-Pastor Melissa Fain-
There are some ministers who have chosen to treat Covid-19 like a fun whitewater adventure. For some of those ministers, it has terribly backfired, and they've had to bury their own congregants, or the minister themselves are buried. For other ministers, the ride has continued, and they've taken it all as a sign from God that they are protected. It's shallow faith in a world that's leaving shallow behind.
Even those who understand this are still praying the wrong prayer. We are collectively lifting our voices and lamenting, "When will this end?"
While everything happening now has an ending, that's not going to give us what we should be doing. All of us should be praying, "God, what's next?"
A Child's Prayer
In between 6th and 7th grade, I made one last trip as a congregant of Red Bridge Christian Church, in metro-Kansas City, Missouri. My pre-teen years had not been easy, and many of them were bad. I made a deal with God. "I've been through tough things. Please give me good now. Can you make my second half of my life easier than my first?"
Now, all the adults in the room should know that a 12 year old is not middle aged. Honestly, I didn't think I'd make it past 19. I'm now twice that plus two. I was just seeking the wrong prayer. My asking if life was going to get good was me praying to God, "Is it over yet?"
The answer didn't matter.
When the tomb is empty because it was never filled.
Growing up, I wanted the sunshine and candy of Easter. I wanted to celebrate an empty tomb, and wear a pretty dress. All my kid brain knew was that Easter was happy, and fun.
Then I was placed in an eternal Lent.
You tend to see the world a bit differently when struggle lasts a little longer than 40 days. I stopped waiting for God to do the work, and started asking God what work could I do. That's really what the prayer "When will this end?" is all about. People who pray that prayer want God to do all the work.
To do the work, you have to accept there is a problem. You have to examine, and name it. There are those who have been in oblivious ignorance for so long, they can no longer even see the problem. For those who can't see, the naming the problem sounds like one is being negative.
In reality, I'm extremely hopeful. I believe there is something beyond the problem. I name the problem because I want to move past it. I want people to process suffering, not because I want people to suffer. Actually, I want people to stop suffering. I also know that is almost always the only way suffering ends. I also believe that's extremely Biblical.
Christ talks all the time of suffering, and not that we wouldn't suffer, but wouldn't suffer alone.
I know, I know. Not what you wanted to hear. If you go down the road just a bit from my house in any direction, you'll find those empty promises. They sell them every Sunday, because they are so easy to produce. Just know, when you hit those low points, when the world comes crashing in around you, it wasn't because you didn't pray hard enough. There are really good people who suffer. There are really bad people who don't.
Jesus gave us language to never walk through adversity alone.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.
Matthew 16:24 CEB
The people believed if someone was suffering, it meant God had left them. It often made the situation worse for people already dealing with trauma. Jesus reframes the conversation by point blank telling those closest to him, you will suffer too.
If suffering is a natural part of human existence, we need to start talking about it in realistic ways. Lent, this period leading up to Easter, is the perfect time.
You are not alone.
You are loved.
You are part of something bigger than yourself.
I believe our wounds can heal and scar over.
God is with us.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I'm a gal who loves her illustrations. Therefore, this post will be told in an allegorical. Don't worry, I'll explain it as I'm telling it.
When it comes to tsunamis, they always start with an earthquake. The earthquake itself is not that dangerous. That's because their epicenter takes place off shore, in the ocean. Even if the earthquake does damage, it'd doesn't really kill anyone, or the causalities are few.
Fig Tree started way before the earthquake. People knew the earthquake could happen. The potential was warned way before I ever knew Fig Tree would some day exist. In this case, two cataclysmic earthquakes: church decline/death, and an immanent pandemic. Each of these were warned by different groups. The prophets of our age told us to prepare.
I'm a person who will leap without question if I feel it is where God wants me to be. Way before the earthquake, I felt God wanted me to go away from everything else. I set up camp in the wilderness, and then set to complaining. My prayers were bold, "Why am I out here, God?! No one can hear me out here!" I spent the years building a little out in the wilderness. Then I would go into town to tell people what I was doing.
I quickly learned the danger of the town. They were beginning to feel the hunger pangs of decline. I was going into town to bring people back with me to the wilderness. Those satiated found their comfort as a sign they had nothing to do, and would ignore me. Those who were feeling the decline/death would make bold promises of assistance, but really they wanted food. They wanted me to give them access to devour anything that was built, under the false illusion that Fig Tree's death would lead to their new life. It shocked me. I had grown up in town. I loved it. I lived in it. I wasn't used to seeing the ones I loved turned predator. I had to tell them I hadn't come to feed them, but to grow something that would nurture them in the future. With that, they had no use for me or Fig Tree.
I had no idea the earthquake was coming when I completely left the town. I simply felt that I needed to leave that moment, when leaving held power; leaving meant I was willingly losing something.
When the earthquake came, no one thought of what it would bring. No one prepared for what would come.
All of this I wrote about over the past few years. The earthquake were the first rumblings of the pandemic. We disregarded the warnings because we've heard them before. SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu. All these things were promised pandemics that didn't sweep across the world as promised. And no church saw their "set-up" as problematic to the earthquake and what it would bring.
The Rising Tsunami
It was only when the waters began to rise and overtake the land, that people began to immediately act. The flood waters came, and it terrified me.
Yes, terrified me. I was watching in the safety of the wilderness. God had led me to a place where I would not drown. It is terrifying to suddenly understand God's presence throughout the years, and understand why my prayers had remained unanswered.
I was also horrified by how the town reacted. "These are just some flood waters." "Sure, we'll be a little waterlogged when it's all over, but we'll move on." I watched the town as they opened back up as the waters continued to rise. I kept looking, and as I looked, it was difficult to keep building Fig Tree. I wanted to go back and try to save someone! These weren't just basic flood waters. We couldn't sit it out on our roofs and be okay. This was a tsunami!
But I couldn't do anything, and every time I went back to try, we were not moving forward.
Finally, I had this strong feeling that I needed to turn away and focus on what I could control. This didn't stop me from knowing what was going down. People were drowning. A few even reached out to me, hoping I could pull them up. I'd tell them how to leave the waters on their own, they'd ignore me, and I'd lament.
Now the waters have begun to still. This false calm that always comes with a tsunami.
We are here. This is now. We can feel a stage of the Pandemic is coming to a close, and all these churches that have survived so far are making plans in town. They've been doing their own lamenting, as they've watched congregants not able to hold on. They are also under the illusion that all those people who left for higher ground would somehow come back. But, that's not going to happen.
The Water is About to Recede.
The most dangerous part of a tsunami is not the coming of the waters, but it's when the waters leave. It's just water coming in. It's just one thing. Yes, devastating in it's nature, but only one danger. It's everything coming back. Anything the water tore up, comes back with it, and it only builds as it goes. The very foundations are ripped up and become things that can kill anyone still in the water.
At first, I thought when the waters began to rise, everyone was coming out to the wilderness. I thought this, because my lonely silence was suddenly loud! In actuality, the leaders of the town would use the wilderness to scream down to the town, where everyone stayed. It wore the leaders out, and finally, many were able to set up systems to keep their voice going while they stayed in town.
In actuality, everyone stayed in town. Everyone is still hungry. Everyone just wants the water to go away.
And it will.
I'm not writing this to get anyone out of the water. I'm not fooling myself. I know it's too dangerous to head in that direction. There are times I've cried over this, knowing with the megaphones set up in the wilderness, my voice is just too soft. Nothing I can say, can stop what's next. All I can say for the town, is this: When the waters have washed everything away, I hope I can help find something to save, a sacred remnant.
Meanwhile, I feel Fig Tree needs to be prepared in a different way. We are not in town. We never have been. Being a Wilderness people from the beginning means we never had to consider the flood waters in what we've done.
The problem I've had recently, is a problem of hope. Real honest to goodness hope is always planted in the field of lamentation. People cannot set their sights on something yet to be, if they haven't mourned and buried what has already been and can be no more. It's a very frustrating place to be. I've lamented. I've buried. I'm ready to move on. Meanwhile, people just want the hope without the work to find it first.
Hoping without first lamenting, is hijacking the destination of those who have worked through the process.
I shouldn't be surprised we find ourselves here. We are still living in a delusion that this is just a normal flood. Sure, just a little damage. "In a year we'll look back on all this and see it wasn't really as catastrophic as people were saying." We are also fighting against an influx of survivors that don't want to process what is gone, only get back to what was lost.
It has left me with very clear boundaries regarding where Fig Tree is going.
Fig Tree's purpose and goal:
Fig Tree exists to discover how God is already present in this digital wilderness and show that to those who go online.
We are not in the copy/paste business. We are not copying church and pasting it online.
Therefore, I'm looking for innovators. I'm looking for people who are willing to boldly try, boldly fail, and boldly try again. I'm looking for people who are not confined by the building. People who can take debris and turn it into treasure. People who can process what can no longer be, and be part of God's creative team to build what will be.
That's a difficult ask in an environment where the waters are about to recede. You're not thinking about innovating; you're about surviving. You just want to hear it's all going to be okay, when immediately it won't be. God has been outside of town/church/broken systems in general for years now. God has been calling us to join in. Immediately it's not okay, but eventually (if we follow God's path) it will be. I'm asking you to follow God, and get out of town. There's your real hope.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
"Tell me about the church. What is Fig Tree Christian about?"
Have you ever felt so completely that you should go in a direction, but you have absolutely no idea why?
I knew so many things without a shadow of a doubt.
I knew that if Fig Tree were to succeed, I had to get the blessing of my denomination.
I knew to get the blessing of the denomination, I had to get support rallied around it.
I knew to get support rallied around it, I needed to show it was just as real as any other brick and mortar church.
God knew I was wrong.
I was so so wrong and my first realization was when I was standing before a woman, holding one of the thousand cards I had printed for a physical launch of Fig Tree Christian back in March of 2013. Where I wanted to go, and where God wanted me to go, were not the same thing. I walked through so many parking lots and gave out so many cards.
I can remember at the launch no one showing up. Yep- utter and total failure, and it felt right. I can remember my words hours before it was supposed to start. "Whatever is going to happen is supposed to happen."
I've recalled that fake launch now many times this year. What if it hadn't failed?
If the fake launch hadn't failed, we would have had physical support right away for Fig Tree Christian.
Without a definition, we would have either slowly or quickly become every other brick and mortar church in the area, with no identity online.
In March of 2020, still being green, the Pandemic would have killed us.
In reality, from that moment on I killed Fig Tree again and again. God didn't want what I had done. I felt it, in the core of my being. At the same time, I knew God wanted something from me. So I tried again.
Humanity craves things they know. As the world explodes in change, people just want something familiar. For many, that is church. Every time Fig Tree would launch, I would feel that pull to become what was. That pull was a signal that it was time to fail
Some of you might be wondering why I didn't push through and redirect. Well, church plants are defined by their initial direction. This becomes their DNA. It will follow them their entire lives, whether they want it or not. Everything I was doing, was like pulling back a windup car that is powered by the wheels going backwards. If I didn't get the direction right in the pullback, I wasn't going to get it right when Fig Tree was finally let go.
We restarted in many places: A church, a coffee house, my basement. All of it was online. I was frustrated with each version. I kept drawing people who wanted this to be fully formed and working. That was like asking a baby to fix their car! It was vital that we were without definition. Every one who came for something well defined left. Some that left, left with the promise of great things now for someone else. I watched opportunities comes and go. Always those opportunities would come at sacrifice of Fig Tree. Sometimes what was being asked of us would maintain the name Fig Tree, but I'd be permanently killing it to put someone else's dream in its place. Sometimes it was just blatant killing. Wanting to pull me from my call to give to something else.
It felt so unfair to have such tempting morsels set before us, and knowing I was not allowed to eat at that table. Yet every "no," every restart, came with a definition. Knowing what I was called to say "no" to, meant I was beginning to know what I was saying "yes" to.
No- we are not called to look like the charismatic church, because the charismatic church looks dangerous online. I am not the next Joel Osteen. Fig Tree is not a self-help church.
No- Fig Tree is not the digital ministry arm of [insert church name here]. What I'm doing isn't some long-game resume builder.
No- Fig Tree isn't trying to be [insert digital ministry name here]. Before Covid it was extremely difficult to explain that just like not all physical churches are the same, not all digital churches are the same either.
I couldn't get, but I could give.
If I asked for assistance creating something for those who could not find their way into a brick and mortar church, I would get nothing. I got help because I included brick and mortar churches in the people who would be helped.
I would seek assistance on devotionals for Advent and Lent, specifically including that small churches that couldn't afford a devotional would be able to use it free. How sad is it that in all these years I've only been able to get help if said help would assist their church? In those situations, I could have one foot in the church door, and the other in the mission field, and it worked.
Meanwhile, I gave of myself anytime I saw someone acting for God outside the church. Fonts. Logos. A recorded reading. Anytime I could give outside of what I was doing, I did it. I wanted to encourage exploration in areas deep and wide, and I knew from experience, that happened through donation in specific areas.
Let me go on a sidetrack for a moment: There is this amazing kindergarten teacher. She is amazing at setting up this formative foundation for her kids. She taught my daughter. When we were dealing with personal issues last year she found me. She asked me, what is not getting done right that minute and needs to be done. I told her our lawn. She said almost these words exactly, "We want to help your family. Can I send someone over to take care of your lawn?"
The way she did that is how all of us should seek to help others. So many say the words, "If there is anything I can do, just let me know." Hardly anyone takes someone up on those words. This is because people in need don't want to put others out. More than that, they don't know what you are capable of doing! They may need two weeks of groceries, but they don't want to ask you for assistance on groceries with such an open ended offer. This teacher saw a need, and asked if she could fill that need. She asked if she could help in a specific way.
That's how I've handled giving to others. I notice a need, and I ask if I can help fill it. Almost always the answer is a resounding yes. Meanwhile, I've had people say, "If you need anything, let me know." Occasionally I ask them to write a few devotionals for me. Overwhelmingly I do nothing, because I don't know what they could offer.
What we do, with what we have, is who we are. Fig Tree started as nothing, and from that nothing God created. Now it is something. I've taken very little, and did so much with it. We sit at a precipice of a potential future. Where are we going?
That's a question for next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Over the past three weeks I have talked about early trauma of family brokenness, later trauma of Church brokenness, and the event that began Fig Tree.
I talk trauma because of my ordination. I had asked ministers who had formed my theological grounding to participate. Rev. Phil Foster, was among them. On my ordination day, he stood before those watching and stated that I was a wounded healer.
Since then, I have seen that woundedness must come with journeying towards wholeness. To be a solid leader, I needed to walk the path myself. Some people can learn through example, and some people can read a book and get the lesson. I must live it, feel it and do it.
I can talk about personal brokenness because I've lived it and work towards wholeness. It is through my personal experience I can relate and help others too.
I can talk about church brokenness because I've lived it and work towards wholeness. It is through those experiences that I can relate and help others too.
In other words- What I was, is vital to who I am, and what Fig Tree is.
Reddit solidified Fig Tree's Mission
In the beginning, Fig Tree was exclusively a blog. I didn't use the word "blog," and I still don't, because there are expectations for blogs. Blogs are almost like personal side notes. It felt like this needed to be more editorial in it's existence. There was never a time I thought the goal was just to have me writing every week. In my mind, that is a failure. The meditations section of Fig Tree will have reached success when there are a multitude of writers sharing theological opinions on a weekly basis.
One of the greatest frustrations for me going to seminary was the immense divide between Church and Seminary. My churches were grounded in deep faith and spirituality. We talked about experiencing God. My seminary was grounded in deep knowledge. We talked about the semantics and socio/historical context within the Bible. Spirituality and knowledge are very important. It's problematic that each side has cut out the other. For years I've watched ministers make a choice between spirituality and knowledge. I refused. Being a Christian was both spirituality and knowledge, with the Truth firmly between the two.
Fig Tree's first mission was finding that Truth. At first, it was just weekly meditations. Sometimes this was literally just old sermons as I tried to gage what people needed to hear. I pushed both sides a little. So early on I knew God's story was and is a communal one.
One of those very first voices was Rev. Paul Appleby. We met in seminary, and stayed in touch. He doesn't realize this, but I had grown very frustrated with sermons. It had begun to feel like a well produced play. Once the minister had the SCRIPTure, they may change up the dialogue a little, but the message remained the same. It wasn't that the messages I heard since I was eight was bad. No, they were usually good. It was hearing them since I was eight! I wanted someone to speak on the multitude of subjects within the text! I needed something new on Sunday morning.
I had said we first met in seminary, but that's not exactly true. I had gone to visit a colleague at his church. I thought I'd hear my colleague preach, but instead, it was Paul. Y'all! Rev. Paul Appleby gave me what I had been desiring for years. He gave me context I hadn't considered before. It wasn't the same tired old message. A few years later, I was completely comfortable asking if he would write a guest meditation.
(Let me say this to everyone I have asked to write. I trust you. Like I said last week, I've always been looking at the big picture. I know if I'm looking at the big picture, I have to see Fig Tree like the breadth of it's existence would be seen in it's entirety. If I've asked you to speak for this ministry, I've handed you the power to speak truth to God's love. If you haven't taken advantage of that offer, just know it remains open.)
When Paul wrote for Fig Tree something happened that hadn't happened. The numbers of views spiked. I told him about it, and he said it was Reddit. He'd share his work on the social aggregate. Specifically, he shared to /r/Christianity.
Some truths about Reddit and /r/Christianity
When Paul introduced me to Reddit, I almost immediately saw the pain. The subreddit, /r/Christianity, is where Christians ask questions they don't feel comfortable asking their minister or priest, it's where atheist trolls go to have fun destroying new faith, and it's where the those broken by the church attempt to reconnect.
Reddit honed my ability to communicate online. I read and I responded. While I posted Fig Tree's work once a week, I made it my goal to respond to someone else at least once a day. I made my username RevMelissa. I would have a minister ask why I wear my ministerial title so openly. Here's my answer: If I'm ordained as a minister, I'm a minister at all times. I'm a minister when I'm standing in a church, delivering a sermon and presiding over the elements, and I'm a minister talking to pre-teens on Reddit about God.
Here's the truth about written online communication on communication board formats: When there's an online argument it almost always escalates. This is because, we have this false equivalency that the last words written win. I learned that's not the case at all. In reality, the best words written win. I learned early on, that in writing it's best not to rewrite what has already been written. It's not that the other writer didn't get what you wrote. More than likely he or she did. It's that they want the last words. They want to believe they won the argument because they shut you up. I learned it is better to engage with love, and comment for those who read it, not those who wrote it. Let the person believe they won, but realize winning is knowing someone can read kindness among the hate.
I know I'm doing it right if people see the hate. If I played the escalation game, I'd return hate for hate- which only deepens the hate. It's like painting blue on blue. You can't see the first blue for the second blue that's covering over it. You must paint with complementary colors. Show love for hate. Show patience for frustration. In total transparency, I didn't always win this game. It's really difficult to keep your cool when everyone you try to talk to can't keep theirs. I got better at it with time.
Knowing When to be Apologetic
I will never apologize for openly being a female minister. This became my focus on Reddit. I did not get the sweet karma like my friend Paul did. There were those who needed to bury me. My name was uncomfortable. "RevMelissa? If you really are a minister!"
Now, that's actually a great statement to question when online. Random people online can be anyone they want. Some 19 year old edge lord can say they are a minister when they are really a troll trying to dissuade people from Christianity. That is not why people were making that statement to me. I wore my ordination out in the open. I left links to reference my history in the Church and what I've done in the name of God. They were making the statements to find my weakness. They wanted me to blow up so they could say, "Look! She's not pastoral at all! She's an imposter!" It was like kicking a dog until it bit. I learned to name what they were doing, rather than bite after being kicked over and over again. If you give the aggressor a way out, and bite the problem instead of the person, no one holds it against you.
I will apologize, almost always, for being wrong. When you let others know they hold the higher ground, you are letting them also know when you believe they don't. Openly admitting failure lets everyone see when you don't believe you are failing. It's the separation of righteousness from injustice.
Where the wounded go.
Churches are so insular with their evangelism. They basically set up the equivalent of a pretty welcome mat. They don't want to go you. They want you to come to them.
Very early on, Reddit showed me two groups that were not going to go to the church.
Those broken by the church: When I say broken, I mean crushed. You can break someone's leg, and it can heal. You break someone's soul, and they can't even process what has happened, much less piece it back together. These people were understandably angry at a system that tore them up and ignored them when they talked about being in pieces. Those in the church that knew they existed, willfully pointed their fingers in another direction. "Not I, Lord." Not considering that we are the Body, and if the right hand fails, the whole body has failed. Our ignorance is a continuation of their brokenness. Then there are those who are so insular in their church experience they cannot possibly see anyone outside of it. I have been personally dumbfounded as I've laid out the case for this growing demographic, only to be given the cold shoulder in return. I did not agree with the words of the broken's lament "Burn it all down," but I heard it as pain, and pain that needed to be helped. The truth is in the pain, not the words.
Those who were now unable to attend: The church likes to call these people "shut-in" or "homebound." They also like to pretend they are all retired, and mostly over the age of 70. I learned that's not the case. Church has become like a performance. The entrance fee is dressing up/down enough, being still or swaying and standing for an hour. Those fees could be too high for those living with a life-altering issue. The church also believed ministering to those forced to remain home was nothing more than talking to them for a bit and bringing them communion. It's the insular problem again. Real people are forced out of the building because of unforeseen issues, and the church no longer has a way to include them in the life of the church in a meaningful way.
Fig Tree's focus necessarily moved completely online because of these two groups. How that manifested itself is a story for next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I wrote about the time before Fig Tree came into being. Explaining "how" Fig Tree came into existence will be difficult. Some of what happened is organic, and it's challenging to explain organic things. They tend to happen all on their own. Most of it is simply on this blog. Written throughout the years. I will try my best as I begin to bring 9 years together in just a few posts.
On being pushed off a cliff
I had two choices at the end of my tenure in the broken church.
I could pretend nothing was wrong, and just lovingly leave the church (as if that was love.) I was only two weeks post-partum with no job prospects, but I would pretend all of it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life and my family's life! That would have given me a repel line, to come down from my spot and figure out a new position from there.
Or, I could do what I did, which was live into the truth. I was pushed from the cliff with the words, "With what you've gone through, you'll bounce back."
Those words have haunted me. The person who spoke them, gave himself peace of mind, and gave me two terrible worlds. If I bounced back it would become almost justification for the push that left a post-partum minister crumpled in a broken heap. If I didn't bounce back, I'd have to remember he was sleeping well every night because of his words. They were his security blanket, not mine. Every time something went well, those words have mocked me. Every time something failed, those words were a sick reminder that they never meant anything.
Now, 9 years out, I'm finally at a place where they lost their meaning, that if something big happens I neither completely failed, or bounced back. Still, it took 9 years being haunted to exorcize those words.
Since middle school, I've wanted to start a Disciples of Christ church in North West Georgia. I have seen so many drive 40+ minutes to get to a DoC church. I remember it was almost a badge of honor to be the person who had the longest drive. It was a game I usually won. My first Church job was an hour and 15 minute drive. Every DoC church is at least a 35 minute drive for me, but people around me seem content with their half-hour drives. Almost proud.
In reality, those drives were a sign of the Church as a whole being broken. The Church used to be foundational to the community. You knew the people around you. When a Church did missions in the community, it was their community. Now, many churches are full of outsiders, anchored to a community that doesn't belong to 90% of the congregants.
I had a false belief. If a church could be started in the community where people lived, it would be a first step to fix the Church.
That's where I started. It had nothing to do with the internet or online presence. I was just a minister who saw the vacant hole in North West Georgia and wanted to fill it. What I didn't take into account was no one else would be on board, or if they were, there were other issues keeping them from joining.
Nine years ago, many churches were beginning to seriously feel the 80% decline sounded by so many statisticians. Some of these churches were bleeding out congregants. Nine years ago the Church was already in crisis mode.
A church can't go anywhere when in the middle of crisis.
Christians have created a false equivalency with movement. Not all movement is good. True, movement is one of the signs of health, but when something breaks that brokenness needs fixing before movement can resume. Churches in crisis sometimes are so shocked by their own brokenness, they attempt to move anyway, which only breaks themselves more. (Have you ever tried to walk on a newly broken leg? It's not pretty.)
So many of the churches around me were too busy trying to fake health, so they couldn't sponsor or assist me in any way. Everyone talked the big game. Everyone told me I was doing something worthwhile, but when it came to helping me start a church, they all balked up. I was the Little Red Hen, and they were all the animals saying they wanted the fruits but not the work to get to them.
So that's when I decided to start online. This move was done to primarily gain interest among people my age and younger. I knew most of the young Christians who were going off to college were not coming back to church. Today, I realize I was simply pulling from within, which is what many new plants did. Very few new Christians join churches. Often times it's people born into the church, or transfers of membership. This would look like false growth to the medium and large churches that saw an increase of membership with small churches dying away. (Just so you know: It's false growth today as some churches who have digital options find sheep from other flocks.) We are the Body of Christ, which means we have spent the past decade in hypothermia. The blood of the Church went to the largest parts of the Body, leaving the appendages to freeze away. It's only a matter of time before the largest parts of the Body start to die as well.
I began in the most obvious of places, I had a Skype meeting with the minister of the only Disciple's online congregation. She gave me some good basic advice. The best being, look at the camera like it's an actual person, which it is. Someone is watching from the other side, and it's how you make eye contact. That one piece of advice has actually changed how I talk online. I'm not preaching, like I would at the pulpit. Sermons don't translate. I'm having a conversation about God.
I was very broken 9 years ago. I'd done such a good job working on my previous brokenness in Seminary, that I was very aware of what was going on, I just thought being aware meant being okay. In reality, I'll be processing all my brokenness for the rest of my life. With my earlier trauma I can see my coping mechanisms. (i.e. When stressed I create. When forced into a job, and feel trapped, I do the best job I can in my limited space.) With the newer trauma it's more about triggers.
Yes, triggers are real. When the phrase "Are you triggered?" is used as a joke, it negates a very real experience. It's an experience I know. For me, Facebook became my own trigger. I would see happy posts from my former call, or someone would share something about the church, and all those anxieties would roll back. Even my daughter's birthday, the event they used to pick the date they'd ask me to leave, was a reminder. I had to process those wounds, but the denomination had no way to pay me while I processed, and they had just gutted the counselor assistance for ministers and family.
Also, one of the ways I used to deal with woundedness was to announce I was fine. Back when I was younger, my woundedness had been used against me. In my mind, nothing good ever came from naming my own woundedness. I didn't need people seeing a freak, so I kept it all hidden away. No one knew I needed help, because I never said I needed help.
Finally, depression took hold. I'm sure it was a combination of post-partum hormones dropping and the experience at the previous call, but I know it hit. I was never officially diagnosed. I can tell you there's a difference between being sad and being depressed. Depression isn't sadness. It sucks all emotions out of your world. Good, bad, they are all muted. It then heightens things that shouldn't be heightened. Almost like your body is trying to self-correct your sounds become more pronounced. Then, any loud noise becomes dangerous. You want to scream at them just to make them stop. Finally, the world becomes a zero sum game. You see nothing, so the only thing you can fixate on is nothing. Then you realize there is a feeling you can feel: terror.
Many people can't name what they are going through. I could. And I had two kids to care for, and a husband who needed me. Being needed gave me the ability to turn my mind off and just work.
My breakthrough moment happened, when I finally sat my husband down and told him what I had been feeling. I named it. In doing that, I was suddenly opened the door to real healing. Did I need a therapist. Hell yeah! Did I get one? Nope! Did my husband tell me to get one? Hell yeah! We spent our limited funds on the kids, and that's where I wanted them to go. Don't applaud me for that. Just know it happened, and I'm on the other side now.
In July of 2012, Fig Tree launched online.
While watching Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette would say something that has stuck with me all these years later. It wasn't said until 2013 during Celebrity Apprentice All Stars.
He basically said, "We are playing two games. One is the game you literally win (in his case Celebrity Apprentice). The other game is more important. The other game is how people perceive you." The show was setting up Donald Trump not choosing him as the Celebrity Apprentice, but showing he was still winning the more important game.
Understand, and I'll go into it with more detail next week, I've taken those words to heart. I've lost so many "games." Those immediate loses stack up. (Because that's what naturally happens when you attempt things that are new. People don't get what you're doing or it's not a good fit. Or they get what you're doing and it scares them.) Jillette's words have given me context. I call it the "Long Game." Sure, I lost the immediate game, but am I still winning the "long game"? Almost always, the answer is yes. But more on that, next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Last week I spent some time on pieces of Fig Tree related to my call. (Trigger warning on neglect and sexual attack.)
This week I'm here to talk about the lynch pin event that consummated Fig Tree. I use that word to say, this point in my life, created the pieces to make Fig Tree real. There were events leading up to it. I had been part of a new church plant in the 90's, I had discussed the need to for a North West Georgia church. This event became the most important event to Fig Tree's being planted like a child in a womb.
Before: Called to brokenness.
"I'm so sorry Pastor. They told me it would destroy the church if I didn't vote the way they wanted."
They were words I wrote in my journal when I realized I was in danger of forgetting them. Very important words that were not true, but brought the truth of my situation down on it.
"I'm so sorry," I answered. Before me was a woman who was completely broken. Bullied into making a decision she didn't want to make. She probably had more cause to be sorry to me. I was a new mother. My daughter was born, I gave myself only two weeks and said I was coming back. I remember I was rushing to come back, because that's what I do. I couldn't be honest about my own self-care. Turned out the Elder team was just waiting for those words "I'm ready," and they were going to let me go.
Well, "let me go" are the wrong words. The right words were, "Ask for my resignation." They were words that held consequence. Churches knew what they meant, because they used them too. It was when they fired a minister, but they wanted to save face while doing it. Resigning was a way to help the minister find their next job.
This is going to sound backwards at first, but follow along with me. I didn't want to resign, I wanted to be fired. Why did they feel I was bad enough to fire, but leave me room to preach, teach, or comfort anyone within a 100 ft radius of any church?! If I was that bad, I needed to be called out and named for it. More than that, if I didn't deserve to be fired, why would I hide it for any future minister who felt that specific church could be a good fit? I already knew what the darkness could bring. I already knew the pain of brokenness breaking others. Now I was feeling it all again, but with my adopted family. It somehow hurt so much more this time around.
I answered this woman, who regretted being turned on a lie, and I told her this: "You cannot change what has happened. You can only change what is to come." I told her what's done is done. She was manipulated, and I forgive her. Now, she knows for sure, and can make a difference for the future.
I tried that with everyone who felt as betrayed as me. I told them to stay in the church. It didn't work. Firing a new mother ended up breaking the church more than keeping me on. The ones who instigated the act got what they wanted, but there was a church split in the process. I begged members to stay, but they all felt they needed to worship in a healthy church community. I got it, and I'm happy for them.
Meanwhile it left me and my family with new levels of brokenness I had yet to experience. I felt, for the first time, the emptiness of depression. I stared into the void, and got lost in the darkness. My husband and I couldn't turn to one another at first, because we were both dealing with the same thing and with all the responsibility and exhaustion of a newborn.
When we came back home, I was unemployed. My son was without a school. We discovered multiple family members were dealing with life threatening illness. Also, my immediate family had decided to all move away so I couldn't turn to the them the way I wanted. Does much of that sound familiar? This was 9 years ago for me. I get what many of you are going through, because I lived it a different way almost a decade ago.
Being Called to Brokenness
I started with the end, because the end explains the beginning. My previous church experiences had opened my eyes to brokenness in the church. My first call was to a church that just had a split. Instead of moving forward, they attempted to recollect their members like missing pieces of a ship. Only, instead of finding new pieces to mend the missing ones, they kept trying to find the exact member to put right the ship. The entire church could be summed up with a hole they had in a wall. A picture was angerly ripped off the wall, leaving the hole, and they refused to patch it until they got their picture back.
My seminary intern experience started with clergy abuse. I had been brought on after the fact. I watched them work through the pain openly, and in a healthy way. I was able to witness what the light could do to the darkness.
But I was done with brokenness. I prayed to God for a church that would just help me form my ministerial call. I didn't want my first church to be broken. Maybe in 10 years, when I've been in the church for awhile, but not now.
That wasn't in the cards.
The church lied. I say they lied, because point blank, they lied. They were broken.
Their first break happened in the late 70's to early 80's. A minister wanted to move the church in a charismatic direction. Half the church didn't want it, so they fired the minister. He took the other half of the congregation and started a new church. It was the moment those left behind believed ministers were dangerous. This danger wasn't something they would explicitly feel. The danger only manifested itself when a minister would begin discussing the scary word, "change."
All good ministers will eventually talk about change. Every Church has to move forward. Only, implicitly change had shown itself to be bad. Minister after minister would be asked to resign once they introduced change. Minister after minister would oblige. These ministers didn't want to destroy their careers with one small rural church.
Their second break happened when they hired their first female minister. No, not me. I was their second. I would love to sit down and talk to the first. She was a broken soul herself. While she was working for the church, she tried to take her own life. They had to let her go. I want to hug her so hard! I want to tell her she is loved! I want to share war stories. I'm sure her brokenness and the church's brokenness just broke one another a little bit more. Brokenness breaks. Always. I hope she found grace wherever she landed.
When I came for my interview I had three questions that needed to be answered:
Not only did they lie, I spent most of the call incomplete. It took about 6 months for my husband to come up with my son. About 4 months in I broke my ankle and couldn't make shut-in visits without another congregant driving me to their house. (Their biggest expectation was visits to shut ins, to a degree that was way more than many churches expect.) When my ankle was finally on the mend, I became pregnant with my daughter. When my daughter was born I felt I would finally be well enough to really get some work done. Only, this is a church that was broken by change, and I was past due for expulsion.
A final quote from this period of my call came from a former congregant. She had heard I was moving on and she dryly said to me, "They did it again."
The opening of the floodgates
There are so many people who have now been broken by church. There are congregants and ministers. There are people who don't even call themselves Christian having been wounded by some congregation or minister.
Once I became one of them, their stories were finally told. I heard story after story that were different from my own, but shared the same heartbeat. I had become one of them, and in becoming one of them, I was now safe.
It wasn't until I was on the other side, that I also realized, my old self was part of the problem. I had been scary; someone to avoid. I finally saw who I was through someone else's eyes, and it was terrifying. I understood why the newly broken wanted to just burn the system down. Something good had been subverted and perverted. Those who hadn't been hurt by it yet couldn't understand what they had become.
The experience had turned me into a child of God that didn't belong anywhere. I no longer belonged in an established church because I could see dangers that weren't known to me before. No one in those institutions had the power to change them because they couldn't truly see them. I also didn't belong in the secular world, still having a deep reverence for God. I was using vocabulary that came with danger. I could see how the real truth was looked at like the subverted and perverted shadow.
Something had to happen- but that's for next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Much of what has brought us here today was built with "before", "during", and "yet to be." Each of these played a vital role in the existence of Fig Tree Christian, and towards the mission of finding God already in the digital wilderness.
My Pastoral Calling to this kind of ministry
I used to wear my trauma like a badge because I knew my trauma had shaped me. Many of the choices I made as an older child, and young adult were exclusively because of the trauma. Today, I try not to highlight that part of me often. I have too much work to do to sit down and regale the world around a campfire. I also know how many unknowingly treat trauma victims and survivors as an oddity. People gather, listen, pick apart, dissect, and leave. They become grateful the person they examined and pulled apart was not them, and they go about their lives. I learned this kind of sharing doesn't help others like me, and it doesn't help me. If you wonder why victims and survivors are less likely to share their personal stories, that's why.
Still, we are here today because of moments that happened before Fig Tree was even a sparkle in my eye.
I was a child of divorce. Back in the 80's it was believed women were the better caretakers than the men. Therefore, custody was handed to my mother.
There's something I always say and write. "Brokenness breaks- always." I know this because I lived it. My mom was broken. From her brokenness, she broke my sister and myself. She married an abusive drunk. For those two years we were neglected, and abused through neglect. We were locked in places, and had to sneak food to eat. I am not mad at my mom. Broken people, while broken, don't realize they are breaking others.
When my dad finally won custody, we found ourselves with my Grandma, my dad's mom.
Divorce sucks. It has long reaching fingers that jab at strange times. There was this belief that my mom's side of the family was treating me better than my sister. My Dad's side of the family reacted poorly, choosing to treat my sister with more love and care than myself. It was torture.
I can remember vividly an event, where my dad left us at the apartment, because he needed to help my aunt with something at my grandma's house. The boy across the hall rang the doorbell, asking if he could talk to me. When I opened the door a little, he pulled me out, shut the door, and pushed me against the door. He began grinding against me. I screamed for my sister to open the door, when she finally did it took both of us to close the door behind us, as the boy was using his body weight to try to push himself in. Then, he went from window to window to look at us.
I called my grandma's house to get my dad to come home. My aunt picked up the phone. I begged her to get dad. She told me he was busy. I told her what happened. Her response is burned in my memory as deep as the boy is now forever seared. "You are being selfish. Don't call back." She hung up.
Dad was not told what happened to me. He wouldn't find out until he got home that night. (Just so we're clear, Dad would have come home if his sister had taken a moment to tell him what was going on. He saved us in many ways.)
That night solidified that I couldn't push into my biological family for support, so I turned to the only family I had left: The church. I adopted myself into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) My entire world revolved around church. I joined any group that would have a child. I sang in the choir. I evangelized for the youth. I asked to participate in worship. I found my voice. I began to piece myself back together. While the world around me burned, the church was an oasis.
Early work in the church:
At first I only volunteered. I would help with the food pantry. I would come at strange times and volunteer for a project. I lived at the church, so any event would bring me with it. I did not miss Sunday worship, and as soon as I could drive I was sometimes the only one in the family who showed up.
Eventually, I aged out of youth group, and I had to start thinking about what I was going to do. I was feeling the call to ministry. At the time I thought it was music ministry, because music was the only real voice I had. I decided to work for the church. Camp Staff was suggested as a good start, so I sent my resume to the only Disciples of Christ camping program with Camp Staff within a 4 hour radius: Christmount. They had just finished hiring, but if I wanted to be kitchen staff, I could stay with the staff and come on board.
The following two years I was on Camp Staff. Then the Youth/Choir director at Loganville Christian Church, followed by the Youth Director at Brookhaven Christian Church. I lived breathed and ate church. It was my everything.
I went to seminary at Candler School of Theology, and became the Seminary Intern at First Christian Church of Atlanta, in Tucker.
Seminary is an important step in a ministerial calling. Of course I can buy any book written by any theologian, but I wouldn't know how to use it. Seminary taught me how to navigate through historical and Biblical understanding. Before seminary, I didn't know. I wasn't aware of the codewords, or the secret hand signals. I kid some, but it's important for ministers to understand the reasoning of theological traditions inside and outside their own. My early adult self dropped into random churches thinking that would be enough. Back then, visiting other denominations was like a test of faith. I would proudly state, "I'm a Disciple because I've been to 8 churches outside the denomination and I feel I'm still a Disciple." While the visiting was good, it was the seminary classes that explained what was going on in them that really rocked me.
I also was able to process my brokenness, and realize how my brokenness was further abused or mocked. The key being, brokenness is not something that is dealt with in the church. A broken system or person is proof that God is not a giant wishing machine. It's also proof that Christianity doesn't magically become easy because you said some words and were dunked in water in front of people. Through seminary, I learned the entire nation had become so afraid of loss and grief, that they were ostracizing anyone who proved loss and grief existed.
It was the first time I could see why Christians were personally happy with me talking about overcoming trauma, but went away when it came to processing grief. I was an oxymoron to their theological world: A suffering Christian.
Seminary was also personally good for me in another way as a person and as a minister. It was a refining fire where I became better because I learned I was not okay. In become better, I became someone who was better prepared for ministry.
In the midst of this transition I met my husband, and had my first child.
My husband is not a theologian, or in any kind of ministry job. Looking back, I realize I would have never found my spouse within my denomination because I had made them my family. I love my husband and my son. They came into my life when I was still naïve. Who I was when my son was born vs who I am now is drastically different. More about that next week.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Before the Pandemic hit, I expressed the need to be outside the system to the community of Fig Tree Christian. I left room for discussion, and there was support. Fig Tree has almost always pulled non-denominationally or multi-denominationally. The only descent was realizing moving away from a denomination would mean ministers could no longer use Fig Tree as their church on their standing forms. (I have issues with this and how it's negatively impacted non-traditional ministries, but that's a discussion for another time.)
I crafted an open letter of "resignation,"
Before, no one even bothered to tell me hi. I was forgotten. After the post, it got weird.
I was told they would not take me or Fig Tree off the books. We were still part of the denomination, something they did for a year, you know, just in case. Which would have been fine to ride it out another year, and let them feel like they were helping us, but it was not across the board. As a minister, I never got the ministerial card. As a church, when the pandemic hit, Fig Tree wasn't included in the online resources. (Yeah, you read that right. The online church in Georgia, that had been online for years, was not on the online list of resources.) The region chose to keep us where it benefited them, and lose us where it benefited us. They became leaches. It was not helpful, and it made the community angry to see what a denomination could do.
Any time someone tried to contact me over this past year, it was either to "talk" or to seek something. No one came to us to ask the very important question, "How can we help?" Why would they? No one asked that question before. Why would they do it now?
God has called me out.
If I were to be completely honest right now, this call happened in front of my computer back in September of 2011, in Bedford, Kentucky. A very strong question came to me: "Would you rather be comfortable or do what is right?" It was such a jarring question! Of course I would want to walk the right path. Doing what's right, is right. Eventually what's right wins, so discomfort eventually comes anyway. It was a no-brainer. What followed was even more jarring, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so, sorry."
I had this realization, as I was lovingly pushed off the ministerial cliff by a congregant only a month and a half later, that eventually (in some future), I would move away from the denomination I loved. It was merely an itch back then; a melancholy thought. It was something I didn't want, and actively fought against. Yet, as opportunities came up, opportunities I would have been amazing at, like New Church ministry, or Youth leadership- I didn't even submit my name. I just somehow knew I wasn't supposed to. God has always moved me with baby steps. Transitioned me with gentle nudges. I innately knew, those were not my opportunities. If I went for them it would put me on the wrong path.
Imagine trying to explain to your husband why going for something related to your field wasn't right. I've been a server, a retail worker, and a sub. I did that instead of going for ministerial jobs because it felt right.
Meanwhile, those nudges have become a full turn. By the time I realized where it was going I was ugly crying with my friend over the phone. At that point I was still trying to "fix" it, include the denomination into what Fig Tree was doing. Begging anyone to be part of the process.
No one helped.
Know this- it was with deep lamentations that we left. Most of the community was ready for the split before I truly was. Now, after only being included in ways that benefited the denomination, I feel used. It would have been better just to let us go when we asked to go. Why would we want to stay when things happened the way they did?
Fig Tree in the wilderness
One last note, and maybe this note is for all you churches out there feeling the breaking breathes of life slipping through your doors:
God has been calling us outside our brick and mortar buildings for over a decade now. We were forced out, and instead of figuring out how God was already in the digital landscape, we simply recreated what we already knew. We've all done a great job preaching inwards.
I'm done pretending evangelism. I'm through trying to save the calloused husk of the old church. An important statement was made in 2019, and we ignored it because he made it in front of stained glass windows: "Are we trying to follow Christ, or save a building?" Maybe we all need to be asking that question.
God asked me to leave when that action held power, when I still had a choice one way or another.
Come with me. Let's try something new, fail, learn something, and try something else! I am not going to save your church, but I will follow God. Wherever God may lead me, I will follow.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
11 Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!
Psalm 97:11-12 NRSV
For 24 days we hoped, and waited, and rejoiced and loved. We built, and played, and learned and explored. We are here! Christmas day!
We are at the end. When we reach an end, we have a few choices.
We can hold on to our end and make it last just a little bit longer. Hold on to the magic and the wonder.
We could reflect back. Make a list of how it could be better, or what you want to do again.
You can also figure out what you are doing next. How will you continue now that this chapter is finished?
In church tradition, Christmas isn’t over yet. It lasts for 12 days starting December 25th and ending January 6th. Still, January 6th will come and go. What will you do then?
We are called to be a people of now, who remember our past, while thinking towards the future. Enjoy today! May the love of Christ’s light shine in your day! May you make great memories that last a lifetime! And may this day give way to something new; a new adventure! A new plan! Go in peace! Amen.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
Isaiah 9:2 NRSV
Did you know the night is coldest before the dawn? As the sun rises, it slowly heats the Earth. Once the sun sets, that heat slowly goes away until the sun rises again and it all starts over. If you go camping, you’ve felt that pre-dawn chill. You want to stay snuggled in your sleeping bag instead of braving the cold to get dressed and ready for a new day.
During the night, there are ways to know the sun is still there: the moon. The moon doesn’t shine its own light. The sun shines on the moon, and the moon shines the sun’s light on us. The moon becomes a reminder that the sun is still there, even when the world seems so dark.
Advent is like the moon. We are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, to see the light of Christ in our world. That light was not gone. We didn’t see it directly, but we saw it. It shined through Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. We saw it through the shepherds and their sheep. Advent is pre-dawn darkness, but the light is still there, ready to warm our hearts, even when the chill has taken hold.
Today is the last day of Advent. Today is the last day to prepare. Tomorrow we see the light.
Question: Have you seen Jesus’ light shine through someone?
Prayer: Dear God, prepare us for the light. Amen
Places to connect:
To see or share pictures of the Advent Adventure Crafts:
Twitter: @FigTreeTweet, #AdventAdventure
For deeper discussion: Reddit: www.Reddit.com/r/FigTreeChristian