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.

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Planting Apple Trees While Bullets Fly By

Memphis’ recent mayoral election in many ways turned on the issue of safety in America. Much of the national presidential debate is on the same topic. People seem to be afraid for their personal safety. It is no longer just war in the Middle East but war just down the street from where I live.

This has become much more real for me through events that have happened at or near Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center has run for 16 years in Memphis’ Klondike neighborhood. Four times since the school year began, our preschool, along with the elementary school where we are housed, has gone on lockdown due to a shooting on or near the school’s playground. I didn’t know about the first two occurrences, but then six weeks ago it happened again.

Planting Trees

I rushed to the school as though there was something I could do. John Wayne, I am not. When I arrived, Perea’s principal Alicia Norman calmly explained what had happened. A city-run community center sits right behind the school. During a basketball game, two rival gang members had a disagreement on the court. To settle the dispute, one chased the other out the door firing at him as he ran through the school playground. She then told me about the last episode a few weeks ago when she and another teacher were outside and the bullets went flying past her.

We walked down to the community center and found the one full-time employee. He was nice enough and seemed to fully understand our concern. He then explained to us all the reasons there was nothing he could do.

“If they are not playing basketball, they will be out in the streets taking it out on each other.”

This occurred right after the recent election for mayor. I called my longtime friend AC Wharton, who had just lost his bid to be re-elected mayor. He immediately took my call and swung into action. There were police everywhere. The next day, the chief of police was at the school. A plan was made to erect a chain link fence so that the gang members would be forced to run away from the school, not toward it, if they were trying to escape the community center. We all felt that we had been heard. For a couple of days there were extra police patrols in the neighborhood.

The day after the incident, I bought lasagna for the teachers and took it to them for lunch. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort and understood there was little else that could be done.

Last week, there was another shooting.

Again, it started at the community center. This time it began with a craps game that went bad. The fence kept those involved from running toward the school, but the shooters got in their car and drove multiple times through our parking lot looking for the person they had shot. When the police arrived, Alicia showed them the bullet casings and drops of blood on the pavement. An hour later, they found the man who had been shot.

I called one of the Church Health Center’s board members, who is now working closely with the new mayor. She listened closely and understood my concern. She pointed out that the police department is woefully understaffed with police officers.

Nevertheless, the next day, an all-seeing police eye-in-the-sky camera appeared in our parking lot. The chief of police was again at Perea. Surely this will be a deterrent to anyone who might be afraid of getting caught. Won’t it? Don’t you think? I wonder how long they will keep it there.

Since the first of the year, there have been 12 murders in Memphis.

I stand behind what we are doing at Perea, and I know our parents are committed to seeing their children grow up to live long, happy, productive lives. Through our work at Perea, we are trying to reverse the statistics that tell us that many of our boys will end up in gangs and in jail. One or more of them could be the target of a shooting or the one holding the gun.

Last Friday, a dozen volunteers from the Memphis Empty Bowls Project packed a mountain of food so that our Perea children and their families could be sent home with healthy meals for the weekend.


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The volunteers were so excited about what they were doing for the children. It brought a tear to my eye and I truly had nothing to do with causing it to happen. Our children are so worth loving and they quickly return that love. I doubt the volunteers know about the shootings. If they did, what would they think?

When asked what he would do if he learned that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther famously said, “I would still plant my apple tree.”

I intend to stay on top of my friend in the mayor’s office to keep the camera in place. I probably need to bring something other than lasagna for lunch the next time. I also need to find an hour to help with packing the weekend lunches.

When his disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was clear when he placed a child in the center and called all of us who chose to follow him to be like that child.

The name Perea comes from the place where Jesus was when he said, “Let the little children come unto me”.

I think that place could have just as well been named “Memphis”.

 

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.