilibrium to make a point. Every one of us has experienced it. We know what it is to feel anxious and uncertain. We sense our vulnerability as never before. Little wonder that the top Bible verse searched on the popular YouVersion Bible app—for three years running—is Isaiah 41:10 Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God. Ahead of John 3:16. And way ahead of searches for Bible verses fueling political issues and culture wars. [from the Christian Century, February 2024, On the YouVersion app, people look for hope, not arguments, p. 15] Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God.

That’s the promise to carry with us into the wilderness. And to the reading of our text, which narrates a critical wilderness time for Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry. Here he is deprived of creature comforts and companionship, and tried by a formidable adversary. Contemplatives might call it the dark night of the soul. A reading from Mark in the first chapter verses nine through 15. Listen for God’s Word to God’s people, wondering (and sometimes wandering) in the wilderness. Can we find even here mulch for a wholehearted faith? [Mark 1:9-15]

Maybe the most shocking aspect of this text is that little phrase “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” The baptismal waters have barely dried on his body, when he is forced into the wilds. Did Jesus resist this prompting? Might he have preferred a more traditional way to prepare for public ministry (a good seminary, for example?!). Yet God seemed to have a larger purpose in mind.

While the other gospels describe the nature of the temptations in more detail, the conclusion we can draw is that this wilderness space produced clarified vision and renewed focus for Jesus’ mission that lay ahead. In that remote and dangerous landscape the contours of Jesus’ work took shape. He emerged, authorized by God and dedicated to the proclamation of good news that the rule of Love is here.

But let us be very careful about attributing our wilderness times to the intention of God. God is not the author of human suffering, nor does God foist it upon us as a means of strengthening our faith or teaching us something. And not all wilderness times are equal—some we choose: spending time in nature alone, going on a retreat, for example, and yes, even the Lenten discipline of “giving up” something good can create a wilderness context for quieting the glittering distractions that fill our lives most of the time.

But many times we are plunged into wilderness against our will and out of our control. The sudden death of a beloved, a terrifying diagnosis of illness, unexpected news that pulls out the anchors that have held us securely. So much employment upheaval has occurred since Covid that the nature of work itself has changed , and everywhere we feel the effects of “The Great Resignation.” We in the progressive mainline Church, already dealing with “the Great Dechurching” of forty million Americans who have stopped attending church in the past 25 years, now struggle to distinguish ourselves from rampant Christian nationalism and its devastating political and moral consequences.
I believe with all my heart that not all our wilderness experiences are Divinely designed.

But Jesus’ experience is a powerful witness to us who would prefer to respond with denial, despair, or simply to wash our hands of the whole bloody mess. The question isn’t about personal preference—whether I like it or not. Jesus’s example suggests the question is what does this have to teach me? What can we learn from this? How can I (and how can we) grow from this?

Because there is one thing sure, my friends. Whatever (and whomever) else we encounter in the wilderness, we will find God there. In the book that is our study guide along with Scripture during Lent, Wholehearted Faith, author Rachel Held Evans suggests that the times when we cannot rely on the comfort of familiarity are ripe with possibility to admit and embrace our vulnerability, and the vulnerability of others. . . and to discover anew (or for the very first time!) that we are held by God who will not let go, no matter what.

Evans challenges individuals and church to counter our fear of wilderness dangers with deeper knowledge and imagination to see below the surface into the mysteries hidden there. That means imposing some discipline upon the busy-ness of our days to create space and make time for study, for prayer, for exploration of our lives in relationship to God, in the invitation to follow Jesus. A good friend of many years asked me recently what practice I was taking up for Lent. I could have responded immediately with “prayer and Bible study” except for the fact that Cindy knows me really well, and won’t take pious generalities for an answer.

So I took a deep breath and said I would begin each morning with five minutes of prayer before I even got out of bed, and later each day would engage with the “Word” calendar designed by Molly Brown to inspire deeper faith reflection. When I turned the question on her, she responded similarly and added that she’d made a commitment to call one person every day—from an elderly neighbor who doesn’t get out very often, to a friend who lives far away, to a church member mentioned in the Sunday prayers, to a struggling colleague, to the mother of a newborn. Walking in the wilderness encourages commitment, accountability, and grace (I’m three for four so far).

It’s also not actually a solitary journey. Those angels that waited on Jesus? That verb is from the same root as our word for Deacons. You know, the folks who coordinate our ministries of caring for one another; who stay on the lookout for those drifting near the wilderness of illness, grief, or need; who demonstrate God’s love with a flowering plant and card meticulously signed by scores of others, a home-cooked meal, a cozy prayer shawl, a caring phone call, open conversation over coffee or lunch, help with connecting to the resources to address larger issues, the promise of prayer.

In the wilderness of human vulnerability, through human angels, we experience God’s presence and the astonishing truth that we are God’s good and beloved creation, made in the Divine image and worthy of love.

Finally there’s one more bit of wisdom to accompany us in the wilderness, embodied by Gladys Dunn. Gladys Dunn was one of those faithful church members who do everything: from teaching Sunday School and serving on the Session to organizing potluck dinners and setting the Table for Communion. She never missed worship and always stayed for coffee hour to greet everyone. One Sunday following worship, she walked up to a visitor, extended her hand and with a big smile, said “I’m Gladys Dunn!” The visitor looked slightly puzzled as he responded, “Me too! That sermon went on forever!”

Time is relative, but 15 minutes or forty days or from now till November can feel like a long stretch under wilderness conditions. Humor is a useful (and sometimes saving) tool. Laughter can make you relax a little and put things in perspective. It can provoke empathy in the recognition of our common humanity and help us see one another not as adversaries but as siblings, sisters and brothers. It can soften the rough patches of the journey, even when we are glad. it’s. done.

….the sermon I mean. The journey? To the wilderness and beyond, toward a wholehearted faith.

Thanks be to God!