Saturday, June 25, 2011

The opposite of old, dumb, scared and mean

There are many things in the world to be afraid of. Tornadoes and floods deserve a thought, especially this year. Hurricanes, always. But the big damage is done by groups of people that are old, dumb, scared and mean, especially when all those objectives describe how they think about the future. Like a tornado, there is no arguing with them, just beware their random damage. But like a flood, their swath is predictable; you can usually stay out of the way. And keep on eye on the levees, especially behind the levees where dumbness tends to find a way under. I’m thinking of the silly foci of the anti-Muslim crowds in neighborhoods all over the world. This is the same bunch that wants to change the very structure of our civil society to protect us against people nobody should be afraid of at all. They are a civic sand-boil, not a levee break. But they are useful in reminding us of what the future is not about.

What is the future about and how can we get there? Well, you could look through young lives that are the opposite of old, dumb, scared and mean. The (first!) Summer Youth Conference on UNITY and HOPE, attracted youth and adults (who are fit to be with youth!) in a feast of smart discussion and action, all about the world that should comes next. The future isn't exactly dazzling when it first becomes visible. The line up deserved 2,000 people and we had a cozier group of about 150. But then again, the Dalai Lama didn't fill up the place either (Memphis is a tough town). But the future is on the way. You can see it.

The gentle and gentle sprout of hopefulness was watered by some very big global names, such as as Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Dato’ J. Jegathesan of Malaysia. Most of us in Memphis haven’t heard of him, which is because isn’t from around here and isn’t afraid of the things we’ve been taught to worry about. He—like most of your youth—is interested in what should come next and how we lend our lives to making it so.

The whole gathering idea of Dr. Sunny Anand, the globally renowed intensivist at LeBonheur. He spends most of his time seizing the next few days of life from the jaws of young tragedy, one moment and one life at a time. Thank God. But he is a citizen of the future, focusing hope and imagination on those who we will depend on soon—and finding a way to gather them together to help us all find our way. Those coming together bring their faith, not just of different traditions, but also different futures. I’m glad my Jesus faith is there, but also that of others illuminated by other lights.

It is a bit audacious to think that my generation of grown-ups has much to teach the rising one. We’ve spent most of our time fiddling with new gadgets while a few of us invented some great music. But we pretty much failed to turn the course of things that matter; looking around the world today looks old, scared, dumb and mean, just with iphones. . But few of us can still rock, including the Kings of the Delta led by Greg Lacky of Arkansas (It takes some guts to call yourselves kings of the delta in Memphis!) So maybe we can at least talk with the rising ones.

And maybe together, teach other the things that make for peace and hope.

It's not done! (the future or the conference about it) It rolls on Sunday morning at 9am at Cannon Center in downtown Memphis through about 4pm. Check out the website at

- Posted on the journey

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Essence, Hope, Generosity (amazing)

You would not expect the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to be a life-enhancing experience. Unless you knew anything about what is going on here. Mississippi is dead last in almost any health statistic in the any book, although they swear they have edged up ahead of West Virginia in a few categories. And it is true here as in most places that United Methodist clergy have been about 20% heavier than their lay members of the same age (not easy to do in the South!). Not encouraging for health folks.

So it is, well, amazing, that this is the Conference that has become best example of Wesleyan tradition in integrated health and faith since Wesley got on a horse. And the most visible signal of what is working is the Amazing Pace program, which builds a very smart and comprehensive wellness emphasis focused on the simplest of all things, walking.

Hundreds of Mississippi clergy wear their uploadable pedometers religiously, to use exactly the right word. In the past several years they have walked just over 2 million miles(including a couple around the state capitol early saturday morning). It is not a coincidence that the clergy health insurance plan has not had to have a rate increase in those four years and even returned a million dollars from their reserve fund into the pension fund -- because the hard claim data indicated that fundamental usage patterns had changed. This has happened in the years of recovering from the still-lingering trauma of Katrina when you would expect the opposite.

Some would think it would take all kinds of draconian threats, humiliation and massive incentives to achieve changes like that. And there are some minor incentives that will actually return some cash to participants if they meet the goals of 10,000 steps each month. But the main incentive is visible, verifiable improvement in health, energy and sense of possibility that is visible in the lives of each other. Oh, and, being religion, competition. The program tracks and makes visible who is walking how far in terms of individuals, but also teams from Districts. It is considerably more fiercely watched than church basketball (which makes rugby seem civilized). People encourage each other and not just the svelte and fit. Many of the leaders are traditionally shaped, but getting fitter and fitter.

We see this because Methodist Healthcare offers free health screening, which we've done for a couple decades. In the past few years we've been delighted to lend our support to the Amazing Pace (including sponsoring that walk in what feels like the middle of the night!). Our volunteers, almost all retired employees, do blood work and then counseling for a bit over 300 people each year. They tell the truth, inform and encourage people to take their own lives in the right direction. And many do. Year after year after year. Amazing.

All this health stuff is like a positive whirlwind that translates quite directly into energy that is felt on the floor of Conference itself. It helps that Bishop Hope Morgan Ward is the embodiment of all things alive and well in the Church--and that she is such a gracious messenger for Life. So the hundreds of pedometers carried by clergy on the move resonate with the Word from leaders.

So the songs of hope, grace and possibility all make sense; the prayers for healing are seen to be in the process of being answered. It is not delusional to hope--just look around. The Spirit moves and moves and moves.

It is still Mississippi so much of the mean and savage past remains visible, too. Faulkner noted that the problem with history is that it is not in the past. Race, gender, sex, privilege and power are all remain fiercely contested. The Bishop is regularly flogged because she gave the microphone to a lesbian couple two years ago. But just a few booths down from the Methodist Healthcare health fair is DREAM: "daring to reconcile and embrace all in Mississippi"(blogging at www.dreams.word

Steps and then more steps. You show up and start walking. Things happen you had given up hoping for.

I've been thinking again about Nathan Wolfe's observation that viruses live because they are able to "generate novelty." And the way they do that is to share their DNA in wildly unpredictable ways. They are generous with their essence, so things happen that would never be possible if change depended on each individual virus tweaking and scheming.

Human communities that learn to be generous with their essence generate novelty that allows life to find a way. Lee Burdine is the brain and spirit behind Amazing Pace. He is quick to deflect credit and he is correct in seeing the amazing changes involving many people who are generously contributing to the emergence of novelty. But he is generous with his essence, gracious and tenacious in the Mississippi way I have to respect. Not one, but ten thousand steps at a time. Amazing.

- Posted on the journey `

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Murder of crows, hilarity of geese

Paducah is full of surprises, such as a full scale giraffe where you would not expect it. And, for that matter, a whole arts district (and a gorgeous coffee house named "etcetera"). Here for the Annual Conference of the Memphis District (no, nobody knows why Paducah is part of it). Reflecting on the curiosity of hundreds of clergy in one spot, John Kilzer informed me that a group of crows is called a "murder of crows" (look it up) and a similar group of geese can be called a "hilarity of geese."

I'm not sure what a gaggle of clergy should be called, but nothing so bland as conference. Some are worse than crows and funnier than geese, but most are simply people who year after year after year show up in people's lives with integrity, humility, care and then do the very best they can with what they've got. And then suddenly before
they notice, they've done it for 30 years. The best are surprised and regard the suddenly passed decades with some humor, but could fill it with a million stories of what matters most.

When you look closer, the colors and patterns of integrity are subtle and dazzling at the same time.

In Bishop Dick Wills "state of the church" this morning he said that if you didn't want to follow Jesus, just stay in church. But don't bar the gates for those following Jesus outside in ministry. He begged us not to take the church so seriously, while taking Jesus far more so.

He played the video from "playing for change" and the original stunner of a video beginning with Roger playing "stand by me." ( If you haven't seen it, do it now and forget the rest of the blog.

Wayne Merrit used to say that "you shall know the truth and truth shall make you odd. "It is not easy to follow the odd savior Jesus, for it will surely make you odd, too. It is sure a lot harder to do so inside the walls of the institution which tries to keep him safe from all he said. This is probably one of the clues to why it is generally healthy to be in a congregation, but potentially lethal to lead one, or lead four hundred like a Bishop tries to do. And a clue about what health looks like. More like the arts of resistance, than "compliance" (a hospital's favorite word for good patients).

- Posted on the journey