-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Over the past 6 weeks I’ve been reevaluating the meaning of the word “preach.”
Let me lay out the groundwork first. From the moment I felt called to be a minister, I already had a more expansive definition of “preaching.” I wanted to be a Christian singer. I wanted the music notes, the inflection, and the words to preach. Part of this was my severe anxiety. I could stand in a room full of people and sing a song, and tell a story with the rise and fall of the notes. Only, that box didn’t fit me too long. I realized I wanted to say more than what the pre-written songs were saying. (I also felt most of the pre-written songs were garbage when it came to speaking God beyond fluffy sentiments.) I wanted to talk about God in spaces where God existed, but we were failing to even look. To find the lost coin in the darkness.
So I began writing. I learned very quickly it was a very exclusive club that required the use of over-inflated words. Without saying so, they set the entrance fee to have a voice at their table. The fee was either having a fantastical story, a family member who was already in, or a stable middle-class-ish family.. Why do I say this? Because I was from a home where between both parents there were four divorces in my childhood. I went to three elementary schools, and lived in six different homes. There was no way to follow my educational progression because I didn’t stay in one place long enough to have any school really help me. I struggled in language arts. I struggled in math.
If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I better know the rules. I better write the correct lingo that Seminary Professors would understand, and people like me would not. I better be peer reviewed so I could be placed in a journal no one would read. I learned the lingo, but I don’t use it here. There is nothing worse in the world of writing than to waste your time talking to people who cannot possibly understand what you are trying to say. BUT- that also means I’m not going to be published. See, it’s exclusive. Either I sell my essence to get entrance and not have anything to really say (because, I sold the most important part of me to get the microphone). Or, I keep doing what I’m doing with no amplification at all. I don’t have a famous daddy so the second one it is.
I believe the system scared me into being a manuscript preacher. (Pre-writing my sermon and performing it on a Sunday morning.) As I’ve forced myself to be off the cuff for virtual worship, I’ve suddenly realized how boxed in the manuscripts are.
What I’m not saying about the word “preach.”
I’m not using it like the phrase, “That’ll preach!” That phrase is used to say the action or words could be preached on a Sunday morning. It still puts preaching as something that can only happen in a pulpit on a Sunday morning.
I’m also not talking about the phrase, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” That is a statement of social responsibility, not actual preaching.
Finally, I’m not talking about the phrase, “Stop preaching at us!” That suggests there is nothing helpful in the act of preaching, and when the action looks like a sermon, it needs to stop. (Once again, looking like a sermon is something that involves words at a podium.)
Truly seeing the wilderness in preaching.
What I’m about to write is personally terrifying. I’ve seen glimpses of it, and it truly feels I’ve glimpsed the edge of God. It is the true vastness of the Wilderness.
Van Gogh, Howard Finster, and Aaron Douglas.
They are all artists. More than that, they are all preachers in their own right.
Van Gogh created The Potato Eaters after he was let go as a missionary. He was let go because he gave up his lodgings to the homeless. That’s when he found his true calling as a painter. The Potato Eaters preaches to those who fired him for living into a social Gospel.
Howard Finster was a pulpit preacher who felt his congregation wasn’t listening to what he was saying. He left the safety of the church, and followed the call to start creating. He became famous for his art.
Aaron Douglas was agnostic, yet the way he captures Biblical narrative from an African American perspective was way before James Cone and “God of the Oppressed.” He spoke to truths the power in the Church would have blacklisted had they realized what he was doing.
These three artists were brought to my attention from three different circumstances. It reminded me of who I am, and who I am called to be.
When I said I was leaving the denomination, I had someone publicly (while also being kinda discreet) suggest it was all too dangerous. The danger wasn’t for my safety. The danger was what I could do without boundaries. The words lacked understanding of the deep danger so many had found themselves outside the church, and the necessity to break those boundaries to meet them in their danger.
I have always known the boxes never fit me. I think those who really know me, also know that fact. Yet, I always tried to cram myself into these boxes like they are something that should continue to exist. How could I say, “The language of God is more than words,” and not hear what I was saying to myself?!
I’ve, most recently, been praying to stay a minister. You might think that is strange for a person like me to pray. I’ve been in ministry since high school. Over 20 years now. Why would I, of all people, fear I would be called away from it?
I can feel the call to not be in the pulpit. My whole life, whether I realized it or not, being in the pulpit in a church has become my definition of being a minister. Meanwhile, in a complete contradiction I constantly talk about other forms of ministry. I raise up the Chaplains. I adore the missionaries. They are ministers.
I also didn’t realize I had limited the language of ministry, while contradicting myself in it’s practice. God smacked me upside the head with three painters, and reminded me of my brief moment in music ministry. God told me my boxes were too small.
That’s what scares me, and knowing I’ve been doing it the whole time. I’ve been preaching with art. I’ve been preaching with action. I’ve been preaching with the song of inflection. I’ve been telling God’s story to the world outside the pulpit and with more than words, for way longer than I’ve even realized!
People ask for my songs in their forign land. I get angry when they ask for it, because they won’t consider it worship. Why am I singing the Lord’s song to people who don’t see it for what it is? So my prayer to God is returned to just worship God. If others see, fine. So I do. At that point, I have to read the scriptures where the entire thing sounds stupid. I have to see Naaman completely frustrated that he’s asked to clean in dirty water. I must see how foolish it all looks, because it all looks like futility.
No one from inside the box wants me outside the box, because I’m in danger of breaking the box.
So those inside the box are fearful of what I might do, and those outside the box think it’s cute.
And all God’s trying to tell me is that my ministry is not at a podium!
Fine, God! Sure! But, can you tell the people who pay your servants? All your funds are tied up in buildings, and pulpits. How long? We, as a people, can’t sit in silence for 30 seconds without needing to blurt something and I’ve been doing this for years. Is my decade enough? How about two decades? Three full decades when I’m 61? No! 64! Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?!
At the same time, knowing I can paint, sing, dance, act and create worship… wow it makes the traditional worship look so tiny and unimportant. Yeah, the wilderness is scary, but once you’ve lived in it for a decade, how could you go back? My Boss has basically handed me the tools and told me to go have fun, and part of it is knowing, that’s what I’ve been doing all along! God knows me, and has given me a job that fits my skill set. My definition of preaching is just right. It’s yours that is too small.