-Pastor Melissa Fain-
15 Then the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah: “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord hasn’t sent you. All you are doing is persuading these people to believe a lie. 16 Therefore, the Lord proclaims: I’m going to send you somewhere—right off the face of the earth! Before the year ends, you will die since you have incited rebellion against the Lord.” 17 The prophet Hananiah died in the seventh month of that year.
Jeremiah 28 CEB
This past weekend, I went to Cades Cove up in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. Most of my trip was to take my kids to meet up with my sister in a relatively central location. Some of the trip was to take pictures and videos to update this website. I've been talking an awful lot about being in the wilderness, but the wilderness is not always desert. Sometimes it's forests and mountains. It's still a difficult place to live, but a beautiful and Godly place too.
While I was there, I came across some history I didn't previously know about the Cove.
A Tale of Three Churches
I've been to Cades Cove about half a dozen times in my lifetime. It's probably the national park I've visited the most. (That's saying something considering Kennesaw Mountain is a quick 45 minutes drive from my house.) There are three churches in the Cove, and I'd always treated them with passive ignorance. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Only this time I heard their stories. This past weekend, this Cove, ourselves, and Jeremiah came together and I found God.
Methodist Church: I've never liked the churches that separate the men from the women and children. The Bible is a family story, that requires the unity of the family for it to thrive. For years, I assumed this church sat men on one side and women on the other. If you look inside, the seating is split into thirds. This has always been confusing with my assumption. Who sat in the middle? This past weekend, I learned this church never sat by gender, or used the doors for that purpose. There were fewer Methodists in the Cove. It meant they built this church on a budget. Actually, they built it in 115 days for $115 dollars. One of there cost cutting measures was to use the plans for another church, that happened to follow the practice of separating the men from the women and children. Context is important. Yet this church never stopped meeting. These next two churches did, and there's a reason why they are important to this story.
The Primitive Baptist Church, and the Missionary Baptist Church: This church (the Primitive Baptist Church) and it's sister church split below (the Missionary Baptist Church) did not meet during the Civil War.
The Primitive Baptist Church would write about the closure following the war: "We the Primitive Baptist Church in Blount County in Cades Cove, do show the public why we have not kept up our church meeting. It was on account of the Rebellion and we was Union people and the Rebels was too strong here in Cades Cove. Our preacher was obliged to leave sometimes, and thank God we once more can meet."
You should let that sink in for a minute. These churches believed the Union was correct while they lived in the South. They were willing to forgo Church during the Civil War because of the power of that belief. That's years, not months. That's without Zoom or Facebook Live. How their heart must have ached at the years of absence. How they must have celebrated when the war was finally over. How they must have known the danger their pastors were in and how they loved their clergy enough to let them leave for a time.
While these two churches stopped meeting, the Methodist church suffered a split, creating a new church with Pro-Union members. That specific church no longer stands today.
The Allure of False Prophets
If you're a Lectionary pastor you're probably wondering why I've posted the end of Jeremiah 28 rather than vv 5-9 listed as the Hebrew Bible scripture for this Sunday. It's because I've got this feeling there are going to be some bad sermons done out of context based on Jeremiah 28:5-9. Even Jeremiah wants to believe it! Why wouldn't you? All things stolen are going to be returned? That is a seductive scripture in this current climate. Forget the seduction of sitting next to your spouse in church- give us back our 11am worship with singing and hugging! Seduce us with that!
Only, we can't take vv 5-9 without including its sister verses around it. Hananiah is a false prophet. There are no costs to his promised returns. That's not how God works. Loss is either given meaning, or loss has a context for the greater good. Meaningless loss is tragic. God gives purpose to meaninglessness or God takes away for a purpose.
Let's remember who eventually gave the Priests back their temple. It wasn't God- but Herod. It would be Herod's temple that would ultimately be rebuked by Jesus. It was Herod's temple that took the widow's last coin, and refused to help the least of these. It's right for Hananiah to be rebuked! His prophecy, as alluring as it sounded, was dangerous and dark. Hananiah would die for it.
Real Prophets don't need to exist when everything is going well and good.
Real Prophets always want to avert the disaster they are sharing.
A Tale of Three Timelines
You cannot undo what has already been done.
Wait. I feel like I need to write that again, only make it big and bold for emphasis:
You cannot undo what has already been done.
Therefore, you cannot go back to do things the way they were previously done. Yes, some of you want to sit in your big amphitheaters, listen to your professional band sing from their expensive sound equipment with their slick lighting. But packing them in means you have to breath your neighbor's breath for longer than 10 minutes, putting you at higher risk of catching Covid-19. Yes, some of you want your intimate church experience where you can hug your neighbor, but personal contact is dangerous right now, especially when most small churches hold most older congregants.
90% of us will eventually get it, but we don't need to all get it at once. It will overwhelm the hospitals and more people will unnecessarily die if that happens. It is selfish to want your previous experience. Maybe I need to write that again, only make it bigger and bold for emphasis:
It is selfish to want your previous experience.
Many are getting upset because they have missed 3 months of physical church. Well, the Primitive Baptist Church, and the Missionary Baptist Church in Cades Cove missed 5 years of physical church. God didn't give the Cove church for 5 years. What makes you think you're entitled to your church in three months?
Many are getting upset because they're not getting everything back once they return to church. The Israelites were not getting everything back when they returned to Judah DECADES after being exiled. What makes you think it's healthy to go back to everything you lost after Covid-19? Maybe some things need to remain lost. Maybe we shouldn't be asking Herod to give our things back. We shouldn't force the good prophecy, because in doing so, we are forcing a lie and making things worse in the process.
God is still present in this digital landscape. I will write that again and make it bolder and bigger than the others, because it's the most important point.
God is still present in this digital landscape.
We are not called to restore what can no longer be, but to walk with God in the now. God is here. God is present. God never left. God is bigger than a building. God is more important than our stuff. Until we realize that those wanting to give it all back are false prophets, we won't be able to lament our stuff is actually gone. Until we finally lament, we can't move forward.
Keep this in your heart: What Jesus preached was heard the best outside the Temple. His words were lost inside the Sanctuary.
Are you listening to the tough truth of God spoken through Jeremiah or sweet seductive poison of Hananiah? God's path is tougher. God's path will hurt. Ultimately, God's path is right. Follow God.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Last Wednesday I spent a few minutes talking about Cognitive Dissonance.
To sum up:
Cognitive Dissonance is when a person holds two or more contradictory ideas or values at the same time, creating stress. Often times the item creating the dissonance is something that holds great investment, so to break with it would cause major loss.
There are four kinds of cognitive dissonances:
I did say that breaking free becomes so much more difficult once one falls into that trap. I suggested grace in this case. Many feel the anxiety of the stress from cognitive dissonance, but can't name what is causing that stress or is too deep into ignorance.
Breaking someone free from the dissonance:
I have inundated myself with videos on cults recently. They are difficult to watch, but I want to figure out how the ones who broke free did it. What is the compelling factor that can help someone see the magnitude of dissonance in their life? I've seen two recurring themes:
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I've finally finished! After three months all mentions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have been cleaned from the website, Facebook, Twitter, and subreddit.
Now, my Disciple colleagues and friends. I know you. I know how you've reacted to this.
Some of you have lamented. I've heard your words, "We should have done more." Believe me, those very words have been spoken to me too many times. I know you. I love you. I get that you personally mean those words. It's just that those words have been said enough to me personally that it they have begun to feel like the abusive spouse pretending to be better. I've heard them since I first started working in the church. "We should have done more," turns into "We'll be better this time, baby. Promise."
Some of you have been confused. You are wondering where this is coming from. That's because the internet has a short memory, and is selfish in nature. We don't consider our selfishness. We are so hopelessly detached we just don't consider it when we come online. Most of us use the internet to fill an immediate need. You need to know something. You need to get something. You need to get paid. The very idea to start our internet journey with "they" is foreign. I have wanted others to see the "they" too. I have literally wept with people who know how I've struggled with these truths not for days, but years. My tears were realizing the mission was always met with confusion in seeing the internet as a personal tool, not a land where people meet. Even in this isolation I've heard more ministers talking about how to save their church, not evangelize within a digital landscape.
Some of you have been passive aggressive, which equates to mean when it comes to church. Did you know I'm dangerous now? I'm un-tethered? No accountability? I've lost all ability to make mature leadership decisions with this step! Meanwhile the Region's passive aggression is keeping us listed as a congregation within the denomination while excluding us as an online resource. Let me return to the abusive spouse because those actions feel like the spouse saying, "You can't do this without me!" "Just say sorry and we'll welcome you back." Only, there is no coming back. I've already said that words lose power when you take them back. If this makes you angry, good! A church should lament. A church is allowed to explore confusion. Passive-aggression is cancer, and should be defeated. The truth always lives in the light. Don't stand for things being hidden. I'm not the one in the darkness. I'm not the one trying to hide this. You should ask yourself, what does that mean?
Those things are reactions, not reasons. You need reasons. Let me explain how we are a rational community of faith, acting in a God-like manner.
We are too diverse a community for one denomination.
The blunt truth: Fig Tree did the poorest the more she was pushed into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Also, as much as I asked for help from ministers and congregations, I never really gained any support from within. We were "by name only" years before this departure ever happened. I begged for it to be different, but it was to no avail.
Real support from outside: Last year someone asked me, "How have you had so many diverse writers at Fig Tree?" It's true. I think over the years of who has offered up guest meditations, and the list has grown pretty long. Ministers. Writers. Chaplains. Congregants. Differing political opinion. Differing theological opinion. Differing people. Years ago I described Fig Tree to be like glue. It's not substantial like paper or stone, but it binds the substantial together. It acts in a way we need so desperately right now. In being glue we've grown diversely. That means while the denomination has been there in name only, those outside the denomination have been there in action.
Denominations are scary to the broken.
Very few join Fig Tree explicitly for the denomination. People become attached because we're saying what they need to hear. It has been a field clinic for the spiritually wounded and broken. In this way we're glue too, joining the broken person back together in a loving way. Then they leave.
It's amazing to see them find a house of worship- to try out their newfound wholeness. Always in a faith tradition that's something other than the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) I am not going to give that up to be a glorified IT person for a church. (Yes, that was suggested to me as a way to use my calling instead of supporting the real ministry that already existed.)
Those who come to Fig Tree need the antiseptic space of non-denominationalism. These people need to know they are safe here. I'm not going to make them join or accept anything specific. They are here to heal. They are here to become. Just like you don't make a baby digest meat, or a patient who needs open heart surgery run, you don't overwhelm those at Fig Tree with any denomination. (And don't throw out the anti-creedal nature of Disciples, because we both know they are quickly becoming more pointed in their beliefs over the past 20 years.)
I'd rather you celebrate.
The time for lamenting what could have been is over. What's done is done. I can no more change it than you can. I forgive y'all. It's not worth carrying the weight of frustration and bitterness with all the important things I have been called to carry.
The time for confusion is also over. If you don't get what's happening here after half a dozen posts stating it boldly, you are not going to get it. There are those engaging in the land of make believe, and God's Kingdom is real. Soooooo- good luck with that.
Passive-aggression is not done, and I'm going to attack it. If we are not living in the light, I plan to drag our butts out into it. If we are found wanting, good! We can deal with that in the sun, not growing stagnant in the shadows. Nothing good comes from hiding our iniquity. Nothing.
I want y'all to celebrate. Things are happening! We are getting funds! We are getting volunteers! As I write this I have people seeking out guest writers, diverse voices that can tell certain Biblical truths from a perspective I can't! That's exciting!
More than that, I want you to be part of this excitement! I want your church to be a ministry partner and donate time, money, and talent. I want you to be part of the party, not be a party pooper. Let us go, and support our departure. Or not. Just let us go. Let me just say this. There is a kindle; a spark that has ignited. It's not the flash in the pan like the previous times. I have felt the heat of those moments as much as I've felt their brevity. This is something that can last and grow. I'm asking two things: Let the flame burn in the wilderness where it started. Then, add to it. Be part of it.
The first is greater than the second, but I don't want to leave you out. We all need something celebrate: An ecumenical online ministry that is growing? That's worth some celebration.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Seminary was a spiritual buffet for me. I was hungry for knowledge. I had listened to the sermons since before I was baptized, and they had begun to feel empty. Well, less empty, and more I already knew. I wanted new knowledge. The stuff they weren't preaching on Sunday morning. Seminary was a 10 course meal with seconds thirds and fourths.
True, my pregnancy brain struggled with the likes of Augustine and Maximus Confessor that first year. (I entered seminary only a month pregnant.) Sometimes I read the same passage three times before I digested their words, but there was zeal in getting new spiritual food. The best part being, I was taught how to enter that land and pull from those trees of knowledge, and eat of their fruit. (Not THE tree of knowledge. Don't get antsy on me.) I had been given keys to a spiritual orchard!
The People are Hungry
I have witnessed the excitement at a minister giving a congregation just a tiny morsel of Biblical knowledge A Greek word here. A contextual clue there. They treat these minuscule pieces like a full meal.
Their eyes betray them. You see their hunger. You know they want more. They don't realize this because they don't realize they're starving. They've always been starving.
I exited seminary knowing I couldn't withhold the truth in that manner. I had entered the orchard, and I wanted to be a minister who taught IN the orchard. I wanted congregants that pulled freely from the fruit and asked my opinion on it's taste. Only it's a long road from Biblical starvation to satiation. The people have to be led to the fruit or they'll think it's poisoned and turn away.
Ten years ago, I decided to stand between the two. Speak to both worlds. I learned that while seminary had spiritual food through knowledge, Churches had spiritual drink through the Spirit. Too far in one direction or the other would cause the people to die of thirst or starvation.
My promise as a minister
I believe there is more than what we understand.
Many churches profess something called the Apostles Creed. It's rooted in the first ever statement of organized religion, the 1st Council of Nicaea in 325.
The Apostle's Creed goes like this:
As someone born into the Campbell-Stone tradition of "No Creed but Christ," I have always bristled a little at the Apostle's Creed, and the numerous Christians that announce you can't be a Christian unless you profess it. (To be fair, my statements cause many of those people to bristle at me.) Part of the reason we even have our first council of Nicaea was because of a group of people making their own statements of faith. Statements as crazy as, there are really two Gods- Old Testament and New Testament. Statements and interesting as- Judas was working with Christ the whole time. Also statements we will never know because most of it was destroyed in counter protest.
Back in 325 the people generally believed in gods. They needed to explain what it meant to believe in the God of Abraham. This meant faith was not the starting point. Many had faith in something. The question was "What faith?" not "If faith?"
Today, the above Creed is difficult to digest. We don't consider the path to faith to be a journey, because many Christians grew up in it. That's just not the case for the average person anymore. Then, many who have were hurt by faith just walk away completely.
So we have a crisis of Spirit and Knowledge. It's not enough to just lead those of faith to knowledge. There are also those of knowledge who need the Spirit. Then there are countless others who have neither.
That's why my promise is simple: I believe there is something more. If that is making you knowledge camps and Spirit camps bristle, it's because you are at a destination, and I am at the trail head. It's okay that those at the beginning don't see a well or an orchard. You can't tell a people to eat or drink if they are nowhere near the food or beverage. That's why Sunday has become a journey to the Spirit, while Wednesday has become a journey of knowledge. Some people only need one. Some people need both. I know the fine line I'm walking in both camps, but luckily I'm unpaid so I can walk that path unleashed.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Over the past couple of weeks, I've been referencing Biblical understanding of the Universe. I realized it might be good to do a quick lesson to know where the brains of the Ancient Near East people were as we read Scripture. I want to stress, this is not a modern Christian interpretation of the universe, but an Ancient Near East understanding.
The Abyss of Waters or AKA the Un-Created: Creation is not really creating as it is ordering. Specifically, it is the ordering of the chaos. Specifically, the seas are the unordered chaos. There are chaotic monsters, like Leviathan. The real fear of an ancient people are not demons/devils (which are part of the Divine council btw) it's the encroaching chaos. We are made from that chaos, and are drawn to it.
Sheol or AKA grave/pit: Every time I see one of these depictions, and they are easy to find, I always see grave written in Hebrew. There's a decent blog on this topic I'll link if you want to learn more.
Earth or AKA the Created Order: We are part of the created order. That includes the ordered waters, earth, sky and lights. The heavens are also part of that created order.
Heavens or AKA where God lives: This is why many will look up to reference God because God was literally above their heads above the vault above the sky. In the Ancient Near East mind the sun, moon and stars were much smaller than they actually are. God had to fit beyond all of that.
The waters below and the waters above AKA what shouldn't exist anymore: A literal reading of the Bible would mean that the Creation of rain was when Noah built an ark. That was when the waters beneath and the waters beyond the vault opened and flooded the entire earth. Now that it's been emptied, it remains emptied and that's why we have rain.
The Pillars of the Sky and Earth AKA What's holding everything up: To the ancient near east people those mountains are what is literally holding up the sky! That's why Moses went up a mountain to talk to God. It was a path to literally reach Heaven. Babel was a way to build a new pillar to God, a way which failed. With this depiction there are pillars below like table legs, holding up the created Earth.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
First: the state of church pre-Covid-19
A article in 2018 found that in 2004 only 17% of the US population attended church on a regular basis. It was a stunning difference from a Gallup poll which found the number to be 40%. The difference happened when people tried to reconstruct their life for pollsters, they saw their life as shinier and nicer than it actually was. It's called the "Halo Effect." There's an episode of Blackish where Dre and Bow believe they are church people. Only when they try to recall all the times they went to church, they were all on Easter.
Conversely, those within the walls are hyper-involved. In fact, many are turning to small group meetings over and beyond the large sanctuary worship.
A Pew Study found that the church is getting older, as in the median age of congregants have gone up from 46 to 49 since 2007. The study also saw that the churches that are growing typically have a lower median age compared to the the churches that are dying.
Throughout the years, every church treasurer at every church I've been employed to, has expressed that Easter is the biggest Sunday for offering. I also know churches are boldly expressive when it comes to the good news, and suddenly shuddered when it comes to the bad. Considering how difficult it is to find even one article about the state of the church during this pandemic, I'm prone to believe things are not going well.
Second: The Church camp effect
You can fake Utopia in small doses. Really. It's called Church camp. You take a hundred or so like minded Christian kids, and put them together for a week. You teach them the theology they already believe, and for one short week you live Christ's Kingdom on earth.
It is terribly misleading.
Yeah, I said that right. It's not real. It never is. As a Church Camp counselor and director I've seen behind the curtain. All the adults know it would all fall apart if it lasted longer than a few weeks. Youth would begin to protest the schedule, or not spending enough time with their friends. (They do that anyway, just FYI.) The cost would become too prohibitive for the lower income campers. The adults would lose it. We love the kids, but we can't be bubbles and sunshine for months on end. We also want to be adults.
We set up a facade, give the youth a beautiful week of pretend, and then tell them to make that world at home. We don't bring real. We don't explain that their abuser will still be there when they get home. We don't tell them that many people don't want to buy into Utopia because of the front loaded work it requires. We tell them there is a world without bullies, but the ones at school still exist.
So we pretend in church.
Yeah, I said that right. We create this beautiful bubble of perfection every Sunday morning. Many of these churches don't even discuss the real outside world aside from a quick skim of the surface. Outside the building good people die. Bad people win. Christ engaged those situations, yet we gloss over them. Why? Because church has turned into a pretend utopia. That's why those inside are hyper-religious, and those outside are hyper-disconnected. Church stopped caring about the reality of the outside unless it's to hand something out.
If this makes you uncomfortable, good! Discomfort can help us grow. If you are only in a church that makes you comfortable, you are doing it wrong.
Third: The Covid-19 Effect
A few things happened when an entire country went into self-isolation:
Finally: The Way Ahead
Whether it's 40%, 17% or something in between of the American population who attend some kind of worship, a majority of people are outside the physical church. A majority of funds are going into the building. Doesn't that seem wrong? Isn't it time to start seeing our own backyard in the same way we think of missions overseas? I made the conscious choice to go where the majority of God's people have gone, back when that choice was still a choice, and not a mandate.
I have to ask, why go back? Why continue that illusion, when you know what it is? Christ is real. When Christ is real, we go to reality to find Christ. See what I mean? Christ is perfection, but lives in imperfection. Why? Why not find truth, because anything else is false.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
It still shocks me today. I meet up with someone, and they off-handedly thank me for something I posted online. It's not that I think anything I've personally created hasn't been watched or read. I know it has. It's that what is being watched and read means something to someone.
When I preach a sermon in a church I can immediately see people squirm when I say something uncomfortable. See them perk up when the words are hitting home. Hear their thank you after they've immediately processed my words.
When I teach in any capacity I can immediately know if a group of people have processed the lesson or if they are still not getting it. I have struggled with others to understand a concept. I have celebrated how amazing it is to see that "I get it" face.
All that is lost online. Sure, you like. love, or share, but I have no idea why. Are you just being kind? Did you even see or read? Are you confused and you're too kind to ask questions? Our connection has been broken by the expanse of the world wide web.
That's the nature of the internet. We submit content across multiple platforms, and like a written letter, we are not able to see the initial reaction to our submission.
There are many who are discovering this for the first time. Perhaps email, private messages and the like were for secondary connections or setting up primary connections. When the pandemic hit, all of it went online. Even that two second pause on video conferencing has disconnected us.
I'm going to suggest a couple of ideas as we move forward and move on. I'm not going to suggest these ideas completely upend your ideas about the internet, but I hope, if nothing else, they leave you thinking.
1. Our experiences have been different.
Y'all. I'm just gonna put this out there. The internet is a very selfish place. I don't think many of us are trying to be selfish, it's the natural byproduct of the levels of disconnect. The internet, up until recently, has been a tool for what we want. We want to waste time- go to a social media site. We want that specific item- go to an online store. We want to find out how many species of penguins there are in the world- go to a search engine.
It just makes sense that when we read someone else's words we are adding our own inflection, understanding them from our device, in our own homes. It's really difficult to imagine what someone else reading the same words might be going through. It's also difficult to understand that older generations can't even pull up a video to watch a Zoom worship, and youth can't focus for longer than 5 minutes. (And 5 minutes is a LONG time for them.)
Some of us adjusted years ago, and we have friends online we've never physically met. We've learned how to emote within our words since we cannot hear one another's inflection.
What it comes down to is we are not all in this together. We all come from different situations. Some can comfortably read this while sipping coffee. Meanwhile, there are times all of Fig Tree's mediation's are downloaded all at once overseas. Their situations are diverse- from churches that don't have the means to buy theological books, to churches that are illegal and pulling information from the internet is their only way to learn about Christianity. They will not be comfortable while reading this. Then there are those looking for hope in their own hopeless situation. They live with their abuser.
Being selfless online is extremely difficult, but it is possible. It requires support for the sake of others. It needs empathy.
2. The natural loss of one or more senses.
Dr. William Willimon took part in an interview during the 2020 Festival of Homelitics. made a statement that will stay with me for years. Paraphrasing, he exclaimed: If there was one thing this pandemic taught us is that nothing is better than the real thing!
I got the sentiment, he was mourning the loss of the physical. The missing smells of old hymnals. The way one's voices carries in the sanctuary. The immediate connection of a private conversation. For him, those things are sacred. For others though, those things are dangerous and scary.
The American Church experience has, for the most part, been a selfish enterprise. (I can feel you bristling with that statement. Let me explain.)
Back before the pandemic there were a growing number of people who were wounded by the Church. Some were pastors. Some were congregants. Their wounds were made deeper by this disconnect that kept happening with their stories. I can sum it up with one sentence, "Sure, you're experience was bad, but my experience is good." Basically, all the wounds in the Christian Institution can be healed by ignoring and moving on. If the wounded can't ignore and move on they are ghosted, cancelled or both. It makes the sanctuaries you know and love a very scary place.
That being said, while you might be missing the sense of smells and sounds, someone else is missing their sense of connection. Their connection was lost way before this pandemic hit. Just something to consider.
3. Be intentional about engaging others.
I started this with my shock at discovering my words mean something. It was a reminder that we need to step outside ourselves for a moment and consider what our words would mean to someone else. Raise someone up. Show them they have value. If you say you support what they are doing, show them what that support means. Online community is necessary in this day in age and it begins with us engaging them, not them engaging us.
It also means choosing to leave negativity alone. This one has been extra hard for me, as it's super easy to buy into riot. It's too easy. Instead, step away and find something to support. It's so much harder, but so much more rewarding.
In two weeks I'm going to do a Summer movie series. I'd love some of your suggestions to add to the list!
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Years ago, for Advent, I did a movie series here, where I connected the different themes of Advent (or pre-Christmas) to Christmas movies. It is still one of my favorite series.
We are going to do it again! This time, instead of being a written meditation, it will be part of the message during our livecast worship! Suggest a movie below, and I'll collect all or some of the options, and share our Summer Movie Schedule. It will start after Pentecost. (Pentecost is the celebration of the Spirit descending on the Disciples, and happens 7 weeks after Easter. This year Pentecost is May 31st.)
If you have a movie you'd love to hear connected to the Bible, submit it below. Here are some guidelines for submission:
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This meditation was written after watching the two part Simpson's Episodes, the Warren' Priests.
On my bookshelf sits many books, but next to my "Gospel According to Harry Potter," and my "Gospel According to Starbucks," sits my "Gospel According the Simpsons."
I know, I'm aging myself. No one makes those books anymore. It's too Christo-centric. Seriously, I haven't even looked at them in years, and all three would be gathering dust if it wasn't for the fact that I recently dusted my bookshelves. I don't watch Simpsons much anymore either. It just doesn't engage me the way it used it. Then the Simpsons took a two-part episode discussing the relevancy of church, and I found myself pulling up Hulu to watch.
What I've come away with was a shallow look into the real issues plaguing modern church, and they take the face of the different characters. It looks into our language as we fail to see how both sides were wrong, and how we dismiss either side without really exploring why we are dismissing them. It's not the Gospel According the Simpsons. It the Church According to the Simpsons.
Rev Lovejoy- Tradition over Substance
As the first episode begins, Rev Lovejoy is delivering a sermon to a near empty sanctuary. No one wants to be there, and those remaining is anticipating the end of the service.
It was the problem so many churches were facing leading up to the lock down. The attendance was dwindling, Worship was static. What was the point? No, really! What was the point? Church had become a chore, not an experience. A check mark, not a relationship.
What The Simpson's failed to do was capture the fear that lived in all these ministers. Do you think most of us were ordained to uphold the status quo in dying churches? No! They played the problem like it was Lovejoy's the whole time. The writers played it like the congregants would want change, if they only knew it existed. In reality, the problem was shared between Lovejoy and the congregants. Lovejoy was stuck in the word "tradition," keeping to the routine like an old safety blanket. The congregants were encouraging this behavior.
The Congregants- They triggered me
It was played for laughs. The congregation heard Bode preach, the newly hired youth minister, and everyone immediately fell in love. A small group of congregants secretly met, and decided to unceremoniously fire Rev. Lovejoy so the new minister could be the lead pastor.
Older ministers secretly fear it. The shiny new minister taking their place.
In reality, the shiny new minister is often the one being secretly canned. The new pastors are the ones who symbolize change and revitalization, and it scares those who just want to keep it the same. Often times, those are the people with the power, because they are the ones with the money. They have family that goes back generations.
I was triggered because that's how it happened to me. A few decided for the whole. I was the shiny new minister who came with the promise of change. I had to go. I found myself worrying for Lovejoy. Did he have a pension? What was his retirement? Being in that church for so long, did he have any friends who were not church members?
The congregants were reacting. That's actually what congregants do. They see something good, and find the quickest route to reach it. Real change always takes time, and that's where the congregants always fail. If it's not quick and easy, than it rarely happens. We live in a culture of instant gratification. It has bled through into our Church culture.
Bode: Why did Lisa fall for that?
Look, it's actually nice to see the overly pleasant Ned Flanders being taken down, but in this episode he was actually right.
I'm shocked too. I have this sneaking suspicion he'd tell his boys to avert their eyes if he saw me walking down the street. He was struggling with maintaining the sacred in his sanctuary. In reality, that was his fight, and it was not the fight Bode eventually fought. To earn the people of Springfield new sacred space, the previous space needed to be dismantled. That was a valid conversation for Flanders to have with Bode, but it never happened, because Bode never knew why Flanders had a problem.
That was the first sign that Bode was not right either. The modern church movement will flush the traditional church down the toilet to get their guitars and flashy production. They'll fight the scriptural fight without actually having the real scriptural fight. The fight isn't about God's love. The fight is about God's presence, and Ned was holding something sacred and right. (Stupid Ned Flanders.)
I think the reason Lisa bought the lie had to do more with that. What was sacred to Ned was not to Lisa. Bode's theology was a many path model. That is, there are many paths to God. Lisa was being told she was not alone in her personal journey. It was just, Ned's path was not included in Bode's many path model. That's where the lie came in. Also, many path theologians don't typically burn Bibles.
Bible Burning Was Where Bode Fell Apart
"Lisa, I was wrong." Bode was 19. He was doing something bold because he was foolish and young.
Speaking personally for a moment: I was once young and stupid, now I'm only stupid. Let me amend that, in my older years I realize when I'm stupid. That's wisdom. Well, part of wisdom.
Multi-path theologians don't burn Bibles. They read the desert fathers, the Koran, and ancient Hindu texts. They see the sacred in it all and hold it all with reverence.
Those who burn Bibles don't typically apologize for it later. Even Atheists know how special the Bible is to believers. You believe in something with the action of burning sacred text.
Perhaps you don't believe the text holds value. In burning the book you are telling them they are stupid in their belief system.
Perhaps the Bible was old and you were retiring it like an old US flag. The act of burning becomes a funeral of sorts.
Perhaps you are making a statement against a specific religious organization. The act of burning becomes a burning of a specific theology.
This is where Lovejoy and Bode were wrong for similar reasons. Which is worse, burning a Bible, or letting it gather dust in an empty pew? In that way, Lovejoy was no better. Buried or cremated. What's the difference? In both cases, the Word is dead.
The Beginning of Lent
"Lisa, you're bringing down our Lent. Even the fire eater is sad."
This one throwaway joke by Homer really brought it all home for me. We were about a quarter through Lent when Covid put us all in isolation, bringing churches online, and completely changing everything, for (I believe) forever. We won't be spending our lives stuck at home, with only a select few working in businesses. How we do things will change. Schools will be more diligent about not letting sick kids stay. Works will have stay-at-home employees. Churches found out how shut-ins feel. I don't think face masks are going away any time soon.
The whole two-part-episode dealt with issues that were very pre-Covid problems.
The camera makes things "more." What do I mean by "more"? Depending on the angle people far apart look close together, and people close look far apart. You have 30 seconds to tell the same story that took you 5 minutes in real life. It's condensed, and doesn't do well with things that are watered down. Church was watered down. Messages were fluffed. Actions were padded. There was lots of getting by and just going through the steps.
Homer was reminding us that those pre-Covid services were empty. Yeah, we gave up something for Lent. It was fun! I can lose those few pounds while I give up that sugary whatever it is I gave up!
This episode ended with me feeling like I was in their future. I couldn't be angry or upset with the faith traditions in the episode, because neither one can exist anymore. We don't live in that world anymore.
What will be when we begin this new world? I hope to God it was better than what we left, from both sides.
-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.