Remembering Marcus Borg

Remembering Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg

A few days ago, Marcus Borg died. You might know him as a controversial biblical scholar and theologian, but I know him as someone who helped me better understand my own faith. He died last Wednesday at the age of 72.

Borg became widely known during the mid-1980s as a leader of the Jesus Seminar. In 1985, a group of biblical scholars began meeting to discuss a new search for the historical Jesus. Over the last 150 years, several attempts had been made to ask the question, “What was the real Jesus like?” and, ironically for me, the first to cause a major stir doing this was Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer is often remembered as a great medical doctor who won the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his work in equatorial Africa, but he was first and foremost a theologian. His book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), caused a great stir for claiming that the life and thinking of Jesus can only be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own culturally-based convictions, not ours.

But by the mid-twentieth century, it was decided that the historical Jesus was lost to us forever. The New Testament, it was concluded, is so filled with the thoughts and theology of the early church that it was impossible to know what “really” happened and who Jesus really was or if he even existed at all.

Then Borg, John Dominic Crossen, and other members of the Jesus Seminar approached the question of Jesus’ historical persona with fresh eyes. They became the object of much controversy as the group would “vote” on whether a verse from the Bible was actually said by Jesus or not. You can imagine how this was received by those who believe every word of the Bible happened exactly as it is written!

Borg became widely read when he published Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time in 1995. To be completely honest, when I first read it, I thought it was interesting but not that compelling. But my interest had been awakened, so when he came to speak at the Calvary Lenten Preaching Series here in Memphis, I made it a point to go listen to him. He was not a great preacher. He was, however, an outstanding lecturer and he piqued my interest.

Around the year 2002, he published The Heart of Christianity. I found it to be profound. He articulated for me much of what I have come to believe. He described this theology as “emerging.” He laid out a path to reclaim the idea of being “born again,” and he firmly explored the idea that Jesus preached primarily about the kingdom of God, not in the sweet by-and-by but the here and the now. Jesus’ use of the word kingdom was provocative to Rome and it got him killed. He prayed for bread for the poor and for relief of their debts. The focus was on this earth and not heaven. As Borg’s partner Crossen said, “Heaven is fine, it is earth that has problems.”

Borg’s other books continued to build on these themes. When he came to Calvary he preached along the same lines and I thought his preaching got better.

I often think about his focus on our having an “open heart.” This is what allows us to feel that we are near to God. There is nothing I want more than that.

When Borg became ill with pulmonary fibrosis. his lungs became stiff. There is no effective treatment. Breathing becomes very difficult. It is a hard way to die. But apparently he was very graceful in accepting his end.

He has one last book I have not yet read. It is very personal about how he has dealt with his own faith journey. I will be reading it soon. He caused many people who had turned away from their belief to understand that Christianity has relevance in the modern world. He clearly made his mark on the world.

Dreams of Justice

Dreams of Justice

I came to Memphis more than 25 years ago because I read somewhere that it was the poorest city in America. It did not take long to discover that this was true.

But along with economic and healthcare injustice, I found vibrant churches across the denominations, neighborhoods with strong identities, and a climate of looking for ways to work together toward healing the scars of the city. As the site of some of the passionate efforts for justice by Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis had a legacy.

Memphis is also the place of King’s death.

Countless visitors have stood below the motel balcony where King died and soaked up a sense of the sacred mingled with the history of our country.

School children across the land learn to associate “I have a dream” with Martin Luther King, Jr. For many of us, those four simple words conjure something big, very big, that is still changing America five decades later.

Before Martin Luther King, Jr. was the iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a Baptist preacher. And the son of a preacher. He knew the Bible, and he dug past the surface to the heart of God. The cause of justice is the cause of God.

In his famous speech, King said, “No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He lifted these words from the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24).  Amos was a shepherd who lived during a time of military peace, but a time rife with social injustice. Oppression of the poor. A privileged class. Dishonesty. Prejudice. Amos answered the call of God to speak out against injustice to a hostile audience.

Is it any wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. should quote Amos?

Later in the landmark speech, King also quoted the prophet Isaiah, and the promise that in preparation for the coming of God, every valley will be lifted up and the uneven road will be leveled. King dreamed of this vision of justice that Isaiah cast before all our eyes (Isaiah 40:4–5).

And he dreamed that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and all flesh would see it together.

Together.

“We cannot walk alone,” King said about the journey into justice.

By God’s grace and with God’s help, we still journey together toward the glory of God. The work of the Church Health Center among the working uninsured is a journey into justice every day. Every congregation that commits to being a place and agent of healing helps to level the road for the coming of God into someone’s life. Every individual who chooses justice becomes part of those rolling, mighty waters.

So today when you hear the familiar words, “I have a dream,” don’t be satisfied with sentiment or a long weekend because of a Monday holiday.

No, we are not satisfied. Not until we see the glory of God together.

Nurturing the Spirit Helps the Body

nurturing the spirit helps the body

For all my years as a doctor, I have encouraged people to realize that the spiritual dimension of our lives affects our health as much as the physical limitations of our bodies and the ever-present fear of disease and aging.

I was, therefore, fascinated when I attended a retirement party for Dr. Owen Tabor, Sr., and he and his wife of 52 years, Margaret, openly discussed their religious beliefs and practices. He is a Presbyterian and she is a Christian Scientist. Most people know little of the practice of Christian Science. Many Christians are quick to label Christian Science beliefs as heresy and inflict harm in the assertion. As a child, Margaret often was told, “Your parents are going to hell for not letting you go to the doctor.”

That point is not exactly accurate.

Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the nineteenth century and first described in her 1875 book, Science and Health. Throughout her life, Mrs. Eddy had a series of physical ailments. In order to make sense of her experiences, she developed a belief system whereby the spiritual world is the only reality and the material world is an illusion. This means that sickness and death are illusions caused by mistaken beliefs. Rather than conventional medicine, in Christian Science the best treatment for those who are sick is a special form of prayer intended to correct their mistaken beliefs.

In Mrs. Eddy’s defense, she lived at a time when a great deal of the practice of medicine had no scientific basis and quackery thrived. Avoiding purgatives, bleeding and potions actually was smart medicine.

While the denial of physical existence does not fit my own personal belief system, Dr. Tabor has found the ability to be at peace in practicing orthopedic surgery for 50 years while being married for even longer to an active practitioner of Christian Science. When they first met, he was thinking of going to medical school. They were already falling in love before they discussed each other’s religious beliefs.

“I thought she was an Episcopalian,” he told me. “She looked like an Episcopalian.”

In Margaret’s words, “He wasn’t thinking of asking me to change because he wouldn’t change anything about me.” She went on to say, “No two people are ever in the same place in their relationship to God. You have to do what you have to do to serve God.”

When the Tabors had children, they sent them to Christian Science Sunday school until they were 12. Then the children decided on their own what they would do. The two girls became Christian Scientists, while one boy became a Presbyterian and the other an Episcopalian. Margaret believes it was because of her encouragement that their eldest son, Owen, Jr., also became an orthopedic surgeon. She told him to follow his heart, which he did. His father didn’t know his plan for another two years.

Christian Science does not reject all medical care. Setting bones and obstetrical care are both allowed. There is nothing written that says you cannot take medicine, but the belief system discourages dependence on any drugs. Margaret’s faith was seriously challenged when she found a lump in her breast and chose not to have a surgeon remove it. Owen admitted, “It scared me.” Margaret remembers, “Owen loved me enough to let me be who I am.”

Eventually the mass disappeared.

In preparing to write this article, I read far more about Christian Science than I have in years. I confess I find its basic tenets difficult to accept. Mrs. Eddy and I would disagree on the relationship between body and spirit and the reality of disease.

Yet, what I embrace about Christian Science is the understanding that there are serious limitations in the modern day pills and potions we try to sell to people. The recently published report of research showing that multivitamins have little benefit is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, Mrs. Eddy’s teachings point to a spiritual dimension to life that must be nurtured for improved health. On this point, I could not agree more.

 This post first appeared in The Commercial Appeal on Jan. 6, 2014. 

A Lesson in Empathy From a Tennis Legend

When was the last time you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

This was the question that was on my mind after a recent weekend of golf. A few months ago, I was invited to spend two days at an exclusive country club. I heartily accepted. After all, how many opportunities do you get to putt on a completely weed-free course?

Several groups came from all over the country to play together, and I was fortunate enough to have in my group Stan Smith. Stan is a famous tennis player who, despite winning Wimbledon in 1972, is perhaps best known for the Adidas tennis shoes that bear his name.

Playing a pristine course with an athlete who actually has shoes named after him? The weekend promised to be a great one.

Over the years, I have met a number of well-known athletes. Most of them have spent many years being told how great they are (or were), and their accolades have more often than not gone to their heads. Not so with Stan Smith. He is a very kind, gentle, soft-spoken man who reminded me of Paul from the 60’s folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. And not surprisingly, he was a good golfer.

On the first hole, he made a putt. As I pulled the ball out of the hole to hand it back to him, I glanced at the ball and noticed that it had the number “72” printed on it. Stan noted my puzzlement.

“Have you even seen that on a ball before?,” he asked me. Usually, the number on a golf ball is 1, 2, 3, or 4, but never 72.

I told him that I hadn’t, and then I asked him if that was his age.

“No,” he said. “It was the year I won Wimbledon.”

Of course it was. Silly me. He just laughed and we played on.

Later that evening, Stan told me the story of the first time he played Wimbledon. The year was 1971, and he was a 19-year-old rising American star playing tennis at the international level for the first time.

Unlike some elite athletes who are handed a racquet or a golf club or a baseball when they are still in diapers, Stan did not start playing tennis until he was 14. All through his childhood, he played every sport he could, focusing on not one in particular. In fact, he had only heard of Wimbledon only a few years before he actually played there.

He was rightfully nervous.

Only minutes before Stan was scheduled to play on one of the back courts at Wimbledon, there was a change of plans: he would be playing on the center court. His opponent would be another 19-year-old, the ranking tennis champion of Great Britain.

That day, the center court was packed with more than 10,000 people. Stan’s opponent had an entire country pulling for him, and he was on his home court. Surely Stan had no chance of winning, right?

Still, he bucked up his courage and played his best that day.

What he didn’t realize was that his opponent had dreamed of playing Wimbledon’s center court since he could walk. He felt the weight of his entire country on his back, and as a result, he wilted. The very thing that Stan viewed as his opponent’s advantage was what held him back from coming out the victor that day.

Needless to say, Stan won the match early. He would go on to win the entire Wimbledon tournament the next year.

As Stan told me this story, I was struck with how we often feel the pressure we place on ourselves without realizing what others around us are feeling. Our self-focus makes us oblivious to others’ struggles, and we need to be reminded that the world does not revolve around us. Perhaps we must reevaluate the role empathy – our capacity to truly understand the thoughts and emotions of others – plays in our lives. We tend to put on empathy only when we see a friend or family member experiencing loss or misfortune. How many times have you signed a card bearing the words “With Sympathy” on your way to a funeral or wake?

However, empathy should be the lens through which we see the world every day, not just during times of loss.

God has made us for relationships. He wants us to experience the goodness and fullness of life by entering into communion with one another. When we close ourselves off either physically or mentally from others, we’re denying that empathy, and that can’t possibly be good for our health.

We need help. We need others to encourage us when we despair, pick us up when we fall, and walk alongside us when we tire. And we need to be there for others when they need that support.

That day on center court at Wimbledon nearly 45 years ago, Stan Smith learned that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and he’s carried that lesson with him ever since. I think that’s pretty profound for a 72-year-old – that is, 67-year-old – tennis player.

Whether we have tennis shoes named after us or not, we can all benefit from caring just as much about others as we do about ourselves.