Vanderbilt University, like my own Emory, is privileged. It has been for many, many years. It attracts those among the best and brightest, who are able to see the world whole partly because many live sort of on top of it. Sometimes that is useful. Yesterday about 150 from the academy and surrounding places gathered around the question “is there a balm in Gilead?” It was a way for the Cal Turner Center for Moral Leadership to approach the question of how people of influence and initiative should use those assets to advance the health of other people, especially the poor.
It is very good news that that many people of all sorts and types would show up on a gorgeous Tennessee morning to talk about that. Dr. Scott Morris kicked things into motion, as he always does, with passionate and smart stories of his ministry (and his new book, which you should have read by now)(“healthcare you can live with” on Amazon and just about everywhere else).
And Governor Haslam showed up to close it out. In between there was a lot of very smart discussion. But my favorite insight was an accident; kind of a blurt, really. We were all asked to raise our hand to show our primary identity. As usual the question stumped me, so I raised mine about six times. Healthcare provider? Academic? Minister? Theologian? Activist? Consumer? Not doctor, nurse, chaplain, counsellor or anything actually useful, of course. But as I was pondering my identity a voice from the back called out “congregational grunt.” That’s what I should be, I thought!
Maybe a “movement grunt” would be more useful, but I think we meant the same thing. A movement is not something that we have or use. It is the thing that has us; that uses us. And it gives us life in the process as we find ours in the larger life of the world God so loved. And still does.
Amid the infinite complexities of the issues that shape the health of our communities, we are tempted to spend time spinning fantasies of overarching solutions that would make things right. We imagine Counsels, Committees and Memorandum that would bind together Science, Ethics, Power and Rationality. These are works that tempt us away from the real work of imagination. In the end they tempt us to despair.
I think we are in a Bonhoeffer moment these days that calls for something more humble and, yet, radical. Faced with the catastrophic collapse of all that was good in Germany, the young theologian formed a small group of people that prayed, and read the Bible in big chunks, studied and prayed some more. He fell in love and he wrote some (I wish he had written more.) And he gave himself to a failed violent plot to kill Hitler, dying young in the process. He did what he could with who he was and what he had and what he knew. And he did so, not a heroic loner, but a member of a congregation. He was, in a sense, an extremely well-known congregational grunt.
I do not know whether all of our very best will do any better than Bonhoeffer’s efforts. We live amid terrible times when we hardly notice the mentally ill wandering unattended under the bridges, sleeping on the steps of our downtown churches. We have forgotten to be sickened by the amputation epidemic filling our streets with people on little scooters marking the motorization of uncontrolled diabetes. We are now hardened people forgetting to gasp at the casual structural violence with which we are complicit.
I don’t want to be that way. I want to feel the shock of being drawn by a movement of spirit to lend my mind and my body to bend the curve toward hope. I want to be a movement grunt.
Let it be.
– Posted on the journey