-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Have you ever walked a hiking trail and let your mind wander? I mean, REALLY wander. Allow your brain to take you far far away, to a place where dragons and knights lived? Or in a distant future where beyond your walk there are flying cars, and machines that can make whatever your heart desires?
I can’t turn my brain off. I don’t know how some of y’all do it. I’m constantly planning, working, getting ready for something. The closest I get is when I can create. Create earrings, tiny polymer statues, cross stitch, knotted bracelets, stories, books, layered paper, chaos emeralds and power rings, cat castles, and costumes… I just need a spark. Take me to the land of make believe, and let me find something to make real.
Even talking about the beginnings of that process fills me with joy! That’s what I am, a sorceress, taking something that doesn’t exist, and making it real with the workings of my words and hands.
Up till now I’ve been given little pieces. It’s trust. In the beginning I didn’t even trust myself, and for good reason. I knew my limits and I pushed them only a little. Then, as I began to trust myself, others began to trust me too. I get to play make believe, and bring back souvenirs from the trip!
Oh how my mind wanders with Fig Tree! I imagine a worship area with education rooms and stations around the worship area to connect with those online. I see quarterly Bible studies that come with boxes for added content. I see a staff room where each week or two times a week we expand our understanding of pretty much everything.Maybe we all learn Spanish or sign language, or perhaps we delve into web design or Photoshop! I imagine doing regional retreats to discuss theology, and connect with other Fig Tree Christians.
I can’t wait to have a team of people to explore the imaginary and bring it back to reality!
Someone asked me, where is my joy? It’s there! It’s in what’s yet to be! It’s in a future we can’t yet see, but still waits for it to be found!
It’s where my mind wanders as I walk through the woods.
When I set my mind on a task, I am fully invested and cannot stop until I finish.
For example, last Sunday I sat down with my polymer clay and planned to make some pumpkin earrings. They are probably one of the easiest earrings to make, and look beautiful. As I’m making them, I begin to wonder if I picked up some brighter orange could I pull off candy corn earrings.
The short answer is yes, I can. As I’m chugging away at candy corn earrings, I am separating the yellow into tiny balls, and realize that would make an amazing Pac Man. I get my candy corn earrings done, and dig through my polymer until I find what I need: color for the ghosts.
Twenty-two earrings later, I also wrap up the “gear”rings I started before my daughter’s day camp, and it’s now Friday. The whole week became an earring extravaganza.
I think it was yesterday I realized a hard truth.
My personal goal for this summer is to make three videos for Fig Tree Christian. Instead, I’ve gone down multiple rabbit holes, all of them completely stealing my time. Sure, the earrings will be sold at a craft fair. That time has a purpose. Yet, somehow, my time has found important places to be that are not making videos for Fig Tree. It was Saturday I finally realized what was going on.
I want to make a video on the Ravi Zacharias abuse. Well, “want” is no longer the word I’d use.
See, I thought this would be like everything else. I’d get one of his books, and gleefully tear it apart. Then I’d make a video sharing his history, and why we should all put that man away and never look at him again. I’ve had no problem dissecting other books in seminary. This time it was different.
What this man means to my call to ministry.
While well meaning idiots spent the last 9 years telling me I wasn’t called to ministry, Zacharias spent the last years of his life being the North American C.S. Lewis. He was the poster child for modern apologetics. (Apologetics is the branch of theology where the point is to justify the existence of Christian faith. Think, “A Case for Christ.”) I made a point to read some C.S. Lewis after seminary because Candler didn’t do apologetics. I remember one professor telling me it wasn’t real theology. Therefore, “Mere Christianity,” and “The Problem of Pain,” sits on my evangelism/friend shelf of my library, and there it stays. Those were fairly easy reads, and I’d put other C.S. Lewis books next to them, but they sit on my Kindle.
I can remember people suggesting Zacharias books to me. Never did I read any of them, because they were always suggested by people who I didn’t trust theologically.
I did read Lori Anne Thompson. As Fig Tree became a safe space for the abused and displaced, somehow we found one another and followed each other on Twitter. I knew she was working through something big, and I had no idea what. That was okay. I am so grateful I’m one of the few that knew the victim/survivor before the abuser.
When Zacharias passed away I saw so many mourn his passing, but that was as far as the impact went. At the time I didn’t own a single book he’d written, and I hadn’t created a single word art to share. I’d heard him on Glenn Beck a couple of times, and still don’t remember a single thing he said there. Non-impact is the best word to describe him.
Then everything came to light.
To learn this man was not only a sexual abuser, but also openly lied about it once it was known angers me to no end. There’s a reason spiritual leaders should be held to a higher standard than everyone else, and this is it. It’s not so we can put them on an ivory pedestal and worship them as quasi-saint. It’s so their fall is epic and hurts. What they can do with power can be incredibly uplifting and helpful, or insanely dangerous and destructive. Jesus’ burden is light, but power in any form is heavy. Period.
Choosing to dig into a book.
I decided, months and months ago that I was going to find a Ravi Zacharias book at Goodwill, read it, and do a video review of it.
I have a hard line on reviews. I cannot review anything I haven’t seen or read. I think it’s disingenuous to talk about things I have not personally experienced. This has led to me having a very diverse education, and I’m very grateful for it. I actually enjoy listening and reading people I disagree with. Even if I don’t walk away agreeing with what the person says, at least I can understand where they are coming from.
I thought this experience would be the same. I’d get a book. I’d disagree with it, but leave understanding where this thought process came from.
Instead, I was almost always sickened and angry. There were days I could only get two pages in, before I was venting to someone or some group and walking away for a couple of days. It turned what should have been an easy read, into a slog! Even now, as I’m researching Zacharias personally, I’m still angry. I’ll read even one paragraph and realize the implications and go do something else.
Basically, I was going to Tarshish instead of Ninivah.
The Story of Jonah.
I love my prophets. If you’ve read or seen enough of my work, you know my fav is actually Jeremiah, but Jonah holds a place in my heart.
It’s a short read, so if you want to say you read a book from the prophets, it’s an easy one to get through and get some cred.
Jonah is the only Prophet called to preach to the enemy, and also the only Prophet where the ones hearing the message change their ways. It should be understandable that Jonah wants nothing to do with God’s call, because in some way it’s not fair to ask someone to help their enemy.
Jonah flees, goes in the opposite direction, gets kicked off a boat, and swallowed by a big fish. Only after all that he begrudgingly goes to Ninivah and (from my reading) only gives it the minimum effort.
It ends with him angry it all worked, and then frustrated a worm ate his shade.
I’ve been running to Tarshish
It’s not that I haven’t been doing productive things. I’ve been super productive. It’s that I’ve been super productive in areas that have intentionally kept me from doing this review. Even as I’ve written this out for y’all, I went and did three different things. All of those things were good in their own way, but they’ve kept me from this.
I need to ask myself why I’ve been running in the opposite directions, and here is what I believe:
There you go. The more I dig, the worse I feel, but the more I realize it needs to be shared. Pray for me. These next few weeks are not going to be easy.
-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.