-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Nearly a decade ago I sat in a new church retreat. The language had just changed. Instead of calling them “New Church Starts” we were now going to call them “New Church Plants.”
My heart sank. I do not have a green thumb. Throughout the years, I’ve been part of multiple plants being destroyed.
When I was a kid, we tried to grow watermelons on the chewed up stumps in our front yard. The person we paid to mow our lawn ran over our plants not only once, but twice. Eventually, the third time, when Dad informed my sister and me that the cucumber sized watermelon wasn’t going to get much bigger because fall was coming, we pulled it all up, cut the baby up and tried it. (Baby watermelon does taste like cucumber btw. In case you were curious.)
One year for Mother’s Day, the church I was part of decided to give everyone a planted flower. The moment I had one in my possession, it was almost like the flower knew it’s fate. It weakly drooped. Two weeks later, it was dead.
I remember one year the closing gift for High School camp was a cup of dirt with a sunflower seed in it. I was so excited! Sunflowers are probably my absolute favorite flower. I took it home, and was excited to see a plant break through the dirt. For once I wasn’t killing something! Only, there was no sunflower seed in my cup. They had missed mine, and the dirt they gathered was from directly outside. I was growing a weed.
Then there was two years ago, when I found myself subbing a class for an extended period of time. On the teacher's desk was a very small plant, and in her window was a big ivy. One of the students was tasked with watering the ivy. I took on the small plant. As the weeks progressed, I was pleased to see the small plant showed absolutely no signs of dying. It was on my last day I realized why. The plant was fake. I was watering a fake plant.
I hate the language of plants.
I hate comparing church starts to plants. The top reason is my absolutely black thumb. If the stories above don’t convince you, those are just the easiest ones to tell. I’ve also failed helping my daughter grow plants. Those stories either end in the plant shriveling up and dying, or a chipmunk eating it up. It has left me, someone with a new church plant, feeling completely demoralized. Every time another one bites the dust, I say the same prayer to God: “Well God, there you go. I killed another one. Why am I called to be a church planter again? You sure about this?”
The other reason I hate the language of plants is because of what it has come to mean.
I’ve written multiple times about “grafting.” Grafting is when you take a sturdy trunk and cut off it’s limbs. You then attach the limbs of a good fruit tree, so you control what the plant produces. It’s been used to produce apples for centuries, but this technique is not limited to apples.
The reason I hate the language of plants is most American church plants are grafted. God plants the seed in someone’s heart. The seed takes root. The plant begins to grow. When the Church feels the plant has grown enough they (oh so lovingly) hack off it’s limbs and replaces it with their limbs. Basically, they use the new Church’s tap into the Spirit, to grow their dying fruit. In the 90’s it was great! We all wanted copy/paste church. In the Aughts it was okay. After all, we found the fruit of modern music, so it was different enough to get by. By the teens it stopped working.
Why did it stop working? Two reasons:
First: the church was/is dying. They had to be more selective about which plants they were going to steal Spirit from. Therefore, not only did they selectively choose which new plants to fertilize, they stopped fertilizing a large group of new plants. When these unfertilized plants begin to shrivel and die it was seen as a sign that they shouldn’t have existed to begin with, instead of the realization that they were never given the chance to thrive. (Fig Tree came with it’s own fertilizer, which is why it has become the little plant that could.)
Second: The churches that are dying started to grow selfish. “Why are we supporting new plants when there are plenty of older churches that need support?” I think I’ve heard enough Christians say that exact line that I can no longer tell you how many times I’ve heard it. Worse than this, I don’t think they know their own selfishness. The ship is sinking. Of course they want to live, and they are (in their obvious fears) willing to sacrifice the future in order to live now. It completely lacks the trust in God, and what God does with death. (It’s also bad theology that spent generations skipping over the subject of death all together.)
Last School Year I Was Given Plants.
I still can’t wrap my mind around this previous school year. I can’t really talk about it, because unless you were there, you just don’t understand. Let me just say, I am incredibly fortunate to be in a school where I can be completely helpful, and I’m appreciated for that help.
During teacher appreciation week (where us subs in the lowest tier are usually completely dismissed), I was given gifts for everything I did. Part of those gifts were two plants. One a cactus, and the other the beginnings of a rose bush.
I loved those plants, but I immediately feared for their safety. This was me, afterall. I’m the destroyer of plants. The abuser of chlorophyll. They would never have a chance, even a cactus.
I took them home, gave them water, and said a prayer.
They both began to die. Of course.
I lamented my problem with some friends, and one gave me this advice. “Stop doing so much to them. Put the roses outside where they belong, and don’t over water the cactus.”
The next day I took the roses outside to the front garden, dug in a whole, broke up the soil, and buried it.
As the days progressed my husband told me he didn’t think the roses were going to make it. He said the flowers were dying. Only I was seeing something different. Sure, the roses themselves were dying. It was no longer spring. The leaves were different. They were growing richer and greener by the day. I watered it each afternoon, and left it alone. I had given it to God. In return, it was taking root and accepting its new home.
The cactus was the same. As I stepped back, it grew stronger. It appeared, for these two plants, what they needed the most from me was trust.
Which brought me back to Fig Tree. Fig Tree is the little plant that just won’t die. I’ve cried over her, and I’ve seen potential growth whither up, but I have not seen death. Even when it seems so emanant, she persists. I don’t think God gave me the seed I was expecting, you know, like a gorgeous sunflower. Others didn’t think I got the seed they expected either. Sometimes we’ve been looked at like a weed. I went places where the sun doesn’t always shine; and wouldn’t always get the attention and focus.
Really, what has kept Fig Tree alive is trust. God gave me a seed, AND believed I wouldn’t kill it. God trusted me, and now I must trust God. That sounds really simple, but when you don’t trust yourself, it’s actually super hard. When it all comes down to it, the biggest way you can learn to trust what God gives you, is to find trust in yourself first. God has plans, and God’s plans are bigger than our plans.
Could I still fail. Yes.
Could others cause failure. Absolutely.
It's just saying, God is there, and trusts us enough to hand us new life.
It should fill us with hope. From hope springs new life.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I want to start by saying that in one month this site will be 9 years old. Writing this one month away feels right. One year from 10. One month from 9. Over 500 posts just written by me, and the amazing guests who have stepped in and wrote their own words. Enough words to fill two short novels or one epic story.
If I were paid only minimum wage for all the different ways I’ve worked for Fig Tree (recording, planning, writing, and creating), we are looking at 150,000 thousand dollars of my time- donated. IF my work was only worth minimum wage.
This donation of time continues. While I’m the one who initiated it, and maintained it. It frustrates those around me who want me to not only be paid a living wage, but a living wage doing ministry.
I’ve been saying for months that Covid didn’t create anything new. It made hard truths easier to see, and created chasms where there were already cracks. Specifically, I want to talk about how we treat servant leaders in the United States.
The theology of using.
In my college days, I was working as a student assistant in the music dept at Kennesaw State. (With three others, I recorded sound and video for students and teachers.) My boss taught me a very important lesson. When on the clock, give your best work. When off the clock, stay off the clock.
I was also working my second church job I’d ever worked. I knew I was being paid for 10 hours of work each week. I gave the best 10 hours of work I could give. I created lesson plans, and planned events. I already knew if someone else tried to do what I was doing, it would take more than 10 hours. That’s because an hour of work was worth about $10, and $10 at that time was almost twice minimum wage.
Eventually, I wanted a raise in hours. I wrote out everything I did with my time. I brought examples of my work.
One of the Elders and one of the ministers flat out told me, “We assumed you’d volunteer your time over and beyond what we were paying you. You should be working more than 10 hours per week.” Basically, they were paying minimum wage, but didn’t want to feel bad about paying an employee minimum wage so they gave the real sacrifice to me to feel better.
The Crack that Unfairly focuses on Females.
In November of 2019, Nathen Eva wrote on the emotional toll of leaders. While the article was the emotional toll of all leaders, he spent some time specifically on female leaders. He found there was a disparity between men and women in roles of leadership. Men were almost always rewarded for exhibiting nurturing habits as a leader. Meanwhile, women were expected to be nurturing, and punished when they are not.
I also don’t think this is healthy nurturing. When I nurture my children sometimes it’s during the hard lessons. I sat with my daughter yesterday morning as she fought while tying her shoes. (Something she learned several years ago, but likes my ties better.) The easy choice would have been to take over and do it for her. That would have appeared to be nurturing, but it wouldn’t have really. My daughter has to learn self-reliance. Nurturing was sitting with her while I was mentally pulling out my hair, as she verbally fought me on the silliness of tying shoe laces. It was uncomfortable, but it was right. I’ve seen women get shorn down for healthy nurturing, because it doesn’t feel good. I’ve also seen men get raised up for feeding sugary emptiness under the guise of love. Real nurturing from women, and fake nurturing from men.
I can begin to see how the disparity works against me. It’s harder to see my sacrifice because society has incorrectly learned that I should naturally suffer it. My value is only equalized by my self-inflicted suffering. Yet, I feel the tide has begun to turn.
This tide has felt relieving for myself. I give, and my giving is not looked at as something I should naturally do, but as (what it is) a gift. And, as I watch areas begin to show equal treatment between males and females, I have seen some men struggle with a more equal footing. The overabundant of ease has been taken away. They feel it is unfair, and push back, only to find women showing their form of nurturing, and not liking that either.
The Crack that Broke Ministers.
There were so many ministers who needed a break during the Pandemic. What was already more than a full time job, became a monster all it’s own.
First off- you can’t just become an online minister. The camera doesn’t work the same way as the human eye and ear. Even I, who has had education on recording through school and work, found the “look” of ministry to be different than anything I had previously experienced. I struggled figuring it out, as the look of the video is the sanctuary of the worshipper. There were ministers who had never recorded a single thing in their life, now attempting to understand Facebook Live and Zoom on top of a demographic that had neither program.
Secondly- There were so many people who “needed” servant leaders, they abused servant leaders. This goes beyond ministry. Education is also filled with servants who give up more than what they are paid for, and are told it’s part of their job to break personal boundaries. Now, any servant leader that somehow was able to maintain healthy boundaries were forced to break them with in-house studios. They had to take their work home, because home was where they were working. Also, everyone needed support. We were all dealing with a life altering event, and no one considered how servant-leaders were impacted by all this. Your leaders felt like tools or things instead of people, and that was because that’s how you treated them.
You are not losing all servant leaders right now; only the ones with healthy boundaries that felt they were pushed too far. Those are the ones we need to hold on to. Those are the ones who know how to say, “no,” in a way that shows love.
The American Church was built while we were explorers. People came to America to seek freedom from oppression. Only, those oppressions no longer exist, and the American Church still wants to be oppressed by something. They also have allowed snakes and wolves into their leadership roles. They see the brokenness, while refusing to accept their role in it.
The Crack that Broke Education.
Education was built during the Industrial age, and was created to be a machine. It was made to educate as many people as possible as cost efficiently as possible. Only, as the Industrial Age closed, and people started seeing the humanity in the kids, they never changed the systems, only “differentiated” the system. Today, it’s bloated with no way for any teacher to do all the things asked of him and her. Basically, education is a giant machine, tasked to do it’s main duty, while also tasked to do a million side projects.
These are men and women who also found their boundaries crossed with at home studios in 2020. Education and ministry has many overlaps, including a collection of individuals who are praised when they spend their own money and time to make a broken system work. Since education is primarily filled by women, they are also dealing with the collective system that simply assumes they need to give freely of themselves. To do so, means they only break even.
Where are we going?
I personally cannot even fathom how these systems will continue to exist as they are. They were already on the edge of failure before the Pandemic. Now the cracks are chasms, and the solution is duct tape. (Where duct tape is to continue to use our servant leaders like tools instead of people.)
As we pretend to want to go back the way we were, we are going to find that things are too broken. Perhaps next year we'll make it work, but that's simply a fool's errand. Our systems, as we've understood them, are now gone. If we are not proactive in what takes their place, we are asking for something worse to take their place, and we won't have anyone to lead that.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I am an active reader. I put emphasis in my words. My 5th grade teacher, Ms. Miller, taught me how to read actively. My entire literary world opened up the day she stopped me, and told me to try again with feeling. That’s why I love reading in class. With a book in my hand, I can get a group of middle schoolers on the edge of their seat in suspense, or laughing out loud with an author’s joke. It’s like for a brief 40 minutes I can show jaded kids one of the ways adults play pretend.
Two weeks ago I was reading a book out loud. It was no different than any other book, except this one used “damn,” and “hell,” pretty loosely. The middle schoolers thought it was hilarious, not because I was reading them outloud, but because it was me reading them outloud. They wanted to know why my ministerial sensibilities were not crushed by these PG-13 words. (PG if we were to be honest.)
Language is a construct
Language is a human construct. We made it up. We continue to make it up. We’ll make it up for years beyond this moment.
Because we make it up, we give words power. An excellent example:
Back in 1420, King Henry V led England to victory over King Charles’ French army, successfully conquering France. This meant English became the language of the higher class, while French became the language of the lower class. The remnants of this sort of class language can be seen in the grocery store. The animal is often given the English name, but the butchered food is given the French. Cow:Beef, Chicken:Poultry, Pig:Pork. It was the higher class buying food from the lower class- so while English speakers retained their words for the actual animal, they took on the other language when purchasing foods from the market.
I went down this rabbit hole over 20 years ago, when I realized the German word for meat was “fleisch,” literally translated, it becomes flesh. We don't call our prime rib "flesh," but how is "meat" any different? This grisly knowledge opened my vocabulary, and helped me understand how words can change over the years.
I was really illuminated when my final German project was translating Genesis 1 from Luther’s Bible. When our “Heavens” was “Himmel” in German, the literal word being, “sky,” I realized our language was just that, our language. A few years later I would look at the Hebrew in Genesis 1, and Heavens would be הַשָּׁמַיִם, or “sky” in Hebrew. Not God’s words, but a translation of what God wanted the people to know. Otherwise, God simply being in the sky doesn’t work. We have a far more complex view of our universe than we did thousands of years ago.
Language is an entrance fee to a culture.
Point blank: It is super difficult to write Christian. If I want to be taken seriously as a Christian writer, I have to write academically. Academic writing requires writing over everyone’s head. I don’t need to sway academics. I’m pretty confident most of them feel I’m not even relevant. If I want Christians to flock to my words, I better use Christianese. I better write about being blessed and being touched by the Spirit. Only, Christianeze is really great to talk to people who already agree or mostly agree with what you are trying to say. To me, that’s an epic waste of time. If you are wondering why Christianeze couldn’t work on different kinds of Christians, well, that’s because we know our languages. We can pick up right away whether someone is writing from a reformed, evangelical, Catholic, [insert your version here] brand of Christianese, and we already basically know what each brand is going to say, so we ignore what doesn’t belong to our brand.
I’m constantly walking the line of writing over people’s heads, or too much to the wrong audience, knowing not writing academically, or to a specific brand of Christian basically turns off almost everyone who would willingly read a Christian writer.
Fuck, I’m off topic.
“Shit” isn’t what makes me pastoral or not.
When I read to that middle school class, some of them wanted to know why I could read “damn” and “hell” aloud and still call myself a minister.
Let me out myself right this very moment. When my husband and I are alone in the car we swear like sailors. I don’t believe that makes me any more or less a pastor. Let me list some things that would make me less of a pastor:
If I’m at school- I’ll read the book. I’ll keep my language PG. I’ll wear clothes that are within the school dress code.
If I’m chilling with pirates, I’ll use their language and their dress to communicate. I’ve already lost them if I use mine. (Although, I think they’d appreciate neon nails and bright red hair.)
If you think that’s being two-sided, check yourself. Social constructs are merely keys to kingdoms. I keep what’s real the same: I actively love my neighbor. I openly seek the truth. I want to make the community I’m interacting with comfortable in their house. I’m after what’s real. What’s real is deeper than the language we use, it’s deeper than the clothes we wear, and so much deeper than anything else that excludes others. That's what I'm after, and if your not… well, good luck with that.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I sat at my computer reading the title, “I Got Ordained So I Can Talk About Jesus. Not the Female Pastor Debate.”
Wow, I think. That’s the dream, isn’t it?
Rev. Tish Harrison Warren was writing on the three women who were recently ordained at Saddleback Church. It made headlines, and I remember looking at the picture of the three women with (unfortunately) jaded eyes. I immediately thought, “Are they going to be relegated to women’s or children’s ministry?” “Are people asking them if their husbands approved of this move?” “What sexist thing is being posted to these women under the guise of “love” but really it is the dirty smear of sexism?”
Then there’s the unfair double standard put on women in ministry. Men, like Mark Driscoll, can plagiarize, and inappropriately use church funds and end up with a new ministry out of it all. Ravi Zacharias can turn sexual abuse around to attack the abused, slandering the abusers name, and the truth isn’t allowed to surface until after his death. Meanwhile women in ministry must be without any sin, for with the first sign that they are not the perfected servant from God, they can be ousted from the community before the slandering paint has time to dry.
More than that, no one thinks Zacharias or Driscoll stand for all male ministers, but every woman minister somehow speaks for all women in ministry. If one woman fails it becomes the reason all women fail. Partly, it's because there are those who immediately want us to fail. This creates those who never want us to fail, because the consequences are too high. Female ministry has become like diamonds. There are so many hidden away in mines. The ones in charge have chosen to only release a few to those coveted spots, pulling just a handful out in the open, forcing us to become limited resources when we are actually abundant.
My call to ministry:
I got ordained so I can talk about Jesus, not the female Pastor debate.
No, really. I completely agree with Warren on this.
Perhaps if I were to use my own statement it would more pointedly read, “I felt called from God, and I followed that call.” While that specific statement is so open from your end, it’s open in another way from mine. I was actively against being like all the other women ministers I knew. I deeply wanted to dig into scripture without bringing gender into the subject. I didn’t want to preface my sermons with telling everyone I have a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, or that I was ordained by two congregations within the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ). Yet, here I am, forced to carry around my bio like a shield, and brace for impact.
When I was in the pulpit, questioning my call as it related to my gender was mostly never asked. Unless I was seeking a job. Then the question was never asked, but always inferred. People you loved suddenly turned into snakes and bit out. Imagine what it’s like to hear someone you respect and love say to your face, “I personally believe women should be ministers, but I voted against it because I don’t think our church was ready for one.” Imagine being on the phone for a church interview and the Senior Pastor pointedly asks, “Why do you call yourself ‘Pastor?’ We like you, just not with that title.” The biggest whammy being the one that comes from colleagues, “If I were looking for an associate…” It’s the dreaded, “You’re too qualified for this job.” It’s the easy, and safe out. Not offensive, but still exclusionary.
When I’m online and out in the world it’s a whole other battlefield. While no one in the church would tell me to my face they don’t think women are ministers, outside the church has no problem at all. Middle schoolers like to joyfully announce they don’t believe in me, like I’m somehow a fairy that would cease to exist if it’s not immediately followed with clapping to keep me from suffocating under the weight of those words. It’s the way my projects are quietly taken away and given to a man; rebranded to never to be associated with me. (In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I felt Sam’s raw pain in seeing Cap’s shield being given to a white man. I’ve experienced the same pain as a woman.) It’s also the gawking stares once they hear I’m clergy, like I’ve magically become a dangerous monster with three eyes and two heads.
Online, it’s become less my title, and more about the subversion of that title. Nowhere was this more clear to me than when I tried a male username for 6 months. On Reddit, my username is /u/RevMelissa. I’ve had an account since April 2013. I used to think it was normal how often I’d have to explain myself or dig up sources. I thought the negative attention was what every minister received, and I pushed into it. It wasn’t until I began to notice a guy could come behind me, say the exact same thing, and their comment would be upvoted while mine was being criticized and brought to lower tiers of the thread.
My original plan was to bring in a minister of the opposite gender, and the two of us would create new usernames. Mine would be a masculine pastor, and his would be a feminine pastor. Then we would spend six months on Reddit, responding to comments and occasionally posting. At the end of six months we would compare karma, and write about our experiences. Everyone I asked was either too busy, or too uncomfortable with Reddit. Even among friends, I couldn’t find a single person to help me understand what was happening.
So I did it myself, creating /u/PastorJerome. Sometimes I’d even post almost identical comments in the same thread. I’d watch as people so willingly accepted Jerome and the title. There was power in the male username in a way I had no idea. (If you want to go down that rabbit hole- there’s the original post on my userpage, and my About page has two articles on the subject.) I had wanted someone to pick it up and do a real study. I wanted it to show something deeper, but all that work ended in nothing.
So what about that dream?
I am a woman who has been working in the church for over 20 years. I was ordained 11 years ago. I’ve physically worked at one conference center, and 5 churches; one of them a senior pastorite. I was a supply for two churches. I’ve been the minister of Fig Tree Christian for almost 9 years. Yet, I’m currently earning money through subbing middle school. I don’t get paid through Fig Tree; it has never brought in even close to enough to put me on salary. All that said, I am a minister.
I want what Warren wants. Believe me, we all do. We want what the men so naturally have: to not have their words constantly compared to their gender; to be treated the way Jesus treated women. We want to be like the woman at the well, who became an evangelist. Jesus never ended that conversation with, “And look at you doing all that as a woman!” He didn’t chastise her for pulling in guys with her work. He treated her as a person who did something for God. Is it too much to want that?
That’s the dream, but the reality is I have a 9 year old daughter. I’m quickly choosing to stop fighting for myself, and start fighting for her. I absolutely don’t, with no conditions, want her to become an adult in the world right now. My struggles go beyond ministry. I want her super creative spirit to not be completely crushed when she becomes an adult; when that creativity appears dangerous to the greater world. So here is where I stand:
More than anything, for everyone, realize this is a battle that is still being fought, and it needs support. It wears us out. Women- you are not losers if the weight of the world causes you to collapse. Even top tier fighters have their breaking point. It doesn’t change your call. It doesn’t change your mission. It just means you need to rest for a bit. You women in ministry- you rock. I support you, and I hope you support me.
Everyone else- maybe come at that with a bit of grace.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;
23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Roman 8:22-23 NRSV
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second child, that I finally really read Romans 8. Guys out there, do any of you know what labor pains are like, or being pregnant in general? (I know the answer’s no, which is why it’s shocking to see Paul use the analogy so loosely.)
Pregnancy can rip your body apart. Skin pulls in ways it is not used to pulling, and very quickly. Your body swells. You can’t fit into your shoes and your fingers feel like sausages. You want to eat strange things, like a jar of pickles in one sitting. I knew a mom that could only manage to eat fried liver, and she hated every bite. The closer you get to labor, the more uncomfortable it is to sleep, but (at the same time) you are so tired. Those last few weeks, you begin to wonder if God’s actually transforming you into a boat, instead of a mother.
At the event itself, even if you are given an epidural for the labor, there is pain that continues afterwards. There are places that tear with natural pregnancy, and the C-Section wound if you go the other route. The person who did the epidural the second time, did it wrong, and it only worked on the right side of my body. The other half felt everything.
And boys, you need to realize this, that period that didn’t happen for 9 months? Well, after birth it’s back, all 9 months of it, and it can last for weeks. The hospital gives these horrid pads too. If they were a little bit wider, they might as well be called a diaper.
Then there’s the post pregnancy weight. The doctors tell you they want you personally to gain weight during pregnancy. What they don’t tell you is that weight could stay with you for years. Also, when fat cells are created, they never truly go away. That means, for the rest of your life it will be easier to gain back that weight, because those fat cells are just waiting to be filled up again.
What was Paul getting at?
Let me first say, compared to Ancient Rome, I can confidently say my pregnancies were way more comfortable than the women of that time.
I also think this sort of language needs to be used more often in the Church- the language of pregnancy and birth.
Finally, I think it’s super uncomfortable to watch a ministerial man fumble through this text to blurt out at the end, “But I honestly have no idea what that’s like.”
So, let me get to the nuts and bolts of this as a ministerial woman; with a confidence that only comes from being a mom that birthed babies- let me lay it out.
Birthing anything will change you.
The absolute truth of labor is this: When it starts you want it to stop, but you have to literally push through the pain to get to that point. It is the point of no return.
When afterwards, when your very body is a forign object, you are left with someone new who has no way to care for him or herself. You need to process and heal, but they need you now. It is the beginning of a relationship: mother to child. Wanting a baby is one of the most selfish things you can want in this world. Being a parent is one of the most selfless. You begin to understand the world differently, as you see it beyond yourself.
We are the product, not the producer in this scripture. We are the result of the Spirit’s labor pains. This is a very feminine image of God that mostly goes ignored. It’s an image that holds negativity of pain and transforms into something beautiful. A God that rips herself apart, and dies to her old self, to be something new for us: A Mom. God isn’t asking us to birth creation, or re-birth humanity. God is asking us to process the brokenness and heal from the deep woundedness of the Church. The issue has already been engaged, so it can’t be stopped. We have to literally push through the pain. It’s the point of no return. If we don’t, we die from it. If we do, we are reborn through that death, made something new as God holds us close.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
My daughter is in third grade. She is a social butterfly. She desires connection in all ways. She wants to connect with friends. She wants to connect with text as she devours literature. She connects with history, math and science with a childlike zeal.
She would also break the middle school dress code if she was more than a third grade child.
I’m probably hyper aware of all this because I sub middle school, while my husband teaches elementary. I see the world through bifocals. If I look up, I’m a caring mommy that just wants to do what is best for her baby. If I angle down, I see the inner workings of the education machine. Neither one is absolutely true, but neither side wants to engage the other in real talk. And no side wants to see beyond the education system.
Education is the system used for last stands
I truly believe, Covid is what really clarified all this for me. This year I watched as kids were being used like pawns in a game of Chess. No, scratch that! Kids were being used as a defensive measure for personal belief systems. “Think of the kids,” became the rallying cry. In my county, it became the reason why we should let our kids go back to school full time without any face coverings or social distancing. I mean there were family members of these kids that died, but the kids made it through A O Kay.
Did that come off as a little snarky? Yeah, it was a little snarky.
History has shown that we throw our kids up like shields when major change is on the horizon.
Even when some of those changes lead to healthy moves forward, like Brown vs. the Board of Education. The children were used as the final standard to end segregation. Putting the children up front means they become the ones taking the real damage.
Yet sometimes, this last stand is less a shield, and more a statement against media and pop-culture.
Which brings me back around to the dress code.
Rev. Evan M. Dolive (who recently became Rev. DR. Dolive, congrats btw), has girls of his own. Back in the long-long-ago of March 2013, he composed an open letter to Victoria Secret regarding how sexualized their ad campaigns were towards children. This letter went viral, and led to a deeper look at body image, marketing, and God. It led him to publish the book- Seeking Imperfection. In the book, his focus was mostly on media and marketing as it related faith. I submit, it is media and marketing that has a much more lasting social impact on children than school.
To put it another way, what companies sell to kids, and what social media puts in front of their faces do more socially than what happens 9am-4pm inside a school. The media and market can only be felt in the education system. It cannot be altered or changed.
Which, for the third time, brings me back to the dress code.
It doesn’t take much digging to see parents and students have felt school dress codes are overly focused on the female half of the student population. The pushback is plain stupid. While parents and their daughters are upset, the school system passes the throwaway comment that these same rules are also true for the boys. If a boy came to school in a spaghetti strap top and booty shorts, he would be dress coded. For years, we’ve seen how those items have been stereotypically seen as female clothing, and therefore, girls have been unfairly signaled out for dressing inappropriately. Meanwhile, this has become the last stand for “decency.” We can’t talk about sexism in the market or the media anymore. That battle appears lost. Even when one clothing manufacturer comes up with modest clothes, the fashion icons and photographers push the boobs and butts to the forefront. Kids see it, and want to do what is socially popular. So, we take it to the schools.
Then there’s my elementary school daughter. Right now she’s fine. No one is sending her to the office in May because her shorts are too short. No one is worried because her shoulders are too exposed in her sleeveless top. Meanwhile, it’s becoming harder and harder to find dress code approved pants and shorts. Social media, marketing and those getting the money from these clothes are sexualizing these girls. Boys have clothes that are mostly made to be comfortable. Girls have clothes that are mostly made to be looked at. Think about that for a minute. You, an adult reader, are trained to form your first opinion on a girl of 12 based on how her butt and boobs fill out her outfit.
This means we are teaching these girls a terrible lesson that does carry into adulthood. Women must always consider their gender when doing pretty much anything. They will always walk that line between whether something looks professional or slutty. A line boys don't even need to consider. We've sexualized girls while boys don’t have to ask the same questions. School dress code doesn’t make this better. It’s actually the first step in drawing more attention to a girl’s sexuality than her personhood.
The problem isn’t the dress code, the problem is systemic and far reaching. It’s time to stop putting the focus on the dress code, and start focusing on the real problem: societies desire to sexualize girls. Dolive brought this problem to our attention in 2013. Now, in 2021, I’d say the problem is worse. It’s time to take arms ourselves, instead of forcing our daughters as a front line last defense.
Pretend with me:
You are out and about. You realize you forgot something, and instead of going all the way home, you'll call home and ask someone to come to you.
You remember there was a payphone booth just around the corner, but upon reaching it, you only see the box remaining. The phone is no longer there.
All the same, you dig through your pockets for a quarter to find you no longer carry change. Frantic, you yell out, "Does anyone have a quarter?!" People look at you like you've gone mad. Still, a kind looking older lady comes up to you and gives you one "I hope it gives you what you need," she replies.
You thank her, and then look at the box. Having no other alternative, you chuck the quarter in its general direction, and wait. No phone materializes. You look around the box. What do you do now? Pulling out your iPhone, you call home. "Honey?" you ask. "How do I get an old payphone to start working again?"
When tradition has lost it's purpose.
Yes, the above example is completely and totally ridiculous. We can see it for what it is, because the pieces are/were physically there. Even though there are not very many empty phone booths today, and you’d be lucky to even pick out the cement slab they used to sit on, we can visualize what’s going on.
Aside from Covid-19, the pandemic didn’t bring anything new. It merely sped up what was already happening. The Church was bleeding out before, now it’s hemorrhaging. There are a few congregations that have the appearance of health, and as I’ve written in a previous post, that is a false sign. First the smallest of the churches closed, and those who were left joined slightly larger churches. As larger and larger churches have felt the reality of all this, the largest churches have created a false equivalency of large churches are the solution. In reality, they simply exist because there is nowhere else for refugees of dead congregations to go. And, these refugees want to buy the snake oil of fake growth, because to do otherwise would be to admit that the system, as it stands today, isn’t working.
This is all like watching my closest friends throwing coins at a gutted phone booth; putting their hope in God magically returning the phone. I don’t dare tell anyone that the answer is on us, because they are so nostalgic for what once was they will try to force the phone booth to work with smartphones. My answer is, why are you forcing my wireless connection to God into an obsolete system?
“At least we’re doing something,” is dangerous.
I feel like our desire to just do something in crisis, is not really about solving the crisis. Instead, it’s the immediate need to not be the one who’s at fault. Then, maybe the focus will turn to those who are doing nothing.
What congregants fail to realize is the reason there are people doing nothing, is because God didn’t give them the “coin.” When congregants throw their coin into a gutted box, they are doing even worse than burying it. They won’t even be able to dig it up and give it back. It’s wasted. Literally thrown away. Meanwhile, God’s call is all around them, with means to connect to that call.
It all comes down to this: God never promised to save your building. God never promised to save your location. God never stated that the times around 11am was the only sacred time to set aside and meet God. Just doing something is dangerous because what you are doing is too small, too outdated, and throwing away resources that could be better spent somewhere else.
God did promise salvation. God did promise redemption. That's of people; not places. The longer we throw away our money in those empty husks, the harder it will be to help God follow through on the real promises.
Note: Not all mainline protestant churches are in a bad place, or maintaining what is killing churches today. There are a few that meet the needs of specific people in a specific way while living into now. I don't like drawing attention to those few, because most churches want to believe they are part of the minority, when they are actually part of majority.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Last week I was roundly reminded of my humanity.
I have written in this site almost every week, of every month, of every year since July 2012. Sometimes, I've written daily or twice a week. That's so many words. At least a books worth, if not two or three. No one can write that many words without something stupid being said.
A good leader is not the one who stands without fault. Yes, there are faults that should call for immediate and permeant dismissal. Abuse, in all it's forms are usually one of those things. I'm not talking about those kinds of faults. These are simple mistakes. In a world of cancel culture, how simple mistakes are handled in the pulpit set the standard for far more than one specific mistake. It can define a ministry.
What did I do?
On July 17, 2020 I published a review of The Chosen. Someone asked my opinion, so I it seemed appropriate to at least sit down, watch and write what I thought.
You can read it yourself, but if I were to boil it down now: It's an innocent show for people who are already Christian. While I had little issues with how they handled miracles and the multiple accents of the actors, my major issue was Biola hiding their relationships to one another and this movie. More than that, I was sickened when they pulled testimonials of the show from YouTubers and only gave the channel name for the YouTuber who works at Biola. If I'm not able to look up full resources, something is not right.
I failed when, for whatever stupid reason, I confused Andrew and Stephen. There is every reason why this shouldn't have happened.
For one, I spent almost a lifetime in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Their logo is a red Chalice with a white St. Andrew's cross. Amongst ourselves we've joked that we are the "No Drinking" denomination. The cross is always something youth members completely botch when they are trying to redraw. You can kinda look at the logo and see the shadow of Jesus' cross. It's a point of conversation among one another, so you are not in the denomination long before you find out it is St. Andrew's cross.
Secondly, I've written multiple times about Stephen and he did not die on a cross, he was stoned. Paul (at that point known as Saul) was there. I've also written how I believe seeing Stephen stoned was one of the reasons Paul was much more diplomatic in what he said in public. (Think his speech that started with him praising the altar to an "unknown god.")
To say Stephen is Peter's brother (which is what I did) is completely wrong. I’m not upset someone (albeit crudely) brought it to my attention. I’m more upset it remained up on the internet for over half a year. I don’t like being part of misinformation. I will always correct it the moment it is discovered.
How to handle mistakes online.
When this mistake was brought to my attention, I did not raise my defenses. Well, let me walk that back just a little. The way it was brought to my attention raised my defenses completely. I was bristled and ready to fire for a good hour and a half. It was during that time, I made sure I wasn’t sharing anything online.
During that hour and a half I asked myself some important questions:
In the future: Even if I don’t respond, let this be known that I read comments made to Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and Fig Tree’s site. I take them all seriously, and act accordingly. I hope this post helps you feel comfortable bringing future questions to my attention. It might simply be a misunderstanding in how I wrote something. I like to clarify. I want truth, and if it’s truth at my own expense, so be it.
Before I get into this post, this is not a case for live casting an existing brick and mortar worship service. If that is what you are doing to reach your homebound congregants, that's great for its purpose. If you are here thinking recording a worship is "internet ministry," just leave now.
The world cries out and we are...
No. I need to nail this point down.
I've been in enough churches to know the mindset. You started live casting your worship last May (because let's be honest, it took y'all a couple of months to realize your church was going to be closed for more than a month). At first it was fun. "Look at what I'm doing!" you gleefully shared. "I can wear my PJs to worship!" That maybe lasted 1-2 months, before the shiny newness of it all wore off. Then you began to notice certain people weren't coming to the Zoom worship, and offering was worse. But... Well there were some guests that had logged in and watched the Zoom worship on the Facebook page.
Guess what? Fig Tree had them too. They were Christians who wanted something while their church remained shuttered. This Easter many of those shuttered churches finally began opening their doors. You licked your lips as you saw guest numbers go up in ways it hadn't gone up in years.
It wasn't real.
Now you're sitting in front of your brand-spanking new technology equipment upgrades, wondering where it all went. You put it all on black, and black was believing your specific church would be the next internet phenom! Forget red! You've been forced to play red for years. All on black! You and every brick and mortar church that thought internet ministry was the way to save a brick and mortar church. Once again- if you are here to learn the secrets of copy-paste church, leave now. I'm wasting your time.
The world cries out.
We are really good and mocking the actions of pain and sorrow. We have mastered how to ignore and leave places that are deemed "not socially appropriate."
Once uploaded, every word, picture, and video exists, in some form, forever. It has increased the power and danger of Cancel-Culture, as those cancelling others can use words said almost 20 years in the past. (Our collective memory, before the internet, was a revisionist history. Our mental picture begins to yellow and fade. How an event happened, or what happened naturally changes as we age. The internet keeps all in 3-D technicolor.)
The term "internet ethics" is often used to talk about the legal ramifications of using content online, and not the moral ethics of how we interact with others. It's not enough to just slap IRL (in real life) ethics online and expect it to transfer.
I have mentioned the internet being the "Me Show." It's more than that. We are selling our "brand" to the world, but most of us are also doing it with a sense of mystery. We can wear a mask online. Everything from our words to our profile picture, can be almost anything we want it to be. You want to be a unicorn that farts rainbows? Shoot for the stars, because that's only a small upload away. The internet keeps one hidden, and gives this freedom that doesn't exist IRL. Some use this superficial power for good, sharing joy love, and positive change . Way more take out their hate and frustrations, easily forgetting that the internet is full of humans, who just want to connect as much as you do.
Everyone's online crying out in their pain and suffering, but no one hears it because everyone is so focused on their personal "Me Show."
So I mention a third time, how's your uploaded/live cast worship going to engage that? It's not.
The world cries.
The older you are the less you see the reality of the virtual world. The younger you get, the more your points of connection are directly tied to online interaction. A middle schoolers relationship is not only their interactions at school, but their Discord chats, game play on their Xbox or PlayStation, sharing their personal TicTocs... It's a culture, different from our IRL culture. WAY different than our "Christian" culture.
A modern definition of "Evangelism" is this: Discover how God is already present among the people, and show them that.
Now, obviously evangelism is more nuanced than that, but this definition is a great starting point. I'm not going to go over seas and teach others how to be American so I can then teach them American Christianity. I'm going to take the space of the foreigner, the outsider, and learn their culture first. Then, when I talk to them about faith it will be with their language, their images, and their symbols.
When the mission field is outside the doors of a church, one seems to forget that even the space right outside is a different culture than most churches where people travel 40 minutes to get to it. Imagine the internet. It's not only a different culture; it's a different world.
Then, it's a world of lament and pain; some of it from brick and mortar churches. Most denominations are looking at these people all wrong. They see these shiny new money givers, future leaders of all the volunteer programs that are now defunct, a savior of a church well past it's prime. It's not even salvation being sold at a funeral. I've seen that. Funerals are for the living. Funerals are a time to lament and remember. Selling salvation at a funeral is dirty. Yet, this is worse.
If we don't change our method and focus- the Christian institution will do more damage to an already damaged world.
This is about being at the forefront of internet ethics. Educating people on how to act and react in online situations. Completely throwing out the bathwater (physical church) to consider how to save the baby. It's using imagination and creativity in a world that a bankrupted both. Just imagine the potential that is destroyed every day because we are afraid to try. It kills me.
There came a time when I was too old for the Children's moment.
I know that sounds ridiculous. Of course that time would eventually come. The only children that don't grow out of those programs are tragic reminders of nature's cruelty.
I just didn't want to give it up when my time came. It was nearly the only way I could be part of the corporate worship. Just, no one told me I was done. The day the church decided I was to put childish things away, I was told to sit by a matriarch of the church. (My Dad was doing something else. Might have had Elder duties, might have been in the choir.) When the pastor called the children forward, I began to rise, but she held my arm and told me to stay.
I think I stayed. The problem is, I've dreamed that moment multiple times since then, and in those dreams I always pulled my arm free and ran to the front. I loved this matriarch. I remember that. I loved them all. Yet, in this dream she was always terrifying. She was keeping me from something I loved, even if the time had come to put it away.
There came a time when I was too old for the Children's moment.
I pushed myself in other areas. I joined everything I could join. I couldn't be a child, and I couldn't be an adult. I was something in the middle.
I needed to sing
I'm an adequate singer, but a singer that belted every note. I was like that kid from the movie "Prancer." I unapologetically sang the hymns with zeal.
I felt there was a song that only belonged to me, and I was supposed to sing it. I just didn't know what that song was, so I sang anything that told a story. When I found Bette Midler's "From a Distance," I thought I found my opus. In reality, I had found the theme. I was surrounded by darkness, hate; destruction. The harmony wasn't where I was, it was somewhere else. There's something pure, valid; good- from a distance.
I decided I was going to go after that purity and goodness.
That's all well and good when you are doing it between being a kid and adult. I was safe. I held no power. The more I began to learn more about this song of mine, the more dangerous I got.
This song doesn't have a physical tune. When people saw me sing, they were watching me taking back my agency.
Jesus on the chaotic sea
My very first sermon illustration I grasped and remembered:
Once there were three ministers sitting on a boat. Who those ministers are doesn't matter. Just know it's two denominations/types you like and one you relentlessly mock. They were fishing, when one you liked realized they were out of bait. Quickly, he got up and walked across the water, got the bait and came back.
While the first you liked was on shore, the second realized he should have asked him to grab a water while he was over there. So, when the first returns the second begrudgingly gets up, walks across the water to get a bottle of water, and comes back.
The third, the one everyone makes the foil, sees the two walking and asks, "How did you do that?" One of the two reply, "You just walk." She looks wide eyed and innocent at the water. She gets up and joyfully drops her foot on the water, and falls in completely. The first says to the second, "Perhaps we should have told her where the rocks were."
You have no idea how many times I sat at a dock and placed my feet on the water like at any time Christ would ask me to come over and just look from a new perspective. How many times in my early childhood I loved those ice patches with bubbly water underneath, because I could pretend. (Then gleefully giggling when the ice broke, because that was fun.)
Did you ever wonder why Jesus decided to just visit the water? After all, the point of Jesus walking on water is Jesus, not the water. Added to that, I used to wonder how the Disciples dropped everything and followed Jesus. More so now than when I was a kid. I have family. Obligations. More than the Disciples stopping everything and following Christ, why did Jesus take them away? I think we've glorified the minister who can easily leave his wife and kids for the ministry. It's a grotesque image, in my mind. An unfair depiction of our call as Disciples and Apostles of Christ.
I'm too good at letting go.
There are people who have addictive personalities, non-addictive personalities and those in-between. I have a non-addictive personality. I can quit, give up, and throw away almost anything. If a doctor told me to give up watermelon (my absolute favorite fruit) for the rest of my life or I'd die- I'd sigh and give it up. Sound marvelous, doesn't it? That's until you realize the opposite side of it. I can cut people out. I can leave a community and not think twice. I still mourn certain friendships in those communities, but I don't mourn the community itself. Between adulthood and giving up children's moment, I was forcibly taken away from so much to the point that I was numbed to giving up all together. It's both a gift and curse. (I'm far more aware of how it curses me.)
That said, I believe what Jesus asks us to leave behind is the stuff.
"But we need this stuff!" you say.
No, you really don't. You don't need the cathedrals; the pomp and circumstance. You don't need the ancient organ or killer refrain on the guitar. You don't need that addictive smell of the old hymnals, or the cantatas. Put away those childish things.
I get it. You see the collection of things and you know how hard it was to collect that debris. You patched it together like a lifeboat. Think of how helpful it could all be on the next leg of Christ's journey. Well, how much is all that stuff helping you right now? Many of your symbols are actually a detractor, and a trigger for real trauma suffered by those things.
I really do get it. It's easy for me to hear a call and just go without concern for whether that call is on solid ground or chaotic water... chaotic water...
Hmm. The ancient Israelites believed the Earth was where God's created order resided, and the oceans were where the uncreated chaos lived. To go to Christ in the ocean is an invitation to a new creation- to create from the chaos. To give it all up and follow Christ, is understanding God already gave up the solid ground because it's no longer solid for so many.
Is it scary? Yes!
Is it dangerous? Absolutely!
Things have no meaning without Christ. To be in the middle of nothing, or to go to Christ on the water, I'll choose the waves every single time.
Walk on water.