Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Beyond the Safe Walls of the Church"

            Our summer worship series is “Films, Fun, & Faith.”  Each weekend, we will use a popular, Disney film as a medium for exploring core Christian values.  The film this weekend is The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  While this is a commercial film produced by the Disney company for entertainment, it also develops several important Christian values for reflection.

            The three central characters in Hunchback… are Esmeralda who is a gorgeous, yet poor and marginalized Gypsy “street dancer”; Judge Claude Frollo who is an exceedingly self-righteous secular judge; and Quasimodo, the bell-ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame who was born with hideous physical deformities. 

The story is driven by two conflicts.  First, Judge Frollo has an extreme prejudice against all gypsies, including Esmeralda.  Frollo believes that gypsies are impure and evil heathens who should all be exterminated. Frollo believes that gypsies should be avoided at all costs because they will tempt and contaminate the pure, faithful French nationals.  Although Quasimodo has grown up under Frollo’s tutelage, he learns to look beyond Frollo’s prejudice and come to see that gypsies—represented by Esmeralda—are also “children of God.”

            In the Bible, there is a story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a village well.  (See John 4: 7-30.)  The antagonism between Jesus, who was a Jew, and the woman from Samaria parallels the antagonism between Frollo, a French national, and Esmeralda, a Gypsy.  Although both Jews and Samaritans shared a similar faith and similar sacred texts, they disagreed bitterly over how to interpret God’s Holy Word and the implications of that interpretation for how they lived their lives.  For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim should be the center of worship, whereas for the Jews the center of worship was the Temple in Jerusalem.

            The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that the fear of becoming ritually impure meant Jews avoided all social contact with Samaritans, even simply talking.  In the Gospel story, Jesus looks beyond the differences dividing Jews and Samaritans and sees that the Samaritan woman is also a child of God.  He asks her for a drink from the well.  The Samaritan woman is perplexed.  She does not understand why a Jewish man would contaminate himself by speaking with a Samaritan or by drinking from a vessel belonging to someone who is ritually unclean.

            So, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus, “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’” 

            Jesus' response to her is completely unexpected.  He says, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “’Give me a drink.” You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”  The woman from Samaria is incredulous:  How is a man who does not even possess a bucket able to give “living water”?

            Jesus elaborates:  “‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’”

            Again, the woman at the well misunderstands what Jesus is saying.  She thinks that he possesses a “living water,” which will quench her physical thirst forever.  So, she asks Jesus, “‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”

            Of course, Jesus is not speaking of “living water” that permanently quenches humans’ physical thirst.  Instead, Jesus is speaking metaphorically of a “living water” that heals us and sustains us to eternal life as part of God’s new creation.  There is quite a difference between physical water and eternal, living water.  There is incredible irony in this story.  The Samaritan woman has her heart set on physical water that will quench her physical thirst and make her life more convenient.  Yet, Jesus is offering a “living water” that will nourish her to eternal life.  The Samaritan woman has grossly underestimated the gift that Jesus offers her.

            Yet, just as the Samaritan woman at the well, most of us contemporary Christians trivialize and undervalue the gift that Jesus offers us.  Instead of focusing on being faithful disciples of Christ and the promise of eternal life, we focus on more everyday requests that will make our current situation more convenient, but which are trivial in comparison to the promise of eternal life.

            In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Esmeralda seeks political asylum from Frollo in the Cathedral.  As she is walking through the church, she encounters the “faithful” who are saying their prayers.  With the encouragement of the Archdeacon, Esmeralda begins to pray as well.  In a song, “God Help the Outcasts,” the prayers of the faithful versus the prayers of Esmeralda are intertwined in a way that dramatically underscores how diametrically opposed they are. 

            On the one hand, the “faithful” pray for things that will make their lives more convenient:

I ask for wealth, I ask for fame
I ask for glory to rise on my name
I ask for all I can possess
I ask for God and the angels to bless me
  By contrast, Esmeralda does not pray for herself, but for those in need:

“I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I

God help the outcasts
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were
The children of God[i]

Esmeralda does not undervalue how powerful God is, nor what God can give to those who ask. 

            By the end of her conversation with Jesus, the woman from Samaria has finally realized that Jesus is using the metaphor of “living water” to talk about eternal life, rather than physical water.  As she realizes this, she leaves her water jar at the well and goes to invite all of the villagers to “come and see” Jesus.  The Samaritan woman is open to the possibility that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah.  For the Gospel writer, John, there is deep irony here.  Many of the Jews--who are God’s specially chosen people--have closed themselves off to Jesus and rejected his “living water.” Whereas, it is the ritually impure Samaritan woman who is open to Jesus and invites all of her friends and family to “come and see.”

            Early in the film, Hunchback…, Frollo tells Quasimodo that he should always stay within the safe walls of the church.  Isn’t that true of many church people today?  Aren’t many Christians happy to stay within the safe walls of the church, praying that God will give us a convenient life, with all of our physical needs met? 

            But, that is not what God calls us to do and be as faithful disciples of Christ.  No.  Instead, God calls us to move out beyond the safe walls of our churches.  God calls us to reach out and touch the unclean as Jesus did, when he asked the Samaritan woman for water—or, to kiss the disfigured, as Esmeralda does with Quasimodo.  Christians who have truly tasted the living water of Jesus no longer worry about “convenient lives,” but they are concerned to help the “poor and downtrod.”  Christians who have truly tasted the living water of Jesus do not have their thirst quenched.  Instead, they want to drink even more of Jesus' living water because in the drinking of that water, we grow closer to God.

Come, join us this Sunday, June 29th , as we explore what it means as a people of faith to live and minister beyond the safe walls of our church--and to drink the living water offered by Jesus.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  We will also watch and discuss The Hunchback of Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon, beginning at 5 pm. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] “God Help the Outcasts” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Walt Disney Pictures, released 21 June 1996.  Lyrics obtained at, accessed 26 June 2014.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Love Is . . .

             Our summer worship series for the next five weeks is “Films, Fun, & Faith.”  Each weekend, we will use a popular, Disney film as a medium for exploring core Christian values.  The film this weekend is Frozen and the core Christian value is love. 

            As the foundation for our exploration of love, I will use John 15: 9-15.  This passage is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” John 15 begins with Jesus invoking the metaphor of a grapevine.  In this metaphor, Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches on the vine.  In verse 5a, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…”. 

            In our passage, beginning with verse 9, Jesus explains that the way in which his disciples “bear much fruit” is through our love for God and one another.  He tells them, “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’”  Then, foreshadowing his own crucifixion and death, Jesus adds, “‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’” (vv. 12-13)

            The film, Frozen, revolves around the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna.  Even though Elsa and Anna fundamentally love each other, their relationship has become fractured and broken through estrangement.  Throughout the film, Anna seeks to heal her sister and restore their relationship.  In Frozen’s climatic scene, Anna literally lays down her life for Elsa, when she steps between her sister and the film’s villain, as he attempts to kill Elsa.  In the Disney movie, Anna’s act of supreme love ultimately heals both her sister and herself, as well as restoring their relationship.

            Most Christians are never asked to lay down our lives and die for our friends, as Anna does in Frozen.  However, in my message this weekend, I will suggest that we do not have to literally die in order to lay down our lives for our friends and loved ones.  For instance, most parents make sacrifices and sometimes defer their own life plans in order to provide critical opportunities for their children to grow and achieve.  Similarly, grown children frequently make sacrifices and sometime defer their own life plans in order to care for aging parents.  Although less dramatic than literally dying for the other, these are ways in which we can “lay down our lives” for those we love.

            Frozen fits in the musical genre and it has many powerful songs.  One of the best numbers is “Fixer-Upper.”  Part of the words go like this:

“True love brings out the best

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper
That’s what it’s all about
Father, sister, brother
We need each other
To raise us up and round us out
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper.”[1]

Although a secular film, intended for a non-religious audience, the lyrics to this song do capture an important assumption underlying Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.”  From a Christian perspective, all of us are, indeed, “fixer-uppers.”  That is, we all are finite, sinful persons who stand in need of forgiveness and healing through God’s love.  The lyrics from the song continue by claiming that:

“But when push comes to shove
The only fixer upper fixer
That can fix a fixer upper is
True Love.”

From a Christian perspective, this “True Love” comes only from God whose love for each of us is awesome and beyond our mere human comprehension.  Only true love can fix the fixer upper, but ultimately only God is the source of that true love, which “fixes” each of us. 

            In his “Farewell Discourse” in John 15, Jesus asks his followers to keep his commandments. At the heart of keeping Jesus' commandments is loving as Jesus first loved us.  That is, we respond to Jesus’ supreme act of love for us by loving God and by loving the other “fixer uppers.”  We love because he first loved us.  We love in grateful response to Jesus’ love for us.

Come, join us this Sunday, June 22nd, as we explore what it means to love in response to God’s love for us.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  We will also watch and discuss Frozen Sunday afternoon, beginning at 5 pm. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] “Fixer-Upper” from Frozen, Walt Disney Studios, released 27 November 2013.  Lyrics obtained at, accessed 20 June 2014.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Christian Resources for Coping with Stress

Stress is a significant dimension of the human condition.  Stress can be unrelenting.  To one degree or another, it affects us all.  Stress affects young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak.  Stress does not discriminate based upon race, religion, occupation, or intellect. 

What is stress?  For our purposes, stress is mental and/or emotional strain and tension created by fear and anxiety.  

            In moderation, stress can actually be good for us.  A little stress can motivate us to do our best or to get started on a difficult project.  When I was a teacher, I sometimes had students who confessed that they couldn’t seem to get started writing their papers until the deadline began to loom over their heads.  The deadline created stress, which motivated them and helped them focus on the writing assignment. Creating stress within a novel or film usually makes for a more compelling story.  So, in moderation, a little stress can be good.

            However, when stress rages out of control; when stress grows and grows until it becomes this monster in our lives, then stress becomes evil.  Unmanaged stress creates chaos and panic.  Left unattended, stress can become detrimental to mental and physical health.  Persons can develop physical illnesses due to out of control stress.  When individuals are under excessive stress, personal relationships can even begin to deteriorate. 

            We know from the work of psychologists and other researchers that our success in coping with stress depends in large part on our attitudes and the resources which we have for coping.  Obviously, each of us must learn to manage our stress if we are to flourish as human persons.  Are there special Christian resources for coping with stress?

            This weekend, I want to explore Christian resources for coping with stress.  There are several important scriptural passages about coping with stress, but, for this weekend, I would like to focus on Philippians 4: 4-7: 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

There are five points that I would like to emphasize from this pithy little passage of scripture.

1.      One of the core characteristics of living a life of faith should be joy and peace.  God does not intend for us to become so stressed-out that we are no longer flourishing and finding joy in life.

2.      An important characteristic of faithful discipleship is living a life of “gentleness.”  Of course, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippines in Greek—not English.  The Greek word that he uses is epieikes. Although it is usually translated into English as “gentleness,” Biblical scholars note that this word carries a very broad scope.  It includes a generosity towards others, such that we might also translate it as “magnanimous,” including not only generosity but also being free from vindictiveness or resentfulness.  In other words, the life of faithful discipleship involves being generous and up-lifting in all of our relationships with others. 

3.      God is near.  God is with us when we open our hearts and lives and invite God to be an integral part of us.  God wants to travel with us through the Holy Spirit, as we make this journey of life.  God intends for us to open our lives to God’s presence and love.

4.      If God is with us, then we do not need to worry.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “If God is for us, then who is against us?” (Romans 8: 31b)  Thus, when we encounter stressful situations or times in our lives, then we need to turn our worry and anxiety over to God by prayer and supplication, but also with thanksgiving because God is with us. 

5.      When we turn our worries and anxieties over to God and trust that God will travel with us, then we will experience a genuine, long-lasting peace from God that passes all understanding.

Thus, the fundamental Christian resource for coping with stress is basically turning all of our worry and anxiety over to God and trusting that God will show us a way to work through the situation. 

This is harder than it sounds.  From early childhood through to maturity, our culture encourages us to take control of our lives and fix our own problems.  We depend upon ourselves alone to solve our problems and to give us peace from all the stresses of contemporary life.  It is hard to let go and trust God.  To really let go and trust God requires a deep and profound faith.

At first blush, it may appear as though there are hardly any Christian resources for coping with stress.  And, it is true that there are many Christians who have difficulty managing stress.  Yet, on the other hand, there are many other Christians who manage lives that could be extremely stressful. 

The key is to see that we must constantly work to grow in our faith so that, when we encounter times of great stress, our faith is strong and capable of sustaining us in these difficult or anxious periods.  That is, we build our faith so that it provides a strong resource for managing stress in these critical moments.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that we build our faith and grow closer to God in two different ways.  The first approach was through helping and caring for others; or, as the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians, when we practice “gentleness,” understood broadly as generously caring for others and building them up.  Wesley’s second approach was through worship, study, and prayer.   

Christian faith actually offers strong and significant resources for coping with stress.  But, in order to access these resources, we must work at growing closer to God spiritually.  Come, join us this Sunday, June 8th, as we explore Christian resources for coping with our stress.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.