Along the Way

These reflections illuminating areas of church, Christian and spiritual life are offered in each Friday email by our Plymouth clergy.

Again, Love is the Answer

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion . . . Faith as a set of passionately accepted and defended doctrines does not produce acts of love
― Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

Years ago, when the cultural reality of declining church trust, membership, and participation became dramatically visible in opinion surveys and denominational population data, I recall trying to make a distinction between faith and religion as a way to restore the church’s reputation for those who’d lost faith in it. I thought there was something to the idea of faith being personal and religion being institutional that could convince people of the power of faith against religion’s failures. It is easy to disparage religion because of the excesses of its most violent or intolerant adherents. But as expressions of faith have become more noisily bigoted and nationalistic, the distinction I’ve been imposing between faith and religion has not held up well. I’ve since seen my mistake: I assumed that if people had more theological, biblical, and religious knowledge, it would lead them to faith. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that. I have found love to be the source of a deeper faith.

The theologian Paul Tillich maintained that “faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” and “religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.” Quite a few people of faith have demonstrated over the years that their ultimate concerns are power, money, ideology, or something else that is finite and preliminary. Whether one uses the language of faith or the practices of religion to demonstrate discipleship, if there is to be a meaningful distinction, it will be made so by the power of love. Perhaps what those who find the church, faith, and religion hypocritical or who find the idea of faith incompatible with scientific truth are most assuredly not seeing in the church is expressions of love.

The theologian James K. A. Smith invites us to rethink how love inheres in the human person, asking, “what if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?” The church testifies that God is love and exhorts people to love God with all their hearts, souls, and might while offering the world creeds, rules, dogma, and doctrine and rejecting those who do not embrace them without question. A few offer LGBTQ people nothing but attacks and curses justified by tradition and Scripture. And I’ve encountered people of faith who love the church and the Bible more than they love their neighbors. Dogma and doctrine do not produce acts of love; people do. As we continue to explore how to shift the narratives about the church, faith, and religion, I hope we begin with love. Always love. Again, love is the answer. Amen.

Can I See God?

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

I want to say to those who insist on favoritism by God for humans: there are other siblings—microbes and mountains, leopard and leeches, all beloved—Katharine M. Preston, “Earth’s Self-Care”

As we prepared for vacation, we had always planned to go whale-watching. However, I had little expectation that we would see any whales as previous attempts invariably resulted in no sightings. The only other occasion I saw a whale was one of those once-in-lifetime events that just happened while we were doing something else. Whales don’t order their movements on the off chance that humans will get to see them. But something about this experience was different. Every part of the journey to see whales felt like prayer. We were ten people gathered in a zodiac boat, sailing in silence past islands and inlets and winding our way over large and small waves and wakes with sea water spraying our faces and the smell of marine life reminding us that we were in another habitat. It felt sacred and serious. An unspoken prayer kept repeating in my mind, “Let us see your glory.” And then we saw them. A pod of 4 orcas just a few feet away, one of which remained temporarily several yards away from the group to hunt for food. Their every breach of the surface filled us with joy.

I was surprised by my reaction. I could not contain my emotion nor hold back the tears. And I know that I was exclaiming words of awe, praise, and amazement, but I don’t remember what I was saying precisely. I knew I had been audibly responding to the beautiful sight because a woman who sat next to us on the boat asked, “what is wrong with us? Why can’t we pull ourselves together?” I’ve been reflecting on that question since that experience. We couldn’t “pull ourselves together” because we had encountered something holy, revelatory, and beloved.

We also saw harmony in the creation beyond our need to control or exploit it. We saw how another of God’s creations lived in nature, unmoved by our desire or concern for anything else other than its immediate need for food and community. These beautiful, gentle giants took no more food or territory than they needed and remained oblivious to the small boat tracking their movements. In their habitat and their migration, they ministered to me. I heard a sermon in their presence, action, and engagement with the creation: we are not the center of the world; God moves in and through all of God’s good creation; their purpose for being and existing is beyond my comprehension but must be an essential component of God’s work in the world. It humbled me. And it begged the question: how do we resist the human tendency toward mastery and dominion when it comes to God’s creation? How can we honor and be a part of creation with commitment, reciprocity, and mutuality?

The Church Can Still Change

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

So many progressive church spaces are made up of people showing up, saying they want transformation, but again and again choosing comfort instead . . . the church is filled with people who want the beautiful outcome promised in the Gospel without any of the real sacrifice of change” —Andrew Lang

A colleague sent around an article recently with the provocative title, “Why Church Won’t Change.” It sounded like clickbait, so I hesitated to read it at first, but my curiosity got the better of me. Upon reading it, I wish it was something I could easily dismiss or whose argument I could pick apart. I also wanted to believe that the writer was overstating the challenges or was unaware of the exceptions to his belief that the church will not change. And yet, there is something prophetic about how he truthfully contends with the desire within many churches, especially progressive churches, for social justice transformation without changing anything about our habits, practices, and traditions. There does appear to be a gap between what we desire for our communities and places of faith and the level of effort and sacrifice we are willing to expend to make it so.

But I still believe the church can and will change. I think there are enough of us willing to imagine, experiment, and release in ways that break through apathy, caution, and resistance to experience fundamental transformation. Andrew Lang admits that “we are thirsty for intentionality, a dedication to real justice, an end to platitudes, and deep commitment to exploring the inner life.” This is fertile ground for change. Our intentionality and dedication can transform practices and move resources in ways that inspire change and invite people to take the church seriously again.

I know the church has found its comfort and success in religious tradition, institutional practices, and cultural realities that bind us to the status quo. At a time when our democracy is facing a moral crisis because of the politics of grievance and resentment, white supremacy, and abandonment of norms of political participation and representation, the church may be the last repository of a robust conversation about the work of justice and the power of sacred space to embolden the pursuit of justice. Lang concluded that the work of justice would “form around the dinner table and in organizing circles,” not in the church. But there is no reason the church can’t face its resistance and reluctance as part of doing justice work and making fundamental change. Perhaps that becomes the church’s priority over outsized considerations about growth and attendance: making the church the space for the intentional pursuit of the work of justice, not just talking about justice. It’s about challenging ourselves not to let buildings, committees, and traditions limit our imagination or intention. If we did that, the church could still change.

Previous Articles

Can I See God?

Say Their Names

Open to All

Choosing Hope

Then What?

Fear Not

October 23, 2020 and Earlier

October 23, 2020 Plagues, Pandemics and Promises

October 16, 2020 The End of Times

October 9, 2020 Rebellion as Sacred Work

October 2, 2020 The Notorious RBG!

September 25, 2020 The Call

September 18, 2020 Dismantling the Silos

September 11, 2020 Revolutionary Love

September 4, 2020 Jesus Is the Answer

August 28, 2020 Worship: God Is the Audience

August 21, 2020 Our Knowledge of God Is Participatory

August 14, 2020 Frederick Douglass, Prophet

August 7, 2020 Do You Want to Be Healed?

July 31, 2020 Vulnerability

July 24, 2020 God’s Backside

July 17, 2020 A Sign of the Times

July 10, 2020 Desiderata

July 3, 2020 A Genius with a Thousand Helpers

June 19, 2020 Unsung Volunteers

June 12, 2020 Our Own Gardens

June 5, 2020 Church Update

May 29, 2020 The Call

May 22, 2020 Scroll Down

May 15, 2020 Don’t Push Send

May 8, 2020 Navigating Mistakes

May 1, 2020 Teach Us to Count Our Days

April 24, 2020 Sitting with Not Knowing

April 17, 2020 Feed My Sheep

April 10, 2020 Life’s Refrain

April 3, 2020 How Do We Show Our Love?

March 27, 2020 Moving through the Fog

March 20, 2020 To Love Kindness

March 13, 2020 The Virus

March 6, 2020  The Seth I Know

February 28, 2020 Triage

February 21, 2020 Impermanence

February 14, 2020 Pruning

February 7, 2020 Inner Life

January 31, 2020 Ask Not

January 24, 2020 Doing Right Things

January 17, 2020 Radical Acceptance

January 10, 2020 The New Year—20/20 Vision

December 27, 2019 Closing the door

December 20, 2019 Winter Solstice and Christmas Day

December 13, 2019 Sacred rest

December 6, 2019  Judge little, forgive much

November 29, 2019 My favorite holiday

November 22, 2019 Making space is spiritual work

November 15, 2019 Looking to the future

November 8, 2019 We stand at the crossroads

November 1, 2019 Ecumenical and Interfaith Connections

October 25, 2019 A Plea for Civility

October 18, 2019 Preacher, Pastor, Prophet

October 11, 2019 . . . to being still