-Rev Melissa Fain-
It was five or six years ago. I don't remember exactly how long ago, just that I was a newbie to the world wide web. (Before this I was proficient at maybe Facebook with their limited pre-expansion features, and that was it.) I was engaging someone online, when they ripped into me, telling me I was wrong. They left the conversation stating they were a minister. Not to leave that statement hanging, I looked the user up, and sure enough, he was ordained clergy.
How could someone who was chosen to be God's shepherd be so callous and so... un-pastorly? My first thought, and probably yours too. I didn't hide my calling from him. He knew he was talking to a fellow minister. Then I mentally put him in a room with my colleagues, and played the words out IRL (in real life).
Nope! I couldn't in a million years imagine what he said leaving the lips of ordained clergy.
This was a life changing event for me. I understood something in that moment. People were going more and more online, and we (ministers and leaders of the church in general) were moving farther and farther away from connecting to these people.
Having explored this wilderness of the World Wide Web, and having only fringed the edges, I want to share what I've learned so far: Over the coming weeks I'll share what I've learned in the various online oasis' that exist.
Facebook: The Land of Me
If you are a church with absolutely no online presence, you are typically going to turn to Facebook to dip that toe in the water. Many of your friends and congregants already have profiles, and it's a great place to drop information quickly. Five years ago the ministerial questions were mostly about Facebook and went something like this: How real do we need to be online? Do we un-friend people when we leave a congregation? If those are still the questions you are asking, you're doing it wrong.
The new question should not be unfriending, but whether we should be leaving the various private groups your church should have for community building. Yes, the public group is a bulletin board. Private groups are the fellowship halls. They are the places where joys and sorrows can be easily shared with others. They are the places where congregants can share local stories and others can discuss. They are safe places, moderated by the leaders of the church.
Facebook is also the "Me Show."
Let's be honest. No one is 100% authentic on Facebook. We are vying for attention from everyone on our friends list. The "Me Show" is the result of that. There are people on my friends list who have pulled me aside to apologize for their brand of "Me Show" knowing I'm a minister. My answer is always the same. Be your brand of authentic. I know who you really are. If you can stand my "me show," I can appreciate yours too.
I used to believe the "Me Show" was only a bad thing. In a world that is hyper-conscious of the individual, how are we going to see the community? Let me make this crystal clear- I still don't think it's great. We should be less quick to unfriend, and more available to hear views that counter our own. That's where Facebook fails.
Where it succeeds is in the transparency. I know who gave that angry react to my content and why they gave it. Because I know the person, and why they did what they did, I know they were not angry at me personally. Facebook forces us to give more IRL reactions to others. I know others choose not to react at all, because they don't want to sadden me. If my face wasn't attached to the content, they would angry react. We all care about how people view us, and so we don't give some reactions that can be viewed as mean or spiteful.
See, as much as Facebook is the "Me Show," we come there to be real.
Levels of Real
Here is how I do Facebook... poorly.
Yeah, I said it. There are people who are friends with me simply because I'm the minister of Fig Tree. They are there to see the content that is produced each week. So I share Fig Tree content on my main profile. This clashes with people who are there because they know me as a person. Therefore, Fig Tree content is always public. Anyone can see it, even people who are not my friends. Content just meant for friends are often things only friends would care about anyway.
Also, I will almost never share names or pictures of people I don't personally know, or have permission to share. Our family was at a band concert the other day when this woman tried to take a selfie where our family would have been in the background of her photo. I proceeded to photo bomb her picture because I didn't want our family in her photo. Eventually she gave up and gave us a look, and I gave her one back. (I would later find out my husband was doing the same thing, which made the situation hilarious.) Thanks to the Boy Scouts of America I'm very aware of images and the internet. Even an innocent group photo will include people who don't want their picture taken. Your are breaching their personal boundaries posting those pictures online without their permission.
The internet is forever. In around 30-40 years some great mind is going to pass away. Maybe we know who they are already, or maybe they are living their life oblivious of their future fame and influence. Either way, someone is going to suggest something huge. Because of how Facebook saves all information, recognizes faces, and the like- data from that person's life can be brought together and viewed. Imagine knowing the mundane of Martin Luther King's life? Would you want that information? Could it have shed light on other choices he eventually made? I'm sure many would want a peak into that world, and would support that kind of information being released.
Now imagine you are that person. Not so magical anymore, is it? One thing I can say, is I try to do Facebook like what I'm writing might be read in 30-40 years by someone I've never met. It keeps me honest, and transparent. If that feels too outlandish for you, imagine your dream job is 10 years away. Your future boss is going to read what you are writing to that pleb you're currently owning with you sophisticated but low brow response. Is it worth it?
I'm going to answer for you. In the moment you might think it is, but it isn't. We have no idea what we might be throwing away with our online actions. Facebook holds us accountable, and that's a good thing.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
There are moments where I will be doing something, and someone brings up how I'm not doing that thing "normally." Last Tuesday multiple people noticed my writing style. No, not my grammar, although that's a mess too. No, my physical writing.
I don't follow the rules of how to write out letters. I start my "s" and "f" from the bottom of the page. I often cross from right to left. While I never notice anyone else writing any differently, people immediately see when I'm writing on a board. It's not that the outcome produces anything different, it's just the process shocks people.
I'm not normal.
Sometimes I wonder why I have to express that in words. Anyone who has known me for longer than a few hours knows I'm a little bizarre. If you're wondering why I'm okay with that, its all in the delivery. Those who love me know it's good. We can joke around about it. Often times, those people will include themselves. "We both know, we're not normal!"
Of course I'm not okay with those who say it like I'm a sideshow freak, or the butt of a joke. It used to get to me, but now I just quietly remove myself from their presence.
In my younger years, when I was far more broken than mended, these abnormalities were problematic. As I've said before, I was socially feral. I've had to learn American social cues like one learns a language. I couldn't understanding why someone would be offended by my honest questions. I didn't realize, especially in the South, honesty is blunt and we ignore blunt truths when they rub us the wrong way.
I saw what happened when adults would uncomfortably stare at my young self. That discomfort was them knowing I needed help, but them also knowing they believed they had no way to give it. I've seen far more danger in whispers about someone than the loud cog everyone just wants to shut up. We can address the cog. The whispers infect.
Still, I know what I was, and what I was was the reason I didn't think God was calling me to be a minister.
I struggled in school. Never to the point of failure, but enough. My backwards 'S's are a sign that I had to figure out what I was doing on my own because no one was going to help me with me homework. The damage had been done by the time I was in a stable environment, I was behind on language arts, and math.
I embrace that past, not because it is a trophy to hold up. It is not something to celebrate. I was strange because I didn't fit my broken self back together in a "normal" way. I have realized this helps me in two ways:
First, people see I've been there too. There are others who are broken, and I get broken. I also get how difficult the path is to restoration. It's not a one day experience, but a lifelong journey. It's this knowledge that laying ones brokenness out in the open will lead to jeers,. This could be from some who are primal in their reactions. A broken person couldn't survive the metaphorical hunt. Many hide there brokenness for that reason. This could also be from people who mistake broken for weird or an oddity. It's difficult to heal when people are laughing at you for not being "normal." Knowing I can walk beside those people, and not just clinically help, is part of the reason God called me. Took years to realize this.
Second, it's my fly trap. When people are ready to laugh off my broken past as abnormal or when I'm put in the sideshow freak column; I typically take note and file it away in my mind. Especially when those people are fellow ministers. They are dangerous. Some of them are better people now. Some have context they sorely missed in their younger days. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the ones who still don't get it, but call themselves a Shepherd to God's people. I dare those who want to hold my elementary school self, or middle school self against a 38 year old woman. I wait like a venus fly trap for them to openly mock that person. Those people would not be attacking me. I'm a 38 year old who spent decades processing and healing. Attacking my younger self would be attacking those who are still healing.
No one has flown into that trap as of yet, but those on the other side know something else. There's an anxiety when those triggers appear. All previously broken people have traps ready to snap. Often times they bite down on themselves. There will always be something that will remind me of the trauma. Knowing this, I have redirected the trap into something helpful.
In the end, I embrace who I am because God called me in brokenness to find wholeness, and in turn, help others find that wholeness too. Wholeness to holiness. It's the beauty of a sprout in the trunk of a dying log. It's the joy of new life when everything looked dead. That's why.
What right do I have to write anything? I was not a fan, and magically pretending I was would be disingenuous, and a lie. There are people I would not invite to speak of me at my death. In that same way, I doubt I'd be invited to speak of her now. There's still something that I must say. It's a realization we must address.
One of my favorite childhood summer activities was collecting cicada shells off the trees. The idea of a bug crawling out of their own skin and leaving it behind captivated me. I could do anything to that shell and the bug would be just fine. Sometimes I laid them out and crushed them to dust. Sometimes I collected them on my dresser. I always began the same, carefully removing them from the tree to save those tiny legs clinging to the bark.
Yet I never knew what the cicada really looked like. My potential imagination sometimes made it look like a giant butterfly, almost a moonlight fairy. Sometimes it was a rainbow beetle. It's shell shimmering all the colors of the rainbow, as it crawled among the trees.
Then, one day, my great grandmother pointed one out to me, and I was horrified. That didn't look magical at all! It looked horrifying! My illusions were shattered. Now I knew the truth. It was thing of nightmares!
After that moment, I would always tell the truth of cicadas to my friends as we would collect the shells. "These shells are really neat, but the bug that comes out of them are monstrous.
Many years later I would smugly share my immense wisdom on cicadas when the person I was imparting this wisdom kindly disagreed. "Cicadas are beautiful. It's the shell that's ugly. Have you ever seen a cicada that's just shed it's shell? Their magical. The shell is covered in all the dirt, darkness, wind and rain. Look." He pulled me to his computer, because this was long ago enough that we all had dumb phones. Pulling up an image of a cicada right after shedding it's skin, I saw what he saw.
A year ago and a day from the day Rachel Held Evens passed away I apologized to Beth Moore. I have no idea if Moore ever saw that apology, and I'm sure she had no idea that I needed to apologize. I don't pretend my digital footprint is worth anything beyond the words typed out in these meditations.
A year ago I asked forgiveness for thinking less of Beth Moore because she was an un-ordained female Christian leader. I didn't realize she tried to earn a degree in religious studies and was shunned by her males colleagues. A year ago I placed Moore against Rachel Held Evans writing that people like Rachel Held Evans exist to keep really smart and worthy women within a seminary world down. As I wrote privately, she was safe. While others were suggesting it was her honesty that made her scandalous, I was saying her lack of education made her palatable. She wasn't ordained, so if she ever went too far it could be dismissed. I deeply believe this is why our biggest female Christian speakers are just that, speakers. We want a female voice, as long as that voice doesn't have too much power.
When I wrote the Beth Moore post I felt a call to include Rachel in that apology, and what she represented was so personally hurtful to me as an ordained minister, I couldn't. This was made the most clear when I openly shared how I took a male username for 1/2 a year. People called me a liar for having a username, where I didn't say one way or another about my gender. Being called a deceiver made me angrier at Evans, who seemed to flit into fame because she was outside authority. For the sake of equality, I needed to focus on women within authority. Evans was taking away that focus!
Now she's gone, and it hits me in my guts like a ton of bricks. What I hated, what has personally hurt me was not Rachel Held Evans. It was the shell surrounding her. Now she is gone. The beautiful moonlight fairy, rainbow beetle, has left, but the dirty systemic issues remain. It wasn't her fault that the system worked the way it did. It's not her that hurt me. It's that damn shell that's pained me all these years, and continues to hurt.
Now what remains, that shell, is vile. We all have them, forced carapaces. Society paints, tattoos, cuts it into our identity. Society's idea of who we should be for the world is a dirty covering, and that is all. Much like our accumulated wealth, we can't take it with us in death.
Now we are left with it, and we can do anything to that shell. We can glorify it. We can put it on a shelf and move on. The one I personally like is we can crush it to dust.
I'm done making enemies of my sisters in faith. I'm done being angry because someone has decided my carapace speaks to my soul. We won't take those shells with us in the end. Why do we let systemic belief cover over the Truth? Every day I learn how I'm wrong. I pray as I make steps in the right direction we can forgive one another, and not beat one another with the leftovers.
-Rev Melissa Fain