-Pastor Melissa Fain-
(Edited for clarification 7/28/20)
A friend mentioned that he wanted to go back to the Tiger King portion of the pandemic. That was fun, wasn't it? Watching insanity that somehow was more insane than real life. No? Well that portion has come and gone. We are in the Hamilton portion of the pandemic.
I'm behind the curve on some things. I just finished watching Tiger King with my husband, (Did you know Carol Baskin legally gained ownership of GW Zoo back in June? Also, they've reopened her late husband's missing person case. Finally, she covered a 50 Cent song? We've might have moved on, but that story's still going.)
Forget that real lives continue over there, have you seen King George in Hamilton? Best part, amirite? Wow, such a funny moment. Is it wrong that King George is my favorite part?
Is it wrong that he's my favorite part? I was thinking it, but my husband verbally asked it.
I reflected on that question. Yeah I do, and I think that's the point. He's the abusive husband. Making him so likable should lead the viewer to introspection. We should be asking, "How are we like King George, and how can we act differently?" In what ways do each of us wield power and abuse it?
I love King George, but probably not for the same reason you do. You probably love him because he gave you a break. Hamilton is packed! You can watch it three times and still not see everything. George comes in with something completely different, and it feels refreshing. He's stealing the show. Literally, he's taking the story away from the actors. I love King George because I'm unsettled by him. I know he's stealing. I know he's abusing, and I know the audience is publicly loving him for it. It forces me to see something that's happening in real life, and consider how I can change it.
Okay. If you thought the subject of this piece was Jonathan Groff's performance, you are wrong. We're about to take a hard left into the real subject of the post.
The Church and Covid-19
I sat at my computer for about an hour trying to write out how to engage this subject. I realized the best place to start is scripture:
1Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.
Matthew 4:1-11 CEB
I think it was during the Tiger King portion of the pandemic that a minister told his congregants they were "Covered in the Blood," and to meet at church because God would protect them. (Not a thought that has disappeared in our Hamilton portion of the pandemic.)
Since then, multiple churches have reopened. Many with singing. Many churches have also seen outbreaks of Covid-19 in their sanctuary.
God will save them, right? Why would God kill people going to worship God?
"Don't test the Lord your God."
There's another factor at play here that never went away. #ChurchToo. While the #MeToo movement is sexual abuse, #ChurchToo has taken on all abuse within the sanctuary doors. It is a movement you learn about after you join it. I can remember my induction. I couldn't wrap my head around what had happened, when a minister offered to take me out to eat. Slowly and lovingly she told a story that shared similarities with my own. Since then I've heard the similar stories countless times. People who don't understand why they've been cancelled or ghosted by the church. When the entire church was kicked out, I had hoped we would feel that pain and want to fix the system for those who haven't been back for years. Instead, we continued to be blind.
I believe that God has been unsettling us for years. Preparing us to be a church in exile, and church without doors. Most have taken that discomfort and used justification to settle that Cognitive Dissonance. Some have just lived with the dissonance stating, "Something doesn't feel right." I've heard that very phrase at least half a dozen times just months before everything was shut down.
Now we're outside, and we lack the creative force to do anything but want back in. But we just gotta get back to church, amirite? Is it wrong that we just wanna hug our neighbor, and sing our songs?
Yes. Right now, yes. It's very wrong. It's wrong because we didn't learn anything. It's wrong because it's dangerous. Want me to say it another way? If a congregant dies because it was your decision to reopen the church, and they caught Covid-19 in worship, it's their blood on your hands. You'll be covered in the blood. Covered all over. In fact, many of us are already covered, and don't even know it. They yell there wounds from the wilderness, but no one with power hears.
The Church and King George
On July 26th I saw a Priest do a parody of "You'll be back."
I just want you to keep everything I wrote about the above King George and the church in mind as you watch the Priest parodying him below.
Sometimes parody can divorce itself from the source material, only related in the way the material is presented, not in the message the source material presents. This is often the case for pop songs. This is because we're not listening to the words beyond the chorus. Weird Al is the master of this, and almost all of us can name one of his parodies off the top of our head. When we're talking about songs that tell specific stories, like musical theater does, it opens up a whole new can of worms. Parody, in those cases, cannot be divorced from the source material. In fact, the source informs the viewer of the parody.
In this case, while there are a growing number laughing, and longing for the Priest's promise to be true, I'm unsettled.
Before I get hate for not getting it, I get it. We want what we can't have. We want to sing. We want to hug. We want to worship in our mildew smelling sanctuaries. Believe me, I've heard enough laments. I've lament myself. There is nothing for my children. I want to fix that, but not in a church right now.
When paired with this specific song, though, it turns the church into the abusive ex. In a system that prides itself in patriarchy and years of church abuse, that message didn't sit well with me. Guess what? I appreciate it. I love it, because it unsettles me. I want more things that unsettle me, because it forces me to contemplate and consider. The joy others are taking in the song is like buying into Hananiah's promise in Jeremiah 28. That unsettles me more than the song itself does. The reason the broken have been cancelled and ghosted is because it's so easy to devour the lie and leave the truth to rot. The lie is sweet. It's like candy. The truth is rough, and never digests well.
Oh really? We'll be back? What if we're not? What if this is the beginning of a church revolution? This is a moment to rethink worship! This is a moment for those broken by the institution of church to speak up! That's what I'd love the comment section for this meditation to do. Speak up! I've heard you! Now you tell them. Why have you not been back in the church? Tell your story. Don't let "King George" steal the story. Take it back. It belongs to you. Just don't be surprised if their voice stays silent. They've been hurt and it's unfair to ask the abused to fix the abuser. What I ask, more than anything, is let the Priest's video unsettle you some. They may not say anything today, but make room for their voice. This is their moment.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
When I was about 10 years old, my dad took my sister and I to a Renfest. It wasn't a big one. It wasn't the production value of the Atlanta Renfest.
We did want to dress up. Dad took XXL shirts, and died them a dirty brown. He also bought rope from the local hardware store. The shirt fit like a dress and with the rope, it made us look like peasants. I can't tell you how much I loved that outfit. I'd look at those girls in the fancy dresses and I'd be proud. My dad made my costume!
Anyway, at one of these Renfests there was a competition for the kids. Who stole the king's cake? There were a set of clues to find the culprit. My sister and I scoured the land, asking the blacksmith, the nobles, and even random people. Meanwhile, the Jester taunted us. He'd come by and tell us we couldn't find the person who stole the cake. He did that to all the kids.
Wouldn't you know it, the culprit was the Jester the whole time? As I watched another kid taking the Jester in, I wanted in. All the kids wanted in. We all followed the real winner trying to get something for not getting it. At the end of the day, the kid got the cake, and we all got a piece.
I was jealous. I wanted to win. I didn't win. Even though I got a piece of the winnings, I wanted the whole thing. I'm sure many of you can relate. My grace today is because of my lack of it as a child.
Maybe today it's not a cake. Maybe it's a job. Maybe it's a skill set. Perhaps it's simply someone being praised for something you are doing too. It's easy to get bitter. You're not really mad at the person, but at the situation in general. Sound familiar? It's because I've been there. Today I can check myself when I feel those frustrations rising. There are tools I use to help me.
Tools to destroy bitterness
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I watched the first episode of "The Chosen." Before I begin you should know this is full of spoilers for the first episode. It's based on the Bible, so perhaps spoiling anything seems silly. I have only seen the first episode, so everything I say will be based on that episode.
Quick review: On face value this series appears rather innocent. There are enough theologically aware moments that made me happy, while other moments that made me pause. Some of those moments are related to issues outside the episode.
Should we hold ourselves accountable?
My knee jerk response was to let it alone. There are bigger fish to fry. I mean, have you seen Noah the Musical?! Woof! If I wanted to pick something apart, I should pick that to pieces. Only, picking apart something gives it credibility. In this world no news is actually bad news. We live in a very loud world. If no one is talking about you, good or bad, then you are irrelevant. Wanna destroy someone? Ignore them. Ignorance is like water on rock. It seems so innocuous until you realize it has the power to destroy mountains.
What this all boils down to was accountability. I saw enough issues with the series to give me pause. I know Christianity has a dwindling stage to present their case. Most figure this means we need to ignore the flaws and let whatever gets the attention get the limelight. That has not helped us. If anything it has furthered divide within our faith tradition, as we've started ignoring one another.
This is an act of love. Speaking to issues within an institution is to do so believing that institution can be better and do better. Love is kind, but kindness and nice are not the same thing. As Red Riding Hood would sing in "Into the Woods": "Nice doesn't always mean good." We've been to the land of nice. It's time to be good.
First: What am I praising?
I need to start by saying there are things worth watching. I appreciate Nicodemus calling God "Adonai." This respects the Hebrew tradition of replacing the written place holder YHWH with Adonai, which means "Lord."
I also believe the narrative style, despite what I'm going to write, was a good move. The Bible is like a puzzle with big pieces missing. We don't know certain things. We don't know Jesus' inflection as he talked to people. We don't know time and sometimes place to the stories. There are times Biblical narrative conflicts with other Biblical narrative. (That exists more than you might want to realize.) I like to see how others presume the missing pieces. Generally speaking, their presumptions were innocent. The character of Matthew had a really good introduction with his good shoes. A good storytelling arc would lead him to Jesus washing his feet.
Like many others, I also appreciated the Middle Eastern cast.
That's all for good, but realize those are two pretty big pieces. I don't want to keep you from watching it. Just take everything below to heart as you watch.
This is a sermon- the problem with relatability.
There is a move among modern ministers to fill in the Biblical gaps with current culture. There are so many who love this. They call it "relatable." "It was like he was talking to me."
Many times this modern accessibility is innocent. They play like Jesus is Horatio dropping that one liner while also dropping down his sunglasses. It's so outlandish the audience would easily see it doesn't fit, but it's fun.
Other times it hits against other verses that show it to be false, or it plays in ways that are racist or sexist. For example, I watched a minister play the Pharisee's like a bunch of jelly sorority girls at a "party". There are plenty of sermons where I'm in line until they start painting between the established pieces I don't agree with their assumed lines.
You might want to call me a hypocrite here. Sure. We all do it. The moment you read the scripture you are assuming almost everything. I try to paint with context. If I relate something to modern times I try to explain it from distance.
The Chosen's gap filling, like I said above, is mostly innocent. Something I didn't like, but wasn't terribly upset with, was the nicknames. It was totally what a modern preacher would do. Nicodemus' wife calls him "Nico." Lilith get's the same treatment with the bartender calling her "Lil." Yeah, it's relatable. It rubbed me the wrong way, but it's innocent.
What wasn't innocent was something many film companies are doing today- revisionist history. In this case, it was revisionist history in the form of male care for the female. There was a reason it was so incredibly scandalous Jesus was giving females voice. When you have the random bar keep caring for the demon possessed woman, and the wife being given agency to her Priestly husband, you take away the scandal. Half the world was born property through their gender. That tension is completely lost. Do I want to see Lilith being treated like a dog? No, but seeing it would give Jesus more realistic power when he treats her like a human. (Also, this doesn't deserve it's own paragraph, but calling Mary "Lilith" was a bit on the nose.)
The Chosen shows the major problem with modern sermons. Yes it's relatable, but is that good?
I'm curious what they'll do with Stephen.
Honestly, I'm interested in their theological journey for many Biblical characters. I want to know how they treat Judas. Our theological interpretations of sin and sinners are rooted in how we build the missing pieces of Judas.
I can't speak to Judas in this meditation because he doesn't show in the first episode. Who I can speak to are Simon and Stephen. Two fishermen, fishing on Sabbath and catching nothing. Simon is our future Peter, or Rocky- because he's the rock on which the church will be built. (With all these nicknames, I really want Jesus to call Peter, Rocky, which would be a fitting English translation, but I doubt that will happen.) In this first episode, Stephen is the centered of the two, who doesn't want his brother to take unnecessary risks.
Now, this is the same Stephen who would eventually be bold enough to call out a city of people and get himself stoned in the process as a future Paul watches.
They are going to have to take Stephen on that journey. He's the character to watch.
American or British
This will be impossible to ignore once you hear it. Every actor has their own dialect, and it's impossible for a few of them not to stick out like a sore thumb. Especially, the American accents are very obvious next to the high British accents.
The Miracle Problem
There is a growing group who don't believe in Jesus' miracles. All of them could be explained away by science or just didn't happen.
There are a group of people who believe everything happened in the Bible exactly as it was written, miracles and all.
I'm somewhere in the middle. When we are introduced to Mary she is going by the name Lilith, and is literally possessed by demons. In my mind, this takes away from the potential discussion about mental health and wellness. This was a woman who was mentally unwell, and the people during the time didn't know how to talk about mental illness. What is more powerful: Jesus removing demons, or Jesus healing mental illness. I feel the later would give us space to talk about how far science has come with understanding brain chemicals- and God moments in the hearts and minds of scientists and we understand brain chemistry better. Also, we can then talk about God's love for the depressed, and manic. God wants them to find wholeness in their fragmented world. I just think an opportunity was lost with making Mary have literal demons.
The real problem: Behind the scenes.
Everything else is small potatoes up to this point. I'm going to have to bullet point the rest.
About three months ago, when I first watched the first episode, there was a promo that has since been taken down. (For good reason.) There were things in this promo that deserves our undivided attention, because they haven't magically gone away because the promo is gone.
Final Thoughts: It's relatively harmless
It's not amazing. I think Godspell took bigger risks with Jesus than this is doing. Speaking of which, I think white directors and producers turn to a Middle Eastern look because they are afraid of seeing God in other areas. God is in all of us, so we can have a black God, or a female God. This series is not written to be on point Biblically, so I think putting it in 30 CE was to play it safe.
And that's what this is, safe. Not going to destroy your faith. Not going to bring anyone to faith. Just safe for those who already have faith. Enjoy watching. Don't feel guilty about it. Do question why they are not being completely transparent. Always question transparency.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Let's be clear, we are not living in the end times. The end times are code for "I don't want to have responsibility for what is happening in this world, so I'm going to say it's all going to end soon anyway."
Let's also be clear- we all have our own personal end times. We are all headed for our own personal end to this world. I know, that statement will be enough to cause many of you to click the X and do something else. If that's the case, I hope you do so to process and come back. I do not share darkness without highlighting the hope within it. It's not my M.O..
We are not in this world to glorify a past we cannot return to.
We are not in this world to hasten it's end.
We are in this world to live. We are in this world to bring God's Kingdom to earth.
There I go again. Whoever I didn't scare away with my previous comment, will see I'm talking about God and bringing Kingdoms and wot-not, and I've scared them away too.
That's the rub that I hate. I hate to talk to Christians we can't say anything that hasn't already been said for 2000 years. I hate that the vocab of Christianity has so much vitriol around it I can't say those things either. I hate that evangelism has turned into which group of people who already call themselves Christian are you trying to reach?
It's time for a hot take.
Jesus told his Disciples this:
9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
We want to equate easy for right, and I think this Bible verse is a huge reason.
I remember this minister (who will remain nameless, but I'm sure he's not alone) wrote a book regarding his journey to beginning his church. His journey was rather uneventful. Some friends stepped up and helped. There were some superficial miss-steps. The comments on Amazon said what I was thinking: How is this helpful? This isn't the journey for average person? His path was easy, but was it right?
Those on the inside of this church talk about how they love it. Those on the outside talk about it like a black hole. It sucks all the resources, and potential out of the local area and away from other needed ministries.
It's difficult to talk about this church in honest tones. They are too masculine. They are too focused on power. There message is too easy. It's a difficult discussion, but is it wrong?
We are at a crossroads...
In the next 10-12 months the televangelist will be replaced by the intervangelist. (Internet Evangelist) The ones who don't want to talk faith, and are turned off by the mere mention of anything even remotely faith related, are handing the responsibility over to the wrong people. The church has taken the easy path and preaches to itself. It reaches in instead of out. It's message is to people who already believe it, and with no one telling them otherwise, there's no push back on what they are being told. They think the ease at which they've existed means they are right. When that is not at all what Christ's yoke is about.
Christ's yoke is about the action within love. Hard work is easy when we love what we do. When we act within Godly love, we become the faith that can take down mountains. Taking down mountains is hard work, but it's easy because we are acting in love.
For example, everything I've done for Fig Tree has felt easy. It's been a long eight years, with tiny baby steps. If I talked through everything I've had to do so far, it would look like heavy work with little payout. That would be true, if not for Christ's love pushing me forward making the heavy lifting appear easy.
We are at a crossroads. There is an incredible potential to do something radically different. Who we give the internet mic to will set the tone for our permanent death or ultimate rebirth.
We are only a few reboots away from losing all creativity. Do you really want to reboot the Church online? That's the internet version of colonialism. People who look for faith online are doing it to get away from the brick and mortar church. Copy/Paste church will simply add to the noise that is already deafening, and make it harder to hear the Word. You won't be evangelizing, you'll simply be meeting the need of those already "inside" the building.
It is hard, back breaking work ahead of us. If it's genuine, and if it sees how God is already present in this digital landscape- then it will also be right.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I stood on the beach watching wave after wave roll in. They looked dangerous from a distance, the white foam a sign of the moon's gravitational force on the water.
I stood on this same beach years before standing at the edge, reminded of Job. A scripture where God reminds Job it is God that commands the seas. It is God who tells the ocean they may come only so far and no further. The ocean was considered the primordial chaos, the place where the un-created live. I needed to make that comparison years ago. My life was chaos. I was displaced, unorganized, and broken. To see there are limits to that insanity was not only helpful, but needed.
Two years ago the chaos was set loose on that same beach. it tore apart homes and obliterated businesses. Places that had stood the test of time were left vacant and bulldozed. Sometimes chaos breaks the line. Sometimes what is stable and normal is turned upside down and destroyed. That happens too. There are limits to insanity until there is not.
So two nights ago I stood on that beach not watching the shore. Not looking behind at what was rebuilt, but looking ahead at the waves. Those scary waves. I considered how they would feel crashing on me. Pushing me around. I knew, out in that water, in that chaos, they held power. Yet, I watched those scary waves from the distance come in. Time and time again they couldn't hold their strength. They would roll my way, but fizzle out before reaching the shore. Their powerful wave turned into soft laps at my feet. I needed that image. There are people puffing themselves up in the distance. From the chaos they have power. In the un-created they hold dominion.
I realized on that shore, there are places God just let's go. Lets chaos be chaos. They look scary from the distance, but they don't have the power to break beyond it.
It was important for me to see. Our big bad angry monsters are sometimes all bark and no bite. They know they don't have the power to reach you, but if they look big and bad enough, maybe you'll back down before they arrive. Everything has a space, and no one can inhabit all spaces. There is a safe space.