-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. (Merriam Webster)
When many hear the word “culture,” they think of some society in another country. Often, we don’t think of ourselves, or if we do, we don’t think small enough.
Generally speaking, there is a national culture. There are also community cultures, like in a town or a city. There are also tiny cultures that form from a group of people being together like an office or school. Then there are cultures that form beyond boundaries. Baseball families have a culture. Football fans have a culture. D&D players have a culture.
One of the truths about culture is it often runs in the background. It’s the culture that holds the unwritten rules of the community and the punishment for breaking those rules. Because it runs in the background, the people within it don’t realize how it changes them and their actions.
Church culture is creepy.
To be fair, any hyper-focused culture looks creepy to the average outsider. This is because the hyper-focus causes the culture to look and act differently than the culture they naturally inhabit. Sports and D&D fans are great examples of how those cultures beyond borders can seem odd or manic to the outsider, but just runs in the background for these cultural insiders.
But Church culture is creepy.
I was completely invested in Church culture growing up. I was so invested, I had friends that made fun of me, because I was the creepy one! Seriously! I lived at the Christian bookstore, buying the Karaoke version of Christian songs so that I could sing them in Church. My music selection was almost entirely from a local Christian radio station. That was just music. Everywhere else I was completely invested too. I lived and breathed the Church.
Boy, did atheists enjoy talking to me. They knew my zealous nature, and searched me out. More often than not, to try to get me riled up like many others before me probably were. Only I wasn’t there to protect my religion like those they talked to before. I was there to test it. Many weeks ago, I explained I was systematic in my theology. This was part of that. If my faith couldn’t exist outside the Church, then it wasn’t the right faith. God created everything. God is in the darkest corners of the universe. What God wants in my life should be able to stand up to, you know, life.
None of that changed my achilles heel. I could not see the Church because I was far too invested in it. I was fully immersed in Church culture, and therefore, couldn’t truly see Church culture.
Then I wasn’t. I was forcefully taken out of Church, and the veil was lifted. It had to be lifted because…
Church is also very dangerous.
I discovered what those atheists above really wanted to do was bring out the inner monster lurking in many single minded Christians. They were specifically after the ones that never questioned their faith outside the Sunday morning walls. They wanted to see the good Christian person start to bite out when their faith was questioned. I have never met an atheist that can’t see beyond the simplicity of faith, and I was always taught to dig deeper into the text. That’s why there wasn’t an atheist that has ever caused me to bite. And, if they hit on something in my faith that didn’t make sense, they were doing me a favor because it gave me an opportunity to strengthen it and dig deeper.
First, attacking atheists is a newer strawman for Christians created by modern apologists to suggest the world is the problem, not them. This is wrong. We are called to save the enemy, and since we’ve made the atheist our enemy, we are called to save them.
Second, these atheist populations are merely poking what naturally comes out when weak faith is tested. It’s the same thing that comes out when our safety zone (the church culture) is tested. When something happens in the Church that breaks the community, it is easier to attack the person who was hurt rather than deepen faith through self reflection and change. So most take the easy way out. This means people who are attacked by the monster at the end of the Church, will often stay silent to keep from being attacked again. When you, yourself, have been attacked, you become a safe person to share woundedness with.
Did I mention Church culture is creepy?
The more disassociated from the general culture a Church culture is, the more on edge I am, and more creepy the culture appears.
I’m on edge, because we are called to go out into the world and make Disciples. When I wrote last week I wrote about the doormat phenomenon, where Churches cloister themselves in their building thinking they can evangelize from their doormat. The more disconnected they are from the general culture of the world around them, the more likely I see they are also secretly monsters that can bite out if their faith is tested.
Let me leave on this note:
The scripture that is most used to shield this phenomenon of cloistering Churches is this: We are called to be in the world, not of it. (John 15:19)
That specific scripture is about following Jesus, not the world. Well, if we were to follow Jesus we would be outside the Church just as he was outside the Temple. If we were to follow Jesus, we would be eating with sinners, and helping the wounded. In doing that, we wouldn't be hated by atheists, but by those who refuse to leave the building and do what Christ had called us to do. That's the problem. That's what makes the Church the scary kind of creepy.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
From the moment I felt called to be a Christian, I was seeking God everywhere, and more often in the places where I was explicitly told God was not.
Having spent a decade as a minister outside her Church doors, here's the main points I've learned:
The Church is failing because... isolation.
This is one I've known for longer than a decade. The Church has an evangelism problem. Maybe it's the stigma attached to the negative evangelism that was all the rave 20-30 years ago. Maybe, just maybe. It doesn't really matter anymore why that word has frightened a people called to the very idea of evangelism. The point is when they try they get it all wrong.
Almost every action I see is one of two ideas. Either, it's staying in the Church, with an invite in for some program like Vacation Bible School, or Movie Night. Usually it's something fun. Never is it to discover the culture around them, and showing people how God is already present. It's all about keeping those shiny buildings. They have the objects, and they don't want to leave the building, because that would void the collection of stuff they use to worship. It would also require more work than shooting out an email or putting out a yard sign.
Either that, or we go into the Culture for a temporary mission. While there are those who soundly disagree with me, and have so for years on this topic, I completely believe there is a difference between mission and evangelism. This is probably more my definition, so understand, while you might see evangelism tucked tightly into mission, I'm seeing how the Church has used those words over the years, and how they are clearly two different actions.
My definition of evangelism is learning the culture of the people and showing them how God is already present. The Church's definition of evangelism is going out and making Disciples of all people. Yes, the Church's definition sounds more Biblical. The problem with the Church's definition is my step is before the Church's step. You are showing people God in order to make Disciples. Not your relationship to God. Not how you became a Disciple. This is their story. Their relationship. God is already working in their life. You must help them see what is already there. Therefore, you can't make Disciples until you start with understanding the culture.
Church often treats mission as helping a culture within their culture. That part they get right. What they get wrong is control. So many Church congregations are foaming at the mouth for new congregants, that once they try the evangelizing part of mission, it's not to make new Disciples, but to make new congregants.
Evangelism is not, "Come to our Church!" Mission is not, "We're here for a week to do something nice and then we're leaving!" Mission shouldn't be about sending our kids to a less fortunate place to teach them how lucky they have it.
It's easier to see from the outside.
Next week: Living in the Church has created a false culture. Living outside the Church has deepened my understanding of God.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
When I was in kindergarten the only thing I remember about my teacher was how angry she was, and specifically at me. I couldn’t tie my shoes, and I couldn’t say my A-B-Cs without singing them. She threatened to hold me back if I didn’t “get it.” I almost didn’t. Still, my first education was that I wasn’t good enough.
When I was in third grade, I drew my “s” with the pointy top. It was my first exploration into creativity. Others began to do the same, as we played with typography in our writing. A third grade teacher was openly hostile to this, and retaught writing to the entire third grade class, actually mentioning my “s” as one of the reasons she was doing it. My first exploration in creativity was soundly introduced as superfluous.
When I was in eighth grade my math teacher thought I couldn’t take on Algebra 1 in high school. I was failing, and it was an act of love to suggest I retake pre-algebra. By this point, I knew what teachers knew about me. I was out of line, and unable to learn. I begged her to move me forward. I promised I would do better. She said she would think about it. I worked by butt off for the remainder of the school year, only to discover I was in Pre-Algebra the first semester of high school. I begged the teacher to put me in Algebra. He gave me a shot, and I passed all my math classes from then on out. That was my first realization that I didn’t have to listen to adults.
That didn’t mean those events were in some echo chamber, not affecting other events. I got it into my head that I wasn’t good enough. I completely believed I lacked the ability to think creatively and wouldn’t be able to do anything beyond maybe a bachelor’s degree. When a minister first suggested that I too could take on the Master’s level work, and be ordained myself, I didn’t believe her. Not because I didn’t feel called, which I did. It was because I didn’t feel capable. I just knew what I couldn’t do, and everyone else knew it too.
That is the power of hope and the power when that hope is never given. These teachers were the crafters of my hope. If any of the three actually could see where I could go, the perception of myself might have been a bit different by the time I was told I was called. Instead, this nagging false-reality of my ability and power tags with me everywhere I go. It’s enough that when people think I should go for something or do something, it leaves me slightly off balance, because I’ve already written myself off.
Here’s what I know based this little dive into my past:
The first step is to find leaders with a clear understanding of where they are going. Those leaders are not stuck in the sinking swamps of now, or attempting to resurrect the past with only zombie type achievement.
The second step is to make sure the destination is worth the trip. Is it an empty promise with no real strides to meet the goal? Do the steps being taken in the meantime, match the announced hope? The announcement of a true hope always leads to a journey.
So, while it might look like I’ve been in a waiting period as of late, because I am. I’m also spending my time planting hope in others. Sometimes it’s something tiny. “Wow, you really nailed that!” Sometimes it’s much bigger. “Where are we in 10 years? What will that look like?” That’s an exciting place to be where something healthy and good could flower from it. Way better than what was given to me.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Creation always begins the same way all creation begins, with nothing. Then the blueprint for the creation comes into existence. For me, that blueprint is almost always in my brain. I imagine what needs to be built. I see it in its entirety, and pull it apart mentally. Then, I only have to figure out the pieces to the whole, not the whole item itself.
The problem today:
That's all. Just explaining why we live in a creative vacuum right now.
That's the conclusion of my soap box, enjoy the rest of your day.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
What I’m about to share is the truth. It's an old truth. I don’t share it to garner sympathy, although there was a time I used it for that purpose. I don’t share it to rally people against anyone else. Woundedness breaks, always. I share to teach. I want everyone to know that I know the consequence because I was the consequence once.
When I was a child my dad and mom divorced. I’m not here to discuss whether or not divorce is an acceptable boundary to break, but my short answer is, it can be. In a perfect world, the contract one makes to unite as a family should be unbreakable. No one would enter into such an agreement without fully understanding the ramifications. That’s just not the case. People create bad marriage contracts all the time, making promises they either can’t keep or don’t plan to keep. Bad contracts need to be broken. That’s simplified. It deserves its own post, and maybe I’ll give it in the near(ish) future.
When they divorced, it was decided by the judge that mom’s were better caregivers, so my mother won custody of my sister and myself. That was the judge’s belief; not law. I’m not here to discuss whether or not using one's personal feelings to rule is just. The short answer in my case, was no. At the time of the ruling, my mother was a broken individual, and from more than just the divorce. Brokenness, when left alone, breaks others. Always. My mother needed to process and heal, not take care of two children by herself. Even this deserves its own post, and I’m not going to write it anytime soon.
My mother found her next husband at a bar. I don’t even know if he’s still alive! I just know, he was a piece of work. He’s still the most selfish adult I have ever met. Back in April of 2014, I wrote about the difference between selfishness and self-centeredness. It was in regards to the Common English Bible, and one of the times I disagreed with the translation. I’m not going to spend this time re-hashing what has already been hashed. (You can click the link for that.) Here’s the summary: We are born entirely self-centered. We can’t understand the world around us, only ourselves. As we grow up, there comes a point when we finally understand and see others. It is at that point we can begin to become other-centered, selfless, or selfish. Any of these can be good or bad. My stepdad was completely and totally selfish.
He could see what others needed, and then use their need to get what he wanted. For example, he needed a place to stay, so he pretended to care about my mom. Once he was in the house the hitting started. He wanted to spend the child support money on himself, so he told my dad he could just take us and avoid the lawyers if he just kept paying the payments. This human mentally and emotionally scared myself and my sister to get the things he wants.
I’m not even talking about him, even if he crossed some very clear boundaries to get what he wanted. I need to talk about the “innocent” boundaries we think are just a-o-kay to cross.
The Reasons Boundary Training Really Exists.
Boundary training, first and foremost, exists to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It’s like a giant net, meant to help people understand where something dangerous could happen, and catch it before it happens.
Boundary training is also a way to pass the blame down. I know that’s a horrible take, but it’s a true one. A corporation doesn’t want to be sued for something an employee or volunteer did, and easily got away with during their time and space. Boundary training is a warning to the people taking them. A corporation will blame the people around the person hurt by broken boundaries. After all, they were trained and taught how to avoid those kinds of dangers. I hate that people will allow someone to get hurt until their own wellbeing is on the line too, but there it is. Most of us are more selfish than we wish to realize.
Boundary training, in VERY RARE CIRCUMSTANCES can be breached. Consider space. I mean space space. Like, what’s beyond Earth. Our atmosphere is a boundary. Staying within it, allows us to do neat things, like breath. There are a very select few that breach that boundary to explore. These people go through intense training, and create individual boundaries (i.e. spaceships) to remain safe when Earth’s boundary is breached. Human boundaries should require the same level of care. You can’t just say, “Well, I’ll keep an eye on it. It’s not fair that having this boundary keeps some people from participating. SPACE for EVERYONE!!!” Thinking about it in relation to space, you realize how dangerous it really can be. For me, if I have to make the choice between someone being able to participate with the possibility of a lifetime of trauma being handed to someone, and not allowing that someone to participate… not a difficult choice. I’ll leave boundary breaking alone.
Boundary training, when followed, makes those who will break the rules stay away. Here’s a big truth: There will always be people who try to break boundaries in order to take advantage of others. My stepdad for one. Boundary breakers don’t want to work at breaking boundaries. If your lines are set, and immovable, people who want to cross them will stay away. You will make your space safer. Then, when you get a boundary breaker in your group, solid boundaries make it easier to see they are trying to do something against the rules and catch them.
What Boundaries have done for me.
There was one statement that changed my life when it comes to boundaries. Years ago, I was certified in Mental Health First Aid. One of the presenters basically said this:
“If you meet someone struggling to stay within the boundaries your organization chose to keep, don’t move the boundary for them. That’s like meeting someone who can’t walk straight and keeps running into the handrail, so you remove the handrail so they don’t hit it. That handrail is the very thing they need to make it to their destination. That boundary is for their safety. When you take away mental boundaries, no matter why they are there, you are making it more difficult for those who already struggle, not less.”
It helped me see…
Boundaries are an act of love.
That above sentence is a life changing one.
I have found the more explicit I am about my boundaries, the more healthy relationships I have around me. It’s because they know what to expect, and my limitations to those expectations.
At the same time, I have found the key to being strict while being loved. (Let’s not forget, I’m a substitute teacher.) Even being in the same school everyday, there are kids who think a sub means I don’t have boundaries. The kid’s know subs who want to survive move the boundaries so they can get through the day. Those subs are doing it for them. The ones who want to take advantage of breaking the rules, are the ones who love those subs. The sub gets easy love, and an easy day. (Don’t think I’m holding it against them. Many districts don’t care about their subsystems the way they should, and I don’t hold it against these subs that are being thrown into systems.)
When I tell the kids I follow the school boundaries, they learn that it is for them. It’s not easy to set boundaries. When you draw the line, you must be ready to follow through when a kid crosses it. When you have very explicit boundaries, suddenly they can move within them. I might be the strictest sub in Paulding County Georgia, but I still get kids that are excited I’m their sub. They like me! That’s because, since they know where I stand, they know when they can show me what they created, or joke around a little. It takes so much work to give them that gift, but in giving them strict boundaries, I eventually gain something back.
That goes for everything! I’m acting in love when I am clear about boundaries in all things. When I say, “No,” I’m following God’s example in Job when talking about the oceans:
“Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, “You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop”?
Job 38:8-11 CEB
Therefore, please realize I know the destructive power of breaking boundaries (because I was once the target of its breach), and the ultimate act of love in following them. That’s my systematic theology. Love.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
As the restart of Student Loans looms, everyone waits to see what Biden will do. It is my hope, by the time I share everything I want to share, you see how impossible all this is.
I don’t do this to dishearten you in any way, but as a means to show grace.
The recent history
At the end of 1965 The Higher Education Act was signed into law with the understanding that it would give women and minorities funding to go to post-secondary and higher level schooling.
The Higher Education Act was amended multiple times throughout the years, to include funding for historically Black Colleges (1986), origination of the FAFSA forms to keep those with drug charges from getting loans [you know, the war on drugs and all] (1998), Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness was introduced (2007).
Another story, but it’s about our economy:
After World War II, there was an economic boom. Some of this was our desire to be relational. It was the explosion of community organizations. Scouts, Shriners, Churches, and the like all saw record numbers. These adults were called “The Greatest Generation.” They would give birth to the “Boomers,” named such because there was also a baby boom following the end of World War II. (I want to add as an aside, directly after the Boomers, Gen X were born. They get left out of these generational tales because their parents were the Silent Generation. The Silent Generation was born between Boomers and The Greatest Generation, they had to work hard, and their kids were literally forgotten at home as they were in history. Love y’all.)
The Boomers were taught one-sided lessons. Children’s stories were sanitized of horror and death. See, their parents were witnesses to the absolute worst of humanity. They did not want their children to live in that kind of world. The work ethic was drilled into the Boomers. Work hard, and if you work hard enough, what you want will happen. Well, that’s easy to say, when the economy is good. When economic waters rise, all rise with it.
When Boomers had their own kids, they went one step further, and created no-lose situations. Everyone's a winner. It’s understandable, because the Greatest Generation sent a mixed message. On one hand, they hid the darkest parts of the world from their kids. On the other hand, they created the competitive spirit, where Boomers were forced to fight for the best of the best. When you don’t see the horror of death, your standard for what is the worst naturally changes. The worst became one another. So, taking a line from their parents, Boomers sanitized the games.
Because everyone was a winner, they still had the strong work ethic that existed in a strong economy. The Millennials were told to do the work, and get the reward. Everyone won, so there was no field where winning wasn’t an option if only they worked hard enough. Of course there were losers, but that’s only because they didn’t give it their all. If they had tried harder, they would have made it.
Millennials flocked to college with the promise of good paying jobs on the other side of the diploma.
Here is where everyone is getting this wrong: Underwater Basket Weaving. That was the degree that was used to highlight every pointless degree, and weaponized to point out useless student loans. At the very same time, there were shows highlighting the obsessiveness of parents grooming their children for fame and fortune, as if those two things were naturally related. With shows like American Idol coming into existence, the big fish in a little pond ceased to exist. Every person could apply for any job. While that sounds amazing for potential jobs, it wasn’t. It made the job market even more competitive. You couldn’t just be like Howard Finster, a middle of nowhere minister who became a sensation with his folk art. You had to be flawless in everything. People were spending big money on artistic degrees, because they were competing with big names.
So, over half of all Millennials either had a degree or were in the process of getting one when the stock market crashed and the housing bubble popped. The rest were still being told they can be the best of the best, if they only tried hard enough.
And, not all those degrees were, as some would put it, “useless” degrees. It’s just that there were no useful jobs after 2008.
Basically, in 2008, retirements just went away. All these Boomers wanted to do was get to that retirement. When they didn’t have it anymore, they went back to work. They were already more qualified than their children, so their kids, with their very expensive degrees, found themselves as retail workers and servers living in their parents' basement.
This was mocked. Relentlessly. Boomers were pitted against Millennials, and it stuck. Kids started hating their parents because their parents were holding them to their childhood situation like the Millennials could do anything about it.
Millennials made it work. They started paying back their loans, and working low income jobs. There was no breathing room. They were living paycheck to paycheck, because they had no other choice.
Covid led to the Student Loans being paused, and it has temporarily changed a Millennial’s life. This has been great for a generation that hasn’t seemed to catch any breaks at all, but there are choices coming that will change the entire United States for decades to come.
Canceling the debt:
I believe, part of the reason the loans haven’t been restarted is this is an election year. You start the loans back up in September, and it becomes the focus for the November election. (Of course, I can also see why a President, with a tanking economy, would consider putting something like that at the forefront of the Election year.)
That being said, let’s say we cancel all that debt. It’s a clean slate.
With everything else in play, there is no way this won’t happen again. Businesses need to start offering local education opportunities. Trade schools need to be a better option for more people. The allure of fame needs to be crushed, put in a dumpster and set on fire. Universities will still offer an education to the people willing to pay for them, but if there are enough affordable options, they’ll necessarily need to lower costs to compete.
Right now, kids must get these huge loans in order to seek an education. I know my eldest child wants to go to school and get a music education degree. He’s seriously considering not doing that, because there are no inexpensive options. Any forgiveness for my debt won’t save him when he needs to make similar choices.
Let’s say we don’t cancel all that debt. Then what?
The Federal reserve is attempting to stop inflation without considering these student loans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fed is quietly realizing that their aggressive interest rate hikes will hit hard after the restart to all these loans. Perhaps too hard, which is why there’s this vacuum of silence over the issue.
Now, you might be thinking, “Not my debt, not my problem.” That is such an American answer, I can’t fault you for thinking it. Only, it is our collective problem. One of the major factors to the economic boom following the Great Shutter (coined that term myself, but it’s too good to have me be the only one who used it) was all these families finally having breathing room to save and spend. They put their kids in programs, purchased items from our independent businesses, and just had a chance to finally breathe. Some changed careers, no longer feeling anchored to a degree they couldn’t use.
Let’s put it another way.
When I was a kid, I wanted to pair up with someone about the same size as I was, so when I got to the playground I had someone with whom I could play on the seesaw. Finding the perfect person was vital. If the person was too light, I would be sitting on the ground, doing all the work. If the person was too heavy, I’d be at the mercy of the other person, stuck in the air. A person, the same size, is a fun experience of back and forth.
When it comes to the economy, the Federal Reserve doesn't want a seesaw. They want an equilibrium. To use another word for seesaw, they teeter totter between inflating and deflating the dollar. If the dollar deflates too much we end up in a recession, or worse a depression. On the other hand, if the dollar inflates too much we end up in hyper-inflation and the worst case scenario is something along the lines of the Weimar Republic.
Now imagine the U.S. Economy is a seesaw. We were tottering too much into inflation territory. The Fed had to act immediately. They needed the economy to slow their spending, to bring equilibrium back to the economy. Now, their work is finally working, but they found this equilibrium without student loan debt being in play.
So going back to my playground story. It would be like my friend and I balancing in the middle and a kid, really any kid, jumps on one side. It throws everything off, and suddenly I’m crying and on the ground because the seesaw became a simple catapult, and I was ready for that kind of jump.
See the problem?
It’s no longer about what’s fair or not fair. At this point, restarting loans could have a catastrophic effect on the economy that would hurt far more than the people who took them out.
This is one piece, when there are so many other pieces at play right now. This might seem like a pretty big piece to the American economic story , but the other pieces are just as big, if not bigger.
I mention this here, because I just want us to realize this is our story. Our repercussions. We can’t just cut ourselves away from this. We are doing this together, whether we want to or not. I believe, God wants us to work together. God wants us to find the answers together. God wants us to see our neighbor.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I was reading a commentary on the Book of Hosea last week, when a parallel hit me. Remember how this moment feels. In forty years, people will be asking us why we didn’t know.
When I was in Grad School we were using Karl Barth to understand the idea of Systematic Theology.
Systematic Theology is basically consistency. If you say A about one idea, it will mean the same thing whether you are talking about B, D, or even Z. To say someone has a systematic theology is to say they have connected the dots. It’s not a piecemeal set of thoughts. Every way the theology works should be interconnected.
I say, “should,” because breaking a systematic theology is all about finding even one time it does not. Like pulling a bad loop from a metal chain, the whole chain loses its tension and becomes worthless. Then, you can’t just decide to work with a smaller chain, because the theology is systematic, it must include all.
It’s actually for that reason I’d consider myself a Systematic Theologian. I’m never done. It’s a thought process that can continue to evolve and layer itself, as I understand more about myself, others, and the world around me.
Theology in General
What you believe, and how you believe is important no matter who you are. Theologies are not the sole property of religious groups. I know, for those of you who know how theology is defined, that might seem backwards, but hear me out.
A theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief.
Now, you might hear that definition and completely discount my above statement. However, there are many ‘studies’ that still fit the definition while not including the subject of the study. Here are some examples:
I’m sure there are hydrologists (those who study water) studying the lack of water at Lake Mead right now.
There are atmospheric scientists (those who study the atmosphere) who are interested in the lack of atmosphere on other planets.
There are food scientists very aware of food deserts, and are trying to figure out how to change them.
Even those who talk about religious experience, delve into the subject of what it means if God did not exist.
The problem with Atheistic views on the Divine, is it takes extreme points of view. Either, a lack of God would be total depravity (the religious take on a universe without a God), or an enlightened utopia (the Atheist take on a universe without a God). Let me put it this way, I have yet to see a solid Atheistic Theology. Either it’s Christian demonizing Atheists, or it’s Atheists demonizing Christians. When the person writing the theology is doing so with the express purpose of demonization, you are bound to find yourself in some sort of hell- whether it’s utopian or depraved. I personally don’t like hanging out in man-made hells.
I’m getting off track. I believe everyone, Atheist or Religious, needs to openly consider what they believe. If one does not openly seek those answers, other people can take advantage, and sneak their belief systems in.
This is actually my major issue with just going to churches just for their programs. The theology of the institution influences everything. You are going for the sweet Children’s Programming, but the programs are where some of the worst theologies are introduced. If I had the means, I’d purchase every VBS program out there and just rip them to shreds in videos.
I think our modern fractured nature is one of the biggest issues we have today. We don’t consider the consequences. Good actions could lead to bad effects. Bad choices can help certain people. An action for or against a specific person could actually be for or against a large group of people. It would help us so much to just see the systematic nature of the world around us. That’s not going to happen.
Kinda off topic, but go with me. Have you ever seen a factory explode? If you haven’t, here is a short video highlighting an actual factory explosion of the Imperial Sugar Plant, in Savannah, Georgia.
If you don’t read anything else, read this.
You might feel unhinged. You might feel broken.
In the above video it was failure to collect sugar dust and dropped sugar that led to the Imperial Sugar Plant explosion. Everything was working correctly EXCEPT for dust collection. That one issue caused a complete failure of the entire plant.
The world is a giant machine. We have creation, distribution and consumption down to a science. In 2020, small pieces were broken. Those small pieces, even though you might not see them or even be near them, are related to each and every one of us. Up until recently, those small pieces only caused small inconveniences. Perhaps you didn’t get the good you wanted at the grocery store, or you had an extra long wait at the hospital. Maybe your school did a digital learning day because they couldn’t find the bus drivers to drive the kids. We felt those things, and that small break, broke us a little too.
Now, in 2022, there has been a huge break. What Russia did, and is doing, has done more than kill the Ukraine people. It’s an act of destabilization. The United States is openly talking to China in talks to not give Russia help. This is why the recent trip of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, completely counter to what China wanted, is something we need to remember in the coming months.
You feel these actions. Even if you don’t follow the news and actively try to avoid it, these are systemic issues that are playing out in the world around us. If you are thinking, “I feel broken, but I’ve been good about self-care, and setting healthy boundaries,” that’s because this is all like a factory explosion. It’s not you, it’s the world. You’re broken because the global machine is broken. Now, whether it grinds to a halt or explodes is the question.
Systematic Theology and me
Here’s the thing, I don’t just do things. Oftentimes, I’m secretly acting behind the scenes to move people in the right direction. It still baffles me that people don’t ask me why I act a certain way. Unlike many cultish leaders, I don’t want death and destruction. At the same time, unlike many passive leaders, I don’t want to avoid the subject matter either. It doesn’t go away just because we’ve refused to look in its direction. In many cases, it only gets worse if we don’t see it. In this climate, I can’t listen to all hope and joy, because they're empty. Is that what you want? Sorry, I’m out. Despite how all my work towards creating an online ministry looks, I’m the mayor of Realville. I’ve seen too much ignorance in my own childhood to be peddling beautiful lies. Beautiful lies are often laced with poison.
That’s why it all has to connect for me. Christ died for my sins, and I’m called to act in Godly love because of it. Love is not always fun. It’s not always joyous. Love is in the trenches, speaking truth to a world who has forgotten what is real. That is all.
Yes, I feel it. Yes, I know you feel it too. Every day is a chance to do what God has called you to do. You do your part just day by day. Maybe you’ll meet someone else doing the same, and then you can work together. Maybe those groups can join up, and then you have the beginnings of a new machine, a machine that can bring this fractured world back together in healthy ways.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Before I really get into it today, I wish others have the same urgency I have. I also wish there were more people with the creative energy to join up with what I want to do. Every passing day feels like I'm failing, because what needs to happen isn't happening. More are hurt the longer this takes. I'm not sure you could understand the kind of sadness I feel at making something good. It's sadness in knowing I can do something, but also knowing no one wants it. There are few things as heartbreaking as knowing ones value, and knowing that value is not being used to it's full potential. My husband sees it. While I am sad, he is frustrated. That frustration doesn't help me, other than knowing my value could be cut down and replaced with something else. Then, once again, I'm sad.
Where my prayer has been.
Something very strange happened last Sunday. I was thinking about a project I've been working on for years now. And, by years, I mean years. It has been growing in my brain and evolving since I was a young child.
I've recently reached a point, where I've considered just giving it up, and by giving it up, I mean giving it all up. Like I said before, I feel rather defeated as of late. I don't feel bad telling you that, because feeling defeated is a human feeling. I'm not a god, and I don't play one on TV. I'm mortal, and as such, I'm allowed to feel mortal feelings. Being honest with my emotions is part of what it means to be a Pastor.
My most recent prayer has been two words and mirrors Psalm 13. "How long?"
Those two words are filled with meaning though.
How long does your children need to suffer the abuse of their own Christian family, without action?
Our theologies are weaponized from all sides, and they are striking out. Meanwhile, more people are leaving faith all together over our ambivalence towards the pain our faith tradition doles out. It feels like Christians are either the ones hurting, or the ones ignoring that hurt. How we have failed as faith.
How long are we going to pretend we are seeking solutions when we're not?
We haven't had our woman theological darling since Rachael Held Evans. She passed away in 2019, leaving this hole, that has slowly been filled and dismissed. Meanwhile, we are ignoring the new alter that has been erected: Online ministry. We are all drooling at the potential, and wanting to take the pulpit, no one is seeking what that actually looks like. All I can do is sit back and watch the Fundie-Progressive fight, knowing neither side has really done anything.
How long am I to keep going on this path?
This might shock you, but part of praying "how long," is also praying, "if it's not going to do what I believe you want it to do, destroy it."
I know, personally, as long as there is a need, I will keep going until it breaks or I do. If God destroyed Fig Tree, that would not be a curse, but a blessing. Not because I want it destroyed. No. I want what I'm doing to have value and meaning. It would be a blessing because it would be God telling me my job has finished. I weary. I could do this for 30 more years, if I had more than the meager supplies that I have. If I wasn't buried under the student loan debt of a minister who will never work in an institutional church again. Yet, it continues, and the same weight, that was easy to carry a decade ago, now feels overbearing, because I've mostly been carrying it alone.
Do you see?
God talks in many ways.
Getting back to last Sunday, I once again prayed, "How long?" I was talking about a plethora of things. All the ones listed above, but also that project I've been attached to since I was a kid.
It was while talking about Tolkien and his writings that my husband said something:
"Anything of value takes an incredible amount of work and time."
It just felt like it was more than my husband talking.
It was like the answer to my prayer was, "It will amount to something, so don't give up."
And before you rally around this answer, realize Tolkien was paid full time wages for his work his entire life. He had the ability to focus on his passion projects while also being comfortable in life.
And really, that's the problem with most ministers today as well. They are not living in it. There is something very sanitized about their messages, that lack the reality of life.
I actually had a dream many years ago (a literal dream) where I met God. She was steering a wagon, and invited me to sit next to her. As we were talking, people came up to her with prayers. I watched as she answered prayer after prayer. People would ask for things, and she would grant their requests. So I asked for everything I needed to make Fig Tree a reality. She told me no. I was shocked! I pointed to all the people she said yes to, and asked why was she telling me no. Her answer, "It doesn't mean anything if you don't earn it yourself."
I must admit, I was a bit salty waking up from that dream. Now I wonder, "How long?" At what point does my work has enough value?
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Today marks the 10 year anniversary of when I first began this journey with God to create Fig Tree Christian. Ten years ago I would have imagined it would look much different than it actually does. By this point, I imagined there would be an actual team I'd be working with. You know, people with the creative desire to figure out what Church will look like in the future. I imagined I'd be planning out videos and Bible studies.
I guess the biggest thing I hoped was for "we" instead of just "me."
That being said, what I hoped would be a celebration ten years in, is not a good day for me today.
Understanding the lack of support.
I did not come back to Georgia at a good time.
The Regional Minister at the time called me to tell me he was retiring. He expressed sorrow that he wasn't going to be there to help me. I immediately knew that raised the difficulty. It was the first struggle of many.
The region was also in financial trouble. Churches were already dying, and some had flat out stopped giving.
The region also had a race problem. The biggest church in the region, Ray of Hope, had flat out stopped sending kids to the regional conference center.
That's why Georgia brought in Rev. Dr. Denise Bell. She was good with the finances, and could work specifically with the race issues Georgia needed to work on.
Her focus wasn't on new Church plants. Conversely, she wanted to focus on revitalizing the Churches that already existed over and beyond new Church plants.
We'd talk. I'd tell her Fig Tree needed assistance. She would offer prayer, but explain there was nothing she could give on a regional level.
If you want me to be mad about that, I'm not.
Others were though. My sister wanted me to seek out the Alabama region, which was only an hour from us. Anything but a region that was going to boldly express exclusion over possibility.
What it means to work from nothing.
One of the big ideas of the past decade came from the late Rev. Dr. Roger Sizemore. He believed in me. He wanted to get me going again. Working with Dr. Bell, they hatched a plan to plant Fig Tree Christian in First Christian Church of Marietta, (Disciples of Christ). Marietta was dying. What they didn't tell me, was the bigger plan was to have the dying church, devore Fig Tree, and I stay as a minister.
I was livid. The death of Fig Tree wasn't going to save Marietta. It was also completely ignoring real people who found real connection through everything Fig Tree had done up to that point.
We left Marietta, and started livecasting in a coffee house. We were one of the very first Churches in the nation to livecast a form of worship back in July of 2016! We were figuring out what online worship looked like when people were boldly telling me that wasn't worship.
I knew I was doing something that needed to be done, but no one could see the potential in it. We got nothing from the region the entire time we livecasted. Could you imagine what we'd be, if the Georgia region had trusted God enough to support Fig Tree in becoming online presence? Once again, I'm not angry.
That's why in 2019 Fig Tree left the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I prayed about it for years, and my prayer was answered with this thought, "Do it now when it holds power."
When 2020 hit, and everyone was home, I realized how much power that move made.
What the region did in return was horrible. They kept us as a church on the website, but didn't include us as an online presence during the pandemic. They had their cake and ate it too. That one I'm mad at. We were used. People who heard about Fig Tree looked for us, and found other congregations livecasting their worships.
So- for the most part, I'm sad.
I feel like, every single day, is a day people are being failed.
We are so caught up in saving dying relics of a bygone age, we are just ignoring the wailing cry of the broken.
I am not online because I think it's fun. It's not.
I'm not online because I want to be famous. That's just stupid, and no one should go into ministry for that.
I'm online because this is where the broken go, and we can't get our heads out of our asses to see we need to be more than copy/pasting our worships.
I'm sad, because no one wants to physically help me reach them.
There I am. I don't peddle beautiful lies; just hard truths. If you hear it from me, it's because I believe it. Know that. Maybe 2032 will be different...
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Just information- this website turns TEN on July 12th! I don't know how that makes me feel. I kinda hoped we'd be further along than we are. I'm not sure what I'll write. I'm in prayer.
This movie was my bait and switch!
In 2006 two movies came out about magicians: The Prestige and The Illusionist.
The Prestige stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Scarlett Johansson.
The Illusionist stars Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.
You all know I'm going to spoil The Illusionist, but you didn't come here for me to spoil The Prestige. This is basically what you need to know about both: Lower class person becomes a magician and has tricks an upper class person can't figure out. Upper class person then tries to destroy the lower class magician, and people die.
Sometime around 2012 I wanted to watch the Edward Norton version of the poor magician foiling the rich people, but couldn't remember the name. That's when I accidently watched The Prestige instead, and liked it.
Then, for this movie series, I thought, I wonder if that Christian Bale movie about magicians is available for free on TubiTv. That's how I found The Illusionist, and it became the movie for today instead of The Prestige. I find it kinda funny that two movies about a similar subject of slight of hand, could confuse me into watching the opposite movie I'm looking for.
The Illusionist shows us Jesus
I do not think Jesus was just a fancy magician. Let me just get that one out of the way, so I don't get haters online telling me I'm an atheist in disguise or something to that effect. I do think Edward Norton's character shows us the power Jesus held to protect himself from tyrannical forms of government.
There's this scene, where Giamatti's character has arrested Norton's character under suspicion of fraud. Giamatti tells Norton to reveal to him the truth of the trick or he would be forced to take him to jail. Outside there are throngs of Norton supporters. Giamatti adds that the punishment would be far worse if those fans storm the building.
In this moment, Giamatti has set a trap. It's an either/or situation. Either Norton reveals his trick, thus destroying everything he's built up to this moment, or he keeps his secrets but spends the remainder of his days in jail.
That moment feels very much like the moments in the Bible the Pharisee's have used to trap Jesus. More than that, Giamatti feels very much like a Pharisee. I say this, because the Pharisee's had painting themselves into their own trap. Either they could support Herod and keep their shiny new temple with a leader who "supports" Judaism, or they could support Jesus and leave all their power. We need to remember, it was lose/lose for the Pharisee's too. It was also lose/lose for Giamatti's character.
What Norton's character does in response to this trap, is also very Jesus. He steps outside and tells the crowd they were illusions. Now the crowd wouldn't believe him, and he knew that, but it gives a third option. Now Giamatti has no reason to keep Norton, and lets him go.
I said this so many times. The world isn't either/or. When an organization tries to herd you into a yes/no situation, those are almost always their lines they've drawn.
What we see in The Illusionist is what Jesus' danger looked like having those stark choices laid before him in an attempt to destroy him. We can also see how a corrupt system can pit people who shouldn't be on opposite sides against one another. Maybe we should consider that one today. Perhaps?
This Sunday I'll be talking about Apollo 13. They took it off at the end of June, so watch this video to prep for Sunday worship: