-Rev Melissa Fain-
4 The Lord’s word came to me:
5 “Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
because I’m only a child.”
7 The Lord responded,
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
Where I send you, you must go;
what I tell you, you must say.
8 Don’t be afraid of them,
because I’m with you to rescue you,”
declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
touched my mouth, and said to me,
“I’m putting my words in your mouth.
10 This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
to dig up and pull down,
to destroy and demolish,
to build and plant.”
Jeremiah 1: 4-10 CEB
The scripture is beautiful, isn't it? I mean, how great would it feel to know you were set apart before you were even born?! Just sit back, pull those legs up and relax! You're set!
Those words were shared before it happened. What was "it"? The Babylonian exile. The Southern Kingdom was gathered up, taken to Babylon, and forced to remain- apart from their temple.
If you don't see how devastating that is, you don't understand the mindset of the people it happened to. The Ancient Near East believed gods lived on their land. Literally. They believed, if you wanted to visit the God of Abraham you had to travel to Jerusalem. For example, when Naaman, a General of Aram, was cured from leporsy by rinsing seven times in the Jordan, he dedicated himself to the God of Abraham. He didn't want to move, so he filled carts with dirt, so he could properly worship God on their land.
Those exiled didn't have carts of dirt. They had nothing, and it came through in Psalm 137.
Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
Jeremiah's story is the exile's story. He was on the path to greatness. He was going to be a Priest, and a Prophet. What did that get him? At first, punishment. He was beaten and confined by fellow Priests for his call as a Prophet. Later, exile.
Mental devastation. We really can't comprehend it today.
Modern culture is a wandering people. We don't settle. We move across state lines, sometimes at a moments notice. In a lot of ways it doesn't feel like a big deal. Only it was. These were a people who had generations in one place. It was a connection to the land and community we just can't comprehend. Then, to believe being exiled also meant being disconnected from God? You might as well attempt to transplant an adult oak for the damage it did to the Judeans. Roots were irreparably severed.
Moving the Judeans to a foreign soil was a Babylonian play. When they conquered land, they often took the elite from that land and put them in Babylon. It kept the powerful close, while making sure no one was left who could do anything back home. Jeremiah was part of that exile.
Ministry can just be horrible! (Says the minister, but follow me here.)
Many of us, as clergy, don't have healthy boundaries, so we get worn out too quickly. When a minister does have healthy boundaries it's viewed as suspect. Then, a minister will spend his or her energy clarifying or defining a weekly schedule instead of doing the work at hand. As more and more congregations struggle with their numbers, more and more churches take on toxic attributes. The person at greatest risk of that toxicity are ministers.
It's underpaid, overworked, and statistically dangerous to clergy's psyche.
If anyone understood the reality of being called to a broken system, it was Jeremiah.
The call didn't become null and void because the story took a dark turn. Maybe we want to believe that calls are all sunshine and lolly pops. It's not. No one should want to be called. It's not fun. It's not glamorous. It can just be horrible!
That makes the words of the Lord even more important. "You are set apart. You will be sent. You will be rescued. You will speak my Word."
Think of that!
Jeremiah's beaten but God's words are still true.
Jeremiah's cannot be a Priest without the Temple, but God's words are still true.
Jeremiah is with a people who lost everything, but God's words are still true.
It makes what Jeremiah said to the Judeans in exile all the more important. "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah." (Jeremiah: 31:27-34 CEB) When everything appears lost, when everything is clearly broken, there is Jeremiah- set apart, speaking love, doing what God always intended him to do.
As more and more ministers find themselves exiled in the wilderness, we need to know- the call hasn't changed its purpose, just location. Consider Jeremiah. We're beaten, but not destroyed. We're exiled, but not lost. We're away from the Temple we love, but not God and God's people. Most importantly, we are here for a reason. The work continues in a foreign land.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
When I knew Fig Tree was going to be a thing, I was pregnant with God's call. In the beginning there was no differentiation between the two. We were one in the same because I was birthing something into being. (Not language I made up. Paul connected new ministry with giving birth. I'm just a female that actually understands the pain involved in pregnancy and labor.) There came a point where that call was born and people had the opportunity to see it apart from me. Yet, like a mother caring for her infant, everything came through me. I was charged with getting that call through it's infancy.
New Church development has changed their language to plants, but something is lost in horticulture. We are growing the Body of Christ. That's an animal. Seeing new church starts as birthing and raising helps these new ministers understand why the early stages are so laborious. Just as you wouldn't put a baby on a high ropes course, you wouldn't put a new church start in big mission projects. They can't even digest things fully unless it's broken down first. That was me. Feeding and caring for something that I have always hoped and hope will be bigger than me.
Well, in July we turned 7. From conception to now, Fig Tree has existed in some form. She's old enough to give control over in some form, like sending your child to school. The person is strong enough to hear multiple voices and take it in. I'm far less worried about the dangers of the world. There is less of a chance she will be devoured by the stronger presences out there. I do need to tell you what she is. Fig Tree is glue.
Most Churches and organizations are not glue
The phrase "All are welcome," is not true. Now, before you brick and mortar churches get up in arms and call me heretic, hear me out.
No church is called to reach everyone. God includes everyone, but individual institutions meet needs differently. There is a prison ministry in Kentucky. You can't tell me the victims of the prisoners would be comfortable in that ministry. That's okay. To say you are something solidifies what you are for the people you are for. Prisoners need God just as much as anyone else. Most churches are called to be solid: to be something specific to a specific group of people. The more solid a church is with who they are, the better they meet the need of the people they are called to reach.
Churches don't like to hear this. They want to be everything to everyone because God calls all. Only, a single church is not God. A church is a piece of the whole. Just like individual body parts are called to specific tasks, so it is true of individual churches.
Why is that true?
Most glue today is synthetic. It's made in a lab. Natural glue is a beast all it's own- literally. Before we figured out how to fake glue, we did it through a process of breaking down collagen in an animal and condensing it. This required boiling connective tissue multiple times, and drying it out in sheets. Then, breaking the sheets into clumps and adding water back, but only just enough to make it usable. To make an animal into glue, everything animal like must be destroyed first.
Almost every church wants to be glue, especially when their numbers start to dwindle. They are asking themselves, "How can we bring in diversity?" when all they are really asking is, "How do we keep from dying?"
You can make a solid mission into a glue, but at the cost of everything. It all has to be ground down and boiled down until all there is, is glue. You can't have a solid mission and be glue. The purpose of glue is to bring missions and purposes together.
Glue doesn't get focus or adoration. You don't look at the finished product and go, "Wow, that glue holding it all together is the real winner. No, it disappears into the finished product. Most churches and organizations are too solid, to be defined as glue. That's right and good for them. They should clarify what makes them solid, not soften what is already working.
Fig Tree exists as glue
I was brainstorming great organizations that are glue-like, and I was failing. That's because, the internet is very uncomfortable with the make-up of glue. People want things that are solid. They want people to pick a side so they know whether they're supposed to hate or love them. The phrase, "If you're church isn't talking about [A], than you shouldn't be going to that church." is a very tweetable statement.
Fig Tree's mission is to the brokenness in the world. I, Melissa Fain, was personally chewed up, broken down, and made into something new. Seven years ago I personally had a choice. I could pour myself into a mold, and solidify myself into a "camp," or I could remain liquid to solidify others. For me, it was an easy choice. Because I was pregnant with the call of Fig Tree, my spiritual DNA as it was at that time, became Fig Tree's DNA.
My biggest fear, as we move into the childhood phase of this mission, are people who want us to solidify, or yell at us for what they think we might be. Right now, solid voices can come on and this is a place where they can be heard. I don't agree with all of them, and I couldn't. It's diverse. We've had writers from multiple denominational, political, and personal experience. I can only hope over the next seven years, we get more diverse, not less. We can do that, because we're glue. When it's all said and done, no one is going to see Fig Tree. They will see the organizations and people surrounding it. If that be the case, praise be to God.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them. 5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up. 8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. 10 They will walk after the Lord, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord
Hosea 11:1-11 CEB
When I was around my son's age, I used to think the Israelites got in trouble pretty much every single year from the moment they called Israel home. From the major to the minor prophets- it all takes up about ¼ of the Hebrew Bible. Then I learned there are stories that overlap, prophets that were called at the same time, but to another group of Israelites. I wanted to know- why?
Every prophet is unique in their own way. Jeremiah was the Prophet in exile. Elisha was the hot-tempered Prophet, while Elijah was the Prophet called to pass on the torch. Samuel was the Prophet called to start a dynasty, while Jonah was unwillingly called to the enemy. Hosea, our Prophet for today, was the only Prophet who was native to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Basically, while Israel started as one big country in the beginning…
(You know- Joshua fit the battle of Jericho. The walls came tumbling down. Saul says he’s king of the new country. Nope. It’s the youngest Shepherd boy, David, son of Jesse. David kills Goliath, and is later anointed king. He marries multiple women then falls in love with the one he couldn’t have. After getting that woman’s husband killed in battle, he marries her and sires Solomon. David would have many sons sired from multiple mothers. Those boys did not get along. It’s a mess that includes rape, murder, and war. It led to one of the sons staging a coup that actually kicked David out of the north for a bit. David passed away, Solomon was named king, and Jereboam, one of the sons, was not having it. Jereboam left with 10 of the Northern tribes, calling it Israel. The Southern part, that included Jerusalem, was led by Solomon. It was called Judah. The unity of Israel once they had a king did not even last one generation.)
I shared this cliff notes version of Israelite history because with every Prophet in the Hebrew Bible being Judean except Hosea, we should wonder how God is going to talk to a self-exiled people.
For starters, God names their failure. They are like uncontrolled doves or pigeons. They have no purpose. They are flying without a destination. They gave themselves away. Instead of finding vassals, or countries that could give their allegiance to them and therefore God, they became vassals to other countries. These countries worshipped Baal, and now so had the Northern Kingdom. Therefore, God’s action will always include naming our failure. See it like our spiritual lives being on an epic map. We always need to come to terms with where we ended up. Here’s where we are, and here’s how we ended up here. Own it. Nothing is going to take it back. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t change anything.
Then, God names what is going to happen. For the Northern Kingdom, they are going to fall. They can’t keep a king, and Assyria is going to use that to their advantage. We often translate this as God’s wrath. In reality, we should see this more as the consequence of our poor choices.
This scripture is very parental in that way. God even talks of the Northern Kingdom like a mother swaddling a baby. I believe good parenting let’s their kids know how they failed and tells them the consequences of their failure.
But, while there are ministers who stop at the brimstone, this scripture does not. God finally talks about love. I love how the bird analogy comes back again.
God becomes like a roaring lion. We should see that like a scary action. That loud noise is mentioned for a purpose. Have you ever heard a loud noise and seen birds take off? See, God’s okay being the bad guy if it gets the people back on track. The Northern Kingdom were like disorganized pigeons, but God’s willing to scare them away from the danger.
We know this is more than wrath because there is a phrase used that reads “return to me.” In Hebrew it’s a phrase used in ancient love poetry.
God’s love is like a golden chord. It’s always dropped down to us like a lifeline, a reminder of eternal love. Even when we ignore the call to grab it, it’s still there. Even when, in our personal rage, we cut it, it remains, waiting for us to tie it back.
God’s love did not stop because the Northern Kingdom took their ball and made a new home. God’s love did not end when they chose to worship Baal. Yes, there can come a point when our choices were so poor, the path back to God will hurt, but only to burn out the iniquity so we can once again grab that loving connection once again. God’s love is bigger than our sin. God loves to bring us out of sin. God does not want our destruction. God wants to destroy what keeps us from God, because God loves.
Resources: (Books I used to write this)
Harper Collin's Study Bible
The Prophetic Literature (Dr. Jordan Petersen)
The Harper Collin's Bible Dictionary
-Rev Melissa Fain-
In this post I will try to define propaganda, explain how it has been used in Christian circles, and using Matt Stone and Trey Parker, explain why we need to stop. I will conclude with traditional Japanese Kabuki, and express how Matt Stone and Trey Parker are lovingly playing the role we as Christians need in order to fully see our reflection.
Propaganda: It's purpose
Propoganda (within a modern definition) is not about the truth, it lacks objectivity, and rallies a group against another group. We consider it in the throws of war. It helps us hate the bad guy, whoever that might be.
It's interesting, because the term is rooted in 17th century Catholicism. It comes from an evangelical purpose, where it was about propagating the word of Christ to the world. It wasn't negative or positive, it simply was.
Then, three centuries later, war changed everything. Imagery and words can influence a people against another people. It doesn't have to be correct, just effective. Many assume propaganda is offensive and racist imagery. That makes it all the more powerful as a tool to turn the masses. Social media propagandizes almost everything from groups of people to the type of burger you should buy on Friday. It's made even more effective because we are too lazy to do the research.
When the church took the word back, it was tainted. Christianity is built on the truth. There are scriptures throughout the Bible just on this one subject. Here's the one we should focus on today:
19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil.20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” -John 3:19-21 CEB
I have been witness to action being purposefully kept in darkness. Darkness festers; lightness grows. Bringing issues out in the open will burn away the disease. People are afraid of bringing issues out in the open because there might not be any truth left to save.
What does this have to do with propaganda?
As a church dies one of the symptoms is a turn to propaganda to rally the troops on the losing war. Christ calls us to relationship; to dine with the sinner, to reach the unreachable. Yes, love the atheist. When a church turns to propaganda they ignore the relationship, and focus on the hate. Those outside the church become enemies, not neighbors. It's impossible to love our enemies. You must see them as neighbors first. It's a step into darkness choosing propaganda over love. Those we are called to reach, are not our enemies.
Love letter to religion.
Thanks to my ministerial colleague back when I was a wee sapling in college, I already had a respect for Matt Stone and Trey Parker. A few weeks back I mentioned a South Park episode where Jesus and Satan were going one on one in the boxing ring. Everyone openly rooted for Jesus while secretly placing bets on Satan winning. It was a very honest reflection. But, did anyone actual bet on Jesus? Yes, one. Satan. In a perfect twist. Satan throws the fight, which is exactly what Satan would do. Jesus wins, because Jesus would always win. The people ask for forgiveness for not listening to Jesus, and Jesus offers forgiveness. Like I've already written: It was a very honest reflection.
Many years later, in an interview with The Vulture, Matt Stone considered the question, "What would an atheist love letter to religion look like?" He was talking about The Book of Mormon, a musical that took Broadway by storm.
Both Parker and Stone respected Mormons as a people, a good people. They wanted to tell a story that was funny while respecting the congregants surrounding it. They poked fun at the system and not the people. You still loved the characters when the curtain dropped.
That's their gift. Any organized religion could gain something from watching anything they put out as long as they do so with even an ounce of self-reflection.
Japanese Kabuki: Understanding from without
Japanese Kabuki is a traditional operatic style, where every character, male and female are played by males. This tradition goes back generations to the Edo Period, when it became illegal for females to be in the theater. It's highly stylized, where every movement has a purpose. These movements are so important that the words are often secondary. (Which could be a good thing. They still perform using an archaic form of Japanese that even native speakers struggle understanding.)
Kubuki becomes this reflection of the subtle movements of 1600's Japan. It is not meant to be offensive to the characters being portrayed by another "type." The males playing females take those roles to express the highest respect for femininity. It is believed, since they can truly see the feminine form from without, they are the only ones truly capable of capturing it.
Let's set aside the double standard that the male form isn't treated likewise, and return to Parker and Stone. It's really difficult to see your own dysfunction within yourself. It's in our nature to get used to our specific standard of living. Things we interact with every day begin to become invisible to ourselves. If we had to process every single thing we saw every day, our brains would explode. Yes, that includes things that could be dangerous to ourselves or others. Stone and Parker are our religious Kabuki reflections. It is because they are not part of the system, that they can reflect the system so well.
The general Christian response has been to demonize them. They become propaganda to rally a dying system to keep fighting. Our duty to share the Gospel is being subverted, not by Parker and Stone, but by ourselves. They are not our enemies. They are a mirror. Perhaps we need to look into it, rather than cover it over.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
David Tennant is absolutely one of my favorite actors. From Doctor Who, to Broadchurch, to Jessica Jones. Oh, and Duck Tales! I haven't met a project I don't fall in love with when he's one of the stars. This is also true of Good Omens. I believe his typecast is to take characters we wouldn't generally like and make them, at least, relatable if not make us completely fall in love with them. His effortless performance of Crowley gave me sympathy and understanding towards demons. I blame great writing, and great acting. Let's look deeper into Good Omens, and understand why a minister is praising it today.
Synopsis- without spoilers
Good Omens was originally a fun writing project between Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman. As they put it, "It was a summer job. We had a great time doing it, we split the money in half, and we swore never to do it again. We didn't think it was important." (ix, Good Omens 2006)
The best summary I can give this book as a general reader is as follows:
It is a fun take on the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a demon, an angel and a few humans.
My summary as an ordained minister in good standing looks like this:
It is a fun take on the end of the world as seen through the eyes of a demon, an angel and a few humans.
It's the exact same, because this is, by and large, an innocent book. My younger self would have been deeply offended to read it when it was first published. Of course I was completely and totally super Churchy back then and drinking their Kool-Aid, which was always purchased on clearance and heavily watered down. That last bit would have been a footnote in homage to the book, where the footnotes are probably the best parts to read.
What I'm trying to say is that it's not a serious book. It's not out to dismantle the church. In fact, the Prime series momentarily stops on the crucifixion of Christ, and it's not funny. There's a brief moment of respect, and the story continues. It didn't go into the Divinity, but it didn't have to. I got it, and hopefully other Christians will get it too.
The point the story makes- with spoilers.
While I can write a nice and accurate summary in one sentence, I can also do the same with the point:
Humans have the capacity to inflict great punishments on themselves, or achieve ultimate love and peace. Choose wisely.
That was two sentences, but I realize there's more. If we obliterate what we hate, we won't have anything good, because the context will be gone.
The second point was reached by a group of four children, one of the four being the Antichrist. Take that for what you will. The idea of good must be understood within the lens of evil is an old idea that was born in antiquity. Many have written against it, while it's still raised as a serious idea today.
This book is not an attack on organized religion, it's an attack on literalist theology.
Notice what makes them angry and find the reflection.
Honestly, our reflection is not in this series, but how those within our numbers reacted to the Amazon Prime Series. (Yes, I said those "within our numbers," I'm not going to play that game where I exclude Christians because I don't agree with their point of view.)
I sat on this post an added week, because I think this subject deserves some reflection of my own before I publish.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Over the course of a year, I lost four dress sizes. People, who hadn't seen me in awhile noticed the difference, and almost always asked the same question:
"Melissa, how did you do it?"
My answer was almost always the same:
"I ate less and exercised more."
The question is asked to seek the golden fix. What is something they can easily do to shed the pounds without actually working? I don't hold it against anyone when they look visibly bummed with my simple, yet difficult answer.
If I were discussing the subject with someone I saw beyond a pass by at Kroger I'd say this:
"I forced myself to look at my body in the mirror every day from the day I started."
Mirrors are not forgiving inventions. They don't lie for a direct and honest purpose. They tell us what our friend, family or random Jo on the street won't. How do we really look? We're not actually looking at ourselves. Our reflection isn't really us, but it's as close to us as we are going to get without being someone else looking at us.
I saw me. At first it was nothing special. Yeah, I'm a little pudgy. I'm hug-able. Then, as I lost, I began to see what I was becoming. I didn't want to return. As I enter the maintenance part of my weight loss, I probably look in the mirror more. I know what I could easily become. The mirror told me, and most mirrors don't lie.
The Church Deinvested in the Mirror Business.
Back in the 2000's I was sold on South Park. It was suggested by a minister to watch the Jesus versus Satan episode. "Everyone is verbally rooting for Jesus to beat Satan in a ring match, while placing bets that Satan would be the one to win. It's the church! Trey Smith and Matt Stone correctly named the church! It was brilliant!" (That's not a direct quote, but it's fairly close to how it went.)
Up until that very moment I was taught to shun the sources that mocked the church. In that single moment my perception changed. South Park wasn't mocking, they were reflecting. For the very first time I was able to see our reflection, and it was ugly.
Since then I've seen all kinds of mirrors.
I saw Biblical literalism in Supernatural, Dogma and Good Omens. These are all great example of the world if the Bible were played out literally. Except for apples, because, the Bible never mentions apples being the forbidden fruit. Yet these literal romps want to make the fruit a Red Delicious, These movies and television shows try to play out the Bible like it's a map. I find them interesting when I see a scripture completely misrepresented, because it helps me see how Biblical literalism is not the right path, even if it does make a compelling CW show.
More seriously, I saw the congregants reflection in the likes of South Park, Saved, and yes, even Bubble Boy. I needed to know how the secular world viewed the church. I realized I hadn't really looked at a good reflection of my faith in... ever.
My spiritual reflection showed I didn't have a hug-able faith, but a dangerous, razor sharp faith. While fellow Christians were telling me to boycott Comedy Central; to tell me I was less of a Christian for watching Saved, I was beginning to see what the secular world saw. We were monsters.
The church de-invested in the mirror business when the cultural view began to reflect something other than the perfect picture they were used to seeing. Many churches, instead of critiquing their choices and becoming something worth reflecting, they simply pasted their old image over the reflection and moved on. As the reflections darkened and became more sinister, the average congregant remained clueless.
We Are All Guilty
I fully believe most Christians at least heard of the brokenness within the church. The stories of Clergy and congregant abuse is flourishing like weeds in a garden. Their reaction is typical. Almost all will cry out in anger. The brokenness must stop. They must stop. That sentence is key. It's like we're aware of other church's mirrors, but clueless of our own. We all cry out for restoration, as long as we're restoring someone else. Only, we can't restore someone else. Change must come from within.
We must name the truth. We must admit we are failures. The biggest truth I can name is this:
Jesus never stopped death.