Monday, January 31, 2011

Not Here by Chance

This is the covenant that guides the wildly vital life of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. (You can read it at Written in 1977 by a number of mostly laypeople some of whom are still finding their life on the corner where the "covenant stone" now rests. Karen and I joined only a year after it was written and born and raised both daughters in its light. The covenant continues to be living body of thought for sons, daughters, rising and setting stars, recovering and revolutionizing people ever since. It was amended in 1997 to broaden Galatians 3:28 to exclude distinctions in sexual orientation and mental ability. God only knows what other distinctions will be excluded next, but I would note that my golden retriever, Jessie, once walked the aisle on a snowy day to join and was accepted. ( I believe that even the Apostle Paul would have recognized Jessie's faithful heart.)

The covenant invites, not contains, reminding me of the the way the banks of a delta river guide, more than hold, the vital flow. And like a river, you can never visit the same Oakhurst twice.

John Shippee offered up the prayers of the world this day (those prayers being pretty much the only constant in the order of service for the past 30 years). John's language is usually the superabundant eruption of Old Faithful. But today--on his 67th birthday-- all of us could hear that the cancer is back. He asked for our grace as he read his prayer. I can't remember a single syllable, but I am sure God took good notes and got to work on them. But you could feel the depth, ache and reach as he prayed, not for himself, but for the green and glorious, bloody and lonely world.

Curt Armstrong, the leader of the local l'arche community, spoke to the last line we pledged, "with God's help and the help of my sisters and brothers in this fellowship, I make this covenant." Echoing Jean Vanier, he distinguished between productive and fruitful fellowships and the way that our blended vulnerabilities lead us to healing as they pull us toward relationships. Incompleteness is a grace, when experienced in fellowship. So is the ache of never-to-be-completedness.

I thought of other days when we stood by the stone and read the covenant.
One sunday I even preached and said that the test of a covenant is that it would not be fulfilled in ones life, but would be found valuable enough to be picked up when we laid our lives down. I had no idea what I was talking about, of course, assuming I would always have time. Now I see that my very best thoughts and visions call me far beyond my little self for I will not see them complete.

The Congregational Health Network also has a "covenant" that calls us beyond ourselves to the beloved dream of a Memphis that looks more like what God had in mind when he made the river flow just beneath the bluffs and across the rich delta. This is a baby covenant, alive only three years and living among only the first 311 congregations. What will it be in 2045 when it will be 34 years old like Oakhurst's is this day? Will it still stir the heart of young and old and call out prayers by the sick on behalf of the well? Will it still feel young, wild and possible only with God's help and the help of the sisters and brothers in the fellowship?

May it be, Lord, please may it be.

- Posted on the journey

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Enough to go around

So, I was planning all this week to post a very cool and thoughtful reflection about presenting a seminar at the World Bank about Memphis' experience as developing community and, of course, how our mapping, aligning and animation of religious health assets is showing such promise. Would that not have been very impressive? Well, it turns out that Washington DC needs a bit of development. About 15 minutes from landing in the heavy snow our plane headed back up above the clouds because the ground radar was broken. Flying cowboy that he was, he insisted that he didn't mind landing into that twisty little runway by the Potomac in the driving snow, but they wouldn't let him try it without ground radar. Kudos to whoever decided that!

So instead of a picture of me at the World Bank, I give you a picture of the little train that shuttles back and forth in the Detroit airport, which is where they send you, apparently, when you have tried and failed to land in DC.

Delta handled the deluge of frustrated passengers with calm competence. And the hundreds of frustrated passengers were pretty calm themselves, actually. I did think some of those in the 'privileged" line would pop a gut when two people in wheelchairs turned out to be even more privileged than they.

I found my way back to Memphis on an early morning flight in time reflecting on how it was that there are people in Detroit standing by, prepared and ready for such a deluge in the middle of the night. Where do they keep all the stuff that turns out to be needed on sudden notice? What would all those people have done with their time, if we had not dropped from the sky?

And I thought about the fact that even in our tightened times, there is slack in the system when needed. And there is actually slack in other systems, too. About 10% of our patients at Methodist pay nothing these days and yet we find a way to cover it and keep going, still making money ourselves. There is enough to go around.

The last picture is another one from the soon-to-emerge Center of Excellence. This one is soon to be where Ruthie will sit in the reception area welcoming families, clergy, and zillions of volunteer care-givers to be trained. And a lot of other kinds of smart people ready to blend their intelligences to create the social innovations we need in Memphis. There is enough for us to work with. Way more than enough.

- Posted on the journey

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sheetrock and HTML fit for a King

Things are emerging in Memphis wrapped in new sheetrock, glass and even HTML. I do love things under construction!

What? Aren't I supposed to be reflecting on Dr. King and rampaging violence? Well, we do that pretty much every day in Memphis. I can see the Lorraine Motel from my desk. So I find myself thinking about the idea of an "implicate order" emerging through the complex dance across the years. David Bohm wrote a great book about the idea that order unfolded through the mystery and wonder at the edge of "the unlimited." I like all that and am known for being dangerously comfortable with ambiguity. Sometimes I am accused of mistaking plane 'ol disorder for emergent order. Fair.

Bohm was the last thing from naive, but his language implies something less than the brutal turbulence I have come to appreciate in Memphis. Here disorder fights back, actively, and does not play fair. Blood flows.

It is dangerous to think the intractable phenomenon of even the most obvious evil--race-linked health differences--will simply unfold. We must wage health with all the focus and intelligence and energy that others wage war. Our tools are not those of violence, but need to be sharp as any sword.

That is what the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health is for, especially its "innovation studio" which will be open within a few weeks. And just in time. The CDC released one more stunning report about disparities yesterday. Another 116 pages of footnotes to the most obvious intractable story. ( )

We saw some of this in our own our North Hospital in a study focusing on heart attack and heart disease survival rates. Those findings find an echo in the study of disparate outcomes in the LeBonheur ER for hispanic children almost as dramatic at the Black elders at North. This has brought to view information we can't look away from--and need not.

We have the intellectual capacity to burrow through piles of unreflected assumptions sorting out the things we can do now from those we must drill deeper into. We have leadership capable of applying moral capital guided by good judgement to change the reality of gross disparities toward equity. We didn't create disparities in health and we can't eliminate them by ourselves. But we can think and lead, building trust and momentum in the process through transparent, non anxious systematic work, acting where the course is clear enough to do so and systematically researching where it is not. That's what grown ups are for, especially those with the faith the size of a kudzu seed.

The pursuit of equity is not confined to religious partners. Indeed, it is the most obvious intersection between public and faith at every level in any democratic country. And the imagination of faith is not confined to health disparities, partly because all scriptures are pretty realistic about how hard it is to bend the arc of human history toward what God hopes for. But. We can do better.

The Center of Excellence will open in tough times dedicated to going right at the heart of darkness. It is only one unit in a very large organization with many partners. But for the first time we will have a place designed and committed to the work of innovation that dares hope for transformation.

This signals a long term sustained creative effort that reflects our most fundamental confidence that our institution and our community is part of God's ever-constant action to create the Beloved Community. The space is nice, but our commitment and confidence rests not on our competence alone, flawed and fragmented as it is. We do not act alone, for we are moved by a God who is not done with us or our community.

Oh, and check out our new website, which we breathed fresh air yesterday-- I hope Dr. king would like it.

- Posted on the journey

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Healthcare you can live with

Scott Morris is a physician. And he is a minister. And he is a classic social entrepreneur, creating and sustaining a unique ministry for a quarter century, The Church Health Center. And he is a one great story teller.

All of these come together in his new book, "Healthcare You Can Live With." The book is built around Scott's rich reservoir of stories and the simple, but profound framework of Christian virtues and "model for healthy living." The Church Health Center builds around the same two frameworks, so it is possible to read the book as a lens through which to focus on health ministry, and just as well, to focus on one's own health.

The virtues come straight out of the third chapter of Colossians, which I think Scott understands better than Paul. At the very least, Paul would have been surprised to find how smart his simple list actually turned out to be once Scott built a large ministry on them. Clothing oneself with "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" is, well, healthy, especially when they are bound together in "perfect unity" in love. Forgiveness and release of grievances is the hub of them all, of course, which Scott unpacks in many richly persuasive narratives. Very healthy.

Scott lays out a nice "model for healthy living" designed to help people develop "smart goals" in the various aspects of health including medical, movement, work, emotional, family and friends, nutrition and faith life. The focus is on what one can do themselves, not on scolding or simply accepting somebody else's prescription.

Policy makers will be disappointed with all the easy shots at government (You'd never guess Scott voted for a Democrat in his life by reading the book, but I have reason to believe that he has.) Academics would like more footnotes, of course. Some clergy might be hoping for someone to write them a prescription for a healthy congregation. Scott tells stories and, in effect, says to come and look at The Church Health Center. It is a very good idea to do just that (

In the meantime, read the book:

And choose life.

- Posted on the journey

Monday, January 10, 2011

What we are here for

There is nothing new in the world when it comes to suffering, not even in Tucson. Over the horizon of our attention span yesterday dozens, perhaps hundreds, maybe thousands of equally innocent people where cut down with as little reason. Perhaps they were also caught in a rising tide of violent and cynically divisive rhetoric. Perhaps, another man armed like a warrior but fighting only internal daemons, went off like a grenade in their lives, too.

It is certain that another 25,000 children died of things like diarrhea, hunger and quiet desperation because they do not look like the people where they live who have money or guns or education. The same day the bullets flew in Tucson, our local paper published an exhaustive article about the grossly disparate rates of premature death linked to race in Memphis. No bullets, but lots of death.

There is nothing new in the world when it comes to suffering.

Or healing.

Says Larry Pray: "I do not live in Tuscon. But I know what the churches, synagogues, mosques and temples there are doing. They are gathering together. They are praying, they are reaching out, they are consoling, they are looking for ways to stem violence. They are embodying Tikun olam. That’s what they do." (

What are we for, if not to heal? Or, as Larry spins out the vocabulary of hope: “Mend. Repair. Forgive. Strengthen. Find hope over despair. Find a way to stem the tides of violence. Heal. Tikun olam." That’s what we are for.

I am old enough to have known people doing this kind of most basic healing for some decades. They serve in the soup kitchens, come alongside the bruised and battered women and children, sit with the abandoned ones suffering mental torment and those caught in chemical tangles. They tenderly, quietly stand with those damaged by violence. Tikun olam.

This kind of healing isn't done on the internet or through the windshield. While you can send an unmanned drone to kill, you can't heal that way. "No drive-by compassion," I heard many years ago.

Healers, most astonishingly, keep doing it decade after decade. How can this be?

We are find our lives in the healing of others'. It is not a paradox; it is straight up truth of how it works on this odd and wonderful planet.

Healing is mystical, but not magical. We can show up on purpose. Prepare ourselves on purpose. Train our congregations to do healing work on purpose. We can choose words that heal on purpose. We can give our children eyes to see others kindly on purpose.

That will all happen in the morning in Minneapolis, Memphis and Mombasa. And it will happen in Tuscon even amid the tears.

- Posted on the journey