Counting My Blessings: Eight Things I’m Thankful For

If you were to ask any American first grader the history of Thanksgiving, they would proudly relay the story of how the pilgrims came together with their native American friends one fall day nearly 400 years ago to celebrate the harvest. There’s lots of factual wiggle room in this “historical” account of what happened, and the truth is that the idea of an official day of Thanksgiving is not unique to America. For instance, days of Thanksgiving were first purposed in the 16th century by the protestant Reformers after they had done away with the holy days of the Catholic church. They still believed that God should be thanked for what He has done in our lives, but holy days were out.

No matter the historical background we claim as our own, it’s important to take time to thank God for all that we have. I have to confess, though, that I rarely stop to consider what I am truly thankful for. That’s why my wife Mary asked me yesterday to do that very thing.

So here we are.

Mary and SidneyI am most thankful for Mary. It is because of her that I look forward to coming home, and it is with her that I can laugh and truly be myself. God smiled on me when he placed us together. She truly brings out the best in me. The very existence of this blog post is a testament to that!

It is also my dog Sidney, and before her Sullivan, Sloane, and Pilgrim, that I come home each day and feel totally adored. My dogs make me feel like I am special no matter how I have messed up in the human realm during the day. That kind of unconditional love is what everyone needs. Animals are truly a gift.

Although my mother died when I was only 19 and I have not lived with my father since I went to college, I very much realize that they helped form into the person who I am today. My parents were the ones who gave me the most formative experience in my life – my education. Because of my education, I will always be able to extricate myself from dire situations that we all encounter in our lives. I am thankful to my parents for giving me all of that.

I am thankful for those things that have proved a distraction to me in life, especially sports. When I  was young, I played some kind of organized sport every day. As an adult, while not as obsessive as I once was, I love the distraction it gives me to cheer for the University of Memphis Tigers and the Memphis Grizzlies.

SidneyI am thankful for those people who have stood alongside me and helped form and shape the work of the Church Health Center. These are the people who believed enough in me to mentor me: Jack Anderson, William Sloane Coffin, Michael McLain, Frank McRae. I am also thankful for those who have worked tirelessly beside me – there are too many to name – and those who have given their resources to help move our mission forward financially. Without any of these, I am not sure how my own life (not to mention that of the Church Health Center) would have unfolded.

I am thankful for two technological developments in my life time: TV and airplanes. Why television and airplanes? Both expanded my world in unforeseen ways. Because of television, I watched people walk on the moon. I understood  the senselessness of war. I saw powerful dramas I might never have been exposed to. And of course, because of the television, I have watched the World Series every year since 1960! Because of the modern miracle of airplanes, I have been able to travel around the world and see beautiful places and people. Travel has helped teach me that my small place on this world is not the most important.

I am thankful for God’s creation. I fully realize the world can be cold, bitter, and violent. I also realize that almost everything that is truly beautiful comes in some way from the created world.

Lastly, I am thankful for my sense of purpose. I believe that it comes from God in a way I cannot fully comprehend, and as a result I lack the words to adequately explain it not only to you but also to myself. I have simply felt called to serve my whole life. I am left only to accept my call to serve the underserved.

What are you thankful for today? 

On Immigration

Immigration is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. I am convinced that one of the main ways the New Testament teaches that God will judge us is on the issue of how we care for strangers in our midst.

Recently in our clinic, I saw José, a 53-year-old Mexican man who came to Memphis in 1999. Fifteen years ago, with his wife and four small children, he crossed a desert at night for the sole purpose of finding a better life for his family.

He was not looking to break any laws. He was prepared to work hard and be part of a community, which is exactly what he has done.

For years, the stress of being deported weighed on him. He turned to alcohol to relax, yet he was anxious every time he heard a knock at his door. He became paranoid.

Two years ago, he was stopped and arrested while driving under the influence. That set into motion a deportation hearing. A year ago, he had a psychotic break and was admitted to a local mental health facility. The medication he received there stopped the voices he heard. But then, the medication ran out. Now the voices are back, which was why his family brought him to see me.

José speaks little English, so his daughter-in-law translated for me. She is married to his oldest son, who was 12 when his parents lead the family across the border to the U.S. She met her husband in high school. She is a young, blonde Southern woman who has taught herself Spanish. She married José’s son five years ago, and together they have two (very cute) little girls.

The deportation has been put off until January 2015 because her husband – Jose’s son – developed Leukemia this March. He had been the sole breadwinner of the family until he got sick. Now, everyone is trying to scramble for a few dollars any way they can.

When the father is deported in January, his wife will go back to Mexico with him, even though she has not been ordered to leave. After all, she is his wife.

My thoughts kept returning to José’s son, who came to the U.S. as a child.

I asked the daughter-in-law, “Surely your husband is now legal since he is married to you? He was 12 when he came to the U.S., and he was following his parents.”

“No,” she said. “They have changed the law.”

She explained that since he came here illegally, he must return to Mexico and apply for readmission to the U.S. and pay a steep fine.

“But,” I said, “he is married to you, and you and your children are American. You are all dependent on him to support you, at least until he gets well.”

“The law has changed,” she insisted. “He must go back to Mexico and pay the fine.”

“How much?,” I asked. “

“Fifteen thousand dollars.”

I was speechless, but I returned to the issue at hand, José’s care. I arranged for him to see our Spanish-speaking counselor and wrote a prescription for his medication.

“We only need the medicine until January 21st,” his daughter-in-law said. Her words made me sick to my stomach then, and they still do.

How can any of this be right or just? It is wrong at every turn.

The troubles of this family extend to making fatherless and husbandless a woman from Memphis and her two children and will make them penniless as well if they want to see the man they love who also has Leukemia.

While the politics of immigration are above my pay grade, I trust our president is doing what is lawful and is motivated by what is morally right. I am sure that my position is driven by asking, “What would Jesus do?” and by reading the Bible that over and over tells us that we are to be hospitable to strangers. The Old Testament reminds us that the Jews were once strangers in a strange land in Egypt and that the children of God are to welcome the person who is without a home into our homes. We are told that when we care for strangers, we are welcoming angels unaware.

I am confident that our desire to provide care for those in our community who have crossed a desert at night and who are working and living in our community as our neighbors, has the full weight of the Gospel behind it. 

That’s why we at the Church Health Center will stand in harmony with this family.

Brittany Maynard and “Dying With Dignity”: Is there such a thing?

Brittany Maynard – a lovely 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer on January 1, 2014 – died a peaceful death nearly a week ago. I haven’t been able to get the circumstances of her passing out of my mind ever since.

Read the full account of her life and death here. 

There is little question that her brain tumor would have taken her sooner than later. The big question is whether assisting her death through physician-prescribed drugs violated a moral line we should never cross.

A number of years ago, a very close friend was in a similar situation. He was in his late seventies and suffering terrible pain. He happened to also be a cancer surgeon. When I would go see him, he would beg me to give him medicine that would allow him to end his suffering. He said to me repeatedly, “In my practice, I sometimes left pills near a dying patent with the words, ‘If you take too many of these, you might not wake up.’ Why can’t you do the same for me?”

Well, for one, I was not his doctor. I was his friend. I could not bring myself to prescribe him a lethal dose of medication. It was another year until he died of natural causes.

And yes, I know he suffered tremendously through those days.

If I lived in Oregon and he was a patient rather than a friend, would I have written him a prescription for a lethal dose of medicine? I cannot get comfortable with doing that, but neither do I condemn Mrs. Maynard or her doctor for what has happened.

I know we will all die. None of us want to suffer. If it is possible to provide people with the means to avoid suffering, I believe a physician should do whatever it takes to dull the pain.

Similarly, I do not believe we are morally required to extend life through ventilators and feeding tubes when there is little hope for recovery. This is especially true if the patient has experienced a wish not to have such means.

I do believe, however, it is wrong to couch this discussion around the oft-mentioned concept of “dying with dignity.” Death takes away our dignity in every situation. At death, our bodies are cold. Our pupils are fixed. There is no life in us. The ability to relate to another human being is gone. Where is the dignity in that?

What we do owe each other is the chance to die well, to maintain our courage and to be surrounded by the people we love as we take our last breath.

If faced with Brittany Maynard’s prognosis, I honestly don’t know what I would do.

What I do believe is that as she took her last breath, God was watching over her, and when she died, it was God’s heart that was first to break.

Like what we’re doing? Replicate us.

This week, the Church Health Center will once again host an event that comes around several times each year—our Replication workshop.

What’s Replication? Don’t worry – it has nothing to do with Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece Bladerunner.

It’s our chance to help others who are committed to establishing a health ministry in their own community.

In the 27 years since the Church Health Center first opened its doors, we’ve been blessed with exciting growth in our mission to provide medical care to people working in low-wage jobs without health insurance. We’ve learned a few things along the way, to say the least, and we believe that we have the responsibility to share our best practices.

If you truly believe in something, you help others understand it and give them the tools to make it their own. You help them move from vision to action. 

Replication workshops are an opportunity for people in other cities to visit and see what we’re doing, pick our brains, learn from our mistakes, and network with others who are committed to making their communities better by making them healthier. Participants come from all over and are in various stages of developing clinics.

A couple of years ago, we began partnering with Empowering Community Healthcare Outreach (ECHO), a not-for-profit organization based in Ft. Worth, Texas, that coaches new clinics and offers them tremendous support while they set up their ministries. At the last Replication workshop, John Mills, Senior Clinic Consultant, sat down with me for some Q&A. You can listen to the entire interview on ECHO’s podcast, but today I’d like to share some of the highlights. Enjoy!

John Mills: Few faith-based clinics are the size and scope of the Church Health Center. What was different about what you were trying to get off the ground?

Scott Morris: If what we do is about the church, that can work anywhere. My dual vocation as pastor and physician helped. For better or worse, doctors will only talk to doctors. In approaching doctors to engage them in the work they’re good at doing, I could anticipate the reasons they would say no and have the answers. If someone told me know, I didn’t ask right. I’d rethink and come back a few months later with a better strategy.

JM: What comes out in Replication at the Church Health Center is a culture of quality and excellence across the board. How do you instill that in an organization?

SM: Nobody goes to a church because the preaching is bad. They are drawn to the ministry of the congregation serving the needs of their family. Issues around health care should be the same. Quality matters, along with the opportunity to improve on that quality. Since the Church Health Center doesn’t take health insurance, we have the opportunity to experiment and build a better mouse trap. Health care is a small part of anybody’s health. Helping people move toward true health is what we’re doing. That’s what quality means.

JM: What draws me to the Church Health Center is the feeling of community and cameraderie I see in the people who work and volunteer. People love the Church Health Center.

SM: That not an accident. Neither faith nor health come by being alone. The desert fathers lived alone. When they came back to civilization, they said they didn’t feel closer to God in the desert. They felt alone. Paul says we see through a glass darkly. Our experience of faith waxes and wanes, so we need each other to be faithful. It’s a reflection of what the church ought to be about.

Follow ECHO on Facebook here.

Ready to start your own faith-based clinic? We’d love to help. Start here.