Monday, October 31, 2011

Disciplines of Abundance

What is the only sin pretty much guaranteed to get us killed? You have to wonder as our airways are so filled with swagger, spit and venom all focused on what others have done or not done.  I'd offer up a suggestion from one the prophets most familiar with nutty imagination, Ezekiel.

Ezekiel describes a lively lovers' quarrel between God and his people ending (as lovers often do) in sorrow: "Cast away all the offenses that you have committed against me and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die...? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live." (Ezekiel 18: 31-2)

God cannot save us when we live as if God is not creative enough to create enough to go around. When we obey the law of not-enough fear cripples, blinds and then kills us.

There is obviously not enough to go around! So, of course I must grasp for my own. There is not enough land, water, money. Not enough healthcare, education or even food. It is folly to deny scarcity! And so we feel justified in leading a life, a family, a congregation or an organization assuming there is not enough for all, (but maybe enough for me). It would  be downright irresponsible to act otherwise. From neighborhoods to nations you can see this fearful logic at work today. Just listen to the squabbling among the current batch of political dwarves blaming their god for their own mean and shrunken spirit.

But before we feel too good about how bad they are, we should hear ourselves whine about how hard it is to do church or health in the poorest, sickest city in the entire nation. God did a bad job from the start and then made it all worse by leaving us alone in a social wilderness. Blame God for our low ambition.

So Ezekiel speaks of the sorrow of God. Jesus wept, too, for his city did know how to live into shalom and its graceful abundance. God doesn't have to exact revenge. We die when we deny God's essential generosity. We make deadly choices rooted in scarcity, so fail to risk, invest and live into the future.

Franz Capra said that humans are dissipative systems that live not on what we grasp and hold, but on the stuff that flows through us. We eat and drink, but it moves through us. So too, a church or healthcare system holds nothing; everything flows through, living on the flow and only the flow. An individual can die from an impacted bowel, but a surgeon can fix that. What do you do for an impacted spirit? Not even the master of the universe can save us--unless we gain a whole new mind--of abundance. "Why will you die?" asks God? Turn.

It is now so normal to live in fear and scarcity, that it takes discipline to live otherwise. But we usually associate discipline with scarcity. There is not enough time, so we must be disciplined; not enough money, so we budget with discipline; not enough education, so we must make  disciplined choices about who will learn and who will not; not enough healthcare, so we must... harden our hearts and discipline our minds. If the world really did not have enough, that would be appropriate. But scarcity thinking is lazy; living in the world of abundance demands disciplines that fit it.

Disciplines of abundance begin with a careful, thoughtful appreciative inventory of our assets--both tangible and intangible. Then we need a clear-eyed examination of what we could with them. I've learned this from my colleagues in Southern Africa who developed and deepened the idea of "religious health assets." Their disciplined thought changed the language of the World Health Organization, World Bank and United Nations. Now, the global network of institutions haven't fully turned, in the biblical sense, but at least they've begun to notice that somebody (Id say God)  has placed a heck of a lot more stuff in the community than they thought was there. The careful methodology of mapping religious health assets in Zambia discovered that there were about six times more health organizations and networks operating in the community than the government knew anything about. This is about what we find anywhere we are disciplined enough to look.  We brought that methodology to Memphis, adapted it and found the same thing. The model went back to Africa where it was again adapted and is now being used in all 135 health districts in South Africa to guide government and community planning so that it is informed by realistic abundance and not just scarcity.

Discipline is needed when you start mapping the strengths and assets because you find yourself drowning in what is possible. Where fear asks us to subtract and do less, we actually have more hope than we know what to do with. In Memphis' iconic Yellow Fever story, the city almost died from bad water while living on top of the greatest freshwater aquifer on the planet.

The most generative abundance is found in the relationships God's spirit constantly moves in and through us to create. God is connected to everything and everybody. So the connections among God's people--all those that turn toward life--are infinite not just abundant. This is surely the abundance that we have been most undisciplined with.

The disciplines of abundance are a lot more fun than those rooted in bleakness scarcity.They live closely with all the creative arts, worship, celebration and the surprises generated constantly by faith, hope and love. Ezekiel and all the prophets of every religion knew it  was a love story after all; of a God with no heart for vengeance, filled with sorrow for his people. Why will you die?"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scaling things that grow

Since meeting him at Wake Forest two weeks ago, Fred Bahnson and I have been exploring different ways of thinking about how things spread, or get big enough to matter to communities. The question is critical to our work in Memphis because Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare is big: it is the regional referral hospital for a couple hours around, especially for children (LeBonheur is the only level 1 trauma hospital for hundreds of miles).

We want our congregational networks to be of the same scale as the clinical systems. We are not far from our initial goal of 400 congregations and now think the network will rise toward and perhaps past 500. A referral network is held together by guilds, protocols, legal obligations and vast amounts of money. Our young network of congregations is held together by trust, respect and shared compassion for people we think of as "patients" and the congregations think of as "members" or "neighbors."

Should we think of our web of congregations sort of like gardens? Here's where Fred has some insight:

"Scaling a community garden should be horizontal (connecting to other gardens) rather than vertical (getting bigger). I think too often when people look at a community garden or other highly-localized effort at agricultural shalom they say, 'that's great, but will it scale'? In other words, the garden is a quaint thing for a neighborhood, but you can't really feed people with it. Sometimes when people ask if it will scale, they are really asking "can we make it really huge"....which leads to the Wal-martization of life that people like you and I abhor.

"I am intrigued by how your emphasis on how your whole system in Memphis seems to hang on face-to-face relationships. Until learning about your project I didn't know that was possible on a city-wide scale. So my sense of scale has been expanded. But my hunch is that you're near your limit. Once you've included every willing congregation within the area of Memphis, you've hit the walls of scale and to go further would not only compromise the fragility of the network you've built, it would change its very nature.

"When we talk about how to scale community gardens, I think we need to recognize that the scale must have that human face-to-face connection you've demonstrated so well in Memphis, and get no bigger than the connectional ability of its members. But it also needs to take in the very real ecological limitations of scale which modern agriculture simply ignores. E.F. Schumaker's book comes to mind here. Small is beautiful, and ecologically it can also be much more productive than Big.

"A diverse garden is far more productive than a monocrop, and I've had the opportunity to see these all over (Cuba, Quintana Roo, Bolivia, California, Anathoth, my front yard...). Until recently, we Americans have had so much land that we haven't really had to think very hard about how to make a small piece of land highly productive. That's the new agricultural frontier. Currently, using conventional farming methods, it takes 1.2 acres to feed one person on a U.S. diet per year. That same acre can feed a) one cow for a year, b) fill up your gas tank exactly twice, or, c) with biointensive organic practices that same acre can feed 10 people for a year.

"So I guess what I'm getting at here is that we need to change what we mean when we talk about scale. Rather than think about scale as an expansion in size and space, we need to think about scale in terms of stacking and layering and creating densities of interaction. Which seems to be very much what you're doing in Memphis (at the big end of the Small is Beautiful spectrum) and what we did at Anathoth (at the small end)."

I'm a city boy and never seen anyone actually feed themselves with a garden plot, but smart people like Heather Wood Ion assure me it did and still does happen. It is hard for others who have never experienced the care of a congregation to take that seriously, too. But it did and does happen. We don't know exactly how to scale either gardens or congregations, but we are learning. With congregations there are two issues: connecting enough of them to make a difference (400, or 20% of them) AND build their capacity and competence (train, train, train, train) so they are truly useful and not just symbols. We want the bio and spiritually intensive type of generative relationships, sort of like one of Fred's intensive gardens.

(For more of Fred's intelligence find him at

- Posted on the journey

Monday, October 3, 2011

Shalom wants to happen

Commissioner Henri Brook and Rev. Dr. Chris Bounds are standing in a garden on nine acres of former cotton fields about a half mile from my house. I'd ridden within a hundred feet of it on my bike dozens of times and never noticed. I have no idea what kind of corn grows that high, but it is probably laughing at me along with Henri and Chris as they remind me how dumb I thought community gardens were only a few months ago. The Commissioner knew that Shelby County has more than 3,000 vacant lots; why not turn them into gardens? This one had already taken root in the the swarm of hopeful things happening in Binghamton. This garden was started by Peter Schutt (publisher of the Memphis Daily News) and Jim Townsend (former heating and air-conditioning executive) which is how they tend to happen. Each one is highly particular and even unlikely, but that is the pattern: unlikely people doing what seems (in retrospect) obvious: turn vacant land into a garden. And the pattern is that it never quite stops with the tomatoes: Peter and Jim started a farmers' market, too.

This is happening all over the place. I was speaking at Wake Forest friday and there it was again. Fred Bahnson ( writes like a well-tended garden and argues that food and gardens matter so much that the salvation of the planet may depend on them. Go back and find his rich piece in the July 2007 issue of Orion magazine. You'll come into the world of Jeremiah's Anathoth gardens reborn 2,600 years later just down the road from a killing outside Raleigh, North Carolina. Five acres given by a black mother to a white church provoked an outpouring of saving grace (and okra, potatoes, squash and, curiously, garlic scapes). Something like this is probably happening near you. Look around.

Are gardens a symbol of hope, or the first fruits of a renewed food system? The same question pertains to the many small scale faith-health initiatives such as parish nursing or volunteer caregiving. The Congregational Health Network is, as far as I know, the largest scale connectional strategy in the world, with 376 covenanted congregations (so far). But this year we will only see 3,000 of the the 65,000 inpatients at our hospitals. That is like a hundred community gardens compared to Kroger. So are we sending a message to the System or actually changing it? As for me, I find even the most clever symbols bitter fruit unless they give me hope for scale. To talk of change, we must have ideas that can function at the scale of the current system and a logic for getting from now to then. Mennonites have chosen radical integrity for centuries, refusing to take part in the war industry even though they know they will probably always be a minority voice. Is that what gardens--and health ministries--are?

The language of the Wake Forest event is like most other similar events, that assumes that building the new system to scale requires force of will, borrowed money and enormous efforts. Even the scale achieved in Memphis seems unlikely given that logic. When pushed to explain what efforts it took to align our hundreds of congregations I explained, "it wanted to happen; we aren't driving, but accommodating to the new system emerging through and around us." Shalom wants to happen; but it needs humans to work with it.

Forests find their way to scale when people stop chopping. They want to happen, so they once covered the continent and probably will again. I understand that the percentage of New England under forest is about what it was when the Pilgrims landed. Thousands of small farms turned into forests when everyone was busy doing something else. I'm sure we'd have 3,000 micro-forests in Shelby County if we stopped mowing, too.

Gardens are different than forests because of their complex organic dance between humans, soil, water and seeds. But that dance wants to happen, too. It is hard to hear the music and get everything out of the way, but things that want to happen tend to happen eventually. Scale in human systems--food or health--happen when the desire for life flows into and through systems that are built for life. People are born to plant, tend, harvest and savor. And people are born to care and be cared for. Make it possible and it will scale.

The picture looks like one of John Shorb's silhouettes he is becoming famous for. This particular willow had dropped all its leaves but the one down in the far left hand corner. Is it hanging there as the last leaf of the season or maybe the first to get a jump on Spring? I do know it is not sending a symbol; it is busy turning sun and water into life as long as it can.

I'm never sure which season I am working in either. How do we know such a thing? We are on the side of what is still growing, still wanting to happen. That is quite enough for me.

- Posted on the journey