When All Beauty is Gone


Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

April 7, 2023


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”—Matt. 23:37


My heart breaks every time I think about how those who pour out their hearts in love, service, and commitment to the most vulnerable are often made victims of the inevitable backlash against the pursuit of justice. Even as Jesus confronts the truth about what awaits him during what would become his last visit to Jerusalem, he expresses his desire to care for the people. His response is a lament, not anger. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams points out that Jesus “consistently refuses the role of oppressor: he does no violence, he utters no condemnation, he has no will to exclude or diminish.” Given the powers Jesus challenged, the inevitability of his execution can never exclusively be theological. Jesus’ relentless, active opposition to the status quo of poverty, violence, and exclusion of “the least of these” threatened the political and economic powers. They had to stop him.


I have never been comfortable concluding that Jesus’ crucifixion was biblically and theologically necessary for humanity’s salvation. I have also been uncomfortable with the idea that we, all of humanity throughout all time, are responsible for Jesus’ death. But what overwhelms me, what draws me to Jesus, especially as we try to capture the theological import of the violence and sadness of Good Friday, is his faithful obedience to God’s call to love and serve until the very end. What strikes awe in me about Jesus is how he acted to make God’s heart and realm real for the world until the powers acted upon him to stop him. What ought we do in light of Jesus’ unwavering, unstoppable love, passion, and commitment? What does it mean to love so fully that the world wants to stop us?


On Good Friday, I confront how often I do not act. Whether out of fear, comfort, or cowardice, I wonder how often I have demurred in silence, compromise, or accommodation to injustice, violence, and dehumanizing disregard for the vulnerable. We are challenged every day at the feet of the cross to admit that, too often, in fear of death, we have been explicitly and inadvertently complicit in making victims, excluding and diminishing the vulnerable for whom Jesus advocated and on whose behalf he challenged the status quo. We have not acted as often as we should on behalf of the poor, the sick, the prisoner, or the homeless. But as the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion sets in, I am heartened by Henri Nouwen’s testimony: “Where all beauty is gone, all eloquence silenced, all splendor taken away, and all admiration withdrawn, there it is that God has chosen to manifest unconditional love to us.” What ought we do?

The Sufferings of the Present Time

by Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis


Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands—bell hooks


On a recent television program my family was watching, the show’s hero, who had helped a woman out of an abusive relationship, was attacked by the woman’s violent, spurned-partner. The attack was so brutal and gratuitous that I remarked to my spouse that many of the recent shows and movies we’ve been viewing allowed their heroes to undergo severe, debilitating violence before their inevitable victory. Do the writers believe overwhelming suffering makes victory sweeter? Is there something noble or heroic about suffering?

Every season of Lent, when I am preparing for the Holy Week liturgies and observances, I must confront the suffering of Jesus. In doing so, I also become increasingly sensitive to the news about suffering. Everywhere I turn, I see headlines and hear stories about people enduring unspeakable pain, violence, and suffering caused by nature or human hands. And I must prepare myself for the inevitable tendency to extrapolate from Jesus’ redemptive suffering that all suffering is redemptive, which is borne out by how people generally view suffering. A Pew Research Center poll from last year found that 68% of U.S. adults believe “everything in life happens for a reason,” and more than half (61%) believe that “suffering exists ‘to provide an opportunity for people to come out stronger.’” We know that people cope with suffering by intentional meaning-making to understand and explain the experience and regain some sense of orderliness in their world. I have benefitted personally from the testimonies of growth, overcoming, and deeper discipleship because of suffering.

I understand the desire for suffering to mean something, to see the ugliness and violence we experience transfigured in such a way that we can testify that it will always turn out alright. However, I worry that people misinterpret the Apostle Paul’s claim that he rejoices in his afflictions because suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope as an invitation to suffer (Rom 5:3-4). And unfortunately, overcoming violence, oppression, and discrimination is sometimes used as evidence that suffering is always redemptive or that there is no longer a need to hold anyone to account for it. In the effort to make suffering noble, we may inadvertently expect it, pursue it, or adjust ourselves to it. The social critic bell hooks invites us to be honest about the wounds of our suffering. But she also invites us to take control in reconstructing our lives in response to it. As we continue our journey to wholeness during this season of Lent, I pray that, even as we accept the inevitability of suffering, we remember that God does not require it, and we do not deserve it. Amen.


Slandered as Political?


Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis


The biblical text is saturated with what we call ‘politics’—with national liberation remembered and expected, with law for daily life, with material care for the poor—Catherine Keller, God and Power


A couple of years ago, I was honored to join several of my colleagues of faith on the writing team to create liturgy and worship resources for the World Council of Church’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Because Minneapolis was ground zero for international protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Council invited clergy and activists of faith from the city to share their wisdom about the experience in the form of a liturgy. No sooner had the worship resources been published that the conservative news outlet The Daily Wire posted a story with a headline blaring, “Minnesota Group Steers Vatican-Led’ Christian Unity’ Week into U.S. Politics.” More surprising than the headline was to see them single me out by name, along with two of my colleagues of color, implying that we were responsible for “using the ideal of Christian unity to push a Marxist political agenda.” The article included no examples of anything in the liturgy that could be characterized as Marxist and dismissed our prayers for equity, justice, and compassion as solely political and, thus, unacceptable for worship.


The article’s writer saw our invitation to hear voices from the margins, testimonies of struggle under racism and police brutality, and articulations of the impact of political and economic disfranchisement as unacceptable, inappropriate rhetoric for the church’s liturgy. We mistakenly assumed that, despite our political and ideological differences, we would all be prepared and willing to hear the cries of God’s beloved for mercy and liberation in times of trouble. I suspect that dismissing our liturgy as “political” is an attempt to signal to others to avoid using our liturgy and preclude talk about oppression and injustice in the church.


But being political does not make us partisan; it makes us biblical. Theologian Catherine Keller notes that the biblical text is not squeamish about its engagement with what may be considered political. If the political nature of the biblical concerns bothers us, perhaps it says something about our resistance to the demands of discipleship vis-à-vis the oppressed, dominated, and exploited. Keller cautions the faithful to recognize our apocalyptic unconscious, feelings of impending catastrophe that prompt us to think in terms of black and white, us versus them, not just religiously but also politically. But I take the Jesus of the Gospels at his word that the reign of God has come near. And if there is indeed any concept of the new creation in that pronouncement, then our liturgy sought to reflect and anticipate an alternative ordering of our thinking and living to include within our prayers and moral imagination the plight of the most vulnerable among us. Perhaps that does make us political, prayerful, and biblical. Amen.

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?


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


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.

My Heart Can’t Break Today


Rev. DeWayne L. Davis


Over the last few months, I have attended several religious and theological conferences. Many sermons, workshops, and presentations have focused on responding theologically and prophetically to intractable problems in our world. Experts and theologians have provided great wisdom that I know will help me address various cultural, political, and economic issues impacting our community. In those conference offerings, there was no minimizing how bad things are nor any attempt to mask or avert the gaze from the horrors of war, racism, and oppression. At a recent workshop, just as I was settling to hear a presentation and began to take notes, I heard myself whispering, “I need a break from the hard stuff today. I don’t know if my heart can take another break.” At that moment, I remembered a poem I wrote after the news of the killing of Philando Castille when I was not ready for one more story of police violence and the killing of another black person. I know the work of justice continues, but I am compelled on some days to say . . .


My heart can’t break today.

I want to take a walk and enjoy the breeze.

I want to sit out on the deck, drink good wine, and tell good stories.

I want to laugh hard and be loud about silly stuff.


My heart can’t break today.

I want to pay attention to the gifts of blue sky, singing birds,

and oddly shaped clouds that look like puppies, Jesus, or one of the Golden Girls.

I want to see old friends and reminisce about bad dates, big mistakes,

and how we overcame them.


My heart can’t break today.

I want to think warmly about people before they profile me, ignore me,

or hurt me.

I want to trust in the ideals and values they taught us in school

long enough to combat the cynicism and hopelessness

of one who has seen too many sad things.


My heart can’t break today.

The weight of hard things has made my heart too heavy.

The distance between the ups and downs keeps shrinking.

I need time to recover, see hopeful things, and hear better news.

No, my heart can’t break today. So, wait to tell me what you have to say to me.

The Power of an Expansive Theological Imagination


Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis



“Theology that arises from Scripture and from the teachings of Jesus does not allow for the identification and exclusion of the other” —Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths


Trolling social media the other day, I saw the latest outrage precipitated by a religious attack on democracy, women’s rights, or LGBTQ people. They come so frequently now and are so similar in their details that any specific story I chose to share would be familiar. As the commenters to the posts discussed the theological reasoning behind each religious persecution, it saddened me to notice that what they were describing revealed a stunted theological imagination, an inability to see within the biblical witness divine resistance and creative response to the ugliness of a fallen social reality. It takes very little imagination to give oneself theological permission to do harmful, self-interested things and maintain a status quo in the current social reality that never liberates or expands society’s social and material benefits to the most vulnerable among us.


I discovered the power of theological imagination early in my life. All of the explanations I received from my parents and church for why going to the movies, attending parties, or prohibiting women from wearing pants arose from a reading of the Bible that reinforced an existing social reality and worldview. Specifically, my church and family had embraced values and practices for organizing and structuring their lives and used Scripture to support and justify them. Therein lies the power and danger of the theological imagination: it can either dull and distort or expand and enliven the social imagination. Suppose my theology permits everything I want, upholds my power and privilege, and imposes the values and practices I’ve constructed on society and culture. In that case, it will be hard for me to imagine an alternative, much less an alternative that mirrors God’s shalom for the entire creation.


A careful reading of Scripture does not easily result in the kinds of diabolical actions and oppressive ideologies humanity embraces to shape and control our social reality. Only a diseased social imagination, beholden to the logic of power, exclusion, and white supremacy, would distort the whole of the biblical narrative to create a social reality that serves only the individual, one race, or one ethnicity. Reading Scripture in ways that stifle the imagination, protect the status quo of inequality and oppression, and reinforce the worst tendencies to hoard and exclude others is a conscious decision. With every encounter with Scripture, we have an opportunity to embrace a theology that inspires covenant and connectivity across differences in race, sex, gender, ethnicity, and religion. I pray that our reading of sacred text inspires us with theological imagination that widens the welcome circle, affirms the dignity of all creation, and includes God’s diverse humanity in the beloved community without condition or compromise. May it be so.

Justice in Public Life

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis


“Remove your evil deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16b-17)


Over the last few years, religious people and institutions have been at the center of the political upheaval in our nation. There is a deep distrust of and dissatisfaction with institutions that many people are inclined to abandon or tear them all down, including the church. Anger and anxiety permeate spiritual spaces such that religious people cannot be counted on to inspire the public to care for the poor, do justice, or welcome strangers. Even the folk who attend church faithfully and consider themselves highly observant of spiritual practices appear to be more beholden to their ideology than they are to their God. As a result, our public life is in trouble.


In describing Isaiah’s prophetic utterances to Israel, the theologian Walter Brueggemann has suggested that not reflecting God’s will in public life will lead to trouble in public life. Not only is there trouble in our public life, but it also appears that religious people have ceased to be exemplars of the grace, mercy, and justice to which the biblical witness testifies as central to God’s character. The words, worship, and presence of religious people in the public square may arguably reflect less what is important to God and more often what is important politically. If you look at how the religious show up in public life, you’d think God only cares about abortion, protecting the right to bear arms, closing public restrooms to trans people, and Supreme Court nominees. Our songs, prayers, and liturgies talk about a God who cares about the poor, justice, and loving our neighbors. Yet, when the church shows up in public life, it is mainly silent or hostile when it comes to doing justice.


I recently saw a book in the religion section of the bookstore with a title that suggested that social justice is anti-God, anti-biblical, and destructive to the church. But according to Isaiah, doing justice is an undeniable, non-negotiable part of being in relationship with God. Taking care of the most vulnerable is not a suggestion for God; it is imperative. Isaiah prophesied to Israel that God didn’t want to be flattered and did not share the gifts of worship and covenant for their sake alone. Israel failed, and its public life shattered. Yes, we are experiencing trouble in public life. We are engaged in a heated and frenzied struggle over the future. However, I hope we double down on seeking justice in response. May we all do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. May it be so.

Taking Time to Notice Beauty


Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis


I want to tell you that the world is still beautiful . . . I still believe we are capable of attention, that anyone who notices the world must want to save it”—Rebecca Baggett, “Testimony”


Several weeks ago, I stopped at an intersection traffic light behind a car with several bumper stickers plastered on its rear bumper. When the light turned green, the driver took far too long to move because they were distracted by something in their center console or passenger seat. In annoyance and impatience, I was just about to blow my car horn and let loose with words I shouldn’t use when I noticed the message on one of the bumper stickers: “There is so much beauty in the world. Take time to notice it.” I don’t know how it worked, but my anger immediately subsided, and I searched for the beauty around me. A few days ago, a colleague of mine posted a wedding anniversary picture with her spouse with a crudely painted message on the wall behind them, “Life is beautiful.” I found myself nodding in agreement. Okay, I get the message. Beauty surrounds us. I am convinced that transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is right in his conclusion that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” Our loss is failing to notice it.


With so many challenges menacing the world, especially the destructive consequences of our abuse and exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, we may forget just how still beautiful the world is. I take for granted the beautiful plants and flowers in the courtyard at church. Sometimes, I forget to take notice of the sky or a tree until someone points them out to me. Noticing beauty may not answer the world’s most profound problems or injustices. Still, it can be a necessary temporary distraction from the hard stuff that creates feelings of despair and hopelessness. Yes, I know beauty is subjective, but whether its effect is emotional or intellectual, the beauty around us can be a source of delight no matter what else.


In light of the depressing news about war and violence, pandemics and climate change, and political backlash and polarization, the words and wisdom of poets have reminded me of the world’s beauty more so than scripture. Don’t get me wrong. The biblical witness about love, justice, and God’s faithfulness affirm my faith and fortify my resolve. But the poets often serve as the heralds of beauty ignored, forgotten, or discounted. The poet Rebecca Baggett invites us “to look again and again” to recognize beauty in the tender grass, the river rocks, and the October leaves. Perhaps that can be a new discipline to incorporate into our spiritual practices and explorations: taking intentional time to notice beauty. I pray that each day you find beauty around you in which to delight. May it be so.