Along the Way

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

Where’s the Good News?

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 10, 2024

What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel.

—J. Gresham Machen

The long-awaited day of spring I had been coveting had finally arrived. It was the first day I could walk for an extended time without a jacket and warm enough to produce some sweat. The sights and sounds of a warm Minnesota day greeted me—the screech of young peoples’ sneakers on the basketball court, neighbors walking their dogs who can sense the change in the season, and music coming from cars whose drivers feel more comfortable with the outdoor breeze cooling them than air conditioning. Just as I settled into the rhythm of my steps and the voices of podcasters coming through my earphones, I could hear someone speaking (or screaming) loudly, trying to get my attention. I turned around to see a middle-aged man, shabbily dressed but smiling. He doesn’t speak but hands me a piece of paper and turns around.

The man had given me a religious tract. A little larger than an index card, the tract was a comic featuring what looks to be a Black man and woman in the first panel, which also includes the tract’s title: “How to Get to Heaven.” The man and woman face a golden path leading to a golden castle nestled in the clouds. The tract quotes carefully selected, abridged scripture texts warning about sin and hell as punishment for sin. It also featured a substitutionary atonement lens on the crucifixion and resurrection to explain how one can escape the fires of hell, declaring that Jesus’ death paid for our trip to heaven. With a message simple enough to be grasped even with a cursory glance, I immediately despaired that there was no good news—just a focus on doom, judgment, and punishment. Did the man believe this? Perhaps he was making a little extra money passing out the tracts. Does such a message still work?

I know many religions still rely on myths and monsters to create meaning, order, and control out of a chaotic, frightening culture distorted by poverty, violence, materialism, and individualism. For a long time, this was the only message I heard. I cannot recall hearing what can be described as good news in the church I grew up in. Yes, church folks talked a lot about Jesus, his birth, and his death, but the news I heard most often articulated was how disappointingly sinful we were, underserving of so good and perfect a savior. I don’t think I heard the good news of Jesus Christ, love incarnated and grace unlimited no matter who we are or how much we fall short, until my thirties when I returned to church after many years of estrangement. Where are the tracts highlighting God’s love, grace, and mercy as sources of hope and beloved community? What’s the message of our faith? I pray it’s good news.

Progress Changes Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 3, 2024

That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.

—Rebecca Solnit

On several occasions in the last couple of years, I have heard friends, commentators, and scholars lament that the political project of federal and state governments since 2016 has been stripping away rights, including fundamental rights of a functioning democracy. My reaction to that observation has alternated between academic detachment to low simmering anxiety to outright panic. Have we abandoned the effort to expand the blessings of liberty for all? The ending of federal protections for women’s right to abortion, the passage of 84 anti-LGBT laws in states across the country, enacting laws to make it harder to vote, drastically limiting access to asylum at the southern border, and the passage of laws to restrict and criminalize the right to protest all point to retreat from an expansion of our democracy to protect those at risk of being excluded because of who they are.

Responding to the concern about backlash and stalled progress in pursuing justice, the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit cautioned us, “That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.” Our progress has power and promise amid backlash, resistance, and regression. Progress in rights, dignity, and status for women, Black people, and LGBT people occurred due to the power of ideas and “the transformation of imagination” that invited people to see the humanity of those once deemed less than, leading to changes in law, politics, and culture. That doesn’t mean later generations or newly empowered opponents of human rights for vulnerable others won’t retreat from those hard-won gains. It does mean that the work of justice continues.

The biblical readings in the common lectionary for this Easter season include stories about the journey the followers of Jesus took to build a church in the aftermath of his crucifixion and resurrection. As their numbers and influence increased, they endured continued oppression and violence. An observer of their experience could choose among many events, actions, and responses to make the case that the movement was succeeding or failing. And yet, as Solnit rightly maintains, it would be a mistake to assume that “the history of change and transformation is a linear path.” Jesus’ followers never toppled Caesar to impose God’s reign. Instead, their living out the meaning of God’s reign in their lives and communities disrupted the status quo of oppression and domination. Everything changed. Perhaps taking away rights granted and secured over the last 50 years means we’ve hit that part on the road of progress where gridlock and alternative directions seek to divert us. But we won’t turn back from the work of justice and liberation. The power of our progress in expanding rights has changed much in the world. Progress isn’t completion, but it does mean change.

Trying to Save this Nation’s Soul

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, April 26, 2024

When will I see an end to destruction and woe
And how will I see no division in my life
There comes a time to make amends
Never too late to try again
To save our soul

—Clannad, “Anam”

In recent years, amid the coarsening of our discourse, the rise of political radicalization, and the deepening social and religious chasm in our communities, politicians, pundits, and thinkers have talked more about the need to save our nation’s soul. I’ve gone from a bemused agnosticism about the notion of the state having a soul to an academic, philosophical reflection on what it means to think of our nation as exhibiting the characteristics of a healthy soul. Assuming the Platonic idea that a nation, just like an individual, must find the appropriate balance between self-control, wisdom, and courage, I am hard-pressed not to conclude that our country has already lost its soul.

But, I understand the appeal of using the soul analogy to reflect upon the nation’s core purpose, promise, and possibility. However, when I consider our nation’s history, including the massacre of indigenous people, the enslavement and legal oppression of Black people, and the visceral resistance to a generous provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable, our nation’s soul has been weary and battered long before our current circumstances. And yet, even though this talk of our nation’s soul remains undefined and nebulous, I admit that the language of a national soul and the desire to save it sound familiar to me. I see it in the oracles of the Hebrew prophets who called Israel to awaken and tend to her spiritual essence, promising that God would create a new heart and new spirit in the people if Israel returned to faithfulness. The prophetic challenge to Israel was hopeful: her soul could be saved.

Perhaps reflection on the nation’s soul remains helpful and necessary given our current social, political, and economic malaise and disorientation. Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called citizens to reckon with the nation’s breaking soul during their times, reminding us during the Civil War and with civil disobedience that our nation’s purpose, promise, and prospects were always savable and worthy of saving. More important than any certainty about the meaning of a nation’s soul is the more powerful assurance that it is not too late to save it. I found inspiration for this from the Irish band Clannad. In their song “Anam,” which means “soul,” they sing that it is “never too late to try again to save our soul.” We can keep trying to perfect this union. We can commit to creating a nation that keeps faith with its people through self-control, wisdom, and courage. The prophets invited Israel to keep trying, as did Lincoln and King with Americans. It’s never too late to try again and keep trying to save our soul.

Previous Articles

Freeing God

Valuing Kindness

What to Do About Us

Now Is the Time

Now What?

Speak Love

Waiting Well

The Long Wait

The Big Hope

Both/And

Giving Life

Open to Wonder

Liberated Lives

Seeing God at Work

God Our Mother

The Will to Act

Can I See God?

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