Finding the Right Questions

By DeWayne L. Davis

published in This Week at Plymouth

July 13,2023

“Sometimes it’s not the right answers that we need, but the right questions that catch hold and stir us.” —Renita Weems, What Matters Most.

Before accepting the call to ministry, my career in politics was mostly about finding and supplying the right answers. To elected officials. To constituents. To colleagues. To lobbyists, activists, and advocates. My job was to find solutions and answers to policy questions and political challenges. And right answers and solutions meant more power, influence, and success. The shift to ministry and pursuing a theological education reoriented my thinking to the significance of asking the right questions. I welcomed that approach as the religious tradition of my youth did not welcome questions and viewed the Bible as a book of answers to every issue, problem, and challenge.

In recent years, many friends and colleagues have asked me what I thought about one issue or another they were confronting. I’ve been less willing to offer answers. After a conversation with a colleague a few days ago, they concluded jokingly but, in all seriousness, “Well, you didn’t give me an answer.” I didn’t. Instead, I asked a series of questions. Perhaps the answers we seek begin with better and more honest questions. In her powerful Bible study for helping women discover their passions, the theologian Renita Weems raises the possibility that waiting for answers to our challenges rather than reflecting on the questions posed to us may prevent us from seeing that God may have placed us “into situations where [we] must come to grips with [our] role in making [our] prayers a reality.” Our questions potentially hold within them the spark of memory, passion, and desire for what we truly need and want to make us come alive.

 

During the pandemic, when everything shut down and people were forced to stay home or give up their jobs, I suspect many had more questions than answers about their lives, hopes, and dreams. Coming out of the pandemic, I have heard many personal testimonies from people who looked at their lives, hopes, and plans, asking themselves pointed questions about what kind of life they wanted. What do I really want to do? What am I passionate about? What makes me come alive? Such questions stirred them into reflection, discernment, and action. As a result, I heard many stories from friends, family, and strangers of new careers, new passions, and new possibilities nourishing and revitalizing them. Given this experience, perhaps our prayers can be less about the pursuit of answers than about posing and confronting the right questions. Perhaps God’s perceived silence or absence in light of our deepest desires is God’s invitation to ask the right questions about ourselves to get back to who we truly are and want to be. I pray that you find the right questions to catch and stir you.

 

May it be so.

Open to Wonder

By DeWayne L. Davis

Published July 7, 2023

In This Week at Plymouth

“A people must be encouraged to celebrate not in spite of who they are, but because of who their Creator has made them.” —Bishop Yvette Flunder.

 

On the first full day in Atlanta for the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries Convocation (TFAM), when I took a rideshare back to my hotel from lunch, the driver asked me if I was visiting. I told them I was a minister attending a church conference. The driver immediately replied, “I am so glad someone holy is here. It was Sodom and Gomorrah here last month with all that Pride stuff. I’m a person of faith, too.” Then the driver launched into a diatribe about how their LGBTQ passengers were dressed and how disgusted they made them feel. I didn’t want to get into a debate, so I replied, “Be careful who you call holy or unholy. Let God handle it.” We rode in silence afterward.

 

How did we get to the place in Christian witness and discipleship where we heap condemnation and persecution on others? Jesus neither condemned nor persecuted anyone. Did we get it from the Apostle Paul? After all, he persecuted Christians before his encounter with Jesus. Did Paul reject persecution after his conversion and new life as a follower of Jesus? Or was persecution acceptable as long as it was the right people being persecuted? Ironically, the attitude and religious opprobrium my driver felt so comfortable articulating about LGBTQ people was why the conference I’m attending was created. Too many LGBTQ people of faith experience religious rejection and abuse by their homes and churches. TFAM is a witness to the radically inclusive love of God for all people and affirms and celebrates all God’s children from every tradition and experience.

 

I confess that I was a little hurt by the behavior and reaction of my driver to their LGBTQ customers. They evinced no curiosity about the people they served nor demonstrated any regard for their dignity. As that experience continued to vex my spirit, I heard the theologian Keri Day exhort people of faith to embrace “a posture and theological grammar of wonder,” whereby we allow our desires and expectations to be interrupted by God’s unfolding movement in our midst. What would it look like if we were curious about the people who anger, annoy, frighten, or make us uncomfortable rather than rejecting or lashing out at them? What kind of beloved community could we create if we insisted first on joy, hope, and hospitality when meeting strangers? How much would change if we allowed time to sit with the strange and the unanticipated? I am blessed that the welcome and embrace I felt at the conference overwhelmed the intolerant perspective of that driver. And now, I’m opening myself to wonder, trying to have the humility to let God reveal God’s self to me in the strangers and neighbors I encounter. God, in your mercy.

 

Singing Heart Songs

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

Published in This Week At Plymouth

June 30, 2023

Is there a song that, when you hear it, all things sad, bad, or negative fall away? A song with the power to sharpen your senses, bringing up pleasant sense memories of sights and sounds of a time when you felt love, joy, and connection? What about a poem? Songs and poetry have been so present in my life that I often take them for granted. And yet, recently, I’ve come to rely on them more to intentionally introduce heartfelt messages into my heart and head throughout the day and week. I call them heart songs. They are the songs, poems, music, and messages, often personally familiar and beloved, that interrupt the routine, mundane preoccupations of the job and personal and professional stresses to call us to loftier reflections on love, life, and beauty.

 

There is nothing more delightful than being surprised by a heart song. Last Sunday, as we were gathering for worship, I overlooked the prelude that the Jazz Trio would play. And then, they began to play “The Nearness of You,” a popular song from the 1930s by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington that I first heard in college when the love of my life and I were getting closer and falling more deeply in love. The song has an extraordinary power, whether sung or instrumental, like last week, to transport me into a moment when my heart was opening to the beauty and exhilaration of a new love. All the associations and memories of such a seminal moment in my life arrested me. I could not hold back tears of joy and deep love, and I welcomed both the song and my tears as a sacred act of prayer. As you can tell, the song blesses me still.

 

I recall that my parents had heart songs that they regularly sang. While that was neither the language they nor I would have ever used to describe it, I now recognize that they regularly interrupted what they were doing by singing heart songs. My mother often sang hymns and spirituals while she worked in the kitchen or her garden. And at some point in her singing and humming, she would stop what she was doing and, with eyes closed, raise her head toward the sky. My father would also sing and recite his favorite Bible passages, stopping for a bit whatever he was doing to let the moment be. In this way, singing our heart songs can be a form of resistance, an intentional means by which we combat soul-distorting sadness, anger, anxiety, or depression to draw us into the presence of love, connection, and relationship. I imagine those songs, poems, and messages that create holiness wherever and whenever they arise and draw us back to the essence of what is good, loving, and life-giving. Sing, recite, or listen to a heart song. Work, worry, and everything else can wait for a minute.

Amen.

Liberated Lives

Published by

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

June 24,2023

As LGBTQ people and their allies gather for the annual Twin Cities Pride Festival and Parade, we do so under the shadow of a growing and vocal backlash against LGBTQ equality and inclusion. And while Pride has always been a misunderstood and contested cultural and institutional phenomenon in recent history, it foregrounds a relatively simple impulse among the disinherited within a society: the desire for respect, recognition, and affirmation. The story of LGBTQ people in the United States since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 is a story of liberated lives. It is a story of finding one’s place and purpose as beloved and valued. It is a story of a people’s very identity and visibility arising victorious out of hatred, violence, and repression. It is a story of a people whose marginality and vulnerability testify to the ongoing need for vigilance in pursuing justice for all.

 

The swift progress in LGBTQ civil and human rights and the lasting religious objections to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people may lead us to assume that Pride is nothing more than a party replete with “woke” celebrity endorsement and corporate sponsorship. But like any group that has fought to be treated with dignity and have their humanity recognized, Pride is more than a party or a frivolity, regardless of how it is perceived. All those brave souls and their families who take the risk to show their faces at a Pride festival, even as anti-gay rhetoric and religious attacks against them persist, do so as an act of thanksgiving, an expression of inherent worth, and a source of hope.

 

When I read the stories of God’s people Israel and their liberation from bondage, exile into foreign lands away from all they knew, and return to their homeland from exile, when I recall my forebears who endured enslavement and sacrificed their lives to make this nation live up to its values of freedom and equality for all people, I am reminded that just like the oppressed and disinherited before us, the forces of oppression, for a time, can rob a people of their name, heritage, humanity, and equality. So, we know that we enjoy freedom and visibility made possible but not entirely enjoyed by the Stonewall generation. We owe it to them to embrace our identities, sexualities, and expressions with pride and faith and seek justice and liberation for all those who remain on the margins.

 

Please join us in making Pride a time of thanksgiving where we remember that we enjoy the gift of liberation our forebears fought hard to secure and commit ourselves to giving back. Please help us tell and share our story of us. It is a story of liberation, gratitude, and pride. It is a story of divine inspiration and recognition of our full personhood. It is a story of liberated lives, a blessing I hope all God’s children will enjoy.

Amen.

 

The Ongoing Pursuit of Absolute Equality

Published 6/15 in This Week at Plymouth

By DeWayne L. Davis

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” —General Order No. 3 announced by General Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until college when classmates from Texas or whose families migrated elsewhere from Texas educated us about what they considered the largest and most consistent celebration of emancipation from slavery. I protested that we grew up celebrating emancipation at Watch Night Services on New Year’s Eve, re-enacting the anticipation of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1. Oh, how quick they were to remind me that Lincoln’s proclamation did not free all of the enslaved. I soon learned why they were so proud and enthusiastic in their knowledge and observance of Juneteenth.

Those newly freed Black Texans who had heard General Gordon Granger announce their freedom marked June 19, 1865, as the day of their jubilee and, starting the very next year, galvanized and mobilized their communities to commemorate their emancipation from slavery. That was no easy task, and Confederate dead-enders used terror and violence to derail acknowledgment of the day. However, the holiday endured. In recent years, I have read the words of General Order No. 3 every Juneteenth. I am struck by its assertion of not just freedom for the enslaved but of absolute equality in their fundamental rights as the effect of that freedom. In the ensuing years, after slavery and after the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, those who had fought to maintain the institution most assuredly understood that the status of the formerly enslaved had changed. Unfortunately, they refused violently to accept that those they considered inferior or lesser had equal value, worth, and rights. That rejection of equality continues to hamper national unity and a shared identity today.

Many in our nation still bristle and resist the pursuit of equality. Racial, gender, immigrant, and LGBTQ equality remained contested and subjected to backlash after hard-won progress. But those persistent free Texans were determined to claim Juneteenth to celebrate emancipation, and in their persistence, they asserted their equal status as free people and citizens. I hope we remember that Juneteenth is about emancipation and equality. For in the abolition of slavery, in the freedom of God’s beloved made in the image of God, the spirit of Juneteenth enlists us in the project of seeing and making real our shared humanity and personhood with others of every race, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. Rep. Al Edwards of Texas, the leader responsible for Texas becoming the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, called Juneteenth a “source of strength.” I think it could be if we never forget it.

 

A Renewed Commitment to Pride

Along the Way

Published June 2, This Week at Plymouth

by DeWayne L. Davis

A Renewed Commitment to Pride

 

By

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

Human beings have the profound duty to intervene when someone else is being victimized, especially if that person asks them to”—Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind

 

As Pride Month gets underway, for the first time in over 20 years, I am filled with anxiety about the safety and well-being of LGBTQ people. What started as cynical political maneuvering, using the wedge issue of gender and sexuality to organize a specific type of voter who is easily motivated to respond to culture war issues, has escalated into actionable threats to and targeting LGBTQ people, venues, and businesses supportive of their LGBTQ customers and employees. Recently, two men posted a video on social media that has since gone viral describing their attacks on Pride displays in Target stores in the Phoenix area and announcing their intent to “hunt” LGBTQ people and their allies during Pride Month. Target shocked its LGBTQ customers and their supporters by announcing that it was pulling Pride Month merchandise from its stores because of threats to its workers.

 

No, I am not surprised at the inevitable backlash that follows advances in civil and human rights for marginalized communities. However, I worry about the lack of urgency about the danger from those of us who, because of our distance from the immediate danger due to our status, income, and location, have a hard time believing that our opponents will resort to violence. After the passage of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, I was waiting for the anti-gay political forces to lose steam or interest in targeting LGBTQ people as they turned their attention to electoral politics. But targeting LGBTQ people is part and parcel of their electoral politics, an organizing tool that keeps getting them support, especially at the possibility of doing violence.

 

That’s where we come in. God’s LGBTQ beloved, especially our trans children and siblings, are asking us to use our voices, power, and privilege to support and protect them. Our progress in civil and human rights for LGBTQ people does not mean our work is complete. And the best counter to backlash is a renewed commitment to the safety and well-being of those on the margins, letting the world know as loudly and publicly as those who are targeting and threatening our LGBTQ kin that we intend to see justice done. We will meet every threat and attack on LGBTQ people and spaces with love and justice. My heart soars, and my courage grows when I think about my forebears, Black and LGBTQ, who faced and overcame “inexpressible cruelty” so I can live and thrive. Because of that work of love and justice, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the opposition we now face will surely fail.” It is our profound duty to make sure the opposition does fail and make every day a celebration of Pride for God’s LGBTQ beloved. May it be so.

The Grace of Being Unfinished

Published May 26, 3023

This Week at Plymouth

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

 

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished—Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb

 

A few days ago, news came out of Florida that an elementary school in Miami-Dade County banned the poem poet Amanda Gorman recited at the Presidential Inauguration of Joe Biden in 2021, The Hill We Climb. In the complaint, the person requesting the removal of the now-published work reported that the poem was “not educational” and included “hate messages.” The complainant also argued that the poem’s function was to “cause confusion and indoctrinate students.” I searched my memory of hearing the poem, trying to recall any hateful words, claims, or phrases. The complainant pointed to pages 12-13 as containing the offending material. On those pages, Gorman recounts learning that the “norms and notions” of what constitutes justice are not always just but that we collectively have “witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” That struck a hopeful, gracious note in me. In light of a nation that witnessed the viral video of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, overwhelmed by gun violence and mass shootings, and navigating what appears to be a simmering civil war, Gorman still refuses to call our nation broken. Her poem testifies to the belief that we can be and do better.

 

Perhaps the person complaining about this poem had a different edition from what I was reading, so I looked at the surrounding pages. In those pages, Gorman did refer to herself as a “skinny black girl” and a descendant of the enslaved. She also invited us to think less about perfecting our union and strive “to forge our union with purpose.” I’ve tried in vain to see how any of these words could inadvertently spread hate or cause confusion. However, I recalled just how hopeful and gracious a poet Gorman is. I would not have thought it odd or inaccurate if she had referred to our nation as broken. But she called us unfinished, recognizing our potential to be a more complete, inclusive, and diverse nation.

 

In the church of my youth, I often heard the adults testify, “I may not be where I want to be, but God is not through with me yet.” They were attesting to their faith in a gracious God who would make a beloved but unfinished creation better and more whole. Maybe the objection to the poem is cynical political maneuvering. However, because I revisited this poem, I have a newfound appreciation for the power of grace. To see ourselves as unfinished rather than broken invites us not to see ourselves as hopelessly unrepairable but to see our potential for growth and progress. That we have within us the power and promise to do better. God is not through with the United States yet. Amen.

 

Seeing God at Work

Along the way

by Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

published May 19, 2023

 

Is it possible to see God at work beyond our walls? And receive it with joy rather than dread?”—Anna Carter Florence

 

Over the last several days, Plymouth clergy and members have been attending the 31st Festival of Homiletics. With the theme of Preaching Hope for a Weary World, more than a thousand preachers and attendees have gathered for worship, study, and preaching about hope in response to the recent years of the pandemic, protests, and polarization. On the first night of the festival, in the opening worship, the preacher for the evening, Dr. Anna Carter Florence, preached from a rarely used text from the Book of Joshua, featuring the biblical heroine, Rahab, a Canaanite woman and prostitute, who comes to the rescue of the Israelites in defiance of the ruler of Jericho. Dr. Florence powerfully demonstrates that Rahab is to be commended for seeing God working beyond the walls of her city and for the liberation of people not of her own tribe and city.

 

An arresting proclamation, the preacher’s sermon foregrounded the question: “Is it possible to see God at work beyond our walls?” I have not stopped thinking about it ever since. The question compels my reflection and interrogation and reminds me of how timely and consequential the recently completed work of Plymouth’s Campus Task Force is. The report invites us to discern how Plymouth can become one with the surrounding community. Rahab responded to the plight of the oppressed Israelites with courage and imagination, choosing compassion, solidarity, and accompaniment rather than fear, anxiety, and suspicion. Our Campus Task Force has invited us to act with similar courage and imagination.

 

We face many challenges in this neighborhood, including persistent poverty and concerns about community safety. We are expending additional resources to ensure the safety of our members, visitors, and tenants. Our neighbors routinely look to us for help, advice, and leadership, only to find us as concerned and frustrated as they are. And yet, the other night, the preacher challenged me to see God at work in our collective struggle. But seeing God at work also requires figuring out how I will respond, how we can be agents of love, peace, change, and neighborliness, and join God in the work of liberation for the oppressed. Our conversations about what it means to be a church in this neighborhood are only beginning. It will be uncomfortable, ambiguous, and contested. But Rahab inspires me. Yes, we live in a tension between difficulty and possibility. With God’s love and help, we can overcome the fear, anxiety, and suspicions that plague us and our neighbors and respond to their needs and aspirations with courage and imagination. May it be so.

God Our Mother

Along the Way

by DeWayne L. Davis

Published May 12, 2023

God is our Mother as truly as he is our Father; and he showed this in everything, and especially, in the sweet words where he says ‘It is I,’ that is to say . . . ‘It is I: the wisdom of motherhood. It is I: the light and grace which is all blessed love’” —Julian of Norwich

 

When I call my mother on Mother’s Day, she will likely not recognize my voice. To spare her any embarrassment or to avoid pushing her to try to remember who I am, I will pretend to be one of many well-wishers calling a prominent matriarch in the community to celebrate her for being a mother to us all. Over the last few years, I have learned to suppress the impulse to call my mother when I have good news to share, when I’m feeling vulnerable, or when I want to hear her voice. Her health won’t allow it. And yet, there is so much cultural pressure to mark the day in some way, to assume that the observation and celebration of it is a universally shared and positive experience.

 

Unfortunately, the Hallmark version of Mother’s Day makes no room for the complexity and mix of emotions about mothers and motherhood. Many people are mourning the loss of their mothers, and there are mothers morning the loss of a child. Some are estranged from their mothers. Some never knew their mothers, growing up without them due to death or divorce. I’ve met many who desired to be mothers and couldn’t, and the day is a reminder of their loss, grief, and disappointment. Many others have mothered others lovingly and selflessly, only to never receive recognition as such. Because of this complexity, I have increasingly expanded my view of God to include maternal images, mining God’s infinite omnipresence to allow God to be for me, a mother. The ancient mystic Julian of Norwich saw God as a mother in her revelations, finding as much meaning in that image as in the more familiar image of God as a father.

 

While the Bible was written in a context in which the feminine was deprecated, the Hebrew Scriptures are replete with maternal images and metaphors that describe God’s relationship to God’s creation. The Apostle Paul accessed and adjusted those maternal imageries and metaphors of God’s love for Israel to explain his feelings toward the churches in his apostolic mission. He specifically drew upon the images and metaphors of the mother responsible for nurturing children into maturity, using affective characteristics such as gentleness, compassion, and tenderness associated with the maternal. On this Mother’s Day, I pray that we find our way to an understanding, observance, or recognition of the day and those we love from a place of healing and wholeness rather than the cultural dictates of the holiday. I hope you love and are loved in return. May it be so.

The Will to Act

Along the Way

“Don’t be a tourist or participant in or indifferent to suffering.”—Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes

The Will to Act

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

May 4, 2023

In the last few months, in response to gun violence, homelessness, climate change, youth delinquency and criminal behavior, and violence against transgender people, I have heard activists and advocates lament the seeming lack of will to address the suffering these issues cause. There is little disagreement that these problems cause so much pain and suffering for millions. And there is no shortage of well-researched and exhaustively studied proposals and policies to address these and many more severe problems. So, it does appear that the failure to respond to our many pressing national issues is less an issue of know-how or lack of answers than it is of will.

At a moment of deep frustration with the gridlock that often short-circuits effective political and legislative change, I came across Christina Sharpe’s exhortation, “Don’t be a tourist or participant in or indifferent to suffering.” It frightens me to consider we lack political will because too many of us have inadvertently become tourists, participants in, or indifferent to all that is happening around us. I used to think politics and competing ideologies prevented us from implementing policies to address suffering. But I’ve come to believe that political and ideological polarization is a symptom of the spiritual maladies of individualism, tribalism, and consumerism. They are the qualities of our lives that lead to the adjustments, equivocations, and compromises we make because the suffering is too endemic and too persistent, or we feel powerless to do something, or it will take too much time, effort, and money.

But our sacred texts recount examples of God’s people mustering the will to act against incredible odds. One example is the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus went to a deserted place to be alone, and the crowds followed. Jesus saw the desperate need of the crowds, had compassion, and “served their weak.” He did not send them away. In contrast, the disciples also saw the need of the crowds and had compassion. But their first thought was to send them away back into town so they could buy something to eat. When the disciples reminded Jesus that over five thousand people in a deserted place needed food, Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.” With that charge, the disciples shared the little they had and fed all the people. This story reminds me that we do not have to stand on the sidelines or outsource our response to suffering. Our call is to keep giving, to keep showing up, to keep serving, and to keep demanding justice. A generous God has empowered us to take action—to use our time, talent, and treasure to serve the most vulnerable among us. I pray we never lose our will to act and never turn away from the suffering around us.

Amen.

 

DeWayne L. Davis