The Interruptions of Grace

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

“God did not make this person as I would have made him . . . We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

 

For as long as people have gathered to be the church, they have had to negotiate their differences and make room for others. Our culture and economics have conditioned us to move through the world as individuals, independent and self-reliant central units of concern, free to be unconstrained by the state or our social group. We have been conditioned to value individualism so highly that we rarely see how it threatens another value we hold—covenant, the binding of ourselves together in community despite our differences. Choosing to be in community when the world expects otherwise is a sign of grace. The Gospels portray Jesus’ encounter with his disciples and strangers as interruptions of grace, a providential gathering of people in covenant as part of the reign of God.

 

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer acknowledged the tensions inherent when people show up in our communities with claims and petitions because “God did not make this person as I would have made him.” But to be beloved community means to love one another, bear each other’s burdens, and maintain fellowship. In our beloved community, we confronted competing claims and petitions explicitly about displaying two beloved embroideries. Our disagreement over these precious treasures is painful, and many members feel a profound, piercing loss. Our life together compels us to hold grief and loss as one body, and our task is to heal our bond and maintain our fellowship.

 

The world does not expect us to heal or come together. The privileging of unfettered choice and self-sufficient individualism forecast that the easier option is to forego community. But I believe in and choose beloved community. I believe in and choose Plymouth Church. Ours is a beloved community marked by generous hospitality and giving and receiving love that counters the empire’s emphasis on contention and polarization. While it hurts to be at odds with one another, polarization is not our story nor the whole of who and what we are. We are a unique revelation of God’s presence and movement in the world, with each of us being interruptions of grace in the life of Plymouth. The world is hurting so much that people want to know where God is. People want to see signs of love, good, peace, of change. Despite all that we have been through, I pray we remember our covenant and who and whose we are. I pray we live out love, good, peace, and change so God may be revealed to the world. May it be so.

Liberating Ourselves

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

You come up with ingenious modes of denying and evading and avoiding the underside of things. But there is some suffering here; there is some sadness and sorrow and heartache and heartbreak”—Cornel West

 

In the introduction to the 50th Anniversary edition of James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, philosopher and activist Cornel West sets the context for what prompted Cone to write in 1969 the first systematic treatment of Black theology. Witnessing the death of Martin Luther King, uprisings in several major cities since 1964, and the persistent, intractable evil of racism that oppressed and killed black people, Cone confronts what West describes as white America’s penchant for “denying and evading and avoiding the underside of things.” I am disappointed to observe that, while there has been no shortage of conversation and confrontation about the impact of white supremacy on all of us, we remain a nation willing to deny, evade, and avoid not just the suffering of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) but also how we got here.

 

Cone’s work was disturbing to many because he was willing to wrest God and Jesus from the clutches of Christian tradition, rhetoric, and theology to see God as actively engaged in the liberation of black bodies and the affirmation of black humanity. Even with this groundbreaking challenge to the church and theology, in the years since, we are witnessing ever more sophisticated ways to deny, evade, and avoid the underside of things that perpetuate the sorrow and sadness of our current racial order. The church has not been immune to minimizing the impact of history and politics on the pain and suffering within communities of color. People of faith have been just as willing to justify unaccountable police killing unarmed black people as the partisan ideologue. We have mastered the rhetoric and symbols that forecast racial and economic justice commitments that often falter when we are personally inconvenienced.

 

I started thinking about Cone’s work again a few days ago when a friend told me how Cone’s work had impacted him. Cone forces us to think seriously about what it would look like in our witness and theology to act with Jesus to defeat evil. What are we willing to risk or lose to see people liberated from oppressive social, economic, and political structures? What are we holding onto that shrivels our imagination about what it means to love, affirm, and liberate those whose bodies and humanity have been denied and distorted by white supremacy? If we do not want to succumb to the denial, evasion, or avoidance of the suffering and damage that years of white supremacy and plunder of the labor, land, and autonomy of BIPOC have wrought, perhaps it begins by seeking liberation for ourselves from the safe, familiar stories and certainties that we’ve relied on for far too long. May it be so.

 

Is That Just the Way It Is?

By
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

They passed a law in ’64
To give those who ain’t got a little more
But it only goes so far . . .

That’s just the way it is
And some things will never change

—Bruce Hornsby and the Range, “That’s Just the Way it Is”

 

The singer Bruce Hornsby recorded a song in the 1980s about poverty and racial segregation, lamenting, “that’s just the way it is, and some things will never change.” I hear that phrase when people feel that a situation is hopeless or when they are unwilling to change something they know is not right. Even when people don’t use those exact words, I have detected a familiar “that’s just the way it is” tone of resignation when we aspire to address the scourges of poverty, racism, racist policing, and community violence. More recently, it has been the swirling subtext in the discussions about whether the most recent mass shooting of small children in Uvalde, Texas, may finally lead to a federal legislative response to gun violence. As people plan and hope for the possibilities of actually doing something about the easy availability of guns, the persistence of a “that’s just the way it is” status quo lurks in the background.

 

As a person of faith, the most potent antidote I possess to the “that’s just the way it is” attitude is the gospel, the good news of God’s love and liberation for all. In Jesus’ ministry to marginalized people in occupied territory, he never accepted that the poverty, oppression, captivity, and exploitation imposed on vulnerable people by empire was just the way it was. His prophetic imagination inspired belief in not only God’s promise to make things right but also in the power of bearing witness to faith, hope, and love that could be the catalyst for fundamental change amid violence, persecution, and oppression.

 

As a community of faith, we give voice to faith, hope, and love in songs, prayers, and liturgies. We declare our intentions to do social justice, speaking loudly about racial injustice, ending poverty and homelessness, and addressing state and community violence. But even as we do, we are haunted by the fear that “that’s just the way it is.” Resist it with all your might. As another artist sang, “don’t accept that what is happening is just a case of others’ suffering.” Until we are willing to see that the injustices of our time don’t have to be just the way it is and manifest in our own lives and actions the profound acts of grace and reconciliation that God shows creation, then our claims about racial justice or social justice are nothing more than what the theologian Willie James Jennings describes as “socially exhausted idealist claims masquerading as serious theological accounts.” We cannot become what people have in mind when they conclude in pessimism and resignation, “that’s just the way it is.” Things can change.

Revolutionary Tears

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

 

Unfortunately, the United States has never learned to listen to itself as if it were the enemy speaking”—Thomas M. Franck and Edward Weisband

 

May our tears swell into a revolution” —Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

 

I am writing this reflection on the second anniversary of the day that police officers murdered George Floyd. The day after an 18-year-old armed with an automatic rifle walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and killed 19 children and two teachers. The day after I shared with everyone in our weekly staff meeting that I have become accustomed to the flow of tears and the stubborn accompaniment of grief over the last couple of years. In my conceit, I assume that if I find the right words and sentences to write or preach, somehow I could convince our elected officials, our friends and neighbors, and our siblings of faith to show enough will and courage to do something about guns and racism. But in my anger, I don’t want to hear any more words at all, not even my own.

 

I hope no one assumes that our tears mean nothing can be done or imply that we are impotent to make a change. I was heartened when I saw the post from Rev. Jacqui Lewis on social media when she prayed, “May our tears swell into a revolution.” I also recall the prophet Jeremiah’s oracle about “Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15). Located as it is in the mouth of a prophet, Rachel’s weeping is not because her hopelessness cannot be turned into hope. Instead, I see her tears as a desperate prayer for healing and restoration arising out of the realization that nobody appears to be doing anything to stop the impending calamity of death from occurring. We grieve the losses from these acts of terror in our communities, yet we refuse to see that we are the enemy we fear. Our lack of a will to change means that we must brace ourselves for the next time a gunman goes into a school, church, mosque, synagogue, or subway and break our hearts again. But today’s tears are a call to action.

 

How will we answer the prayers lifted up in the inconsolable crying of too many families grieving the loss of their children? How will we answer the cries of “Black lives matter!”? Let the resources of our faith—the lament songs of the psalter and the suffering faithful, the prophetic oracles of God’s messengers, and the good news of God’s presence in our midst—move us into a proactive, prophetic response to hate and violence. Without knowing if or how the Spirit of God may use us, let’s be bold enough to step out in faith and risk everything we have to gain our humanity and allow God to reward our work. May it be so.

Say Their Names

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

We cannot continue to live like this. And until we change, far too many of us won’t live at all . . . This normal is intolerable”—Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

 

As we approach two years after the murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department and seven years after the murder of the Mother Emanuel Nine in Charleston, SC, by an avowed white supremacist, another young white man steeped in white supremacist ideology staked out a supermarket in a black neighborhood in Buffalo, NY and went on a murderous rampage last week, killing Roberta A. Drury, Margus D. Morrison, Andre Mackneil, Aaron Salter, Geraldine Talley, Celestine Chaney, Heyward Patterson, Katherine Massey, Pearl Young, and Ruth Whitfield. Say their names.

 

As tragic as this violence is and as shocking as it is to see so young a person succumb to the poison of hate, there is something so bizarrely familiar about it all. If we are honest, we knew it was bound to happen again. How did we know? We knew because after all of the previous attacks by white supremacists, from Charleston to Charlottesville to the Tree of Life synagogue, the terror and violence were not enough to make us change. Through silence, denial, or indifference, we have assumed that the cause of white supremacist hatred would not claim any more victims. We were wrong. In postings on social media, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, the pastor of Middle Church in Manhattan, lamented, “we cannot continue to live like this.” How can we continue to live like this?

 

The predatory behavior of the killer in Buffalo haunts me. He stalked, planned, and prepared for his crimes, unwilling to abide by the possibility of equality, community, and unity. The progress we have made in racial equality and reconciliation, which has not gone far enough, was too much for him. It’s too much for many citizens who think there has already been too much change. It reminds me that change is costly. Some predators want to shake us loose from the path of repair and equality. Some forces seek to separate us from what is good, just, and loving about confronting the failures of the past and the injustices of our present as a way to move forward.

 

This week, I gathered with preachers from across the world for the Festival of Homiletics, where we wrestled with how to preach amid the many traumas we live with and have been visited upon us over the last few years. We did so with the fresh trauma of what just happened in Buffalo. Slogans, platitudes, the certainties of familiar doctrines, and offers of thoughts and prayers have long since lost their capacity to help us confront trauma and grieve rightly. What is true is that God claims and loves us through it. I have no answers beyond that, but I know that “this normal is intolerable.” So, I say their names.

One Sacred Universe

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments-and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it” —Richard Rohr

 

As we welcome the singers and artists of Beyoncé Mass to Plymouth Church, I have allowed my imagination to run wild about the possibilities that people who attend the performance would re-think worship and reconsider church as a part of their spiritual journey. I grew up in a religious tradition that thought art and music that were not explicitly biblical were theologically empty and, thus, profane. With that easy dichotomy imposed on our imagination, so much beautiful prose, poetry, and music were verboten in the church of my youth. But in the music and lyrics of Beyoncé shared in the context of corporate worship, the lives, bodies, and voices of Black women and other marginalized populations become the witness to the sacred worth of all. It is a reminder that the current church has moved far afield from the approach of the peasant rabbi who pronounced blessings on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So, although I have yet to see it, I sense the sacred in the performance.

 

I love Father Richard Rohr’s conclusion that “there are not sacred and profane things” and that we are all part of “one sacred universe.” If the faithful could see all God’s children as part of one sacred universe, the church, worship, and the beloved community would be seen, more than anywhere else, as the places that affirm the lives, bodies, and voices of all those who have been relegated to the margins. Can you imagine what the world could be like if we beheld each other with eyes of recognition? Recognition that God is present in, through, and around us; that the Divine spark is always there to ignite the powerful presence of love and peace among us. It means letting that love flourish and inspire transformative change that overcomes hate, venom, and murder that crouch at the door to destroy life. It is the recognition that nobody is ever outside or away from the presence of Divine Love, and therefore, we ought never to be un-reconciled to those who are beloved of God.

 

So, I invite you to join us in the singing, dancing, worshipping, and affirming one another as God’s beloved as we hear and sing the works of a Black woman exploring her questions, struggles, and journey to wholeness. I pray that the experience will affirm your life and lift your spirit, letting the presence of Divine mercy, love, and grace always fill us with love, compassion, and grace for our neighbors. May it be so.

Making Our Souls Grow

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to

experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow—Kurt Vonnegut

 

 

The first time I visited a spiritual director, I was thrown by her question to me, “How are you tending to your soul?” Because of the quizzical look I gave her, it was evident that I was not tending to my soul, but I was also unfamiliar with what she was asking me. She then asked the question differently, “are you in touch with what’s going on inside of you?” It was clear to her that I was not taking heed to, listening to, or being attentive to the promptings of inner or spiritual wisdom. A few days ago, considering consistently bad political, economic, and international news, a seemingly endless winter and lack of sunlight, and recent findings chronicling some of the negative impacts of social media, I heard myself asking how I tend to my soul. Perhaps, in this season of resurrection, when life, newness, and possibilities are freshly manifesting in the dawn of spring, we can intentionally listen to or heed the call of things and people that feed our souls.

 

I recently remembered the story about a letter the author Kurt Vonnegut wrote years ago to students at a high school who wrote to him asking his advice. It was not hard to find. There is even a video clip of the actor, Ian McKellen, reading it aloud for an audience. In the letter, Vonnegut invited the students to use the practice of art “to find out what’s inside you.” The phrase from the letter that stuck with me was in Vonnegut’s advice to practice any art whatsoever “to make your soul grow.” To make your soul grow. Repeat that phrase. Make it your prayer.

 

For those of us who do not have a practice of art, there are other ways of making our souls grow, especially through love, laughter, and connection with others. How often do we underestimate the gift to the soul that connection with others can bring? The scholar Renita Weems laments our tendency to close ourselves off from engaging with others, especially in the confined spaces of airplanes or waiting rooms, where our nonencounters with a fellow human being foreclose on the possibility of witnessing a resurrection of something new and life-giving. I have come up with a million reasons in the past for not engaging others, and it breaks my heart to think how often we miss that “the grace of God was lurking in the shadows in those moments” when we could have experienced it by drawing closer to another. I pray we do not miss those opportunities anymore. May we do more of what may make our souls grow. May it be so.

 

Life as Easter People

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

We should become people in whom others can see new life, and people who introduce that new life wherever the world is stultifying and life-denying—Paula Gooder, The Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter

 

After the Easter holy day is over, many of us turn our focus immediately to other things, such as graduation season, holidays like Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, and summer plans and vacations. It’s hard to view Easter as a season rather than just a one-day event. However, more so than any other Christian feast day, Easter is filled with messages, proclamations, and images that offer us a meaningful opportunity to shape our lives and witness to the world to keep the spirit of Easter alive throughout the year.

 

What does it look like to live in a way that transmits and embodies Easter hope in our daily experiences? What does it look like to live in a way that death is not a preoccupying feature of our existence? How do we reveal what it means to live hopefully and abundantly in those places that feel closed, dying, or like dry bones? The theologian Paula Gooder invites us to consider a risen existence for a world filled with people unable to imagine new life because of the persistent hold of death and the stubborn injustices that prevail in the world. We sing and celebrate that Jesus’ resurrection means that death has lost its sting and its hold over us. Does the way we live reflect that understanding?

 

I pray we embrace our identity as Easter people, in which we bear witness to the resurrection as God’s alternative ordering of the world where love is stronger than hate; where all God’s children can trust that God will answer injustice; where peace and justice are not buzzwords or the wishes of a utopian dream. Easter people embrace the resurrection as a liberation moment for all, reminding us that God is not satisfied to let death be the final word. Resurrection becomes an ongoing experience for us because we know that life will defiantly find a way. It tells us that when God raised Jesus from the grave, Jesus ushered in a new age of uprising against all that binds us; against the sin that has a hold over us; against death, which steals life and murders our calm; against the systems and structures that tried to silence him and seek to silence us; against a world that wants to stamp out all that is good, loving, and forgiving; against anything that opposes what makes all God’s children whole. I pray we let the world in on this way of living, in which our embodied testimony is that love, grace, and justice will always prevail over fear, violence, and death. May it be so.

Do Not Rush to Easter

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

The full liturgic flow of Holy Week . . . characterizes the execution as a way-station of abandonment that is not an endpoint of abandonment. The requirement is to pause long enough—whether three hours is long enough is unclear—to see that the abandonment is genuine abandonment—Walter Brueggemann, Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday

 

When I left a conservative, Pentecostal church tradition, I often felt that progressive theological collectivities had difficulty articulating “what we are doing on Good Friday.” We know culturally and religiously what it is all about. We also know that Christians have been historically careless in recalling the story about the crucifixion, letting antisemitic stereotypes and accusations and damaging notions that suffering is always redemptive overwhelm more thoughtful and imaginative reflection on the meaning of crucifixion. I have sensed discomfort in trying to make sense of calling the day that the Roman empire executed Jesus “good” without moving as soon as possible to the victory of resurrection.

 

The Gospel renderings of the crucifixion are potent witnesses to the relentless force of death. Still, the history of what happened that day is mainly undiscoverable even as it remains hauntingly real and frightening. Unfortunately, some liturgies seemed designed to compensate for that inability to know what happened for sure with an exaggerated, near-pornographic portrayal of the violence of the cross (I have in mind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), hoping that it will convince us how enormous a sacrifice was made for our atonement. Among privileged people largely protected from abusive, violent powers, such images often leave us unprepared to recognize and critique within our context damaging “contemporary imperial practice” that crucifies (executes?) all the time, just not on crosses.

 

On this sad, frightening day known as Good Friday, we face in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion the full wrath of the empire as it wields its death-dealing brutality against all that is good, right, and just. And yet, we also behold Jesus’ refusal to abandon his faithfulness to God and us or accommodate the empire’s insistence on the normalcy of power, vengeance, and violence. Even with our eye fixed on God’s triumph over death in our celebration of Resurrection, we are left to contend with the world’s “taunts, temptations, and revenges” that oppress the vulnerable and impede our gathering into beloved community. And yet, to be faithful, we are called to let today be what it is. Let the abandonment bring us into the full implication of God’s absence. The theologian Walter Brueggemann invites us to participate in a “thick practice” of Good Friday made real in the words of Scripture and liturgy about absence and abandonment. We need not rush to Easter. The claims of Good Friday permit us to see the deep connection between that painful moment of despair and the triumphant vindication of life. Amen.

 

An Invitation to Make Meaning

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

On what worldview—whether Christian or non-Christian, whether religious or secular—are we willing to stake the meaning of our lives?” —Thomas Cathcart

 

In recognition of the rare convergence of the observances of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, we hosted an interfaith conversation with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and humanist leaders who talked about the power of redemption in their respective traditions. While the panelists shared significant historical and theological developments within their traditions and highlighted religious inter-and intra-faith differences and tensions, they consistently affirmed their religious faiths as sources of meaning. Their faithful adherents stake the meaning of their lives on something lasting and consequential. None of their perspectives or expressions of faith evinced any chauvinism or fundamentalism. I couldn’t help thinking that anyone would be lucky to be a part of these traditions. Unfortunately, this is often not the approach the nonreligious get to see from the religious.

 

At the close of the conversation, an attendee from the audience pointed out that few people present were younger than 40 years old. I worry that young people have not seen the kind of open, hospitable, safe face of religion we saw on the panel that day. A few hours later, I witnessed a different image of faith. I watched a television special featuring an established, famous stand-up comedian who was expected to use his coveted premium cable channel show to come out as gay. The comedian’s story took a heartbreaking, less comedic turn when he described his mother’s cold response when he came out to her. She said to him, “I can’t go against Jesus.” As if Jesus is opposed to anybody or that Jesus enlists the faithful to deny dignity and personhood to anyone. How many people come to church with questions, doubts, and religious scars only to be met with a divine presence withheld from them?

 

I think I am safe in assuming that most religious collectivities do not intend to turn off potential adherents. Others believe that their traditions and theologies demand a forbidding approach to those considered outside of the faith, such as humanists, agnostics, and LGBTQ people. I have had my share of forbidding, judgmental treatment in my experience of Christianity. I have often wondered how the church has gotten so bad at freshly voicing the good news of God in a current atmosphere of hunger for meaning. The ground on which we have staked meaning in our lives is formed and nurtured by timeless grace, love, and justice made real in the life of Jesus, which means that our traditions and theologies have never been bound in time and history but live on in new ways and contexts. Our task must be to invite seekers, leavers, and doubters to a life of meaning that combats alienation from God and community. May we discover anew how to present that face of God and religion to the world. May it be so.