Monday, March 28, 2011


My pedometer said it was 32,000 steps from the rim to the river where the base rock is 1.8 billion years old, give or take a hundred million. (It was less than 8 miles, but nearly a mile down, so I took little steps.) But every little shuffle was about 56,000 years of geology. So my first twitch down the trail passed democracy; the first lift of the knee marked all the time since Jesus, never mind Wesley, all the fruits of scientific method, the Indigo Girls and the Web.

I was silenced by the distant witness of petroglyphs that had improbably survived just a scramble up from the trail. But before my first foot touched the icy mud, I had passed them and all of recorded human history; and then all trace of humanity before the first switchback.

From then on, nothing but the raw creativity of time, wind, water and microbes. Entire oceans filled up, drained and up again. My favorite formation is the "great unconformity" where two geologic layers coincide impossibly because 1.25 billion years in between washed away without a trace. Think about it.

It is no small presumption to think we can comprehend the question posed by such a testament, much less an answer. But you would have to be dumb as a canyon full of rocks not to notice that life found a way. Infinitely serious creativity produces mule deer with ridiculous ears (they turn out to be really helpful in cooling), purple cactus (God only knows why) and trees that can grow in the most absurdly precarious places. God or time, some ask. God in time, I think.

And why we humans? Our sole capacity worth the evolutionary risk may be our capacity for awe, wonder, gratitude and sometimes, even kindness.

There is no litter in the canyon until you get back within a hundred feet of the rim and the 5 million people who come here. People at the bottom talk of "micro trash" and carefully scan their campsite before leaving. So I was so shocked when I neared the rim to see a plastic water bottle in the muddle trail that I stopped, carefully thought through how to get myself and my pack bent over far enough to reach it without spending the afternoon in that position. I figured it out, picked it up, poured out its purified water on a grateful pine, crushed the plastic into my pocket and walked on.

Only 1% ever go that far into the chasm, which might be about the same percentage of those attending church who ever give themselves to the vulnerability of the Spirit and its Question. Meanwhile, as Larry Pray suggests, walk softly.
Give way to those making their way up the path.
Thank the ones maintaining the trail.
Take on part of the load before giving advice.
Pay attention.
And pay with the currency of gratitude.

(And thanks to Karen and the kids for sending me, to Jeff for accompaniment and to John and John for trail guidance.)
- Posted on the journey

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Audible Sigh

Bill Mallonee and Muriah Rose have played to a lot larger audiences than the one last night, but I'd be surprised if there have been any more tuned in to every whisper. They were the first artists to play in the Innovation Studio, consecrating the space with true, clear music that pealed back the cover of life. "Rural Route," looked -- and felt -- through the eyes of a friend who delivers mail in Indiana with lots of time for reflection. "Bakersfield" reached into the inner spaces of a man driven by the dust storms of the depression (a Tsunami of dust, Bill noted). "Friendly Fire" went into the free fire zone of a Vietnam Vet's return and then turned the lens slightly so that it reflected the spaces in between man and woman (Bill warned us). "Audible Sigh," of course (the last album of Bill's earlier band, Vigilantes of Love). This isn't "church music" any more than John the Baptist was just just a philosopher. Bill invites us to see through the dust and ghosts and spaces that look empty, but aren't. It can be scary, but we don't go alone.

The Innovation Studio is designed for just this labor of looking beyond, which is why we need all the art we can get. For one thing, you can actually hear yourself think. And we could hear Bill and Rose think, too, not something that happens much in the usual bar or church gig.

Earlier in the day a group of mostly retired physicians gathered here to honor Dr. Ralph Hamilton, who gave the first gift to build the whole Center of Excellence. They had each in their way pushed far beyond the obvious to find the possible healing in the lives of their patients. The previous day we spent an afternoon looking through the lens of those who take their own lives. Rick Kirchoff notes that "healing is a community venture." Indeed.

Art, science and spirit move toward what looks empty, believing that is where are most likely to find life raw, vital and new. None of the three -- art, science or spirit -- is tame or predictable because you just don't know what's out there until you open yourself to it. You don't "have" science, faith or talent. It has you and won't let go until just can't go another note. Bill has released 39 CD's so far, which he described as evidence of obsessive compulsion more than a career. Life won't let go.

In one of our more grandiose moments at Oakhurst Baptist, we once said that God only calls us to great things. Almost as soon as we heard it, we knew it was a trap. In real life, we never know if our day's labor is big or little until years later. It usually takes me about 5 years to figure out if I wasted my time on a project, a meeting, a conversation an audience. The IHP is 19, ARHAP 9, CHN 4 and the Center of Excellence just a few weeks old. But then sometimes it is clear right away, as last night.

Bill and Rose drove on to Independence, Missouri today, winding their way back to New Mexico. Do your heart, spirit and mind a favor and find out when they are coming near you. Better yet, reach out and bring them in.

- Posted on the journey

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grown ups and government

Last thursday a handful of us from Memphis met with about 20 leaders and staff of the government in the conference room of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Hubert Humphrey Building is one of the remarkably ugly in the whole city, except for the gorgeous quote from .... Hubert Humphrey right inside the front door: "the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

It takes a real grown up to do that kind of work and the folks here do the nitty grit labor involved 24/7/365 year after year after year. Not easy for DC these days is wall to wall weird and mean. This may be why a way of thinking about community health born in Memphis makes more sense than you might think. Nobody in Memphis is EVER surprised by the weird and mean. And we don't need or expect the course of human events to be pretty and clean. We just keep trying to focus on what we actually have to work with and then try to connect the moving parts as best we can.

That might sound a bit casual, but it is not. It does take the patient, tenacious grown-up labor of paying attention to what is possible and then trying to do it. And just what is possible? That is constantly coming in to view by working on what you already know is possible. The path is made by walking, not alone, but with a broad cast of others trying to act out of their best selves. It is not pretty on most days, but it is real.

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Davis is one of our exemplar pastors who spoke about what happens at the congregation level. It was so inspiring that it sounded almost magical. It isn't magic at all, of course. Enormous hours invested in building the strengths of spirit, mind and body called the Church so that when somebody needs some part of it, it can be the channel for God's love to flow toward healing, if healing is possible at all.

Bill Foege said that "tenacity doesn't always work. But it is the only thing that works."

We were meeting Thursday literally next door to the "situation room" where HHS people were tuned in like lasers to the fragile and horrific events taking place in Japan. Filled with all the apparatus you'd expect in a high-tech nerve center, the human beings were tuning to what was possible to do amid a situation that was impossible to expect. And they were doing it as best they could, (for which we should be grateful enough to pay our taxes without acting like spoiled four year olds all the time.).

On most days our work is dramatically undramatic. Jimmy Carter once called it "the mundane revolution." Doing what might help one thing after another 24/7/365 year after year.

- Posted on the journey

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Billions of exceptions

Mindy Smith sings wistfully, "Tennessee may not be what everybody needs, but it's good enough for me." I feel the same way about our little nearby star, which shines on all that matters on the planet I like to live on with those I love. Last night I had the opportunity to compare it to a few countless billions of other stars at the South Africa Large Telescope complex in the high dry air of Sutherland. If one is ever to be humble, this is the place to get in touch with scale and time.

The star among the many stars is the Southern Very Large Telescope (SALT), the largest the Southern Hemisphere at 11 meters. Open only 5 years, it is a time machine reaching into the aching spaces of what is there to know. And there is a lot. For instance, they've learned about binary stars. About half of what you look at in the dark are not one, but two or more oddly dancing ensembles of bizarre varieties. SALT has found one called a "catastrophic binary" in which a dense small star sucks the volatile gasses off the its companion until it eventually becomes unstable and explodes into a supernova. Perhaps you can think of institutional relationships like that? (pictures at

Thirteen other sophisticated telescopes owned by universities from around the world clutter the 6,000 high plateau. I was hoping Mindy Smith would help me ease into this, but there is simply no gentle way to say that Vanderbilt's tool is called the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope.

The South Africans claim my Tennessee colleagues are aware this, but I am sure I am among the few others in the state to know that. It turns out the little sucker does work well at its very specific task of finding other planets. We may need that one day.

Jim, his son Tebo and I spent some astonished hours squinting through a mere 13 inch scope which was motorized to point at nearly anything you'd think to look at. (Imagine what Galileo could have figured out if he had this thing we can buy in a catalog instead of his crude Dutch optic). I saw a globular cluster, which looks to the eye as one fuzzy star, but is actually a cloud of them too dense to count. And the Small Magellan filled with bright young stars emerging in a cloud of galactic dust. My favorite is the "jewell box, a handful of differently colored gem-like suns just below the bottom of the Southern Cross. Oh, my.

SALT sees through an array of 91 mirrors that align to form a perfect 11 meter wide reflective disc. It can stare for hours at the same thing 13 billion light years out of our neighborhood and then an astronomer can peer into that data for months to figure out what it means. There are many arts and wonders to making that happen, but I noticed that they have to constantly fiddle, tweak and tinker with the alignment in order to see anything.

As the edges of the universe constantly expands, so does our ignorance, as new and impossible to imagine things keep happening. So we are constantly chasing after the universe with better tools. At the moment scientists are deciding to build a vast radio telescope array that would cover miles of either here in the Karoo or the Australian Outback. Who knows what we'll realize we don't know.

The Karoo raises people kind to their own kind, for nobody can live in this dry rocky terrain without generous friends. But the land tempts toward hardness on the others who may compete for the green and trickle of water. Surely, if we ever could get our eyes in alignment, we could see that our neighborhood is impossibly cold, that there is nobody on our tiny spot who is not us and that we must be kind or die.

I read Lauren's newest play, "Silent Sky" in Sutherland. It is about Henrietta Leavitt, the woman who figured out how to figure out where we are in the universe partly by studying the pulsing Cepheids in my favorite Small Magellanic Cloud. It is all about connections and knowing of the kind that Sutherland is all about.

Henrietta closes the play looking up.

"Vast. Black. Lonely, except for billions upon billions of exceptions. And there is a reason we measure it in light."

Silent Sky opens April 8th at South Coast Rep Theater in Orange County, California, hardly another 100th of a light second away from Memphis.

- Posted on the journey

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mind Fields are the hope of the world

This woman with the bright eyes on the front row is Dr. Marion Jacobs, the Dean of the School of Health Sciences of the University of Cape Town. We were pausing for the photo op after discussing the signing of the memorandum of collaboration between the public health and family medicine department (The Department head, Leslie London is next to her) and Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare's center of Excellence in Faith and Health. This gives the African Religious Health Assets Programme a strong new home and Memphis a strong partner.

The intellectual work involves the complex and nuanced relationship between medical science institutions and the even-more complex dynamics of community. The heart of the Memphis work is intentionally changing that relationship with new pathways of trust so that people can move to where they need help at the right time. South Africans know a very great deal about historic patterns of race and poverty and thus have a rich emerging body of thought and practice about building systems of health. We both live every day amid the aching irony of the blinding evolutionary speed of medical technology and the inexplicably slow changes that matter most to most peoples' journey through life. We work together, chewing on data, developing practice smart enough to make a difference at a scale that matters. (other smart and smiling people include from the right Dr. Jill Oliver, me, Dr. Lucy Gilson, Dr. Jim Cochrane, Dr. Teresa Cutts, Almost-Dr. Sepetla Molapo and Dr. Liz Thomas).

And what is also happening is the emergence of what Ian McCallum describes as a "mind field" in his new book, Ecological Intelligence. Across the miles we think alike and also hope alike. "It is therefore, more than anything, an attitude: one that is open to choosing the hard path, the one that E O Wilson calls the path of 'volitional evolution.' This is the difficult path of those who have decided to do something about their heredity and their fate and who are committed to playing their part faithfully." (p.152)

This sounds somber, but the smiles are frequent in this kind of choosing. We laugh more than sigh; say "ah ha!" more than "oh no!" And in the process the data gets clarified, the theory smarter, the practices more effective.

This is Dr. Liz Thomas a longterm core leader of ARHAP thinking hard (she does that a lot). The drawing behind her is, believe it or not, a kind of map for the complex mind fields of faith and health that now span hundreds of partners scattered around the world.

Thinking is a kind of doing. And doing is a kind of thinking. If we are going to bend the curve of the gross and deadly patterns of disease and injury, we are going to need to think and do a lot; and choose partners that are built for high seas and the long walk toward freedom.

- Posted on the journey

Monday, March 7, 2011

Entrance, led by a bear

I am writing this from CapeTown, South Africa early on Monday morning, but still thinking about something that happened Saturday evening in Atlanta. Technically, that qualifies for "last night" because off the time zone shift. Lauren's new play, "Exit, pursued by a bear," opened at Synchronisity Theater. I shifted time zones, but Lauren managed to shift a whole audience through seven mind-zones.

First and most obvious: you need to go see this thing. You can't describe a play any more than you can describe a song. It's art; you gotta be there.

I saw it being read by a group of actors sitting in folding chairs in a bright room when it was under development at Emory a few months ago. And even at that stage it was mesmerizingly smart and sharp. The play weaves around the story of Nan Carter, a woman in a bad North Georgia marriage trying to get out with the help of some friends who are nearly equally trapped in their lives. Nan quotes Jimmy Carter a lot (who she wishes had been her dad). The structure of the play-- a tragic comedy--is borrowed from Shakespeare, but she managed to get the Discovery Channel in there, and more than you'd think you'd want to know about...bears.

I suppose that all art matters. But art with words performed by human beings in the presence of other attentive human beings really, really matters.It help us see through the clutter, weirdness and wildness of life to find our way. I was in Nashville Thursday, Kansas Saturday and Cape Town today, in each place talking with people who really care about our very weird world. I can tell you that people at least over that 9,000 miles of the globe have a pretty good grip on a LOT of facts. But facts need a narrative, and narratives need a heart for the world.

Art helps science find the narrative of life. And, of course, science keeps story tethered to reality. "Exit, pursued by a bear" is an artistic stage direction from Shakespeare. Clever. But the plot turns on the scientific fact that Nan knew something about bears that her husband did not.

Facts matter. It matters that our planet can't work with more than 350 participles per million of carbon in the air. We have to know that fact so that we can be appropriately afraid that we're already over that number. We should be afraid of that, instead of the goofy fears about Muslims nurtured even in the heartland of Kansas. But facts and fear do not lead us out of our quandary or into the world we hope for. Only a true story--truer than our current facts--can do that. Art matters.

Makes me think the world has a shot. Thanks, Lauren.

Full Run: March 3 - 27, 2011
Thursday thru Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday at 7:00 p.m.
Venue: 7 Stages Mainstage Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave. N.E. in Little Five Points.

- Posted on the journey

Friday, March 4, 2011

Straight, No Chaser

Bill Mallonee (appearing with his wife Muriah Rose) will be the first singer-songwriter in the new Center of Excellence in Faith and Health, Wednesday March 23rd.

I heard Bill at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Georgia a few months ago and was simply blown away by the powerful, almost painful integrity of the music. I didn't know then that he was so frequently--and surprisingly-- welcomed at seminaries helping to illuminate what the arts have to do with practicing faith. He'll be in Memphis after a wild schedule that takes him through a number of performance venues, but also to Union, Princeton and Wesley Seminaries.

If you haven't heard of him, well, go his website and download his latest WPA album and see if it doesn't light up some places in your spirit you didn't know were there.

And in the meantime, read over the lyrics to "straight, no chaser"--the tune on his WPA album that made a fan out of me. (

We're sponsoring this with John Kilzer and his Theology and Arts program of Memphis Theological Seminary. The Center of Excellence only holds 95 people as a music venue, so email Ruthie Hayes to protect your seat

$10 suggested donation.

Straight, No Chaser - music/lyrics: bill mallonee

Trails that led to the mountain top
too late to turn back, too late to late to stop

Friends all left with logs in their eyes

Clapped their hands at my demise

And that’s how the righteous apply

the justice of God with a cold clear eye

Ain’t no one in here without a taint

In every sinner there lies the perfect saint


Lay down your sorrows…

They’ll still be there tomorrow…

For you to pick up again

Lay down your fears and doubts…

Give of your heart from the inside out

And all those sad mistakes?

They’ll still be there…when you awake


A million knocks on unopened doors

A million questions there’s no answers for

Usually the last to know the score

Got these splinters in my knuckles

Sun going down and the city arises…

Shake of the dust and the compromises

Down here kid, you know it never really ends

You gotta learn to dream in color again

(repeat chorus)

I swam the river way past the shallows

I found a thousand dreams there…hangin’ on the gallows

And the shadows they cast on the tender blades of Spring

Gave me…this song to sing

So, sing of the kisses…sing of the failures

Sing of the grief, kid…straight, no chaser

Sing of all that’s poisioned your well

Sing of all you had to sell

(repeat chorus)

- Posted on the journey

Movement Grunt

Vanderbilt University, like my own Emory, is privileged. It has been for many, many years. It attracts those among the best and brightest, who are able to see the world whole partly because many live sort of on top of it. Sometimes that is useful. Yesterday about 150 from the academy and surrounding places gathered around the question "is there a balm in Gilead?" It was a way for the Cal Turner Center for Moral Leadership to approach the question of how people of influence and initiative should use those assets to advance the health of other people, especially the poor.

It is very good news that that many people of all sorts and types would show up on a gorgeous Tennessee morning to talk about that. Dr. Scott Morris kicked things into motion, as he always does, with passionate and smart stories of his ministry (and his new book, which you should have read by now)("healthcare you can live with" on Amazon and just about everywhere else).

And Governor Haslam showed up to close it out. In between there was a lot of very smart discussion. But my favorite insight was an accident; kind of a blurt, really. We were all asked to raise our hand to show our primary identity. As usual the question stumped me, so I raised mine about six times. Healthcare provider? Academic? Minister? Theologian? Activist? Consumer? Not doctor, nurse, chaplain, counsellor or anything actually useful, of course. But as I was pondering my identity a voice from the back called out "congregational grunt." That's what I should be, I thought!

Maybe a "movement grunt" would be more useful, but I think we meant the same thing. A movement is not something that we have or use. It is the thing that has us; that uses us. And it gives us life in the process as we find ours in the larger life of the world God so loved. And still does.

Amid the infinite complexities of the issues that shape the health of our communities, we are tempted to spend time spinning fantasies of overarching solutions that would make things right. We imagine Counsels, Committees and Memorandum that would bind together Science, Ethics, Power and Rationality. These are works that tempt us away from the real work of imagination. In the end they tempt us to despair.

I think we are in a Bonhoeffer moment these days that calls for something more humble and, yet, radical. Faced with the catastrophic collapse of all that was good in Germany, the young theologian formed a small group of people that prayed, and read the Bible in big chunks, studied and prayed some more. He fell in love and he wrote some (I wish he had written more.) And he gave himself to a failed violent plot to kill Hitler, dying young in the process. He did what he could with who he was and what he had and what he knew. And he did so, not a heroic loner, but a member of a congregation. He was, in a sense, an extremely well-known congregational grunt.

I do not know whether all of our very best will do any better than Bonhoeffer's efforts. We live amid terrible times when we hardly notice the mentally ill wandering unattended under the bridges, sleeping on the steps of our downtown churches. We have forgotten to be sickened by the amputation epidemic filling our streets with people on little scooters marking the motorization of uncontrolled diabetes. We are now hardened people forgetting to gasp at the casual structural violence with which we are complicit.

I don't want to be that way. I want to feel the shock of being drawn by a movement of spirit to lend my mind and my body to bend the curve toward hope. I want to be a movement grunt.

Let it be.

- Posted on the journey