-Rev Melissa Fain-
John 11:35 NIV
I was in middle/high school. This was before I realized I would go to seminary, and it wasn't even on my radar. I did not have a public speaking voice, and speaking in public terrified me. I knew what good preaching was, and I wasn't it. Still, I had this desire to learn and know. I would pull my minister, Rev. Dr. Jerry Gladson, aside and just ask questions. I used to pick books in the bible and just email pages of questions. Romans broke me. This is why you don't read the Bible from front to back. Both of the Corinthians are better first letters.
Anyway, When I approached Jerry this particular time I wasn't currently reading scripture. I was mourning. My grandmother on my Dad's side passed, and it left me with questions. Why do we, as Christians, mourn? Do we believe in Heaven or not? If we believed in Heaven why did we weep?
I'm an adult now. I've been a minister myself for nine years. I get the look he gave me when I asked the questions. I can put myself in his shoes. Usually my questions were emailed, carefully numbered for easy separation. I engaged him after Sunday worship with no time to research. I don't recall anymore what he told me, only that I had clearly unbalanced him as I would have been unbalanced myself. I remember he didn't give me much, which was understandable. Not many of us spend time contemplating death.
I, however, could not let it go. While theological questions have come and gone, this question has remained with me. Many years later, I have an answer.
Some things stay dead. Heaven is not a place for our human selves. Heaven is not a place for our racism, misogyny, addictions, lusts, or [insert things that keep us from God here]. At the same time, those are things are things that shaped who were are or were. When someone passes it marks the end or conclusion to something. We will never know that person, as we knew them, ever again. Their memory eternal, but their physical being gone. That is the space where Christians mourn. Even though many of us believe there is something more, we also know somewhere, we've lost something forever.
The Disciples had an example of how to behave the day after the Crucifixion, and that example came from Jesus himself. In the passing of Lazarus, in that moment of true death, Jesus wept. No words. Just tears.
Why do we, as Christians, mourn? Because Jesus gave us space to mourn. Something has died. It will never exist in that way ever again. God is dead.
Let us pray
(Sit in a space and let the silence speak to you.)
-Rev Melissa Fain-
32 As they were going out, they found Simon, a man from Cyrene. They forced him to carry his cross. 33 When they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place, 34 they gave Jesus wine mixed with vinegar to drink. But after tasting it, he didn’t want to drink it. 35 After they crucified him, they divided up his clothes among them by drawing lots. 36 They sat there, guarding him. 37 They placed above his head the charge against him. It read, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” 38 They crucified with him two outlaws, one on his right side and one on his left.
39 Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”
41 In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying, 42 “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. 43 He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” 44 The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way.
Matthew 27:32-44 CEB
At nineteen years old I walked into the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. I wasn't mentally in the place I needed to be half a lifetime ago. Perhaps my mind was incapable to process that level of horror. Perhaps, and I think this is more likely, I hadn't my own family as context. I couldn't put a face to the abuse and death.
Then I got married and had kids.
This series happened because of the forward in Elie Wiesel's book, "Night." I read it during Advent, or what most call the Christmas season. Thirty-eight years old, I'm ready now, especially for the boy.
Wiesel, a man who had survived the Holocaust when the rest of his family had not, meekly told the prolific writer, François Mauriac, about this boy. The concentration camps would do hangings of the "guilty." Most of these hangings had been a numb experience. So much death and no time to process. Then there was this boy, too light for the drop to break his neck. He fell, and he was slowly being suffocated. Someone behind Weisel remarked, "Where's God?"
The answer brought me to tears. God is the hanging boy. God is being executed.
Mauriac, left speechless by this story, realized far later that this boy was also the Christian story. We can talk about God being just that. We don't need to sit down and watch a movie to reenact the the Passion of Christ, not when our own history does it all on it's own.
We kill God all the time and force others to watch. This is the only day out of the Christian year where the Good News is terrible. Good Friday is our condemnation laid flat. We have been found guilty, and someone else is paying the price. Do not smile, and don't look away. The person we've condemned is not guilty at all. Something has terribly and completely broken. Where is God? God is a hanging boy.
Let us pray:
Forgive us, for we know not what we do. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!
Matthew 12:38-42 CEB
Here is my go-to on Biblical interpretation: We should read scriptures for action. What should we, the reader and listener, be doing? If the action falls on someone else, we've done it wrong.
This is why many Pharisee centered sermons get it wrong. Many take them as opportunities to pat their own congregation on the back. The Cliff Notes version being: "Ain't it great we're not them! Look at what those silly Pharisees did? Yep. Jesus is good. Go enjoy your lunch.,"
Anyone within the church should see themselves as the Pharisees. We are prone to fall into habit, and to avoid accepting wrongdoing. That's all of us. None of us want to believe we could be doing something wrong, but at some point all of us find failure. That's the nature of the imperfect human.
In the scripture above, Jesus is in a verbal battle. The Pharisee's not only want to crucify Jesus, they want a reason to do it. They were not happy because Jesus was, almost bluntly, saying "God is not yours." This is not to say God excludes. That's not what those words mean. The above scripture puts the Pharisee's on the outside, and the Gentiles (the outsiders) as those from Nineveh. The "Queen of the South" are the Gentiles. Jesus is basically telling the Pharisee's that the power is going to shift, and those who were hurt by their power grabs, will be vocal about their pain.
Ain't it great we're not them?
Well... we have a choice. We are the Pharisee's: Insiders who are clueless to the needs outside our own context. We are also Nineveh: Someone's enemy who God is calling to be part of the flock. In both cases, God is calling not for our own benefit, but for the sake of those we might be unknowingly (or sadly knowingly) hurting.
Here's my other part of Biblical interpretation- it hits upon the universal story. I believe that story is about God's love for the creation, and the redemption of that order. God calls us to that choice because God loves us. God wants us to see beyond ourselves. God doesn't belong solely to one group of people. God belongs to everyone. God is not yours.
Let Us Pray:
Dear God, help me see you through someone else's eyes. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21: 8-11 CEB
I used to love Palm Sunday. It was my third favorite day of the Christian year. It was a chance for me, a lowly child, to be part of the worship. With fanfare, I'd get to wave my palm frond to the congregation and place it at the Communion table. I loved seeing Jesus as a celebration. I loved seeing everyone smile.
Then I grew up and learned a few things about the Bible. Palm Sunday is less like a birthday party, and more like a death march. Yes, everyone is celebrating, but that celebration is a farce.
Palm Sunday is a day we joyfully throw palms and coats down for our Lord and Savior just to march him to his death. We yell out "Hosanna," not realizing that while we think it means "Praise him," we are also yelling, "Save us!" (The link will take you to the meaning behind the word Hosanna, and why it's important to keep it in Hebrew rather than translate it.)
As an adult, this scripture is scary. It shakes me to my core. It is a realization that society will go into war with joy and singing. We will seek murder with a smile on our face. We are being told to stay out of the marsh, but we are going into that marsh! (That last one is a Monster Mansion reference btw.)
Now's the time to shift the focus. Now's the time to know why we are here. We are not singing "Praise Him." We are headed down a dangerous road. Yes, there is a celebration, but first their's torture and death. A hanging boy. We need to start next week knowing we used Hosanna to say, "Save us." Save us all. God is a Hosanna.
Let us Pray:
Dear Lord, give me the first step, so I have the courage to walk the rest of the way. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
6 When Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease, 7 a woman came to him with a vase made of alabaster containing very expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ head while he was sitting at dinner. 8 Now when the disciples saw it they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 This perfume could have been sold for a lot of money and given to the poor.”
10 But Jesus knew what they were thinking. He said, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me. 11 You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. 12 By pouring this perfume over my body she’s prepared me to be buried. 13 I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”
Matthew 26:6-13 CEB
I don't know, maybe between two to four years ago I had this conversation about boundaries in the church, and our sacred duty to keep them. I suggested that even if your specific congregation claims to have no boundaries, they still exist. I have this go-to example I use. There was a church I visited that claimed the overused phrase: "Come as your are." The minister announced, "Anyone can come here! We are welcoming to all." The church dressed in nice casual attire, and they were called to register for the upcoming series on their smartphone. Do you see the boundary that exists in this church? I could.
Churches don't meet the need of the poor well at all. We talk a big game, and set aside space for those who struggle. We set up systems to take their already depleted funds through prayer oil and surprise offerings. Our problem is we don't get it, like really don't get it.
When we read "the poor will always be with you," we assume that means the poor, in some form, will always exist. If that were the case, why is Jesus comparing this to him not being there? We have one of two scenarios, and both of them would shake the foundations of Chrstiandom. Perhaps Jesus is truly dead and gone, but the poor will always exist. That seems like an understandable reading if we are to take Jesus' words to say poverty is an incurable disease. The reading I like better is, Jesus is no longer with the Disciples/Apostles of the world, but we are with the poor. We should treat all people like part of the the Body of Christ, not as a tool to accomplish our service project for the week/month/year.
Walking with the poor is hard work for those who have never been poor, and for most ministers, they have absolutely no context. I had a taste of poverty, but I'm still clueless of it's terrible power to demean and destroy. Over the past month I've paid over a hundred dollars to various organizations so my children can have enriching activities. I remember the time that was no even possible. I will always remember needing to count down to the pennies in my hand for groceries. See, I get the value of $100. I get how much can be done with it, but I don't get it at the same time because I now have it for purposes outside direct needs.
"The poor will always be with you," is not a statement of failure (because if the poor always exist, then we are failures as Christians). It is a statement of mission and presence. We are always called to walk beside, not lord over. The poor are with us, not in the next room, or only on every other Tuesday of the month.That' how we meet God in the world. God is in poverty.
Let us pray:
Oh God, Meet us in our need as we meet the needs of others. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
10 When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. 11 He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. 12 This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.
Mark 4:10-12 CEB
Oh how I loathed the phrase "God is a mystery." I banished it to the far reaches of my vocabulary, promising to never utter it out loud, and shun those who utter it themselves. I believed it was a cop-out; the mystery flavor of the theological world. In my circles of influence it was used when someone was afraid to search for the answer, knowing their belief system would crash around them if they questioned the wrong way. I knew when someone threw that statement my way, they were setting up a defense of sorts.
See, I love to ask those really difficult questions. I simply want to know the answers. It’s who I am. I am is a truth seeker, and I live into that. I know what it’s like to live into the lie. It’s like Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House where everything just looks beautiful, but really there’s a black death slowly killing everyone within it. When everything looks beautiful, we are more compelled to live in the lie. That phrase was a way to shut the door on the conversation and continue the facade.
So near the end of my my seminary career I took a class in Eastern Christianity. It was led by a former Eastern Orthodox Priest, someone who really knew his stuff. We looked at icons, and worship. We also delved into theology. In Eastern Christianity, “God is a mystery,” are the keys to the kingdom.
Oh how my eyes involuntarily rolled when I heard him say that phrase. I couldn’t see God as a mystery. Within my context, it was used as a cop out. In my context it was a conversation ender. Yet, he fleshed out the words in a way that made me sit up.
He told us Western Christianity, specifically seminary, was all mind and little Spirit. Theology is analytical in nature in the Western world. Eastern Christianity, conversely, is all Spirit and little mind. It was his belief when the two Churches split, they each took a vital part of the theological journey. They were both right, and the correct answer was to bring the two theologies back together.
I took it to prayer. I journelled it’s truth. “God is a mystery” is both an unanswered question, and beyond our understanding. God is bigger than any of us can comprehend. More majestic than majesty, more epic than we can fathom. At the same time, God is Truth. Truth is something that has an answer. We can find it and see it. In some cases, God is a mystery because we just haven’t yet discovered that specific Truth.
Our God journey is full of duality. If we push too deeply on one aspect, we break it’s tension with another. I’m grateful for a former Eastern Orthodox Priest giving me tension. God is a mystery.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, from the depths of the cosmos, let me sit in your wonder. From the edge of my pen, let me find your Truth. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Sin desert, which is located between Elim and Sinai. They set out on the fifteenth day of the second month[a] after they had left the land of Egypt.2 The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”
Exodus 15:1-3 CEB
I had this story churning in my brain for a good part of my life. Mentally, I'd been editing it and revising it for years. Then, about three to four years ago, I bought a journal and began writing it out. Four journals later, I began typing it out, doing basic revisions as I did. Then, I went back to make major revisions. Now, I have a fully written, three book trilogy. It's never been copy edited. It has not been published, but I did it! (My first projects for anything tend to be huge. My first real crochet project was a queen size blanket.)
I physically chose to write out my first draft because typing it was an epic failure. I kept finding myself going back and editing. Before I knew it, I had only written one page, and nothing was accomplished. Handwriting it out meant I could go back and re-read, make notes in the margins, but I couldn't do anything substantial to the story except keep going.
Many of us tend to freeze when God calls us. We imagine the failures as we makes plans and imagine how it will play out. Then we realize what a mess it all is, and give up before it actually begins. Well of course it's a mess. When we first get started that plan of action is just a rough draft. Just like a seed doesn't instantly become a finished tree, fruit and all, a call requires substantial planning.
If I really had to get to why no one supports a plan of action, it would all come down to the amount of work the journey to the finished plan would take. I have never read a bible story, or heard about a church start that began with the finished product. The struggle, the tears, the tiredness and ache- that's all part of the call. So go and do God's work! Go and join someone else who is the process of doing God's work! Get it out on paper, and struggle as you revise and correct what didn't work. God is a rough draft.
Let us pray:
Dear God, Help me understand your plan, and give me courage to keep going as it goes through the revision process. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
1 The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed.2 On the sixth [a] day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. 3 God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. 4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Genesis 2:1-4 CEB
Architecture is beauty with a purpose. The curve of an archway, the purpose behind the molding. What catches the eye might also be what's keeping that building from collapsing over your head. In truth, architecture doesn't have to make you feel anything. In many cases it's meant to disappear and allow life to happen.
That's God. The design is so functional! We will never understand what wonders actually happens in an every day normal day. Our feet remain planted on a ball going thousands of miles an hour around a flaming ball. We take breathes from the perfect mix of gases. We exist, and just a moment of existence is a miracle. Then, those brief moments of realization, a glance at the painted sunrise, a feeling of the expanse climbing a mountain lets us view the wonder of design. Creation is functionally beautiful. God is an architect.
Let us pray:
Dear God, Here is where I thank you for your gifts. Here is where I raise my lamentations. As I deconstruct, reconstruct. As your design melts into normality, help me to occasionally see the majesty in those ordinary moments. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I'm standing in the ruins of a compound. The jungle vines are twisting around the remains of dorms, and there are trees growing up in areas that used to be kept clean for walking. The air is stifling. The sounds of birds sing out, hiding the hideous truth hidden in the remnants. I push through the calm before me. Question it. Want it to call out as I stare into it's silence.
Then it does. Voices rise from the ground. "Help me!" "Save us!" Faces materialize into the voices. Bloated and aching. They are fighting against the very ground to free themselves from their prison.
They cling to me; desperately clawing at me. I cry back, "You can leave! Don't stay in this hell!"
This seems to be the permission they need, and I feel them departing, but a red hot face pushes forward, pulling the others down with his sheer force. "You can't have them! They belong to me! And, I'll have you too."
This demon terrifies me. I want to save those who are too afraid. Only, they are now gone, and it has eyes on me...
That's when I wake up. It is officially the only real nightmare I've had over the past decade. I had just finished reading Raven: The Untold Story of Rev Jim Jones and His People. The book shook me to my core. God was used for personal gain. The Divine was warped, and recast in the vision of Jim Jones. Using the poor as leverage, he was after power. The only outcome was death. In the jungles of Guyana he took a large part of his People's Temple in a trial to attempt communism. When it was clear the attempt was going to fail, he convinced everyone to drink cyanide laced Flavor-Aid.
Using the name of God for this end is simply wrong. So many looked away because it fit their agenda. There was sexual assault, falsifying miracles, adultery, inappropriate conduct as a church leader. He was a bully. He made sure no one crossed him, or they would be punished. That's before the mass murder at the end of the story. Just because someone says they are called by God doesn't make them a prophet or even called.
Here's the thing. God's call is there, and remains there, even when the call has been hijacked by evil. God is still there, was there, and will always be there. We must condemn the warping and twisting of the call, while trying to salvage God from within it. It's sometimes a life or death task. Standing up to corrupted power is dangerous. It must be done for the sake of God's children. God is warped beyond recognition.
Pray with me:
Holy God, All I need is a sacred remnant, a reminder of what you need. I will plant that remnant in the good soil, and grow your Kingdom. Amen.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
Genesis 1:27 CEB
Can someone explain to me why this statement is somehow more scandalous than "God is Black"? It's okay. I already know.
It's our implicit understanding of femininity. Implicit, meaning not clearly expressed, in this case also means it plays out because of old understandings in our social system. Also known as: systemic.
On one hand, God isn't male. God is beyond gender. On the other hand, we'll just keep calling God by masculine qualifiers, while loudly saying God is also not female.
On one hand, we understand God does not have a gender. On the other hand, we'll voice God in this booming male voice.
On one hand, we understand God does not have a gender. On the other hand, we'll gladly speak up God on Father's day, while safely avoiding it on Mother's day.
We may know these things, but our collective understanding of God can firmly place the Divine in the masculine, without fear or guilt. Our high horse is hobbled, or perhaps, it has just been a hobby horse this whole time. We're simply playing with the idea of God.
"God is female" is scary in the same way "God is... [insert anything negative here]" is scary. Deep down, our collective understanding of femininity believes this is something less than. It's this mindset that God is good, but women are not good enough. Don't believe me? Then look at our media.
When we get a movie where the female pretends to be male to get something, it's a learning experience. She becomes a better person for having stepped in the male role. Meanwhile, if a male does the same thing if often used as a joke. The male leaves the gender, learning it's better to be a man. The exception being motherhood. In movies, males becoming moms make men better men. But, women are more than mothers, and you don't see movies where women gender swap to gaze into fatherhood. You do get movies where femininity is a tool to the goal of the masculine character.
I know, big words. Let me take a step back and simplify it for you: "God created humanity in God’s own image in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them."
Females are not the Zerox copy of males. Females are images of the Divine, just as much as males are. More than that, there are female images of the Divine placed throughout the bible. God's wisdom is personified as female. Let's start there. God is female.
Let us pray:
Holy Mother, who birthed Creation, protect us like a mother bear, while bringing us in as a hen bring in her chicks. Amen.