Lent: Journey Through Image
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Lent is just around the corner. March 2nd to be exact. I want to do something that will capture the spirit of Lent while also breaking their boundaries.
Yes, you read that correctly. Boundaries need to exist. They tell us where our actions can hurt ourselves or others. When we don’t keep strong boundaries, we risk chaos from sneaking into our organization. But, boundaries also exist to keep power where power no longer needs to be. You can trap people to slowly or quickly kill them with boundaries. You can hide things you don’t want others to see with boundaries. I want to break boundaries that neither help or are useful.
I’m going to spend Lent looking at secular expressions of God through artistic interpretation.
Put another way, I’m going to look at artists that take on Biblical stories or images of God, to see how their work preaches.
Listening to the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land
I remember I was starting a job at a Church. The secretary was showing me around and wanting me to be aware of the Christian music radio stations. By that point I had stopped listening to Christian music. It was too… something.
It’s like when you first decide to make lifestyle changes to lose weight. After you’ve taken off those 15-50 pounds, you decide you are going to spoil yourself and go to a fast food place. It’s no longer the same, and you feel horrible after eating it. Not because you feel guilty, but you feel horrible because the food actually makes you feel horrible. Yucky.
Christian music had begun to hit me wrong. It was too much of one thing, and not enough of something else. It could only play on sacred ground, but lacked the ability to sing on foreign soil. I needed to hear God in secular music, so I began to listen. I heard so much more relevant music from the Foo Fighters, and Weezer than from the Gaither Trio.
I thanked the secretary, and then never listened to the station. Not even once.
Painting the Lord’s Song in new tones
I believe if God is seeking me to preach in ways that are beyond the pulpit, I need to explore how others have done the same. If I could go between 4-5 artists, I might understand what God is asking me to do. If you want to follow along as I take this journey, I invite you to come here during Lent.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I have only done one Tuesday Review where I was asked to read a book and write about it. This is not that one. In this case: A friend saw a previous post I had written, suggested this book, and my husband bought it for me as a Christmas gift. I typically follow a very simple guide to reviewing something:
This one will be helpful, and unlike my recent reviews, it is a solid, good book. As I wrote previously, it is so refreshing to take a break from the brackish readings of the likes of Zacharias, and take a cool flowing trip through Pemberton.
I plan to answer some questions in this review:
Who is this book for?
What makes it worthwhile to read?
Where do I feel the tension has been released? In other words, where does it fall apart (just a little)?
Who is the book for?
As a minister, there were times I felt I was reading a straight up commentary. Commentaries are typically what ministers use to get perspective on a scripture. I don’t just sit down and read commentary. I use it like I would an encyclopedia. If I wanted to know about a chapter in Luke, I’ll pick up a few of my Luke commentaries, and just read the section on that specific chapter. In that way, this book is for ministers. Now that I’ve read it, I’ll place it among my research section, and I’ll easily be able to find what I need when I eventually preach from a lament Psalm.
As a person who has felt trauma multiple times, it was a warm hug. It is completely appropriate to get this book, read the first third, find your lament, read that chapter, and then read the final third. There were times I could only read a chapter, and then I had to walk it off. I haven’t had that kind of theological reflection of a writing in… well this was a first. There were times I spiritually needed this book. I believe there are others who could use it too, if they only knew it existed.
As someone who has spent decades in the institutional building of a church, this book would make an amazing Bible study paired with “Act Normal: Memoir of a Stumbling Block,” by Kristy Burmeister. I need to get Act Normal in the Church. Kristy’s voice needs to be heard apart from the antiseptic messages, but within their bleached walls. Dr. Pemberton’s book is the perfect partner for that task. Her book is one long lament, and seeing it as such helps the reader take her words in.
What makes this book worthwhile to read?
Once you’ve actually sung true thanksgiving to God after suffering through lament, it’s so off-putting to hear thanksgiving severed from the reason to give thanks. To those still in the midst of lament caused by the Church, it’s not only off-putting, it’s down right scary.
I have this sneaky suspicion that many of us want to lament, but we are afraid of how it will look. Any sort of shadow, or negativity is culturally seen as against God. This book clearly shows the untruth in that cultural theology. This is a voice who knows what he’s saying, because he has done the hard research to bring it all together. As much as I was angry with the chapter that discussed Psalm 137, the book landed the ending. Which brings me to one minor critique…
Where is the tension lost?
If I could summarize the book in one sentence it would be this: Trust God enough to speak the truth in your prayers.
He couldn’t find the truth in Psalm 137, because he only heard the words being spoken, not the meaning beyond them. What baffles me, much of what he says in the very next chapter, if also considered for the previous chapter, would have made it all more palatable. It makes me wonder if 137 was part of what had already been written before he transitioned from someone who talked about lament, to someone who actually lived through it. (He mentions ⅔ of the book being written and gathering dust when he went through his own anguish.)
I do invite you to read what I wrote on his take on Psalm 137, but I have one more greater point for this particular post. Talking to God has to start somewhere. It might even start with a lie. If we are so afraid that the only words spoken need to be truthful words, we could scare people out of praying all together.
I would summarize prayer in this way: Prayer is bringing yourself, in all that you are, before God in sacrifice. It might involve lies. “I’m a good person,” sounds great on paper, but put that phrase in Hitler’s mouth, and we have a problem. It’s not about the words, but the meaning behind and beyond the words. Sometimes the meaning behind a lie is, “Listen, I’m uncomfortable being in this space, I don’t even know if I believe what I’m doing, but I’m willing to give it a try.” How are we to discount that prayer just because the physical words were a lie?
This was a solid book that I would unhesitantly suggest to anyone going through a crisis. It sharpened my beliefs on lament, added to my spiritual journey, and left me in a moment of thanksgiving to God. What more can you ask for from a religious book?
On another note- it’s time to go back into the dung heap. My next Tuesday review is not going to be any of the things I mentioned above. Just as we need to sharpen good theology, we need to obliterate the bad. I’m reading a book on the Dugger family. God help me.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Over the past 6 weeks I’ve been reevaluating the meaning of the word “preach.”
Let me lay out the groundwork first. From the moment I felt called to be a minister, I already had a more expansive definition of “preaching.” I wanted to be a Christian singer. I wanted the music notes, the inflection, and the words to preach. Part of this was my severe anxiety. I could stand in a room full of people and sing a song, and tell a story with the rise and fall of the notes. Only, that box didn’t fit me too long. I realized I wanted to say more than what the pre-written songs were saying. (I also felt most of the pre-written songs were garbage when it came to speaking God beyond fluffy sentiments.) I wanted to talk about God in spaces where God existed, but we were failing to even look. To find the lost coin in the darkness.
So I began writing. I learned very quickly it was a very exclusive club that required the use of over-inflated words. Without saying so, they set the entrance fee to have a voice at their table. The fee was either having a fantastical story, a family member who was already in, or a stable middle-class-ish family.. Why do I say this? Because I was from a home where between both parents there were four divorces in my childhood. I went to three elementary schools, and lived in six different homes. There was no way to follow my educational progression because I didn’t stay in one place long enough to have any school really help me. I struggled in language arts. I struggled in math.
If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I better know the rules. I better write the correct lingo that Seminary Professors would understand, and people like me would not. I better be peer reviewed so I could be placed in a journal no one would read. I learned the lingo, but I don’t use it here. There is nothing worse in the world of writing than to waste your time talking to people who cannot possibly understand what you are trying to say. BUT- that also means I’m not going to be published. See, it’s exclusive. Either I sell my essence to get entrance and not have anything to really say (because, I sold the most important part of me to get the microphone). Or, I keep doing what I’m doing with no amplification at all. I don’t have a famous daddy so the second one it is.
I believe the system scared me into being a manuscript preacher. (Pre-writing my sermon and performing it on a Sunday morning.) As I’ve forced myself to be off the cuff for virtual worship, I’ve suddenly realized how boxed in the manuscripts are.
What I’m not saying about the word “preach.”
I’m not using it like the phrase, “That’ll preach!” That phrase is used to say the action or words could be preached on a Sunday morning. It still puts preaching as something that can only happen in a pulpit on a Sunday morning.
I’m also not talking about the phrase, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” That is a statement of social responsibility, not actual preaching.
Finally, I’m not talking about the phrase, “Stop preaching at us!” That suggests there is nothing helpful in the act of preaching, and when the action looks like a sermon, it needs to stop. (Once again, looking like a sermon is something that involves words at a podium.)
Truly seeing the wilderness in preaching.
What I’m about to write is personally terrifying. I’ve seen glimpses of it, and it truly feels I’ve glimpsed the edge of God. It is the true vastness of the Wilderness.
Van Gogh, Howard Finster, and Aaron Douglas.
They are all artists. More than that, they are all preachers in their own right.
Van Gogh created The Potato Eaters after he was let go as a missionary. He was let go because he gave up his lodgings to the homeless. That’s when he found his true calling as a painter. The Potato Eaters preaches to those who fired him for living into a social Gospel.
Howard Finster was a pulpit preacher who felt his congregation wasn’t listening to what he was saying. He left the safety of the church, and followed the call to start creating. He became famous for his art.
Aaron Douglas was agnostic, yet the way he captures Biblical narrative from an African American perspective was way before James Cone and “God of the Oppressed.” He spoke to truths the power in the Church would have blacklisted had they realized what he was doing.
These three artists were brought to my attention from three different circumstances. It reminded me of who I am, and who I am called to be.
When I said I was leaving the denomination, I had someone publicly (while also being kinda discreet) suggest it was all too dangerous. The danger wasn’t for my safety. The danger was what I could do without boundaries. The words lacked understanding of the deep danger so many had found themselves outside the church, and the necessity to break those boundaries to meet them in their danger.
I have always known the boxes never fit me. I think those who really know me, also know that fact. Yet, I always tried to cram myself into these boxes like they are something that should continue to exist. How could I say, “The language of God is more than words,” and not hear what I was saying to myself?!
I’ve, most recently, been praying to stay a minister. You might think that is strange for a person like me to pray. I’ve been in ministry since high school. Over 20 years now. Why would I, of all people, fear I would be called away from it?
I can feel the call to not be in the pulpit. My whole life, whether I realized it or not, being in the pulpit in a church has become my definition of being a minister. Meanwhile, in a complete contradiction I constantly talk about other forms of ministry. I raise up the Chaplains. I adore the missionaries. They are ministers.
I also didn’t realize I had limited the language of ministry, while contradicting myself in it’s practice. God smacked me upside the head with three painters, and reminded me of my brief moment in music ministry. God told me my boxes were too small.
That’s what scares me, and knowing I’ve been doing it the whole time. I’ve been preaching with art. I’ve been preaching with action. I’ve been preaching with the song of inflection. I’ve been telling God’s story to the world outside the pulpit and with more than words, for way longer than I’ve even realized!
People ask for my songs in their forign land. I get angry when they ask for it, because they won’t consider it worship. Why am I singing the Lord’s song to people who don’t see it for what it is? So my prayer to God is returned to just worship God. If others see, fine. So I do. At that point, I have to read the scriptures where the entire thing sounds stupid. I have to see Naaman completely frustrated that he’s asked to clean in dirty water. I must see how foolish it all looks, because it all looks like futility.
No one from inside the box wants me outside the box, because I’m in danger of breaking the box.
So those inside the box are fearful of what I might do, and those outside the box think it’s cute.
And all God’s trying to tell me is that my ministry is not at a podium!
Fine, God! Sure! But, can you tell the people who pay your servants? All your funds are tied up in buildings, and pulpits. How long? We, as a people, can’t sit in silence for 30 seconds without needing to blurt something and I’ve been doing this for years. Is my decade enough? How about two decades? Three full decades when I’m 61? No! 64! Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?!
At the same time, knowing I can paint, sing, dance, act and create worship… wow it makes the traditional worship look so tiny and unimportant. Yeah, the wilderness is scary, but once you’ve lived in it for a decade, how could you go back? My Boss has basically handed me the tools and told me to go have fun, and part of it is knowing, that’s what I’ve been doing all along! God knows me, and has given me a job that fits my skill set. My definition of preaching is just right. It’s yours that is too small.
The Primal Yowl of Suffering
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
A few weeks back I wrote about a book I was currently reading: Hurting with God, by Dr. Glenn Pemberton. For multiple unforeseen reasons, I’m not done yet. I have four chapters left, and I’m loving the journey.
Many days, I’ll read and then just walk it off. When those days happen I’ve found God in the text, and the two of us just have to end the reading in a silent prayer.
For those of you I’ve piqued your interest, when I get through the final four, I’ll write out my review. Right now I want to talk about something I truly believe he missed.
When you know, you know...
As I was reading I felt he got the point, but more like a cancer doctor having found cancer in someone else. He knew where to look, and what it looked like, but there was always this hint of something being missing.
In my mind, the answer will always be found in Psalm 137.
Psalm 137 is the most uncomfortable Psalm in the entire Bible. If you don’t know why, let me let the Psalm speak for itself: (CEB)
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
7 Lord, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,[a]
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!
Have you ever really been physically hurt? You broke a bone, you closed your finger in a car door, you accidentally amputated a body part? Did you notice how people reacted to your reaction to pain? For me, who has done all but amputate a body part, my screams were met with support and love. Why? Because, as a people we get physical ailments. Well, I’ll walk that back a little, we don’t always get physical ailments, but we know the reaction to them, and look for that as a sign someone needs help.
Meanwhile, spiritual and mental needs do not get the same reaction. I’ll walk that back a little. Many parents can hear those mental and spiritual screams from their kids, and know when they are screaming, “I hate you, Mom!” they don’t really mean those words. We allow it for kids, because we justify it to ourselves. It’s because they are young. They are speaking from raging hormones and a shortsighted worldview. We use our kid’s scream to set the parameters for what we will listen to.
Instead of treating the spiritual and mental scream as a sign that the person needs help, we tell them to “Grow up!” Or, we throw platitudes out like it’s somehow going to cover it over so we can move on. “Everything happens for a reason.” “It will only make you stronger.” Maybe the worst of them all, “You really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reading Pemberton to get to Psalm 137
I often think ahead on a book. In the genre of fiction this is not a good thing. I have a very active imagination, and my story is usually more compelling than what I eventually read. I might be better just putting fiction down ½ way through reading, and just play out my own endings.
In non-fiction, thinking ahead is like understanding the notes that must follow in a musical piece, and preparing for the rise and fall of the linguistic music. When I know the piece is garbage, I try to find something redeemable in the writing. When I love and agree is when I dig in and tear apart.
That’s what really makes my words a difficult read. We live in a world sectioned off into absolutes. We no longer critique our colleagues. This has made our arguments weak; brittle. It has given the most poorly formed arguments a false sense of correctness. I push against the voices I agree with, to strengthen those voices and, ultimately, myself.
Pemberton had three possible solutions to seeing Psalms like 137 in the Bible:
Before you rage quit. This is right, in the same way a cancer doctor talking about cancer is right. It’s missing the biggest number that was never given.
To know God gives space for the primal yowl of true suffering.
When we cry out in pain, it’s not about the words, but what those words mean. I sometimes think the creation of books has made us miss the many levels of language. Visual language. Inflection. Action. Sounds other than words. All of these things speak, but we only pay attention to the words themselves.
When I was 19 my dad accidentally hit a dog. We pulled over. The dog was barking and biting at us. He was very hurt, and dying. Those sounds and bites were the dog not understanding what was happening to him, and telling us he was hurt. I don’t condemn the dog for speaking sorrow and pain and that manner.
Why do we condemn the same thing from one another?
When Pemberton ends the chapter saying this was about having words to pray for the suffering, I say no. They can never be the words of someone who isn’t living in that pain. Think of all those moments where we scream out in pain. Would you want someone imitating that to show solidarity? No. If you’ve lived it, you know. You can read Psalm 137 and understand the primal yowl. If you haven’t lived it, it is space to understand the language in a new way, and see 137 as a primal yowl.
I let this Psalm speak- not because I believe the words, but because I see the suffering beyond them and let them publicly cry out in that pain. You are loved. God sees you. God hears you.