Friday, July 27, 2007

Clarity where life seems in short supply

I have returned to Big Timber after two days with cancer families. We met at the Methodist Camp on the Boulder, a place that understands hospitality as well as the St. Columbo Center that is a spiritual home to the Memphis contingent.

There were 35 people present. Teenagers with cancer; nine year olds who have
sledded with it for nine years; parents with cancers; the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, all of whose lives have been touched by cancer. Perhaps one could say connection" was the central thread, but actually the coherence of healing, and life's fierce call to the future provided the glue.

Sunday and Monday mornings we made space for the gift of casual conversation;
gathering stories; feeling the pain in some faces, and sensing exuberance in others.
Some stories come quickly with such sharp intensity one can only give thanks that there are five days to unpack them, that the river is there to walk along.

Some of the people have attended this camp, called the Cancer Family Network of
Montana, for many years.

I met with a group of adults on Monday afternoon. One could say my task was to talk a bit about LCL. But that actually wasn't the task at all. The task was to help us engage in the discernment of life. If "Pretend" walked in the door he or she would not survive ten seconds. If "Despair" walked in and tried to dominate the gathering, it would not have had a chance.

When one talks about circumstance the conversation is usually brittle. When one allows time to make its gentle presence known life begins to come into view and lingers for a while.

I did not start off by talking about LCL. Instead I shared a few stories and the stories, of course, opened the way for others to share some insights. These people did not want a program. They wanted life. There is a difference.

Instead of talking about the five, I just threw out the words. "The story of our
lives could be written with a script called connection," I said. And . . . sure
enough . . .

One oncologist said he always comes to the camp to connect with stories that most of his colleagues miss. But for him they are a priority.

A woman's 15 year-old daughter has survived thyroid cancer . . . so far. . . but two years ago her husband collapsed on Christmas morning and was found to have a cancer of the brain. He then died. She tells a story about collecting paw paws in a basket. Each story of survival, each story showing how one navigates is a gift and she puts them all in the basket of her life. Those are my connections she says, connections that come from people who are not afraid to ask me about my life.

Another woman lost her husband; has lost much of her sight; and been through chemo. She speaks of a friend, who is sitting there beside her, who took the time to walk up 28 stairs to have a note that said, "Are you okay?"

This woman has cancer . . . she knows. Two stories of connection bring grateful tears around the share story of coherence.

We move a bit more around the circle. Three years ago an 11 year-old was diagnosed
with leukemia. She is still alive, everyone on pins and needles to see what will happen. "I think she's doing okay," says her mom. "But it's not that easy, says her dad. They give her a bead for every procedure. A red bead for transfusion. Another bead for a blood draw. Another for days in the hospital. All these beads," he says. "She has over 1,600 beads."

This giving of beads . . . this gift . . . this connection with the experience of

Her dad had a black and blue ankle. He fell off his horse the day before. "Good
horse but since the diagnosis I haven't been able to spend time with him so he's out
of sorts." Connection yet again . . . take it away and one falls, even horses forget.

For each speaker, each sharer, connection keeps giving itself. Pretty soon I notice
them using the word like a friend.

Coherence also presents itself but coherence is a 25-cent word that does not present
itself as easily. Hope emerges. And so does blessing when one woman who was in
almost too much pain to be present said, "I've been blessed . . ."

Time after time, for these parents, we found that cancer itself wasn't the worst part of their experience. The most difficult part was (and now I wish you all didn't work in a hospital, because I don't want you to take this the wrong way) realizing that there was absolutely no way they could pay their bills. What do you do when you get a bill for $200,000? Or two million dollars? How do you reconcile the doctor's statement that he doesn't care about money (if I'm cynical I'd say most docs can say that because they've got some) but the business office that keeps sending statements? When disease divorces a person from any possibility of taking "responsibility" it is devastating and makes gatherings like this one all the more important.

So . . . over the days I was there . . . LCL took root. Walking up a mountain path
with the camp leader and the woman whose husband died . . . she says, "I don't go to
church. I'm too angry with God for that." "Well, if church is the place that tells
you how God works, I'd stay away too.” But what if church is more about connection
than it is one theology or another? The cancer doctor said he doesn't really believe what the church says about God. But he goes, and has gone for over 30 years because he knows that someday he'll need some friends." "Oh, she says. That's
right." In talk after talk we discern the layers of coherence, the intricacies of
connection, and the way these are markers.

One closing vignette.

I am at dinner Tuesday night and Mary, the nine year-old whose mom
teaches school a nearby reservation. Mary, whose name means God Provides, diagnosed with cancer at 15 months. The tumor caused her to lose vision in her left eye. This little Mary, who travels to Children's Hospital in Seattle thanks to Angle Flights . . .

Mary looks across the table at me and sees the patch and metal screen over my left
eye and says . . . "Don't be afraid about your eye. I don't see out of my left eye and I'm

"Mary," I say, "I thank you. We have a name for what you just said. We
call it a blessing. And I will carry your blessing for many, many years."

As usual, if you want to clarify life go to places where it seems to be in
short supply . . . surround yourself with those affected by cancer, or traumatic brain injuries or, or, or, or . . . and then watch what happens as our five causes find ways to speak with unforgettable eloquence.

Walk softly,

Monday, July 23, 2007

Higher Level of Ignorance

I was planning on posting a really profound passage from Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic theological/political analysis, Christianity and the Social Crisis. I’ve been reading him over this month while I’ve been on vacation a lot (sort of a dork’s vacation, but there we go).

But I’ve also been reading Terrry Pratchett at the recommendation of Jim Cochrane, my friend and fellow thinker on religious health assets and life. Pratchett is mistaken by many as writing fantasy when he’s actually one of the most insightful social critics since, well, Rauschenbusch. Here’s a bit of his book, Equal Rites, where two wizards at Unseen University are discussing a presentation on the nature of space time:

"No, I remember the bit where he seemed to suggest that if you went far enough in any direction you would see the back of your head,"
"You're sure he didn't mean the back of someone else's head?
Treastle thought for a bit.
"No, I'm pretty sure he said the back of your own head," he said. "I think he said he could prove it."
They considered this in silence.
Finally Cutangle spoke, very slowly and carefully.
"I look at it all like this, "he said. "Before I heard him talk, I was like everyone else. You know what I mean? I was confused and uncertain about the little details of life. Now now," he brightened up, "while I'm still confused and uncertain, it's on a much higher plane, d'you see, and at least I know Im bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe."
Treatle nodded. "I hadn't looked at it like that," he said, but you're absolutely right. He's really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance. There's so much about the universe we don't know."
They both savored the strange warmth of being much more ignorant than ordinary people who were ignorant of only ordinary things.

Among the things we are nearly all ignorant of is how the brain works. I started thinking about this early today, since we had to get up at 4am to make our flight to Vancouver. During our connection in Denver I read in an article by David Eagleman in the August Discovery Magazine: “The awake state may be essentially the same as the dreaming state, only partially anchored by external stimuli. In this view, your conscious life is an awake dream.” (Especially, if you get up at 4am and then spend two hours in the Denver airport).

One of the five leading causes of life is coherence which we’ve said lies mostly beneath consciousness. Although we are cleverly mapping all the different parts of the brain that specialized in this or that function, we “find ourselves looking at a strange assortment of brain networks involved with smell, hunger, pain, goal setting, temperature, prediction, and hundreds of other tasks. Despite their disparate functions, these systems seem to work together seamlessly. “ (They cohere) “There is almost no good theory about how this occurs.”

It is extraordinary that a brain wired for coherence walking the plains of the Serengeti is able to find coherence at in a thin aluminum tube sliding along 32,000 feet above the Rockies at 491 miles per hour (which is where I am typing this). Maybe it’s just an awareness of a higher level of ignorance, but it gives me a warm feeling.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Leading Causes of Life at Cancer Camp

Grace, mercy and peace to all who read these words.

Tomorrow is the Sabbath, Sunday, July 22. In the afternoon I will drive up into the mountains, 20 miles on paved road, and then 20 miles of dirt road. Once I arrive a camp there will be 30 or 40 other people each of whom shares a common calling. In one way or another cancer has touched their lives.

Some children with cancer will be there; so will their siblings, their parents, and perhaps a friend or two. Some adults, some of whom may be in the midst of chemotherapy, some of whom may be recovering from radiation. Some will be in remission. Some will be adjusting to the fact that cancer came their way and now they must figure out how to live with it.

For three days we will be sharing life. I am sure there will be laughter; there will be tears; there will be quiet conversations as the experience of cancer draws us together. I have been asked to speak about the Leading Causes of Life, which I am glad to do. I do so with a hint of hesitation because I know how very much is on the line.

Each of the causes will come into a play with a newfound clarity . . . of that I am sure.

Cancer came their way . . . and so what's to be done?

Together the families band together to share the "new normal" with others people who walk that same path. Healing should not be a lonely experience and thanks to camps like this it needn't be. . It is the gift of connection that allows for learning. It is the gift of connection that helps us navigate our way through a forest frought with fear.

But connection isn't the whole story. We require a theme. It is a theme of life. Just the word "cancer" is enough to disrupt our lives and throw our worlds into chaos. And so we must re-organize our priorities. What mattered before the diagnosis may not seem so important now. What had been neglected before may now come into the light of day. Perhaps the theme of the three days will be healing. Perhaps it will be truth. Perhaps it will be authenticity. For sure we will find it out.

I do not have cancer. But I have had to survive when the odds are against me. I remember as a child going to the Rexall Drug Store with my father to buy insulin. Without that insulin my life would suddenly end. The drugist knew us. My dad and I did what we could to keep the demon of diabetes at bay and to celebrate life inspite of the circumstances. The key is to be about life. And we'll find, I think, that what applies to an individual also applies to institutions. The hospital's diagnosis is "a budget shortfall." The church's diagnosis may be the same. And so, what's to be done? We must organize around life.

At cancer camp that's precisely what we'll be doing. As usual, the Lectionary for the day fits perfectly. Jesus said to Martha's sister Mary that she had made the better choice when she chose a conversation whose blessings could not be taken away from her. Yes . . . we may have met the panther that will run us down . . . but neither connection, coherence nor hope are dependent on circumstance.

So what is to be said about life?

I suspect our five causes will lead the way . . .

We are there together . . .
We are looking for meaning . . .
We're taking time to drive into the mountains . . . mission is always about doing something . . .
We're listening to hope . . .
We'll find blessings that will sustain us upon our return home, during visits to the hospitals, during new doses of treatment . . .

I suspect it will all be about life.
As Edna St. Vincent Millet put it, "I shall die but that is all I shall do for death."

And so our conversation will be about life.

Take care, and I'll let you know how it went.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tick, tick, ....tick, ...................tick

How often does the clock of your life “tick?” For some of us in the hospital world one tick a second is way too slow, especially for those managing information technology and bouncing electrons bearing patient data around the city and to our remote hosting center in Kansas City. Yesterday our link went down for a nano or two which made for a very bad day. Usually our budget cycle ticks once a year, but this year we’re needing to find about $20 million in cost savings mid year as our expected pattern of reimbursements and balance of out and in patients is different that expected. Some aspects of the life of the system tick once a decade when fundamental strategic choices are made about where to build or rebuild a major facility (downtown or in the burbs?). In our IHP Institute for Public Health and Faith, we teach leaders to focus on a half-generation vision—about 14 yeras. For a mom sitting next to the bed of our sick kids life is marked by the drip, drip, drip of the meds flowing into the veins.

Danny Hillis, one of our generation’s wise geniuses who happens to be the kid of former missionaries, Bill and Argye Hillis. So he tends to think about things that are more important than the average genius. He wrote a landmark article in Wired in 1995 ( in which proposed a millennium clock that would help us see the “long now” in which we live by phenomenon measured in decades, centuries and millennium. Tick (wait a thousand years) tick (wait another thousand) tick...... ( )

Hillis tells the story of the new dining room (built in 1386) where the craftsmen built expecting it to last for one of the thousand year ticks. When the room had to be repaired in the late 1800’s the new new carpenters used the oak trees their original brothers has planted for just that purpose. Imagine the life of those original workers, who lived in a thousand year web of blessing where trees have a chance to grow. No wonder they built with a quality admired across centuries! Such quality reflects the life of the craftspeople and their life reflects the web of life that held them up.

Tick, tick.....tick.....................tick.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Impossible Life

I'm posting this from St. Michael's Maryland where I'm performing the wedding for my niece, Jenny Robinson and her love, Greg Ruchti in a couple hours. This has been a week full of family life including last Sunday's deep breath of life at Oakhurst Baptist Church in a service led mostly by Lauren reflecting on how the story of her life has been so shaped by growing up in this place of great stories. Karen, Kathryn and I all played supporting roles. Like Lauren, much of what I know about life, I've learned in that most amazing place of grace and hope. (Check out it's website--especially the Covenant-- at

Most of what I know about congregational strengths I first observed in this special place. So if you've read Deeply Woven Roots, you'll know. But it continues to evolve--as does live--in ways that are adaptive and unpredictable. Already, having been in Memphis for only two years, we see so many new faces and note the absence of others we've come to love across the years. Jake Swint passed on a few years ago i his late 80's after being such a key part of our life. We had hoped his wife Kathy would read a poem, but was not well enough to attend. But a congregation lives on the blessings of all those who have contributed to its life--and on the hopes for all those who will. Both ends of the web extend out of sight and mind and memory, but are felt in ways that are more real than the bricks.

Here's the prayer for the world I prayed last week:
God of impossible graces; God of life,
We confess that the gifts of communications have informed our fears far better than our hopes; disclosed the failures of mercy for more than it has shown where the arc of history bends towards justice. As we read the paper we richochet from one urgent fear to the next; one collapse to the next injury only to be distracted by a disaster in a place we know so incompletely that we can barely be curious. And then we gather in this small room to raise up our praise and doubts. We need your help even to ask for your help. So we begin our prayers for the world with a plea to sort out the distractions and mere curiosities from those events where you would have us know your intentions and draw us along side of your work of life.

Dampen our superficial desire to be everywhere even as you feed our fire of passion to be where you can use us. Help us see where you are already in motion and learn to trust even more the breadth and surprise of how many like ourselves you have already called into motion; how many already stirred to give their best word, and quiet witness where there would otherwise be only lament.

There is no suffering where you are not already present; and no possibility of life where you have not already drawn a partner—even like one of us—to your unfinished creation. But we cannot see what we do not expect; cannot hear a story we do not think possible. Our readiness to despair marks our unbelief just as it freezes us in place.

So even as we pray for the world, we can sense you moving in the most surprising place—inside and among us here giving us a mind of hope and informing our imagination that perhaps you have not given up on the restless world or even on us.

Thank you; thank you, for this most impossible grace and for the world in which we experience it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

And so we begin

This is a blog about life written in the language of life. Larry Pray and I wrote a book about the leading causes of life which has (as life does) emerged into a growing swirl of activities, projects, experiences and, above all, friendships. Those causes of life -- connection, coherence, agency, blessing and hope--are a simple trellis on which a great deal is growing.

My life grows through a rich web of relationships, many of which are linked in one way or another to organizations: Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Interfaith Health Program, Africa Religious Health Assets Program, World Council of Churches, United Methodist Church, schools and others on the ground in Memphis where I live. Some are mostly academic, others programmatic, but all are about life.

Although I play some official role in many of those organizations, this blog is purely personal. I do not expect any of my comments to reflect on them or obligate than in any way. Sometimes I don't even agree with myself!

The Leading Causes of Life is one of four books I've written, all of which are ways of seeking to frame life as a positive movement toward the possible. Although many of my relationships tend to arise out of engagement with problems of different scales and types (hunger, AIDS, violence), my focus has always been toward the possible. Deeply Woven Roots (Fortress) is about the strengths of congregations; Boundary Leaders (Fortress) is about creating life in the "boundary zones" of community; Strong Partners (Carter Center) is about aligning religious health assets. The point is leading a life about life.

I will be posting about once a week. Hopefully, others, such as Larry Pray will also post, enriching the discourse.

You'll see links to all of these associations, institutions, books and programs. If you haven't come to the blog from one of them I encourage you to find you way from the blog toward them.

This is probably enough of an introduction for a blog. I'm posting this from my cabin in the North Georgia mountains on a clear day in the 80's stirred by just enough breeze to hold the hawks up and to invite me away from the keyboard toward the hardwood paths. Looks like life out there.