Flow

Illustration by Zach Stewart

Jeff Bezos and the very temporary president are proud of not being each other. But in some terrible ways they are pretty much the same. For progressives and the the non-progressives, it might help to see that. Like an object too bright and obvious to stare at, you have to look to the side and see how their most banal decisions destroy things crucial to the lives of you, me and our children.

You probably haven’t heard of the Liesbeek or Canning rivers, both unremarkable streams unless it rains really hard. One wanders off the slopes of Table Mountain and drains an unremarkable handful of miles later into the Atlantic just above the Cape of Good Hope. The Canning flows north off the Brooks Range and marks the western boundary of the Alaska National Wilderness Reserve before spreading into a wide delta at the Arctic. Both have the unfortunate fate of flowing over land that Mr Bezos and Trump would like to upgrade, from pristine to something more economic. Trump’s rushing to sell off the rights to drill before he returns to civilian life. The Canning seems like a good place to look for oil to fuel all the trucks. Mr Bezos wants to run out of the distribution center he wants built on the banks of the Liesbeek.  (details here)

Of course, neither of the men have ever heard of either river. But people they employ to please them have and are not likely to suggest the slightest inconvenience to their whims or wishes.

The ancient Caribou herd by the Canning will die making way for that oil. If they could vote, Mr. Trump would have lost Alaska’s electoral votes along with all the others he’s still gobsmacked about. And if the ancestors of the Khoi who hold that Liesbeek sacred had credit cards, they would certainly be cancelling their Amazon Prime accounts. This isn’t a rational battle about high stakes or about economically essential pillars of the global economy, or even their family businesses. This isn’t even as sophisticated as weighing the trade-offs of solar, wind and nuclear so they can claim to be “green.” This isn’t weighing anything at all for any reason at all, actually. It’s lazy, not mean; banal carelessness. This happens when the people who serve people like Bezos and Trump think nobody who matters is looking. And in the minds of those who think they can do anything, who else matters?

Illustration by Zach Stewart

I’ve rafted the Canning, seen some of its caribou, Musk Ox and Grizzly. And I’ve seen rusting oil barrels left from before President Carter protected it 40 years ago (another reason to love my old boss). I suspect that nobody really wants the oil up there anymore so it will probably flow on, just as the caribou seem likely to outlive we foolish humans. The Liesbeek is another matter because it flows among the city neighborhoods of Cape Town where Amazon is busy. I know about it first because Craig Stewart brought the Liesbeek river into the heart of our book on Generative Leadership: Releasing Life in a Turbulent World. An environmental biologist and pastor, Craig helped the river teach us about how life is contained and then released in the most amazing ways. The Liesbeek had basically been turned, in days when this was the de rigueur thing to do, into a canalized concrete pipe to stop flooding. In recent years “friends of the Liesbeek” wanted the natural river back which seemed like making an egg out of an omelet. But they discovered that life will find its own life with even a tiny bit of help. The riverine biologists artfully and thoughtfully blew just a few holes into the bottom of the concrete. The life in the flow in the soil beneath the river leaped at the chance. Over some seasons, the river found itself becoming a river again and the life that depends on a river is returning.

Until Amazon felt the need for a distribution center in Cape Town and partnered with a developer to do so on a crucial and historically important wetland. Doesn’t sound much like Mr Bezos’ public claim to support climate action, does it? The local wise ones of South Africa are trying again to poke some holes in the concrete channels that protect Mr Bezos from inconvenient implications of actions taken to please him. Even a brief glance would tell him how entirely unnecessary and destructive this bit of permanent decision-making would be. When camping on the Canning, we were careful to not poop within a couple hundred feet of the river. Leave no trace even when quite inconvenient! Concrete crap is way worse.

Everything is connected. The water of the Canning and Liesbeek mingle over time in the great salt sea that wraps us all and, indeed, flows through our veins. We humans are connected, too, and are capable of mattering. The Leading Causes of Life Fellows in South Africa alerted the scattered Fellows elsewhere, which is why I’m typing this. I knew about the Canning only because another LCL Fellow, Kevin Barnett, invited me into his raft. Yet another LCL Fellow, Laura Chanchien Parajón gave her life to AMOS, which is literally hip deep in the destruction underway in Nicaragua and Honduras from two hurricanes in two weeks—unthinkable and unprecedented. Nobody’s fault, of course. But sometimes you can see the outcome from an endless chain of unreflecting and lazy decisions.

Don’t lament. And be done with the metaphors:

  1. If you are an Amazon Prime member, send a note to the customer complaint desk. Cite the website and this blog. Ask for a response and note that you are considering cancelling your membership.
  2. Leslie London, an LCL Fellow, is managing a petition drive. Sign it here.
  3. Contact your senator, Blue, Red or Purple. Ask them to ask on your behalf why there is such urgency to sell the leases in the Alaskan Wilderness. You know why, but make them say it.
  4. Send money to AMOS, the ministry that will be slogging through the Nicaraguan mud from now until we get the planet back in equilibrium. They need money now. Give Here.
Illustration by Zach Stewart

Finally, go walk by the no-big-deal stream you love. You don’t take the time to save things you don’t love, so nurture your love. TC and I love to walk along Salem Creek which has spots the Cherokee would recognize as well as places where people like Bezos have paved right up to the banks. Nurture your love and hope. Battles like these are won all the time and are only hopeless when the people who know better give up without working up a sweat. That’s what matters. That’s who matters.

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Babylon the morning after

Nevada storms against the fires on the way to see my grandsons in August.

I had not planned on needing a blog about the 10% chance that my people would not win the election. My people might still eke it out, but not the triumphal thumping we wanted. So, while there are many hundreds of thousands of votes to count with the “winner” in the balance, it is not too early to say a few things out loud.

We’re not hearing something. I’m involuntarily humbled enough to know at least that.

Those of us in public health and medicine have failed in profound ways at our most basic task of warning the people about threats and what they needed to do. I certainly thought that a quarter million dead Americans would have been heard more than they were. Perhaps we were out-shouted. But still we failed, allowing the virus to be considered unpreventable, acceptable and inevitable. Bill Foege has called this “slaughter” aiming at CDC leader Redfield. But it’s not just him with blood on his hands. We’re all splattered.

It turns out that it is possible in our highly connected world to still disconnect the dots and shout down the virus, drowning polar bears and a category 4 November hurricane. And it possible to miss how other people connect other dots. Both are deadly.

If the NYT doesn’t join Nate Silver in infamy with its predictive “needles” and my guy pulls it out, we’ll still find ourselves in unintelligible and ungovernable Babylon. The story goes that rich and powerful Babylon was divided and collapsed when it’s people could not understand the multiplicity of languages. They couldn’t hear each other. The anxieties and projected fears did the rest. They had invented some of the first codes of law, dazzling gardens and military end economic dominion.The ruins are 53 miles from Bagdad today. Could easily be us.

The States now Divided should focus on making sense of what the people that don’t understand our tongue are saying.

That’s the last thing I and we want to be relevant to, but probably am individually and as a member of many boundary-crossing networks, identities and roles. I wrote a book some years ago about “boundary leaders”—those who are drawn to the in-between spaces where things are broken, shifting, fluid and uncertain. I started thinking about all that in the failed state of Sierra Leone, curious about who beside myself were drawn to that beautiful mess of a place. Boundary Leaders tend to have more in common with other odd boundary leaders than their family, discipline, faith and jobs of origin. They—we—are often viewed with curiosity, if not active wariness, because we are at home in the in between. Sometimes we don’t even want to be there ourselves.

In times when the in between seems filled with shards, traps and flawed ideas, Boundary Leaders play a crucial systems role by creating with their—our—bodies thin filaments of connections. In the physical body, fibroblasts do that. In the social body it falls to us. I would rather be a brain cell or retina, maybe a fast twitch muscle that have earned Roger Federer so many accolades.

Boundary leaders have friends who embarrass most of their friends. They talk to people—and even like people—most of their friends find impossible. These thin, odd, fragile filaments of relationship create the possibility for the large social body to hear itself. That’s not what I’d want my –our—role to be. But that’s what we—I—need to be.

My day job is leading a group of people who live like this across the many boundaries in between faith, health, public health and and and and. We are Buddhist and Baptist, deeply enmeshed in the networks of undocumented and First Responders, left behind mountain people and those on the streets that are used to generations of isms. We are highly connected, but the opposite of powerful.

Yesterday morning Stephan and I spent 3 hours at the precinct in just this kind of difficult role with a retired military officer who had humbled himself to the role of handing out literature to people who didn’t want it. Stephan and I are pretty big deal executives, too; there because we cared so much about the opposite candidates from Alex. It was prickly and awkward, but when someone in a wheelchair showed up to vote, Alex helped them to the back door while I went and alerted the poll officers to open it up. If had fallen down, he would have helped me up, too. I can’t imagine agreeing on anything else.

We did leave exchanging business cards and tentatively agreed to set up a red/blue softball game. Might be in the Spring when the fevers have broken. I don’t really want to play. But probably should.

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Next?

What if the 90% probability of a new president happens? The dust will settle and shouting die down. At some point even the lawyers will weary of their billable futile toil.

What then a week from now?

And the decade after that?

First, go remake friends with someone you disagreed with. Buy lunch. Talk about kids.

Then find something to do to care for the world God so loves and for the city and county that pretty much everyone who lives there loves, too.

There is too much broken to figure out what to fix first. Don’t try. You won’t care about my lengthy footnotes about the Canning River and honeybees and smoke coming in my grandsons’ window. You have such a list, too. We can’t fix it all.

What do?

We can follow the lead of the infinitely generative capacities of life. If there is a seed wanting soil, plant it. There are many seeds already in the soil, so water them. There are children already here, so feed, love and teach them. All of them. Sunlight already streaming, so capture it.

In every negative phenomenon at every scale there are positive clues that point the way. This is the startling data-driven testimony of the Positive Deviance tribe led by Arvind Singhal:

Look in the data you lament.

Focus on the positive deviation. It’s there.

Focus then on the behavior driving the deviation. It’s there, too.

Figure out how to spread the deviation.

The spread of the positive follows the ways of life. Jonas Salk thought that life spreads exactly as do virus, by learning and adapting to what reality makes possible. Try, fail, try, fail, try, fail. Adapt and try again until we find the way. Tenacity doesn’t always work, as Bill Foege once said. But he continued, “it’s the only thing that works.”

The search for the positive deviation spreads quicker if you have a light to guide you. That’s what a theory is—it helps us see where to look in the data and then what tools to build. A good theory for these broken open days is Leading Causes of Life. How probable is it that the Positive Deviance tribe would converge with the Leading Causes of Life tribe? About 90%.

What happens when tribes meet? They share songs, stories and technology. And, if not amid a pandemic, a lot of beer and dance. Then they create new songs, stories and tools. You can see that happening here on a series of collaborative YouTube channel called “flip to life.” Here are the first four, with many to come:

(If you haven’t voted, this is a good playlist to listen while you’re in line.)

All the members of these tribes are members of many other tribes. The connectional tissue is crucial to life. In our human bodies the fibroblasts are the most common kind of cell, literally everywhere in and around every organ. They are nearly my favorite, acting all the time, but especially in trauma and injury. They rush to the point of pain and create new connectional tissue—collagen—perfectly suited to the exact needs and opportunities there. I’ve been thinking of them a lot lately for that is exactly what we need in every family, neighborhood, city, county, state, nation and ecosystem. I wrote a longer piece about you can get here.

And that is exactly what we have to work with—already there, already healing waiting for us to lend ourselves to the task. Bobby Milstein calls for thousands of Stewards to heal the nation and find our way forward to all that science, faith and democracy make possible.

A congregation of fibroblast cells doing what they do together. (Image from sciencephoto.com)

That’s who we are.

That’s what we do. Next week. And the next ten years.

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Spirit of the People

A candidate for the NC State senate prayed in front of the crowd in red hats when Mr. Trump came to the Winston-Salem airport a few weeks ago. This week she is running blood curdling attack ads against a member of a local church, running against her, Terri LeGrand. Terri is a friend of mine, visited with the local ministerial association, but is careful to not make a big show of her faith. Her website reads like Francis of Assisi, all about caring for the kids, planet and the vulnerable. Every time I see her attacked on TV, we send her a little more money (you can do that here).

In years past, the Democrats effectively gave religion away to the Republicans, hardly lifting a keystroke even though there are likely more religious Democrats than all Republicans combined. There are more democrats and, being Americans, most are religious. They’re just less likely to weaponize it. Some denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal, are 92% Democrat. Those that claim “nothing in particular” are 49% Democrat, just a smidgen more than Catholics. Southern Baptists are still 26% Democrat, even though about 80% voted for Mr. Trump in the last election. (Pew Religious Landscape Study, 2014)

This year a number of groups are actively working to elect Mr. Biden, including 1,600 faith leaders organized by Vote Common Good. Rev. Doug Padgitt brings their bright orange bus with Faith, Hope and Love in 3-foot letters through Winston-Salem Tuesday. Their original goal was to tip 5% of evangelical voters from Trump to Biden, which has already happened in the polls, now currently showing 11% support. Doug is not a subtle guy; the map on the side of the bus shows the swing states  where this kind of political love is relevant, including North Carolina.

A Baptist, Doug travels with a band playing songs about mercy, justice and walking humbly. It would annoy the Pharisees and, I think, make Jesus tap his foot. (Listen here.) God so loved the people—the polis.  Act that way,–no mean-spirited attacks on other Christians. But don’t be surprised when the weaponized Christians come after you anyway. Ask Terri and Doug.

The best and worst things a democracy does are powered by the winds of the Spirit. Presbyterian pastors wrote books justifying slavery at the very moment that other Christians were running the underground railroad. In South Africa the worst Apartheid laws has Christian titles, just as Archbishop Tutu embodied its downfall. Go humbly into politics, don’t assign God a political label. Save one’s boldness for works of mercy, justice and love.

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Plant

The morning after Ruth Bader Ginsburg completed her journey and handed on her legacy, I picked up six Linden trees from a nursery south of town. The county bee association had arranged a bulk purchase of the trees, known by their “small, pale yellow, fragrant flowers in clusters.” Bees and their human friends like the honey which is “white with a slightly aromatic flavor [and] when fully ripened in the hive it is considered one of the best table honeys,” according to John H. Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America.  He states that “hot, clear weather and a humid atmosphere are most favorable for the secretion of nectar.  Small drops may then be seen sparkling in the bloom; and the bee may obtain a load from a single blossom.” Worker bees, every one of which are female, would have liked RBG a great deal.

Our local county bee association arranged for us to buy Linden trees as a group. Bees and beekeepers will appreciate this in 10 or 15 years. I bought six to help somebody who will probably never know me.

It is cool here in the Carolinas, which is bad news for drones. Every morning below the hives I find drones that have been escorted from the hive, some with force, as they are no help in the rigors of winter. The girls don’t tolerate big and useless creatures. I think I know how they would vote, especially following the loss of RBG. Maybe I’m wrong. I didn’t ask anyone in my bee Association how they were voting. My closest bee friend is also the man I’d call in the middle of the night, if I needed something. He’s a thoughtful and kind man, whose vote will cancel mine.

The Linden trees will not help my bees today or in their eight-week lifespan. They may not be much help to me either for the similar reason. You don’t plant a tree for today; you plant for the blossoms it will provide to others who may not even know your name. A few weeks ago, we harvested honey from nectar from trees Moravians planted without knowing that me and my bees would thank them someday.

Democracy–fragile, tender and organic–is like that. A group can clear-cut it to make sticks to match their stones and beat those they consider enemies to pulp. Win! Every democracy that has ever been experiences its own failure, sometimes death. But we try to construct agreements to weather the unpredictable fire and storms of human social life. We try to anticipate how our best selves might survive our occasional worst. The young experiment called the United States has done pretty well as these things tend to go considering the potentially fatal compromise at our root—slavery and later toleration of decade after decade of gross disparity.

Some consider those issues to be in our past, exaggerated to make the current administration look bad. Not Black moms with young men for whom they are afraid to jog down the street, drive across town or bird watch. And it is not in the past for any public health department watching the COVID data replicate the pattern of almost every other viral phenomenon from cancer to gun-shots, metabolic syndrome to environmental pathologies. Case and Deaton, in their landmark work around diseases of despair shocked the world by tracing the decline in American longevity rates to working-class white men experiencing structural vulnerability that denied them a way to make an honorable living. Humiliated and trapped, they are experiencing something not entirely unlike the phenomenon common to Black men for four hundred years. As usual, the mostly White elites channel that outrage in ways that seem illogical against the Black and Brown men, not those driving the structural causes. The humiliation is so painful that it cries out for immediate release, logical or not.

Some empathy and respect would help, although likely to be lost in the cacophony of internet-speed clang and gotcha. Empathy develops slow, as slow as the speed of trust.

Another friend, Mike Heisler, sent me a book this week by Timothy Snyder, “On Tyranny.” It is “20 lessons from the 20th century” about how to live in these times of liquid anger and fragile polity that RBG hoped to outlive. Snyder fears the people Linwood trusts, just as Linwood fears the people I trust. Lesson 12 is “make eye contact and small talk.” Synder says that “In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change.”

Justices Ginsburg and Scallia were friends who enjoyed each other’s company enough laugh. My daughter Lauren had dinner with Rex Tillerson at the opening of one of her plays (he, a great patron of theater!). Linwood and I will plant Linden together 44 days before the election. I’ll cheer for his daughter’s basketball team, even if I don’t for his candidate. In a sense, that makes no sense. But democracy is not about logical sense—certainly not about winning. It does help messy humans live in between clarities when the best we can hope for is non-violent compromise. It good for muddling our way when nothing can make complete sense. Good for these times.

I feel exposed by the loss of a tiny 87-year old justice in the same way I did with the loss of John Lewis two months and two days ago. They deserve to rest in peace, honored by grateful generations. We haven’t earned that peace or honor, but there is still time. Can anyone be confused about how to honor them? Respect the structures of legal process, support social institutions, the dignity of professional ethics, the essential decency of labor serving the good of all people. Have faith. Vote.

And embrace the process of planting for others to harvest. I gently free the Linden from its plastic container, tenderly loosening the roots. I put my hands into the soil of the hole I’ve dug so it can welcome the roots home. I am not the Linden, or the soil, much less the rainfall or sun. Just one human grateful to have a chance to give life a chance.

Four trees in a trunk, two more in the passenger seat. Planting for the future sometimes requires looking a bit silly today. I’m okay with that.
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Drive

I didn’t know there was a Winnumeuca, Nevada, but less an East and West one, too. People live there.

Six thousand miles through and around fires, hurricanes, political conventions and seven shots in the back. Red states and red parts of blue states in a Mini Cooper with a “Make America Kind Again” bumper sticker. I drove and pumped gas next to several thousand pick-up trucks through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia. I was taken by what did not happen and what I did not learn.

You’d think somebody somewhere would have at least muttered something. I never saw two hands on the wheel, so there was plenty of opportunity for gestures. I’d be an easy target and, well, sort of deserved it, what with my bumper sticker. Nothing. Not a peep or cross-eyed glance. I saw a couple dozen Trump/Pence signs—about one every 200 miles and maybe 6 for my guy. Hundreds of signs for citizens running for Sheriff and county commission. A few for Senate hopefuls who had lost in the primaries. More COVID signs than all of these combined.

People are sick of political sugar and spit. Maybe ready to stop shouting, go vote, do what we need to do to beat the virus, teach our kids and go back to work.

 

I-80 could be named for its average speed. 15 seconds equals a day on foot.

When I was planning the trip, I had, well, overlooked the nearly thousand miles of Utah and Nevada. To dodge the fires I ended up crossing their former ocean basin on US 50, the “loneliest highway in america.” From 37,000 feet in years past I had liked to pick out the Grand Canyon and been curious about the the tiny bright green dimes surrounded by brown rock to its north. Through my windshield I could now see that the pivot irrigation machines making green hay as well as rainbows in the morning light. But I would have to stop to learn anything about the people who tend them, what they hope or fear, where their kids are and how many cows the hay will feed. Driving back on I-80 I found myself following the California Trail which one wind-blown Nevada rest area explained was a walking path for thousands. Why would someone would walk Nevada with their kids? What were they leaving or seeking? How could I say anything about Nevada until I walk, too?

 

Ruby Mountain near the border of Nevada and Utah. Up close it is many colors, a rock rainbow.

US 50 road goes through through St. Louis and across the Mississippi, though no longer a lonely road. I had forgotten Illinois and the beautiful rolling forests gifted by glaciers on both sides of the Ohio. I jotted down the names dozens of museums I hope to stop at someday, constant reminders of the thousands of miles of things I did not know.

 

Sutro Tower out Charles and Asa’s bedroom windows. It ain’t fog. Smoke.

I did learn a lot about smoke. The brown acrid smoke of the Haight in San Francisco persisted in clouds, high haze and columns of fire till east of Denver. A continental-sized phenomenon that literally took my breath away. Not a thousand mile wall of flame, but the drifting smoke is clarifying things in the minds of people you might not expect. YHWH promised Noah no more floods; he didn’t swear off smoke.

On the high plains Sequoia-sized turbines are spinning by the thousands with hundreds more under construction. In the Kansas night they blink in unison from one horizon to the other, blades nearly touching. Only nimble birds make it to Canada and back and those only if they avoid looking into the glare of the solar arrays. Don’t buy oil stock. And don’t let them drill the arctic for oil we won’t need.

Among the things I know I don’t know is how to live our human lives when our machines are so powerful. My Mini gets 47 miles to the gallon, but still sucking my grandsons’ future from their air. Greta is right: we’re not trying hard enough. Get out of the planes and not because of the virus.

 

Charles in “school.” Easier to find Waldo than the teacher.

School was pretending to open as I drove. I watched my way-too-smart grandson try to pay attention to a screen on a wall, picking out the teacher’s voice amid a cacophony of chattering kids. It’s easy to say the kids aren’t learning much. I’m sure the adults are no better picking out the lessons from noise. Our kids watch as we pretend to notice the screams of our burning planet.

We’ll have lost about a quarter million Americans by Election Day. And a few more cubic miles of Greenland ice. And a few million acres of trees, including bristle cone and sequoia that finally met people too dumb to survive.

“Go back to your screens and don’t bother us,” our kids see us say. They notice. COVID invites some adult behavior.

 

Door hangers! Not much help, this democracy stuff. But our best and only hope.

Saturday morning after I got back a handful of citizens met at our garage door over a precinct map and box of election door hangers. Some of us headed to the apartments near the highway, another and his two grandsons headed to Washington Park. It went quick without the door knocking and conversations. We had instructions to only poke the Democrats awake, but we think everyone is paying enough attention to remind them to act like citizens. It is possible that all the wheels will fall off our cultural wagon; that we are too late with too little wisdom to make the choices that give life a chance. But maybe cultures and democracies, like ecosystems, rebound when the grown-ups show a tiny bit of respect for each other and their place.

 

Why.

Another thing I did not see in 6,000 miles of American pavement: “Jesus is coming back; prepare to meet your doom.” But maybe Jesus is already back, teaching us steps one and two of Shalom: Don’t shout at people you don’t know. And don’t give up on the world that God so loves.

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Rev. Lewis

John Lewis never missed a chance to encourage us to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly. He spoke at the first Earth Day in Decatur, Georgia because a high school kid asked him to. And then at Lauren’s high school graduation for the same reason. Three years ago he keynoted the American Public Health Association annual convention by video because as you-know-who was beginning his war on public health and he needed to stay on the House floor. The APHA public advocacy leadership group was meeting just before Rev. Lewis spoke, trying to figure out how to speak across the angry partisan lines. I shared the following.

I’ve been thinking of John Lewis all day. You’ll hear him use the word love at some point, as he always does. If he doesn’t say it, you’ll feel it. When Reverend Lewis speaks of love, he is is speaking tactically not inspirationally about public engagement. He didn’t make this up. He got it from Jesus through King with an accent of Gandhi. He tells of hearing the voice of Dr. King on the radio as a high school student at home down an unpaved road in Alabama—the kind of place known to public health people well. Reverend Lewis also got it from the Apostle Paul who wrote a letter to a polarized contentious gaggle in a young social movement in a tough seaport town of Corinth. The opposite of religious abstraction, the 13th chapter explains what love means:

If I speak in the voice of powerful people or spirits but do not have loving kindness, I am only a distracting noise. 2If I have predictive data and interdisciplinary analytics that give me confidence to move mountains of poverty, but am not kind, I am nothing. 3If I proudly commit to radical levels of community benefit and take on huge obligations for the health of the public, but am not humbled by love, I do nothing.

4The love that life needs is patient and kind. It does not envy others’ projects, it does not boast of our own ministries, it is not proud. 5It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of who ran up the debt and who got more. 6Loving kindness does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always finds a way.

8Love never quits. Where we have predictions and projections, they will cease; where there are speeches, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

9For we know in part and we predict in part, 10but when living complexity comes, what is partial disappears. 11When we were young in our work we talked like beginners, and thought like beginners, reasoned like novices. When we became grown-ups, we put the ways of childhood behind.

12For now we see only dimly as if looking at an eclipse toward the hidden sun, as through a smokey haze; then we shall see it all directly. Now we know a bit; then we may know fully, even as our own lives will be fully known.

13And now these three remain in life: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We dearly miss you John. But we know what to do.

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Shhhhhhh

img_5204This is to people like me who are generally well meaning and inclined to be decent. I don’t have a single clue about how to communicate to folk who think it’s a good idea to have a man like we’ve got sitting alone and angry in our White House. Other than the same thing I’m saying to myself: be quiet and listen. Take the rage and anger in and let it crack our assumptions that we understand. Just be quiet.

And for god’s sake, if you are missing a lot of pigment in your skin for some reason, be especially quiet. Don’t try to explain. “White-splaining” is salt in the wounds. Quiet.

Ideally, turn off the TV with pictures from somewhere else. You can assume that nearby there are people with similar witness. In little Winston-Salem both of our senior law enforcement officers are Black and with vibrant lives of faith. I’m listening to them. And John Lewis, of course. And, a new one for me, Killer Mike. Any number of Black mayors; struck by Mayor Bottoms of Atlanta and Bowser of DC. Bishop Michael Currie.

Most of the work of our FaithHealth Division is woven into the fabric of the neighborhoods where the pain is felt predictably; where people know people dead of COVID-19 but still go to work. I’m listening to my own people. I am not inclined to talk.

I was raised in a gentle suburban Methodist family where nobody cried at the death of Dr. King. We couldn’t make sense out of why people in Baltimore responded with flames. We thought he should have slowed down with his movement to change things everyone knew had to be changed…at some point.

A half century ago. Shhh. Listen. Take it in.

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Testing Positive

bee babies

Bees naturally behaving appropriately taking care of the larvae that is their future. We can do that.

COVID is a nasty little beast only now becoming itself as a global phenomenon. Bill Gates says it is like being in a world war except that all of humanity is on the same side (here). I don’t think that helps as it make the virus seem like is as mean as people whipped up into stupid war frenzy. It is just doing the things that virus do without malice. We need to act like people, too, except the grown-up kind who do the things that people do to look out for each other.

More ugly COVID shocks and surprises lay ahead as the other deep pools of suffering, stigma and exclusion become the new epicenters. Refugee camps, prisons and vast favelas of Africa, Latin America and India will experience a whole new dimension of suffering about the time the nail salons are opening up in the US.

Last week Grand Rounds for our FaithHealth Division  was titled “Testing Positive for Faith amid the COVID pandemic.” Dean Johnny Hill of Shaw Divinity School led the conversation with Dr. Brian Davis who has recently joined the Division after two decades in leadership roles in the NC Baptist Convention.

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Growing baby bees need a lot of grown-ups to bring in a lot of pollen. But the older bees kind of enjoy doing such a natural act of generosity. They teach this to me every morning on our deck where they live.

If you google the phrase “testing positive for faith” you’ll be on an odd ride into the edges of the kind of faith that prays when they should be washing their hands, that mocks the God who has given us science as an answer to prayer. You can buy a stupid T-shirt. But don’t let some odd people run off with an excellent metaphor. How would one test for faith in these early years of the 21st century?

COVID teaches us that one can be infected without showing symptoms. Likewise, it is dangerous to judge faith to fit your idea of the proper symptoms. The CDC adds to its list of symptoms to watch for, now up to 19. Although older people seem more likely to have a serious case of faith, it does show up in the younger groups, just not as likely to create a whole change in life. Just as COVID is still becoming itself, so it faith in these months.

We have been told–and come to believe–that the 21st century is marked by a dramatic chasm between large groups of people who declare they want none of organized religion at all and those who “believe.” The “nones” focus on decency and kindness without the sermonic overload. The outer fringe of believers leave reason, science and democratic norms behind.

Like Gates’ war analogy, this one sounds right, but is simplistically wrong. It is unhelpfully superficial way to see the complex mélange of identities in even the smallest modern village. COVID shows us that the divide between communities of faith and the many facets of scientific roles has evaporated. At Baptist hospital we rarely pray in public, even at governance and leadership meetings out of sensitivity to the diversity in a modern academic medical center. But in the early days of when COVID came to our halls, one of our doctors asked if we couldn’t get the chaplains to pray more than once a week; how about every day? With the exception of a few politicized TV wingnuts, congregations listen to Dr. Fauci with as much trust as they would any Bishop. We stay home and we follow the guidance of science as to how to show our faith with an array of creative ways of looking out for our neighbors as ourselves.

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This is one of thousands of working girls finding what the young need and bringing it home. Everything they touch thrives, naturally.

In Winston-Salem one of our most faithful pediatricians designed a facemask more comfortable and thus more likely be worn. Bill Satterwhite worked with a sock company in Mt Airy (the model for Mayberry) to get them into production to mask the city. Standing six feet apart, but locked as one, the effort is blending faith networks of all persuasions, business, government, philanthropy and, of course public health and healthcare. The people doing the bold project are all more than one of those identities, testing positive for faith AND science, smart business, democracy and decency. The flexible spine is called Love Out Loud, but mostly works quietly to build the relationships that can carry the freight in times like this. None of them has to think very hard about how to do this collaborative interdisciplinary interfaith inter-everything activity. Nobody has to speak slowly so the faith people can grasp the idea of viral risk. And nobody has to teach the business people and engineers ethics as if they didn’t have mothers. Some of the masks are for sale (the first batch offered sold out within 45 minutes). But most are given away by employers to their staff and many thousands through the non-profit and faith networks.

Normal grown-ups know how to act appropriately and with efficiency. COVID probably thought it was competing against the venal idiots doing the TV press conferences. It turns out the virus has to tangle with more normal grown-ups than anyone thought existed. We were asymptomatic! But infected with faith and science so we can do smart things together.

Of course, to see that, you have to ignore a lot of stupidity from roles you’d expect intelligence. Walk away from the TV and see if the fog of false division is lifting just as you’d hope. We’re very deep in the hole with deep wounds to heal, mostly from long before this virus came out of the bat caves.

JB Phillips translates one of the letters attributed to Paul as “faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1). He continues, “And it is after all only by faith that our minds accept as fact the whole scheme of time and space was created by God.” Science helps us see the scheme and what it is possible to hope for. We can see beyond the horizon of the current chaos to what could yet be.

Public health science is profoundly relational; six feet, showing respect with masks and clean hands. The arts of public justice and mercy require clean hearts and no less science.

Many of the same people responding to COVID were beginning to work on the intractable and pernicious challenge of early childhood.  Some of that is very hard, but most is about as obvious as washing one’s hands. But instead of social distance, we need kind-hearted engagement with the mom’s, men and kids otherwise guaranteed to stay poor another generation. Before COVID, we were meeting, but secretly going through the motions because we didn’t really believe things could be different. The actions planned were entirely precedented. Way more kids would lose more years of their lives to inaction than they ever would from COVID.

COVID shows us that we could make the choices to lead toward life. We can contact trace every kid born in the county, know their name and help their mom and the ones that love them.

We’ve already spent more trillions for COVID than we thought it would cost to give this generation a shot in hell at a decent life. We know now that we could turn around and go another way. It would just take a lot of faith and science to do so.

But a lot of grown-ups are testing positive these days.

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Deviant Birth

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Wild Cherry Burl given to me by John Pledger of Trinity, NC. Triad Bee Supply. Not as old as me, but well seasoned and ready for its second life.

I’ve had several early birthday gifts. The best tasting were the cookies my daughter Kathryn sent. Lindwood Jr. and I opened our hives and confirmed that all four of our queens are busy birthing. And last Thursday—best of all—about 75 people from around the world held an UnZoom to explore the confluence of Leading Causes of Life with Positive Deviance. It wasn’t designed as a birthday present, but it gives me more energy than if every one of my 40,000 bee daughters each baked me a cookie.

Five years ago a very unusual meeting gathered in the West Wing of the White House to explore how to align the assets of community to advance the health and well-being of all. The meeting was designed largely by Dr. Arvind Singhal using Liberating Structures. Unlike almost every other White House gathering before or since, this one did not know any answers in advance, only the question. And even more unusual, the question was not posed as a problem but opportunity. How much is possible?

A lot has changed.

cherry burl on the bandsaw

The bandsaw reveals the grain complexity and deep voids.

Some of the same people gathered with dozens of others on Zoom to explore the same basic question of possibilities. How might the integrating ideas of the Leading Causes of Life and the toolkit of Positive Deviance turn on the lights about how much we have to work with? Not “even now” amid COVID, but because of what COVID is teaching us about how very much capacity we have to do things very differently when we choose. One might say that we are forced, but we see the same virus provoking many kinds of response, so obviously it is only posing the question. We humans are choosing to act, informed by different blends of fear, science and imagination.

I have written thousands of pages about one thing—life. I’m not a philosopher or academic, mostly a faith guy who sits near the door when I go to church. Through a winding path that took me from the basement of Oakhurst Baptist Church and Seeds Magazine in Atlanta and then through Africa I found myself at The Carter Center, leading an agenda called the Interfaith Health Program. When invited by Dr. Foege and Jimmy Carter, I deferred until I could try to preach a public health sermon. That sermon became the framework for Carter’s column in the very first issue of magazine in which he says, “we must make the choices that lead to life.”

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Flat on both sides and ready to round. Still guessing what life will emerge.

We did then what we do now—encourage and connect leaders who love their communities like God intends—not because of COVID, opioids, or Diabetes or some other cause of death. Life.

From time to time, when Jimmy Carter couldn’t go somewhere, he might send me. Imagine the disappointment! In Milwaukee I showed up at a prestigious University of Wisconsin event on radical infant mortality disparities focused in the slender strip of neighborhoods where I’m sure COVID cases abound today.

Dr. David Williams, the eminent Adventist sociologist now at Harvard, was the first keynote speaker and I (who was not Jimmy Carter) the second. He spoke with stark clarity about race, health and death in the United States. He created a moral and spiritual moment, as accurate data often does, and then handed the microphone to me. I knew my PowerPoint of helpful programs was grossly inadequate, so I spoke the very first time about the leading causes of life. Actually, just the first four causes. Shortly thereafter, I was in Cape Town where Jim Cochrane added Agency, as any African would.

cherry burl coring

This tool releases the daughter bowl from its mother. Because of the dense grain and voids, it took about 8 hours of, well, labor.

I reached out to Larry Pray to help me write the first book on The Leading Causes of Life, which we had hardly begun when he suffered one of his many strokes. The book began with Larry’s wonderful sentence, “life has a language.”

What’s the language for?

A few birthdays later Dr. Paul Laurienti of Wake Forest told us that nobody really needs Life language unless life is complex and dynamic. But it is.  Ask a pangolin or a bee.

Life language flourishes in times of fundamental discontinuity and unthinkable challenge. This is when we must see—and talk about—how life actually works.  Where do we work? The only place is amid the oddly wonderful, ever-muddling humans in what I came to call the boundary zones. Such zones are in between the domains of structure and certainty, settled power, and evidence-based this and that. That’s what you’re watching on CNN and out your window. Today, of course, we can see plainly that almost everything is in the boundary zone!

cherry burl mother daughterWhen we do not have words for life, we lose it. Not because some disease has stolen it, but because we have misplaced it. We literally forget what it looks like. We lost the words to even ask for help in finding it again.

Paul Laurienti described the five causes as tent poles that open up space for our collective imagination and dialogue so that we can find our way. You have to open up a space and hold it open long enough for us to figure out the right next steps that lead to life. In the crush of the pandemic, we need ventilators, masks, and sensible leaders to do the urgent and obvious things. Just past the bio-medical peak, we begin to need another kind of dialogue—about the life we now must craft with purpose and values that will give life a chance in the years ahead. COVID is not our last crisis. Others more profound are likely as the melting planet calls time on our silly fantasies. We must talk life while we have a chance to seek it.

How? Ah, that is what Positive Deviance is for.

And do we need it? On my birthday we have recorded 165,257 deaths from COVID around the world, 41,114 in my own country. This still pales before those quietly lost to HIV/AIDS (roughly 770,000 in 2018). And remember opioids? Tobacco? Diabetes? Suicide?

cherry burl nested

There is so much beauty in the world to be released. If you’d like these, you can find them on Etsy. The money goes to the Joe Biden campaign. I was thinking WHO, Sierra Club or CDC, but one will get you all of them and more.

Heather Wood Ion knows an epidemic when she sees one. Commenting on the UnZoom she said: “we were reminded to trust our own human inheritance.  We know what is needed to bring healing to the fragmented and yearning world around us.  We know that there is around us all a web, invisible but unbreakable, that will bring us the nourishment we need if we are open and accepting of its vitality.”

The angel at Jesus tomb asked, “Why are you looking for life at the tomb?” Go search among the living. Find a vaccine. Elect an actual President. Plant a billion trees and some bee-friendly flowers. Go shop for a neighbor. Sing with your family.

Later today I’ll blow out enough birthday candles to start a tornado. TC has arranged for my scattered but blended family to sing happy birthday …. by Zoom.

Alive.

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