Sin and Liberation

Didn’t expect that title did you?liberating structures

There is something about Good Friday coming in the same week as a day-long medical center budget meeting that turns my mind toward sin; and then, just when you least expect it, toward liberation.

Tom Peterson of Thunderheadworks turned me onto the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless in his brilliant blog about social change ( ). The book is the fruit of years of work by a way smart group of social change-makers focused on making meetings and events smart and liberating. You may have noticed that most organizational meetings are not very liberating indeed, usually deadly.

Human gatherings can be powerful if built on their 10 basic principles and then artfully crafted with some of their 33 tools. It is easier and more natural than it sounds, because we are built for liberation. We use these tools in many of our FaithHealth trainings and retreats. We will use them in the Stakeholder Health Chawumba event in July ( ). We are looking forward to one of the masters of the craft, Arvind Singhal, being with us next month to teach us in person.

The ten principles of Liberating Structures in the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless.

The point of all this is not better meetings but a whole new world.

As soon as I read the principles I recognized what I experienced in Memphis through Bobby Baker, Chris Bounds and the hundreds of practical geniuses on that tough ground.  The Memphis Model wasn’t just liberating meetings; it was a web of liberating relationships built over time in structures held together by trust. As Bobby would say, real work, not show.

The liberating relational structures of Memphis,–and now North Carolina–aren’t happy accidents. They are built on purpose for the purpose of setting people free from the bondage of what are usually called “social determinants” by healthcare professionals. Things like poverty and broken families are bad enough, but are especially insidious when experts believe they are  so powerful that they determine lives. Left to drift, the patterns and privileges of race, wealth, education and law will replicate overtime with the predictability of gravity. However, social factors do not determine the future if a community builds liberating structures strong enough to bend Dr King’s “arc of history” toward  justice. Humans can stand up on two legs and walk—even run and jump. But we have to choose to do so. And we can invest our time and resources to new relational architecture, but we have to choose to do so.

Do I even need to point out that budgets usually give in to organizational gravity? How often do you see a liberating budget? (Please don’t mention this column to anyone remotely linked with Wake Forest until after my Division budget closes in a few weeks.)

This gets us to sin, specifically the “deadly sins” of the health industry . Catherine Panter-Brick and Mark Eggerman of Yale University and Mark Tomlinson of Stellenbosch University have just published a bold piece in Global Health Action sure to generate a storm of uncomfortableness by looking at the field of global health through the lens of sin and virtue language. They are looking at global health, but every syllable pertains to the healthcare organizations in the United States that usually don’t think of ourselves as part of the world. The authors are tough: “Structurally, global health has broken faith with its core ethical mandate of addressing the root causes of poor health outcomes, falling prey to four main temptations—coveting silo gains, lusting for technical solutions, leaving broad promises largely unfulfilled, and boasting of narrow successes. These are capital sins in the sense that they engender serious misdeeds and careless misdemeanors, and necessitate a change of heart.” Sin does not get the last word, for there are cardinal virtues, too: “A sharper focus on values and dispositions—aligned with the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence and restraint—is needed to transform global health action.”( )

Tough streets loaded with assets.The opposite of sin is liberation, which needs the human structures so that the waters might roll down into the parched lands as every prophet for several millennia has envisioned. Earlier this week some of our FaithHealth staff borrowed a church bus and road the tougher streets of Winston-Salem where our data indicated many of our “charity care” patients lived (those are Leland Webb’s ears). Even those of us who are strangers to these neighborhoods could see what is missing that determines so much suffering. We expected that. We were more surprised that once you get out and look,  it is actually not hard to see the abundance of assets scattered in the very same neighborhoods.

The scattering of good works has not managed to achieve justice, of course. It is never wrong to give a bag of food or box of meds to someone in need. But surely, it is sinful to be proud of the narrow services that merely ameliorate suffering when so much more is possible—Panter-Brick’s uncomfortable point.

With some some humility (another virtue!) we can imagine liberating relationships that are not there, yet, but could be, if we applied art, discipline and time to bringing the possibilities to life.

Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, a vital health asset co-led by Rev Charolette Leach, one of our CPE residents at the Medical Center. It sits only blocks from apartments considered to be the epicenter of hopelessness.

Could we imagine new structures, pathways and patterns that would amplify freedom and responsibility? Of course, we can. We just have to choose to do so.

It is impossible to think about sin and liberation this week and not notice that the whole point of Easter is that life breaks out where you least expect it; where you had given up all hope. Spoiler alert: he is alive and we are free. Why are you still satisfied poking around in the tomb among the dead?

Mapping Curiosity

Drawn by Kathryn Gunderson
Drawn by Kathryn Gunderson

These are such interesting days for hopeful people in our wildly dynamic world. Never before in the history of the species have we seen more radical emergence of vast numbers and forms of relational webs. More than two million non-governmental organizations have emerged in the last quarter century. Most of those are now morphing into a complex ecology of financial forms, mostly somewhere in between the old distinctions of faith, government, non-profit and for profit.

The technical name for our current version of we humans is homo sapiens sapiens: we are the creatures who know. And we know we know. I actually think we don’t know….much. But we are absolutely curious!

Jim tells of the curious story of the role of faith in the novel idea of "health for all."
Jim tells of the curious story of the role of faith in the novel idea of “health for all.”

Jim Cochrane leads the leading causes of life initiative. He has long argued that play should be one of the causes of life because from our first breath we poke, explore, crawl, play with our everything we can reach. Yes we do!( In recent months he has pretty much been captivated by…Emmanuel Kant because of the way he places creative freedom at the very center of human capacity.

Hope is possible because we have the capacity to think of entirely new things, and bring them to be. Almost everything nearby you this very moment is product of that creative capacity. The flat screen  monitor or iPhone you are reading on which you are reading this are evidence, but indoor plumbing reflects quite a large number of creative moments, too. And there is still profound creativity going on at that end (so to speak) of human process that dwarf the iPhone for life and death significance: check out .

Because it is human, this capacity for creative freedom is social. It is rare for any of us to have a totally autonomous seminal thought of our very own. WE are creatively free, not just me or you. And the root of that social creative freedom is curiosity. When we are young it looks like play, beginning, I think with our body parts: ever watch an infant discover their toes? They are curious about them; study them and then start to figure out. Walking and the long journeys of life come quite later once we learn to talk and read.

We are curious about each others’ curiosity, which is how great creative teams thrive. My favorite new book, “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures” ( is a users guide to the social micro-structures that break and hold open the social space for us to explore what is possible in social webs. What opens up that space is not first imagination, but curiosity about what the group as a whole might discover is possible.

What you know is less interesting than that tickle just over the edge of your knowing just as the eye notices things on the periphery of clarity. The mind notices what moves, quickly ignores anything that stays the same. This isn’t always brilliant, of course. We forget things that matter and are easily distracted. The reason why we have so many rituals and reminders is precisely because we so tuned to what it not known and what might be possible. Nathan Wolfe calls that “adaptive novelty,” suggesting that humans can learn about this strategy for the billions of years virus have used that strategy.

Our most vital relationships and networks form on on a map of our curiosity. This is the terrain we walk from what we know to what we might be creatively free to do. The map of that terrain is rarely conscious, almost never on paper or even scrawled on a wall. Why not invent curiosity maps? Those would be dynamically generative and inviting.

Criterion Institute is a place of such generative mapping, which will be evident as it gathers for one of its astonishing “convergences” in Connecticut this week ( Later this week a different–but intersecting– map will emerge at the intersection of faith, peace and health at Lake Junaluska in the North Carolina mountains ( ). Meanwhile, vibrates with a constant flow of curious new findings about what is possible for faith and mission-driven hospitals to…

Old Salem is still a place where new things might happen.
Old Salem is still a place where new things might happen. is a riot of things nobody thought possible that turn out to be very doable–and that we are creatively free to do. Nobody is planning all of it. We are finding ourselves living on a map of possibilities that is being drawn in real time by unlikely people asking, “what is we did ……together?” We closed the Global Health Symposium yesterday full energy because we were beginning to tune ourselves to the social network emerging from our shared hopes relationships.

Do you want a map of the future? Do you want to know what’s possible?

Map the networks of curiosity. And then live into and on that map with those you find there.

Rochester Warming

Flowers didn’t expect the snow either.

I just spent two remarkable days in Rochester, New York with the grown-ups in and around its institutions of healing and learning. It was cold; the wind off the lakes gave the first early snow of the season. At one time this part of the country had seen such intense revivals that it was referred to as “burned over.” But Colgate Rochester School of Divinity, University of Rochester School of Medicine and its affiliated hospitals, Strong and Rochester General were warming things up and it felt like home. This was the home of my great uncle, Jessie Hurlburt the last ordained family member and the author of Hurlburt’s Stories of the Bible which my mother remembered hearing in draft form sitting on his lap. But I am more influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch who gave voice to the Social Gospel who taught at the Divinity School here.

Martin’s application picture to seminary.

Rochester knows a lot about how faith can shape politics for good. But it also knows to be suspicious of it and its capacity to make people mean and foolish. Susan B Anthony and Fredrick Douglas are buried here after a life of battle with those who used the language of faith as weapons against the future. Dr. King went to school here and learned much. Dr. Marvin McMiclkle is the new president raising up another generation, hoping for another young Martin.

Rochester was the proud home of Xerox and Kodak and the Erie Canal and remains the  home of mystifyingly enduring racial disparities despite the fact the largest employers are some of the finest healthcare organizations in the world. Rev. Wade Norwood led 27 faith and community leaders to ponder how such an array of assets could be mobilized to finish the job Rauschenbusch and his friends started a hundred years ago.

Rev Bobby Baker and I were invited to facilitate conversations about what how the array of health and faith assets could find new energy and vision for what is possible. This city has taught the rest of us so much about what faith can do when organized and aligned with the best of a generations’ science. It is always hardest to remember those lessons in one’s own place, so it was helpful for two visitors from other tough cities to remind them of we learned from them.

They had heard of the hundreds of congregations aligned with the Beloved Community in Memphis. And they had heard about the rising up of the Environmental Services Workers at Wake Forest. So Chaplain Bill Reynolds helped them boldly open up the lecture hall in the heart of medical learning for a panel drawn from the Environmental Workers, interpreters and unit secretaries– for them to serve as faculty. Physicians, executives, brilliant students and community clergy listened, then engaged, the men and women  normally only free to be brilliant among themselves.

Mr. White of Environmental Services makes a point while Dr. Berk, CEO, listens.

We gathered  in the name of Janice Lynn Cohen who died at 9, but lives through the fidelity of her parents to nurture her memory for 33-years through a lecture series named after her. We also heard the name of 15-year old TeJean Williams who died as he threw his body in the line of fire in front of his grandmother just a couple of days before Bobby and I landed. The room was thick with lament for the two too-short lives. And yet we could see the other grown-ups leaning in, daring to hear. The CEO, Dr. Berk, came briefed to talk, but quietly listened as we all did, letting it in.

Does faith offer up anything of use in such times as these? Does it help grown-ups do our job of creating the structures and systems that give hope a better chance?

The Reverend Bobby Baker speaks of Jesus and Lazarus in Colgate Chapel.

Bobby preached at the Colgate Chapel with a new social gospel illuminated by John 9 story of Jesus releasing Lazarus from the tomb. He told the story through the Leading Causes of Life, so we also used them as lens to focus the panel in the medical school. There was a lot of life to hear.

The most basic spiritual competency is the capacity to listen to the whole life of the patient, colleague, friend, community in front of our eyes. We did that together as we listened to each other in the presence of these two children.

We need another competency that is hard and indeed very hard for many of us: to appreciate the limitations of one’s own history. It is a painful path to appreciate one’s own personal path of complicity with the patterns and powers and privileges so woven into the suffering. One would think that over time we would move toward maturity as we learn. But often what we learn is what we have been part of the wrong and the damage along the way. We –I–need to know forgiveness is possible in order for lament to not be the last word. That is not the last thing we need, of course. But it rolls away the stone, so Bobby Baker said in the chapel. It is never too late. Not while the spirit moves.


Gold leaves in Black Forest

I learned an extremely simple thing at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies: if there is a lot of something going on inside or between humans and you don’t understand it, you should pay attention until you do.

The biology committee of our Forum was pursuing the new knowledge “epigenetics.” The are curiousi about our 20,000 bits of DNA that are like toggles (or networks of toggles, technically). What turns them on and off?  The answer is not found among those 20,000 codes but in the other 92% of biological stuff that science thought was filler, sort of like the bubble wrap that surrounds the CD from Amazon. That stuff is called  the “non-coding” DNA and turns out to be the essence of adaptive humanness. It shapes the human dance at the molecular level. Before anyone even knows there is a dance, the embryo and mother begin to relate in ways that form one and transform the other. The big news is that the process is affected by emotions both positive and stressful. The science is so young, we are only dimmly aware of how this works even in the mother-child dyad. In this most intimate relationship, the dance is esquitely subtle.

What looks like a very precarious strategy works because it is radicaly social. The child that survives is the one with the best, which is to say loving, … And the mom that loves best is the one with the best, which is to say loving….mate and they with the most fiercely loving famly, friends and neighbors. That works. And what turns on the choices that make that all go?

Some talk of the “sychronous mind” that may function at the level of groups and even community. “Better than Conscious” is an MIT Press book that came from a 2008 Strungmann Forum. Since then many are exploring how synchrony and choice emerge in groups, often with music, rythm, shared meaning and something like ritual. Sounds like Black Church to me, although it will be several hundred years before one of them allows Yale scientists to hook them up to machines to map their popping peptides and whizzing electrons.

SONY DSCMost religion doesn’t look nearly as useful as non-coding DNA even before it turned out to be epigenetically active.  Much is harmless piddle, which is still better than the flamingly stupid fear all religions are capable of fomenting at the most unhelpful times. Still, at the core of every faith that has lasted for more than a couple generations are rituals, songs, practices, norms and celebrations that enourage the wonder of love alive again. The survival of the species does not depend on preaching, thank god. But everywhere you look in humanity, you’ll find spirit. We should pay much closer attention to how it works for birth, growth and thriving of the Whole.

Quit staring at the the pulpit where it is mostly still men acting like boys. Look to the womens’ groups that replicate life and healing practices generation after generation. They do –and could do more– organizing themselves around the social structures of faith.  (This is how I see Parish, or Faith Community, Nurses, not as a kind of extention of the hospital.) Think of the pulpits as the coding DNA and the women’s groups as the 92% around it –the epi-faith that governs the expression of the formal codes. And be thankful that the predictable gender patterns are changing–more women in the pulpits, more men giving care: better codes, more care. Maybe just in time, too.

SONY DSC This is from the back of the church Rev. Renate Cochrane pastors in Gottenfingen where I spent a couple days after the Frankfurt Forum. The church has gathered on exactly that spot since 1513, so they should know something. Four hundred and fifty people now live around the church and know its care. Like the mothers’ epigenetic affect it is not one thing, communion or the sermon, but the whole thing across the whole life and the generations.

Stacked wood in village trailWhat if those of us of faith and in positions to influence its expression and practice took our role as seriously as any pregnant woman does naturally? What if felt that our work was crucial to the expression of wisdom the cultural DNA makes possible?

Generating generations

Frankfurt Train Station
Frankfurt Palace of Human Mobility (the train station)

I spent this week with a group of global class scholars and scientists at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies under the auspices of the Ernst Strungmann Forum ( We gathered to blend what is known–and not known–about formative childhoods and how they are related to peace.   Being modern humans, we compared strategies for how to remember pin numbers, deal with Facebook and early stages of sore throats. And by bringing biology, social sciences, some ecclesiastical and a few UN inclined thinkers into learning range of each other we also found new and very old knowledge about life and how it works.

First, don’t overlook the obvious and known, especially for the first 1,000 days. Do not overlook the critical role of mother. And do not overvalue the role of professionals, especially those who wish to be paid for their knowledge.

Encourage women’s networks that embody the most basic primate intelligence in neighborhoods.  What biology wants is that as soon as anyone is pregnant, the neighborhood swarms with touch, food, safety, protection from smoking and toxins, inclusion and secondarily, “medical prehab” relevant for the birth process. They are likely to emerge naturally–as biological as breathing in and out–but perhaps in more toxic or wounded environments may need a kind of social trellis to grow on.

At birth through first 8 months, never let the child be untouched, alone or unattended. Focus on food, safety and avoid stress. Protect the mother and make her aware of her safety and honored role. Protect those bonds that protect the mother-child dyad and honor them, too. Our current measurement tools are too crude to map these more complex bio/social/chemical/electrical webs, but we should assume they are critical as  we we wait for footnotes.

From 8 months to 3 years encourage Mother’s clubs, father’s clubs, food and safety, community worker visitation encouragement and connection to other key potentially key assets. Flood the social network with encouragement about their relevance and ensure their connection to other material assets. Even grumpy economists note evidence from Mexico that positive conditions work better than no conditions at all). Remember that we are working with the most fundamental primal longings of the heart (David Olds), not against them.

Don’t medicalize, decenter or denigrate the trusted network around the mother. Constantly feed back to the intimate and peri-intimate social network about their success and relevance, especially as those networks extend beyond the intimate and cross over into more institutional or political domains such as schooling or public health.

Use the encouragements of spirit, ritual, celebration, visioning and honoring that are the strong suit of every grounded faith tradition. Constantly honor the profoundly sacred meaning of the most mundane and practical aspects of the work of protecting the prospects of the child and the next generation. Flood the social systems with positive feedback about its success at each of the crucial transitions in early life journey, especially when that success is achieved against  structural violations of poverty or intentional deprivation linked to race or ethnicity.

Jim Lecckman of Yale talks of the synchronous mind.
Jim Lecckman of Yale talks of the synchronous mind.

Can we imagine a virtuous cycle over the next several generations that would tend toward less violence, more ecological wisdom, gratitude, and kindness? Yes.

This would be the natural fruit of a complex ecology of associations midwifed by hopeful people over decades. By complex associations I mean the ever-morphing interconnection of government, academic, faith, health, media, philanthropy, non-governmental and some we don’t have names for, yet, as we become Googleized.

All of these interconnected assets experience will experience increased confidence and stability as they are more conscious of being part of a generative phenomenon of life. Each is dignified by its intimate usefulness, rather like mitochondria are made happy by being utterly absorbed into the life of the cell.

As much as our Larger Life depends on each mother/child dyad, it also thrives with the dawning realization of continuous intergenerativity of infants-children-youth-adolescents-young adults-adults and elders.

All are us –all the time all our lives– play a biological and spiritual part in generating the life and well-bring of each other and thus the whole. Normal life is bio-social-spiritual. And the more mundane the activity, the more completely it is so.

Even the very young notice that their adults can be depended on to act with intentionality in their favor toward their good life as possible. Slightly older, but still-young children notice adults showing the same care for others slightly younger. Older children and adolescents notice themselves beginning to fulfill expectations of playing similar roles at part of the nurturing web and often notice themselves playing a key role in the care of those who are old. And then they experience an oxcytocin bath in puberty as they seek a mate and drive toward their own children.

This associational ecology emerges out of and in tension with–conflict, disparity, tension and wounding. Antonovsky considered the banal violations of humanity as the norm, not the exception. He wrote after the horrors of World War Two on the very soil of which we met. But much of world today remain broken– and still breaking–by active and structural violence.  But is it more dangerous than the lion-filled African Savanna which our nomadic bands faced? Probably not. We are not nomads, but can learn from them (notes Doug Fry). Our radically social species thrived because of our complex fluid dynamic human systems as smart and tough as the world.  We created social webs safe enough to bring another baby into for about 1,000 generations. This is the human way. Of life.

Looking West from the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.
Looking West from the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

If we humans navigate the next century’s difficult passage, it will be because humble leaders will have learned to work with the whole dynamic array of complex human associations to nurture a generation of new generations capable of new generations. We will have found our life in a more complex ecology of human associations capable of creative freedom. This week in Frankfurt–no stranger to overwhelming suffering and astonishing creative freedom–nurtured my hope that we may pull that off.

And so we begin

This is a blog about life written in the language of life. Larry Pray and I wrote a book about the leading causes of life which has (as life does) emerged into a growing swirl of activities, projects, experiences and, above all, friendships. Those causes of life — connection, coherence, agency, blessing and hope–are a simple trellis on which a great deal is growing.

My life grows through a rich web of relationships, many of which are linked in one way or another to organizations: Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Interfaith Health Program, Africa Religious Health Assets Program, World Council of Churches, United Methodist Church, schools and others on the ground in Memphis where I live. Some are mostly academic, others programmatic, but all are about life.

Although I play some official role in many of those organizations, this blog is purely personal. I do not expect any of my comments to reflect on them or obligate than in any way. Sometimes I don’t even agree with myself!

The Leading Causes of Life is one of four books I’ve written, all of which are ways of seeking to frame life as a positive movement toward the possible. Although many of my relationships tend to arise out of engagement with problems of different scales and types (hunger, AIDS, violence), my focus has always been toward the possible. Deeply Woven Roots (Fortress) is about the strengths of congregations; Boundary Leaders (Fortress) is about creating life in the “boundary zones” of community; Strong Partners (Carter Center) is about aligning religious health assets. The point is leading a life about life.

I will be posting about once a week. Hopefully, others, such as Larry Pray will also post, enriching the discourse.

You’ll see links to all of these associations, institutions, books and programs. If you haven’t come to the blog from one of them I encourage you to find you way from the blog toward them.

This is probably enough of an introduction for a blog. I’m posting this from my cabin in the North Georgia mountains on a clear day in the 80’s stirred by just enough breeze to hold the hawks up and to invite me away from the keyboard toward the hardwood paths. Looks like life out there.