-Rev Melissa Fain-
Whether it's communion, the bible, or a person's life- most heated arguments about God are less about if God enters the picture and more about when and where. The Bible might be a divinely inspired book, but that means something different depending if your Bible is inspired or literal. God is present at Communion, but is it in the symbol or the literal body and blood? You might feel you need an intermediary to connect to God or you can pray directly. Knowing these little pieces of information can help you traverse the spiritual talk with fellow believers who just don't believe the same way you do.
If the above paragraph was confusing, I will pull it apart. Let's talk Communion.
The Communion Table Tells Us Our Theology
The truth is, there are many elements of worship that speak to a larger belief system. The better a congregation or denomination is about laying out their beliefs about God and the world, the clearer one can see the meaning and purpose in their actions. Don't confuse this with healthy or good. Just because you step into a tradition that is transparent in their beliefs, doesn't mean they are good beliefs.
For example, Ken Ham recently sent his book, Gospel Reset, to churches across the nation. For those who don't know, Ham is a hard-core creationist. His theology begins with a literal creation that took literally six days. He believes in the inerrant (meaning without mistake) and literal Word of God so much he has built a creation museum and Ark Encounter. Both spaces are projects that took millions of dollars. Sending a hardback copy of ones belief system also cost tons of money. Every action he makes is centered on creation. Ham is transparent and connects the dots to all areas of his faith. I personally believe his transparency doesn't make the belief system good, and I believe it's not. That's a post for another day.
How a Christian Church traverses the table connects too. Who can serve? Who can partake? Where and when in the worship does it happen? Is it intentional or is it slapped together last minute? What materials are the chalice and patent (cup and plate)? What kind of bread is being used? What liquid is in the cup? Is it grape juice or actual wine? All these questions seek a deeper understanding of the church as a whole. Ken Ham starts at Creation. I start at the Communion Table.
Who is Serving?
This is a two-part answer that fit most Christian experiences.
First, the person preparing, and serving communion could be ordained or not. Being ordained means the person was chosen by the church for a leadership role, usually the minister. This could also be congregants who were chosen for a specific role, like passing out the bread and cup. Who is making the communion available to the congregation is a statement of the sacred responsibility. If only clergy is allowed to meditate and pray over the pieces of communion, than there is a very high and sacred trust given to the clergy.
The Catholic Church has a very high trust given to clergy, probably the highest trust of all the Christian faith traditions. The sex abuse scandals are scandalous because it first breaches that sacred trust. It was made worse by others trying to others trying to hide those indiscretions. The Catholic church has dealt with the repercussions of our fallen nature before over 1,000 years ago, but in relationship to being openly christian and baptism. Would the baptisms done by Priests that were not open about being priests, or gave up their books to be burned really baptized. The ultimate answer was yes, but it tore the church apart in the meantime.
Secondly, the individuality of the person is an image of God. This idea, the first time I heard it, was offensive to me. I was counselling or co-directing at Church Camp. (Which one is not really relevant right now.) I was quietly discussion the image of Christ with another adult. We were commenting on how different cultures naturally illustrated Jesus to look like them. I was a purist at the time, and felt that was not how God should be depicted. Thank goodness other adult was a minister who knew the zealousness of youth. He patiently told a story where he was with a bunch of elementary school kids at his church. They were asked to draw God. He was shocked to see they were not drawing a guy with a long white beard, but many of the kids were drawing him! He explained to me that they knew and he knew he was not God. What I've come to realize is God shines through the person we have chosen to lead communion. Can we truly understand God until we see the Divine shine through our very neighbor?
God Meets Us
When one partakes of Communion, it is generally believed God is present somewhere in that rite. There are faith traditions, Catholic and Orthodox being the two biggest, that believe the Spirit enters the bread and wine literally transforming it to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. You might notice these traditions have high standards to partaking of the elements of Communion. One must be prepared to partake of communion, because the presence of God is always understood to already be there. God is real to the entire community.
The opposite faith tradition still has God present in Communion, but the bread and wine (usually grape juice in these traditions) are symbols of Jesus' sacrifice. The Spirit isn't literally imbuing the elements. Instead, the Spirit is with the believer. The act of Communion is still done by the entire community, but the presence of God in that meal happens after the elements leave the table.
The Elements of the Table
My favorite church Communion set was completely wood. It was gorgeous. It reminded me God being present in nature. It sat right next to that classic metal cup and plate that is standard fare for most Protestant churches. Once those rich wooden discs were placed was next to it, all imagery was gone, but symbolism wasn't. This was a church that was broken by a large group leaving and starting their own church. Those who stayed behind kept a theology of believing it is right to make it work, instead of letting go of what no longer fits. Understanding where they were, helps us see this is a table in pain.
The table itself and what is physically holding the sacred elements can tell us so much about a church and those who worship within it. If there are sharpie'd circles on the glass overlay to make sure the elements are placed exactly where they belong each Communion, that could be a sign this church holds order very high. If Communion is in a to-go packet (where you peel the top off to get to the elements) it's very possible your church puts ease pretty high on their weekly requirements.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
My Kindergarten through the first half of my third grade year was spent at Burke Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. I have a few vague fond memories of playing with friends in the giant tires on the playground, or laughing at teachers pretending to be fortune tellers, but beyond that my memories are haunted. See, I went to this school during the darkest time of my childhood. It was a school that added to the pain I experienced, and made my situation even worse than it already was. These specific people, who are etched in my brain for all time, were not the real problem. It was the system in which they lived.
Before there were accounts where parents checked a child's balance for breakfasts and lunches, kids brought their coins and dollars to school. At my school. that lunch money was traded in for a plastic medallion. It was round, red and about the size of a half dollar. It made lunch something magical. A single coin for a well balanced meal.
First and second grade I lived in the magic of that coin. It was the innocence of childhood at it's best. But, halfway through second grade my world was turned upside down. Divorce. Neglect. Hunger. These were all words I learned and knew. at a very early age. At home I had to sneak food to eat. I lived off oranges, raw potatoes, and white bread with sugar sprinkled on top. We feared leaving our room, believing our step-dad was capable of anything. School became my escape from all that.
When classes started back up my third grade year, I saw that red medallion like a salvation. Only, one morning I had no money to take to school. When I got to class I had nothing to trade for the scratched up red plastic. When I got in line for lunch, the lunch lady's kind demeanor turned dark and foreboding. "What do you mean you don't have your coin?" She let me get my lunch, but warned me to come back with two coins the next day. That night I asked my mom for the money. She was confused. She didn't understand why she had to pay twice. I had to explain I wasn't given my money that morning. After considerable discussion, she gave it to me, and the next day I gleefully payed two coins. (After having the conversation again with my teacher.)
Only, a week later my mom didn't give me money again, and this time grace was in short supply. The lunch lady took my meal, and I watched her throw it in the trash. Dejected, I sat with my classmates as they ate. I was hungry, but no one was going to feed me.
I didn't tell my Dad when he picked us up for the visitation he had every other weekend. I should have,but I felt I had done something wrong. I didn't want him mad at me too.I did, however, steal from his coin bank, enough to buy meals for the two weeks until I'd see him again. That magical coin was no longer magic. It was old and dirty. I was being punished for something I couldn't control.
Many years later I took a Disciples of Christ Polity class at Columbia Theological Seminary. It was a night class, the only one I took my three and a half years earning my MDiv.
In the combined study of my denomination, I can remember Alexander Campbell's breaking moment more than anything else. It spoke directly to me.
As part of the Campbell's membership to his particular Presbyterian sect, he had to receive a coin to partake of weekly communion. In class, I watched the Hollywood Christian Church's reenactment of the event. Campbell stood outside the church. He looked at his coin, the one his minister had given him for being "good enough" to receive the holy meal. Then he looked at a homeless man lying in the street. No words were spoken, but the point was clear. Where was this man's coin? Was he not worthy of the same meal? Then he marched into worship, threw his coin in the collection plate, and marched back out without communion.
That moment sealed it for me. Alexander Campbell gave up his meal, so I could have my own. My physical meal, and his spiritual meal melted together into one truth: We are all worthy! Knowing Camp Counselors made fun of me after hours at Church Camp didn't matter anymore. Knowing I was not the daughter of some well known minister wasn't the point. Watching a perfectly good lunch being thrown away, while I ate nothing, came back with a flaming purpose. I was called to the table without the coin, because Campbell did away with the coin many years before I was even born. I could consume God's love without qualifiers. I could fill up with the Spirit just like anyone else. I didn't have to steal it or negotiate the terms. It simply existed because it was always meant to be my place at the table.
If you want to know why I've spent my life in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there it is. It's knowing all really does mean all, and all includes me. Broken, hungry me. It includes you too. Thank God Almighty, it includes you too.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Months ago I connected our inability to see church decline with the growth of the mega-church. Basically, congregants go where the resources are. Most don't understand the problem, because from their view there isn't one.
Eighty is the magic number in understanding church decline. About thirty years ago eighty percent of churches are small, but eighty percent of congregants go to a large church. Eighty percent of churches are dying. This problem was first seen in, you guessed it, the eighties. Going where the resources are is increasingly about going to mega-churches- because they are increasingly the one ones who can do things. I'd be interested to see that 80/80 statistic redone. I'd guess that it has changed as smaller congregations are dying out, and more and more are forced into larger churches.
As churches try to understand the problem, ministers are neck deep in it. Here are some blunt truth about ministers today and what they are currently living through:
-Rev Melissa Fain-
This was supposed to be a sermon I was going to write and record. Then the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report hit, and it all of a sudden seemed relevant now.
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.
-John 15:1-8 CEB-
My watch vibrates me awake at 5:15 in the morning, just as it always does every week day. Bleary eyed, I turn the alarm off, get up and begin my morning ritual. I start my coffee, turn on my computer, and check out what’s happening on the subreddit, /r/Christianity. “Is it me or God?” “I’m scared and overwhelmed with anxiety.” “My mom has cancer.” These are real titles that greet me as I sift through the posts, and decide where I’m going to comment. Many of these I’ll leave be, as some great users have already given some great advice and emotional support. There are some good ministers on the internet. Sometimes I step in just to let the user know I’m saying a prayer for them. Sometimes I step in, because there are always trolls lurking, and they say stupid and hurtful things to those who show up online hurt and broken.
Then there are the ministers trying out the internet. Full forty minute sermons show up all the time in YouTube format. Those are never watched and always end up beyond zero- though we have no idea how far beyond zero, because reddit doesn’t go to the negative on posts. I always shake my head at those, because it’s clear this is an evangelism tool where the minister never got to know the community before trying to evangelize to it. The short 15 min videos are sometimes watched, and almost always brutally responded to.It’s harsh and real. Really smart people are pushing in the right ways. They are pulling apart the bad theology. It’s like looking in a 360 mirror. It makes a person resolved and stronger, or forces them out. All the good ministers on Reddit started out as one of these critiqued newbies. It’s a rite of passage if you want to stick around.
It’s also a way to protect those who were wounded. I’m a minister called to the wilderness of the new wild west, called to those who have digitally come to learn, grow and heal. Especially heal. The internet is where many of the individuals broken by the church go.
I'm not the first "Minister of the internet TM." I’m not even the first in our denomination. That title goes to Rev. Debbie Adams-Phelps. It was also not the call in which I anticipated to find myself. For me, starting online was only supposed to be the diving off point. I had it all figured out. I’d announce Fig Tree’s launch. I’d write a few meditations. Start a Facebook page. Get Twitter up and running. It would be awesome. A few months later we would physically launch and everything would be amazing. Then no one showed up for the launch. I was left with an internet site, and some social media connections. It was sad.
I’m sure many would give up and move on at that point. I gave it the good ol’ college try, right? But, you’d be wrong. I did something unheard of. I listened and learned. Instead of packing up shop, I learned what the people were doing and saying online, and I began to talk about the love of Christ in a language they could understand. Some of that was how the language looked. Three quarters of the words we use online are not even understood outside church doors. Some of that was how the language acted. The internet is snarky. It requires seeing things as jokes instead of taking them seriously.
One day a user tagged me with the title #ladypastor. That was my moment. Was he being intentionally cruel, or was it a genuine statement of my calling. I took it as a compliment, and everything changed. People began to seriously talk with me; not at me. In that moment, I began to learn the real trauma of the Christian internet.
John 15 sets up something that is really comforting. Being connected to Christ is like being connected to a vine. We are nourished and we grow on that vine. If pieces of us are cut, it is for our growth, not our death. Sometimes it’s important to hear we need to let go of something healthy so an even greater health can take its place! It’s also important to hear that things that hindered us, and kept us from growing need to be let go as well.
What I found online were complete branches, healthy Christians, lopped off the vine due to church trauma. There was confusion regarding why their faith was drying up, and why entering a new church didn’t naturally attach them to the Spiritual vine they used to drink from so deeply. More than that, I could relate. I was cut from the vine, and returned to a land that was no longer my own.
In 2010 I was called to a small rural church. By the looks of it, it was a great fit. They answered all my questions correctly, and they seemed to be searching for the talents and gifts I had to offer. Unfortunately, the church was broken. This had slipped through the Regions purview because the church had just been moved into a new region, having the old region dissolved. There were ways I could have known. Looking at old yearbooks to see the quick turnaround for ministers was the easiest way. It was my first and only full time call, and when everything went down our family was left homeless, jobless, and with a newborn baby to care for. Also, when we moved back to the Georgia region the regional minister called to welcome me back, but gave me the tough news. He was leaving within weeks. I was coming home to a state in transition, to people who no longer knew me, and frankly, I didn’t know who I was either.
Ministers don’t want to talk about their own trauma. I think there’s this fear of looking weak. I probably would have been the same way, but I could relate with those hurt and bruised voices online. I knew what these broken congregants were saying, and I knew their pain. So, I began to get honest. Brutally honest. I knew what it was like to feel the weight of depression, and not have the money or resources to seek counselling. I told that story. I told the story of having just enough pennies to purchase food for the week. I visited churches to get a feel for my new county. I felt hurt by the local church. I would be ignored time and time again when I'd visit with just myself and my son, but giving too much attention when my husband and daughter would tag along. People thanked me because my stories told them they were not alone. They too had had these experiences. My trauma as a minister was helping them heal.
The church has a problem. The hashtag, #ChurchToo was created to show sexual abuse on the heals of #MeToo, but people have been using it to show abuse in general. The pain is deep and wide. The recent Grand Jury report truly shows that. These people know that immense feeling of being connected to the vine- to God. Then, trauma happens or it continues to happen, and the person finds themselves disconnected. Instead of cutting away the bad parts, we cut away the people that are too close. The church is dying because when you do that, you are taking away the people who gave life to the church, and leaving the pieces that can give little or nothing back. You can't do that. God is the vine, but Christ is the Son. Without a way for the Son to shine on the church and feed the Church with energy- the church dies.
Listen, I know God can breathe new life into theses dried up branches. I know this message was not meant for a General Assembly. It was meant for us. It was meant for those who wonder how they will ever properly connect again. You are not alone, and my focus is on finding new health for those who are with you.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Ever hear the phrase "the Bible is a double edged sword?" That's because it's technically from the Bible, specifically, Hebrews 4:11-12.
11 Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, 12 because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.
The "word of God" means, in this case, the words spoken specifically by God. Simply put: What God says is truth, and it will cut through the BS.
But, so many choose to translate this text to specifically be talking about the bible, so let's talk bible. I think every word in the bible has the capacity to be a double edge sword. How?
In the right hands, the Bible is a surgeon's tool, able to cut out the damage and leave the justice, peace, and Salvific Love of Christ.
In the right hands, the Bible is a cook's tool, able to prepare us to become something amazing.
In the right hands, the Bible is an artist's tool, cutting away the unneeded parts; refining parts.
The Bible is like a sword. When properly wielded and used as a tool, it can be a wondrous document. You don't want to give someone with no skill something that can separate the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow.
In the wrong hands, the Bible is a bomb, crumbling faith to dust. It leaves a person without even a solid foundation on which to build.
In the wrong hands, the Bible is a battle sword, piercing the heart, and stopping compassion; lopping off Body parts haphazardly and without care.
In the wrong hands, the Bible can still be a good tool but in amateur hands a meaningful act can still deeply wound.
If you read all of Hebrews 4, you would realize what was meant by using the word "rest."
At the beginning of the chapter, the words of God at Creation are used and (just a few verses later) sat against disobedience not getting rest because God cut them out.
Now some has taken that to be a legalistic mandate to cut others out instead so rest will belong them. But, that's not what Hebrews 4 is saying. It's not our word. It's not our ability to choose who's in and who's out. It belongs to God. The disobedience doesn't belong to those beautiful heathens on the outside. That word belongs squarely on our incredibly misguided shoulders. Rest is achieved by remaining a faithful community. It's really hard to be a faithful community when we've pushed or cut out members from within it.
That's why we need to realize the power of our words. After all, at it's most basic level, the Bible is a collection of words. Just as a collection, the bible holds no power. It's as helpful or as dangerous as a dictionary or thesaurus. The words themselves hold no power. It's the meaning behind the words that choose whether you are wielding a bomb or a balm.
Which do you have? Are you sure?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I wish to preface this. I don't personally have an Uncle Felix, or if I do I have no recollection of it. I also don't know another Uncle Felix in another family. The name was chosen to be generic. Also, I should give a trigger warning for family and church abuse.
I'm the type of person who needs to understand actions and reactions. Often times the action itself are not as important as the reason that action was taken. It keeps me from drawing lines in the sand and putting the entire world against me. We live in a very reactionary world. It's easy to write off, or choose to dislike, someone based on a past action. It's easier to hold them accountable for what they've done, without understanding the reasoning behind those actions. The actions themselves could be superfluous in relation to the motivation.
This brings me to poor ol' Uncle Felix. Uncle Felix was beloved in the family, but a little off. Every family reunion he'd sit and tell jokes about family members who have since passed on. He's nostalgic that way. He always praised the pie, and always exclaims that they need to do a family pie contest one year. When he finishes eating, you could find him with the other guys on the porch smoking a cigar.
But there was a problem...
After a reunion, one of the moms found her daughter crying in her room. Trying to peel the information away, the daughter was ashamed. Eventually the mother hears something horrible: Uncle Felix had inappropriately touched her. The mother knows it's true, because Uncle Felix had done the same thing to her when she was a kid. Hugging it out with her daughter, but not sharing her story, she is without words what to do.
Here's where the average person, sitting outside this situation has clear answers.
You directly talk to Felix. You call the police, or at least get a professional third party involved. You take healthy action towards wholeness.
This is very difficult to see when the abuser and the abused lives in the same family system. Yes, the family wants to keep their daughters safe, but they also love Felix. If they call the police, Felix would be put on the sex offender list at the very least. At the most, the poor old man would be in prison.
(It's here I'm going to stop for just a moment. I'm not justifying anything. I'm trying to understand actions and reactions. I'm going to turn this to church in a moment, because I don't think we've been framing these discussions correctly. So, if you need to, walk away: Take a breath, and please come back.)
The family quietly talks about what to do. They decide to keep the kids separated from the adults. Have their activities, and adult activities in different areas. If anyone sees Felix headed to chat with the kids, they would redirect him to the adults. For this family, the problem was solved.
Only the girls struggled with body and self-esteem issues well into adulthood. More than that, Felix wasn't just touching his families girls. He had a history of abuse outside the family too.
In the 1950's, Dr. Murray Bowen came up with the concept of Family Systems. The basic idea being that an individual cannot be understood apart from his or her family. The family creates this intense unity that makes it difficult for someone to form a "differentiation of self." The Family System's Institute aptly puts it:
Bowen’s theory doesn’t focus on mental illness but on the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all. It’s not an easy theory to grasp, as it focuses on the big-picture patterns of a system rather than the narrower view of what causes difficulties for one individual. These ideas invite us to see the world through the lens of each family member rather than just from our own subjective experience; they don’t allow room for simply seeing victims and villains in our relationship networks. Seeing the system takes people beyond blame to seeing the relationship forces that set people on their different paths. This way of seeing our life challenges avoids fault-finding and provides a unique path to maturing throughout our adult lives.
Generally speaking, professors have adopted Family Systems to help understand the culture of individual congregations. While I was in seminary I was taught mapping as a way to understand the power structures already present in the system. It's a solid idea, that I've yet to find fault in.
This is why one of the big hurdles to overcome, when trying to triage church, is to understand the family systems at play in the smaller, and yes, larger system. I've watched multiple Regional Ministers coach local ministers to just quietly resign instead of dealing with the trauma head on. Then the church re-creates the same trauma again with a new minister. And, the situation goes the other way too. There are horrible ministers out there, that cross boundaries and hurt congregants. The church is coached to ask for the minister's resignation instead of firing him or her.
But poor ol' Uncle Felix.
When something breaks in the church the church reacts like they are dealing with dearly loved family members, and they spiritually are. It is in the church DNA to guard and protect everyone within the spiritual family. It's really difficult to go against the tidal wave of emotion to do the right thing. The mindset of the congregation is that one side has already felt the pain, while the abuser can be saved future pain. As in, now that the damage is done, how does the system save everyone. Nothing is going to undo the abuse, but something is going to protect the beloved member of the system.
Now before you go type up your angry response play this game with me. Imagine a dear loved family member. It can be an aunt, uncle, grandparent, parent; even child. You are told that person was abusive in some way to someone else. Can you start the process to seek justice in the situation no matter what the outcome might be? Now imagine the issue is a dear loved one having abused another dear loved one. Can you do it? When I took the Youth Protection Training with the BSA, I discovered the answer is often 'no."
Realize those dynamics are what's at play in churches. This is made the most clear when you realize the best way to heal from a broken family system is to leave it completely. That's what broken Christians have been doing in droves for the past two decades. It's "easier" to let the victim quietly leave, than to fix the abuser's problem. Churches justify this by telling themselves the victim chose to leave, instead of being forced out by neglect.
Everything I have shared is the reason there is a disconnect in the conversation. The abused knows how to verbalize his or her abuse, and many have courageously spoken. Many churches even quietly affirm the abuse happened. For example, I can remember a congregant whispering to me, "They did it again." Denominations and churches are aware of the problem, and can name it. It's when we get to the action to fix the problem that everything falls apart. Why?
Because Church is a family system, sometimes literally. It requires us to engage in the problem differently. In a company, they can simply fire the problem. You can't fire a family member, and you can't expect the problem will magically return to normal if a Church could. Instead, we need to see the problem as systemic. How does one fix that?
Love. Churches need to see outing abuse as the loving action for the abused AND the abuser. It's time to stop and think with our heart. Yeah, it's scary to think that the most loving action is to seek justice, but it's biblical.
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: "Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Think of it this way: If the church is a family system, we are all connected. We are all guilty in our own way of the past three decades. We could have been the abuser, we could have willfully ignored the problem, or perhaps we protected the abuser to allow the abuse to continue. We must take that guilt to the table, and seek forgiveness and healing. Grace only happens if we are willing to admit we need it.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humans
to see if anyone is wise,
to see if anyone seeks God,
but all of them have turned bad.
Everyone is corrupt.
No one does good--
not even one person!
Are they dumb, all these evildoers,
devouring my people
like they are eating bread
but never calling on the Lord?
Count on it; they will be in utter panic
because God is with the righteous generation.
You evildoers may humiliate
the plans of those who suffer,
but the Lord is their refuge.
Psalm 14:2-6 CEB
I’ve been having a hard time lately.
I know there will be suffering in this world. I know some of that suffering will be inflicted by people.
What I can’t wrap my head around is how blatantly people are dehumanizing one another, and even rejoicing in the suffering of those who aren’t like them. I expect people who revel in evil to do evil, but these are people who claim to delight in good.
Sometimes it feels like we’re hopeless. We’ll never get past the fear that motivates us to hate other people. This will always be a world where people jump to judge those in need as unworthy instead of jumping to help. I wonder if we can set aside our pride long enough to witness Christ in one another.
Will we ever weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn? Or will we always stay safe in our comfortable, unearned, bubbles?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had so many moments of despair.
So many times I’ve heard “good Christians” talk about other human beings like they were garbage. Literal, inhuman garbage.
So many moments I’ve seen people quote the Bible to justify evil, and I ask, “Is anyone seeking God?”
Sometimes it does seem like everyone is corrupt. That nobody is wise. Nobody is seeking God. Nobody is doing good. Not even one person!
But it’s not true.
There are people out there doing good. There are people out there risking what they have to help people in need. People who don’t prioritize their comfort above the needs of others. People who value every person’s life, not just their own.
It’s hard to notice them sometimes. They don’t tend to get flashy with it all and draw attention to themselves, so they’re easy to miss.
When I want to know where God is in all of this, these people are my answer. God is with them, working through them.
I know that’s not enough because there aren’t enough of us willing to allow God to work through us like that. We need more people who are seeking God.
And that’s our challenge. Are we wise? Are we seeking God? Or are we seeking to protect what we believe we deserve because we’re afraid of losing it?
Are we people of faith or are we people of fear?
When someone is despairing, asking where God is, and they look at me, what do they see?
The Lord is the refuge of the suffering. If Christ is in is, we’re that refuge too.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Jim Jones was a super star. Everyone was looking in his direction, because everyone thought he'd finally figured out a good version of Communism. That's what Jonestown was supposed to be. If the People's Temple could survive in a closed system, then it could be implemented in a larger way. Only it failed... terribly. Jonestown was not the utopia Jim Jones was playing it up to be. When people came to check it out, and someone attempted to leave, everything turned for the worst. Jones' told members to gun down the visitors, and then convinced hundreds to commit suicide by drinking Flavor-Aide laced with cyanide. The babies and kids had the juice forced down their throats. By the time it was through, over 900 humans died in the jungle of Guyana.
Oh did the view of Jones change after that. No longer was he the ministerial darling that would change the landscape of communal living. He was a monster. Stories began to come out of the woodwork. He used his power to convince people to sleep with him. He faked miracles to make it look like he was the "real deal." He possibly had someone killed who decided he didn't want to be part of the People's Temple any longer.
I like to use Jim Jones as an example because he was a well liked person, who had tons of followers, but was ultimately wrong. History doesn't want to admit, that like Hitler, Jones was a media darling at one point. It's situations like those that the Bandwagon Fallacy exists.
The Bandwagon Fallacy is when someone appeals to popularity or the idea that a large group of people do something to validate that something as right. This fallacy can take many forms where ignorance, non-action, and inaction get justified because most people are doing whatever is being justified.
We forget, that historically, a large majority of people can continue abuse and self-harm to a system. The Crusades, Slavery, the mass genocide happening in countries to this day are all examples where our inaction or ignorance rubber stamped terrible actions.
“If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble.”
It's easy to play that game. We can take these terrible events and history and raise our flag like we accomplished something by stating, "Not I, Lord! The rest may fall away, but I'd stand for injustice!" Only, the church has a band wagon's today. Sure, no one is getting ripped in two, or gassed. We don't have physical mountains of hair left over as a reminder of our atrocities. Most of the time, being on the wrong side isn't that easy. Only movies have smoking guns, and clearly laid out bread crumb trails. Instead, we have stories. Mountains of stories. We've all heard them, but the church isn't making it their war cry. Why?
We have chosen our new war cries. "It wasn't at my church." "I wasn't there when that specific thing happened." "I wasn't part of that specific event."
For the one who is now an outsider looking in, those words pierce so deeply. Just because no one else in the church is seeking justice, doesn't mean your specific Christian institution is innocent. Just because the event is over and everyone has left who was hurt, doesn't mean the issue is resolved. Just because you sit with thousands of others who are going through the patterns every week, doesn't mean you are on the correct side. That's the Band Wagon Fallacy. I'm circling it, and actually, I'm making it a target. We are not here to save an institution. We are here to save the people. Stop focusing on the place, and maybe you will see we are hemorrhaging.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I just spent a couple of great days camping at Christmount Christian Assembly, in Black Mountain, North Carolina. While I was there, I took a few minutes to chat with Rev. Jamie Brame. That name might sound familiar to you. He is the Programs Director up at Christmount, and he has written for one of our devotionals. I knew Jamie through Christmount. I spent three summers working there. The first year, I asked to be a Camp Staffer. He had just hired the last one, and asked if I wanted to work in the kitchen. Wanting to do something, I happily said yes. The following two years I was camp staff. That's a side note to the reason for this post.
Jamie reminded me of something I've always kept close to my heart, but have never verbalized. A minister is more than the man or woman who is called. A minister is the collection of experiences and lessons from the countless individuals around him or her. When I share weekly meditations, I'm sharing more than myself. Part of my words and actions come from Jamie Brame. So, I wish to share some of the people who have tempered my message, and how they have formed me into the minister I am today.
Rev Jamie Brame: Jamie is the human representation of God's grace in action. Two nights ago, my daughter and I stopped by the Guest House on our way to the pool. Jamie and I talked for a few minutes, and as I was leaving, he began talking about me with someone else. "You know, she used to sing..." he began. "Just like my dad," I thought to myself. Recalling history with fond recollection. And that's what he does with everyone. You can sit with Jamie and hear story after story of those Jamie has encountered, and even the rough stories are edged with love. That's who he is. That's who I became. Everyone has the potential for greatness. Everyone has the ability to change and grow. Jamie sees that. He doesn't focus on the mistakes. He focuses on the potential. When I was ordained I swore I would live by that mantra. God help me, if Jamie loves me, I must go and do likewise.
Rev James Brewer-Calvert (And his whole family): I've known James' family for years now. My first year on Camp Staff the youngest Brewer-Calvert was going through Beginner's Camp at Christmount. I've counselled the oldest through CYF. I've worked side by side with both in multiple camp settings. With James, I could call him and he would answer. I could ask him, and he would help. He is the human representation of God's hope in action. He told me to sit and wait, not because the time to act was done, but because sometimes one has to pause to prepare for action. He always sees the best in what is coming, and knows we are the hands and feet to make that best come to fruition. If James see the best in me, I must become the best I can be.
Rev Lori Lynn Wachter: Lori Lynn was the very first female minister I heard preach. Her Craddock style of preaching was immediately engaging. As a middle schooler, I watched everything she did with awed fascination. The ease at which she directed camp. The planning for every youth event. I saw the method behind the plan, and was hooked. It's no wonder she was the very first person I told when I needed to express that I too, had a call to ministry. She affirmed that call. I was someone who never understood my own power, or fought for it. I gave it up more often than I'd like to admit. Lori Lynn taught me power is both earned and fought for. If Lori Lynn could stand up for the broken shell of myself, I can stand up for the redeemed child of God I've become.
Rev. Fred Craddock: Fred influenced me before I even understood that was what was happening. He transformed the world of modern preaching, the very world I grew up in. When I finally heard him preach at the General Assembly in Nashville, I watched the art of preaching, as he so deftly told complex theological ideas in an easy to digest way. He wasn't trying to show how smart he was. Instead, he was at the level of the listener, helping them gain knowledge. This all done in a storytelling form. So many pastors were knowingly or unknowningly taught their preaching style from the late Rev. Fred Craddock. Fred, in his greatness, was the most humble among us. If he could shine so bright in his humility, I can shine to light the way for others inside or outside the church.
Mrs. Miller: I try to give credit where credit is due. For example, when someone comments on my neat handwriting I always respond, "Thank my third grade teacher." She was appalled by our writing and made us all redo it. I write neatly today because of her. If you ever hear me read the bible, and hear my inflection, thank Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller was my fifth grade teacher. She was the sweetest most loving person, who reminds me of Ms. Honey from Matilda (without knowing her backstory, of course.) She fully believed, if you couldn't read a passage with inflection, you were missing pieces of the story. Without realizing this was what she was doing, she helped me in the first level of biblical interpretation. She also gave me a passion for reading, and helping others love the text too. If Mrs Miller could help fifth graders put aside their arrogance for a moment to see the deeper meaning in what's already in front of them, I can do the same with adults.
This is just a small collection of people I can easily pinpoint and say they have molded my life as a minister. In reality, I could spend the rest of my life naming the ones who have influenced my ministry. You may only hear my solo voice in Thursday Meditations, and Sunday Education, but I'm truly singing a harmony of all those who have taught me. These are the voices preaching beyond my words. Every minister who stands before a congregation is preaching in harmony. You are hearing their camp counselor, mother, sister, teacher... the list goes on.
Who is your harmony? When you work with others, who has formed you into the person you are today?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Almost seven years ago I discovered what it felt like to be on the wrong side of a broken church. Not to say there is a right side. There is a side that breaks you to pieces emotionally and spiritually, and there is a side where everything is pretty much invisible. There is the side that has been personally hurt by the problem, and the side that knows there is a problem, but doesn't realize they are part of it. Up until seven years ago I was on the side of ignorance, blissfully unaware of how damaging the Christian System had already been to countless individuals. Or, if there was a problem, I didn't consider my role in it's infliction.
I can't speak to myself seven years ago. That person has grown up and learned some hard lessons. I can speak to those who were recently tossed into this wilderness, having been a victim of church brokenness. Here are some things people personally told me, and I wished people had told me back when this all began:
Let us pray: Oh Holy Parent: Your people are broken. We yearn for healing from a cruel world. A world where thousands are killed in a single night. A world where the wounded are often left on the side of the road without a Samaritan in sight. As we've become the fractured landscape, teach us to heal ourselves and those around us. Perhaps that is just with a simple prayer at first. Perhaps, we simply find a broken remnant of ourselves and begin there. We hope for a redeemed Kingdom. Your Kingdom.
All this we pray in your Son's most holy name, Amen.