Wow! Has it been a year already? I'm not talking a year from the online launch, that's months away. I'm talking a year since I sat down at my computer and began crafting what is now Fig Tree Christian. What a journey it has been. A year ago the website didn't even have it's own name! We had two likes on Facebook, my sister and myself. (My husband would have liked but he left Facebook about a year ago and hasn't been back.) I would like to take a moment and reflect on the journey so far.
2 Kings 5:1-14 CEB
(Written for Community Christian Church (DOC) in Fayettville, GA 7/7/13)
I am going to be honest with you. I wrote four sermons before I finally felt I was headed in the right direction and began drafting what I am sharing with you today. Seriously. I wrote on this scripture for Fig Tree Christian and in my red journal there are three ½ written sermons. They are all making decent points, it just didn't seem to fit for this morning. But I think I got it.
I have, for years, considered myself a modern Protestant Monk. What I mean by that is I was raised by the church. I threw myself into the congregation and immersed myself in the bible. I was practically raised by the church. As a child, I introduced myself to the bible by reading the stories from a Children's bible each night before I went to bed. As I got older I would choose a book, like Job or the letter to the Romans, and read a chapter, writing questions in the margins, and brought those questions to the minister on Sunday. (I was very grateful my minister was also a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary.)
Now beyond seminary and ordaination, I have felt drawn to a focus. God had seems to have been drawing me to for years, to revitalization and new church start. In late middle school and early high-school I was part of a new church start. I saw and felt the struggles first hand as a congregant. The courses in seminary that re-energized my call were mission and evangelism focused. My favorite Saint is Patrick, who successfully brought Christianity to Ireland. My internship, while I was in Seminary, was to First Atlanta. I worked with Dr. Roger Sizemore as he led the discernment process for revitalization of that congregation. Since ordination, most of my continuing education has been focused on revitalization and new congregational start. I took an online course with Dr. Dick Hamm on revitalization, and the Georgia region sent me to Indianapolis to be trained as a Church Planter. As you know, today I am working to grow Fig Tree Christian. Every minister has a focus. Mine is clearly evangelism.
Now, there is a reason these two fields, Church revitalization and planter ministry, go hand in hand. Both are new beginnings. Both require getting back to the basics of Jesus. There are many congregations that don't realize this, the church, as we know it, is going to look way different in the next 10-20 years. As Dick Hamm put it, 80% of mainline churches are in decline with many of those near death. The world around us has changed. Not only has the internet completely changed how we engage with one another, culture in general has morphed into something new and different. Facebook altered how we connect with pretty much everyone. The rise of the “nons,” a group of Christians who claim faith but not a place of faith, has altered the path Christianity can take.
I like to think of it like the Missouri River. This is a river that is way larger than it appears. It flows for hundreds of feet across in both directions... underground. We only see a little bit of it above ground. Now, for years the Kansas/Missouri border had issues with this river because the river we see above ground would move. Whenever there would be a flood the river would change it's banks. The real river, the one underground never changed, the river above ground moved. Eventually, they built levees and chose where the river was going to stay. Now cartographers can accurately place the Missouri River on a map and farmers don't have to worry about their land being wiped out by becoming part of the wide Missouri. In fact, to validate my point, back in the early 90's they found an honest to goodness steamboat in farm land way off from where the above ground Missouri is now. It had sunk when the Missouri was where this farmers land was. Now it was no where near it. The river is still hundreds of feet wide, underground. When they dug up the ship they had to continually pump the water out of the hole.
Think of the river being like Christianity. For years when the culture changed Christianity would change too. The faith was deep and wide, and the organization of Christianity would change course where the society would go. This happened for years, until the levee was built by society. See, our banks have been set. Faith is still deep and wide, but what Christianity can be within the river of belief has been limited. We can't move with society anymore and still be what we have been. See, our worship, this hour of time we spend on Sunday morning, has worked for generations. But now, people are living outside of our organized process. They live outside of the river. We cannot move the river to them anymore. Our worship is a boat. We have to invent a car.
See, it's completely different. It doesn't look like anything we have ever done. And this is the world I am living in. Churches that seek revitalization have to figure out how to move from being boats into being ducks, those boats with wheels. New church plants, need to avoid the water all together, because there are more than enough boats out there, and figure out how to do what they do on land. And new church plants are struggling with this because many are just taking the place of the congregations dying out on the water. They are just changing the music or the style in which the sermon is done, which is really just building a speed boat when locomotion is needed.
So bringing it to the scripture. We have Naaman. Naaman wants to be healed of his skin ailment and requests the help of Elisha to do it. Naaman knows how it has been done. He knows the rites and rituals. He imagines he will be anointed with oil. Words would be said over him. He would have to do A, B, C, and D. In conclusion he would be healed. Instead, Elisha doesn't even show up and sends word for him to dunk himself in the Jordon seven times. To give you an idea of how dejected he would have felt, imagine if I decided to not show up this morning, and instead emailed my sermon ahead of time. Then my sermon simply read, “God is good. Go and do like Jesus.” Naaman was bitter. He was angry. He didn't want to get dirty in the stupid Jordan river. This is Naaman looking at the faith from the visible side of things. Since he sees the Priests and Prophets doing all the work, he falsely assumes it was the rites, rituals, and the Priests and Prophets who held the power. But this isn't about the people or the acts. This is about God. God is deep and wide. It is God who holds the power. Naaman had to let go of what he thought was a large conception of faith, but was really a tiny meandering conception, to gain a grand healing through God.
It's like the Missouri River. We only see a small part of the picture. We get so caught up in what we are doing as humans, when we are not the bringers of miracles. God is, and God is bigger than us.
So, realizing the real power comes from God, are we willing to give it all up for the sake of everything? How do we take the next step, the evolution of Christianity that is coming over the next 10-20 years? We have to see that God's presence is there whether we choose to sit or stand, whether we choose to sing contemporary, traditional or no music at all. God is there whether we meet in a sanctuary, concert hall, or out in the open. Because, our relationship with God is deeper and wider than a building with a cross on it. It is scary. Most things in the future are. Even if the future is moving away from what we have been comfortable with, our purpose will still be with God. If we can realize we are still with God even when we leave the metaphorical river we see, we will have a bright future in 10-20 years.
Above is a side conversation I had a few days ago with a fellow on Reddit. Before I go into too much detail let me first confess my sins. I have poor grammar myself, so I should have been mindful of their grammar when trying to engage with a discussion with me. It wasn't too many years ago my language art skills left much to be desired. It took some tough seminary papers where my grade was dropped not because of my subject but because of the grammar I used to write it. Someone did something similar to one of my previous posts and I corrected my mistake and thanked them for bringing it to my attention. I was not mindful that others might not be so accepting.
Second, I should have known, by the way they entered the discussion, they were after a quick jab, not a real conversation.
The real reason I am expanding this conversation to include others is simple: I want to have the discussion. The person I was talking to suggested this could be passive agressive. I share that so everything is out in the open. This is less about what I think and more about what you think. Should women, and really myself, be a minister? Can I be damned for accepting a call to ministry? If I am damned, if my words saves two, would that be worth damnation? I will conclude with another post I made to Facebook I look forward to the dialogue.
Hello, my name is Melissa and I am a bridge. Well, let me explain that. When it comes to age demographics there are Generation X and Millennials. Millennials are usually anyone who graduated 2000 and beyond. Gen Xers are those who were born 1980 or before. Simple enough. This isn't a hard line. Depending on where you live or your social status, how your demographic looks might be different. I have seen age demography charts where what I just shared is moved a few years in one direction. Now, I was born in 1981 and graduated in 1999. I will let you think that one through. If there is one birth year left off the charts it is 1981. Even when the groupings are shifted 1981 is not included in either the Millennial or Gen Xer group. I have decided this means I am a bridge. I am allowed to be either a Generation Xer or a Millennial, depending on my mood and need. I try to be true to this true knowledge and be aware I have the ability to 'bridge the gap' so to speak.
So, here it is. Since my ministry is here, at Fig Tree, I have spent many Sundays visiting local congregations. I enjoy taking it all in and keeping track of what works and what doesn't. This is a gift. There are quiet a few ministers who would love to see what other churches are doing. I don't take that opportunity lightly. When I first started this exploration I did it by myself, or only with my son, who was five at the time. With just myself or with my son, I found the experience disconnected. I kept turning to how we were not being greeted,or how the congregation seemed anti-social. I marked it as part of the problem with the overall church. It seemed obvious to me. Now, my husband and our 18 months old daughter comes with us.
Because my husband is a really shy person, I have decided to return to some of the anti-social churches I had previously visited. To my surprise, now for the third time in a row, a church that was previously anti-social had become overly social. So much so, I believe I blacked out as one congregant insisted on hugging, from what I understand, four times in a row. (I honestly don't remember. The event made me feel so out of my element.) After brainstorming the events it hit us: The first time I looked like a single mother, the second time we looked like the perfect family.
Perhaps your congregation is adding or updating a website. Perhaps your congregation has begun a Facebook account. Maybe your minister has a blog/vlog. It doesn't matter. As a bridge who has become the outsider looking in: God doesn't have a specific demographic for your congregation. I should have been treated the same way whether I was coming with only my son or coming with my whole family. The fact that I have seen a change in attitude in three congregations now shows this is more than an individual church problem.
Clearly I am not talking to the 'congregants' of Fig Tree. It is my hope this makes its way to the ministers and leaders of the physical congregations out there. They are the ones who need to hear these words. Do you want to know why your congregation looks 30 years older than the demographic of your neighborhood you are serving in? Perhaps you are unknowingly scaring away your future congregants because you are extreme with your guests. The reason the mega-church across the street is getting all the Millennials and Gen Xers is because it appears it is only the mega-churches now that a younger person/family can feel comfortable when they first walk into the door. A Mega-Church doesn't make assumptions about a person/family based on first impressions. A Mega-Church doesn't reek of desperation or turn cold shoulders based on what a person or family might initially look like. They are too big for that.
The truth is in the cross. Growth happens in our willingness to die; to take up our cross. We must simply become Christians instead of congregants. Unless we are genuine instead of picky or desperate, we deserve our death. But, death is what God asked of us. We must die to be born again. It is not good enough to change our format when we have to change our lives. As a bridge, I have grown up with really good advertising and 24 hour media coverage. We watch Youtube and are drawn to people being real and authentic My demographic(s) don't want a cool website, we want a real experience. My demographic(s) don't want a church with a Twitter account, we want relationship. And, my demographic(s) don't want a congregation who will turn away the single mother while wooing the young family of four. My demographic(s) just want to be part of a group who know what the word 'love' means and walks the wa
Hello all! I am sure some of you are getting online wondering why nothing seems to be happening. From this end, things are crazy busy. Our family is moving this week so my focus has been on cleaning and packing. I was also fully immersed in my children's Easter experience. From a Fig Tree Christian perspective I spent the time praying and attempting to listen to the spirit. I hope you were to doing the same.
Here is what you should expect to find over the next month or two:
I hope everyone had a meaningful Easter. Part of the reason I felt called to go dark through Easter were these questions I am about to ask. Consider them as seriously as I have: What would Jesus do today? What would the symbols and acts look like had the internet been at Jesus' disposal? My prayer led me to the conclusion that worship would look different than a church service. If worship looks different, the conclusion is an Easter celebration would be different too. Prayerfully consider what that means to you.
There is something selfish and self centered about the internet. In a world where our voices have been silenced and our actions have been muted the internet is the only real megaphone anymore. We want our 10 minutes of fame; or ideas 'liked.' In doing that, we hope people notice us, not realizing we also need to notice others. Everyone has a blog. Anyone can post videos. Everyone hopes those ideas and thoughts are seen. And here I am. Everyone is talking so loudly, desperate to be heard for just one soundbite, just one sentence, that I feel like I am drowning in the sound. Meanwhile, in the real world I feel the silence is so deafening it swallows up my words. They are washed away before I can ever say them. The difference is so stark it is no wonder it is so difficult to translate the digital experience into a real relationship. None of us want to be the voice in the wilderness crying out. None of us want that attention. But, in the sea of voices our sound are only really heard if it means something, because otherwise it is only a drop of water that can be ignored in the massive ocean of sound. It is safer to speak when everyone else is speaking too. It is much more difficult to stand in truth when truth means standing alone in the field of silence.
My ears hurt as I hear the collective voice crying and screaming: I am alone. I need relationship. I want to be connected to something greater. They don't actually say those words. It is read between the lines. It is written between the smart comments on Facebook. It is seen behind the instagram photos. It flirts on any of the many match making sites out there. Meanwhile I cry back: I have learned where to find relationship. I have learned how to reconnect with others. But I fear the noise is too loud. I fear the answer I have found has been drowned. I fear it more and more as I realize the megaphones that once existed in the real world are broken or in major disrepair.
What do I do? How do I continue? My voice is meek. My voice is soft, and God calls me to use it? How do I speak over the Corporate sounds? They are the only ones with working megaphones anymore. How will anyone hear my voice? All the Whos down in Facebook are yelling "We are here! We are here!" and at the same time those pleas cannot break through the internet into reality... We need a "Yopp" to throw all those voices over the top and break through. And I am not sure if what I am yelling is "I am here," or if God might have given me the "Yopp."
This is what I want to say: I know how you feel. Before the internet I too desperately wanted to be heard even if the only note I was able to get out was, "I am here." I saw the world connecting and I wanted to be part of it, but I was damaged by life. I had to fix myself first. It is so fitting that my first solo was "Amazing Grace." It taught me God loves broken little me. I wanted to share that message with everyone else. Today, I still sing that song, but my words are more expansive and my tune is the cadence of the written word. Today I am no longer saying, "I am here." It has been replaced by, "God is here, and God hears you." Oh, if only my voice can rise above the flood to share that. How simple it is. How needed it is. Maybe that can be the bridge from the digital experience to the real relationship. Maybe now, before we all drown in the sea of words. Maybe now, when God's love can help us into the life boat.
I have issue with fellow theologians who embrace the Trinity in a cemented fashion. They embrace the three in one as something too complex to understand. It is true. If you focus too much on the parts of the Trinity the parts fall to pieces and no longer work. The Trinity is held up by tradition. There has been a long standing written battle between theologians of whether/when/if tradition is something we canonize. There came a point where we 'closed' what was going to be added or taken away from the bible. The question is, did we leave room for the story of God to continue or was it really time to close a door to one story to make room for a new one? The Trinity was solidified post canonization of the bible. In fact, the Apostle's Creed, in it's early form, wasn't even trinitarian. The Spirit was included late in it's inception. Yet is seems like the Trinity is an untouchable piece of theology. We can say the word 'tradition' and it builds this 50 ft tall 3 ft thick wall around it. Believing in the Trinity is a question of faith and not believing in it is blasphemy. I propose the Trinity, as we understand it today is forced. If we were to be honest we would see the three in one is really the many in one.
First, our initial problems happen when we try to place secondary names on the Trinity. As my 1st semester Christian Thought professor explained: The Trinity is not three modes of being, like water. The Trinity isn't like one pie but three pieces. It isn't a three leaf clover. Those are ways to help us understand but the mystery makes it more than that. The trinity is one God. All the persons of the Trinity are still one God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. The Father is God. They are separate in who they are but they are still one. This is not the same as one pie but three pieces because they are also all different. This is not the same as three modes of being like water being vapor, liquid and solid because they are also all the same at the same time.
Many have tried to reword the threeness in order to make it less patriarchal, less human, or more of something else. In every case they have discovered a new view of God which is destroyed within it's threefold frame. Father-Son-Holy Ghost is blind to the feminine way of God. I joked years ago that I was going to rename the Trinity the Parent, Child and Holy Vibe to be gender neutral. Some would see my joke as a possible idea. They would relate the Parent to Father. They would see the Child as Son. The Holy Vibe would be the Spirit. Yet, with an all in one understanding of the Trinity, could one do that? Think about it. Just by changing the names you have labeled the threeness and given order. The Father is a parent. Well, so is the Son because the Son is also God. So is the Spirit because the Spirit is also God.
Another separation of the Trinity is Creator, Christ, and Spirit. A creator is not a Father yet it is put in that role. If we are honest, Creator is really a forth dimension of God. Just as the Word is the fifth dimension of God. The Word became flesh. Jesus became Spirit. Why does the Word become Christ? In that case Jesus would become Spirit and the third part of the Trinity would cease to be three and become two.
There is a purpose to my separating the different ways the trinity has been verbalized. The trinity is God, all three God and all one God. At the same time different parts of the trinity are different and unique. The Trinity is three and at the same time one. The Father is the Son is the Spirit. But the Father is different from the Son who is different from the Spirit. I do not disagree with any of it. Instead, I joyfully agree with that part of it.
If I was speaking these words in conversation instead of writing them I am sure the dialogue partner would counter my argument by saying, "Yes, but every image of God is incomplete." Perhaps they would follow with, "We have to understand the trinity in some way or we cannot talk about it at all" I say, do we? We have biblical pointers to a parent, a child and the spirit. Yes- celebrate for winning that point but where do we get the precept from God that those three should be placed together? Hmm? It's OK, step back and look it up. So after you do your mini-research you might come back with the threeness within the creation narrative. OK, but you have to put aside "Creator," and make a connection between Christ and the Word. Already, distinctions are made and the trinity begins to all apart. Father and Creator, Son and Word must be one to make it work. But, the Word and Spirit are also one. However, they at the same time, can't be in the Genesis example. Creator and Son are one. Within this discussion it begins to look like what I said before more like five in one, (Creator, Word, Christ, Father, and Spirit.)
It is the only way to give the spirit equality in the equation. Yet, by always listing the spirit last in the 'line-up' puts it last in our sense of hierarchy. How often do you pray to the spirit? I know I don't very often.
I purpose a new idea- rather than separating our images into the threeness of God why not accept all images as a partial and (in someway) whole representation of God. Instead of three in one is really Infinity in One. Believing infinitude of God shares the unbelievable complexity of God. It also does something else:
The trinity limits those whose relationship with God does not fit. Infinitude accepts how God could come as a female to one, a male to another, a dog , an ocean, or a bright light to someone else. Even in apparent contradiction of itself, God is found in the trinity- but God is more than threeness.
As an individual, God comes to each of us and our image of God is shaped by our story. That does not mean we create our image of God! Our image is ours because God understands what we can translate. Yes, our translation is sometimes poor or, dare I say, pitiful, but that is one of the pitfalls of freewill. The more we act and know the truth of God the further away we move from "Eden" and the closer we become to something else, "A New Eden." Now our communal image is made clearer through bringing the images together. You might be having issues with this but realize you already do it. Theologies are images of God. My personal image is heightened by Barth, Cone, Augustine, Cobb and countless others. How God came to Augustine is not and cannot be the same way in which God comes to me. To go further, how God comes to Ashton Kutcher (as an off the wall example) is different than both Augustine and myself. My goal, as an interpreter of images, is to try to parse out what is God's image within the interpretations of Augustine, Kutcher and others. This I must also do within the image God gives me because I will always place myself into anything I see. It is impossible not to do so.
Now for all you haters who were screaming at the computer and blacklisting me for ever speaking negatively against the Trinity, there is something about it I believe. I believe the trinity positively embraces the concept of many and one. We are individuals and we are community. We are either one community with many individuals or I am an individual within the multitude of the community. We are made in the image of God. In knowing God we become like God and further away from the Garden and closer to community with our creator. To be clear, we don't become gods, but rather, like God. Attempting to become gods will only lead down the road of false idols and destruction.
Each of us has a piece of the greater image of God. Some of our pieces overlap and, even if every person openly gave their piece, we still would not have a complete picture. However, God completely comes to us. We can individually see God in perfection. Yet, God sees us completely as we interact with creation. Our relationship with God must be both communally and individually. They are both equally important.
Now this is my last statement regarding the Trinity: I could be completely wrong. I am open enough to confess my belief may not be inspired at all. I fear what that would mean if it was true. I believe I was created in God's image. If I don't have room to see anything but Father, Son, and Holy Ghost I don't have room to see anything but males being created in God's image and females being created in a males image. In that case God is no longer my God and I refuse to be servant to the god created for me. I truly believe my God is the God of all creation and I was created in that image. I believe it because of Genesis 1:27. "God created humanity in God's own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them." Somewhere and somehow God is my Mother and my sister, and I was created in Her image.
When President Barack Obama said the sentence, "You didn't build that," on the election trail it polarized the debate. It almost forced people to choose a side. For educated liberals they saw the meaning behind Obama's words. No accomplishment is met by oneself. New theories are built on the backs on previous theories. Businesses grow not just because of hard working owners but the people that owner hires and the additional businesses they purchase supplies and rent from. Educated conservatives saw the problem with Obama's poor wording. There are individuals who sacrifice, work a 60 hour work weeks, begin their organization or business without paying themselves. To say they didn't build their company, restaurant, or organization negates the sacrifice to make their dreams a reality.
I see how both sides are correct. Yet, somehow, four words drew the line in the sand. We were told to make a choice. Either we were for the community or the individual. If we are honest we would realize there was no winning. Once we picked a side the opposite side vilified us. The only thing the "You didn't build that" argument did was expand the chasm that has been growing for years now, separating us as a nation. Therefore, I also see how both sides are wrong.
Let's change the focus. Let's say we are actually all builders. Every day we are building. Perhaps we are building relationships, connections, and innovations. Perhaps we are building walls, ditches, and separators. Either way we are building. We don't have a choice, we have to build. The only choice we have is what we are building. Are we building on good business practices or underhanded deals. Are we building on love or something else. The question then isn't whether or not we are the builders. The real question becomes what are we building.
I write this, in part, for one of Fig Tree's meditations. In bigger part, I write this because I think it does more to create a bridge that might be able to overcome this chasm. I am friends with some pretty strong liberals and some pretty strong conservatives. I am friends with both because I can really see how both sides are correct. It hurts my heart to see the divide as it continues to grow and separate us. Do you want to know what I want to build? I want to be a bridge builder. I pray some day I can say, "I did build that."