Crafting life together

fullsizerender-8It can all fall apart, this democracy thing. It’s not like gravity that makes rocks fall, even if you don’t believe in it. Democracy only lives in the mind and spirit and evaporates when we forget it. The belief that people can elect people who care enough to more or less do what they said they’d try to do rests on a fragile set of behaviors and values. For instance, that elected ones won’t lie and laugh at the same time. Basic stuff; it’s a low bar but one we have dropped below.

I was on a Delta flight to Denver Wednesday on my way to a meeting of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. Trapped in a middle seat between two suits who immediately turned the inflight video monitor on Fox News inches from my face. The guy on my left opened up a vast laptop with a powerpoint about the 10 things you need to know about illegal immigrants, including the “fact” that 79% of food stamps go to illegals. I’m pretty sure that in North Carolina half of food stamps go to Baptists, because half of everybody is a Baptist. I didn’t know how to begin the conversation, so I just turned on CNN. I’ll do better next time.

How do we craft a working democracy again; one where we can talk to each other? In a nation where hardly any of us came from here, you wouldn’t think that would be that hard. We are all a muddle, all some kind of mutt. My last name is Norwegian, but 15/16th is something else. Nobody is the same, even those that think we are. All the Evangelicals and Catholics turn out to have abortions and divorces at nearly the exact rates as the liberals, who are presumed to not be Evangelical or Catholic, even though many are. We are all just doing the best we can to be decent parents, brothers, sisters and citizens, the whole time we know we are not doing a very great job of any of those roles.

Loma Linda University’s San Bernadino Campus includes a community health clinic and a stunning gateway school for high school students to begin their journey into health professions.

In such a motley group, it is important to avoid letting someone else tell you who to be afraid of. This is especially important when by any rational basis you have never actually met one of the fearsome people. I’m thinking, of course, of the many Muslim physicians without whom our hospitals named Baptist would have to close. And the many, kind family-oriented Spanish-speaking men and women who have found refuge in our city, rebuilding the south side of town with an entrepreneurial earnestness. Why be afraid of them? I’m more afraid of the people trying to make me afraid.

Of course, others want me to be afraid of white small town Baptists, who did, admittedly, vote for our current White House occupant, which I find mystifying. In my actual experience, these folks are kind and generous to any request for mercy, willing to drop anything to go build a wheel-chair ramp for a total stranger. The rural churches are naïve about the ecumenical nature of opioids addiction, alcoholism or poverty. If I needed food, I’d head to a church, confident they’d help no matter how inconvenient.

Here in gentle Winston-Salem, we had some very ugly, but predictable, outbreaks of threats against the two Muslim Mosques where our doctors worship. We don’t know who did it; but I’m sure they’ve never met a Muslim. I’m certain that, if we asked the Baptist Men’s groups to turn off Fox News and head over to provide protection, they’d do it. If they brought their wives, everyone would quickly find pull out grandchild pictures and complain about the teenagers. The kids would play soccer together as they do at school.

Sometimes, all it takes is an invitation to do better. Many of those claimed as friends of the mean have simply not been invited by to do anything else than put a dumb red hat. Shame on us for not asking more.

Jerry Winslow  is the chair of the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council. He and I were together a couple of weeks ago at Loma Linda University Health’s institute for Health Policy and Leadership. Amid the heavy policy discussion we found some time to turn a gorgeous piece of maple burl and reclaim a piece of chestnut bowl I had managed to turn a hole in the bottom of. Jerry, the son of a German immigrant home builder, has been a master craftsman of wood for decades.

Jerry Winslow, teaching as always, this time at the lathe.

On Saturday Jerry took me over to the 1909 Gamble House, the epitome of “craftsman” architecture in Pasadena. It is a revelation in simplicity. Every single joint, lamp, door, handle, light, stair tread and attic beam was thought about and then crafted to express a perfect blend of form and function. The two architect brothers, Greene and Greene, were part of a vibrant global movement that saw in craftsmanship the hope for democracy, the possibility of a human culture. This was no small thing to believe amid the turn of the raw and violent century where industrial bigots had their way nearly unfettered. Something as modest as a well-crafted cottage might seem hopelessly irrelevant against the unstoppable tide of crass exploitation. But not if that cottage, or chair, or perfectly made lamp is an expression of integrity, consistent with a whole way of relationship to other people and the created order. What if such people outnumbers the mean crass ones? What if they—we—crafted a democracy?

Just a few of the billion perfectly crafted details designed into the Gamble House.

In fact, the craftsman movement was a strong signal about what mattered most, a thoughtfulness about how to live a well and worthy life. Frank Loyd Wright (a man of no small number of peccadillos) said of the movement: “Do not think that simplistic means something like the side of a barn, but something with a graceful sense of beauty in its utility from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated. Do not imagine that repose means taking it easy for the safe forest, but rather because it is perfectly adjusted in relationship to the whole, in absolute poise, leaving nothing but a quiet satisfaction with its sense of completeness.” (Architecture and Machine, 1894).

It is time to craft democracy again with the same thoughtful attention to form and function as our earlier teachers lent to working with wood and home. Some of the old tools work fine, if sharpened again. Jerry still uses tools he acquired decades ago, now sharpened to a fraction of their original length. I just bought some 100-year old Sears Craftsman tools on EBay for $25. Old tools still work:  Precinct 601 met in the Single Brothers House of Old Salem where democracy has been argued for a couple centuries. We elected a new party precinct chair, Kate Hayden, who looks for all the world like Bernie’s granddaughter, but knows the craft of elections. First job is to get to know each other, have a party for the party, read some books and talk like humans who are capable of caring and thinking about what matters.

I have some very modern carbide tools, too. Likewise, we need to craft to the relational technologies like twitter that are too powerful to leave to the mean and desperate. This is how I think of 100 Million Healthier Lives, the unprecedented collaboration led by Dr. Soma Stout of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The craftsman movement has something of the same challenge to figure out what to do with industrial machines; but democracy is played for much higher stakes than any lathe. Respect the medium; watch the density and grain if on a lathe; watch the pattern of need if crafting public policy. If you don’t love the wood or the people, go do something else.

When there was much to fear in a culture gone to mere machinery, the craftsman movement trusted thoughtfulness and beauty from integrity and the life well-lived.  These democratic and communitarian values stayed alive in the culture expressing themselves later in the practical compassion of the Civilian Conservation Corps (which turned Jerry’s German immigrant father into a craftsman), Social Security, the policies favoring religious hospitals and non-profit health insurance. They crafted institutions that removed abject fear of penury from aging and made it possible to fight a skirmish, if not war, on poverty itself. Think of it as graceful joinery the Greene brothers would have liked.

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Jerry’s old tools fit for the craft. “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside thoroughly used up, totally worn out and proclaiming, “wow! What a ride!”

Democracy can all fall apart; But it can also heal and find its heartbeat. I think that is what is happening.

The meanest bully by the beach that we find so shocking today is nothing compared to the raw and untethered industrial power a hundred years ago. We have seen worse bluster fail before well-crafted policies and institutions built by people no smarter than us who wanted their life to simply be good.

They even left some tools behind that just need to be sharpened, put to the grain by hands willing to learn. Find your party precinct meeting, show up and get ready for the next cycle of voting. Make an appointment with your congressman just to tell them what you care about. Take your state representative out for lunch with a couple friends. Volunteer for a church mission committee and go find somebody to help. Plant a couple hundred trees like my brother did at his Presbyterian Church along with some Muslims up the block. Go read a book to a kid. This is how you craft a community, a culture, a life.

Let’s do that.


Body politic, limping

Life through the bullet holes
Sprouts find their way through the bullet holes in an old refrigerator in North Georgia. Maybe life can sprout after an election, too.

Ninety or so days from now our body politic will be on the other side of the most dangerous passage since the Civil War. (Here’s an exact countdown.) I think that Mr. Trump will have found a way to abandon the process between now and then (he’ll think of it as firing democracy). I’m not interested in what he’ll do on November 9th, but very interested in everyone else in a position of public responsibility and how we play our roles in a bruised and disoriented body politic. Every elected official in every county and town, every public officer responsible for public health or law enforcement, all of us with public roles in key institutions such as hospitals, major companies, press and religious leadership face the question: how do we do public work in a broken public body?

Our social and political body will walk with a limp. We’ll have a split mind with both sides almost incomprehensible to the other; like symbiotic twins of different species unable to find any words or gestures that are not interpreted as hostile. Forty percent of our fellow-citizens resonate to Mr Trump’s views, even if they might hope for better manners. But the intransigence could continue for a long time.

This is why we need to shift our attention from the battle, to how we live together afterward. Nobody has a bigger stake in this—or is in a better position to do something useful—than those of us working health, prevention, public health, healthcare systems. In gross financial terms, we are more than a trillion dollars of the economy, with millions of people working as nurses, janitors, researchers, doctors and the whole panoply of roles across our thousands of institutions. Those of us in faithhealth are even more relevant, because we live across so many boundaries of both faith and health.

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Kathryn’s sketch of the many channels the Mississippi cut over time, always finding a way.

There is hardly any more possible diversity of faith and politics than inside one of our institutions, so we don’t have to go looking for someone who doesn’t agree with us. The nature of our work puts us in the midst of the most profound moments of hope (birth!) and shock and lament and sorrow on the human journey. We don’t just see the traumas. We can see many of them simmering in grinding poverty and the brokenness that passes from one generation to the next, the predictable implications of the insults of race, class and stigma.

As health organizations, we find ourselves right in the middle of the most contentious public policy issues. All of the third-rail issues run right through our buildings. We care for the undocumented immigrants (of course, we do) and the beaten up women, and the veterans with all the wounds that you can’t see. We know the eyes of those who can hardly recognize themselves because of addictions and dependencies. We know those surprised by vulnerabilities of age and the disconnections of the 21st century family. Those of us in public health know the streets where all these patterns live and we ache with the knowledge of how much of the suffering could be prevented or buffered.

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Sprouts find their way through the bullet holes in an old refrigerator in North Georgia. Maybe life can sprout after an election, too.

We know a lot about bruised and broken people. Now we need to focus on our role in a bruised and broken body politic. To heal that body requires a new humility in our language and a quiet tenacity in our work.

Gene Matthews, now faculty at UNC School of Public Health, spent many years as the General Counsel for the Centers for Disease Control, many of them working for Dr. Bill Foege. I also worked for Bill at The Carter Center, so when I came to North Carolina a few years Gene reached out to me. Gene introduced me to the writing of Jonathan Haidt and his recent book The Righteous Mind, which turns on very bright lights on the way to much healthier public dialogue about the things that matter most. Haidt, a professor of moral psychology, says there are six “moral intuitions” that function like taste buds for all people. Liberals (my people) tend to have a taste for caring and fairness (meaning equality) which we prefer with a touch of liberty. Conservative have a broader pallet, which includes caring and fairness (to the surprise of we liberals). Conservative have an equal taste for the virtues of liberty and also loyalty, respect for authority and “sanctity.” This last one is not just religiosity, but a sense that some things are sacred and deserve protection. Haidt argues that conservatives—and conservative political movements—have an advantage in that they can appeal to all six, while liberals aren’t even trying on three of them. This was true at least until the Democratic convention last week with all the flags, religious singing and Mr. Khan whipping out his pocket copy of the Constitution.

It’s not a perfect book. Haidt wanders off the rails in his description of religion as a kind of social Elmer’s Glue. As much as he values sanctity, he left the whole field of faith somewhat less than sacred. And he takes some odd detours to pick an argument with Kant. You can skip those parts. But don’t skip his core gift to us, which is a hugely helpful framework that helps us see and talk across our otherwise impossible divide.

Haidt argues that we humans are prewired for righteousness so deeply that we can sense these six moral flavors intuitively way before we shape logical moral arguments. This is basic to how we humans form highly complex social bodies far beyond the simple ties of blood and clan. And this is also how we can map the pattern of traumatizing bruises which mark our body politic today. And this is how we can see the need for urgent humility by which those of us in positions of influence in our complex human body can create a new pattern of deep listening and dialogue about the things that matter most. Haidt begins and ends his remarkable book by quoting Rodney King’s immortal question, “can’t we all get along?” Less quoted, but not overlooked by Haidt, was King’s follow-up counsel: “we’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

Some think our only common language is money—what things cost and who should pay. I’ve even watched churches collapse under the heavy and highly visible hand of economics squeezes the air out of otherwise adult discussion: “be realistic and act like a business.” Health organizations often succumb to this even though our daily life is filled with evidence that when life hangs in the balance, money often matters the least. What we actually have in common is not money, but the human journey of health, frailty, dependence, pain and the fear of pain, loss and the fear of loss. What we actually know is how our life is shaped by those we share it with, those who care despite all boundaries of blood and coin. This is why I think those of us in the health fields–including the massive number of community and faith partners—are in such a profoundly key role in this moment when our body politic suffers so deeply. We can understand each other because we are all on the same short and fraught journey.

The first celebration of July 4th was held in Old Salem while George Washington was passing through. It’s reenacted every year as a service of prayer for peace.

One thing health people know is that words are not enough. Words are not even the beginning and they are hardly important at all at the end. We may need Haidt’s counsel to talk among ourselves and then again when we have the chance to explain ourselves in public. But most of the time our eloquence is quiet. We keep our doors open to anyone all day and night. Despite the fabulously expensive technology and astonishingly prolonged training of thousands of staff, every non-profit and faith health system gives away tens of millions of dollars of care every year on purpose. We are required to do so as part of public trust, but most everyone of us goes well beyond the minimum bar. This passive waiting in readiness kind of witness is part of the glue that holds society together, that defines us as a moral people at all. It is good, indeed very good. And it is not enough for this broken moment. For we know we can be proactive with our mercy; we need not wait, we know better.

The Stakeholder Health book, “Insights from the New Systems of Health,” looks like a kind of textbook based on our collaborative learning; and it is. I expect dozens of courses to use it in the next few years (TC and I will be teaching one ourselves at Wake). But more than a textbook, it is a collaborative witness that is map for healing out social body. Its 44 authors wrote about the social drivers that shape the health of people and neighborhoods. They wrote of population health as the common ground for those professing public health and those running healthcare organizations and hospitals. The book did not quite say the obvious and most profound thing. The social body itself is bruised, but resilient. The social body itself is defined by biological, psychological, social and spirit aspects, inseparable as the facets of an emerald. The social body itself cries out for the practical, on-the-streets intelligent love found in the daily walk of community health workers. The social body itself thrives when generosity is humble and smart.

This is already happening all over the nation and world everywhere I look. The wild organic sprawling testimony of 100 Million lives is hitting on all six of Haidt’s cylinders. There was not a syllable in the Stakeholder book that you could not go and see on Monday morning. We were describing, not imagining.

Even in fractured North Carolina the heart of the body politic is beating even as the political bruising continues. Every single day I see a truly astonishing level of serious collaboration quietly crossing over all the supposedly impossibly treacherous chasms. Competing hospitals share data and teach each other about how to come alongside the poor. Black, white, liberal and conservative Baptists are working together on the meanest streets–some paved, some not. Republican sheriffs and way liberal Hispanic activists are quietly helping each other keep faith with all six of Haidt’s moral intuitions. With just a little bit of humility and decency very different kinds of people find a way when the work is about real people. That’s the NC Way.

Haidt would ask us to describe our work and witness not just in the liberal flavors of care and fairness (as we usually do). We could—and thus should—embrace a more robust and compelling witness that resonates with the broader values that honor the sense of loyalty so typical of healthcare teams, the sense of respect for authority of many kinds that govern the practice of medicine and public health.

And we should claim in humility our deepest intuition that our work is sacred because we humble ourselves before the ultimate human mystery of life and death and the life of the common body that goes on beyond us all.

Dawn over Winston-Salem. It happens every day, if not always this pretty.

New systems of health


Sometimes when you’ve been walking a long time you forget how far you’ve come and far you can see from the crest. This happens more in the folded and forested Blue Ridge than in the wide open west. But even there above the tree line where it seems you can look right around the curve of the planet, you still have to remember to look up and notice the view.

That’s what I felt when I held the new book Stakeholder Health, Insights from New Systems of Health. It is collaborative learning at its best, edited by Teresa Cutts and Jim Cochrane, two synthetic thinkers who make everyone around them smarter. They were surrounded by 44 authors who were already pretty smart, but together the voice is brave and sure.

Dr. Teresa Cutts at the Rolling Release of the book at Chicago Theological Seminary.

In a time of fear and anxiety, Stakeholder Health writes with collective confidence that we—a very big we—are already well on the way to being new systems of health. We are certainly far enough along the way that we can see what we have to work with: a deep well of tested intellectual tools, street-smart tools for mapping community assets, clarity about the powerful integration of body, mind, spirit and social.

What is new about the new systems? Nearly everything. The new systems are marked by realizing they are systems, not just structures. And we are systems of systems interwoven in complex ways that are impossible to map neatly. But the chapter by Maris Ashe describes the tools we are finding useful in living into such complexity. The next chapter (not as smart, but not bad)(I led the writing team) describes the new ways of leading rapidly emerging in the upper reaches of hospitals today. The next, led by Dora Barilla and Eileen Barsi dives deep into the electronic connectional apparatus, which is how these sprawling systems find coherence and get work done at very large scale. Information technology (IT) is giving way to Relational Technology (RT), which changes everything.

Kirsten Peachey, of Advocate Health Care, outlining the chapter on Integrating Care to Improve Health Outcomes: Trauma, Resillience and Mental Health

The next three chapters are a sweet suite on intellect and testimony vibrating with hopeful, practicality. Nancy Combs of Henry Ford Health led the chapter looking through the lens of community navigators and the radicalizing affect they are having turning the new systems of health inside out. Teresa Cutts (“Dr. Honey” in our home) led a global quality team laying out the extraordinary depth of logic and practice allowing up to map community assets with as much rigor as we’ve long had to map needs. This chapter by itself will change the future of “community benefit” and its tame model of Community Health Needs Assessment. The chapter on integrating trauma, resilience and mental health, led by Kirsten Peachey, will likewise radicalize the thought and practice of “integrated health.” The three chapters together are positive bombshell with energy and intelligence released because of who is in a position to act on the new synthesis. It is profoundly good news, except for the old in-bred guilds trying to hold their power.

Kevin Barnett led the team building the case for a new financial accountability; indeed, a whole new financial logic that synthesizes all of the above so that we are a whole new business—health, and at large scale. This is taken to another radical edge by Doug Easterling and Alan Smart’s chapter on philanthropy. Between the two chapters, we can for the first time see the flow of money at the level of the whole system called health. We can begin to see how the old patterns of tame complicity can be cracked open to let the money flow through to the biggest opportunities.

Jim Cochrane led the writing for the chapter that puts all this American chatter into global context and thus accountable to world class intellect and practice. So much of what is old and creaky in our systems is peculiarly American; so much of the new now emerging is global. This sets up the chapter led by Jerry Winslow – a global citizen who happens to live in California—on mission and the heart of healthy community. Every bit of the book is a call to bold mission, not because of who started them, but because of who needs them—the world that God so loves. All the science, technique and technology fit the work of mercy and justice. Let it roll down.

Even the appendices have some bright lights where you wouldn’t expect them! The first appendix lays out the learning journey of Stakeholder Health, which began in a blizzard in Memphis, turned into the Health Systems Learning Group and found our way through an extraordinary array of learning experiences. I don’t think any of us realized how many steps we had take to the get to the the view (hence the mountain metaphor above). Appendix two is a rich collection of population health screening tools, sure to help many hospitals—and no small number of graduate students. The last appendix has numerous mission and vision statements new guiding hospitals and religious bodies in the field.

The book is in a “rolling release” in Chicago, Winston-Salem and next Tuesday in Oakland. Each bounce gives voice and visibility to the local authors and engages the networks most relevant to the local institutions. You can track it all, of course, on the website.

Most of the authors work for one or another of the new systems of health, so there is optimism but no happy talk. Most of the new systems are surprised to learn they are new because all of us spend the vast majority of our working days engaged in very old problems. Even when you are near the clearing at the summit with the great view, you have to watch where you put your feat rock by rock or you’ll hurt yourself. I happen to know that is true. The caution is not the whole story, however. It is significant that those of us inside the beast(s) can see the new emerging.

The book will be available for free download chapter by the chapter on July 1, which makes it a kind of textbook likely to be integrated into courses of many disciplines. And it is also available now to purchase on Amazon for $19.95. Just click here. Today.

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Rev. Francis Rivers, the Faith Health Division’s lead  organizing an Identity card drive for the Hispanic/Latino community. Part of what is very new in our New System of Health

The cover picture was taken on a chilly morning in Winton-Salem where one of the New Systems of Health—our own little Wake Forest Baptist Health—found ourselves in the position of having done something really smart and right. We had lent our name, presence, religious voice and political weight to a program offering validated picture ID cards to hundreds of undocumented Hispanics. They were part of the new system of how our city works and who mattered. They honored us by trusting us enough to show up. We were helping each other find our way into the future we were already partly living in.

That’s why that gorgeous picture is on the cover: we are far enough along that we can learn from the journey, pause and testify that we’re on the right path.

Runaway heart

High Mountain Cherry Burl Bowl

My daughter Lauren is about to give birth to my second grandson, which, with her sense of dramatic timing will probably happen on Mothers’ Day. This also kicks off Nurses’ Week in hospitals. My wife and my (now former) first wife are both clinical professionals and moms. Most of my staff in the FaithHealth Division are women and the men are in touch with their feminine side or they couldn’t do their work of care for the bio-psych-social-spiritual dynamics of the thousands about whom we care. For ninety years our largest partner–the NC Baptist State Convention–uses Mothers’ Day to collect an offering for our most vulnerable patients.

So I’ve been thinking about the expansive caring going on; and the unknowable, but real limits to our reach.

Last Saturday it was my turn to lead the Medical Center’s daily “safety huddle”—the mundane miracle in which every operating unit of the health system from chief medical officer to security to food services and everything in between gathers to report on whether each of us has an event, concern or need to report. Even if we don’t, we have to say so out loud to our colleagues. Usually it moves fast, but sometimes it just stops the heart. Someone reported a situation with a runaway kid who had been compelled to come to the ED by her mom, who promptly run away herself, leaving the kid in our care. Except then the kid ran away from us, too. Everyone hurt hurt. We all dealt with our sense of profound limitations even when the 14,000 hospital people were multiplied by the police and social services. I couldn’t get it out of mind, so the next morning slipped in a prayer amid all the operational chatter:

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As Jerry Winslow has noted, it takes a lot of sawdust to find the second life of a tree.

“Mother God, we pray today with thanks for the big heart and strong muscles you have given us so that we might be healers amid so many lives. Every morning we see how big a family of colleagues we have that is constantly present to do what is possible for all who come. Today we pray for all events that raise our concerns for all the needs we cannot satisfy that we cannot get out of our minds, hearts and bones. The runaway kid from yesterday with the runaway mom who left her. All the husbands without words sitting next to their wives with cancer about to leave the whole world behind. All the people who have lost their way to any hope except for the medical miracles that lie beyond us, too. Keep our hearts tender like a mother for all that love lets in. But keep it beating and open for each other and your great spirit so that we might be smart, gentle and kind for this one more day.”

The first cut through the pith lays open the astonishing grain of the burl.

The British Medical Journal has been thinking about this, too, although in grim language of “multimorbidity:” “Across the world healthcare systems are struggling to cope with increasing demands and costs. Rising life expectancy has been accompanied by an explosion in the prevalence of long term conditions and multimorbidity.

“Clinicians are working within legacy systems that were developed to deal with 19th century problems—they provide specialised responses to acute illness and infection. At the same time daily practice is strongly influenced by an ever expanding array of disease centred guidelines that don’t map neatly to the realities of clinical practice, in particular the ubiquity of multimorbidity. The result is fragmented, poorly coordinated health services for those most in need—vulnerable patients with multimorbidity. Today’s healthcare professionals are faced not only with rising disease-disease, drug-drug, and disease-drug interactions in multimorbid populations but with the increasingly evident consequences of socioeconomic disadvantage.

The rough and twisted bark hints at the pattern.

“Meanwhile, patients, their families, and their extended social networks experience not only the burden of symptoms but the burden of treatment. This is an emerging but underi-nvestigated phenomenon. It has received increasing attention recently, and interest has been growing in how to define and better understand the concept.” ( (BMJ Published 10 November 2014)

We could join the public chorus of complaint and rage about what the world is doing to us and demanding of us, as if expanded life span were a mean trick on all of us. Or we could work on what lies between us, the weak ties that could be strong, the empty spaces that could be filled with compassion and carefully tended connections. Even in our mean and stupid time, we are witnessing the dramatically hopeful emergence of webs of trust where you’d think they would be impossible—North Carolina, where you can’t even pee without the government telling you how or where. Good grief. But even here—maybe especially here, where powerful elites have told stigmatized and despised people where they could drink water and pee for generations—webs of compassion spring up on the bitter soil like desert blooms in random rain. Don’t ever be surprised by what a privileged but anxious elite will do badly. And don’t ever be surprised by the fruits of compassion, either. That’s what we are coming to call the North Carolina Way and it is big, strong and unafraid of tough neighborhoods and runaway everything.

When I hurt myself last June, I was drawn into being a partner in the healing of my own body. I have been learning in wonder how we – even me!—are made for healing. Of course we are, since we are also made to be bruised, wounded and broken. All of us, sometimes at others’ hands, but usually a mélange of our own mistakes along the random human way. (That dumb overreaching tennis decision wasn’t my only one!).  I’ve been learning to turn wood on a lathe as I healed and found myself drawn to the wonder of hardwood burls, the growth that emerges where a tree has been broken or violated with some sort of trauma. The wood in the burl has a weirdly complex grain pattern, twisty, dense and wondrous. The mysteriously beautiful grain reduces me to respectful awe as the smooth cherry takes a beeswax polish. I think, of course, of Lauren’s pain and that of every woman in my life, of every nurse in every hospital, of every broken heart that manages to stay tender to the pain of the world.

No mom I know stops at the pain. They lend their life and every fiber to what remains possible for those they love. They never cease forgiving and hoping. They teach us not to stop at lament even though so much of what we see is deeply lamentable. They teach us that compassion is the heart of prophesy, of lovingly holding up what remains possible for each person, neighborhood and peoples alive.

The burl is what grows around the trauma experienced by the tree.

Faith with

Across the street from The Garfield Conservatory, a block away from the L, a gaggle of geese find their away amid the urban mysteries.
Across the street from The Garfield Conservatory, a block away from the L, a gaggle of geese find their way amid the urban mysteries.

There were years when I was across the ocean that I would tell people I was from Canada to avoid explaining US politics. People in more normal countries  dumbfounded my people would be found dumb enough to vote for a California actor obviously reading someone else’s lines to fill the most intellectually demanding job in history. Some Americans still talk of him with reverence, which is hard to explain. But since we elected our Harvard lawyer, it’s been a lot easier to travel.

Its not any easier being a Christian than an American. I work in fields with lots of science going on so am occasionally held to account for my faith. Nobody cares enough enough to hurt me for it, as in olden days. But for those who otherwise like me (sometimes including my children), it bears explaining how an apparently intelligent person would identify as a member of Jesus’ or any tradition of faith. Like claiming Canada next door, it is easier to say something vaguely ethical rather than saying I go to that most odd of all human assemblies, a church.

Francis has helped. But even in a week in which it would really hard to screw up being a Christian, we have had nutters from Arkansas chattering away near microphones embarrassing generations of Christians. If Francis watched any TV while he was here last week, he probably thought about taking his robe off to just blend in with the homeless.

We think of programs as independent and accountable, but actually they weave, influencing each other and shaping the whole.
We think of our traditions and learning groups as independent and accountable, but actually they weave, influencing each other and shaping the whole.

I think of our traditions—mine being Christian—as learning groups more than knowing groups. My most powerful relationships are like that, such as the Africa Religious Health Assets Program (ARHAP) led by Jim Cochrane, Steve DeGruchy, Paul Germond and now Jill Olivier. A whole literature has emerged from its thoughtful journey, now thousands of pages. Groups don’t learn in a straight line and sometimes wander into dead ends (especially when they put on conferences with papers). But if we keep our learning grounded, we can find our way back out. AHRAP accumulated epic stories of finding, naming and mapping. But its most useful tools are those for optimistic searching (such as the assets mapping now about to be trusted by hospitals, public health and community partners in Tacoma).

That curious community spun off another one pursuing just one of its questions, about the Leading Causes of Life. Those Fellows cross the strangest boundaries of intellect and miles, as great questions always have and will draw us.

Stakeholder Health was originally the “Health Systems Learning Group” and remains useful when in learning mode. We’ve are drawn to the questions that lie in between hospitals and  their neighborhoods, borrowing and bending the language of clinical,  public and population health. The questions look technical, but draw us into deeper waters.

Technical kinds of answers are not the most interesting or obvious thing being learned. Along the way we have been learning about the defining characteristic of our group—most of us as both individuals and institutions were of faith. But not all of us are officially faith-ish, which is what makes the whole group so interesting. We’ve talked and sometimes argued about whether Stakeholder Health is “based” on has “faith.” What we mean by those words? Is it important? Does Henry Ford Health System have enough to count just because it has among the very largest network of faith community nurses in the nation? It reflects the man named Henry Ford, not Jesus, but sustains an often sacrificial mission finding innovations where a mere corporation would flee. What’s the name of that driving spirit? Most hospitals with religious names on their buildings don’t think or act any differently toward their patients, neighbors or employees—and many much worse—than massively profitable Cancer Centers of America. But some do find the wells of compassion to give their life away decade after decade. Iconic little Bon Secours in West Baltimore sure does and, yes, those are nuns all over that history, just as surely as the Pope is Catholic.

Many of our organizations are now merged and morphed—Brooklyn Lutheran part of staunchly secular academic NYU. The blended hospital and medical school called Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center will discover the cure for cancer before we figure out what to do with that middle word in our name. These complicated relationships are being carried by what we are learning, not by what we are based on; faith more like a sail to catch the spirit than anchor to hold us back.

We are who we walk with along our learning way. (Kevin, TC and me. Jim Cochrane holding the camera.)
We are who we walk with along our learning way. (Kevin, TC and me. Jim Cochrane holding the camera.)

People from outside hospitals notice that interesting things are happening inside. Peter Berger edited a special edition of “Society” looking at the complicated dynamics of faith in modern hospitals. Some of the pieces are not brilliant, even borderline snarky. But Berger’s introduction is tantalizing as he speaks of those of working inside the places: “They cope with reality in both secular and religious terms and they find ways (not necessarily coherent theoretically) of applying the two discourses in different parts of their lives. Is that feasible? We already know it is. The interesting question is how it is done! The question suggests a fascinating research agenda.” (SocietyOctober 2015, Volume 52, Issue 5, pp 410-412)

Last week the learners of Stakeholder Health convened in the Garfield Conservatory in West Chicago, which for more than a century has protected space for the flowering of learning about plants. Its human story is as exotic as the plants, especially how they won’t quit when surrounded, literally, by gangs or rapacious politicos. Or when only a year after the massive dome was built, thousands of panes of glass protecting the tender palms had to be replaced because the wood frames were rotting (cheap wood). You’d think God would protect arboretums along with fools, but it turns out not.

It often takes a learning community decades to flower, especially when the questions outlast the curious. Jerry Paul, who led Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis and then its equally faithful foundation, formed when the hospital was no longer needed and lent his intellect to the founding of ARHAP, died suddenly in May of fast-moving cancer. Steve DeGruchy died in fast moving water before he even wrote his real book. Larry Pray has lived through another and then another and another stroke stealing his memory even as his spirit is defined by poetic appreciation for life. I’m not so young myself.

Faith is a fellowship, not just a bundle of ideas; marked more by with, than what.

We find life in the questions that outlive our answers.

We are defined by those with whom we seek.

We are what we find in each other.

We are what we think about and how we help each other learn.

We are what we ask of each of other.

We are what we notice in other groups also finding their way, by how we lend and borrow.

We are not the first or smartest humans to do all this.

We find nobility in humility before faith and its mysteries, complicities and community formed and still forming across the years.

It’s Sunday morning after the two big storms have passed; I think I’ll head up to church.

New blade

Six decades later I can still hear the screaming whine of this saw as my dad crafted cabinets with it.
Six decades later I can still hear the screaming whine of this saw as my dad crafted cabinets with it.

I peered through a hole in our basement wall into  a cloud of sawdust where my father fed a piece of wood into the spinning blade. The sound was painfully high loud and powerful, such that I can still hear it, now almost six decades later. I was two or so and learned later the wood was pine, as was all the rest of the cabinets in the home I grew up in, crafted with a mixture of love and parsimony by Dad. The saw, made by Rockwell, eventually became mine and used for most of my adult life as I, too, ripped, spliced, joined and paneled every place I’ve landed. The saw was a primal link to Dad, but over time whined, smoked and wobbled more and more. Once, back when I was earning my living with it doing remodeling, I was moving it from a job site when it bounced out of my nearly-as-old pickup truck, breaking on the pavement. Ken Sehested, knowing my despair, found a friend to weld the key cast iron gear back together, so it lived to wobble on in my life. But eventually the damn thing could no longer hold an angle, sometimes cutting a perfect 45, but more likely 50 or, the other day, 60 degrees. This makes very ugly joinery.

Now wobbling, smoking and whining, the saw prevents, not enables, good work. Dad would not be happy.
Now wobbling, smoking and whining, the saw prevents, not enables, good work. Dad would not be happy.

Dad would have hated the crappy quality the saw made inevitable and surely would have found any link with him something of an insult. I finally had to distinguish between clinging to nostalgia and actually honoring my Dad’s woodcraft. So I went to Lowe’s, channeled his spirit, and bought a solid Kobota table saw. I’m in the last stages of a new bathroom in TC and my condo near Old Salem and now have a chance at doing the finish work in a way that the Moravians and Dad would find acceptable.

Our lives are filled with the artifacts of those in whose shoes we walk, feeling our feet slightly too small for the journey. Just before Christmas I met with the ethics committee of the medical center, which had been established by the iconic surgeon, Eben Alexander, decades ago (he’s the dad of the recently famous one who wrote about “proof of heaven.”) The committee he started is still appointed by the chief medical officer, also a surgeon. Although medicine and the health sciences are less and less about what happens inside the medical hotel called “hospital,” the focus of the ethics committee continues to be almost entirely at the surgeon’s elbow. It thinks mostly about what the doctor should do or stop doing. Our current model of bioethics is not looking at the CFO’s spreadsheet, or COO’s deployment plans, or the Board’s capital decisions voting millions to build another office in the burbs, even those decisions shape the life and death for thousands of people over time. One can imagine Dr. Alexander shouting, “I started it; you go the next step!”

Surely dad is glad I finally put down the nostagia and picked up a decent tool for work that honors him.
Surely dad is glad I finally put down the nostalgia and picked up a decent tool for work that honors him.

Every nook and cupboard among the health field is filled with guilds, national associations (with local chapters!), honoring this and that habitual practice and committee that made some sense long ago. They all have founders and officers—and sometimes even endowments(!)—but have long lost their capacity to cut cleanly or make useful connections. They have not moved with the science that gives more and more power to the integrated strategies managing conditions over time outside the professional enclaves. We live a long time now mainly because of better food and pharma not because we get surguries frequently. So there are way more ethical implications in the price of drugs than when or whether a surgeon does a procedure. They obstruct and no longer aid the joining of good science to good intentions. We need to honor our moral legacy with a new set of intellectual tools nearly as much as I needed a new saw.

We honor those who have given us life by acting with the creative courage they showed in their time; not by doing the same things their courage demanded then, but doing what courage demands now. We grown-up humans build things out of brick and steel. And we craft habits and patterns of power that guide the flow of money and time to the new glass towers. All these artifacts look solid and lasting, but they are as blowing sand at the beach.

Twice a day the tides wash the in-between land of  the marshes.
Twice a day the tides wash the in-between land of the marshes.

I am typing this at St. Helena Island, South Carolina watching another morning tide move another day’s load of sand a few feet up the shore. These are called barrier islands because they protect the vital salt marshes which the tides wash twice a day, nurturing its wildly generative life. Very little important happens on the beach; all the life stuff happens in the muck and goop where the shrimp and a zillion other things are born and nurtured before heading to sea. The sand islands protect this vitality because they constantly move and adapt dynamically to the next big storm and even the next shift in climate rising the level of the seas.

Old maps tell the tale: the beaches move; the marshes live on.
Old maps tell the tale: the beaches move; the marshes live on.

In the handful of centuries white humans have settled here, the islands have moved miles. From the top of the 132 foot high light house you can see a few miles to the waves north east where the old one once stood. This new one (1889) is built to move again. Geologists know the whole chain of islands have moved back and forth for millennia. They last because they are dynamic; they serve life because they change. They are like tools built for a season of good craft.

The scope points 8 miles away and a quarter mile off shore where the lighthouse once stood.
The scope points 8 miles away and a quarter mile off shore where the lighthouse once stood.

Those of us holding positions of influence in institutions like to think our work and our organizations are the key to the life of our communities. Smart people at Stanford play to this pretense by suggesting adaptive change is dependent on “collective impact” organized by “anchor institutions.” These ideas are not just wrong, but dangerously misleading. Living communities don’t need to be impacted, but nurtured; they don’t need more anchors but heart, muscle and guts that serve movement. They do need protection from the raw tides, heavy winds and bitter storms, but protection in the service of change, not protection from it.

What else does any leader have to do that protect the creative energy so that it generates life? Do we have something better to do than that. Whether we are stewards of a church or hospital or public health agency or community health center, the life does not come from the edges, but the heart. I learned in Memphis that if I could protect the creative space for those who usually don’t have much power, they would craft beautiful and useful structure perfectly joined to the possibilities the neighborhoods needed. That process is the “Memphis Model” not the specific apparatus that emerged at that point in time. Don’t confuse the craft (mercy and care) for the cabinet (the structure) and certainly not the wobbly saw (me).

Leaders give life a chance by protecting the generative spaces in which life emerges, especially when those spaces need the complex processes over time. Any human community is way more complex than any salt marsh.

This is almost exactly the opposite of the role big institutions want to play. The leaders of the big things like hospitals can always rent consultants who are happy to tell us to tell the neighborhoods how they should live and how they should change, not us. The model for this is the old way that beach engineers tried to build concrete barriers to stop the tides and the natural shift of the sand (sort of like the one now under 40 feet of water a quarter mile from shore). The more we think like anchors, the more we’re in the way of life, which will most certainly have its way with us.

Roots are a kind of anchor that serve for a time and then not.
Roots are a kind of anchor that serve for a time and then not.

This is why I find surprising hope in the small stirring of faith and faithfulness in the faith-inspired healthcare systems of Stakeholder Health. Just about the time when you think smart and cynical are the same thing, along comes life to surprise us. In reality sometimes, large institutions such as foundations and hospitals can provide some shelter amid the raw power of the market forces (the “hurricane” in my extended metaphor). We can be barrier islands against the forces of raw money power, preserving the neighborhoods’ function as the salt marsh where life flourishes and creates the next generation. It actually does happen sometimes. It could happen more.

Francis Rivers Meza, one of our faculty in the FaithHealth Division, shared an article by Patricia Fernández-Kelly (2012): “Rethinking the deserving body: altruism, markets, and political action in health care provision,” in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies. (click here for the article). She explores the way that religious organizations, including the huge ones such as hospitals, sometimes choose to act against the logic of the capital markets, providing crucial buffering for neighborhoods of poor and often stigmatized people. And they do this on purpose with craft and skill year after year. The authors cite one of our stakeholder health friends, Baptist Healthcare of South Florida and their long term work in Homestead Florida, a place that knows all about the need for barriers against storms.

Life finds a way, Jonas Salk liked to say. Jason McLennan, writing in Yes! Magazine this month says, “If there is one thing that’s certain, it’s that the future hasn’t happened yet.” Bingo! Honor both past and future by helping life finding its next way, not by protecting our old way.

The lighthouse just across the inlet above the gull. Everything moves; life finds a way.
The lighthouse just across the inlet above the gull. Everything moves; life finds a way.