-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.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
There are times the spaces between make me happy. Like, as a child, being able to squeeze into those in between locations during a good game of Sardines.
There are times when the spaces between comfort me. Like, the space between my couch and a quilt on a February day.
There are also times when the spaces between bring me peace. Like those moments where I have nothing to do so I pray, meditate, walk around in circles reading a good book...
Space, if used appropriately, can be very good. It can define what is around it. It gives opportunity to be filled appropriately. But, it can also be taken advantage of.
We all think we could avoid true evil when it comes our way. Of course, any of us would be able to pick up on a bad guy, twirling his handle bar mustache and wearing a black trench coat. If that was how evil worked, we'd all be masters of avoiding it.
That's not how evil works.
Part of what makes evil, so evil are the tools evil uses to move ahead. Most specifically, truth. The truly evil plans are planted with a seed of truth in a bed of corruption. To plant that truth, evil uses empty space. I think, deep down, that's why we want to fill empty space to quickly. Deep down, we're afraid of the potential danger of the wrong people taking the space.
It's not some physical devil that subverts the truth either. It's often good people, with good motivations. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it is humanities worst. We think we'll see them because they'll stick out like a classic villain with a handlebar mustache and a black trench coat. That level of evil knows they cannot look like what they are. They put on sheep's clothing, and gain favor with the little lambs to slaughter. It's often times the good people who just want to do good that buy into the seed of truth among a crop of lies.
The Space between Maundy Thursday and the Cross
When truth is used to subvert or corrupt space, it is often the one championing the tiny seed of truth that gets hurt the most. This is when things turn upside down. What was good is turned evil. Goodness is looked upon with suspicion.
The Pharisee's subverted the truth when they used Judas to turn Jesus in. Judas was the one who held on to the seed of truth. Jesus was there to redeem what had been stolen. Only Judas thought that would be a warrior King, not a prince of peace. I truly believe Judas did what he did because he was trying to force Jesus' hand. Between the first Holy Communion and the cross, the world was turned upside down.
This is space we are not allowed to fill. We must sit in it. We must allow it to exist. We must realize how foolish the Disciples would have looked as Jesus was arrested and tried. How lost everything had become. Something is gone. Something's not the same. It never will be again.