The Parable of Living Water

The following story comes from a sermon preached by Bishop Michael McKee on Monday night at the Clergy Retreat, which Kay and I attended. I don’t remember who originally told it, but I thought it was worth stealing:

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Once upon a time, a holy man discovered a spring of water that had magical powers. The waters healed those who were sick, inspired those who were depressed, and gave immortality to those who drank it. The man built a little hut next to the spring and spent all his time there. Soon word began to spread of the living water, and other people began to build huts nearby. A thriving community built up around the waters.

One day, as yet another family moved into the area, someone suggested that they build a fence around the village. A fence with a door and lock was hastily constructed. But as soon as the fence was built, the water stopped flowing.

When the holy man discovered what had happened, he packed up his things and left the village. He wandered through the countryside until he came upon another spring with living water. Once again, he constructed a hut and moved in to stay. Soon word began to spread, and other people followed him. A thriving community built up around the spring.

As the population swelled, again someone suggested that they build a fence around the community. Again, a fence with a door and lock was built. And again, the water immediately stopped flowing.

When the holy man saw what had happened, he packed up his things again and left the village. This time he wandered farther and longer, but again he found a spring of living water. Once again, he built a small place to live.

You can imagine what happened — word got around, and the people came. They built a thriving community again. And once again, someone suggested they build a fence around the village.

This time, however, the holy man said, “No. We won’t build a fence, or install a door, or put in a lock.”

To this day, the holy man still lives in that place, in the midst of a thriving community, for the spring of living water still flows.

How are we constructing fences around the living water of the gospel?

The Parable of the Church on the Hill

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The little church on the hill was a happy place for many years. The people who established the church had built a beautiful building. There was gold trim, exquisite stained glass windows, and marble floors. The place perpetually smelled of lilies and roses.

For years, the church was the tallest structure in the area. The steeple could be seen for miles away. The people remembered fondly that Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.”

Over time, other people moved into the area, and began building new buildings. Some were bigger and taller than the little church. Some were shinier and flashier. Some had bigger signs, and others had more contemporary flourishes.

But nothing was as beautiful as the little church. It sat on the hill proudly, proclaiming its good news.

As the taller buildings began to press in on the little church on the hill, the people who built the church began to worry. They worried that they couldn’t be seen anymore.  They fretted that their steeple wasn’t as tall as the newest cell tower or the nearest department store billboard. Fewer people came into their doors, even though the church was still beautiful.

One day, someone read that Jesus said that those who fed the hungry and gave shelter to the homeless were serving him. They wanted to serve Jesus, so they decided to invite hungry homeless people to their beautiful building. A line soon formed in front of their doors.

But there was a problem. The homeless people didn’t have shoes, and their feet were dirty — what would happen to the church floors? They didn’t smell very good either — wouldn’t that be an offense to the sacred space? They also didn’t speak or behave logically or rationally. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone read that Jesus once said, “Let the little children come to me.” Another person said, “Children are the future of the church, so let’s welcome them.” So the church invited all the children in their village to come. A line soon formed in front of their doors.

But there was a problem. The children were rowdy. They were loud when they got into the building and the sound ricocheted off the walls and down the stairways — how could anyone hear themselves think, much less pray? They were messy — who would clean up the paper off the floors? They also didn’t speak or behave logically or rationally. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone read that the Bible directs people to welcome strangers, aliens, and immigrants. Another person said, “We should invite immigrants to our church, especially families who have been separated at the border.” So the church invited all the immigrants in the village to come. A line soon formed outside their doors.

But there was a problem. The immigrants spoke a foreign language — who would translate them? Some of them were also illegally in the country — should the church support lawlessness? Some needed legal support. In fact, they were more trouble than they were worth.

So the church closed its doors and said, “Never mind.”

The church members didn’t feel good about what happened; they sighed loudly with regret.

One day, someone reminded them that there were a lot of young single adults moving into the village. Another person said, “Let’s invite them to our church. They’re professionals without children, so they’re likely to be easier to manage. They smell good and dress well. They speak English. They also have jobs in the big city so they can help us pay to keep our building beautiful.”

Everybody thought this was a fine idea, much better than the ones they’d had before. So the church invited all the young single adults in the village to come. A line soon formed outside their doors.

They threw open the doors and the young single adults came in and filled the building. They served fancy coffee with long names and gave everyone access to free Wifi. 

But there was a problem. One of the young single adults asked, “Where are the homeless?” Another asked, “Where are the children?” And another asked, “Where are the immigrants? This doesn’t seem like much of a church to me. Why does everybody here look and speak and smell exactly the same?” The rest of the young single adults nodded in agreement.

Slowly they filed out the door and returned to the village.

Questions to ponder: What does the future of the church on the hill look like? What does it do now? What will restore the church’s beauty and dignity?

Getting to Know Our Parish

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Last week in this column, I shared the focus of the 2018 North Texas Annual Conference: “New Faces, New Spaces.”

The conference sparked my own interest in thinking about what it would mean for Kessler Park UMC to intentionally reach out to the new faces around us, and I posed the following questions: “Can we make space for the new faces? Do we need to create new spaces? What do we have to offer the people of Oak Cliff?”

Before we answer these questions, however, it is wise to ask a more basic question: Who are the people who live around us? What do they look like? What do they do? What kind of families are they in? How old are they?

Fortunately, the North Texas Conference makes available (for local churches) free access to the demographic findings of MissionInsite, a group which does extensive analysis of neighborhoods for churches and non-profit organizations. With just a few clicks, I was able to pull incredibly detailed information about the people in our part of town.

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to share some of the findings revealed by MisisonInsite. Before I do, I want to emphasize two things: first, demographic studies are no replacement for the work of spiritual discernment. Looking at numbers on pages does not excuse us from doing the hard work of getting to know real people in our neighborhoods and listening to their concerns. Demographics are nothing but indicators that might guide or point us in the right direction, but they cannot replace relationships and prayer.

Second, demographic projections are simply that — projections. They are not fact. They cannot be relied upon to give us 100% accurate pictures of the future. There are an unknown number of variables that go into the reality of neighborhood development and growth. Just because a report predicts that a particular type of people are going to move into a particular neighborhood in the next five years doesn’t make it so.

Again, I must stress that the usefulness of such numbers is simply limited to helping us orient ourselves to our own context and mission field. I always look for the things that surprise me, rather than the things that confirm my common sense observations. This is where demographic studies can be so helpful and enlightening.

This week, I would like to share some of the things that grabbed my attention upon reviewing basic demographic information about the people who live around Kessler Park UMC. My search area was restricted to a 1.5 mile radius around the church; this extends to Trinity Groves in the north, 12th Street on the south, a few blocks west of Hampton in the west, and just shy of I-35 on the east side.

One of the first things that struck me was the fact that there are at least three very distinct people groups in this radius: we are surrounded by mostly Hispanic neighbors (67% of the population, which is predicted to remain steady over the next five years), but our immediate neighbors are wealthier whites who are either at, or near, retirement. Furthermore, there is a ring of young singles moving into those apartments; they are mostly in their twenties, and they are a highly diverse racial group.

Overall, the population in this area is not projected to grow dramatically: in 2000, 38,600 lived within 1.5 miles of the church. By 2010, this number had dropped to 31,223, and is slowly moving upward since. Currently, 34,214 live here, a number which is only expected to grow 4.8% in the next five years.

Unsurprisingly, the two age groups which are expected to gain the most percentage-wise over the next ten years, are ages 18-24 and people 65 and older.

I realized that the exact location of KPUMC shields us from recognizing the great diversity in our immediate area. We are located in a beautiful, upscale neighborhood with rolling hills and carefully-groomed trees, and homes that are easily worth over half a million dollars. Yet compared to the entire state of Texas, the number of families living in poverty in the search area is significantly higher than the state average!

The estimated current average household income is $74,275, and this is expected to grow almost 14% over the next five years, but the growth appears to extend mostly to white families. In 2017, the median income of white families is $89,285; but for Hispanic families, the median income is $39,267, and only $29,347 for blacks.

Furthermore, the overall educational attainment of adults in this community is lower than the state average.

Remember these numbers apply to the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of the church! This is what our parish looks like. This is the reality of the people whom we have been called to serve, give hope, and inspire.

This is a hard and complex question, but it doesn’t hurt to wrestle with it anyway: why doesn’t our congregation look more like the people in our area? Do we have all three distinct people groups represented in our church? Why not?

I also learned that the level of religiosity is “somewhat low” compared to the state average. But that’s a subject for next week’s column …