Disarming Fear

I was watching the Olympic trials last night when the local news broke in showing people blocking the bridge over the Mississippi River. A Black Lives Matter rally had turned into an act of civil disobedience of blocking traffic on I-40. It was remarkable to see this happening in my own city of Memphis.

I grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. I remember seeing people in Birmingham being swept away with fire hoses as I watched on TV. I was 14 and in the 8th grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. All of that seemed a long way away, and I was too young to be involved. This time, though, I was watching things happen in the city I love, and I am more than old enough to be involved.

But how? What am I to do?

That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? Much of the time, we don’t know what to do, or at least we claim we don’t. Everyone on all sides feels helpless. No one wants innocent people to be shot by the police, and no one wants the police to be shot while doing their job. We all believe that the police should go about doing their job of protecting all citizens, no matter their race. I believe we all want that, so what is the problem?

The problem, as I see it, is that we are unequal in our society based on perceived differences generated by class and race. None of us can fully know what someone unlike us feels or believes because our experiences are very different. That leads to fear, the progenitor of evil.

Fear drives us apart. Fear makes us see the other as a threat. Fear makes our heart pound and want to reach for the trigger of a gun. Fear makes me cross the street when I see someone who doesn’t look like me walking toward me. Fear is the enemy we must repel.

The power of fear is why, I believe, the overwhelming message of the Gospel is “Be not afraid.” This is what the angels say at Jesus’s birth and what Jesus himself utters to those who follow him. The fact that we have not heard the message leads us to the divisiveness we are enduring.

Eliminating fear is not so easy. It helps, though, to follow Abraham Lincoln’s advice: “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.”

Jesus ultimately calls us to love our neighbor. There’s a process in that, and I think it might just start with getting to know our neighbor’s name.

In my city of Memphis, I will offer a kind word to strangers, especially those who look different from me. It is at least a place to start.

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Thoughts On Brexit

I spent a year going to school in London. At the University of London, I was surrounded by people from all over Europe and the world. The amazing diversity of London has always been one of its best assets, and I can’t reconcile my memory of London as a place of unity and diversity with the reality that is Brexit.

Turning in seems to be the majority sentiment for a county that once ruled much of the world. I am in no position to judge the British on how they rule themselves, but I am confident that focusing only on one’s own self-interest is never a good plan. Any time decisions are made based on how one party – whether that be a person, a group, or even an entire country – can get more for itself, the result is rarely a strategy that works well in the long term.
I believe that finding ways to be generous to neighbors and engaging with people who are different from ourselves has been the most effective business and social strategy for hundreds of years, and I hope that Britain will find a way to avoid isolating themselves while at the same time exercising their autonomy. Obviously, that’s a hard balance to strike.

Like many Americans, I pray that the British exit from the EU does not lead Americans to say we should follow the same path. We live in a complex world and it is critical that we find ways to better engage the rest of the world, not isolate ourselves from it. I am confident that the Christian path is to welcome strangers into our midst and to go into all the world. Anything short of that is not following the path Jesus set before us. Sadly, too many people who claim to follow Jesus would rather we circle the wagons and only share our abundant resources with those who look just like us.

My experience living in London opened my eyes to remarkable people and powerful ways that others around the world live out their lives of faith. None of us are able to love God fully by just following our own understanding of how God created the world. We truly need each other. If America is to be a great nation, we must open our hearts and arms to all who would want to be in relationship to us. It says it on the Statue of Liberty, but Jesus also says it in the Sermon on the Mount.

I pray we will listen closely to God’s desire for us to engage the whole world in acts of love, justice, and joy. Anything other than that is a path that no Christian should be willing to take.

The Radical Act of Cultivating Love

When I was in the eighth grade in 1968, I had the only fist fight I have ever had in my life. I started it, but for the life of me I cannot remember why.

It happened after football practice. I was the quarterback of my team. One of my teammates, Ben, had been a Pop Warner All-American football player when he was 12. I guess that put a chip on his shoulder. For some reason he irritated me.

We were both new to the private school we were attending. I don’t know what got into me, but one day we started arguing in the locker room. I thought I was Muhammad Ali and put up my dukes. What was I thinking? I hit Ben in the face. It didn’t seem to phase him. My hand was hurting. Others stepped in and broke it up. That was it.

I immediately felt ashamed, but others who didn’t like Ben started patting me on the back. I was a hero. Of sorts.

Is my middle school altercation in the boys’ locker room an anecdote for how violence begins?  What is it that makes it acceptable? Can we just blame TV and the movies?

I have never known anyone who experienced true, life-shattering violence who was glad for the experience. Violence changes you. It makes you afraid. It makes you angry. It makes you want to build fences, to run away.

Fear sometimes leads to buying a gun. To moving to the suburbs.

I recently was told by a friend that he and his wife are moving to either Northern Ireland or New Zealand because those are the only places they believe they can be safe from ISIS. Violence and fear lead us to doing dramatic things.

But fear of violence cannot rule our lives. While we know that violence is all around us, we also know that there is no where we can truly hide. No place is safe if what you mean by “safety” is the state of being impervious to hurt and pain. Pain is lurking at any moment.

The only way to confront violence is with courage born of love. Violence can bring any of us to our knees, but seeking to experience love no matter where it leads is the only way to live. The New Testament tells us over and over and over to “fear not.” Jesus does not intend this to be simply an inspirational intimation. It’s a mandate. If we’re going to stand for righteousness, love, equality, and nonviolence, we must put our own fears aside and depend on God to guide us.

Saturday’s mass murders in Orlando do not mean that nowhere is safe; it means that all of us need to lead lives born out of love and its accompanying fearlessness every day because we do not know what will happen next. It means that we live in a broken world that needs our light now more than ever, that we must advocate for the oppressed and the hurt. We must stand in solidarity with those in the shadows and denounce violence. We’ve always been called to create the change we want to see in the world, but with acts of dehumanizing murder such as these becoming more and more frequent, that call is even more urgent.

I have not seen Ben in 40 years. If I did see him, I don’t know if he would remember the day that I hurt him, but even if he didn’t, I would tell him I am sorry for fighting with him and hurting him. Knowing that the kind of violence I enacted on him so many years ago is within me scares me, but it makes me focus even more on the need to cultivate love.

Welcoming the Stranger Is Always the Right Thing to Do

I fell in love in Brussels. I was 20 years old and staying with friends for Christmas while I spent my junior year of college abroad in London. There was a second guest at our Christmas gathering –  a young Polish lady named Teresa who was working as a nanny in London. When I met her, I was immediately smitten.

Our romance didn’t last long. When we got back to London, we realized we had little in common, not the least of which was a language barrier. Still, my memories of Brussels are all good.

That is why I cannot imagine the brutality of the most recent bombings. Brussels is a city of love, not hate. But I realize that is how my romantic 20-year-old mind sees it. Today’s reality is so much different.

Or is it?

When horrible things like the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, and all over the world happen, our immediate instinct is to pull back. To turn in. To close ourselves off to others. This kneejerk reaction is understandable because as humans, we often feel threatened by the “other,” the outsider.  We fear that people who aren’t like us might hurt us or threaten our safety.

I write this on Maundy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday.

After Jesus’ death, it seems clear the Disciples moved in to self-protection mode. They retreated to the Upper Room and were afraid. They had reason to be. Jesus had been executed as a political threat to Rome. Being associated with him put yourself at risk.

And yet, soon after the experience of the Resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, they moved from being turned in to reaching out. They embraced the stranger. They took risks. They may have still been fearful but you cannot see it in their actions. They invited people into their lives.

I think that is exactly what we need to do in this time of fear. I understand the desire to do just the opposite. Retreating to the safest place we can find seems the only rational decision. The problem with this is that building walls and shutting out others who are as scared as we are only breeds hostility. Most importantly for me, it is the exact opposite of what Jesus expected his Disciples to do. He commanded the Disciples to go into the streets and bring in any one they found to the banquet feast.

For Christians, welcoming the stranger is always the right thing to do.

It has been many years since I have been to Brussels. I live my life in Memphis where I don’t have to make hard decisions about how to interact with my Muslim neighbors who have immigrated from elsewhere. But I get to decide every day how I will care for and embrace the Muslims and the Latin Americans who I see all around me who now live in Memphis.

There is no escaping the opportunity to do what Jesus expects of me. The only question is, will I do it?

A Lesson In Empathy from a St. Jude Family

“You’ve got to help me, Doc. My sinuses are killing me.”

The person speaking was a big, burly, and gruff man in his early forties. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d expect to go to the doctor for sinus trouble, much less be so insistent on me making him better. There was something about him that didn’t particularly agree with me, and the same was true of his wife who sat in the corner. She told me more than I wanted to know about her husband’s runny nose.

I then looked closer at the chart and realized I was talking to a St. Jude family. St. Jude’s is a research hospital in Memphis that treats children from all over the world with various forms of childhood cancer. This past weekend, runners from all over the world descended on Memphis to run in the annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon in support of the lifesaving work done at the hospital. My friend and colleague Antony Sheehan was one of them.

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony's completion medal

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony’s completion medal

Often, the children must stay in Memphis for up to two years while being treated, which means the parents are also in Memphis, sometimes unable to work either because they are from another country and do not have a work permit or because their child requires constant attention. In these cases, the Church Health Center takes care of the families of the sick child while they are in town. We don’t charge them for the visit.

I looked up from the clipboard. “So, why is your child at St. Jude?” I asked quietly.

There was a brief pause. Then the wife said, “He has a brain tumor and they just started chemotherapy again yesterday.”

“How long have you been in Memphis?”

“We came 10 months ago and he has been in the hospital almost the whole time.”

I wondered how hard that must be for anyone to endure. Granted, here at the Church Health Center we’re constantly confronted with the difficulties of life. We exist because the world is imperfect.

We’re here for traditionally-underserved patients like Bethany whose mental health struggles haven’t been properly addressed by their healthcare providers in the past. We’re here for patients who have no choice but to leave their native countries in search of a better life. We’re here for patients like Ollie who have been bruised and battered by the currents of life but still give at their own expense.

I’m used to seeing people in pain, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to watch my own child suffer. Listening and empathizing made me more forgiving of my patient’s harried attitude. The rest of their visit was much more congenial and in some unclear way, they no longer had to carry the weight of the world all by themselves.

I believe that we were all put on this Earth to help each other in some way. Sometimes, simply listening and realizing that everyone we encounter is dealing with pain beyond our own experience is enough to make this world a better place.

It is that empathy that makes us more Christ-like.

On Paris

I was 17 years old when I first visited Paris on a high school choir trip. Before we left, I was told over and over that the Parisians did not like Americans. I was told to be prepared for them to be rude and mean.

That wasn’t my experience. In fact, it was just the opposite of what I experienced there.

Everywhere I went, Parisians went out of their way to help me. They were kind. They were warm. They were compassionate.

Sure, the city was beautiful and historically rich, but it wasn’t the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral that made me want to return to the city. It was the people who treated me as though I was one of them.

They were Paris.

It was not the tourist attractions that ISIS attacked: it was Parisians themselves. Folks eating dinner. Music-lovers taking in a concert. Fans attending a soccer match. ISIS wanted to instill fear, and that goal was accomplished.

Now, the retaliation has begun. New airstrikes. Blind anger at any Muslim. Fear of the unknown has replaced any attempt to embrace the other. None of it will make us safer.

Religious violence has been with us since the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. We seem to not know how to love God without killing each other. The terrorists cried, “God is great” as they killed the innocent. It is a cry we have come to expect. I just hope we are not prone to respond, “Our God is greater.”

Surely the God we worship can help us find a path to peace. Embracing those who are not like me gives me a chance to see the full richness of God.

I pray we will not retreat to “an eye for an eye.” We know already that will make the whole world blind.

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.