-Rev Melissa Fain-
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Cor 1:1-9 NRSV
Corinth was an interesting place. It was the capital of Achaia. So if you could call the Roman Empire a country, Achaia would be considered a state. Corinth is to Achaia as Atlanta is to Georgia- judicially speaking. Corinth was also a bustling center of commerce. Its location was ideal for business because of its prime location between two major ports on either side of it. In some ways this means we could relate Corinth to, let’s say Chattanooga: located just off a river and pulling business from both Georgia and Tennessee.
I could visit the mix of Atlanta and Chattanooga. So far, sounds like a nice place to visit. Until we get to the rest of the story…
Perhaps it was Athens, or maybe it was just being a capital port city, but Corinth had a reputation. If it was Athens, we know it was the Greek center of educational prowess. Corinth was just north of Athens, and it’s prime location would have been seen as a threat to Athens.
Now, for those of you who know your history, Athens and Sparta rarely got along with one another. It didn’t help that Corinth usually took the side of Sparta when disputes broke out. Athens coined a term for those Corinthians: Corinthianize. This term is no longer in use, so let me give you a definition: Corinthianize means to make something lewd, raunchy, or sexually immoral. Whether it’s Athens responding to what they see in Corinth, or Corinth living up to its name, history marks the city as the center for prostitution and other immoral behavior. The biggest evidence we can use to pinpoint this fact is their city goddess. (All Greek cities chose one from their pantheon.) Corinth chose Aphrodite. You might be thinking Aphrodite is simiply the goddess of love, we, at the time she was better known as the goddess of prostitution. So, step aside Atlanta and Chattanooga, apparently Corinth is closer to another American City, Las Vegas.
You know, what happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth. Except when it doesn’t, and apparently it didn’t.
I need to back track just a little to explain. After Paul found Christ on the road to Damascus, he spent most of his time traveling and sharing the story of Jesus. Somewhere during his trip he spent a few weeks starting a church in Thessalonica, followed by spending two years in Corinth! While he was there, he roomed with fellow Christians who happened to also be tent makers, like himself. He got to personally know the people; knew them by name. Eventually he moved on and left for Ephesus. When he left, things were apparently going well. The church was thriving. The people apparently understood the message Paul had shared. They had even set up a community meal where all members could come and share in a love feast. I would imagine Paul was pretty happy when he left.
Then the word got out. While he was in Ephesus things went wrong. It all began to fall apart.
First, there was the war of tongues. Different leaders of the church began to pretend they were speaking in tongues even though they were really just gibbering. No one could translate what they were saying; even they were clueless. The leaders did it because they became obsessed with one-upping one another. Secondly, they were misusing the communal meal. The well off were showing up early to the meal. They would get off of work early, and they would gorge themselves on the food leaving nothing for the poorer congregants who showed up late. Third, when a member of the congregation would have issue with another member they would ignore the church leadership and go straight to the city court for resolution. This could have been something like a congregant suing another congregant for speaking falsely when all they would have to do was talk it over with one of the leaders. Basically, taking something small and blowing it out of proportion.
And remember how everyone knew the message Paul preached before he left? Well, it didn’t take long for that to digress as well. Some people had taken Paul’s words about salvation through Christ and took it to mean they were currently living a redeemed life. That might not sound all that wrong on the surface, but they took it as an excuse to say they were redeemed while doing “Corinthianized” type things.
Let’s spill some tea, stories of prostitution got back to Paul. It was going on in the early church. In fact, it was so bad, Paul heard word of a man who was sleeping with his step-mother! What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in Corinth gets back to Paul… in two ways.
First, there were some concerned church leaders who took the time to draft a letter a letter which no longer exists today, but I bet if it did it would be a page turner. I’m sure by the time we read through it we would be adding some sins to the laundry list I just mentioned. Second, some Corinthian servants traveled to Ephesis, where Paul was currently working. They came to talk and “visit.”
Everything I just said is beginning to sound like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show! So, like a tabloid show, let’s take a breather from it for a moment and do the sermon version of a commercial break: also known as a side story.
Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to be harsh with the written word? He was terrible! When he had a personal issue he would immediately draft a letter and send it anonymously to an editor or drop it on the side of the road knowing someone would find it! He never thought his words through first. He never marinated in his thoughts, mulled through his ideas. That is, until he did it one too many times and it backfired. The person who had been insulted figured out it was Lincoln who wrote the “anonymous letter” and challenged him to a duel! AND! He almost had to participate in it, save for the grace of God it was cancelled just minutes before it was to take place. The event turned his life around. He realized the power of words. He thought first and wrote second. Smart advice. Never send the first draft of an angry letter. Wati a day, rewrite it when you had time to think about your words. That actually advice from Dale Carnagie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
I bring up Carnagie’s book, and Lincoln’s actions because technically we never left Corinth and their debaucherious tale. How many drafts do you think Paul had to write before he penned the final version to send to Corinth? Let’s pretend, shall we?
Draft one: “You are completely hopeless! You are sheep without a shepherd. You know! I’ve got other churches, and I leave for one minute, and some guy is sleeping with his stepmother! Come on Corinth! You were better than this! If I came back, I would simply be wasting my time. You’re not saved people, and you never will be! I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time, Paul. [Crumple that one up and throw it on the floor.]
Draft two: “Seriously, I’m completely stunned at how deep into the world of sin you have gotten. If you got any deeper I wouldn’t be able to dig you out.
Now, you’re not hopeless but there isn’t much hope there. Don’t do anything else. You are on the edge and you shouldn’t trust your own judgement right now. Rushing over as soon as I put my tents up, Paul. [Crumple that one up and throw it on the floor.]
Maybe Paul wrote a couple of drafts before penning 1 Corinthians, maybe he didn’t. After all, he did not mince words with the Corinth people. He told them, in no uncertain terms, they were wrong. The truth is, we have no idea how he wrote his letters, we just have the end result. The end result is much better than those fake drafts I just shared with you:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in the Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
SAINTS! He calls them saints. As Bart Ehrman writes about the saints of Corinth, “One wonders what the Corinthian sinners looked like.” I would respond, they are one in the same. We forget judgment is not our job. Once we label a group hopeless, or lost that is what they are- to us! There is no hope to help a group of people we have labeled hopeless. There is no finding a group we have called lost. We cannot save those we have sentenced as damned. Saint’s not because they deserved it, but because they were trying. Saints, not because they were perfect, but because they were striving. Paul begins his letter with hope. Maybe these people are getting started on the wrong track, but they are getting started. Pontis Pilate washes his hands while Paul gets his hands dirty. Choosing to walk Christ’s path means moving outside your comfort zone. It means getting to know the Corinthians of today by name. Whether you realize it or not, you are living among future saints, but not yet. They are waiting for you to tell the story. Think about it this way: You are the saints in the church today. Where would you be if you hadn’t heard the story? Did someone decide you were worth saving? Let me conclude with Paul’s own words: “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen
-Rev Melissa Fain-
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
Exodus 9:12 NRSV
I've lived with this question for years. I wanted to know how to save Pharaoh. If I want to save them all, I've got to want to save him too, right? Why would God harden Pharaoh's heart? Why would God allow the Plagues to continue when allowing Pharaoh's heart to soften would keep great tragedy from entering the land?
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften the plagues would have ended before the death of the first born. Think of the epic levels of loss on all levels. Crops were wiped out. The cleanup would take away from collecting the crops that were left. God softening Pharaoh's heart means there wouldn't be conflict leading to so much destruction.
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften all those first born children would not have died. I seriously only remember one full Sunday School class from my childhood. It's not that I don't remember pieces, but I can no longer connected them to the specific moment where I learned them. The Sunday School teachers, an older couple that just returned from Jerusalem, asked any first born child to raise his or her hand. I raised my hand. "You're dead," the wife said flatly to a little over half the class. (My younger sister found this hilarious.) Why would God commission death, and specifically death of children? If that heart was softened it would have been avoided.
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften the Israelites never would have left Egypt.
Yeah, that's it.
God didn't draw the line in the sand.
God wanted the people out. Plague after plague had already happened and, it was the Pharaoh who didn't listen, who drew lines, that was stubborn beyond measure. God didn't harden Pharaoh's heart right away. Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times first. More than that, God didn't send some foreigner into Egyptian court. Moses would have been someone Pharaoh knew, grew up, possibly even loved like a brother. Still he was stubborn. Six times stubborn.
Here's why there is no such thing as a just war.
War always has a very long fuse. There are historic moments where the fuse can be extinguished. Sometimes months, but more often times years in advance. When the bomb of war finally goes off, the lines are drawn not because God wants those lines to be drawn, but because the options to peace were ignored for years.
Even if Pharaoh's heart was softened, he wouldn't want peace like God wanted peace. Pharaoh didn't want God's choice. It was Pharaoh who put God on the other side, not God. And guess what? When the people finally left Egypt there were Egyptians that left with the Israelites. God's line is an ideology, not a people. God wanted freedom, and Pharaoh wanted power.
How does Israel stay in Egypt?
Listen, I fully and completely believe the people are not the problem. The system the people use is the problem. The side that was just fine didn't see a problem with slavery. This was because they couldn't see. They were too comfortable to see.
More than that, it didn't matter that at the seventh plague Pharaoh's heart could have softened. He wasn't going to change. It's very difficult to get people who are comfortable to give up their comfort for someone else's discomfort. It's relational. It's ignorance. If they can't feel it, most people don't understand it. Ignorance can drive a world into darkness. Ignorance can silence oppression with false righteousness. It puts fault on the abused, because anything else would change the system, a system where the ones in power want to keep their power.
That must be left behind if a new people are to find their freedom. Pharaoh's heart had to be hardened, because God was separating the wheat from the chaff. The peoples had already picked their sides by the time the seventh plague came around. They had drawn the lines; not God, but God had chosen a side.
This month I've been reading Walter Brueggemann's "The Prophetic Imagination." Chapter one is a great reading partner with this post.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I had so many important moments in seminary. These were moments that have shaped my ministry and focused me on my call. To just pick one would be foolish. Yet, I can pick a specific moment that has recently attacked me in ways that has guided me in the present. It is a moment that keeps me anchored and lets me go.
I was taking Disciples of Christ polity. It was at Columbia Theological Seminary because Candler School of Theology didn't teach it. The only professor offering the class in Georgia was and is Dr. Jerry Gladson. Across the hall was the office of Dr. Walter Brueggemann. I remember musing about how close yet how far I was from him. (His writing has since formed many of my theological groundings.)
There was a night we watched this retelling of the story of Alexander Campbell. It was kinda Soap Opera(ish), on an old, worn out, VHS tape. I tried to find a digital copy so I could link it, but there are no remnants of it's existence online. It was the actor playing Campbell, holding his coin. It was a coin earned so he could partake of the sacred elements of Communion. I watched as he stared at this man on the street, so hungry for food, but unable to come in the church because he lacked the coin. Campbell walked in for communion, tossed the coin in the plate, and walked back out without the elements. The act of Campbell tossing the coin without communion held weight for me.
Who was going to know? He didn't yell it in the sanctuary before he walked out. He didn't threaten his departure. There was no reason. He knew what he was going to do. He didn't want anyone to talk him out of it, so why make the announcement? It was the strength of his conviction. Not knowing what was coming, but absolutely knowing it wasn't in that coin.
In October made a private announcement of my intentions regarding the Disciples of Christ. I bitterly wept as I realized the truth. I couldn't stay. I made it official by writing a colleague and letting him know first. I followed it up by telling a private group. I was scared. I was devastated. I asked myself the question most people ask when they break up: What had the Disciples of Christ given me or Fig Tree over the past decade?
What was the denomination taking away? Everything.
This all came crashing back to me only a month later.
Related side note: I'm easy to neglect. People see me, and I give the impression that I've got my stuff together. I get it. When I see a problem, I can make magic happen with paper clips and rubber bands. I can see potential where most only see trash. When the world is flooding I get ignored because I can tread water when others are drowning. Only water treading works for just so long, and even I run out of trash to turn to treasure. That moment always comes, and the people around me always lament the exact same lament: "We shouldn't have ignored you. We should have stepped up and worked with you." I figured if this time I screamed out, "Hey, I need help," they'd finally stop neglecting me. I thought if I was vocal about not being able to do it alone I wouldn't be doing it alone this time, but, hey, I'm just easy to neglect.
In November the Regional Minister was told my family was dealing with some big things. I won't go into details, but know we are almost on the other side of it today. She reacted by calling me. If the region had fostered a relationship with me, it would have been a comforting call, but after being neglected for eight years it was a reminder of what I never had. More than that, she offered me a "coin." (She didn't know that's what she was doing, but God moments are often hidden to the voices speaking them.) She told me I could get help from the Pension Fund if I were a minister in good standing.
There it was. I hadn't mailed in my annual standing form, but if I did, I could have a place within the system, and find comfort. She even suggested there could possibly be a church that would need digital ministry. Comfort and joy! Just, stay in the system. When we hung up it was so clear this was my Campbell moment. Give up the "coin" for those outside the church, or accept the "coin" and take "communion." I oh so quietly gave up the coin, and never called the Pension Fund, and never filled out my standing paperwork for 2020. Her call took away my deep sadness.
So I don't bury the lede, I'm leaving the Disciples of Christ, and Fig Tree is coming with me.
Yes, we're stepping away from a denomination, but not a tradition. I'm still a Restorationist. I still believe we're saving something beautiful and right, something that deserves to be shared and restored.
I feel in the deepest part of my gut I am being called out. I've never resisted when called. I will go anywhere I've been called, even into the darkness. I have now followed that call through the darkness and survived. How could I possibly settle down in that sweet meadow when so many are chewing on rocks in the wilderness? I know that isolated feeling. I know their pain. There is no sweet comfort anywhere while that persists.
Come with me too.
Let me be crystal clear. I would rather let my call shrivel up and die with the others who are spiritually dying than go back into the system. At least then they know they're not dying alone. There is no calling me back. It's just... if you come with me we're not going to die, but finally live.
I've done the dangerous part. I took the first step. Anyone who comes with me will not be alone. Spiritual power comes in community. I will say, coming with me comes with a consequence. It will change you. It will give you sight. You will understand what I've come to understand. You cannot simply return from that. That's why it's a request. I won't force you to see the truth. I will say staying won't stop that feeling, that aching.
I won't promise it'll be easy, because God knows it hasn't been for me. This is uncharted territory. I need spiritual cartographers to chart the maps we will be writing, and trailblazers & scouts who have the knowledge of the land to know the path ahead. I need help.
That's it. I've done my part. I went where God asked me and called out. If no one answers it's no longer on me. I'm at peace. I'm free. Join me.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
In the past few months there have been moments where I felt I've been on the wrong side of things. Not that I've chosen the wrong side of an argument or anything, but I've found myself being on the inside of need instead of the outside.
Not long after my ordination, a ministerial colleague expressed what she felt was my biggest pastoral gift: speaking truth to a system. She told me I named something no one was looking at, and correctly voiced that if nothing was done about it it would not be helpful. Now, I'm not spilling the tea here. You're not going to hear the details of that event, just that it's repeatable. On the outside of conflict, I can usually bring down the mob and calm everyone down. I understand the reasons beyond the initial conflict. (Honestly, it's probably why my favorite theology is the systematic kind, the kind that requires us to connect the dots.)
February 14th marks a pretty big milestone this coming year. I'll be ordained exactly one decade. If you count my church work before the ordination, I've been focused on working for God for twenty years. Just for context, that's little over half my life, and when you consider my volunteer work before that... well, that's most of my life.
With that being known, we've gotta have a pretty real conversation here. It's time for me to speak truth to this system. I've been on every side of it. I've been a Christian child, young adult, and adult. I've been a volunteer and paid staff. I've been everything from a choir director, to a youth leader to a senior minister*. I've been inside the church, in a ministry outside the church, and completely outside the system. I've seen it all. I've heard it all.
I know what if feels like to be a congregant in a dying church, and I know the frustration of being a minister in a broken church. I've witnessed the heartbreak of a congregation, and mourned with them when their minister betrayed them. Yes, I have the Masters of Divinity to show I have the book smart, but I come to you with street smart to back it up.
There are a few problems going on in the church, and some of them overlap, which is probably why it has been so difficult to nail it down and deal with it. This will be a very honest mirror church, so it's not gonna look pretty.
1) Most of humanity will sacrifice what is right for comfort.
I used to think everyone chose to join a church/temple out of the deep desire to make the world a better place and grow closer to God. In reality people join churches for a variety of reasons, and those two don't often come in first place.
Those things are comfort. They're selfish. Sometimes it's good to be selfish, and I've written on those things before, but they are not the catch-all for church.
No matter what, most people don't want to truly sacrifice for anything. They don't want to actually have to build something, or create. At the end of the day, the church building is comfortable. So many of us have felt God has left the building, yet we stay because we've put the building among the assets. Why can't we fix the church inside the physical church? Ask that to the Israelites, who were called to the Wilderness. They had a building too. They had comfort, but their comfort were as slaves, and we've become sedentary slaves to our physical church.
2) No one wants in once they've been kicked out.
3) We are blind to ourselves.
There was this craze in the Aughts of looking at mental illness as a television special. Hoarders, over-eaters, abusers... it didn't matter. If they were willing to get better in front of a camera, there was a show willing to be produced. We watched celebrities almost die from drug overdoses, while a few channels over we watched a woman try to explain why she needed to keep 28 used pizza boxes. It was all depressing. While maybe progress was made in the episode, usually the person sifted back into their old way of life, and some of them died from their illness.
I believe the Church is suffering from a spiritual illness that is attacking the Body. Some of the overarching themes of these twenty year old shows, especially the ones about hoarders, might at least help us see the problem.
4) The Problem is always "over there."
On some level, I can take the first three. I have focus with the the first three problems. Number four is the one problem that sneaks in and takes away any real power for change. Someone posts a story of church brokenness, and the Church might be outraged, and even sad. Their very friends might show the broken person specifically sympathy. Then, nothing at all happens or changes?
Why? Because the problem, an entire Church problem, suddenly turned into a specific congregation problem. The congregation in question didn't hear the outrage because the church (or the person themselves) swiftly cut "the problem" out, taking away any substantial power to change the system. Eight years ago someone asked me what they could do to help my situation. I told them, "Stay." They did not stay, and it took away their power to make a congregation healthy for future ministers and congregants.
Here's where the Church as a whole really turned into monsters. There is part of our call as Christians we've totally neglected since at least 1992, more than likely longer. We are called to name our failure, bring it to Christ, and die at that cross! Death is actually part of the story! Instead we take our sins, put them on a glorified scapegoat and cut those people loose to do the dying for us!
HERE'S MY ANGER! HERE'S MY OUTRAGE! It's not about having a cushy job in a cushy church! You've thought that's what I'm doing this for? Once those churches cut those people out they talk about the problem in the past tense. In reality the person left, but the problem stayed to fester and grow. Some of those who left take years to realize they haven't been carrying someone else's problem. The damage is huge on both sides!
What gets me the most, is Brueggemann was right in his second edition preface to "The Prophetic Imagination":
A confrontational model assumes that the "prophetic voice" has enough clout, either social or moral, to gain a hearing. Currently, the old "prophetic stance" of such churches lacks much of that authority, so that the old confrontational approach is largely ineffectual posturing. Given that social reality, which I think cannot be doubted, I suspect that whatever is "Prophetic" must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic. -xii
Here's your irony! Here's your prophet telling you in 2001 you will ignore him because the Church stopped listening to her prophets! What has that truth gotten us?
Our insistence to point the finger at someone or something else means so many congregations are gasping for breath at death's door, and no one with the power to stop it cares. You have spent fifty years slowly digging your own graves. Now it's done. You sit in your pit and you'd rather starve than admit God's not in the grave. God's here with me. God's here with those you've cut loose. God is alive, on the other side of death, but for you to reach Him, you have to accept your inevitable fate. You have to admit you met death. Something will die in that grave. It will either be your old way of "church," or the Church itself.
Either way, I'm done waiting. I'm done posturing. This year, I'm moving forward. I'm moving on. I'm going where God is.
* The links to congregations and Christian institutions are for reference only. To link the "senior minister" job is unnecessary. It's important to know that call was to a broken congregation, but as I feel they can find healing, I don't want to put focus on them before they do.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This is part of a series. Check out the other two:
Charity is a Double-Edged Sword
Greed the Ultimate Deadly Sin
Other-Centered vs Selfless and why it matters
Okay Church, gird up your loins. It's time for a reckoning.
We, as an entire institution, really suck at seeing the danger to other-centered people. As our numbers dwindle we care less and less about where our help is coming from, as long as it comes. Last week I explained the difference between self-centered, and selfish. Basically, self-centered people are only able to see themselves. They do not understand or see the world around them. Meanwhile, selfish people see the world, but choose to act in a self-serving way. Often bad, but not always.
Other-centered people are incapable of seeing their own needs beyond the needs of others. They are self-sacrificing, while not realizing that's what they are being. They are the easiest people to take advantage of. One negative comment can reel them into a state where they think they need to self-correct into being more self-sacrificing. They are targets of gas-lighters and generally narcissistic individuals. Even self-centered individuals will unknowingly take advantage of someone who is other-centered.
Churches all over the world abuse these people. Yes, I wrote abuse. Other-centered people are generally natural caregivers, and are drawn to social service organizations and projects. Because of their inability to see their own needs, it's super easy to overburden their lives with projects. These people burnout and then they think it's their fault they burned out. The Church then isn't there to help them when they are the one in need. They find other other-centered people to take the burned out person's place and the cycle begins again.
Selfless people, conversely, are people who see and know their own needs and still give of themselves for the sake of others. These people know when to stop being selfless to meet their personal needs and keep going later. Churches get uptight and angry when a selfless person finally says no, and a healthy selfless person will see those uptight and angry reactions as the unhealthy situation it is.
Am I laying this out clear enough? This is how Churches all over the world have broken: By taking advantage of other-centered people, and attempting to take advantage of selfless people. It very dangerous because it looks righteous, when it's only taking a righteous cause and uses it like a weapon.
Charity When Weaponized
Yes, it is completely possible to do the right think in the wrong way.
Bach wrote epic music on an ivory keyed piano, but that black rhino still died to make those keys.
Yes, it's good to give stockings to lower income families during Christmas, but those stockings are still filled with toys made overseas by slave labor.
And finally Church. Food pantries, clothes closets, and mission fields are filled with other-centered people who burnout and hurt all the time.
We've got a problem church! A much bigger problem than can be solved by simply trying worship around a kitchen table instead of a sanctuary. No one trusts us anymore, and for good reason. I feel like Alice having entered Crazy Town Wonderland, and everyone is talking nonsense and patting themselves on the back like it all makes sense when it doesn't!
Charity is weaponized when other-centered people are abused into working to meet the need, or the need itself is not really met to make people outside that need feel good about themselves. Either it's selfish people taking advantage of other-centered people, or it's selfish people making themselves feel good instead of really meeting the need. In any case, no matter how charity has been weaponized, selfish takes the place of selfless. Selfish is always the culprit.
A Note On The Giving Tree
I have been witness to multiple churches pulling out The Giving Tree to discuss charity. This is the story about a boy and a tree. By the end of the story the boy takes everything from this tree, even her trunk. The point is to see Christ as the tree, and the boy as us. Yet, it usually turns to us needing to be more like the tree.
Don't be the tree.
Don't be the boy.
Don't be this book. This book is a pretty depiction of an abusive relationship. If Christ is truly the Giving Tree, than no wonder we are dying as a Church! We've taken, and taken and taken. We need to start asking, "How can we help you, Christ?" This is an important question to our future, because taking from Christ is literally taking from ourselves. We are the Body of Christ. We are destroying ourselves every time we pull out the hacksaw.
I'm going to wrap this all up with one more post. What does healthy and just charity look like?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This is related to last week's post, and a larger post about the Seven Virtues. Consider checking those out too if you have time. (Charity is the virtue tied to the deadly sin of Greed.)
Charity is a Double-Edged Sword
Self-Centered Versus Selfish
In April of 2014 I picked up my Common English Bible, my go-to translation, and looked up Romans 8:6-11. I immediately saw the translation team's choice of using "selfish" and "self-centered" interchangeably like they were the the same thing. I have strong feelings about this subject, so if you want more than my TL:DR I'm about to give, click the link and read the whole thing before moving on.
Basically, we are all born self-centered. As we grow we up we reach this moment where we realize the world around us. At that moment we can become selfish or selfless. Self-centered people are not selfish. They don't get how their actions are helping or hurting the world around them, because they cannot see beyond themselves. There's something magical about this time in our lives. We are like Adam or Eve in the garden. Living in ignorant bliss. Then, like Adam and Eve they eat from that tree of knowledge, and know.
What we do with that knowledge sets the tone for how we act as adults.
Selfishness Does Not Equals Greed.
There will always come a time when selfishness is necessary for our survival. It's healthy when our selfishness is life-giving. It's okay to tell a group that you can't do something because you truly don't have time, or your focus has to be spent on something else.
You are a living machine, meant to work continuously for 80+ years. That's a very long time for one machine to work without stop. Christians are called to see the need in the world and meet it, but it's impossible to meet that need if we can't even meet our own needs. It is not greedy to engage in self-care. It can be selfish, but we need to de-stigmatize that word when it comes to healthy selfishness.
Greed Is Always Selfish.
Greed is the ultimate deadly sin. All the other deadly sins (sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, pride, wrath) are rooted from a place of greed. Greed is when selfish desire knowingly takes from the need of those around them. It lacks any and all sacrifice on the person engaging in it.
We have to be careful how we throw around that scarlet G. It's easy to see someone taking from the needs of others and just throw the word "greed" all over it. We have to remember that greed comes from a place of selfishness, not self-centeredness. You tell a self-centered person they are being greedy they will deny it. That's because they can't see beyond themselves. In those moments, you have to play the serpent and take them out of their metaphorical Eden.
Yeah, I wrote it. This should bring home the seriousness of the task at hand. By helping a person understand the world around him or her, you are forcing them out of their Garden of Eden. You are their bad guy. If being the bad guy comes from a place of selflessness than it's right and ultimately good. But, if taking someone out of their garden is for personal gain, or selfish, then you are truly the bad guy.
As an important side note: This is part of the reason a trained minister is so important for the church. A minister is more than just sharing their opinion on a Biblical text. They are also caregivers, and mentors. A good minister will keep a group from flipping out and raging, because a good minister will see the complexity of a situation. Those ministers are there for the entire Body of Christ, not just the small group they are personally attached to. They will see the wholistic and holistic calling to heal all. Sometimes, they will personally be the "bad guy" because being anything else while being the leader would be selfish. Sometimes, it's greedy to be the person who is liked. No one wants to be the bad guy, but really good leaders will be because it's the right thing to do.
That means greed is the easiest sin to accidentally fall into. It can be greedy to force someone out of their self-centeredness, but it could also be greedy to allow someone to continue living into it. It can be greedy to be selfish, but in the right circumstances it might not be. It requires reading the situation, and understanding the circumstances.
Once greed has its hold it will naturally fall into any of the other six deadly sins. It will always start with greed, and greed will always kill something righteous. Always. It's the easiest to accidentally fall into, and its target gets hit the hardest.
Next week we'll talk about Charity, its virtue, as it can be subverted and misused. Charity is not always a good thing.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This is the final post in a series about the Virtues/Deadly sins:
"It's all Greek to me."
That phrase means you don't know. It's an important phrase to wrap up this series because I need you to know, and I need you to know Greek.
Here's what I feel about the Bible: It is not the inerrant Word of God. To believe it is takes away the power from the actual experience being written down, and the power of God to act today. Most people who use the phrase "inerrant Word of God," are English speakers. It's arrogant to assume our English translations are perfect counterparts to the original Greek and Hebrew. Some words and phrases don't translate easily. Then, hundreds of years later, our understanding of words change. Charity is one of those words.
This whole time I've been comparing the virtues/sins to 1 Cor 13:13. "Now faith, hope, and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love." It's a deadly sin if the action is not done in faith, hope or love. Conversely, it's a Godly virtue if it does.
The reason I brought up Biblical interpretation is because of this verse. Back when King James commissioned the KJV the translators saw the word "Agape." (Pronounced: Ah-Gah-Pay) In Greek it looks like this:
Here's the thing about the Greeks: They had six words for "love": eros, mania, ludas, storge, pragma, and agape. For those of you who have a decent understanding of English roots, you might be able to pull basic definitions out of these loves.
Like "eros" is the root for "erotic," This would be lustful love.
"Manic" is rooted in "mania" which is an obsessive love.
"Pragmatic" is rooted in "pragma" which is thought driven love.
Agape is selfless love. It was considered the highest form of love. It came from a place of ultimate self sacrifice. These very early translators saw the word and used something that meant just that in the English language: Charity. Meanings of words change, and Charity doesn't mean today what it meant back then. Today it means an organization set up to help and raise money for those in need. It changed from an action to a thing.
Now this isn't a case for everyone to pick up their KJV again. There is a reason new Biblical translations come out. Today we understand the original language better. We have multiple secondary and primary texts for translation teams to use. The Dead Sea Scrolls changed the game with pieces of primary passages, and secondary examples.
Also, as I've already written language changes. Do you think God wants you to translate your translation? By yourself? There's a reason why translation teams are done in groups (beside the obvious definition of the word "team.") Not all words have one easy definition. Most Bibles have tiny footnotes at the bottom of the page. That's where the Biblical team didn't completely agree. Instead of just picking one word, they pick both and put the "losing" word in the footnotes.
No translation team is putting "Charity" in the footnotes of 1:Cor 13:13. Love is the best word today, but it also has to be understood in terms of the Greek word used for it: Agape.
Well, now I've done it. I turned the last virtue into a series on it's own. It deserves more than one week. I'll get into Greed, it's Deadly Sin next week, and we'll go from there!
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This is part of a series. Check out the other ones!
To Desire or to Lust? That is the question
There always comes a point in pushing an idea, that the idea falls apart and no longer works. It's like when you find that really old stick of bubblegum in your car, and you decide to chew it anyway. At first, it's like biting into a piece of plywood. You finally get it to become chewy, then, in the middle of chewing, it disintegrates in your mouth. Only me?
Well, lust is one of those words that I can't see any other way than as a deadly sin. Lust is the murdering of desire. Lust comes from a selfish place as it objectifies people to use desire as a foothold to get control. Mostly, that's in the form of sexual control, but our lusts can distort anything good for selfish gain.
Last week I had to opportunity to hear Jackie Brewton. She's a motivational speaker, and more specifically, helps teens understand the dangers surrounding sex. There was a point she kept returning to time and time again. Boys that want girls for sex don't want a relationship. They want to turn the girl into an object, get what they want and move on. And boys can move on because they suffer less with STDs (having a visible system, females are internal and can't be seen) and boys can't get pregnant.
A healthy relationship is built on mutual respect. Sex does not add anything that is or isn't already there. You can't add love, friendship, or trust through sex. Those things are built outside our sexual desire.
Sexual Objectification is Real
Yes, as a 38 year old female, sexual objectification can still happen. It is the absolute quickest way to lose my respect. I don't have time to help that person see my humanity outside turning me into an object. I simply make note, and move on. It's easy for me to do, but I'm not worried about me. I have sufficient self-esteem to overcome someone seeing me as an object.
I am worried about girls who struggle with their self-esteem, and seeing objectification as their only route to having any kind of value at all. These are beautiful, smart, creative, girls who just want to be seen. The idea that sex can fill that desire is both horrifying and sad.
Most Women and Men are biologically born different
The struggle is real for me between nature versus nurture. As Nature Made Him probably became my turning point book to accept that both play a role in gender. (By the way, not a book for the faint of heart. Mentally, a very difficult read.) Here was a male baby forced into growing up female because of a botched circumcision that completely cut off the penis. This man was forced into a gender that did not belong to him, as he was forced into female gender stereotypes of the 70s. I believe the book came to the conclusion nature and nurture play a role in gender. The boy grew up, knowing he was not what he was created to be, while being much more caring and gentle than his twin brother that grew up a boy. (Not a happy ending, btw, both brothers eventually committed suicide.)
I believe sexual objectification starts first in the world of nurture. Last week, I came across an article by Melinda Selmys discussing the very issue with nature versus nurture. I was captivated as she laid out a case where most men are more self-confident because of a little drug their body produces called testosterone. The church fathers, all being male obviously, had felt that desire to be the focus, and it led to centuries of writings about lowering oneself, and giving away focus.
Women, conversely, produce estrogen, which makes us more empathetic. We are more likely to work for the sake of others and give up of ourselves. A Christian perspective of bringing oneself low is dangerous when being low is already the baseline. It can kill a woman.
While I disagree with some of her conclusions, I agree with Carol Gilligan's focus on care. A healthy focus on care must begin with a healthy self. Bringing Selmys and Gilligan together: Women are called to bring themselves up to value, and their Christian journey is in seeing their worth, not bringing themselves down.
Men often see the woman's journey as already over, and objectify their selflessness as something to raise up, rather than a sign of a needing personal growth. Therefore it's easier to chastise women for finding their voice, when they're really just on the opposite side of the spectrum of other/self. Then we nurture our children into men continuing a self-centered world, and women an other-centered world, when we should be nurturing both into a world that values both.
Lust ends up objectifying the body and the mind, subverting our natural desire- our needs for others becomes what we take for ourselves.
Chastity: Had to get here eventually
Chastity is the one virtue that, based on how we usually define it, is probably not a virtue at all. Nothing is virtuous about just abstaining from sex. If that were the case, we'd be working really hard to only use sex as an act of procreation. While there are people who completely and totally believe this, many of us see sex within a loving monogamous relationship as not sinful.
Abstinence.is the best way to not get an STD or get pregnant. Period. Even a condom cannot protect you from Chlamydia or Gonorrhea because they are bacterial and are often outside of a condom. Also, partners that just want sex either can lie about their STDs or don't even realize they have them. There are over 40 known STDs. Just putting that out there before I write what I need to write next.
We've turned chastity into virginity and then we put all the work and punishment on the girls for losing it. I've already mentioned that girls pay a higher price for sex because STDs effect them more and they can get pregnant. We've also turned the purity culture into a female shame game. If a guy lusts after a girl, it's the girl's fault because of what she was wearing or doing.
When we base it all on virginity, we've turned their bodies into a piece of gum that's value lies in whether or not it's been chewed up. You can't undo gum, so girls who mess up think it's over and they don't see the point in continuing being chaste. They'd already been chewed and spit out anyway, what's the point!
WE'RE DOING IT WRONG!
Instead of focusing on virginity, we need to focus on the body. Our bodies are living temples to God. We have power to choose what goes in and out of it. Godly chastity is about not letting vandals or dangerous things into the temple, and cleaning it up and moving on when that sort of thing does happen. It's protecting the temple, not the door to the temple, and only the very first time that door has been breached. It's a lifelong process, that even continues as you find that person who cares for your temple as much as you care for his/hers. It's mutuality. Healthy desire. Chastity is rooted in love. Anything else, is just lust.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This is part of a series. Check out the other ones!
"Donner, party of 50!"
It is wrong that the one line from Patch Adams is the above quote? Yeah, a little bit. I used it for a purpose. The Donner Party, and the horror that happened trapped in extremes of the American wilderness, is a breaking of natural restraint in a way we can't easily wrap our head around. Cannibalism was a step too far, but, at the exact same time, a necessary step if anyone from the family was going to live.
Temperance is self-restraint. The opposite of temperance is gluttony. Therefore, gluttony is the lack of self-restraint.
We act from a lack of self-restraint when we want to just devour what is around us. Perhaps it's video games, books, or even exploration. John Muir had a gluttonous desire to explore and learn. It is because of him we have the National Parks in the United States.
We also act from a lack of self-restraint when our restraint reaches the breaking point. For the Donner Party it was survival. These are moments of reaction, not thoughtful action. If you're literally starving to death, you have to eat. If someone keeps pushing you, and pushing you, and pushing you... we'll eventually you push back.
Finally, we act from a lack of self-restraint when nothing appears wrong, but the restrains put upon us must be broken. During the Suffrage Movement, restraint (or telling women they shouldn't have the right to vote) was a form of a gilded cage. Some women
Temperance When Tied to Deadly Gluttony
Our biggest problem with gluttony is that every depiction is always related to the excess of food. Not all overweight people are gluttons. Weight gain happens for a plethora of reasons: glands, genetics, and food deserts to name some. This is why I don't want to talk about deadly gluttony like it's an eating problem, because it's not. Deadly gluttony is when we are able to show self-restraint, and should show self-restraint, but don't.
Real deadly gluttony is difficult to see, because we do it without even realizing we are doing it. Real deadly gluttony keeps something necessary out of someone else's hands and keeps it in our own. We often don't even feel we are doing it, because we can never feel the lack or loss from someone else. We only know what we have, not what others don't.
When I took on the male pastoral username for six months I felt the abundance of trust given to masculine clergy without fact checking or authentication. I understood in those six months why my male colleagues couldn't understand my side of the situation as a female clergy. In their excess, they couldn't feel my struggle. I felt the excess for six months, and it was intoxicating.
Not all of us are female, so here's one every American living into. China. Guess what America? We're living into a modern form of slavery. We purchase goods for next to nothing, so we can maintain our lifestyle. While workers in China get paid unfair wages to make our little must have items. We can talk all day long about raising the minimum wage, but that's not going to impact those who actually make the goods we purchase. I think about it constantly, as it's impossible to not feed the gluttonous beast. Everything comes from China now.
How do we live into that kind of temperance, tied to that kind of deadly gluttony?
It starts with something incredibly simple: Put down our self-centered gaze, and try on an other-centered view. We have to see the problem first, before we can fix it.
"Knowing your place," is weaponized temperance at it's worst. We, as a society, love to label things. Whether we mean to or not, our actions hold incredible weight to raise someone up or keep them down. This can happen in a few ways.
We will unknowingly give unearned passes to those who remind us of previous mentors or beloved family members. Raising someone up without reason can actually make it more difficult later, when they react in their own way, not the way of the person we've remembered from our past. It can lead to hurt feelings, as we can't justify why giving preference to an individual happened to begin with.
Then we do the opposite to those who remind us of people who have personally slighted or hurt us. To keep someone down because they happen to remind you of a negative person from your past, is a tempered cage. It's not fair to judge someone harshly on something they have never done.
The gilded cage, however, is incredibly dangerous and alluring for those who want people in them. Both the above examples are tempered cages. A gilded cage is when you mentally trap someone is a station, or tempered cage, and imagine the beauty of the cage you've placed them in.
When women were fighting for equal rights starting in the 60's, often it would be paired with their gilded cage. Why should they want equal rights? Men don't have it that great! They don't get to lounge around the house all day and chat with their friends!
Instead of seeing the incredible amount of work tied to keeping a house, and the muzzle attached to it, the ideal of a stay at home mom was glorified and gilded. It's difficult to discuss a problem, when they problem is being framed like it's somehow better than the solution.
Temperance as an action of faith.
Godly temperance might not always look tempered when it is. I immediately think of Jesus and almost any time he interacted with the Priests. To Jesus he was doing what was right, and was not acting outside that purpose. Self-restraint was giving glory to God, not humanity. To the Priests, they believed self-restraint was in not doing those things on the Sabbath, and keeping spiritually and physically clean.
We cannot act in true temperance unless we have our faith in order. Simply put: we must first know what we are restraining before we can restrain it. When we find Godly faith, our tempered actions might not look tempered to those around us. That's the truth of faith. We walk paths that sometimes sends us through the refining fire, and people fear stepping into God's flame. Yet, that's necessary to have tempered faith.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
"Good things comes to those who wait."
We always know how much patience we truly have when that patience is tested to our breaking point. My kids, for example, know how to hot wire my system to jump past patience and right to wrath! It's really quiet backwards. Those who have had their patience tried time and time again often don't believe they have any. Meanwhile, the ones who have never needed patience in life often think they're patient people.
Patience is a virtue, and wrath is it's deadly sin. How we understand these two can help us know when we are truly acting in God's patience, and when we are simply being a door mat.
Wrath is one of those "deadly sins" we often have a hard time seeing as good, but maybe it's time we understand the virtue of anger. Angry people are typically optimistic. That one got me, but I understand. When we see the best in society and/or for ourselves, we respond negatively when it doesn't turn out that way. Also, anger is a motivator, and in healthy relationships can strengthen bonds. Righteous indignation is healthy wrath. It jumps in when deadly patience rears it's ugly head, but more on that later.
Patience when tied to deadly wrath.
Word of advice: Be skeptical of the minister who is impatient. Healthy patience comes from active hope. Our active hope means healthy patience is active too. We are not merely waiting for the world to change for us. We are preparing as we wait for the rising tide. We are building, working; anticipating. As I wrote a few years back, hope is like a map. You are naming where X hits the spot. Hope is believing in the destination and seeking that destination. A minister rooted in hope will exude that active patience, seeking out that hope. Ministers who lack patience are more likely to be spiritually without a destination. Don't pick leaders who don't know where they're going.
Deadly wrath is a sign that hope has been lost. People react in the moment, because they can't see how their X on their map even exists anymore. This is where things get a bit more complex, and not as easy to pick good vs bad.
There are actually two ways patience can be weaponized.
The first way, is to replace active hope with empty promises. When you tell someone to just wait without anything to wait for, you are keeping that person from an active hope. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. Buying lotto tickets in hopes of winning is an empty hope. Wishing the worst things on our enemies comes from an empty hope. (If it's not empty, we need to take that hope down, and burn it!)
The second way patience is weaponized is when anger is misunderstood as wrath. There are times we attempt to shut people down because we don't want to deal with the possibility that their anger is justified. I know I'm angry over being told to "hang in there" when there was nothing I was hanging on for. That's not wrath, that's loss. We are fearful of angry loss, specifically if that loss means the person realizes their specific hope was lost with it. The hope that their baby would grow up but a stray bullet killed her. The hope that of walking the straight and narrow will lead to a good education, but kids of famous children took their spot because, well, their parents were loaded. The hope that someone would carry out his promise, but now he's a congress man/senator/[name your elected office here] he's doing his own thing. These events can lead us to righteous anger, which is the loss of our potential hope, not deadly wrath.
The loss of potential hope is more likely to happen with groups or people who don't hold the power. The word, "Patience," becomes deadly, as it shuts down the action of loss. We need to engage that pain while it can be engaged in a healthy way, because brokenness breaks, always. When we shut down the pain, the situation can become worse, causing the unheard voice to lash out and take someone else's potential hope. It's a deadly cycle that can be stopped, but not with empty patience.
Patience as an action of hope.
Patience as an action of hope is active. It has always been active. It will always be active. Active patience means we are not trying to get to the destination before it's time, but taking the steps necessary to get their in the right time. The next time someone tells you to wait, or be patient, ask yourself if they are feeding you an empty hope, or if that waiting is part of something real. If it's real, and active, then you are living into a virtue.