Hope Rising

I’ve learned a great many lessons about faith and life, and I still have more to learn. The experiences you’ve read about in the previous pages — the end of a marriage, the loss of a child, the loss of a church home, the chaos of a global pandemic, the national reckoning on racial relations — have shown me how to keep from feeling defeated when I find myself in an arid, empty, desolate place. When life becomes lonelier, what remains are the basics, the handholds to building our lives again. For me, those supports have always been people — often not the ones I expected — showing me a way back to life and to others to serve and share with. It can be just a phone call from a distant friend in a moment of despair that rekindles a flame of hopeful expectation in my heart. No matter how desperate my situation — even fearing I couldn’t pay my rent — relationships have surfaced with reminders that I will be okay. And because of the love poured into me through those relationships, I can assure others today that we’re not alone, that there’s goodness in the world, waiting to help us up.

Beautiful and Terrible Things

The space I inhabited in the days after my job at the Riverside Church ended was a place of lost dreams. One day I was one of the most prominent preachers in America, the next I was unemployed and disgraced. When I call those days to mind, the blood still rushes to my cheeks, along with feelings of shame and disappointment and old narratives of not being good enough.

And yet even the unfairness and hurt in that moment weren’t insurmountable. Each experience I’ve recounted here — the death of Chloe, the despair of Jesse, and the rest — was a handhold that I could grab on to to climb the next mountain in front of me. My heart is full, not with anguish for loss but with gratitude for the love of each person who found me and helped me find others. I am thankful for every relationship that reinforced my belief that new life can come out of even crippling desolation.

Sitting in my apartment one morning wondering what it was that people did when they didn’t work, I began to think about a question I’d been pondering for some time. What’s next? What’s next for the Church, for the institution I have loved and served for so long? Despite our best efforts, a pastor’s love for the Church is often unrequited, and that is becoming more and more true; some studies say that upward of five thousand churches in America are closing every year. But surely the message of Jesus — love of God, love of neighbor — does not end with the final closing of a building’s doors, right?

I began to think about some of my friends in Great Britain and the innovation they had been long applying to institutional expressions of faith. A coffee shop, an art gallery, a food truck — these were all serving as meeting spaces for spiritual community. I realized that my calling to create spiritual community did not need to be restricted to the confines of a church. Beyond the walls of a church, was this now something I could help foster, something to climb toward? I was curious about this, and I knew that I would arrive at another meaningful space to serve — even if I didn’t know exactly where or how. So I booked a plane ticket to Heathrow.

Scrolling through the news one lazy morning during my visit to London, I came across an article reporting that religious institutions in America hold more assets than Google, Microsoft, and Apple combined — trillions of dollars. My mind started spinning and I pulled out a journal and began thinking on the page. I thought about my experiences at Calvary, leading an institution that was trying to decide what to do with its considerable assets. And I started wondering, Where is all that money going? Through a theological lens: Who are we going to be in the world? How do we build a community with what we have? What is right and just and good?

Churches own land, buildings, intellectual property. What’s happening to the money generated by these holdings? I’m a pastor, not a real estate investor, and I don’t know anything about assets and funds and all the mysteries of the financial world. But I tried to summon up a theological framework, a kind of “being the Church,” that would allow people of faith and institutions holding lucrative assets to convert them into fuel to empower good, healing, just, community-building, holy work in the world. The endeavor certainly couldn’t be represented as a narrative of religious decline or a theology of scarcity; it would have to be framed as a reclaiming of the central story of Christian faith: death and resurrection.

As churches around the country are closing, selling their land, and divesting of their assets, I wondered: If Church is not God and God exists far outside the walls and fences of the buildings and land, how could a community of believers still serve and positively affect the communities that had nurtured them and could still need them? Could the money be used to create Church without physical location? What could a church look like if it wasn’t a building, and what could that mean for the people who need a spiritual home?

I’ve been the pastor of three large, historic churches — though with those enterprises, the same theological questions with regard to endowments were present. After I was freed from the constraints of those physical buildings, my mind opened in new directions. Instead of clinging to tradition, I wanted to bravely imagine a new way of being Church in the world. What can we do to empower the work of God on earth, even if it looks like something new? I want to look around and find “faith communities” that are noticing God at work in new ways and places. I want an open-minded and openhearted redirection of resources toward those unexpected glimpses of God.

In London with my friends, I visited bakeries and shops, nursery schools and bridge clubs, gardens and craft markets — places where communities gathered. The thoughts I had been turning over about new kinds of churches began to come together. I saw that Great Britain was ahead of us in the process of churches going out of business, and they were also thinking in new and creative ways about how to be people of justice and light, followers of God, in a world with significantly fewer brick-and-mortar churches.

Toward the end of my travels in England, I met a man who was helping a very wealthy friend give away his fortune anonymously. He was part of a small group of people around Great Britain who identified projects in their communities that were changing unjust systems. They reached out and got to know the people who were building these businesses and they just gave them money: small, unrestricted grants to help them keep at the work. That’s it. And then that man said something that changed everything for me. “It’s been twenty-three years,” he told me, “and we’ve just given all the money away. If you look around, you will see that almost every successful social enterprise in Great Britain today has had some connection back to those donations.”

I got goosebumps when I heard that, and I still do whenever I recall that conversation, because my mind suddenly recognized the teachings of Jesus I’d preached from storied pulpits for decades. It was Jesus who told parable after parable about sowing seeds, trying to teach his disciples that the abundance of God is available to us all, that we can build a world where everyone thrives if we have the courage to live with open hearts and open hands, meeting God anywhere God’s work of justice and healing is happening. And this is how Invested Faith was born. My trip to England and the people I met there led me to become the (unlikely) founder of an investment fund.

The Invested Faith idea is simple. Churches and other institutions at the end of their life cycle can contribute their assets to build the fund. The fund makes small, unrestricted grants to faith-rooted social entrepreneurs doing the work of healing the world, Invested Faith Fellows.

As I continue to meet new Invested Faith Fellows, I can’t stop thinking about Jesus and his invitation to just throw those seeds of goodness and justice in the world. It’s not our job to worry too much about where they land and whether or how they grow. Rather, it’s our job to keep our hearts and our churches focused on the vast abundance of God, much of which we steward in this moment. And it’s our job to ask ourselves: Will we make those resources available to the work of God in the world — wherever it shows up?

And there it is again, the handhold I grip when life feels dark: We belong to one another.

The world we’re living in is filled with division, hatred, destruction, despair. Just a short scroll through the news tells us as much. But no matter what course our lives take, it’s not just our own thriving that is our holy obligation. Our job, most of all, is to continue the larger work that Jesus left with us: the work of healing the world.

We need to hang on tight to the conviction that we belong to one another; we need to build systems and structures that replace the old destructive and divisive ones. We need to live by honoring one another and working together toward our shared wholeness and healing. That sounds like a big order, and frankly, it is.

I grew up in Hawai‘i — way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My father is a Native Hawaiian leader who has spent his life addressing deep systemic problems in the native community — a population nearly completely eradicated by colonialism and the theft of the land — the ‘aina, we call it. The land is sacred to Native Hawaiians because of what they have always known viscerally: “When you live on an island, you have to take care of one another — or you die.” When there’s a drought or a hurricane, a tsunami or a flood — when help from off the island might take weeks to arrive — we need one another to survive. It helps me to keep the core mission simple by remembering this: When you live on an island, you have to take care of one another — or you die.

Before the culture of the islands was overrun with Western influences, Hawaiians had an intricate system of cultivating and stewarding the land. The island was divided like a pie, each piece called a moku. And each moku was divided into ahupua‘a, narrower wedge-shaped land sections that ran from the mountains to the sea. Any drive down major Hawaiian roads features prominently placed street signs announcing the name of the ahupua‘a you find yourself in.

The size of each ahupua‘a depended on the resources of the area: Poorer agricultural regions were assigned larger ahupua‘a to compensate for the differences in the viability or richness of the land. Some were more arid and rocky, some riotous jungles, some long stretches of sandy beach, but the whole community knew that every piece of the island was critical for their shared survival: mountain springs of fresh water; arid volcanic rock creating new land; the ocean, filled with an abundance of food. Everyone traded what they had so everyone had enough.

Even for those who don’t live on islands, this concept holds true. Our fierce American individualism has led us so far down a road of disconnected existence that we’re siloed in our own corners, backs turned to one another, often not acknowledging the worth or even existence of the other. The impact of the pandemic in 2020, with words like “quarantine” and “isolation,” made this worse, as did fear. Staying disconnected imitated a feeling of staying safe, avoiding disease.

Tragically, our separation has bred disregard and dismissiveness — rendering many of us unable to even see other people as human beings created in the image of God, much less the neighbors on which our very lives depend.

We need help remembering that we have to take care of one another.

We allow so much to divide us. But neither the government nor religious institutions should be the final arbiters of belonging. It’s only God who can decide that, and God created Peter and Cornelius and Chloe and Jesse and Laura and you and me as beloved children made in God’s image, interconnected. None of us can thrive without the others, and we cannot afford to build or promote systems that divide us from one another. When you live on an island, you have to take care of one another — or you die.

When we refuse to remember that we need one another, we create a kind of divisive thinking that will very quickly lead to not only the exclusion, but the destruction, of others — sometimes even in the name of God.

The institution of slavery in this country was undergirded from its very beginning by a sick interpretation of Christianity that placed white people above everyone else. And even today, similarly distorted views of religion uphold evil, from white supremacy to fundamentalism, stoking hatred and breeding violence.

Exclusionary society and exclusionary religion don’t just leave people out. They leave your five-year-old practicing a drill for how to react when a gunman enters the kindergarten classroom.

We can’t keep living in ways that hurt or exclude our neighbors, because we know, at the core of who we are, that when you live on an island, you have to take care of one another — or you die.

Time and again, I have been reminded that I cannot thrive unless the people around me are thriving. And it uplifts me to remind others that your rights, your ability to build a life without the cards stacked against you, your well-being, are of utmost and ultimate importance to me, too.

When you go out there into this broken and hurting world, wondering if you even want to take on the responsibility of trying to heal it, don’t be overwhelmed. The hardness of this world can turn our hearts to stone or it can make our hearts softer. We choose. And we choose by remembering that we have one another, and if we can find a way to love one another, in all the complexities that invites, then we don’t have to live afraid.

Reprinted with permission from “Beautiful and Terrible Things: Faith, Doubt and Discovering a Way Back to Each Other,” by Amy Butler, copyright © 2023 The Dial Press.

When you live on an island, you have to take care of one another — or you die.