Inside out, upside down

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Blessed Hands Car Wash in Greenville, North Carolina. Clean your car AND your heart.

The Blessed Hands Car Wash made me feel right at home. Greenville, North Carolina is like Memphis, except with vinegar barbeque. And Vidant Health instead of Methodist Healthcare. And ECU Pirates instead of Memphis Tigers. And almost as many Freewill Baptists as Church of God In Christ churches.

TC and I were in Greenville to participate in the North Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference where Bishop Hope Morgan Ward presides these days. She had been the Mississippi Bishop—and member of the Methodist Healthcare Board—the whole time the Memphis Model was growing up out of the Mississippi mud. Leading that Conference from the catastrophe of Katrina to its remarkable vitality modeled every virtue of the leading causes of life, religious health assets and boundary leadership. So we were glad to come to Greenville and lend a word of encouragement in her new home, which like every religious network is struggling to find its way from the world it new, to the world it now serves.

Connected systems traditionally dominated by the power at their center are dissolving in both religion and healthcare. Ask any Bishop or hospital CEO. Even the mighty Baptist Convention is for the first time since roles were kept at all, losing members and leaking money. All major denominations are experiencing increasing independence of its largest churches, many of which compete with their former institutional mothers like large physician groups do with hospitals.

The answer is embrace the logic of inside out and upside down. Indeed, to accelerate and deepen the momentum. But what do we hold on to in such an inside out, upside down world? We hold to science, mission and we trust in trust.

For those used to commanding firm high ground, this is disorienting and scary. But it turn out we (speaking as one working for one of those big institutions) weren’t standing on a mountain; we were standing on a snow-packed glacier. And the glacier is melting. Quickly.

Distant silhouette view of Kitty Tatch and friend dancing on the overhanging rock at Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1890s; with distant view to northeast. Thanks to National Parks Service Historical Images Gallery online.
Distant silhouette view of Kitty Tatch and friend dancing on the overhanging rock at Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1890s; with distant view to northeast. Thanks to National Parks Service Historical Images Gallery online.

We are like John Muir in his unexpected and unintended wild ride down the avalanche, which he wrote about in 1901 in The Atlantic. He had been trying to reach a Sierra summit, which I think of like a hospital CEO trying to reach market domination or an evangelist (p)reaching for the same. “The plodding, wallowing ascent of about a mile had taken all day, the undoing descent perhaps a minute.” (Ask the aforementioned Bishops or CEO’s!)

“When the snow suddenly gave way, I instinctively threw myself on my back and spread my arms, to try to keep from sinking. Fortunately, though the grade of the cañon was steep, it was not interrupted by step levels or precipices big enough to cause outbounding or free plunging. On no part of the rush was I buried. I was only moderately imbedded on the surface or a little below it, and covered with a hissing back-streaming veil of dusty snow particles; and as the whole mass beneath or about me joined in the flight I felt no friction, though tossed here and there, and lurched from side to side. And when the torrent wedged and came to rest, I found myself on the top of the crumpled pile, without a single bruise or scar. Hawthorne says that stream has spiritualized travel, notwithstanding the smoke, friction, smells, and clatter of boat and rail riding. This flight in a milky way of snow flowers was the most spiritual of all my travels; and, after many years, the mere thought of it is still an exhilaration.” ( )

Don’t seek out avalanches to ride. But if you finds yourself on one, it is wise to ride it and not apply the logic that would be appropriate to clinging to rock.

Don’t make the metaphor do all the work here: the centripital forces spinning power from the center to the periphery, from the top to the bottom are not only unstoppable, they are the friend of humanity and, possibly decency.

There are friends at bottom of the ride who know what to do on the ground. In Winston-Salem our avalanche guides are the “Fabulous Four” women: Annika, Vernita, Mary, Picola who are leading the way alongside our most vulnerable patients, families and neighborhoods. They named themselves “Supporters of Health” after they went through (and helped evolve) a brief course for community health workers (adapted as many good things are, from Mississippi).  Their primary credential is their experience and knowledge of the people in the neighborhoods illuminated by clear eyed compassion and tough-minded empathy. Four women—even fabulous ones—can’t turn around a century or more of social drift. These women—and the other Supporters who will shortly join them–blend the tools and intelligence of medical science and the caring assets of other people and institutions. The work of other people in positions high and low are to make the choices that align all those other assets into something more like God intended so they contribute to mercy, justice and healing.

There is both decency and logic to the process of course; these women are the leading edge of proving that “proactive mercy is cheaper than reactive charity.” That logic stopped cold a move to lay off 267 of their fellow-environmental workers last year—the kind of thing that makes sense to people living on the top of the mountain. Even John Muir knew the avalanche could have turned out differently (just last year people died on a snowfield on Mt Ranier named after him). And there is no law of nature saying that proactive mercy will work here in our tough neighborhood, now in 2014 with so many lingering dynamics of the great recession and generational poverty. But it is still safer to ride, than to cling—once the ice moves beneath the feet.

What practically does this mean on the avalanche?

  1. Trust the dynamic logic, not the fixed rules. Steer by the science (which favors prevention, condition management and social influences) and ancient rules of human dynamics (love mercy; do justice; walk humbly).
  2. Shout for help. And be easy to help once a partner comes. Even better, be a good partner before the ride down the mountain. Build webs of trust with the whole array of partners who share hope and compassion for the community.
  3. Pay attention on the way down the hill. Muir’s writings were an unbroken song of wonder; not a guide to making the mountains behave. We, live in a world that is more tame in many ways, but we know more than Muir about the vastness of the universe and its most intimate nuclear scale. With the Psalmist we can say as we did this week in Greenville, “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous –and how well I know it (Psalm 139). Practically, Jonas Salk noticed that we have to devote ourselves to getting the questions right, as the answers are already there in nature, once we know to notice them. The avalanche and its movement reveals what to do next.

And, of course, it’s just an avalanche, not the whole mountain falling. That happens, too, but not every season.

The quarry on Roben Island where Mandela and his ANC colleagues worked and thought and planned for the day when the earthquake would break open the chances of freedom in South Africa
The quarry on Roben Island where Mandela and his ANC colleagues worked and thought and planned for the day when the earthquake would break open the chances of freedom in South Africa

Muir’s avalanche ride is famous, but his description of the Yosemite earthquake later in the Atlantic article deserves to be, too, as it captures the radical fragility of larger-scale change. “It is always interesting to see people in dead earnest, from whatever cause, and earthquakes make everybody earnest.” They were contemplating the fall of Eagle Rock: “The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle,—an arc of the fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock storm. The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice and were calling to her sister planets. It seemed to me that if all the thunder I ever heard were condensed into one roar it would not equal this rock roar at the birth of a mountain talus.”

Don’t build on sand (I’m writing this at the way, way overbuilt beach right in hurricane alley). And don’t build a hospital at the bottom of an avalanche valley or under a cliff. I’m not sure what the metaphorical equivalent would be in religion, but I think it would have something to do with building a religious movement against the most widely held and deeply based ideas of science.

We are not witnessing the end of medicine or faith, but its flourishing. We’ll look at what that flourishing might look like in my next post.

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Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative

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