Championship Spirit

Celeste Wray, a spirit warrior who belonged to St. John’s United Methodist church in Memphis, Tennessee. She had seen her share of evil and evil overcome. She fought every good fight with grace. She knew right from wrong. Picture by Collins Dillard,same spirit.

You can no longer watch championship basketball in North Carolina because of a political train wreck involving sex, bathrooms and religion. In spite of some of those same politics,  this is a great place to watch something more important, a championship enrollment campaign. This may sound as exciting as an hour of Dean Smith’s four corners offense (ask someone from the ACC, if that doesn’t instantly make your eyes glaze). If so, you’re not one of the 613,000 North Carolina citizens who signed up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act last year, the vast majority receiving significant financial help to do so. Only four states have seen more people sign up, all with much greater population. This is an improbable success against all odds in an impossibly hostile arena.

But that was last season. Another season of enrollment kicks off in November, which you may have noticed is hyper-polarized and almost numb with clanging public din. So it was a good time for faithful people to gather at Fountain Baptist Church (“where God’s blessings never stop flowing) to pray and preach and study so that we are ready when enrollment opens up in November. Basketball is a complicated game, especially when strong tall people are determined to stop you from scoring. That’s nothing compared to helping someone buy insurance : Bronze, silver or  gold? From who? With what money? Oh, I might get a subsidy? How much? When? From who? Why? It all makes my stomach hurt. Once someone screws up the courage—or desperation—to ask for help and actually gets in front of a trusted person, the conversation usually takes a bit less than an hour. But who to trust and how to find them? That takes a campaign. Simple steps done at exactly the right time in the right way–six hundred thousand times.

The championship team behind the Interfaith Health Summit at The Fountain of Raleigh Fellowship, September 13th.

Teams that win aren’t perfect. They are carried beyond themselves to give everything for something greater than themselves. Even teenage boys bouncing a rubber ball can sense when the Spirit is present, moving and alive. That’s why we were at The Fountain. We need blessings to flow in a desert. We saw it flow last year 613,000 times. Could it flow again? It depends on why.

Johanthan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, says that we humans are born with six kinds of moral intuition. There are so many decisions to make that it would be impossible for any of us to rationally think our way through to the right thing even in the course of a normal Fall day. The human race would never have made it out of the caves into large groups of organized social life, if we had only reason to work with. We don’t. We come with six intuitions which Haidt says operate as quickly as does our ability to recognize a face (even if we can’t remember the name). There’s a lot to recognizing a face and at least six kinds of things involved in recognizing the right thing to do. Haidt thinks we recognize and instantly weigh any moral choice as to whether it is fair and caring, but also whether it resonates with liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. The first five are social, relational—human—but frankly, also found by Jane Goodall among the gorillas. This last one rises and raises to another level. The one that makes us truly human is called sanctity. Can organized public action be Right with a capital “R”? That’s what you’d be looking at last week at The Fountain.

Rev. Graylin Carlton, Chaplain found near the Emergency Room and the homeless of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Basketball prayers work better on behalf of tall fast people. But if you’re playing for high human stakes in which victory depends on trusted teams in Wilkes County or Lumberton, you’d better be praying on behalf of more traditionally shaped men of Spirit like Leland Kerr and Dean Carter. Rev. Paul Anderson is a wee bit short to be picked for a basketball team, but you sure want him on your team, if you’re trying for a movement. And you’d better be praying for the women of Spirit like Anita Holmes, Willona Stallings, Angela Cameron, Dianne Horton and Charlotte Leach. Give them the ball and your prayers are half answered because they’ve been formed in the Spirit for decades.

Rev. Dean Carter, Chaplain at Southeastern Health System in Lumberton, NC. He led the champion enrollment program last season.

While the championship coaches at Enroll America told us the game plan for the enrollment campaign, I sat thinking about my small offering. I’m usually asked to give game plan type speeches, but this time I was asked to close with “why.” I thought this would be a good time to speak to Haidt’s “sanctity.”  I had been reading about another improbable story told with hilarious detail in the book of Acts.  This early Christian story—like the early stories of most movements of the Spirit—is one surprise after another involving one unqualified person after another. The heroes are in and out of jail because of all kinds of behavior wildly  disrespectful of the dominant order. The story of Spirit rings most of the bells of Haidt’s five obvious moral values. everybody in the Empire then and since knew the Jesus movement embodied practical care (#1), especially for the most vulnerable, such as the widows. This was fair (#2) but only in the radical new perspective of God’s presence (hence also clicking off Haidt’s values of loyalty and authority. The story is all about the new freedom (click off  #5, “liberty”). This did not from the human campaign design,  but from the deep sense this was the unplannable inbreaking of God. It was a witness of something sacred: #6.

Reverend Richard Joyner on the right. You’d want him to have the ball if you were hoping to plant a thousand cabbage plants–or grow a movement in a tough state.

You see in Acts that the Spirit can move ahead of the understanding of the people involved. In chapter 12,  Peter was once again in jail because of his long public sermons. Just make sure, he was sleeping in between two armed guards with another at the locked door. An angel lit up the room, but still had to nudge him awake, tell him to get up, put on his robe and then sandals and follow him outside. Peter did so. And then comes the punch line: “He didn’t realize the angel had actually done all these things; he thought he was having a vision!” Holy crap! So he walked down the street to where the Christians were busy praying for him and knocked on the door. Second punch line: the woman who came to the door recognized his voice and was so overcome by joy that she ran to tell everyone. She forgot to let him in. When the Spirit moves the ones most surprised are often those who think they’re praying for it. The Spirit isn’t something we use, it is the thing using us.

The law that resulted in the loss of good basketball in the state was  cleverly designed to ring the sanctity bell of North Carolina religious voters, most of whom have never met a transgendered person. But they somehow sensed it was just out of kilter with everything else they knew of sanctity. There are things (not many) above basketball. I do know some trans people and so have more moral intuitions to work with, including loyalty to them. But I can understand why many of my Baptist friends are willing to watch basketball on TV instead of giving in to arguments that ignore their sense of divine order. An intuition about sanctity comes from and is reinforced by one’s experience.

Rev. Dr. Leland Kerr has played every role there is in Baptist life, now the man building the relationship between Wake Forest Baptist Health and its birth mother, the NC Baptist Convention.

An important clue to those who wish to use sanctity like a blunt club for their political purposes:  if it is of God the campaign will likely resonate with the other five values, too, as you can see in Acts. When the Spirit breaks in, compassion breaks out, new loyalties form in light of new understanding of authority. New experiences happen, even to Peter.

More than six hundred thousand people in this nutty state managed to enroll in insurance. That’s not a vision; it happened to everyone’s surprise. But hundreds of thousands more are still knocking. This is not the moment to celebrate answered prayers, but to go open the door for those still outside.

Many of the heroes of Acts would today look a lot more like Mr Trump’s supporters than my medical center colleagues. This is true, except for the fact that the Spirit of the Living God didn’t make them angry, scared and mean; it transformed them into a community known two millennium later for its boundarylessness hospitality and mercy. That’s what liberated sanctity looks like. It’s not just raw energy; it is energy formed into a body that does what God would do. That’s what makes the work sacred and what makes sacred moral. This is why the humble, almost pedantic work of an insurance enrollment campaign is sacred labor.

Early in Acts the scale of constant compassion needed to be organized, so new roles were invented called deacons. That’s one way of understanding all the detailed new roles involved in the enrollment campaign. The community in Acts needed to manage food distribution; now we need to manage getting people connected to another kind of sustenance, full inclusion in 21st century care systems. That takes insurance, so we’re inventing mundane new roles to channel the spirit so we can do another 600,000 things correctly at the right time.

Acts tells an astonishing story of hospitality and mercy that emerged through the life of a despised religious gaggle that was almost too small for the Empire to crush. Open handed mercy was its miracle. The networks present in The Fountain this week are not like that. The North Carolina Baptist Convention has 3,600 congregations, the General Baptist State Convention another 2,000, the United Methodists another 2,000,  while dozens of other faith networks have hundreds. More than 1,900 clergy are registered at our one hospital in Winston-Salem to visit our patients. What if the Spirit blew through all that? What if the that massive social reality developed a sanctified moral intuition that understood that the authority of God asked not just to love mercy and walk in humility, but to do justice?

I preached at the Fountain as a Christian because I am one. But the Spirit blows where the Spirit cares to go. One of my teachers is the long and just witness of the Community Development Resource Association in South Africa,  Doug Reeler. They publish the Barefoot Guides, including one built on the book  by Jim Cochrane and I about mobilizing Religious Health Assets. They are way beyond smart, built to catch and be carried by the wind of the Spirit blowing in some of the toughest places on earth. You’ll find this poem by Christopher Fry on the CDRA website.

A sleep of prisoners
The human heart can go the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake!

Could the wind of the Spirit move us beyond free clinics and insurance toward the partnerships with public health and the things that make for health? Maybe we are not having a vision. Maybe we are being nudged awake.


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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

One thought on “Championship Spirit”

  1. Just a marvelous piece, Gary.

    So much to consider.

    Please know that your efforts and work in this critical area of social witness is high on my prayer concerns!!

    love, Ron

    garygunderson wrote: > garygunderson posted: ” You can no longer watch championship > basketball in North Carolina because of a political train wreck > involving sex, bathrooms and religion. In spite of some of those same > politics, this is a great place to watch something more important, a > championship” >

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