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.



The Joy of Service

The Joy of Service

What really matters?

This is a question that I’ve been asking my entire life, and I strongly believe that contentment has absolutely nothing to do with the things we have or our social stature. We are only going to experience fulfillment by humbling ourselves at the feet of others through service.

I’m reminded of an instance back in 1999 when I was invited by the Aspen Institute to give a short talk about corporate responsibility in New Orleans.

In a quick 30 minutes, I gave a David Letterman-like top ten list of reasons why corporations should be involved with their communities. The audience seemed to respond positively to my comments, which was reassuring.

Afterwards, there was a dinner in the warehouse district of New Orleans in a penthouse condominium belonging to a developer of the district. I was awed by the luxury and the beauty of the condo. It was a beautiful night which allowed people to freely use the very large outdoor patio where a band was playing. Every room was filled with fine art and food.

As I milled around, a steady stream of people came up to remark about my talk. I got a sense of the distinguished group that was present.

A university president.

A former president of a Fortune 500 company.

A former assistant Secretary of State.

A senior healthcare executive.

What struck me, as it had a number of times before, was that these individuals were no different than the people I worked with day in and day out at the Church Health Center. They were neither smarter nor more interesting. For the most part, they did have a lot more money, but that did not make them happy.

Like all of us, they were looking for meaning in their lives and a sense of purpose which could make them happy.

Fortunately for them, they did not have to worry about the bare necessities of life. Food, clothing, and shelter would always be at-hand. They were surrounded by the best of everything.

In the end, though, those things are fleeting and unfulfilling. It was like the hotel where I stayed that time in New Orleans. A travel magazine conspicuously placed on the bedside table listed it as the second best hotel in the world. But as I looked around, all I saw were four walls with a bed and a bathroom.

My experience in New Orleans many years ago reinforced in my mind that my own search for happiness will only be fulfilled through the work I do for others at the Church Health Center. It is in this way that I will better know the love of God, which I feel certain is the only source of contentment and fulfillment.

Meeting Richard Rohr

This last weekend at the Church Health Center was certainly a full one! With our annual community walk Walking as One going on at our Wellness facility and the Westberg Symposium for faith community nurses in full swing at the Peabody Memphis Hotel, the Church Health Center was certainly living out its mission of helping others live their healthiest, most joy-filled lives.

Dr Morris westberg

Named after Granger Westberg who held an unwavering conviction that the church can do more to help people find healing, the Westberg Symposium focuses on helping faith community nurses help others all over the world.

My colleague at the Church Health Center Antony Sheehan was even named an honorary Peabody Duckmaster, if you can believe it.

Antony Sheehan as Honorary Duckmaster

Antony really gets to have all the fun.

I had one more item on my weekend agenda, though, that had nothing to do with ducks. I spent a portion of the weekend in Albuquerque with Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. Some of you might know his writings very well, which include Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, and The Naked Now. I admit I had not read anything of his before the weekend, but I am now a big fan.

Scott Morris and Richard Rohr

Fr. Rohr, a provocative and excellent communicator, has devoted himself to a life of contemplation yet spends a great deal of time teaching others about the contemplative life. He’s carved out his niche in speaking to people in positions of power about the spiritual life; almost everyone at the small event was the CEO of a major company. He begins his seminars with ways to become powerless.

Of all the things he said, his emphasis on the power of being present with others resonated most with me. Achieving full presence requires great effort and focus that cannot be faked; you have to live in the moment. This is an idea I have talked about for years and try hard to practice, but it is so hard. It is easy to always be looking over the person’s shoulder you are talking to for someone more important or more interesting. As humans, we are prone to think of the next thing we want to say or the next thing we want to do. However, only by being fully-present in the moment do you have a chance to know what God has in store.

Fr. Rohr also points out that Christians do not have a lock on knowing what God wants for our lives. He quotes Hindu scriptures that were written 2,500 years before Jesus and shows how what they say sound a lot like what we read in the Bible. We are wrong to think that only our “tribe” has all the answers. In fact, such “tribalism” is exactly why the world is threatening to blow apart today. None of us knows God in a way that is exclusive to our small band of followers. We need to learn from others if we ever want to grow.

My goal was to get him to come to Memphis, but he explained to me that now that he is 72 he no longer travels. But I now have a long list of his writings to read. I am starting with Falling Upward which is what much of his thoughts over the weekend reflected. What was equally good was I made several new friends who are working around the country to make a difference in God’s world just like we are here in Memphis.

Why We Must Search for More Than Eggs at Easter

Why We Must Search For More Than Eggs at EasterGrowing up, I looked forward to Easter for one reason – the Easter egg hunt.

My mother would dress me in a white suit with a brown shirt, an ensemble that I would never select on my own. I didn’t care because I was single-minded of purpose: find as many eggs as possible.

It was years later that I realized that Easter had anything to do with Jesus. And when I did, I struggled to understand what Jesus being raised from the dead had to do with me. Over the years, what is known as “blood theology” was everywhere I looked. The idea goes something like this: Jesus must die in order for me to be saved and that his resurrection somehow validates that. To be completely honest, I have never been able to understand why Jesus must die for my sins. 

What I do understand is that God loves me and all of humanity, yet we are estranged from Him in ways that cannot be overcome by willpower. Something beyond my own doing is required. I believe that God’s love as expressed in Jesus is what makes it possible for me to know God’s love in this world, that through the life of Jesus and through the mystery of the experience of the resurrected Christ, I am able to know what the love of God means.

I believe that my faith in God as revealed in Jesus makes it possible for me to follow a path that helps me know the joy and love God created for me. This happens only through the grace of God that I experience through the community known as the Church.

Which naturally brings me back to Easter eggs and my white suit. I didn’t have this theological understanding when I was a child, and I fully realize that the way I see it now might change; it might even be wrong. I also don’t expect others to agree with me for us to look for Easter eggs together.

But I do believe that the search together is the glorious journey God has set before us.

Every day at the Church Health Center, I have the privilege of being with people who know that it is only by God’s grace that they can live a life free of pain. I get to help walk that journey with them, and we clearly walk it together.

Today is Easter, and I hope you will take the time to rethink what you truly believe. I hope you are grateful for those you spend each day with who take the journey of life along with you.

Even if we don’t fully understand how the mystery of God’s love works, I am confident that God will find a way to have us experience it in remarkable ways.

Dr. Scott Morris

Tales From India: Why Is the World This Way?

This is the third installment of my blog series Tales From India.

To read Don’t Spit, click here. To read Capitalism, India Style, click here. 

Tales From IndiaDuring my recent trip to India, nearly every meal was a buffet. One day at lunch I sat next to Akash, a kind and gentle soul working with our tour group. He grew up in Delhi and studied hotel management. When he graduated from college, he had five job offers. He worked in London for two years before returning home to work for Thomas Cook, the very large travel agency. He is now married and has a one-year-old daughter. It was clear he was very religious in a subtle way.

At lunch one day, I asked him about how religious education occurs when you are Hindi. He said, “It all comes from learning from your parents until you are a teenager, and then you begin to read the four holy books.”

I continued to pry. “Since you are always working with tourists like us, it must fall to your wife to educate your daughter.”

“No, she is not very religious,” he said. “Plus, she works full time.”

“So how will your daughter learn about Hinduism?”

“We live with my parents and they will make sure she learns.”

“So your parents take care of your daughter during the day?” I said.

“No, we have a housekeeper who watches her.”

Many people my age in the American South grew up with African-American women who worked like nannies. My parents employed Louise Adams, who looked after me but also introduced me to her form of Christianity. Based on my experience, I implied that Akash’s housekeeper would also teach his daughter the values of being a Hindu.

“No,” he said, “she is from another place and does not speak Hindi. We only communicate with her through sign language, but she has worked for us for six years.”

Then, the full weight of what he was telling me began to come through. The housekeeper is from Bangladesh and works seven days a week from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. She is entitled to four days per month off at the employer’s discretion. Her salary is equivalent to $100 a month. She lives in a one-room apartment with five other people. She is married, but her husband lives far away. She cannot work and have children.

I was stunned. “Are you okay with this situation?”

He looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Of course.”

“But isn’t this close to slavery?” I asked.

Clearly, Akash was startled with the comparison. “Of course not. We offer an opportunity for work. She is unskilled and would have nothing if not for our work. In fact, she saves money and sends it home to her family.”

I could tell he was irritated with me, but I am sure he did not see my point. It is the way of India. Many middle class families have housekeepers who are paid and treated the same. It is just the way it is.

Several years ago, an Indian diplomat in New York got in trouble for the way he treated his housekeeper. I now realize why India was so outraged by the American reaction. What he was doing is culturally commonplace.

Later, I told my friend Mason what I learned. Rather than being shocked, he said, “Isn’t that what we were doing with tipping the people in the bathrooms 10 rupees?”

When you enter a public restroom, at least one that is fairly clean, someone stands at the sink to turn the water on and offer you a towel. This is not something I have ever needed help with, but there he is and it is expected that you tip him 10 rupees—about 16 cents.

Mason said, “I did that for a few days because that is what I was told to do. I just wasn’t thinking. But then I had to do what I knew was right.”

I agreed with him, but I knew I had kept tipping only 10 rupees a lot longer than Mason. Only during the last few days of my time in India had I started doing what I would normally do in the States. I asked Mason, “Are you familiar with the idea of always over-tipping the breakfast waitress?”

“Goodness, yes. I sometimes tip more than the bill.”

Thank you, Mason, for reminding me that the norms of society may not be right. Going along because of the cultural norm may not only be questionable but wrong.

Throughout our trip, we negotiated with street vendors about the price of what they sold. It would go like this: a man would rush up to me when I stepped off the bus. “I have a special price just for you, 400 rupees.”

If I had any interest in what he was selling, I feigned disinterest and started to walk away. I might offer 100 rupees. The seller would look offended and counter with 350.

I would keep walking. He’d ask, “What will you give?” I say 150. He counters with 300. Just as our game of marketplace cat-and-mouse had reached a crescendo, we would agree on a price of 200 rupees. For under $5, I had bought a curiosity. At Pier 1 in the US, this same item would have cost me $20.

I got a good deal, I guess.

Why is the world this way? Although I am not wealthy by American standards, I am one of the most fortunate people in the world by chance of birth. If I had paid 400 rupees, what difference would it have made to me? Yes, I would have been a dumb tourist, but so what?

Stanley Hauerwaus, a well-known theologian, has repeatedly said that what you believe as a Christian matters little if it is not reflected in how you live. I have preached that same idea all my career but constantly find myself not living up to it.

It is very frustrating to be found so wanting.

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.