On Loving Memphis

Last week, I was on a walk while on vacation near San Francisco. It was an extremely pleasant day. Nevertheless, one person after the other walked past me without saying a word. Everyone seemed preoccupied.

Finally, a man got out of a truck and greeted me.

“It’s another beautiful day!” he said. I agreed. Then he added, “It’s why we live here.” He seemed pleased with his statement.

I thought to myself, Really, you chose your home based on the weather?

Maybe that was just something to say to a stranger, but it got me thinking about why we chose to live in Memphis. I doubt it is because of the weather, and there are certainly other places that are more aesthetically beautiful. We don’t have mountains and we don’t have an ocean; we have a big, muddy river.

So why choose Memphis for our home?

Loving Memphis

To start with, I cannot imagine walking down the street here and not being spoken to, stranger or not. People here know that our greatest strength is our connection to each other. When I came to Memphis 30 years ago to start the Church Health Center, I was a stranger, relying completely on the goodwill of those around me to help establish our health ministry. Yet I was embraced and the Center has flourished.

I often say that Memphis has two things in great abundance: poverty and religion. Both, I think, shape the fabric of our city and why I for one chose to call Memphis home. While great poverty is not something to strive for, its presence here makes us all grateful for what we do have. I am privileged to have spent years with people who have little material wealth but who have used their spiritual capital to find peace and strength of character in a complex world.

When asked, “How are you?,” they answer without thinking:

Fine and blessed.

And they are.

As for religion, where else is one of the first questions you are asked, “Where do you go to church?”

Even if your answer is Temple Israel, “church” is just code for how you connect with something greater than yourself. I realize many among us believe they have a unique pathway to God, but I am so glad to live in a place where who I am is not just defined by what I have.

While many will quickly point out that the river, our four seasons, and fishing and hunting and our sports teams make Memphis a desirable home on many levels, I chose to live here because I have found love and a true sense of purpose in this big small town.

If you love Memphis, Memphis will love you.

Are you in New York City? I encourage you to connect with Choose901 this week to learn more about making Memphis home. Click here to learn more. 

The Long Road to True Collaboration

I recently spent two days in Houston at the US Health Forum for the United Methodist Church. The point of the meeting was to gather church leaders engaged in health ministry from across the country. Historically, the denomination has supported health programs internationally, but it has done little in America. The greatest effort has come from, of all places, the Board of Pensions which has focused on clergy health.

Over the last ten years, the Board has uncovered disturbing facts related to the health of those leading congregations. For example, in the midst of the obesity epidemic in America, United Methodist clergy are 20 percent heavier than the rest of the country.

This meeting was intended to outline the ministries the denomination is already involved in and offer a venue for sharing. Hospitals, seminaries, primary care clinics, and a wide variety of programs were represented, including the Church Health Center.

I met some fascinating people. Many of our faith community nurse leaders were there, and I had great conversations with them about ways to grow the effectiveness of our work. I was also excited about meeting and learning about work going on at Duke Divinity School. The large hospitals that carry the name “Methodist” were there: Houston, Columbus, Dallas, San Antonio, and of course Memphis. Various agencies of the church also presented their work.

What was sadly clear is that none of these groups are working together. While they all have small projects that overlap, most seemed unaware of what the others are doing. Unlike the Catholics, the UMC has no pope. No one entity is in charge.

I saw great potential for how various ministries could work together. One light bulb that went on in my head was how effective it would be if the Board of Global Ministries moved its health department to Memphis to be based at Crosstown Concourse. Why not put the small team working on health within the work we are doing, along with Methodist Healthcare? The young Nigerian doctor who leads the department is feisty, and I’m convinced her work would bear great fruit if she were with us in Memphis. But the wheels are already turning to move from New York to Atlanta, and it seems unlikely the plans will shift.

For now, the work will continue to be done church by church, through individual agencies, or through parachurch organizations like the Church Health Center. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t work together if we started the conversations that would lead us there. “Where do we go from here together?”

We did talk a lot about John Wesley and his book Primitive Physick, which I often mention. I learned that Wesley had no tolerance for clergy who were not willing to walk five or six miles every day. I also learned he had a wooden horse, an early version of a treadmill, that he would ride for two hours if he did not have a chance to ride outdoors during the day.

Wesley was committed to health and was strong in creating connections between congregations. I think the Methodists still have a great deal to learn from the leader we trace our heritage to. We can do better at working together.

At the same time, I suspect we are not so different from most Protestant denominations—or many cities with various groups working in their corners of the health world but not weaving the connections that would make the fabric stronger as a whole.

Maybe we all need to remember to raise our eyes beyond the horizon and look at something bigger than ourselves.

Popes I Have Known

Ok, I haven’t actually known any popes. Trust me, I would have blogged about it at this point if I had! But Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and Cuba the past week has prompted me to reflect on the impressions various popes have made on me throughout my life.

I have a vague memory of Pope John XXIII from when I was a child. When he died, I remember how the world was glued to their TV sets, watching a rooftop in Rome as Cardinals chose his successor. Along with millions of others, I waited for smoke emanating from a Vatican chimney to change from gray to black, indicating that a new pope had been elected.

Of course, since I was limited to watching the puff of smoke on a black and white TV set, the event was pretty disappointing for me since I couldn’t tell when the black smoke actual emerged! As a child, I was also oblivious to the fact that this jolly Italian had set off the biggest reform in the Catholic Church in hundreds of years with Vatican II.

I do clearly remember Pope Paul VI. He always seemed very stern. It was his demeanor that made young Protestants like me feel superior to Catholics. We were not like them with all of their rules and the need to bow down to an old man like Paul.

When Pope Paul died in 1978, I was more mature in my thinking. I closely followed the selection of his successor. He wanted to be a middle ground between John and Paul, so he took the name John Paul. Pope John Paul I was so appealing. Gregarious. Much like Pope Francis. Unfortunately, he only lived a few months. I think he would have been a leader in the ecumenical movement had he lived.

He was succeeded by John Paul II, a truly beloved Pope among Catholics. He had been the Cardinal from Warsaw, Poland. When he was elected, a joke went around: “The Cardinals could not decide on who to select so they said, ‘Let’s take a Pole.’”

It was silly, but apparently it left a lasting impression on me.

John Paul was warm and approachable, beloved by Catholics. Personally, I found his theology to be business-as-usual. As a Protestant, I didn’t feel included in the Kingdom of God as he saw it. But interestingly, my wife Mary was in New York during one of his visits to the United States. As she was walking down the street, around the corner came the Pope. He blessed her and then went on his way, so she certainly felt more included than I did! Perhaps this is a good example of actions speaking louder than words.

When he died, a tough-minded German theologian became Pope and took the name “Benedict.” He was hard for anyone to love. He has been quickly set aside even though he is still alive.

Which leads us to Pope Francis.

I am totally drawn to his focus on the poor, and it appears that he and I read the Bible in similar ways. His insistence on simplicity and poverty in his own life offers a stark contrast to the lavish (or at least extremely comfortable) lifestyles of his papal predecessors, and his actions coupled with his wisdom is inspiring people all over the world to act compassionately and with humility. He leads no armies and has no stock market. In some matters he is innocent, but I do find in him great wisdom.

I love it when he says things like, “Who am I to judge?” Certainly, many would say that he can judge simply because he is the Pope, but he sees it otherwise.

It’s the nature of blogging (and, likely, writing in general) that you’ll be halfway through writing a post and something will happen that makes you reexamine everything that you’ve already said. Obviously, I’m referring here to the reports that during his trip to the US, Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who made headlines for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples within her county. I don’t know what to make of this meeting, and honestly, I was left slacked-jawed when I read the reports. Neither Pope Francis nor the Vatican has issued a statement explaining why the pair met, so I will trust he remains focused on the issues that affect the poor and remains a voice for love and those who have lived on the periphery of society.

I live by knowing that Paul is right, that we see through a glass darkly.

Just as I don’t know the motivations behind this meeting, I don’t know what he would think of the particulars of my Methodist theology. But I don’t think it really matters. As John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more: give me your hand.”

May we all have one heart.