-Rev Melissa Fain-
Many ministers across the country have toiled countless hours to find that perfect camera angle in just the right position to bring the worship area to you at home. Many have considered the lighting and sound. Many have tried to compensate for sound and lighting, because they're forced to do everything from their phone.
The truth is, no matter what they do, they can only do 1/2 the work.
Being intentional about going to God
Part of the reason I feel this conversation needs to happen is because we as a faith community have devalued the worship area. There is this innate knowledge that God can visit us at any time and any place. We can have a God moment while hiking a trail in a National Park, and we can have a God moment cleaning our toilet on a Saturday morning. With this knowledge we bring coffee into our sanctuaries; digital games into our worship. Why not? God moments can happen while drinking coffee and playing games. What's the difference?
The difference is direction. God can visit us anywhere at any time. In return, we are asked for one time and one place during our week to seek God back. During that time we must put aside the things that could distract us, and create a sacred space for that meeting.
In a church, that work is done for you. We are given everything from a seat to the smell. Even the feel of the old wood or clean metal is part of the atmosphere. These ministers cannot give you that. You must create this on your own. Maybe you were not super intentional about meeting God before, but now from home requires super intentionality.
Focusing on the wrong parts
Before I continue, I know what I'm about to describe are people joking. I laughed emoted when I saw an image of a family putting two rows of chairs in front of their church's livecast stating- they always sat in the back during church. I also laugh emoted when someone said they always sat in the balcony and they sent an image of sitting at the top of the stairs, while the livecast was sitting at the bottom.
Look, I get the joke, but when I'm suggesting we be intentional about the other side of the camera, I'm talking about the sacred, not recreating your specific seat in the sanctuary. It's difficult for me to do more than hit "laugh emoji," because it takes away the seriousness of worship. Do you believe you are coming to God? Do you believe God will meet you in your engagement? I'm not suggesting we can't laugh and sing, but there is a reality I feel we're dismissing.
I want to show you some spaces being used by congregants streaming their specific worship.
Kurt's Setup with Communion
Kurt and his wife have shared their intentional space for weeks now, and every week it seems to become more and more intentional. They are part of a tradition that partakes of communion every time they worship together. I shared my communion sets a few weeks back. One of them was one of my old wine glasses and a glass plate. You don't have to have a specific communion set like Kurt. You can have something meaningful to you, as you seek God in your space.
Kristy's Space with Candles
It was during Fig Tree's worship last week I suggested to invite the light of Christ into your specific space by lighting a candle before worship. This Kristy is part of another congregation, but you'll notice there are multiple candles, as well as local flowers, and an icon.
Phil's Prayer Space with Icons
In a world where anything can be created, it's nature that priceless. The rocks, crystals and conch shell brings the natural world into the sacred space. Phil holds a special spiritual place in my heart, as I had asked him to speak at my ordination. I love the cloth used to set aside the space.
Jessica's Sacred Spot
Not everyone has icons, crosses, and communion sets at their disposal. Some people just have limited space. This is Jessica's space, set aside for online engagement.
Find Your Space
The important part of all this is for you to find your own sacred space. The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 asked, "What is to keep me from being baptized?" It could have been answered with a multitude of responses. There were numerous reasons to not be baptized, but Philip didn't give any. He simply baptized him.
In the same way, there are a multitude of reasons we can't go to worship, but it's our choice to ignore them and find the sacred anyway. As God seeks you, go seek God.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Sunday morning, at about 10:30 am, I prepare communion, set up the sanctuary, and adjust the camera. This all only takes about five minutes. The I pray. I pray for those who will be watching, and I pray for the community as a whole. I also pray for myself, because what will happen at 11 am is nothing short of war.
In the beginning...
The first livecasts of Fig Tree Christian was made up of three spaces. Literally.
There was the fellowship space. This was where we could create, build and just talk. These first livecasts had this time at the beginning. It was haphazard, and didn't work. It was moved to the end out of necessity. This happened in a literal fellowship hall.
Then we moved to the foyer (or Narthex) for education. This was where the sermon, if you could call it a sermon took place. It was a place where questions could be asked. It was less a sermon, and more a conversation. This was the part that I most loved about early Fig Tree. Actually conversing versus just listening.
Finally, we went downstairs and did worship. The first worship was absolutely nothing. That's how things begin. God cleans the space and starts creating.
Since that first livecast, we've moved a few times. The first move was to my basement. The pieces still remained. Three spaces, that were different.
Then we moved to The Daily Grind. Three became two. The fellowship time was, at first moved to the dining area of the coffee house. Then, education and worship became the two sides of the conference area in their private room. It was decided to make a private group for fellowship. It was a move I lament. Fellowship never really took root the way I had hoped it would. Part of that was the identity of those who were drawn to Fig Tree. They were broken and many were afraid. I couldn't and wouldn't force them to communicate.
Then it stopped. Without physical assistance, I couldn't do it anymore. Not the livecast side of things. Fig Tree wasn't a church, it was a ministry. It was quickly becoming a church.
When Covid-19 hit the United States, it was out of sympathy for all those displaced from their sanctuaries, that the livecast went live again. This time in one space in my basement. A sacred space, set aside for worship.
This time is different. Not only can I feel it, but everyone being online means the intentional nature of it all is vital.
This time, I'm at war.
Wars happen in different ways. This war is fighting for identity, and the struggle is real every Sunday at 11 am EST.
First and foremost, I'm fighting against Goliath for the identity of online church. I've written about this multiple times. New church plants are lovingly grown and then the tree is cut short, and old fruit is grafted in its place. It serves to meet the needs of those on the inside while ignoring the growing number dying of spiritual thirst on the outside. Allowing a plant to becoming what it was always supposed to become has become an epic war. This is part of the reason the word "church" has been dropped from our name. Churches have expectations and defined labels for what it is supposed to be. Fig Tree is a ministry. A ministry is an unknown force, that takes shape depending on who that ministry is ministering to. Part of that ministry is defining what is "online church." Now that every old plant wants a piece of it, it is vital that God's purpose isn't cut short and grafted. Let me rephrase this the way I've said it in the past: The old church lovingly takes the pruning sheers and oh so gently cuts the bud from the new plant, and oh so tenderly, grafts themselves to the sweet root of a dead call. We cannot let that happen here. God's plant deserves to grow in the root established for her.
Secondly, I'm fighting against myself in a battle of identity. The online world is a world of content creators. There are unwritten rules to how content is shared in this way. Those rules don't magically disappear because the global Church has entered it. At the exact same time, I'm attempting to bring the sacred online. Up to this point, those things have not melded well. They still don't. On a Sunday morning you are watching me adjust that tension between the two. And believe me, I fully know how cringe worthy it has been as I've traversed that tension. If I did a normal sermon it would sound scripted and inauthentic. Yet, being completely unscripted is, well, woof. This is finding that correct middle ground that will be authentic and engaging. It can't sound preachy, but it still needs to be sacred. There are those of you who understand, and to you, I can't even express how grateful I am to you.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I've been reading the shock at discovering more hours are being put into putting content online, than the time taken to do live worship.
Here are few points to remember:
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Do you know what it feels like to spend eight years working towards something that people have discounted, discarded, and mocked? It wears you down. You begin to think you're crazy.
That was me. Eight years of words without action. Empty words. Vacuous support.
Then the fundraiser happened.
For those who are not on Facebook, I set up a fundraiser for Fig Tree to purchase new equipment. We live in a world where a phone camera is no longer enough. I expressed that we needed a light box, a ring light, a microphone...
I was heartened by the support. Without even sharing the fundraiser link, people began to give. Then someone, an anonymous person, gave hundreds to the fundraiser.
Do you know what it feels like to be told your work has value after eight years of being discounted, discarded and mocked? I can't even begin to express how shocked I was. It's like when you go on a hike, and you forgot to pack your water. It's that feeling of quenching your thirst when you finally get back to your bottle. That was more than words; vacuous support. That was real. Your need is real, and now people are seeing it.
Thank you to all who donated to our fundraiser. To those I can name, and the one I cannot: with all our hearts, thank you.
You did so much more than donate money, you energized a ministry! God is good.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Eight years ago I started what y'all started 3 1/2 weeks ago. I started it with a video conference with the Rev. Debbie Phelps, the minister of Disciples Net. Here was her advice:
Eight years ago I told Debbie this was temporary. (Sound familiar?) I was going to start online and make a physical presence from the online presence.
On one side was the general church. "Don't we already have an online church?" They were talking about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Disciples Net was their single online church. That statement is insane to consider today. A church? How about 2000 plus churches?
It was a statement that came from fear. Those who are drawn to Fig Tree want nothing to do with Disciples Net, and I'm sure it goes the other way too. "Don't we already have an online church" is a statement of scarcity, which is a dangerous statement for God's people to make.
That's probably why almost all the physical support for Fig Tree came from outside the denomination. I was flat out told the churches had to care for themselves, so I wouldn't be getting help. Could you imagine where many of those churches would be today if they took Fig Tree seriously six years ago. Sadly, it's a story we'll never know.
On the other side was everything else. Every church is isolated in their protective bubbles. They haven't had to deal with people openly criticizing sermons, or questioning their minister's calling. I have. All the time. There are those who engage only for the opportunity to openly disagree with the content. There are others who just like to watch dumpster fires. This is the internet. If you are not prepared for dumpster fires, you are going to get burned. My very first thought when this all began was simply, "I wonder how they'll deal with the trolls."
I don't know if y'all got the memo, but the media hates us. All of us. They don't want to show people who are working to create community, protect those who are without, or are well educated. They want to show that church that is "covered in the blood." That means while I've been featured favorably in a few places over the past couple of years, I don't sell. So, for the most part I'm ignored for the stories of ignorance and stupidity.
Why did I stay?
For years I've prayed the prayer, "God, why am I doing this?" The lowest attended live-cast worships have always been Easter. That was my biggest hint that no one has seen this as real. On the days that count, people find the brick and mortar building. My value with other ministers was tied to whether I could help their brick and mortar churches. No joke, only two months ago I felt like the widow and her child. I had enough flour and oil to make our last meal. Then I realized, why am I spiritually dying surrounded by people who are going to ignore me while I die? The harder I pushed into the denomination, the worse Fig Tree did as a mission. Maybe we'd still die in the wilderness, but it was on my terms, and it was with people who saw each other, and one another's woundedness.
There are a growing number of people who have been deeply wounded by the church. Where do you think they've gone? To the place where the brick and mortar churches have ignored. I had this deep feeling that leaving the denomination I loved back when I did was when that action held power. It was an urgency to get to the wilderness first.
Then it all happened.
I thought it was what I wanted. But no one has seen the broken in the wilderness, because we are still all looking inward. Now I realize I'm a host to the displaced, while praying for those who are still silent and broken. While you are worried about that sweet Easter offering this Sunday, my thoughts are different.
The preteens and teens who are now forced to stay home in abusive homes.
The homeless that can't self-isolate.
Those who were broken by organized religion, and are triggered by your videos.
When y'all go home, I'll clean the mess, and continue. For you, it will become nice coffee table talk about those few months you tried out digital worship. I have something to ask of you: Remember and empathize.
There are people who were here before you were.
I felt like I was talking to brick walls before all these churches were thrown into the digital wilderness. It was somehow believed that digital church was just making a good recording of the 11am worship, and done. Quickly, ministers realized that wasn't true. It was a nice copy, but it wasn't digital worship. There's a different kind of intimacy to digital worship. A thousand people suddenly become a one-on-one connection. The space must be different. The way one talks must be different. I've seen ministers who flat out told me they didn't believe one could worship online, try now to worship online. Some are still trying and not believing they are actually finding God. Some are discovering the sacred in the online world.
There are people who have been in this world for years, searching out the sacred online. Remember these days. As you go back to your "normal," realize there are others who can't return to your world. They need this. They need more than carbon-copy church. They need worship.
Remember what you connected to while in this place of social isolation. Consider keeping space where those kinds of connections continue. Consider supporting this space, as it continues. That's why I'm still out here, and why I'll continue to be out here when it's done.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Easter is the most important day in the Christian calendar. (I'm supposed to say "debatably the most important" to I leave some wiggle room for those who don't agree. Let me say, here at Fig Tree Christian it is the most important.)
We can't understand the importance of the most important day unless we visit the Holy days that lead up to it. It's an exploration of the darkness. We must understand the shadows if we are to truly experience the light.
Now, this year has officially become the hardest year in my 10 years as an ordained minister. Yes, that includes everything you already know about my journey. This is the very first year I don't wanna go. Life is dark enough. My heart turns to the homeless, who can't self-isolate. I lament the hourly workers (who I am part of) that now find themselves unemployed. I cry every time I think of the word "plague." This is our world right now. Why do we need any more right now?
Black paint by itself is meaningless- if we paint with it we can give it meaning.
The reason we need Holy Week is because it orders our chaos. Then we can tell it how far it is allowed to go and no further. Otherwise, it will wash over anything good, and sweep it away. I refuse. Goodness exists, and I'll walk through anything to get to it. I'll sacrifice. I'll fight.
Paint with me. (Figuratively of course. I paint with words.) I promise I'm not going to leave you in the darkness, and I promise you won't be alone. Take away the darkness' power by naming it. Name it with me, and when we're through- we'll reach the light. To all this- I promise.
A quick guide to Holy Week:
Palm Sunday: Every year churches across the world buy up palm fronds. Little kids walk the palms up the Communion table, and it's like a mini-celebration. Palm fronds are something special, but the scripture talks about cloaks and coats being thrown down too. So, we're going to bringing our coats to lay at the table. We also often forget this moment, Jesus coming into Jerusalem was the beginning of Holy Week. It was the lynch-pin event. We are going to talk about the "don't go into the marsh!" event that is Palm Sunday.
Maundy Thursday: This is recalling the very first Communion, and how scandalous it all was. What were the Disciples thinking was coming, and what Jesus saying was actually going happen? Could they possibly understand?
Good Friday: This is the day that everything is broken. It's good because he's dead? How are we to live in this moment? We die too. We kill what can't continue, and we realize in that act, we are good too. We trust God so much, we are giving it up and giving it to God.
Holy Saturday: Nothing. The space between. The sacred rest. We meditate on the "not yet."
Easter: Death is defeated, because New has taken it's place. It's jarring because light in the darkness is sudden and real.
Recently, my daughter and I have connected through my massive musical collection. Daddy Long Legs, Annie, Into the Woods- she's been listening to each, and belting the songs in her room during her "independent time." She comes back with the real questions. Why is Ms. Hannigan so mean? Why does the witch help the Baker?
I've pulled up the OBC (original Broadway Cast) recording of Into the Woods, and we watched it together. This led to us watching the made for television recording of Cinderella. (The revival cast recording of Cinderella is stellar btw. Worth a listen to.) All the musicals I've mentioned relate in a specific way: They are all about escaping specific traps. Most of those traps are a form of isolation. Freedom is easy to write. Everyone can get around freedom.
But what happens when that story can't be told. There's no Fairy Godmother coming to wave a wand over our specific city and tell us we can all mingle until the stroke of midnight. There's no Daddy Warbucks to adopt us into community. There are witches, luring us into false wishes that can get some of us killed. That makes everything so scary. How do we talk about those realities, especially with kids?
Just a Simple Sponge
Last year I watched the television event that was Spongebob the Musical. I thought it would be a fun romp into silliness. Hilarious stupidity. Just something to fill the time. Instead, I got an epic salvation narrative.
I didn't think much of it at the time. In fact, at that point I was kinda over how televisionized Broadway had become. (You're reading the girl who owns no less than 20 OBC soundtracks that are often sung to when alone in the car.) There's nothing substantial about Spongebob Squarepants.
Then, last night, I'm listening to the soundtrack and it transformed for me. That musical was written for right now.
To sum it up without spoiling everything: There is a volcano. It is going to explode. The good guys are telling the people to stay home, while they fix the problem. The bad guy (Plankton) sees an opportunity to destroy everything, giving his business a chance to rise to the top, so he tells everyone to go.
It is not the freedom narrative, we've needed for 50 plus years- it's the hope narrative we need when in crisis. Simply put, bad things are going to happen, but we choose how we deal with those bad things. It's the "best day ever," not because everything is going perfectly, or even well, but because we're going to make it the best day ever. Your problem is my problem, and together we're going to fix it.
I know, I'm as stunned as you. How could a 90's cartoon character speak to our 2020 soul? I believe it's because sometimes silly stories help us process serious events. Like The Little Mermaid was my way to process feeling different and not part of the world. This might be perfect to understand a pandemic during our necessary isolation.
We're all too serious right now anyway.
(If you're interested in listening to the album, I'm going to link the Company's YouTube page. You can always find a playlist of the entire album, but I try to give ad revenue to the proper source, the actual creators. The Nickelodeon production can be found on multiple sources. It costs $10 to purchase the digital copy. I wish I knew a cheaper option, but it's been out long enough that it's no longer free to stream. For those who go to the movies on a regular basis, it's a good family event, and half the price of any of the Universal movies right now.)