-Pastor Melissa Fain-
There are some ministers who have chosen to treat Covid-19 like a fun whitewater adventure. For some of those ministers, it has terribly backfired, and they've had to bury their own congregants, or the minister themselves are buried. For other ministers, the ride has continued, and they've taken it all as a sign from God that they are protected. It's shallow faith in a world that's leaving shallow behind.
Even those who understand this are still praying the wrong prayer. We are collectively lifting our voices and lamenting, "When will this end?"
While everything happening now has an ending, that's not going to give us what we should be doing. All of us should be praying, "God, what's next?"
A Child's Prayer
In between 6th and 7th grade, I made one last trip as a congregant of Red Bridge Christian Church, in metro-Kansas City, Missouri. My pre-teen years had not been easy, and many of them were bad. I made a deal with God. "I've been through tough things. Please give me good now. Can you make my second half of my life easier than my first?"
Now, all the adults in the room should know that a 12 year old is not middle aged. Honestly, I didn't think I'd make it past 19. I'm now twice that plus two. I was just seeking the wrong prayer. My asking if life was going to get good was me praying to God, "Is it over yet?"
The answer didn't matter.
When the tomb is empty because it was never filled.
Growing up, I wanted the sunshine and candy of Easter. I wanted to celebrate an empty tomb, and wear a pretty dress. All my kid brain knew was that Easter was happy, and fun.
Then I was placed in an eternal Lent.
You tend to see the world a bit differently when struggle lasts a little longer than 40 days. I stopped waiting for God to do the work, and started asking God what work could I do. That's really what the prayer "When will this end?" is all about. People who pray that prayer want God to do all the work.
To do the work, you have to accept there is a problem. You have to examine, and name it. There are those who have been in oblivious ignorance for so long, they can no longer even see the problem. For those who can't see, the naming the problem sounds like one is being negative.
In reality, I'm extremely hopeful. I believe there is something beyond the problem. I name the problem because I want to move past it. I want people to process suffering, not because I want people to suffer. Actually, I want people to stop suffering. I also know that is almost always the only way suffering ends. I also believe that's extremely Biblical.
Christ talks all the time of suffering, and not that we wouldn't suffer, but wouldn't suffer alone.
I know, I know. Not what you wanted to hear. If you go down the road just a bit from my house in any direction, you'll find those empty promises. They sell them every Sunday, because they are so easy to produce. Just know, when you hit those low points, when the world comes crashing in around you, it wasn't because you didn't pray hard enough. There are really good people who suffer. There are really bad people who don't.
Jesus gave us language to never walk through adversity alone.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.
Matthew 16:24 CEB
The people believed if someone was suffering, it meant God had left them. It often made the situation worse for people already dealing with trauma. Jesus reframes the conversation by point blank telling those closest to him, you will suffer too.
If suffering is a natural part of human existence, we need to start talking about it in realistic ways. Lent, this period leading up to Easter, is the perfect time.
You are not alone.
You are loved.
You are part of something bigger than yourself.
I believe our wounds can heal and scar over.
God is with us.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I'm a gal who loves her illustrations. Therefore, this post will be told in an allegorical. Don't worry, I'll explain it as I'm telling it.
When it comes to tsunamis, they always start with an earthquake. The earthquake itself is not that dangerous. That's because their epicenter takes place off shore, in the ocean. Even if the earthquake does damage, it'd doesn't really kill anyone, or the causalities are few.
Fig Tree started way before the earthquake. People knew the earthquake could happen. The potential was warned way before I ever knew Fig Tree would some day exist. In this case, two cataclysmic earthquakes: church decline/death, and an immanent pandemic. Each of these were warned by different groups. The prophets of our age told us to prepare.
I'm a person who will leap without question if I feel it is where God wants me to be. Way before the earthquake, I felt God wanted me to go away from everything else. I set up camp in the wilderness, and then set to complaining. My prayers were bold, "Why am I out here, God?! No one can hear me out here!" I spent the years building a little out in the wilderness. Then I would go into town to tell people what I was doing.
I quickly learned the danger of the town. They were beginning to feel the hunger pangs of decline. I was going into town to bring people back with me to the wilderness. Those satiated found their comfort as a sign they had nothing to do, and would ignore me. Those who were feeling the decline/death would make bold promises of assistance, but really they wanted food. They wanted me to give them access to devour anything that was built, under the false illusion that Fig Tree's death would lead to their new life. It shocked me. I had grown up in town. I loved it. I lived in it. I wasn't used to seeing the ones I loved turned predator. I had to tell them I hadn't come to feed them, but to grow something that would nurture them in the future. With that, they had no use for me or Fig Tree.
I had no idea the earthquake was coming when I completely left the town. I simply felt that I needed to leave that moment, when leaving held power; leaving meant I was willingly losing something.
When the earthquake came, no one thought of what it would bring. No one prepared for what would come.
All of this I wrote about over the past few years. The earthquake were the first rumblings of the pandemic. We disregarded the warnings because we've heard them before. SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu. All these things were promised pandemics that didn't sweep across the world as promised. And no church saw their "set-up" as problematic to the earthquake and what it would bring.
The Rising Tsunami
It was only when the waters began to rise and overtake the land, that people began to immediately act. The flood waters came, and it terrified me.
Yes, terrified me. I was watching in the safety of the wilderness. God had led me to a place where I would not drown. It is terrifying to suddenly understand God's presence throughout the years, and understand why my prayers had remained unanswered.
I was also horrified by how the town reacted. "These are just some flood waters." "Sure, we'll be a little waterlogged when it's all over, but we'll move on." I watched the town as they opened back up as the waters continued to rise. I kept looking, and as I looked, it was difficult to keep building Fig Tree. I wanted to go back and try to save someone! These weren't just basic flood waters. We couldn't sit it out on our roofs and be okay. This was a tsunami!
But I couldn't do anything, and every time I went back to try, we were not moving forward.
Finally, I had this strong feeling that I needed to turn away and focus on what I could control. This didn't stop me from knowing what was going down. People were drowning. A few even reached out to me, hoping I could pull them up. I'd tell them how to leave the waters on their own, they'd ignore me, and I'd lament.
Now the waters have begun to still. This false calm that always comes with a tsunami.
We are here. This is now. We can feel a stage of the Pandemic is coming to a close, and all these churches that have survived so far are making plans in town. They've been doing their own lamenting, as they've watched congregants not able to hold on. They are also under the illusion that all those people who left for higher ground would somehow come back. But, that's not going to happen.
The Water is About to Recede.
The most dangerous part of a tsunami is not the coming of the waters, but it's when the waters leave. It's just water coming in. It's just one thing. Yes, devastating in it's nature, but only one danger. It's everything coming back. Anything the water tore up, comes back with it, and it only builds as it goes. The very foundations are ripped up and become things that can kill anyone still in the water.
At first, I thought when the waters began to rise, everyone was coming out to the wilderness. I thought this, because my lonely silence was suddenly loud! In actuality, the leaders of the town would use the wilderness to scream down to the town, where everyone stayed. It wore the leaders out, and finally, many were able to set up systems to keep their voice going while they stayed in town.
In actuality, everyone stayed in town. Everyone is still hungry. Everyone just wants the water to go away.
And it will.
I'm not writing this to get anyone out of the water. I'm not fooling myself. I know it's too dangerous to head in that direction. There are times I've cried over this, knowing with the megaphones set up in the wilderness, my voice is just too soft. Nothing I can say, can stop what's next. All I can say for the town, is this: When the waters have washed everything away, I hope I can help find something to save, a sacred remnant.
Meanwhile, I feel Fig Tree needs to be prepared in a different way. We are not in town. We never have been. Being a Wilderness people from the beginning means we never had to consider the flood waters in what we've done.
The problem I've had recently, is a problem of hope. Real honest to goodness hope is always planted in the field of lamentation. People cannot set their sights on something yet to be, if they haven't mourned and buried what has already been and can be no more. It's a very frustrating place to be. I've lamented. I've buried. I'm ready to move on. Meanwhile, people just want the hope without the work to find it first.
Hoping without first lamenting, is hijacking the destination of those who have worked through the process.
I shouldn't be surprised we find ourselves here. We are still living in a delusion that this is just a normal flood. Sure, just a little damage. "In a year we'll look back on all this and see it wasn't really as catastrophic as people were saying." We are also fighting against an influx of survivors that don't want to process what is gone, only get back to what was lost.
It has left me with very clear boundaries regarding where Fig Tree is going.
Fig Tree's purpose and goal:
Fig Tree exists to discover how God is already present in this digital wilderness and show that to those who go online.
We are not in the copy/paste business. We are not copying church and pasting it online.
Therefore, I'm looking for innovators. I'm looking for people who are willing to boldly try, boldly fail, and boldly try again. I'm looking for people who are not confined by the building. People who can take debris and turn it into treasure. People who can process what can no longer be, and be part of God's creative team to build what will be.
That's a difficult ask in an environment where the waters are about to recede. You're not thinking about innovating; you're about surviving. You just want to hear it's all going to be okay, when immediately it won't be. God has been outside of town/church/broken systems in general for years now. God has been calling us to join in. Immediately it's not okay, but eventually (if we follow God's path) it will be. I'm asking you to follow God, and get out of town. There's your real hope.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
"Tell me about the church. What is Fig Tree Christian about?"
Have you ever felt so completely that you should go in a direction, but you have absolutely no idea why?
I knew so many things without a shadow of a doubt.
I knew that if Fig Tree were to succeed, I had to get the blessing of my denomination.
I knew to get the blessing of the denomination, I had to get support rallied around it.
I knew to get support rallied around it, I needed to show it was just as real as any other brick and mortar church.
God knew I was wrong.
I was so so wrong and my first realization was when I was standing before a woman, holding one of the thousand cards I had printed for a physical launch of Fig Tree Christian back in March of 2013. Where I wanted to go, and where God wanted me to go, were not the same thing. I walked through so many parking lots and gave out so many cards.
I can remember at the launch no one showing up. Yep- utter and total failure, and it felt right. I can remember my words hours before it was supposed to start. "Whatever is going to happen is supposed to happen."
I've recalled that fake launch now many times this year. What if it hadn't failed?
If the fake launch hadn't failed, we would have had physical support right away for Fig Tree Christian.
Without a definition, we would have either slowly or quickly become every other brick and mortar church in the area, with no identity online.
In March of 2020, still being green, the Pandemic would have killed us.
In reality, from that moment on I killed Fig Tree again and again. God didn't want what I had done. I felt it, in the core of my being. At the same time, I knew God wanted something from me. So I tried again.
Humanity craves things they know. As the world explodes in change, people just want something familiar. For many, that is church. Every time Fig Tree would launch, I would feel that pull to become what was. That pull was a signal that it was time to fail
Some of you might be wondering why I didn't push through and redirect. Well, church plants are defined by their initial direction. This becomes their DNA. It will follow them their entire lives, whether they want it or not. Everything I was doing, was like pulling back a windup car that is powered by the wheels going backwards. If I didn't get the direction right in the pullback, I wasn't going to get it right when Fig Tree was finally let go.
We restarted in many places: A church, a coffee house, my basement. All of it was online. I was frustrated with each version. I kept drawing people who wanted this to be fully formed and working. That was like asking a baby to fix their car! It was vital that we were without definition. Every one who came for something well defined left. Some that left, left with the promise of great things now for someone else. I watched opportunities comes and go. Always those opportunities would come at sacrifice of Fig Tree. Sometimes what was being asked of us would maintain the name Fig Tree, but I'd be permanently killing it to put someone else's dream in its place. Sometimes it was just blatant killing. Wanting to pull me from my call to give to something else.
It felt so unfair to have such tempting morsels set before us, and knowing I was not allowed to eat at that table. Yet every "no," every restart, came with a definition. Knowing what I was called to say "no" to, meant I was beginning to know what I was saying "yes" to.
No- we are not called to look like the charismatic church, because the charismatic church looks dangerous online. I am not the next Joel Osteen. Fig Tree is not a self-help church.
No- Fig Tree is not the digital ministry arm of [insert church name here]. What I'm doing isn't some long-game resume builder.
No- Fig Tree isn't trying to be [insert digital ministry name here]. Before Covid it was extremely difficult to explain that just like not all physical churches are the same, not all digital churches are the same either.
I couldn't get, but I could give.
If I asked for assistance creating something for those who could not find their way into a brick and mortar church, I would get nothing. I got help because I included brick and mortar churches in the people who would be helped.
I would seek assistance on devotionals for Advent and Lent, specifically including that small churches that couldn't afford a devotional would be able to use it free. How sad is it that in all these years I've only been able to get help if said help would assist their church? In those situations, I could have one foot in the church door, and the other in the mission field, and it worked.
Meanwhile, I gave of myself anytime I saw someone acting for God outside the church. Fonts. Logos. A recorded reading. Anytime I could give outside of what I was doing, I did it. I wanted to encourage exploration in areas deep and wide, and I knew from experience, that happened through donation in specific areas.
Let me go on a sidetrack for a moment: There is this amazing kindergarten teacher. She is amazing at setting up this formative foundation for her kids. She taught my daughter. When we were dealing with personal issues last year she found me. She asked me, what is not getting done right that minute and needs to be done. I told her our lawn. She said almost these words exactly, "We want to help your family. Can I send someone over to take care of your lawn?"
The way she did that is how all of us should seek to help others. So many say the words, "If there is anything I can do, just let me know." Hardly anyone takes someone up on those words. This is because people in need don't want to put others out. More than that, they don't know what you are capable of doing! They may need two weeks of groceries, but they don't want to ask you for assistance on groceries with such an open ended offer. This teacher saw a need, and asked if she could fill that need. She asked if she could help in a specific way.
That's how I've handled giving to others. I notice a need, and I ask if I can help fill it. Almost always the answer is a resounding yes. Meanwhile, I've had people say, "If you need anything, let me know." Occasionally I ask them to write a few devotionals for me. Overwhelmingly I do nothing, because I don't know what they could offer.
What we do, with what we have, is who we are. Fig Tree started as nothing, and from that nothing God created. Now it is something. I've taken very little, and did so much with it. We sit at a precipice of a potential future. Where are we going?
That's a question for next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Over the past three weeks I have talked about early trauma of family brokenness, later trauma of Church brokenness, and the event that began Fig Tree.
I talk trauma because of my ordination. I had asked ministers who had formed my theological grounding to participate. Rev. Phil Foster, was among them. On my ordination day, he stood before those watching and stated that I was a wounded healer.
Since then, I have seen that woundedness must come with journeying towards wholeness. To be a solid leader, I needed to walk the path myself. Some people can learn through example, and some people can read a book and get the lesson. I must live it, feel it and do it.
I can talk about personal brokenness because I've lived it and work towards wholeness. It is through my personal experience I can relate and help others too.
I can talk about church brokenness because I've lived it and work towards wholeness. It is through those experiences that I can relate and help others too.
In other words- What I was, is vital to who I am, and what Fig Tree is.
Reddit solidified Fig Tree's Mission
In the beginning, Fig Tree was exclusively a blog. I didn't use the word "blog," and I still don't, because there are expectations for blogs. Blogs are almost like personal side notes. It felt like this needed to be more editorial in it's existence. There was never a time I thought the goal was just to have me writing every week. In my mind, that is a failure. The meditations section of Fig Tree will have reached success when there are a multitude of writers sharing theological opinions on a weekly basis.
One of the greatest frustrations for me going to seminary was the immense divide between Church and Seminary. My churches were grounded in deep faith and spirituality. We talked about experiencing God. My seminary was grounded in deep knowledge. We talked about the semantics and socio/historical context within the Bible. Spirituality and knowledge are very important. It's problematic that each side has cut out the other. For years I've watched ministers make a choice between spirituality and knowledge. I refused. Being a Christian was both spirituality and knowledge, with the Truth firmly between the two.
Fig Tree's first mission was finding that Truth. At first, it was just weekly meditations. Sometimes this was literally just old sermons as I tried to gage what people needed to hear. I pushed both sides a little. So early on I knew God's story was and is a communal one.
One of those very first voices was Rev. Paul Appleby. We met in seminary, and stayed in touch. He doesn't realize this, but I had grown very frustrated with sermons. It had begun to feel like a well produced play. Once the minister had the SCRIPTure, they may change up the dialogue a little, but the message remained the same. It wasn't that the messages I heard since I was eight was bad. No, they were usually good. It was hearing them since I was eight! I wanted someone to speak on the multitude of subjects within the text! I needed something new on Sunday morning.
I had said we first met in seminary, but that's not exactly true. I had gone to visit a colleague at his church. I thought I'd hear my colleague preach, but instead, it was Paul. Y'all! Rev. Paul Appleby gave me what I had been desiring for years. He gave me context I hadn't considered before. It wasn't the same tired old message. A few years later, I was completely comfortable asking if he would write a guest meditation.
(Let me say this to everyone I have asked to write. I trust you. Like I said last week, I've always been looking at the big picture. I know if I'm looking at the big picture, I have to see Fig Tree like the breadth of it's existence would be seen in it's entirety. If I've asked you to speak for this ministry, I've handed you the power to speak truth to God's love. If you haven't taken advantage of that offer, just know it remains open.)
When Paul wrote for Fig Tree something happened that hadn't happened. The numbers of views spiked. I told him about it, and he said it was Reddit. He'd share his work on the social aggregate. Specifically, he shared to /r/Christianity.
Some truths about Reddit and /r/Christianity
When Paul introduced me to Reddit, I almost immediately saw the pain. The subreddit, /r/Christianity, is where Christians ask questions they don't feel comfortable asking their minister or priest, it's where atheist trolls go to have fun destroying new faith, and it's where the those broken by the church attempt to reconnect.
Reddit honed my ability to communicate online. I read and I responded. While I posted Fig Tree's work once a week, I made it my goal to respond to someone else at least once a day. I made my username RevMelissa. I would have a minister ask why I wear my ministerial title so openly. Here's my answer: If I'm ordained as a minister, I'm a minister at all times. I'm a minister when I'm standing in a church, delivering a sermon and presiding over the elements, and I'm a minister talking to pre-teens on Reddit about God.
Here's the truth about written online communication on communication board formats: When there's an online argument it almost always escalates. This is because, we have this false equivalency that the last words written win. I learned that's not the case at all. In reality, the best words written win. I learned early on, that in writing it's best not to rewrite what has already been written. It's not that the other writer didn't get what you wrote. More than likely he or she did. It's that they want the last words. They want to believe they won the argument because they shut you up. I learned it is better to engage with love, and comment for those who read it, not those who wrote it. Let the person believe they won, but realize winning is knowing someone can read kindness among the hate.
I know I'm doing it right if people see the hate. If I played the escalation game, I'd return hate for hate- which only deepens the hate. It's like painting blue on blue. You can't see the first blue for the second blue that's covering over it. You must paint with complementary colors. Show love for hate. Show patience for frustration. In total transparency, I didn't always win this game. It's really difficult to keep your cool when everyone you try to talk to can't keep theirs. I got better at it with time.
Knowing When to be Apologetic
I will never apologize for openly being a female minister. This became my focus on Reddit. I did not get the sweet karma like my friend Paul did. There were those who needed to bury me. My name was uncomfortable. "RevMelissa? If you really are a minister!"
Now, that's actually a great statement to question when online. Random people online can be anyone they want. Some 19 year old edge lord can say they are a minister when they are really a troll trying to dissuade people from Christianity. That is not why people were making that statement to me. I wore my ordination out in the open. I left links to reference my history in the Church and what I've done in the name of God. They were making the statements to find my weakness. They wanted me to blow up so they could say, "Look! She's not pastoral at all! She's an imposter!" It was like kicking a dog until it bit. I learned to name what they were doing, rather than bite after being kicked over and over again. If you give the aggressor a way out, and bite the problem instead of the person, no one holds it against you.
I will apologize, almost always, for being wrong. When you let others know they hold the higher ground, you are letting them also know when you believe they don't. Openly admitting failure lets everyone see when you don't believe you are failing. It's the separation of righteousness from injustice.
Where the wounded go.
Churches are so insular with their evangelism. They basically set up the equivalent of a pretty welcome mat. They don't want to go you. They want you to come to them.
Very early on, Reddit showed me two groups that were not going to go to the church.
Those broken by the church: When I say broken, I mean crushed. You can break someone's leg, and it can heal. You break someone's soul, and they can't even process what has happened, much less piece it back together. These people were understandably angry at a system that tore them up and ignored them when they talked about being in pieces. Those in the church that knew they existed, willfully pointed their fingers in another direction. "Not I, Lord." Not considering that we are the Body, and if the right hand fails, the whole body has failed. Our ignorance is a continuation of their brokenness. Then there are those who are so insular in their church experience they cannot possibly see anyone outside of it. I have been personally dumbfounded as I've laid out the case for this growing demographic, only to be given the cold shoulder in return. I did not agree with the words of the broken's lament "Burn it all down," but I heard it as pain, and pain that needed to be helped. The truth is in the pain, not the words.
Those who were now unable to attend: The church likes to call these people "shut-in" or "homebound." They also like to pretend they are all retired, and mostly over the age of 70. I learned that's not the case. Church has become like a performance. The entrance fee is dressing up/down enough, being still or swaying and standing for an hour. Those fees could be too high for those living with a life-altering issue. The church also believed ministering to those forced to remain home was nothing more than talking to them for a bit and bringing them communion. It's the insular problem again. Real people are forced out of the building because of unforeseen issues, and the church no longer has a way to include them in the life of the church in a meaningful way.
Fig Tree's focus necessarily moved completely online because of these two groups. How that manifested itself is a story for next week.