Sunday, July 1, 2012

Supreme Questions

Thanks to Kathryn Gunderson for the yummy flag!

The Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed a new and hopeful framework. In effect what they have said is that it is appropriate and constitutional for the United States to have an inclusive health policy. But….we don’t know what to do about poor people. “What to do about poor people” was poorly thought throughout the negotiating and passing the Accountable Care Act by the Democrats in Congress. The vast majority of that negotiation blather and drama was focused on keeping the insurance and big pharmaceutical industry from going into full-blown attack. They were paid well for their reluctant complicity. They looked eager to revert to the other side throughout. The rest of the time was frittered away trying to get one or two Republicans to cast a thin veil of bipartisanship over the process. It is not surprising that the final Act was wobbly in its detail about poor people—they were not the point. Everyone was thinking about what the rich people could be persuaded to allow, not what was ideal and effective for the poor.

I wanted—and still want—a simple, inclusive universal coverage amplified by the strong multi-sector prevention and public health framework, especially tuned to the fundamental determinants of health that affect the poor the most.  That was never the point of the negotiation that produced the Affordable Care Act so it is appropriate that the Supreme Court choked on the parts of the bill that were, in fact, poorly thought through. If we thought as hard about the poor as we did about the insurance and pharmaceutical people, we could figure that out.

The historic gift Thursday was that we can focus on finishing, not restarting, the hard work of extending health to all.

Good Samaritan with Medical Center in the back.
It was a profound experience to watch the news in the presence of 18 health systems who were meeting in Loma Linda University Health Science Center to talk about exactly this bold hope. Loma Linda University is the thought leader of the Adventist faith-health movement—the belly button of the global movement. And Adventists tend to live pretty much forever. But two miles away their people do not; indeed, nearly every possible health indicator is terrible. So they are crossing the moat (the I-10 freeway, actually) reaching for every possible kind of partner to achieve a “collective impact.” They are modeling and learning in real time.

That is pretty much what the other 17 health systems are trying to learn to do, too. Each is way above the norm in terms of spending their own money on “community benefit” and care for the poor. But we gathered out of humility, not pride, for we know that none of us has “succeeded” in aligning our mercy, justice and science as is so obviously possible. Now that we know that we will be working in a context of pretty decent health policy, we can really get to work by answering four questions:

1. What do we have….to work with. Not just money, although, we are each spending dozens of millions of dollars providing very expensive care—mostly in our emergency rooms—to people whose health could be dramatically improved much cheaper by going to neighborhoods proactively. We have a lot more than money to work with—the heart and brain of the idea of “religious health assets.” ( The most interesting assets are relationships, science, trust, thousands of paid and unpaid humans and the qualities of trust. This broader view shifts the role of “management” from carefully titrating “our scarce stuff” to aligning the superabundance of complex partnerships and assets. This is way more fun and useful, but a new skill for most of us.

2. What do we know? We have more data than any platoon of wonks has time to read. But that is just the beginning, as we have even more intelligence among our partners. Blending this –hear the word againsuperabundance of intelligences is the challenge. Organizing this knowledge—and teaching partners—depends on smart compelling questions. Such as….

3. What can we do? Aaahhhhh, the magic question. The pool of pretty good, if not “best” practice is deep and wide; accumulating for many years (at least since 1992 when the Interfaith Health Program started at The Carter Center).  We learned at there that once you figured out how to ask the question, every single imaginable problem has been addressed with some degree of success by someone somewhere, usually in places even tougher than your neighborhood. But so much of what is possible rests on a social infrastructure that blends complex shared effort sustained over time. The hard part of the question is not finding the “do” but nurturing the “we.”

4. The question of “we” links the other three, not just the doing part. Understanding assets and knowledge also depends on the illumination of multiple bright minds. So the critical question throughout is “how are we connected.”

We came within one vote of devolving into competing tribes with radically different human prospects. But the Supreme Court narrowly decided that we could be one people, albeit with profound and continuing tribal tendencies. Dr. Fred Smith told us Friday afternoon that even after the decision we were like David facing Goliath. “You are 18 health systems, 228 hospitals, $43 billion in revenue, but you are not big enough!!! You must go out in the name of the Lord, vanquish the giant of disparities, crash the gates of privilege and claim the land.”

Feel the five smooth stones; know they are enough and go out. It is our time.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poiesis (formerly known as work)

 Jim Cochrane and I are up in North Georgia for a few days before he flies back to South Africa and I fly to Loma Linda, California and then to North Carolina on Monday to begin my  life at Wake Forest.

If you follow this blog you’ll know that I spend much of my waking hours working in various ways to try to help institutions and organizations do the right thing, which is to lend themselves as instruments of God’s imagination for the health and wholeness of the world. 

At least that what I try to do. What actually emerges from all the constant flurry of activity are books, papers, memos, committee meetings, plans, budgets, programs and more programs, events and more events….and from time to time, something that even looks like…..change. It almost never solitary; almost always a team sport. Sometimes it is two or three as when Jim and I wrote  a really good book over a period of years (Religion and the Health of the Public: Shifting the Paradigm)(which you really should stop and buy on amazon right now….). Sometimes it happens in formally constituted organizations, such as the 11,0000 employees of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. Increasingly today it happens in informally emerging networks such as the “health systems learning group” meeting in Loma Linda (18 health systems co-convened with the White House office on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships). People form around things they fear and things they hope for. I am usually part of the latter.
To call that kind of hopeful activity “work” doesn’t quite seem right. It often feels every bit as much play, in the creative sense of generative delight and surprise. I probed Jim’s imagination on this and after consulting friends from Seattle to Africa, he suggested we talk about Poesis. That activity that so stirs soul, is work, but needs a new name to capture its radically hopeful and realistic nature.It gives energy; seems to create it. There is always laughter.

We can find no English word for this, but consider “Poiesis” from the ancient Greek term ποιέω, "to make". The same root word underneath "poetry", it was first a verb, referring to the action that transforms and continues the world. Poiesis is not just technical production nor creation in the romantic sense: poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world.

Poiesis is, in short, what a great leader does with those he or she loves. It is helpful to think about past poïetic transformations other leaders like you have already been part of and to see the fruit of their lives as far more than an assembly of technical constructions. It helps us to hope for the fruit of our lives, too.

Jim teaches me that  Martin Heidegger refers to this kind of holy labor as a 'bringing-forth', using this term in its widest sense. He explained poiesis as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies underline Heidegger's example of a threshold occasion: a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another. It is the sprouting of an acorn that could be a great oak.No wonder our heart stirs when we grasp what is possible

And, oh, does the world so need just that.

Let’s get to poiesis!

Monday, June 25, 2012

River of Life

Comments offered on the occasion of the meeting of the Division of Faith and Health, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare to close my seven years of my service as Senior Vice President. Gary Shorb, Bobby Baker, Niels French, Teresa Cutts and Donna Tosches offered blessings on my move to Wake Forest University and sent me out to spread the power and spirit of the Memphis Model of faith and health. We exchanges pictures, they giving me Larry Pray’s painting of the Mississippi River Rail Bridge at Sunset and me leaving the photo of the leading causes of life red leaf.

You have given me an astonishing array of gifts. Let me leave this one sixtieth of a second of time and light with you, this picture that I took near my North Georgia cabin that is on the cover the the book, Leading Causes of Life.

This seven years has been life changing. I have experienced as minister, thinker, writer, colleague, executive and Christian all five of the leading causes of life. I began writing that book before coming to Memphis, completed it with Larry Pray in the first year on the Delta and now can testify that life finds a way. And it thrives and spreads when it has a web of trust on which grow like a trellis, bearing fruit of wondrous variety.

This picture holds many meanings. I only realized the complexity of the play of light, color, flow and form once I looked at it back home. Now I see something else is going on in it every time I look at it seven years later. So it is with my blessed experience sharing in the life of this Division, this great healthcare system, this beloved community of Memphis. I am sure I only will appreciate the complexity of what has been going on here in and around our live when I can see it from some distance. But even at first glance, it is beautiful. It has been a blessing and a revelation.

I once quoted Revelations and the fragment of the verse about the “leaves of tree being for the healing of all nations.” I see now the whole passage is true by the great river that flows beneath the bluffs nearby:

“On the side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.” (Revelations 22: 2-5)

It has been so.

Let it be.

Gary Gunderson
June 21, 2012
Center of Excellence in Faith and Health

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hair on fire

Joseph Campbell quoting Sri Ramakrishna, said that one should “seek illumination as a man with hair on fire seeks a pond.”

Anyone in public health, faith, academic medicine or healthcare has hair on fire. Where is the pond?

For many years academic medicine has thought that the pond was the great pool of knowledge about an every-growing panoply of pathological its: cancer(s), sickle cell, diseases of the eyeball and toe and the astonishing kinds of it that collect in our arterial plumbing or lungs.  And who could forget the terrifying varieties of viral “it?” Then we begin to think about the chemical it-things we humans have invented that turn out to cause breakdowns and flare-ups that weaken and kill. I’m thinking tobacco, here, partly to not think about the thousands of industrial chemicals.

Focusing on the pathological it creates a warrior mind tuned to threats and maladies. And they are there to fight. We have built vast castles of learning designed to penetrate the veil of complex secrets that threaten us, all in the service of defending individuals against whatever it likely to kill them. If you are walking around over 40, you’ve probably benefited from this kind of knowing.

Partly because of all this accumulated it knowledge many it problems have shifted being treated and fixed to conditions that can be managed, often over a period of years, sometimes for the rest of one’s life. That’s good. The it of diabetes or sickle cell doesn’t go away like a broken arm; it can be managed. The it takes place amid a phenomenon called a life. Because you can’t begin to apply all the sophisticated it knowledge without they knowledge.

This is all difficult for academic medical centers (AMC) like the one about to employ me because a vast and expensive apparatus has been developed and justified on the basis that its research into it would  save the world (or at least extend the lives of its people). The reality is that an AMC is an expensive way to provide evidence base care compared to a integrated system of care that can focus purely on applying what is already known, especially to compliant it type problems. Think about surgery and notice all the outpatient free-standing surgery centers in your town. They just do the procedures and leave the research to others.

The AMC is only a bargain when you need to learn something new or push the edge of technology, practice or …integration to a new level. Then you need all the smart and wise people you can hire.

AMC’s today need to turn our attention to the life journey of people and a more expansive breadth of their lives to get the fruits of 21st century science into those lives. AMC’s know about bits and its, but not much about life. Hence, the burning hair.

This is true at even the most basic issues: why poor people choose to come to the emergency room instead of a perfectly nice and convenient clinic built just for people who are poor. We need to understand they. (And why don’t they act like we expected?) Science is befuddled. What kind of relationship would we need or want with them? This is a lot better than thinking of people it-type problems. But you can feel how far it is from knowledge one could act on.

A few weeks ago the senior management team of Methodist Healthcare met in one of our churches in a zip code we knew contained the largest number of our charity care patients. Chuck Utterback, the regional representative for CIGNA attended and turned on the lights for us by pointing out that that same zip also was home to 8,970 of their members who we cared for, including 1,791 FedEx workers, 1,724 Memphis school employees, and 1,466 people who worked for the city or county government. Oh, and 459 of our own employees! We not only have hundreds of church partners in hard places. We came to find them and found….us.

The pond that is the answer to our hair on fire is finding us.

It should be a lot easier to learn about the life we part of than about a microbial it. There are extraordinary springs of data that can tell us, not just what zip codes to learn about, but the neighborhoods, streets, homes. And we can see who else we already know – our churches—lives down the block to help teach us what together we could do. And the payoff is much quicker and more predictable for everyone –the full us.  Way better science alive in more lives cheaper. And, I think, closer to what God had in mind.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Healing Menagerie

The human spirit is more complicated than a ford tractor engine, which is by itself quite amazing to behold.

"Do you believe that spirituality is a factor in health?" The question came from  Dr. Greg Burke, who leads the Public Health Science Department of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine (one of my many new bosses). We had been talking over some Thai food about the "Memphis Model" of large scale congregational networks and especially the rich stream of data that shows significant effect over five years and thousands of individuals. I had shared that data with the Board of Directors the evening before, including the fact it held some inconvenient good news. The good news is that CHN delays the return to the hospital by 39% over all comparative diagnoses -- 426 days compared to 306 days for non-connected patients. That's what you'd want for your mother.The bad news is that hospital won't ever be paid for that good news. The reasons is that it is much better news than the payers are asking for, including the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services. They are focused on just 30 days and are about to start punishing hospitals when people fail to stay out of the hospital for that long. Ironically, CHN patients doesn't show a lot of difference in that short run. The effect is dramatic--but in the long run.

This all seems very hospital operational to Greg, which prompted the question about spirituality and the possibility of proving its effectiveness. It felt like a change of subject because most research into spirituality and health is focused on very small groups, even individuals.

The problem is that spirituality is a very sloppy construct intellectually. So if you mean the "things we think we think" about God, the ultimate, or nature,  it has little demonstrable affect. This drives researchers crazy because it is obvious that something as ubiquitous as spirituality should be useful for something measurable. But it is simply too complex and nuanced. The initial problem is that much of what we think we think, we don't--especially under stress such as in a health related crisis.

I noted that most of the research in this area is still done by highly educated men, which is the same kind of researcher which tends to have a lot of challenges in researching....female sexual response. Those researchers' minds tend towards instrumental and repetitive process, partly in order to develop interventions to increase whatever. The phenomenon is, well, complicated as even men have begun to notice. Viagra works for men; not so much for women. Go figure. Spirituality has a profound affect on life and health, but in ways extremely difficult to map or stimulate.Go figure. (Mary Roach, my favorite science writer, wrote a book "Bonk!" that explores these themes in case my male readers need some catch-up.) Back to spirit.

The spirituality that is demonstrable is what we see in Memphis. It creates social assets mobilized at large scale expressed through a rich tapestry of relationships. This social spirituality creates relationship beyond blood and money and is a healing miracle. Here, too, it is easy to get very instrumental about something quite nuanced and subtle. Spirituality has its its affect through relationships of trust, respect, care, unpredictable giving; not just functional "social support." That sounds random to those who want to believe in repetitive, invasive, therapeutic interventions. But it is not random; there are patterns and practices that nurture, sustain, express and channel exactly that kind of social spirituality.

It is large enough in scale to look like a public health initiative. And the data is clean and smart, so it looks like research. The clinical affect is significant enough to look like a service line. But it is a spiritual movement (I almost gave away the argument by saying "intervention.") It is the Spirit that moves. That is what we want to spread to North Carolina and why I am going to see if it be done on purpose.

I am a follower of Jesus, at least to the extent that someone with my excessive education and privileges can possibly be. So all this reminds me very much of what you see in the healing stories of Jesus, which almost always happened amid a menagerie that surrounded him. On Sunday I preached what was probably my last sermon at my home church in Memphis, St. John United Methodist. Reflected on Jesus' relentless way of calling people away from dependence on simple, official relationships into freedom, grace and healing. He offended almost everyone in the process including, in Mark 3, his own family. He considered the ragged and recovering menagerie which were drinking deeply of the freeflowing spirit to be his family. That's where the healing happened.

CHN is such a menagerie, blending the most wildly unpredictable people; Baptists, Church of God in Christ, Methodists and all sorts of those with more complicated identities. It has even brought healing to a Senior Vice Pharisee.

The full text of the sermon is at:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hero Farewell June 1

The slight
As light as breath
Reaching for one last touch
Of the polished steel urn
Resting on the edge of the concrete cavity;

Tornado dark sky,
Crackling lightning
Horses startled at the caisson.
Soldiers, ignoring wind,  
Shoes so polished,
the birds above visible in their shine
as they snap the folds
in Spence’s last flag
a long way from Inchon.

Every step, glance, word,
tone, salute, prayer.
All twenty one guns,
And then  aching silence
Exact, planful honor.

Brothers, sons, children, friends, chaplains, soldiers

Hearts clench

At the feathered reach of his woman’s hand that could not touch again.

Claude Wesley Spencer -- "Spence"--was my brother in law, married to my sister Judy.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book! Book! Book!

How can the world need another book?

The question occurred to Jim Cochrane and I many times over the last four years as we have subjected friends, vulnerable students, bosses, family and work colleagues to all the collateral damage that a book creates.

In a time when every possible answer  to every possible question can be found instantly on your phone, why bother writing paragraphs, chapters and then struggling to order them into a book with hundreds of footnotes from hundreds of sources?

But.....when you need a whole new paradigm, it takes a book. And that is what we do need amid the broad clutter of practices, vast array of institutional assets, extraordinary flow of finance, high drama over policy and, finally, the human pathos of illness, the humans delights of health that all of us journey.

Although rich enough in stories to be useable by most reading adults, this book is unabashedly about theory--why the ones we have are failed and why a new one will help us transform the world. That's what theories do and we really need one now.

It is good when good thing happen, even when we don't know why. So when something "works" in a hospital, HIV Aids clinic, church or public health program, we are happy. But if you want it to happen again, you have to have an idea of what you did right. And to know that, you need to know why it was right and how it relates to other things that work, too. You need a theory.

The goose that lays the golden egg of practices, technologies, choices and policies that transform community is good theory. Not everyone thinks we have time for theory. This is why the most powerful theories are the ones you don't know you have. When a Chief Finance Officer says "let's be realistic" he is acting out of a theory (although most would hate the thought). Thus Jim and I spend some time taking apart the old paradigms, going back to the history of faith and health to find the repressed threads of coherence we need to reweave.

But most of our time is invested in stretching widely around a body of ideas that have taken hold in the bitter struggles with HIV in Africa and intractable poverty on the Delta. These ideas are already illuminating the way forward on their own, but wrapped in a more adequate paradigm, the ensemble promises far more. So we revisit the ideas of healthworlds, religious health assets, leading causes of life, strengths of congregations, boundary leadership and the global political economic context of our work. Hence all the footnotes! It is a bold, maybe foolish, intellectual presumption that we could do it. It wasn't easy for the publisher, Palgrave, to find anyone in the whole world willing to review such breadth. Someone will surely do this better eventually, but we've given our best to the work as is.

The theoretical work has been tested constantly against the realistic demands of our daily efforts to build the network of congregations in Memphis and then the craft of evaluation and analysis of the outcomes. Likewise, in Africa where any intellectual work is immediately tested in that most severe climate.

Over the next few weeks I'll be doing blogs on most of the chapters and suggesting some ways this could be useful even for you. The book is available most everywhere, including Amazon: ( ). Some of those reading this blog are over 30, so may enjoy the ebook with its larger type when it is available in a coupe weeks.

Jim and I did our best to blend our thought well, but we draw from a rich community. So we dedicated the book:

In memory of Steve
 and in gratitude to the many warm friends and colleagues
with whom we have journeyed along the way
from the Interfaith Health Program,
the African Religious Health Religious Health Assets Programme
and the Center of Excellence for Faith and Health

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A prayer for graduates (especially my own)

Among its many thoughtful traditions, Millsaps College finds a way to include the ordained parents of graduating seniors into the graduation events, which gave me the most wonderful gift--the opportunity to pray for all the graduates during baccalaureate--but especially for my daughter Kathryn, the only classics major in the 2012 class.

God of every grace,
In the beginning you had an idea, an image a word and that word was life. We pause for worship to give time for wonder in these days of completion that allows a beginning. Give these young lives—and ours, too—eyes for life. Let it explode in this beginning with all of your graceful energy.

This is only one ending and one beginning of many in these bright lives. Some will be chosen in joy; others washed in grief; some quick lightening; most found through diligent passage like these four years. Some will emerge only in forty or more.

Tonight we yearn—and pray—for memory, 
but not the kind that holds them frozen as they are.

Give them memory on which they can stand
Create boldly,
Give generously
Until there lives are given entirely
And return into the sea of your infinite hope.

Burn and fire this memory in their hearts;
Write it on their minds.

We think this is your idea for life,
So we pray with expanding gratitude
For their
And our

Kathryn is a perfect liberal arts product from one of the most remarkable faith-based college traditions in the nation. She knows who she is and whose she is and why both matter.  This is startling in a time when celebrity is nearly synonymous with dumb and public with mean. Extraordinary. The whole world claps its hands in delight, but especially Karen, Lauren and me.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Canyons and committees

Ive been back a week in what passes for "reality" above the rim. But my mind is still with the living rocks beating with the rhythm of the universe.

A week at the bottom of the Canyon fills anyone with a brain the size of a pebble with the sense that the earth is alive, every bit of it, all the time, never ceasing. The silent cliffs look down and seem to say, who are you?? For it is only a gnat's blink of a time that the human experiment has been under way. Everything (except for the humans) here is measured in tens of millions of years. So much that youd never notice there is a whole 500 million layer of geology that is missing here--the "great discontinuity." A half billion years of mountains rose up and wore away by wind and rain--simply missing. Humbling, even when I celebrated a birthday at the end of the week.

Even a city boy like me can notice fossils scattered on the ground, most of which are 300 million years or, or so. So we are permitted a beginners mind.

Things that look permanent are simply not. The rocks move; entire cliffs, mountain ranges even..move. So why do we imagine that something as ephemeral as a hospital, government or health policy is any less fluid than limestone?

This is on my mind because as I come up out of the canyon back into the rhythms of human change (my day job), I moved into a flurry of emails among a gathering gaggle of people trying to figure out a new way for congregations, government, public health organizations and billion dollar health systems to be together. It isnt magic; its work.

But........ accepting that change is the way and means of reality does not relieve of us the labor and tasks that go with human change. For humans that means (I am reluctant to even type the next word.........) committees. And committees need (oh, relieve me!) the frustrating labor of negotiating goals and resources and language and plans.

The purpose is dramatic as any canyon. We are trying to figure out (fast!) how to blend the extraordinary tools of data mining and mapping with the intelligence found in large scale community partnership (such as Memphis CHN). This is all so that we can invest proactively in the neighborhoods. We want to liberate millions of dollars currently trapped in expensive and often meaningless treatment in emergency rooms so that it could be spend where it could actually make a difference in people's lives. This is so dumb obvious, but still hard--still in committee.

We will work hard with all the diligence and skill we can bring to bear on such a compelling vision. But who knows if our best is good enough? Who knows if our best ideas are actually good enough? We can’t know that; all we can do is give our best. That’s all anyone in any age can do. It is possible that, like the canyons great noncomformity, a whole season of change will raise up a mountain of programs that will wash away in the winds of other seasons. Maybe the Supreme Court will wash it away before we hardly get started. Or maybe they will amount to a geological--political-- footnote. 

We can't know the durability of our efforts, only the integrity and energy we bring to the work. Ours is to craft the agendas for each committee meeting wisely and boldly so that trust has a chance to build; to make sure the right people are present with the most relevant information possible. Ours is to do committee work with the diligence and patience the wind and water bring to the work of crafting a  canyon.

My father insisted that you could tell what a person believed by what committees they showed up at. Inconvenient truth.

When you adjust your mind to the tempo and rhythm of change involved, the committees and conference calls are more endurable. They are the change in motion. We are humans, not gnats or canyons, so we have our own pace, our own time our own scale of hopefulness.

Back to committee.....

Friday, April 20, 2012

Gnat's breath

 Slept open to the sky Tuesday night, our first near Havasu Falls in the Canyon. I witnessed Mars red among the blue white stars sharp on black. It  moved down the rim until it crossed over the gap and finally out of sight. I opened my eyes to the light of dawn and felt Spring wind on my face and, being me, reached for my Springsteen's Live at Dublin where his soulful first words were, we are all traveling in the footsteps of those who came before." Resting on land the Supai people have walked for a millennia, reminds me that I am here only by history of violence that has benefited me personally at cost to other entire generations to whom this paradise belongs. Their footsteps have been bitter ones. That comes as news to those of us who live on privileges we did not earn, a simple fact that cannot be repaid. That is not to say that we do not now share the world. Springsteen, who knows a bit about privilege himself, closes with "we shall overcome" and means it, just as I do. 

If you are a rock, you are more likely to be changed by wind than water. Millennia before sandpaper air and grit sculpted and carved and then removed mountains of stone. Water does it work in relative speed with more drama. The Havasu Falls of postcard fame changed in August 17th of 2008 when a massive storm blew out 80 feet of silt, took it over the falls cutting new channel through the rock burying the campground under 8 feet of new soil.  I am sleeping on top of that very newly relocated soil, which puts my whole body in touch with how changeable things are. The postcards have not been updated, but in another few years people will think this is the way it has always been. All along these canyons you can see logs high up on the walls left by floods, some recorded and some before human memory. 

People talk about the water, (the flood of 08 and 1910 come up a lot). But it is the wind that does most of the heavy work over time and then more time and more time again. You can't miss it here, but this is just as true on the Delta. Memphis exists because of its several hundred foot high bluff, which is actually the very last little bump left of the tale end of the Appalachians, the rest of which is buried beneath the mud. The Beale Street bump will go too, eventually, as wind will have its way.

So I think about change and how it happens. In human organizations money is water, language wind. If you are a hospital and CMS changes its reimbursements change happens fast. A senator's family needs dialysis and suddenly CMS pays for it for Medicare and suddenly dialysis clinics sprout as mushrooms in the night (still the fasted growing business in south Memphis)(and this really is why dialysis is covered as it is). The Affordable Care Act is like a cloudburst that could blow away ancient  channels, cutting new ones in healthcare organizations. But most of the big changes are already being driven by administrative rule-making, forcing hospitals and doctors to be different. The heavy weight of money is already shifting the choices in executive offices and physician offices. Forget the Supreme Court, the new channel is already open.

The power of language is more subtle, but more profound--like the breeze, hardly noticed on any single day. Language of fear, resistance, anxiety, force and hiddeness cripples an organization, binding it to the past and its certain death, for the past is never where life lives. Language of life -- connection, coherence, agency, generativity and hope--tunes the whole social body to the life of the present and thus the future. 

"Health" organizations are always adding detail and nuance to the grammar of death, dying and disease. This is relatively new, more or less since the discovery of germ theory in the 1870's. Now we think there are things like germs for almost everything and rarely a week passes when we do not have a new word for a newly recognized condition. Many of them actually do exist so not long afterward somebody gets a grant to figure out what to do about it and sometimes they come up with something that eventually finds its ways into the list of things somebody will pay for and thus it enters into the repertoire of modern medical practice. This has been going on for a century and a half now, accelerating its pace all along the way.

Nothing at all like that has been happening in our understanding of life, which is the thing that gets sick, the process that is interrupted, the daily dance of family, love, work and delight. Life! This is true not just of our intimate scale lives, now so richly detailed by the language of pathology and all its specialists. It is also true of social and organizational life with squadrons of consultants swarming like mosquitos filled with knowledge of anything but vitality.

To blend Mary Oliver and David Bohm: In the presence of the "unlimited," pay attention. Do not go alone. And then, in humility and awe, dialogue. Bohm wrote a book with that title, but you can figure out how to talk, as long as you have some words to work with--words that carry us deeply toward life and those things that lead toward life. Everything that is alive needs a way to do that, including the social bodies informal as friends and formal as hospitals and governments. Language is how human social bodies adapt to the changes and challenges we inevitably face in our brief moments together.

It makes a difference if we have a way to talk to each other about what gives us life, and not just to postpone death. A week in the canyon and it is impossible not to notice that human life is nearly as short as a gnat's breath. The difference between 11, 31 and 61 is no big deal, but neither is the distance between 61 and compost. 

I will die, and maybe you too.

But will I ever have lived? The price of admission is to pay attention and talk as if it was a matter of life, not death.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Group Play or Parallel Play?

 I was with Dr. James Marks a few months ago at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation talking about the stunning emergence of the network of health systems taking form after the White House gathering last September.  He is a pediatrician and a long veteran of the CDC, so he asked whether the health systems were engaging in "group play or parallel play." Were they just playing in the same room with the same toys or actually playing together? The first is interesting, but the second is more useful. 

Maybe another metaphor is better. If you place a number of heart cells together in a neutral medium they will begin beating--together. Nobody has to wire them together; they do that because that is their nature. Somehow they know the rhythm of their life is found in the larger rhythm. Once they find that rhythm, they can find their role in the life of the whole body.

Margret Wheatley, borrowing from the "new science" described how social networks in times of profound change find themselves finding order around "strange attractors" whose lives give help a new rhythm and coherence emerge. People are alive and that is what happens, no more (or less) surprising than the orbits of comets, black holes or the big bang.

In such a world faith is not about the old certainties, but about what has not happened, yet; what is not certain, yet. People of faith and institutions based on faith (such as hospitals like those finding their emergent community now) are marked by optimistic uncertainty, expecting and finding order around strange attractors in these very strange times. This sounds like, but is not, passive acceptance of magic (another kind of false certainty). It is the confidence of people who lean into the future and give themselves--their intelligence, energy, trust--generously. I saw this in Memphis and Winston Salem in two different ways this past week. In Memphis, Gary Shorb, our CEO leaned into the chaos of broken communities by riding with Rev. Bobby Baker and Rev. Dr. Chris Bounds. He found strange attractors, agents of trust and the possibilities of order where most hospitals could only have seen bitter poverty and street after street of incoherent need. So in a few weeks, he is going to bring back the whole senior management team of the hospital to see that these are knowable--and thus actionable--communities. Not easy, but possible.

At Wake Forest I sat in on a town hall convened by Dr. John McConnell and the senior team who were unwrapping the ATI (Accelerated Transformation Initiative). Any hospital without something like that in these wild days is just waiting to get bought. What was different here was the transparency, spirit of adventure and, most striking, humor. This is as scary  a body of work as exists, but it doesn't have to be grim. Indeed, the more grim the group, the less likely they are to find their life. Backing away from death won't find the future; you have to lean into it and commit to what hasn't happened, yet.

I suppose each one of those heart cells is afraid, too. But they find a heartbeat and then find themselves to be  heart of something larger. Of course they--we--do.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Martin, Jesus, Floods and Cancer

Almost too much going on to write about. Martin died on Wednesday (my Mother's birthday), Jesus arrested Thursday, tortured and killed Friday. And here he is back again on today!

Meanwhile, up from the mud comes Springtime in the South. Even the weeds are gorgeous. The  closer you look in any direction you'll see life exploding into every possible place -- some you'd think impossible. This little stretch of mud was under 10 feet of water a year ago, surging easily over the old levee built with shovels and desperate men in the 20's and most of the way up the vast smooth one built with bulldozers afterward. Most of the mud in the picture came from Montana at some point and will end up in the Gulf a millennium of floods from now.

But in the meantime, here we are, with lives not much longer than those of the the insects playing the in sun. What are we to do with our handful of days?

Steven Whitman leads the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago, which studies disparities in health so that people can figure out what to about them. He, and Drs. Orsi and Hurlbert, released an article last week in the journal Cancer Epidemiology that indicated that Memphis has the worst breast cancer mortality disparity among 24 other of the largest cities in the country. Memphians are never surprised to hear something bad about our city, but this one comes at a particularly awkward time. Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, the West Clinic and the University of Tennessee are just months into a new partnership that is supposed to change the structure of cancer care in the region. The West Clinic has the preeminent Cancer physicians led by deeply missional individuals, an obvious fit for Methodist, which exists to advance the health of the whole community. The findings point out the highly inconvenient truth that the greatest disparity is not the incidence of cancer -- who gets it; but how long people live with it. A "put up or shut up moment," if ever there was one.

Cancer may be hard to prevent; but survival rates should be the same. All we have to do is make sure that everyone gets access to early screening and then all that quick comprehensive treatment offers today. Oh, and it would help if money and race did not affect whether people had reason to trust the  pathways to 21st century technology. But they do with the same certainty that the Mississippi is going to flood again. The issue is whether those that live along the pathways relevant to cancer respond with similar energy that the government shows about the river, on which it spendS billions with hardly a blink. They do, because no civilized people would allow the government to stand by and watch Cairo or Hattiesburg or New Orleans disappear as long as we have bulldozers and barges to stop it.

Cancer survival is actually a lot easier than the Mississippi. We have to get everybody aligned and acting in a trustworthy manner, so there is a seamless and transparent relationship between the informal caregivers in the neighborhoods and those with the appropriate medical technologies. We don't need anything we don't have. We have all the assets  and social bonds ready to be tied.

Dr. King would remind us to pay attention and tell the truth about the fears that divide us that only love is powerful enough to heal. I was driving across the city he died in 44 years ago, heard a train coming along side and sat stunned as I realized it was about a mile long of nothing but light brown military equipment. We are a people still at war, money, youth and fear bleeding from our veins every day, every day, every day. And do not know the things that make for peace.

It is 2012 and Martin would die again. Jesus would be arrested and ignored again. Both of them killed by social cancers of different kinds striking in patterns we must not deny.

Brad Thomas preached on Mark's version of the resurrection this morning. This is the unfinished one, stopping with the disciples afraid and silent. "Every resurrection story is unfinished," says the preacher. We are the rest of the story. And so it is yet to be seen what we do with Jesus and his awkward radicalizing truth now.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What? How? Who? Why? (When?)

It's been a big week in Memphis, mostly in spite of me (due to the announcement of my move to Wake Forest this coming July). It has been a good week to remind everyone that the smartest, most resilient and viral aspects of the work has roots deep in the Delta mud, not me.

On Monday a group from the hardscrabble Appalachians came to see if the Congregational Health Network was tough enough for those bitter hills. Staff from Mountain States Health Alliance in Eastern TN and Methodist Hospital in Henderson, KY were the core of the regular "adaptation" workshops. (Not "replication" because every community has different assets to weave with.) Here Valerie Murphy explains how our volunteer CHN Liaisons work with Navigators, their clergy, our chaplains and all sorts of community agents to help people navigate their life journey. She models a common CHN characteristic: multiple identity order. She is one of the lay pillars of Friendship UMC church, sings in the choir and is quality officer at Methodist North hospital. CHN manages extraordinary complexity because most of the people involved all permitted to bring the full complexity of their lives to bear on the opportunities.
Dr. Deborah Minor teaches in the Innovation Studio

On Saturday the Innovation Studio was filled for an all day train-the-trainer workshop led by the University of Mississippi Medical School. Fifty One people were trained to teach and certify  "community health workers"-- the workforce on which the health of the community utterly depends. We need good cardiologists and all the other 21st century oligists, too. But they are helpless to advance the health of the community down on the streets where things matter. The content of the training is not rocket science. It is way more important: nutrition, how to talk to the doctor and understand prescriptions, take blood pressure and such. Who needs to know this stuff? Every grandmother, sister, wife, girlfriend and church caregiver in Memphis. And who can train them? This room has all of our CHN Navigators and most of our chaplains, as well 9 people from the Memphis public health department, some liaisons our churches, staff from the Church Health Center and one executive mainly drinking coffee (me).

Michael Jones, RN, MBA teaches Russel Belisle, Navigator.
We tell our Board of Directors that the point of all this is to "build and align community health assets to improve access to services and to improve health status over time." This is what the building part looks like; beautiful, really. While the stupid storms about religion and politics swirl in cynical circles, in this room a public medical school doctor and nurse teacher people of faith how to to fulfill part of the promise God makes about abundant life. It is work not magic, but still astonishing.

And all the while the number of congregations grows, drawn by the hope they can play their role in fulfilling God's promise, too. We thought we'd reach about 400 and then taper off, but the surge only quickens, lifted in the past year by two hundred Church of God in Christ members.

In between these two events the Memphis Model built on CHN was honored by AHRQ--the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. They include CHN in their Innovation Exchange: tools to improve quality and reduce disparities. They don't write poetry, titling the piece on CHN : "Church-Health System Partnership Facilitates Transitions from Hospital to Home for Urban, Low-Income African Americans, Reducing Mortality, Utilization, and Costs." It really does do all that.( This is the best short description of CHN and the Memphis Model there is, so I urge you to read it. But you have to come look at it to really see how.

What do you have to know in order to spread the model? The model is preposterous in its complex blending of intelligence and partners so it take a while to even understand the "what." And the "how" continues to elaborate, too, taking all of two days to unpack the detail for groups like our new friends from Appalachia. 

It is the who and the why that are the magic. The "who" includes nearly everybody relevant to God's hope for wholeness in this tough town. And the "why is closely related. To many, even including the AHRQ, the thing looks like public health. This isn't exactly wrong, since it functions at the scale of the public and is advancing health big, fast and wide. However, the congregations are not becoming little public health agencies and the public health department is not becoming a church. To nearly everyone involved it feels more like a movement. 

So when does it move? It moves only at the speed of trust which is not just one person at a time. Trust  is caught, too. You can catch it from Michael Jones, for instance, even as he teaches. You can catch it from Valerie Murphy, too. And the CHN Navigators and the original agents of trust, the chaplains. A movement is the thing that moves us, not the thing that we move.  They are, as Jonas Salk and Heather Wood Ion suggested, more like a virus than a todo list. Movements are not taught; they are caught.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Movement to Wake Forest

Word began to spread this morning from both Memphis and North Carolina that I will be moving to become the Vice President for Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. This is a similar role that I've played at Methodist Healthcare for the past seven years, although the systems are quite different and, of course the social/economic architecture of the region is even more different.

Wake is a mature academic medical center in a university where I did undergraduate work lo many years ago. Karen became a PA here and both daughters learned to shout "go deacs!" before they walked. So I'll be glad  to teach in the seminary and department of public health on that campus.

The division itself has a long history in CPE and a network of 21 counseling centers scattered from the mountains to the ocean, just for starters. The hospital system plays a regional role that is relevant to statewide religious networks, most obviously with the 4,300 Baptist congregations affiliated with the North Carolina Baptist Convention. But the North Carolina Council of Churches and United Methodist Annual Conferences are already working partners, too. The National Baptist Convention have a long history going back to Dr. John Hatch at UNC, but except during ACC Basketball Tournament time, also work with Wake.

So what if all that could blaze with the creativity and spiritual energy I've experienced in Memphis? Tantalizing to wonder.

I'll be sharing that learning journey in this blog as it unfolds. But before another syllable is typed, I need to express my deepest love for Memphis and the people and institutions that have been so generous to me.

Gary Shorb, our CEO at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare took quite a bold gamble in hiring me seven years ago knowing I had never worked in a hospital before. His words to our management team this morning were so generous regarding my time here.  The reality is that I’m no big deal; but the power that lives where faith and health converge is a very very big deal. We’ve only started to release that power at Methodist inside, outside and around the traditional workings of our hospital. We’ve caught international attention for what has happened when we blend the intelligence of what a hospital knows about disease and what hundreds of congregations know about life. But what I’m deeply moved by—more than I can ever say—is how in this bitterly bruised city Methodist and our 450 congregational partners have offered up a true signal that trust and hope are not delusional. Bobby Baker, Teresa Cutts, Donna Tosches, Niels French, the faith health managers, volunteers, navigators and chaplains are world class. They have earned the right to be trusted with the heart of Memphis. And the most obvious thing is that the most innovative work is yet ahead. 

I will continue to play a small role as scholar in the Center of Excellence as there is vital intellectual work alive here that I care deeply about.
Health systems from around the world come to Memphis to witness what a faith based health system can do when it lets the power of faith and health flow freely. That's what has moved me and that's the movement I want to be part of for years to come as I find my way with a new circle of colleagues in a great system. I start at Wake in July.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Not all the religious nut cases are  running for office. Some of them park their vans across the street from government buildings in Washington. This particular brother (maybe cousin) parked across from the offices of the Health and Human Services where 28 faith-based and community-oriented health systems were meeting to talk about how our faith could drive a deeper and more effective partnership with a government that shares our mission for improving the health and wellbeing of our communities. We were convened by the White House and HHS offices for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, led by Mara Vanderslice and Alexia Kelly.

What does faith have to do with life? At least four varieties of answers were on view in Washington in the past week. The one getting the most attention was that offered up by the Catholic Bishops whose lawyers would probably want them talking about almost anything other than sex. But they understand their role as laying down their understanding of what religion has to do with condoms and other means of interupting pregnancy, which is to say, life. Life is a non-negotiable good and that's that, no matter that nearly all Catholic women agree with that principle, but do not extend it to cover contraception. Life is simple, say the Bishops. Not quite, say the Catholic women.

Another answer was offered up through the research findings of Gallup, which had a big meeting of academics just down the street. They were exploring the surveys of 676,000 Americans which indicated that Americans who are most religious have the highest levels of well-being. (I'm guessing the guy in the van was not in the survey pool.) The study "does not allow for a precise determination of why this might be the case" and promised to keep working at the mystery. Dr. Ellen of Ilder, now of Emory explored this some years ago making the link between participation in congregational life -- not spirituality--so this is sort of old news. But don't quibble: even with all its obvious ambiguities, religious people have more well-being. (Except for clergy, which have terrible health status. Apparently something like an overdose is possible.)

I returned home to Memphis where today a room full of United Methodist District Superintendents and a Bishop were meeting in the Innovation Studio, working on the future of the Church. The United Methodist Church has lost about 1,000 members a week  for 43 years in a row, so this is daunting labor. You can tell what a person has faith in by what committees they attend, said my Methodist father.  Religious life is about structure, connection, organization and strategy. (Where does Gallup think all those congregations come from?) So they were plugging away with maps, to-do lists and mounds of paper.

A fourth answer was offered up inside the HHS building in the room full of healthcare people. About 80 billion dollars worth of faith and community health assets were learning from each other about how to allow the best 21st century science to liberate their funding from an almost total focus on hospital-based medical care so that we can get at least  tiny portion of those funds onto the streets and into the lives of people who actually need something much cheaper than an emergency room. Over the next few days I'll be posting links to the stunningly smart presentations offered up so faithfully by friends at Loma Linda University Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Camden Coalition, South Central Foundation in Alaska.

More insights came from the Public Health Institute in Berkley, the Centers for Disease Control (advising the IRS on determining legal rules for community needs assessment) and HHS leaders working to drive innovation, liberate data and, more or less, "do the right thing." For this group, faith is the hopeful energy that embraces uncertainty with curiosity, not fear.

Religion may be the thing that draws lines, points the finger and stirs the anger. Faith is the thing that asks, "why not?" Ethics based on religion tends to be about not doing something. Ethics based on faith tend to be about trying to do something, especially a right thing that has never been done, that lives in the "not yet."

The faithful health systems were sharing how they might do something never done before--achieve a merciful and just community marked by health and wholeness. The dude in the van across the street could only scowl. But amid the data, and amazing tools of GIS mapping, financial analysis, creative clinical management and public scale policy you could feel the spirit of possibility breaking through.

Felt like faith to me.

(Powerpoints should be available online later this week.)