Wholehearted Faith

The largest banyan tree in the United States is over 60 feet in height, with 16 major trunks covering half an acre in Lahaina, Maui.

For more than 150 years, it has drawn visitors and residents alike and provided cooling shade. Birds make their home in its branches and serenade the gathered community. It is one of those landmarks offering a sure guide to location. Let’s meet at the banyan tree.

Earlier this month, raging wildfires destroyed 80% of Lahaina, with over 100 deaths and many unaccounted for. Like much of the town, the banyan tree sustained life-threatening injuries, testified to by photos of charred trunks burned and twisted branches that stood amid the devastation.

But it turns out news of its death may have been premature. Hawa’ii’s leading arborist and crew of trained botanists have examined the roots and under the bark and have found live tissue. Their report concludes: We are hopeful it can and will survive. [from a variety of news sources]

A miracle? A shout-out to the strength and resiliency of the natural world? The Psalmist exclaimed how wonderfully and awe-inducing humans are made—-and that is true for all creation. Thanks be to God!

The banyan tree and its struggle to thrive in extreme difficulty captured my imagination as a metaphor for the community of faith and its individual members, immersed as we are in an unprecedented challenge. There are rising rates of stress and anxiety, the erosion of community, and dysfunctional and divisive institutions. We see evidence of what’s been called “The Great Dechurching” of forty million Americans who have stopped attending church in the past 25 years.

The congregations comprising Denver Presbytery report a 16% decline in membership. While Central has held relatively steady, our worship attendance (even combining in- person and online participants) hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. I’m grateful for Central’s dynamic staff and talented, experienced leadership who are making intentional, focused efforts to address these issues through smarter messaging, broader outreach, and strategic investment. I hope you’ll join these leaders and me following worship in two weeks (September 10th) for a comprehensive update.

….Because what we DO know is that the “nones” and “dones” (along with the rest of us) have deep spiritual hunger, dis-ease, and restlessness that a faith community is uniquely equipped to meet. Perhaps, like the banyan tree, we too are in need of healing, strengthening our root system, and renewing our inner life in order to recover our identity as a community gathering place where people are served, sheltered, and nourished for the living of these days.

Our Scripture text articulates such a vision, one with a singular focus, clear priorities, a deep appreciation for diversity, marked by the quality of its love and its invincible hope. The apostle Paul penned it to congregations he had never met and lays out the common mission of an uncommon people: the development and practice of wholehearted faith. A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the 12th chapter, verses 1-13. Listen for God’s Word to us. [Romans 12:1-13]

Rachel Held Evans was only 34 years old when she died of an infection that overtook her healthy body before doctors could figure out what was going on. She had already written 4 best-selling books reflecting on her spiritual journey from evangelical “super-Christian” to whole-hearted follower of Jesus. Raised in a strict but loving home, her faith began to unravel when her questions were silenced, her doubts belittled, and the disconnection between traditional Christian teachings and science, culture, public policy created a sense of fragmentation and downright misery.

She observed wistfully, Religion has torn a lot of people to pieces. Whenever it has embarked on a quest for purity, crusaded for certainty, strived for survival, religion has done so at great cost, asking humans to ignore their conscience, pretend to believe things they don’t…..to live one way during the week and another on Sunday morning, to fake happiness to strive for perfection, to look the other way in the presence of injustice…..My suspicions that there had to be something more to abundant life led me away from evangelical Christianity. My spiritual journey continues to meander….I am a Christian, committed to practicing the way of Jesus, but in my heart, I still have so many questions; I have so many doubts. ….. As it turns out, all of this is pretty normal. [Wholehearted Faith, pp 36-37]

Evans’ book, Wholehearted Faith, completed following her death by a close friend using her unfinished manuscript, is the inspiration for our upcoming all-church theme September through May.

Because, friends, I think something like this is our quest too. We’ve long “held faith and reason in creative tension;” appreciated science and intellectual pursuits; hewed to critical and contextual (rather than literal) Biblical interpretation, and centered loving service as the most important expression of our faith.

Yet I wonder if we, too, are captive (at least at times) by a domesticated religion that is manageable among a hundred other commitments that occupy us. Are we living fragmented lives—with faith in its own container, just one among other containers we tend and nurture? Are we perhaps unconsciously choosing a “little faith” when in fact God calls us to love with our whole hearts, minds, bodies and souls? I came that you might have life, Jesus said, and have it abundantly.

I admit that when I first encountered Held’s writing a few years ago I read with a certain defensiveness—because it seemed to suggest I wasn’t doing enough to nurture faith in myself or in the flock to which God has entrusted me. What more can I do, or be?

But I realize now I was missing the point by making my spiritual journey about me and making our collective journey about us. The thing is, a wholehearted faith doesn’t begin with us; it begins with God and the astounding, countercultural truth that we are God’s good and beloved creation, made in the divine image and worthy of love, no matter our sins, our failures, our omissions, our glittering distractions, or anything else.

This is the heart of Christianity, yet somehow, the Church (even the so-called “progressive” ones) have missed the mark on proclaiming our sacred connection to God, to one another and to all of life. That deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need for humans— and that message simply hasn’t been heard as the church’s bedrock good news—truth that actually makes a difference as we seek not only to manage the consequences of our personal sins but to restore health and wholeness to all creation.

When you get right down to it, most of the problems we encounter every day in our own lives and in society spring from a denial of God’s love. That’s not magical thinking or trite self-help. It’s the stunning and unwavering conviction that every single person is worthy of love and is in fact, beloved by God. Even our enemies. Even ourselves.

Friends, I invite us over the next year to renew our discipleship—and if that seems a bit too “churchy” for you, please remember that the word simply means “learner.” In the learning that accompanies every age and stage of life, let us commit to re-centering ourselves, not in the certainty of our knowledge, but by learning to go “all in” with the One who made us and who is with us. To take another step beyond a little faith towards a wholehearted one to live and love fully.

I’m grateful to Mark and Leslie Williams for sponsoring a Red Cross safety training class for the entire staff recently. It had all the information—and practice!—to be prepared for a wide variety of emergencies. But here’s what struck me: when you encounter a crisis situation, you don’t go general: Somebody! Anybody! Call 911!!

Instead, you get very specific by eyeballing a person (whether you know them or not) and making it a personal ask. “Jon! [or Sir!] Call 911 now!” Eyeball someone else and say, “Deb [or Ms], go get the defibrillator from the wall cabinet with the sign on it and bring it here.” It gets help delivered more quickly and is way more effective.

The invitation to a wholehearted faith is extended by Jesus to each of us, individually, as well as to all of us. Don’t wait for “somebody” to do something. You have the power. Love is what we were created to do. But even more than that, love is who we were created to be.

Church with folks like that (folks like you and me) will be a mighty banyan tree, a living witness to the miracle of love. Thanks be to God!