-Pastor Melissa Fain-
To put it bluntly, I think he was a charlatan, propped up by Christians who wanted to hear they are doing the right thing, instead of the truth. He became one of the biggest false prophets in a world where prophecy had died. Before all you non-readers rake me over the coals, just remember the Israelites were constantly turning to Baal and other Gods to get the answers they wanted. The voice of God brought judgement upon Zacharais and you ignored it because the voice was female. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is a story of a master of lies, and an abuser of women. To say anything else would cover over something that has no right to be covered over.
Ravi Zacharias was born in March of 1945, in India. Being new to his readings, I was under the impression he was born Hindu. This is where the deception starts. There was a hesitancy to talk too much about his Anglican upbringing. He allowed the reader/listener to draw their own conclusions unless he was pushed into admitting the truth. I read through Can Man Live Without God, and came away believing he was born Hindu. Did he say he was born Hindu? No. It was a very clever deception, but one that took away some of his power when realized, which was probably why he did it. Once he was fully established as a leader among Christians, it became more appealing to mention his family was Anglican.
(Speaking from personal experience, I don’t share my story as readily online as I could, but pieces of it exist in places. There are people who have heard it, and could vouch for it. There are hints to it in my writing. I’ve also openly expressed why I don’t share it. I know how woundedness wounds others, and it’s out of care for others in my story I refrain.)
Zacharias’, proven a liar, shared his childhood. Because he willfully lied about degrees, and later adult sexual assault, what I’m going to share should be viewed with both a sceptics eyes, and God’s grace.
In 2002, Jesus Among Other Gods was published. In chapter one he recounts a story where he willfully skipped school. He admits to doing this on more than one occasion. This time, he was caught. His father was apparently furious, and rightfully so. Government education in India is available, but private education was/is better. As a parent, I couldn’t imagine how furious I’d be for my child to throw away something so precious as a good education when such a thing was such a precious resource. I’m sure this compounded with the cultural idea that all children should seek a professional degree.
He then suggests that if his mother didn’t step in, his father would have seriously hurt him with the “thrashing” he received. I believe this. I believe this, because it explains so much. This kid was raised by a parent who wanted the best for his child, and didn’t know how to react when his time and money was wasted. This is Zacharias’ trauma, and he doesn’t hide it. He just never wanted to face it.
Speaking from experience, living through childhood trauma my first step to moving on was believing it all happened for a reason, and clinging to the trauma like it was something good. The next step was realizing the opposite. People who move from victimhood to survivor are those who then see how that trauma has kept them from being a whole healthy person, then they seek wholeness. For me, this movement from victim to survivor happened in Seminary. I can name the class, and the feeling of knowing I was mentally headed towards a landscape where I could eventually help others too. Now, I’m on the survivor’s path, and will hopefully be for the rest of my life.
Zacharias never moved past the glorification of his woundedness, and therefore, his woundedness remained his whole life. Not working through woundedness has devastating consequences. Instead of moving from victim to survivor, he moved from victim to abuser. Brokenness breaks- always! His father was trying to get him to do the right thing in the wrong way. It’s ironic that he spent his whole career telling others there was one truth, when his un-worked through brokenness kept his truth buried.
Once you realize this about Zacharias, his writings begin to lose their luster. He was a broken child not wanting to deal with the consequence of being wrong; not seeing the goodness in correction, because his correction was not done correctly.
This is what true Grace looks like. You seek justice, not because you want to burn it all down, but because you want to take out what is broken and restore what can be redeemed. You mourn the death of the abuser. First because there’s a hidden victim in the horror and destruction, and that victim never found healing. Second, because not correctly fixing the problem will destroy lives in the long run. If you do not listen to the lamenting voice of God, the wrath of God will eventually follow. It’s not because God wants to destroy, but God’s creation will always trump our brokenness and ability to subvert that very same creation.
That’s where I’m going to end today. As you can see, I’m trying to make sense of all the information I’ve been digging up, and I also want to process it all. I’ve now written a review on a book, and looked at his early life. I want to delve into his suicide attempt next week and his use of suicide as a source of control as an adult. Thank you for your patience. As I vomit it out here (and that's what this feels like to me), I'm beginning to see how a full length video manifests itself after the fact. I'm beginning to storyboard, so it's actually coming together.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Slow and steady wins the race. That’s been my new mantra. Maybe everything is moving like refrigerated syrup, but it’s moving.
And compared to a few years ago, we’re in the races!
I took a two week hiatus from the writing side of everything to work on the video side. My goal was to have three videos recorded and published before the end of Summer break. Today marks the first week of school in my district. How’d I do?
Not a single video.
Some of it is the tremendous amount of data.
I honestly didn’t think I’d find anything reading Ravi Zacharias’ book, Does Man Need God to Live. I just thought it would be a straightforward apologetics book. Instead, it’s filled with examples that should have been warning signals. It also explains this completely off base movement to set up the atheist as the villian, years in the making.
Let me lay it down for you this week:
God is Good… as in, it feels good. Makes us happy.
Him: In the book, he sets up this argument that there is one truth, and the truth is Jesus, and Jesus is good. This goodness is more of the illusion of acting good. This is goodness as in a feeling, or a “satisfaction.”
Me: This is, first and foremost, bad theology. There are multiple locations within the Bible where Jesus tells the Disciples that the future wasn’t going to be “good,” but it was going to be right. I think Ginny Owens summed it up perfectly, “But you never said it would be easy, you only said we’d never go alone.” Easy feels good, at least at first. Your muscles feel good because the workout was easy. That doesn’t mean the workout was good for your body, only that it felt good. (And feeling good while also being good can begin to feel like the same time after you get through the workout feeling bad for a few months.)
Him: He also lays out that Jesus took on all the pain and suffering for the world, so we wouldn’t have to. If that were the case, someone should have informed the Apostles who all died horrific deaths following Jesus. Someone should have informed the Germans and maybe millions of Jews would have been spared. Someone should have told the warlords in Africa, or Genghis Kahn in China. Perhaps the genocides could have been avoided all together if they only knew. And, as snarky as I’m being, the answer to this little rant would have been “Yes, that would have stopped those events in their tracks!” According to Zacharias, a lack of faith turns people into tyrants. He does admit that Christians have their own pile of atrocities, but the atheist pile is worse.
Me: Before I really rip into this idea, he doesn’t back this published book with any data or statistics. He simply states it as fact and moves on. Even when I use quotes, or links in my (tiny, not worth a lick) blog, I still separate my thoughts with “I believe.” Those are important words. I might have spent the entire blog linking various articles to hold up my belief, but it will still be something that belongs to me and my thought process. Zacharias has no problem throwing out beliefs in a categorical way.
Also Me: It is bad theology to villainize those who are not Christian. Matthew 28:19-20 reads:
“19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Disciples are not those who automatically know Jesus Christ. Disciples are learners. Going back to easy/good. It is easy to see anyone who doesn’t believe as the villain, and see oneself as the hero. That doesn’t make it good.
Glorifying Sacrifice in Women
Many many years ago a colleague or professor tore apart The Giving Tree. At first, this set me on edge because I grew up reading that book, and loved all things Shel Silverstein. As this person continued, I realized they were right. The boy calls on the female tree to sacrifice to nothingness, while the boy is never satisfied. It’s a horrific tale of abuse.
There are some who have read Christ as the tree, and in that light we should read ourselves as the boy. In that light, it’s a horrific view of how we take advantage of God. We should leave the book wanting to be better than the boy.
Him: I bring this story up, because at face value, it appears Zacharias has nothing but respect for women. He practically worships them. It’s in that worship he is scary. He tells this Hindu story of a son who loves a woman, and the woman keeps asking for more and more until he asks for the mother’s heart. The son does it, and murders his mom. As he takes the heart to the woman, he trips, and the heart goes flying across the ground. The heart cries out, “Son, are you alright.”
This is a version of The Giving Tree. We are to look at this story as a mother’s sacrificial love, and ultimately Christ’s love.
Never does he condemn the son, who took everything from his own mother.
Me: Putting all sacrificial love on females is a way to justify abuse. For generations women are just supposed to take it, because their motherly instinct meant they were going to sacrifice more for their children. We condemned them naming their abuse, because that meant they were not accepting the Godly sacrifice.
Hottake: When someone doesn’t choose to sacrifice, that’s called abuse. When someone is forced to sacrifice, that too is called abuse. When the system is set up to do nothing but force you to sacrifice, guess what friends, that’s abuse. Zacharias glorified abuse.
Him: Zacharias included women in his book. It is vital to realize, when he referenced a female writer it was because she was quoting a male writer, or telling a male centered story. When he thanked a woman at the beginning of the book, it’s because of all the hard work she did for him.
Also Him: He did use masculine pronouns, and I didn’t think much of it (the book was written in the 90’s) until on one page he talked about his daughter, and switched for one pronoun to “he or she.”
Me: I see, time and time again, men in leadership choosing women who will help the man or look up to him. This is confused by men and women as the man treating women as equals. This is not equality, it’s a monarchy. When a true feminine equal is placed next to that man, time and time again I’ve seen the man sics his women helpers on the equal, especially when calling out sexism. Zacharias liked women who liked him. They were followers, not equals. It was easy to hide, because in the mid-90’s there were no substantial women theologians. When you’ve been raised up like Yertle the Turtle, you are going to push people down, and it becomes very easy to have no equals. It might sound backwards, but it’s easier to hide your views on equality, when you put everyone below you, and everyone allows you to do it.
Also me: Every time I go to work on this, I get stuck. It’s not because I have too little to work with. It’s because the evidence to abuse is so damning I feel overwhelmed. It goes back decades, to way before Lori Anne Thompson. It’s our fault this existed.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
25 Hurrying back to the ruler, she made her request: “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.” 26 Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. 27 So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head. The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, 28 brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, and she gave it to her mother. 29 When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came and took his dead body and laid it in a tomb.
Mark 6:14-29 CEB
Last Sunday I spent a decent amount of time using John’s beheading to say believing in Jesus doesn’t mean everything is going to be sunshine and roses for the rest of life on earth.
It’s not a fun or nice message, but it’s a needed one.
I also got so sidetracked by the difficult message, I forgot the one I was going to give: Having power and wealth does not equal that you have God’s grace and love.
When looking at the family of Herod, it’s clear how that statement may be true. There isn’t a flattering Biblical story about the family of Herod. It’s simply written- them bad and us good.
This is where it can become problematic for us.
US VS THEM
When the Bible is an “Us vs Them” reading, it is all wrong. I say this because we should be called to “something” when we are done reading. Lament. Action. Contemplation. Those are all things we can do. We have agency once the reading is done. We have no agency over “them.” When we leave smug, because there is nothing for us to do, because we put all the real work on the “other,” we’ve done nothing.
If we are just leaving angry because some evil rich family beheaded John the Baptist, then we are learning nothing. Some of the best Bible lessons are when we put ourselves in the villain’s place.
Here are some great questions to ask after reading this scripture:
These are both places where John was killed because of the actions of the family of Herod. Maybe not to the point of murder, but these are both places where good upstanding Christian people fail. I’ve seen some very Christian people falter under the impression that doing what was right was not the socially acceptable move, and choose the “socially acceptable” over what was right. I’ve also seen pettiness destroy good systems. For the old timers here, I’m recalling that time a group of church members literally cut playground equipment in half and took it with them- a real life Soloman’s baby.
HAVES VS HAVE NOTS
It’s really difficult for me to engage in this subject. And, before I really get into this, I’m well aware that every century comes with its own terrible story of the Church. It pains me to say this, but no group of Christians are without their drama. Here’s part of ours: Since the 90’s the church has played the part of an oppressed waif. As society separated from the Church, the American Church doubled down on their culture. Atheists became the terrible villain. If not atheists, then Saten. Anything to point the finger anywhere but at oneself.
This had a two-part effect. First, it kept American Christians from being introspective. It wasn’t their fault, but those soulless atheists, or Satan made them do it. Nothing is learned. Nothing is gained. Secondly, wow we became the villains! When you go around telling everyone else they are wrong, you begin to be wrong yourself.
All this had to be said first.
Just because you have the building, the offering, the people- doesn’t make you right.
Just because you have nothing- or you are losing everything- doesn’t make you right.
This is where my frustrations rise to a boiling point. In the 90’s when it appeared everything was going great. We were all blessed by God! God had taken our spoils and multiplied it. Now, as so many are now seeing we are actually bleeding out, we are blessed by God because God is with the oppressed. (Excuse me while I go find a bathroom and vomit.)
This all comes back to self-reflection. Modern American Christians just refuse to do it. Sure, they'll brainstorm solutions, and do faith retreats to try to understand God’s will, but will only go as far as it keeps them in the hero role. Once they have to consider how they are Pharisees or Herods they shut it down and move on.
If one of our own is actually the villain we bury, move and ignore. That’s the modern American Christian way! Only, it’s not the Christian way. There’s a reason we have these stories in the Bible. It’s not so we point the finger to someone else. The Bible exists so we can grow ourselves.
So, for God’s sake, let us be the villains. Maybe if we accept what we are, we can finally fix what’s wrong. That’s more important.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
As I came back upstairs after worship on June 20th, I realized something. “I didn’t even mention Father’s Day!” My husband has a brief moment of shock, not from what I failed to include, but that he didn’t even consider it missing.
It is true that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day hang on by a thread in our household. As some of you know, Valentine’s Day is non-existent. As the 4th of July has come and gone, you might have noticed I didn’t even give it a sentence in worship.
These are all events, though, that are secular in nature and find our way into Sacred Worship. Each, in their own way, make me uncomfortable and here’s how:
I find Mother’s Day a perfect day to use feminine pronouns to describe God. At the same time, the use of the feminine to describe God fills me with terror, not because of God, but because of the backlash in the congregants upon hearing she/her language attributed to the Divine.
It’s not that there’s a lack of examples of God being described in the feminine, it’s that there is a lack of focus in the Church to those examples. Sophia, Mother bear, hen… We are given language to see God as more than masculine but something bristles up in us when we use She/Her language. How dare we explore God as both power in femininity and the least of these!
It’s verbiage I feel we deserve to explore, but it is also not natural because I grew up hearing His/He all the time.
None of that goes into actual mothers, and that’s me as a mother of two.
Probably the reason I want to push some into the feminine nature of God during Mother’s Day is the plethora of sermons about the masculine nature of God on Father’s Day. I can’t count how many pastors I have seen preach on the caring for mother because she works so hard on Mother’s Day, and then a few weeks later preaching on the masculine nature of God on Father’s Day. I’m going to extend enough grace to believe these guys don’t do it on purpose, but inadvertently they celebrate the servitude of the mom, and the divinity of the dad.
God is power! God is king! Happy Father’s Day!
I’m not going to say those statements are wrong, but I’m also going to say how and when we talk about God’s sovereignty and power is just as important as the topics themselves.
If I had it to do over I would have talked about God’s sovereignty and power during Mother’s Day and God’s servitude during Father’s Day. Even then, I would have been uncomfortable, because how we talk about service among females is drastically different than how we talk about service among males.
This is probably where I personally look like the biggest Ebenezer Scrooge to ever exist in the modern era. I don’t do Valentine’s Day.
If I were to do Valentine’s Day it wouldn’t be candy, flowers, and expensive dates. It would be to spam bee photos on February 14th, and July 6th. (He’s the Patron St. of courtly love, epilepsy and beekeepers.) It would be almost fitting, seeing as my name literally means honeybee in Greek.
Other than that, I just see Valentine’s Day as a day where we buy crap that will either add weight, trash, or both. Love is not in teddy bears the size of a Buick. Love is not in cheap or expensive chocolates. Don’t buy me tokens to show love. Act. Do. Live into love. Anything else is between you and yours. I want nothing to do with it. Flowers wilt, but action has lasting consequences.
4th of July
I am a Scout, and more than that, I am a Scout Chaplain for my Son’s Troop. Some of the leadership in my daughter’s Pack calls me Pastor Melissa. I am completely comfortable with taking the divine into a patriotic space. I am completely uncomfortable taking the patriotic into the Divine space.
I think most of American worship can’t see the difference between the two, and that’s a consequence of not setting clear boundaries of what is or isn’t worship, secular space, and Divine space.
I have very clear boundaries. On Sunday morning, I’m setting aside time and space to seek God. That language is incredibly intentional. Just as this language is intentional too: God can visit us in our time and space at any time or space. That means we can have a God moment while watching a firework’s show, planting a seed, or (sorry/ not sorry) sitting on the toilet. As I’ve written before, that is God engaging us. In response, we need to be intentional about engaging God back. The worship Space is made sacred because we’ve chosen to set it aside to meet God.
This is why you won’t see state/national flags in Fig Tree’s worship area. It’s also why I occasionally remind those on the other side of the camera to prepare their side to meet God.
You want to enjoy a fireworks show with your community while understanding the veterans around you? Great! That is a secular event, and should take place in a non-worship space. You want to sing the Star Bangled Banner at a sports event, go for it! Just don’t ask me to bring it into Sacred Space. While we’re on the subject, the same goes for sports. Aside from being an illustration to help understand the text better, it should stay outside worship.
The bottom line.
The more intentional you are about setting aside space to meet God, the more clear the lines become of what is allowed in that worship space.
The more intentional you are about what is Sacred and what is Secular, the more willing you will be to put away some culturally secular activities.
The more willing you are to read the Bible and see something new, the deeper and richer your faith is allowed to be.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Have you ever walked a hiking trail and let your mind wander? I mean, REALLY wander. Allow your brain to take you far far away, to a place where dragons and knights lived? Or in a distant future where beyond your walk there are flying cars, and machines that can make whatever your heart desires?
I can’t turn my brain off. I don’t know how some of y’all do it. I’m constantly planning, working, getting ready for something. The closest I get is when I can create. Create earrings, tiny polymer statues, cross stitch, knotted bracelets, stories, books, layered paper, chaos emeralds and power rings, cat castles, and costumes… I just need a spark. Take me to the land of make believe, and let me find something to make real.
Even talking about the beginnings of that process fills me with joy! That’s what I am, a sorceress, taking something that doesn’t exist, and making it real with the workings of my words and hands.
Up till now I’ve been given little pieces. It’s trust. In the beginning I didn’t even trust myself, and for good reason. I knew my limits and I pushed them only a little. Then, as I began to trust myself, others began to trust me too. I get to play make believe, and bring back souvenirs from the trip!
Oh how my mind wanders with Fig Tree! I imagine a worship area with education rooms and stations around the worship area to connect with those online. I see quarterly Bible studies that come with boxes for added content. I see a staff room where each week or two times a week we expand our understanding of pretty much everything.Maybe we all learn Spanish or sign language, or perhaps we delve into web design or Photoshop! I imagine doing regional retreats to discuss theology, and connect with other Fig Tree Christians.
I can’t wait to have a team of people to explore the imaginary and bring it back to reality!
Someone asked me, where is my joy? It’s there! It’s in what’s yet to be! It’s in a future we can’t yet see, but still waits for it to be found!
It’s where my mind wanders as I walk through the woods.
When I set my mind on a task, I am fully invested and cannot stop until I finish.
For example, last Sunday I sat down with my polymer clay and planned to make some pumpkin earrings. They are probably one of the easiest earrings to make, and look beautiful. As I’m making them, I begin to wonder if I picked up some brighter orange could I pull off candy corn earrings.
The short answer is yes, I can. As I’m chugging away at candy corn earrings, I am separating the yellow into tiny balls, and realize that would make an amazing Pac Man. I get my candy corn earrings done, and dig through my polymer until I find what I need: color for the ghosts.
Twenty-two earrings later, I also wrap up the “gear”rings I started before my daughter’s day camp, and it’s now Friday. The whole week became an earring extravaganza.
I think it was yesterday I realized a hard truth.
My personal goal for this summer is to make three videos for Fig Tree Christian. Instead, I’ve gone down multiple rabbit holes, all of them completely stealing my time. Sure, the earrings will be sold at a craft fair. That time has a purpose. Yet, somehow, my time has found important places to be that are not making videos for Fig Tree. It was Saturday I finally realized what was going on.
I want to make a video on the Ravi Zacharias abuse. Well, “want” is no longer the word I’d use.
See, I thought this would be like everything else. I’d get one of his books, and gleefully tear it apart. Then I’d make a video sharing his history, and why we should all put that man away and never look at him again. I’ve had no problem dissecting other books in seminary. This time it was different.
What this man means to my call to ministry.
While well meaning idiots spent the last 9 years telling me I wasn’t called to ministry, Zacharias spent the last years of his life being the North American C.S. Lewis. He was the poster child for modern apologetics. (Apologetics is the branch of theology where the point is to justify the existence of Christian faith. Think, “A Case for Christ.”) I made a point to read some C.S. Lewis after seminary because Candler didn’t do apologetics. I remember one professor telling me it wasn’t real theology. Therefore, “Mere Christianity,” and “The Problem of Pain,” sits on my evangelism/friend shelf of my library, and there it stays. Those were fairly easy reads, and I’d put other C.S. Lewis books next to them, but they sit on my Kindle.
I can remember people suggesting Zacharias books to me. Never did I read any of them, because they were always suggested by people who I didn’t trust theologically.
I did read Lori Anne Thompson. As Fig Tree became a safe space for the abused and displaced, somehow we found one another and followed each other on Twitter. I knew she was working through something big, and I had no idea what. That was okay. I am so grateful I’m one of the few that knew the victim/survivor before the abuser.
When Zacharias passed away I saw so many mourn his passing, but that was as far as the impact went. At the time I didn’t own a single book he’d written, and I hadn’t created a single word art to share. I’d heard him on Glenn Beck a couple of times, and still don’t remember a single thing he said there. Non-impact is the best word to describe him.
Then everything came to light.
To learn this man was not only a sexual abuser, but also openly lied about it once it was known angers me to no end. There’s a reason spiritual leaders should be held to a higher standard than everyone else, and this is it. It’s not so we can put them on an ivory pedestal and worship them as quasi-saint. It’s so their fall is epic and hurts. What they can do with power can be incredibly uplifting and helpful, or insanely dangerous and destructive. Jesus’ burden is light, but power in any form is heavy. Period.
Choosing to dig into a book.
I decided, months and months ago that I was going to find a Ravi Zacharias book at Goodwill, read it, and do a video review of it.
I have a hard line on reviews. I cannot review anything I haven’t seen or read. I think it’s disingenuous to talk about things I have not personally experienced. This has led to me having a very diverse education, and I’m very grateful for it. I actually enjoy listening and reading people I disagree with. Even if I don’t walk away agreeing with what the person says, at least I can understand where they are coming from.
I thought this experience would be the same. I’d get a book. I’d disagree with it, but leave understanding where this thought process came from.
Instead, I was almost always sickened and angry. There were days I could only get two pages in, before I was venting to someone or some group and walking away for a couple of days. It turned what should have been an easy read, into a slog! Even now, as I’m researching Zacharias personally, I’m still angry. I’ll read even one paragraph and realize the implications and go do something else.
Basically, I was going to Tarshish instead of Ninivah.
The Story of Jonah.
I love my prophets. If you’ve read or seen enough of my work, you know my fav is actually Jeremiah, but Jonah holds a place in my heart.
It’s a short read, so if you want to say you read a book from the prophets, it’s an easy one to get through and get some cred.
Jonah is the only Prophet called to preach to the enemy, and also the only Prophet where the ones hearing the message change their ways. It should be understandable that Jonah wants nothing to do with God’s call, because in some way it’s not fair to ask someone to help their enemy.
Jonah flees, goes in the opposite direction, gets kicked off a boat, and swallowed by a big fish. Only after all that he begrudgingly goes to Ninivah and (from my reading) only gives it the minimum effort.
It ends with him angry it all worked, and then frustrated a worm ate his shade.
I’ve been running to Tarshish
It’s not that I haven’t been doing productive things. I’ve been super productive. It’s that I’ve been super productive in areas that have intentionally kept me from doing this review. Even as I’ve written this out for y’all, I went and did three different things. All of those things were good in their own way, but they’ve kept me from this.
I need to ask myself why I’ve been running in the opposite directions, and here is what I believe:
There you go. The more I dig, the worse I feel, but the more I realize it needs to be shared. Pray for me. These next few weeks are not going to be easy.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
Nearly a decade ago I sat in a new church retreat. The language had just changed. Instead of calling them “New Church Starts” we were now going to call them “New Church Plants.”
My heart sank. I do not have a green thumb. Throughout the years, I’ve been part of multiple plants being destroyed.
When I was a kid, we tried to grow watermelons on the chewed up stumps in our front yard. The person we paid to mow our lawn ran over our plants not only once, but twice. Eventually, the third time, when Dad informed my sister and me that the cucumber sized watermelon wasn’t going to get much bigger because fall was coming, we pulled it all up, cut the baby up and tried it. (Baby watermelon does taste like cucumber btw. In case you were curious.)
One year for Mother’s Day, the church I was part of decided to give everyone a planted flower. The moment I had one in my possession, it was almost like the flower knew it’s fate. It weakly drooped. Two weeks later, it was dead.
I remember one year the closing gift for High School camp was a cup of dirt with a sunflower seed in it. I was so excited! Sunflowers are probably my absolute favorite flower. I took it home, and was excited to see a plant break through the dirt. For once I wasn’t killing something! Only, there was no sunflower seed in my cup. They had missed mine, and the dirt they gathered was from directly outside. I was growing a weed.
Then there was two years ago, when I found myself subbing a class for an extended period of time. On the teacher's desk was a very small plant, and in her window was a big ivy. One of the students was tasked with watering the ivy. I took on the small plant. As the weeks progressed, I was pleased to see the small plant showed absolutely no signs of dying. It was on my last day I realized why. The plant was fake. I was watering a fake plant.
I hate the language of plants.
I hate comparing church starts to plants. The top reason is my absolutely black thumb. If the stories above don’t convince you, those are just the easiest ones to tell. I’ve also failed helping my daughter grow plants. Those stories either end in the plant shriveling up and dying, or a chipmunk eating it up. It has left me, someone with a new church plant, feeling completely demoralized. Every time another one bites the dust, I say the same prayer to God: “Well God, there you go. I killed another one. Why am I called to be a church planter again? You sure about this?”
The other reason I hate the language of plants is because of what it has come to mean.
I’ve written multiple times about “grafting.” Grafting is when you take a sturdy trunk and cut off it’s limbs. You then attach the limbs of a good fruit tree, so you control what the plant produces. It’s been used to produce apples for centuries, but this technique is not limited to apples.
The reason I hate the language of plants is most American church plants are grafted. God plants the seed in someone’s heart. The seed takes root. The plant begins to grow. When the Church feels the plant has grown enough they (oh so lovingly) hack off it’s limbs and replaces it with their limbs. Basically, they use the new Church’s tap into the Spirit, to grow their dying fruit. In the 90’s it was great! We all wanted copy/paste church. In the Aughts it was okay. After all, we found the fruit of modern music, so it was different enough to get by. By the teens it stopped working.
Why did it stop working? Two reasons:
First: the church was/is dying. They had to be more selective about which plants they were going to steal Spirit from. Therefore, not only did they selectively choose which new plants to fertilize, they stopped fertilizing a large group of new plants. When these unfertilized plants begin to shrivel and die it was seen as a sign that they shouldn’t have existed to begin with, instead of the realization that they were never given the chance to thrive. (Fig Tree came with it’s own fertilizer, which is why it has become the little plant that could.)
Second: The churches that are dying started to grow selfish. “Why are we supporting new plants when there are plenty of older churches that need support?” I think I’ve heard enough Christians say that exact line that I can no longer tell you how many times I’ve heard it. Worse than this, I don’t think they know their own selfishness. The ship is sinking. Of course they want to live, and they are (in their obvious fears) willing to sacrifice the future in order to live now. It completely lacks the trust in God, and what God does with death. (It’s also bad theology that spent generations skipping over the subject of death all together.)
Last School Year I Was Given Plants.
I still can’t wrap my mind around this previous school year. I can’t really talk about it, because unless you were there, you just don’t understand. Let me just say, I am incredibly fortunate to be in a school where I can be completely helpful, and I’m appreciated for that help.
During teacher appreciation week (where us subs in the lowest tier are usually completely dismissed), I was given gifts for everything I did. Part of those gifts were two plants. One a cactus, and the other the beginnings of a rose bush.
I loved those plants, but I immediately feared for their safety. This was me, afterall. I’m the destroyer of plants. The abuser of chlorophyll. They would never have a chance, even a cactus.
I took them home, gave them water, and said a prayer.
They both began to die. Of course.
I lamented my problem with some friends, and one gave me this advice. “Stop doing so much to them. Put the roses outside where they belong, and don’t over water the cactus.”
The next day I took the roses outside to the front garden, dug in a whole, broke up the soil, and buried it.
As the days progressed my husband told me he didn’t think the roses were going to make it. He said the flowers were dying. Only I was seeing something different. Sure, the roses themselves were dying. It was no longer spring. The leaves were different. They were growing richer and greener by the day. I watered it each afternoon, and left it alone. I had given it to God. In return, it was taking root and accepting its new home.
The cactus was the same. As I stepped back, it grew stronger. It appeared, for these two plants, what they needed the most from me was trust.
Which brought me back to Fig Tree. Fig Tree is the little plant that just won’t die. I’ve cried over her, and I’ve seen potential growth whither up, but I have not seen death. Even when it seems so emanant, she persists. I don’t think God gave me the seed I was expecting, you know, like a gorgeous sunflower. Others didn’t think I got the seed they expected either. Sometimes we’ve been looked at like a weed. I went places where the sun doesn’t always shine; and wouldn’t always get the attention and focus.
Really, what has kept Fig Tree alive is trust. God gave me a seed, AND believed I wouldn’t kill it. God trusted me, and now I must trust God. That sounds really simple, but when you don’t trust yourself, it’s actually super hard. When it all comes down to it, the biggest way you can learn to trust what God gives you, is to find trust in yourself first. God has plans, and God’s plans are bigger than our plans.
Could I still fail. Yes.
Could others cause failure. Absolutely.
It's just saying, God is there, and trusts us enough to hand us new life.
It should fill us with hope. From hope springs new life.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I want to start by saying that in one month this site will be 9 years old. Writing this one month away feels right. One year from 10. One month from 9. Over 500 posts just written by me, and the amazing guests who have stepped in and wrote their own words. Enough words to fill two short novels or one epic story.
If I were paid only minimum wage for all the different ways I’ve worked for Fig Tree (recording, planning, writing, and creating), we are looking at 150,000 thousand dollars of my time- donated. IF my work was only worth minimum wage.
This donation of time continues. While I’m the one who initiated it, and maintained it. It frustrates those around me who want me to not only be paid a living wage, but a living wage doing ministry.
I’ve been saying for months that Covid didn’t create anything new. It made hard truths easier to see, and created chasms where there were already cracks. Specifically, I want to talk about how we treat servant leaders in the United States.
The theology of using.
In my college days, I was working as a student assistant in the music dept at Kennesaw State. (With three others, I recorded sound and video for students and teachers.) My boss taught me a very important lesson. When on the clock, give your best work. When off the clock, stay off the clock.
I was also working my second church job I’d ever worked. I knew I was being paid for 10 hours of work each week. I gave the best 10 hours of work I could give. I created lesson plans, and planned events. I already knew if someone else tried to do what I was doing, it would take more than 10 hours. That’s because an hour of work was worth about $10, and $10 at that time was almost twice minimum wage.
Eventually, I wanted a raise in hours. I wrote out everything I did with my time. I brought examples of my work.
One of the Elders and one of the ministers flat out told me, “We assumed you’d volunteer your time over and beyond what we were paying you. You should be working more than 10 hours per week.” Basically, they were paying minimum wage, but didn’t want to feel bad about paying an employee minimum wage so they gave the real sacrifice to me to feel better.
The Crack that Unfairly focuses on Females.
In November of 2019, Nathen Eva wrote on the emotional toll of leaders. While the article was the emotional toll of all leaders, he spent some time specifically on female leaders. He found there was a disparity between men and women in roles of leadership. Men were almost always rewarded for exhibiting nurturing habits as a leader. Meanwhile, women were expected to be nurturing, and punished when they are not.
I also don’t think this is healthy nurturing. When I nurture my children sometimes it’s during the hard lessons. I sat with my daughter yesterday morning as she fought while tying her shoes. (Something she learned several years ago, but likes my ties better.) The easy choice would have been to take over and do it for her. That would have appeared to be nurturing, but it wouldn’t have really. My daughter has to learn self-reliance. Nurturing was sitting with her while I was mentally pulling out my hair, as she verbally fought me on the silliness of tying shoe laces. It was uncomfortable, but it was right. I’ve seen women get shorn down for healthy nurturing, because it doesn’t feel good. I’ve also seen men get raised up for feeding sugary emptiness under the guise of love. Real nurturing from women, and fake nurturing from men.
I can begin to see how the disparity works against me. It’s harder to see my sacrifice because society has incorrectly learned that I should naturally suffer it. My value is only equalized by my self-inflicted suffering. Yet, I feel the tide has begun to turn.
This tide has felt relieving for myself. I give, and my giving is not looked at as something I should naturally do, but as (what it is) a gift. And, as I watch areas begin to show equal treatment between males and females, I have seen some men struggle with a more equal footing. The overabundant of ease has been taken away. They feel it is unfair, and push back, only to find women showing their form of nurturing, and not liking that either.
The Crack that Broke Ministers.
There were so many ministers who needed a break during the Pandemic. What was already more than a full time job, became a monster all it’s own.
First off- you can’t just become an online minister. The camera doesn’t work the same way as the human eye and ear. Even I, who has had education on recording through school and work, found the “look” of ministry to be different than anything I had previously experienced. I struggled figuring it out, as the look of the video is the sanctuary of the worshipper. There were ministers who had never recorded a single thing in their life, now attempting to understand Facebook Live and Zoom on top of a demographic that had neither program.
Secondly- There were so many people who “needed” servant leaders, they abused servant leaders. This goes beyond ministry. Education is also filled with servants who give up more than what they are paid for, and are told it’s part of their job to break personal boundaries. Now, any servant leader that somehow was able to maintain healthy boundaries were forced to break them with in-house studios. They had to take their work home, because home was where they were working. Also, everyone needed support. We were all dealing with a life altering event, and no one considered how servant-leaders were impacted by all this. Your leaders felt like tools or things instead of people, and that was because that’s how you treated them.
You are not losing all servant leaders right now; only the ones with healthy boundaries that felt they were pushed too far. Those are the ones we need to hold on to. Those are the ones who know how to say, “no,” in a way that shows love.
The American Church was built while we were explorers. People came to America to seek freedom from oppression. Only, those oppressions no longer exist, and the American Church still wants to be oppressed by something. They also have allowed snakes and wolves into their leadership roles. They see the brokenness, while refusing to accept their role in it.
The Crack that Broke Education.
Education was built during the Industrial age, and was created to be a machine. It was made to educate as many people as possible as cost efficiently as possible. Only, as the Industrial Age closed, and people started seeing the humanity in the kids, they never changed the systems, only “differentiated” the system. Today, it’s bloated with no way for any teacher to do all the things asked of him and her. Basically, education is a giant machine, tasked to do it’s main duty, while also tasked to do a million side projects.
These are men and women who also found their boundaries crossed with at home studios in 2020. Education and ministry has many overlaps, including a collection of individuals who are praised when they spend their own money and time to make a broken system work. Since education is primarily filled by women, they are also dealing with the collective system that simply assumes they need to give freely of themselves. To do so, means they only break even.
Where are we going?
I personally cannot even fathom how these systems will continue to exist as they are. They were already on the edge of failure before the Pandemic. Now the cracks are chasms, and the solution is duct tape. (Where duct tape is to continue to use our servant leaders like tools instead of people.)
As we pretend to want to go back the way we were, we are going to find that things are too broken. Perhaps next year we'll make it work, but that's simply a fool's errand. Our systems, as we've understood them, are now gone. If we are not proactive in what takes their place, we are asking for something worse to take their place, and we won't have anyone to lead that.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I am an active reader. I put emphasis in my words. My 5th grade teacher, Ms. Miller, taught me how to read actively. My entire literary world opened up the day she stopped me, and told me to try again with feeling. That’s why I love reading in class. With a book in my hand, I can get a group of middle schoolers on the edge of their seat in suspense, or laughing out loud with an author’s joke. It’s like for a brief 40 minutes I can show jaded kids one of the ways adults play pretend.
Two weeks ago I was reading a book out loud. It was no different than any other book, except this one used “damn,” and “hell,” pretty loosely. The middle schoolers thought it was hilarious, not because I was reading them outloud, but because it was me reading them outloud. They wanted to know why my ministerial sensibilities were not crushed by these PG-13 words. (PG if we were to be honest.)
Language is a construct
Language is a human construct. We made it up. We continue to make it up. We’ll make it up for years beyond this moment.
Because we make it up, we give words power. An excellent example:
Back in 1420, King Henry V led England to victory over King Charles’ French army, successfully conquering France. This meant English became the language of the higher class, while French became the language of the lower class. The remnants of this sort of class language can be seen in the grocery store. The animal is often given the English name, but the butchered food is given the French. Cow:Beef, Chicken:Poultry, Pig:Pork. It was the higher class buying food from the lower class- so while English speakers retained their words for the actual animal, they took on the other language when purchasing foods from the market.
I went down this rabbit hole over 20 years ago, when I realized the German word for meat was “fleisch,” literally translated, it becomes flesh. We don't call our prime rib "flesh," but how is "meat" any different? This grisly knowledge opened my vocabulary, and helped me understand how words can change over the years.
I was really illuminated when my final German project was translating Genesis 1 from Luther’s Bible. When our “Heavens” was “Himmel” in German, the literal word being, “sky,” I realized our language was just that, our language. A few years later I would look at the Hebrew in Genesis 1, and Heavens would be הַשָּׁמַיִם, or “sky” in Hebrew. Not God’s words, but a translation of what God wanted the people to know. Otherwise, God simply being in the sky doesn’t work. We have a far more complex view of our universe than we did thousands of years ago.
Language is an entrance fee to a culture.
Point blank: It is super difficult to write Christian. If I want to be taken seriously as a Christian writer, I have to write academically. Academic writing requires writing over everyone’s head. I don’t need to sway academics. I’m pretty confident most of them feel I’m not even relevant. If I want Christians to flock to my words, I better use Christianese. I better write about being blessed and being touched by the Spirit. Only, Christianeze is really great to talk to people who already agree or mostly agree with what you are trying to say. To me, that’s an epic waste of time. If you are wondering why Christianeze couldn’t work on different kinds of Christians, well, that’s because we know our languages. We can pick up right away whether someone is writing from a reformed, evangelical, Catholic, [insert your version here] brand of Christianese, and we already basically know what each brand is going to say, so we ignore what doesn’t belong to our brand.
I’m constantly walking the line of writing over people’s heads, or too much to the wrong audience, knowing not writing academically, or to a specific brand of Christian basically turns off almost everyone who would willingly read a Christian writer.
Fuck, I’m off topic.
“Shit” isn’t what makes me pastoral or not.
When I read to that middle school class, some of them wanted to know why I could read “damn” and “hell” aloud and still call myself a minister.
Let me out myself right this very moment. When my husband and I are alone in the car we swear like sailors. I don’t believe that makes me any more or less a pastor. Let me list some things that would make me less of a pastor:
If I’m at school- I’ll read the book. I’ll keep my language PG. I’ll wear clothes that are within the school dress code.
If I’m chilling with pirates, I’ll use their language and their dress to communicate. I’ve already lost them if I use mine. (Although, I think they’d appreciate neon nails and bright red hair.)
If you think that’s being two-sided, check yourself. Social constructs are merely keys to kingdoms. I keep what’s real the same: I actively love my neighbor. I openly seek the truth. I want to make the community I’m interacting with comfortable in their house. I’m after what’s real. What’s real is deeper than the language we use, it’s deeper than the clothes we wear, and so much deeper than anything else that excludes others. That's what I'm after, and if your not… well, good luck with that.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I sat at my computer reading the title, “I Got Ordained So I Can Talk About Jesus. Not the Female Pastor Debate.”
Wow, I think. That’s the dream, isn’t it?
Rev. Tish Harrison Warren was writing on the three women who were recently ordained at Saddleback Church. It made headlines, and I remember looking at the picture of the three women with (unfortunately) jaded eyes. I immediately thought, “Are they going to be relegated to women’s or children’s ministry?” “Are people asking them if their husbands approved of this move?” “What sexist thing is being posted to these women under the guise of “love” but really it is the dirty smear of sexism?”
Then there’s the unfair double standard put on women in ministry. Men, like Mark Driscoll, can plagiarize, and inappropriately use church funds and end up with a new ministry out of it all. Ravi Zacharias can turn sexual abuse around to attack the abused, slandering the abusers name, and the truth isn’t allowed to surface until after his death. Meanwhile women in ministry must be without any sin, for with the first sign that they are not the perfected servant from God, they can be ousted from the community before the slandering paint has time to dry.
More than that, no one thinks Zacharias or Driscoll stand for all male ministers, but every woman minister somehow speaks for all women in ministry. If one woman fails it becomes the reason all women fail. Partly, it's because there are those who immediately want us to fail. This creates those who never want us to fail, because the consequences are too high. Female ministry has become like diamonds. There are so many hidden away in mines. The ones in charge have chosen to only release a few to those coveted spots, pulling just a handful out in the open, forcing us to become limited resources when we are actually abundant.
My call to ministry:
I got ordained so I can talk about Jesus, not the female Pastor debate.
No, really. I completely agree with Warren on this.
Perhaps if I were to use my own statement it would more pointedly read, “I felt called from God, and I followed that call.” While that specific statement is so open from your end, it’s open in another way from mine. I was actively against being like all the other women ministers I knew. I deeply wanted to dig into scripture without bringing gender into the subject. I didn’t want to preface my sermons with telling everyone I have a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, or that I was ordained by two congregations within the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ). Yet, here I am, forced to carry around my bio like a shield, and brace for impact.
When I was in the pulpit, questioning my call as it related to my gender was mostly never asked. Unless I was seeking a job. Then the question was never asked, but always inferred. People you loved suddenly turned into snakes and bit out. Imagine what it’s like to hear someone you respect and love say to your face, “I personally believe women should be ministers, but I voted against it because I don’t think our church was ready for one.” Imagine being on the phone for a church interview and the Senior Pastor pointedly asks, “Why do you call yourself ‘Pastor?’ We like you, just not with that title.” The biggest whammy being the one that comes from colleagues, “If I were looking for an associate…” It’s the dreaded, “You’re too qualified for this job.” It’s the easy, and safe out. Not offensive, but still exclusionary.
When I’m online and out in the world it’s a whole other battlefield. While no one in the church would tell me to my face they don’t think women are ministers, outside the church has no problem at all. Middle schoolers like to joyfully announce they don’t believe in me, like I’m somehow a fairy that would cease to exist if it’s not immediately followed with clapping to keep me from suffocating under the weight of those words. It’s the way my projects are quietly taken away and given to a man; rebranded to never to be associated with me. (In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I felt Sam’s raw pain in seeing Cap’s shield being given to a white man. I’ve experienced the same pain as a woman.) It’s also the gawking stares once they hear I’m clergy, like I’ve magically become a dangerous monster with three eyes and two heads.
Online, it’s become less my title, and more about the subversion of that title. Nowhere was this more clear to me than when I tried a male username for 6 months. On Reddit, my username is /u/RevMelissa. I’ve had an account since April 2013. I used to think it was normal how often I’d have to explain myself or dig up sources. I thought the negative attention was what every minister received, and I pushed into it. It wasn’t until I began to notice a guy could come behind me, say the exact same thing, and their comment would be upvoted while mine was being criticized and brought to lower tiers of the thread.
My original plan was to bring in a minister of the opposite gender, and the two of us would create new usernames. Mine would be a masculine pastor, and his would be a feminine pastor. Then we would spend six months on Reddit, responding to comments and occasionally posting. At the end of six months we would compare karma, and write about our experiences. Everyone I asked was either too busy, or too uncomfortable with Reddit. Even among friends, I couldn’t find a single person to help me understand what was happening.
So I did it myself, creating /u/PastorJerome. Sometimes I’d even post almost identical comments in the same thread. I’d watch as people so willingly accepted Jerome and the title. There was power in the male username in a way I had no idea. (If you want to go down that rabbit hole- there’s the original post on my userpage, and my About page has two articles on the subject.) I had wanted someone to pick it up and do a real study. I wanted it to show something deeper, but all that work ended in nothing.
So what about that dream?
I am a woman who has been working in the church for over 20 years. I was ordained 11 years ago. I’ve physically worked at one conference center, and 5 churches; one of them a senior pastorite. I was a supply for two churches. I’ve been the minister of Fig Tree Christian for almost 9 years. Yet, I’m currently earning money through subbing middle school. I don’t get paid through Fig Tree; it has never brought in even close to enough to put me on salary. All that said, I am a minister.
I want what Warren wants. Believe me, we all do. We want what the men so naturally have: to not have their words constantly compared to their gender; to be treated the way Jesus treated women. We want to be like the woman at the well, who became an evangelist. Jesus never ended that conversation with, “And look at you doing all that as a woman!” He didn’t chastise her for pulling in guys with her work. He treated her as a person who did something for God. Is it too much to want that?
That’s the dream, but the reality is I have a 9 year old daughter. I’m quickly choosing to stop fighting for myself, and start fighting for her. I absolutely don’t, with no conditions, want her to become an adult in the world right now. My struggles go beyond ministry. I want her super creative spirit to not be completely crushed when she becomes an adult; when that creativity appears dangerous to the greater world. So here is where I stand:
More than anything, for everyone, realize this is a battle that is still being fought, and it needs support. It wears us out. Women- you are not losers if the weight of the world causes you to collapse. Even top tier fighters have their breaking point. It doesn’t change your call. It doesn’t change your mission. It just means you need to rest for a bit. You women in ministry- you rock. I support you, and I hope you support me.
Everyone else- maybe come at that with a bit of grace.