-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I’ve been spending a few weeks delving into Brian Wright’s Right from the Heart ministry. I’ve done this, because I want to separate the men from their theology. We are focused too much on the monsters this theology creates, and not the theology itself being the problem. Some great guys have peddled horrible theologies.
I’ve talked about hollow hope, and stagnant peace. Today I want to talk about fear that destroys love.
The shadows we cast
The best day to take photographs are overcast days. Why? Because there are no shadows. You don’t have people squinting to keep their eyes open. You don’t have harsh contrasts aging everyone and everything a decade. You just have equalized lighting diffused by the clouds in front of the sun.
The point is, oftentimes when we see those crisp shadows it’s because the sun is fully out, shining on the world. It is not darkness that creates shadows; it’s light.
There was a time I was forcefully put in the darkness. There is no hiding in it, because everything is darkness. Your eyes adjust, and you see it all. Sure- you can’t see everything well, but you can see everything. Then light shines. The people and things that were comfortable being out in the open scatter. Once there is light, they scurry to those shadows.
Fig Tree’s box lights
A good studio will only make you consider the lighting when the lighting is basically a character.
Like during Fig Tree’s livecast, you are supposed to see that the candles are lit. You are not, however, supposed to consider how the space itself is lit. I have two box lights hitting me from opposite 45° angles. I actually do this, to destroy any shadow that might show up on camera. This should leave you with no feeling at all regarding the lighting.
That’s not how life works. I’m removing how the lighting is done from your thoughts, while really lighting the space. In reality, you only think about lighting when those deep shadows show up.
Casting a shadow
At face value, nothing is wrong with this video. It’s the focus, not the message of the focus. Sure- if we have control over our shadows, we should always consider what we have chosen to shadow. Are we giving shade to a parched and overworked prophet? That’s a good shadow to give. Are we attempting to hide or dismiss someone’s point of view that could be helpful? Are we avoiding something that doesn’t need to be avoided anymore? Are we seeing that Ravi Zacharias was a bad guy and instead of looking at the theology that put him there, we are burying the issue and looking away? That would be a misuse of a shadow.
In reality, God’s light will create shadows, and if we stand before it, our shadow will be big and long. This video accidentally causes those who stand in the light to feel anxious about their shadows, to accidentally hide things in them because one wouldn’t want to be someone shadowing the good things. When you are too afraid to not keep a light on the good things, you become overzealous shadowing the bad things.
The bad things want the shadows.
Instead of being fearful where your personal shadows fall, maybe instead be active about fighting the things that hide in them. Shadow casters can be bad people, but, since every single one of us cast shadows, weaponizing shadows seems superfluous.
Yes, at face value nothing is wrong with this video, until you realize this theology is one of the key reasons why abuse remains in a church. Have you actually stopped and considered why the Southern Baptist Convention is attempting to hide and dismiss abuse when it’s so blatantly obvious? It’s because they don’t want to be actively caught having sheltered these predators in a shadow! The entire system has weaponized the shadows of congregants so successfully, they must react in the same way they’ve taught their sheep to react. They spend countless resources and money adding light to the good. They refuse to talk about the darkness. In doing so, it becomes easier for the evil things to hide in it.
This is all a focus and perspective game. This is all about widening the lens and pointing the finger where it needs to be pointed.
In the same way I used to be uncomfortable listening to Sunday Sermons in Paulding County, Georgia, there is a reason why there are a growing number who are finding my statements uncomfortable. I’m actively naming the brokenness of a large swath of theologians and believers. I also know there are millions of Christians who don’t want what I’m serving. I am the masked magician of theological writers because sleight of hand doesn’t belong in the Church.
This is the image of real love. Instead of demonizing those who had cast the shadow, destroying the things hiding in it.
This is the image of real love. This is what it means to walk to the cross. You must trust God enough to walk towards death, and accept that death, so new life can rise without this damaging theology.
This is what real love looks like. Accepting the wilderness, because the “city” is too damaged to survive. This is the image of real love.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
This month is a 10 year anniversary. Some anniversaries are good and worth celebrating. This one is not. These are the anniversaries ministers attempt to bury whether they were in the right or wrong. This is when a church lets a minister go.
Here are the ground rules:
What I expected, vs what I got.
When the church and myself were in the middle of search and call, I had three requirements. Below are my three questions, how they answered them, and what they gave me.
I walked into deep brokenness, from recent and past trauma. No new minister should have that job. Period. If they had been completely honest, I wouldn’t have taken the job. Instead, they lied, and after I was already there, it got worse.
How this church deals with her trauma.
Back in the 1970’s this church became broken when a minister split the church over traditional versus praise worship. The minister took the praise group and started a new church. Before this event, ministers would serve at the church for many years. After this event, almost all only lasted a couple of years. Always, when the minister would introduce change, they would suddenly resign only a few months later.
This information was buried. I had to dig for it when I was trying to understand what happened and why it happened.
It turns out, there were two churches meeting in the same building. There were the congregants, who were often good and supportive of many of these clergy. Then there were the Elders, the power that maintained the church to keep change from taking root. I can still remember congregants talking fondly about former ministers, and then being puzzled because they suddenly left. The elders would quietly vote to dismiss the minister and ask for their resignation. The minister would comply, because in the church it’s harder to be hired if you are fired. (You’d probably be surprised to hear there are far more ministers who just chose to say they were resigning to avoid being fired. Forcing resignation is a very effective method to force a minister out.)
What happened to me
They wanted my resignation pretty early on. I know this, because the key players all reacted in certain ways. There was one in particular that couldn’t hide her feelings even if she tried.
In late February/early March I announced I was pregnant with my, now, daughter. The look on her face was not joy, but devastation. When we tried out a television during VBS week, so the congregation could see how non-threatening it all was, she stood up in church and yelled, “This is the worst thing to ever happen!” When I said I was dropping the television idea, the Elders actually looked disappointed. (Not because they wanted it, but because that was what they were going to use to bury me.)
When my dad totaled his bike, and I didn’t know if he was okay or not, certain elders once again looked put out, instead of worried on my behalf.
It wasn’t difficult to read.
Finally, I had taken two weeks after my daughter was born, and announced I was ready to come back. Was I really ready to come back? No, but I felt extremely uncomfortable taking any more time. One of the elders asked if I needed more time, if I were sure. I said I was, and that night he invited me to his house to tell me they wanted my resignation.
They knew what they were doing, and they made sure they did it right. They already had a meeting telling me certain members didn’t get along with me; that they had problems. I asked them not to be the intermediaries for these people, but to ask them to talk to me directly. I didn’t realize this meeting wasn’t to help me, but to have "that meeting" before they asked for my resignation. They needed to check it off the list, so they could say they did it.
I had chosen to have my daughter at the rural, lower income hospital, because it was closer to the church. (By the way, it was really eye opening to have my first child in a hospital that gave a damn, because they had money, and my second child in a rural hospital that just didn’t have the same level of resources. As a minister I appreciate what I learned from that experience.) When my daughter was born, the Elders dropped the phone tree chain, so only my secretary came to visit.
When one of the Elders went into the hospital because his appendix ruptured, they tried to keep me out of the loop. I found out and visited. They tried to use it against me, but (once again) the secretary came to my side, and asked this elder point blank if I had visited him in the hospital. He sheepishly said, “yes.”
I chose to fight the resignation, not because I thought I could keep my job, but because I wanted everything exposed. If I were wrong, I wanted to be brought forward in my failure. If they were wrong, I wanted the region to see it and act accordingly. Unlike many ministers, I’m willing to utterly destroy myself for what is right, and I did.
I have not had a full time church job since that job. I refuse. I’m not going to play into a broken system. And point blank. It sucks. I have enormous student loan debt from a graduate level theology program that I can’t pay off. I've been a waitress, a retail worker, a sub... because we need money.
What I have been doing, and haven’t stopped doing, is following my call. I have been a minister since my ordination day, and I haven’t stopped. I have to live with the truth that people want to be cheerleaders for that call, but not join it. I need physical help. The most disheartening truth is that I have to realize I’m one of the few who are willing to do what I do for no pay.
So every October my daughter’s birthday rolls around, and so does that anniversary.
Every year I’m reminded of what one of the Elders said to me at his house, asking for my resignation two weeks after having a baby, “After all you’ve been through, you’ll bounce back.” For 9 years those words haunted me. I thought: Either I will bounce back, and they will be justified in everything that happened. Or, I won’t bounce back and he won’t care because he said it to make himself feel better.
I failed to realize what those words were actually saying: “I know you were broken in your past, and we are about to break you again. Now I’m going to make a suggestion that you’ll be okay because you’ve been broken before, and it will help me sleep at night.”
They knew they were in the wrong, and I’ll leave you with two stories as proof.
At the elder’s house he told a story. I wanted to keep preaching, until I left, and he said no. Years ago, they had asked for a minister’s resignation. (I discovered he wanted to go through redevelopment with the congregation. An immediate death for any minister at this church) The elder told this story of the minister going up to him during his sermon and publicly forgiving him for what he had done. No, they didn’t want me doing that. That wasn’t good at all. That suggested the elder was wrong.
Later, after I decided to bring this all out in the open, this elder’s wife called. I answered and she lit into me. “How dare you fight this! You’re just supposed to resign and move on! This has upset my husband, and you should be ashamed!" I hung up on her. My husband, who was within 6ft of me at the time, couldn’t believe what he had just overheard. That rant was clearly not part of the plan, because she called back and left a voicemail. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I was out of line. My husband told me not to tell you that.”
Simply put- we shouldn't have been together. If the church was just honest in the interview process I wouldn't have taken the job. All that pain and suffering could have been avoided. But, what's done is done.
I will continue to fight to fix the Church. I have nothing to lose, because I lost it a decade ago. Since that experience, I’ve heard so many other stories about Church brokenness. I am not an anomaly, and that’s a problem. I need physical help. That’s now what makes October so difficult for me. All those cheerleaders, and no real players around.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
(Before I begin. With the help this week of Bruggemann’s Prophetic Imagination, this is my theology. If you discuss it somewhere else, just remember to cite this post with links.)
This is a series where I take apart an unhealthy theology to show it for what it is. I’m working through Bryant Wright’s “Right From the Heart” ministry. I’m doing this because it’s not these bad people picking up God’s mantle. It's bad theology.
Last week I talked about hollow hope.
This week I want to jump into peace.
Dismissing Ravi Zacharias before I delve into Right From The Heart.
It really made my brain hurt reading Zacharias. First, because he gave commentary for scriptures he wouldn’t even cite in the text. (His commentary was absolutely trash, by the way.) Secondly, he built this idea of one Truth on one scripture: John 14:6
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 14:6 CEB
There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me as I get it all out and piece it together.
Zacharias is probably one of the main reasons we have so many evangelicals not trusting science. He walked this very fine line in his books. He went right to the edge of suggesting science was false truth because it came from atheists, but wouldn’t say it directly.
As science was pushing against Genesis and hitting against the Biblical literalists, the Biblical literalists desired a way to ignore the scientists and keep their faith.
This is where Zacharias made all his money. They didn’t have to think about the authenticity of his words, only that it allowed them space to keep their own beliefs. He cemented faith that was always called to movement. Nothing good can come from that.
What if… peace only in Jesus?
First, the video.
This is clearly something pulled together to capitalize on the “What if…” Marvel show on Disney+. I actually appreciate drawing from modern and secular forms of media for sermon analogies, but I’m not sure this was the right way. This was something I went into over a year ago with a church parody of Hamilton’s I’ll Be Back. I don’t want to delve too much on whether this video gets the source material. I do want to talk about real and fake peace.
For over a year now, I have ended almost every single worship with, “Go in Peace.” Oftentimes I explain that peace. Always, I say that peace is work. I’ve called it “active peace.”
We think peace is some kind of break, or stop. When we see Godly peace in this way, it can weaponize peace. See, seeking peace can be very uncomfortable and chaotic. It will not feel very peaceful. A few years back, I compared it to building a road. The finished product should lead to a peaceful drive, but the work to that finished road is a chaotic mess. Sometimes, churches are confronted with brokenness and trauma. The only way back to peace is to deal with the chaos. Peace is weaponized when it is used to not deal with chaos. It shuts down healthy change by forcing those who are broken to shut up.
In this brief little video I see a few things that bother me:
Play the commercial game with me
I’m a master at ignoring commercials. They come on, and I tune out. This means sometimes people ask me if I’ve seen a commercial, and more than likely the answer is, “yes,” but I say, “no” because I don’t remember any of them.
Then there’s the commercial game that draws me back in.
I purposefully watch the commercials to answer two questions:
These two questions are almost always different.
Like alcohol commercials are almost always trying to sell the promise of relationship, while really selling alcohol.
Like household cleaners are often trying to sell the promise of family love, while really just selling something that cleans.
What you discover is that many commercials are promising an illusion, while selling a product.
Are you feeling uncomfortable knowing where I’m going next? Good.
For centuries faith traditions have been sharpened by other faith traditions. We have books from the early Church, because the early Church believed Christianity was important enough to get right.
Today, I physically feel others' anxiety just typing all this out. I can mentally imagine the words, “Hey! I’m comfortable in my faith. Leave it alone!” “My faith is the only place where I can find peace and joy!”
That brings me to the real problem with this 30 second spot:
These churches are “maintaining temporary utopias beyond their tenuous shelf life.” The promise is ease and existence. Meanwhile, Churches must cut themselves off from the world to maintain these false utopias. Warning: Perfection is not compatible within a community. If your church is perfect, something is wrong.
This spot screams “fake utopian bubble.” While not saying it directly, it alludes to Christ being in the church, not of the world. In reality, Christ did all the important stuff in the mess of the outside world. Sat right outside the temple as the widow gave her last bit of money to the temple! Know God, know peace? My God has left the building.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Last week someone tweeted how upset they were with the Southern Baptist Convention, and they were done. Not with their Church, but with the SBC.
I pretended to write, “But how can you be done and still stay in the church?”
I got to the point where I was just about to click, “Reply” before I backed out and away.
Last week there were multiple people out for Mark Driscoll. He has abused systems and women. He needs to go.
As I write about all these leaders right now. It’s the theology, not the people leading it. You get rid of the person and the same voice takes his place with a different face.
Therefore, I’m choosing a new target: the theology. Sometimes it’s difficult to disassociate the people from their words. I have no such problem. I’ve chosen a rather easy target for the next few weeks.
Right From the Heart is a ministry started by Pastor Bryant Wright. He is the founding pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, located outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I’m sure Wright is a great guy who I would personally enjoy spending an hour talking over coffee. His theology, on the other hand, is very dangerous. I hope, over the next few weeks, you hear me out as I take some of their meditations and show you what I mean
The Incredible Hope
Take a moment and watch this video.
It is important to realize, all of this sounds really good at face value. Even the thought of attacking this video can immediately paint me as the “bad guy.” That’s by design. This theology only works on a personal level, and to the person’s immediate community. Anything beyond that frays and falls apart.
Finding Our Base
[Everything I’m saying is coming from me. Just know- I’ve been very guarded sharing this information because I’ve gone viral and saw it amount to nothing. I’ve had ideas stolen and sold for money. Please cite me with a link if you are going to write any of what is written below.]
Here’s the dealio. Everything you believe builds itself up. You have a base belief. Let’s call it, “Your greatest want.” This “want” is not going to be anything fleshed out. It’s going to be primal. Simple.
For most of the United States I believe our greatest want is to exist. Therefore, if you want to exist, you need to eat, have a safe place to reside, and be healthy. There will be things that will keep us from reaching those needs. It doesn’t take long to see it’s impossible to be sure about any of those things. (Especially after Covid.)
WARNING! I’m about to go into DEEP waters. I want you to read, but here’s your life raft if you are not used to deep faith: “I believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I proclaim him Lord and Savior of my life.” I believe this. I also believe everything I’m about to write. You can have faith in something bigger than what our senses pick up and believe what I believe.
When we cannot fulfill our needs to meet our greatest want, we either change our greatest want, or change our needs. It will always be easier to change our needs. As adults, our greatest want, our base, is cemented down. When life is a horrible reality, it’s easier to throw our greatest want ahead to beyond life. A greatest want becomes, “I hope for an existence beyond this world.” When the needs fill in, the person is doing things to secure life.
That’s not to say everyone’s greatest want is to exist. There are many out there that just want to be comfortable. Anything that questions that comfort is dangerous. There are still others who just want it to be easy. For others the word is “power.”
No matter what your greatest want is, if you are unaware of its name, you can be taken advantage of. This is even more true if someone else can figure out your greatest want before you know it yourself. I knew someone who’s greatest want was comfort. She was manipulated into doing something she later regretted, because others knew what she really wanted. I can’t be angry at her even though that action directly hurt me. I can be angry at the people who knew what they were doing, and chose to do it anyway.
Once you know what you're looking for, it’s pretty darn easy to find other’s greatest wants.
The Chicken and an Egg story of Faith and Works.
Faith is when we trust a system/person/religion enough to act without personal knowledge.
True faith will replace our greatest want, whatever it is, with God.
Fake faith will suggest belief will get you your greatest want.
This is the real problem with Bryant Wright’s hope.
Replacing your greatest want with God is one of the biggest leaps of faith you can take. It has far reaching ramifications to how you act and interact with the world. Hope is always an indicator of where you are headed. Hope that is only headed towards existence or comfort is empty. Where can you possibly go? It is a sign of stagnation. Stagnation is something that happens in a bog. The water can’t move, or it’s moving way too slowly, and everything gets mucky.
Consider this: “God will give me comfort,” is saying what you really want is comfort, and your belief in God is based on that want.
Going back to a previous topic, this is really where Ravi Zacharias is truly seen as the emperor without any clothes. His whole systematic theology (meaning how his religion connects together) is built on an idea that everyone’s base is a desire for comfort and existence. Which I believe whole-heartedly that was his base; his greatest want. He then packaged it up as Truth™ and sold it to us at the discounted price of $9.99.
I believe a group of individuals used his words to hijack a faith tradition and have been at it for about 40 years. Wright’s view on hope is that theology continued.
What does it mean to make God your greatest want?
There have been moments when I’ve had a choice. Sometimes that choice is easy, and sometimes it’s not so easy, but it always pits a base want against the truth. Zacharias’ truth was that everything that brings us comfort is of God. The real truth is that the path of God is often filled with uncomfortable, and unforgiving moments. Oftentimes, we are pushed out of our comfort zone by God, because comfort can lead to stagnation, and then we have that bog again.
Wright’s hope is underpants gnomes. I’m going to share the link, but it’s very crude and from South Park, so feel free to ignore it, and read my basic description. The boys follow gnomes under the city of South Park, and discover they are stealing everyone’s underpants. The boys ask what they are doing, and they say they are stealing underpants to make a profit. Only, they have no idea what they are going to do to turn underpants into profit. Step 1: Steal underpants. Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit.
Wright’s hope is Step 1: Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Step 2: Works. What works? ??? Step 3: Salvation! In Wright’s hope do you really even need a step 2? No, no you don’t. That’s what makes his hope so hollow. It’s underpants gnomes.
God’s hope has action now. When you choose God as your base want, your greatest want, you are stating that you are willing to put in the work towards that Hope even at the cost of your own comfort or existence. It’s a Hope building towards God’s Kingdom and Kindom on earth. That’s where works are the fruit of faith. It’s a sacrifice, and it’s real. And it isn’t hollow.
Which came first: Faith or works. I believe it is faith, and with faith where God is our greatest want, we find we what we need is for communal connection. Healing. Active peace. That's real Hope.