Myra writes: Epiphany

On Sunday, January 6th, I had an epiphany. For me, this epiphany was significant because it occurred on the day that we Christians celebrate Epiphany in the liturgical sense. Bear with me as I explain what you probably already know. The Greek word “epiphany” means “appearance” or “revelation.” The season of Epiphany follows the season of Christmastide, and it commemorates the revelation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Western Christians, we remember this day as the time the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem and brought gifts to the Holy Child. We think of the star as giving light, and for this reason, some people think of an epiphany as a moment of enlightenment…or a so-called “aha” experience.

That’s what my epiphany was… a moment when the light dawned on me about the importance of making connections. The weather was mild that night and the new moon surrendered its light to the fading stars in a wintry sky. After attending a party for chaplains and counselors at the Harbor of Health in downtown Memphis, my husband and I walked to our car, satiated from the good food and fellowship. We left the lights of the Mississippi River Bridge behind us as we drove east toward our home in Cordova.

Along the way we chatted about the food and the music, and we filled in any gaps of conversations that we might have missed. That was about the time when my husband of many years blew me away with these words.

“You know that stuff about networking with pastors to help congregations?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, not expecting what he would say next.

“Well, we’re already doing it,” he said.

“Sure, I know…” and I launched into a overview about the existing congregational networks organized by the hospital.

“No,” he said. “What I mean is…I’m already doing it …in my classes with my students.”

What?” Now I was really confused, so I tried to clarify. “I know you teach students who want to be certified as substance abuse counselors.” Some background…my husband Jim is a licensed professional counselor who teaches substance abuse treatment methods and theory at a local community college. At one time, he was an EAP counselor like me, but now he has a part-time private practice and has been teaching at the college for about four years.

“Yes, but did you know that several of my students are bi-vocational ministers?” he reported. “They are taking these classes because there is such a need in their congregations for substance abuse treatment. They work in neighborhoods in Memphis where some of their members are addicted to drugs and alcohol, but because they have no health insurance coverage, they can’t afford treatment. Their members are seeking help from their first line of defense…their pastors. And the pastors are responding by forming free treatment programs in their churches.”

“Oh, my goodness,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just haven’t thought about it until tonight when we started talking about the importance of making connections in the community.”

“Well, one of the first connections we need to make is that we need to talk more about what really matters,” I observed. This was my first epiphany…that my husband and I need to talk more about what we do every day. But the second epiphany was even more significant. “Connection”, one of the “leading causes of life,” was happening right under our noses! What a revelation! We had just uncovered a way that connection heals communities. Here was another dot on the map of assets in our community.

Then another light turned on my head. Perhaps the most amazing part of the story was that connection was happening naturally and powerfully and incarnationally… without any formal intent to evangelize or recruit or even publicize. It was happening because God has called some bi-vocational ministers to bring healing to their congregations. And before that… God called people like Jim to teach what he knows with compassion and humor and purpose. Is it any real surprise that Jim served ten years as a local United Methodist pastor and twenty years as an addictions treatment counselor before he became a professor? If God is the One who calls and connects people and agencies and communities, then healing will inevitably come from it.

One more epiphany…there are more healing works to be done. What would happen if we were more intentional about connecting our assets? Now that we know what God can do, what will we do? The National Council of Churches USA recently publicized the Congregational Health Ministry Survey. The good news is that churches are involved in health ministries. The data shows that congregations care about the health of their members and the communities they live in. But the disparity between the total number of health education programs (24,072) and direct service programs (13,033) is glaring. Apparently congregations are better at educating people about problems than doing something about them.

Direct service programs are, according to the survey, “understood to mean provision of medical care provided directly to individuals, usually by someone specifically trained to do so”(p.6 of the report). A good example of a direct service program is a free substance abuse program led by a trained pastor of his/her congregation. We have to do more than just educate congregations about problems that already exist. We have to engage congregations in making commitments to provide or sponsor training for interested pastors and lay health ministers, especially in the areas of mental wellness and substance abuse. Direct service programs are not intended to take the place of hospitals or formal treatment programs, but they are intended in fill in the gaps of service where hurting people are seeking help from the healing connections in their lives.

We need more epiphanies. We need people turned on by the revelation of what God is already doing in our communities, and by how much more we could do if we could get better connected.


Eddie writes: Reflections on the Book, Leading Causes of Life

First let it be said that this book, “The Leading Causes of Life” speaks to just that, life. In society it is death that is most elevated. It is the negative aspects of society that we tend to dwell on most. Dr. Gunderson, in his book celebrates life in all its many facets. I believe we have to move to the thought pattern that Dr. Gunderson puts forth. I too had/have so often looked at our communities and seen so much negative feedback.

I thought of Proverbs 18:21 that says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue …” It is no wonder Dr. Gunderson’s book speaks to so many. There is life in the spoken word. There is life when we speak it into existence. There are many scriptures that speak to life. It was delightful to open the book and see the scriptures and quotes relating to life.

“If we can learn life’s language, we can see it, work with it and maybe even more deeply discover our own life in the process. To walk the streets these days you’d better understand Mike’s language or you’ll be living in a hopelessly naïve bubble. But if you can’t talk about TJ’s life you’re just as naïve about what’s going on around you.” Having been around the world a bit I thought of me as fairly learned. But when I read the above paragraph I wondered how naïve am I? How much of life have I missed out on, by not knowing or hearing life’s language? I think and hope to learn to listen to life’s language.

Upon the first viewing/reading of this book I somehow became very attached to the word hope. I grew up in a time and tradition of hope. The possibilities were often clouded by societal barriers. I felt this particular statement seemed to give me power, “Hope does not escape circumstance, it transcends it.” I think that this statement gave me power because it made me think of my past. A place that, as I stated before, was often hindered by societal barriers. But it was these barriers that caused me to have hope. I struggled and achieved a greater sense of accomplishment because of a hope of getting out of the environment. Then when I read the statement on page six, “…struggle, violence and brokenness that scatter hope like dry leaves.” I thought, wow, I remembered the early struggles of my own life. I must admit the statement almost made a cry come up out of the depths of my soul. I thought of so many young lives in this community that do not have hope. Perhaps they do not hear the language of life. I particularly liked the statement that hope is the theological lodestone that attracts the most profound of every generation of every faith. It feels great to know that hope has the power to cross the boundaries and barriers that we humans erect against it.

When I first heard of hope in reference to this book I did not think of hope as being informed. But as I looked more closely at it I found this to be a fact. The hope that was instilled in me as a youth was informed. The hope was expressed but there was always the expectation that I would succeed because there was a plan in place to get there. I would be the first in the family to go to college. Then I would be the first to go out into the world. Next I would help the others to get out. The base of all this was an education. Gunderson said it quite succinctly; optimism devoid of reality can bring us both denial and despair. Informed hope is life but too often we choose the uninformed magical thinking which does lead to sadness and ultimately to despair.

I wondered about a statement on page 140. “Humans tend to live out of their expectations, not just their histories. We anticipate, expect, weigh the likelihood and then act as if that is what is unfolding”. I wondered if this might not be what we interpret as faith. In the book of Hebrews 11:1 now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith like hope is an intangible thing. According to Gunderson, hope is a “riskable” expectation. Hope then act! This sounds like, faith without works, which is dead. This seems to link back to the earlier definition of informed faith.

As a hospice chaplain for a year and a half I saw examples of both informed and uninformed hope. There were cases where caregivers and family members would hope for a miraculous recovery for a family member. The result was the unprepared death of the patient. The family members often exhibited anger at God. In other cases I witnessed families who had a well informed hope that resulted in a smooth transition for the patient and family alike. I hope that I was able to relay this to some of my former patients. I would like to end this blog with a quote from the book. “The well-lived life is not delusional, but the opposite. It is one informed by a hope for those things that matter the most: the ones to whom one is connected the most. It is grounded in a sense of possible choices that could bend the curve toward life, especially the life that would endure beyond one’s own.”

As a fresh example of hope I submit the following news article. This project could present a tremendous amount of hope for countless Africans.

“A grant of almost $43 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will enable Heifer International to expand an anti-poverty program in Africa. The program is designed to reduce poverty among 1 million people living on rural dairy farms in three East African countries.

An important focus of the effort will be bringing more women into positions of responsibility, both on family farms and in regional chilling plants for the milk. The grant announced Friday is for parts of Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, where 179,000 families are to receive assistance.”

For the entire article see the associated press dated January 25, 2008.


Life in Religious Entities

Perusing through the ARHAP (African Religious Health Assets Programme) Newsletters, I came across a study on two countries in Africa, Zambia and Lesotho, where religious entities played an important role in the struggle for prevention and treatment of those living with HIV/AIDS. The focus of the study was on the contribution of religion and religious entities in the struggle for health and wellbeing in countries stricken with poverty, HIV/AIDS, and public health systems that are overused.

The study involved opinions of participants from the community, professional leadership of corporations and churches. The responses were from people of diverse religious backgrounds and from every walk of life, including the unemployed. These groups participated in workshops and special exercises where they gave feedback on their perception of how religious entities contributed to the health and wellbeing of those living with HIV/AIDS.

It was found that the religious entities operated within a network of relationships where secular entities and public health facilities worked together in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. These secular entities and public health facilities were well connected and active in the struggle to help with HIV/AIDS Alliances. They used their combined resources to find monetary funds, to come up with creative ideas and strategies on how they all could work together for the cause of HIV/AIDS. It was through these relationships that connections were made between the church and the secular world to help those living with HIV/AIDS in Zambia and Lesotho. These connections helped to give the possibility of longer life for the Zambians Lesotho people. Coherency was shown when participants identified ways in which HIV/AIDS had emerged as a crucial issue in the health and wellbeing of those living in Zambia and Lesotho. It was noted that the religious entities were concerned about finding help for those living with HIV/AIDS and to help others with resources for the prevention of HIV/AIDS living in Zambia and Lesotho. The religious entities understood the importance of having life, even in the mist of poverty for those living with HIV/AIDS. I believe that coherency existed here because the religious entities, secular entities, and public health facilities had a common goal of working on the issues that HIV/AIDS bring. They worked on behalf of those with the disease; to say that they could have life despite their situation.

The study found that religious entities contributed to the health and wellbeing of those living with HIV/AIDS in six ways, with spiritual encouragement being number one of the six. Spiritual encouragement provided people with the inner strength to keep going with courage and determination. Prayer was the vehicle in which many people received blessings that kept them lifted and moving forward to fight for their lives. The spiritual encouragement empowered the people as they gained a sense of hope that things would get better and that life could be lived.

Agency was seen when the participants came to their own sense of commitment in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. They committed themselves to help organizations and entities in the community to make a better contribution to health. They committed to share information, to working in smaller programs, to coordinating activities, to be inclusive of smaller faith based organizations and to find more ways to generate income for the cause of people living with HIV/AIDS. Leadership participants committed to unlocking resources, embracing diversity, supporting each other, have a common goal and to continue to network together against HIV/AIDS.

The people of Zambia and Lesotho received compassionate care in the fight against HIV/AIDS when religious entities, secular entities and public health facilities found ways to not only connect with those living with the disease, but also with each other. It was through coherency that these entities came to a common goal that was important enough to fight for. The people received blessings through spiritual encouragement and they gain a sense of hope. Lastly, agency occurred when these entities and health facilities collaborated together and committed themselves to the cause of HIV/AIDS.


Connect, connect, connect (what congregations do)

The National Council of Churches discovered this week that people of faith care about the bodies and minds of each other and their neighbors. You wouldn’t think this would be big news, but the scale and ubiquity of the health-related programs conducted by congregations is striking. Released the same week as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health reform proposal, it is important to understand what the thousand of churches, mosques and temples are doing and can do around health lest it become one more reason for politicians to duck the serious debate about the government can and should do.

The report has some serious limitations, most importantly because it outlines self-reported activities. It’s like judging a school by interviewing the smart kids who sit at the front and raise their hands. And, the congregations reported on the volume of activities with no way to evaluate the quality of services, accuracy of education or effectiveness of advocacy offered.

The best way to understand the report is that it shows what congregations would like to do and are beginning to do, which is encouraging, if not staggering. The NCC, not surprisingly, misunderstands why it is happening, casting the phenomenon as the trickle down of national and denominational leadership. Actually, the sheer volume of health activity shows that congregations are intimately aware of the terrible impact that an inadequate health delivery system is having on their congregants and communities. They do not—cannot—turn from the reality of a deeply broken, irrational, non-system of health that leaves people so exposed and vulnerable. So 51% of the congregations report helping to pay the medical bills of people in need. That is staggering, but those bills are even more staggering.

The data show that congregations are intimately connected to their members and available to their neighbors that results in a remarkable array of activities. The NCC suggests that denominations and public health agencies should work on increasing the capacity of congregations, but fails to mention the actual treatment providers/prescribers, which is where all the money and politics actually are. In Memphis we like to describe religious congregations (about 2,000 of them) as the true “health” system while the city’s hospitals and clinics are more appropriately called the “treatment” system. The health and treatment systems are highly disconnected, even though we know that almost 70% of our emergency room patients report having attended worship within the last month. We’re at the early stages of a serious effort to build a broad-based relationship with a critical mass of congregations (maybe 400 or so) that would share the ministry of health with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. Their members and neighbors are on a journey of health that, from time to time, requires them to be our patients.

Most of the time, our patients are not in the medical system, they are in the congregational system on which their health depends in all the ways the NCC reports: 85% volunteer to visit and provide rides to services, 65% do some kind of health education focused on prevention (28%), elder care (28%), as well as end-of-life issues (24%). Direct service provision included counseling referrals (32%), screening (27%) emergency medical funding (25%) and mental health counseling (22%). Congregations don’t do any of this because of the national policy debate or because a Bishop tells them to. They are small organizations (average attendance 159) who know each other and their neighbors. Every person who gives and receives care has a name and, usually, a history. So congregational bodies can’t turn away when the cancer shows up or a child falls into a deep depression.

In New York or Washington health looks like programs aimed at what people don’t have. On the ground health looks like people helping each other to connect what they do have. You can’t build health out of what isn’t there. So we have begun to use a process to map the “religious health assets” in Memphis that was developed by friends in South Africa and Emory University along with the World Health Organization ( In a neighborhood widely regarded as “poor”, we discovered a rich fabric of assets that includes the schools, beauty parlors, churches and mosques, clinics, parks and 23 other kinds of things (including our community hospital). Congregations are life-giving, not because of their direct services, but because of the people they connect to each other.

The report suggests that congregations naturally blend referral and provision of physical and mental health that is far, far in advance of any suggested national policy. One great example is a new bill sponsored by forward-thinking Tenn. House Rep., Gary Rowe. Inspired by what congregations in his district are already doing with almost no funding, his bill outlines how we can transform community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment by partnering with local African-American pastors to “get the message out” of understanding mental illness, decreasing stigma and offering treatment options, supervise counseling and other support services in such churches and employ and train “indigenous community navigators” to conduct outreach efforts.

Nobody will be more surprised by the scale of the health activity than the clergy themselves, who are usually most painfully aware of the vast volume of needs they can’t meet, the truly staggering scale of medical bills they can’t help with, the profound social disarray that dwarfs all their programs. But at least they look into the eyes of need and act at some real cost to themselves. This is a lot better than what is happening in Washington.

Life on the road

Well, in case you’re wondering how the world works these days, I’m blogging this on a live broadband signal at 78 miles an hour zipping through an illiniois cornfield. How how in the heck is that happening? But it is. So there. We’re wired, linked, cross linked in real time all the time everywhere. And sometimes this even makes us connected in the way we mean it in the Leading Causes of Life. All this linking only gives life when it helps us talk to each other about what matters, for we are still powered by stories, roles, narrative. It is connection in which we find coherence, express agency, experience the web of blessing and know hope. And all of those float untethered without connection. But we should reflect a bit on what kinds of electronic connections bring life and which distract from it; which substitute for it, which accelerate its growth. It does not help to reject it like a Luddite. I remember fondly that one of the very finest South African Syrah I’ve ever tasted is named Luddite (I digress). We use technology for very old purposes–to be in relationship to those that matter and find many that matter in ways that were impossible to know and to have an informed coherence richly fed by knowledge easily gathered once we get the questions right. We experience an expanded reach for our agency.

And now I will go back to talking to John and Niels, sitting in the front seat on our way to Chicago.


Lectionary Readings for September 9, 2007

Lectionary Readings for September 9, 2007
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1 and
Philemon 1-21 and
Luke 14:25-33

Life has a language.
And Scripture has a word for us.
These two thoughts guide these Lectionary reflections.

Life is speaking as we sense the Sabbath’s approach long before its arrival.

We read over the texts that connect us with God.
We discern their meaning and trace the tread of coherence that runs through them.
We know they are intended to influence our words, our actions.
We are grateful for the hope they inevitably give.
And we anticipate our study, our worship, our observance of the Sabbath will be a blessing.

Life continues to speak we, we make a choice. Will it be Jesus’ admonition that we are to “hate” interfering relationships? Does he really mean “hate?” Or is it a Semitic way of saying “prefer?” Is the text linked with Deuteronomy because it also asks us to make a choice for life? And isn’t an embrace of life the gist of Paul’s words concerning Onesimus? And that clay in the potter’s hand, isn’t it the clay of creation? Where to begin.

I go to the clay.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Like you I can’t help but first ground the text in experience.

There is a hymn based on the lines of this text. Its melody is easy, its harmonies pleasing. Much as I find it soothing, I realize it misses the raw power of God’s formative words to Jeremiah. I had a plan for you, but it spoiled. So we started again. Chose life this time and let’s see how it turns out. If it turns out well; good. If not, I will reshape it again. I am the planter; I am the builder; I am the crusher; I am the reshaper. Turn from your evil ways and amend your doings.

First an experience flashes through my mind and then a thought. There were few parts of church life I loved more than working with seventh and eighth graders as they came to own their faith. What had worked for their parents might or might not work for them. And so their confirmation experience had to be authentic. For each one of them there came a Sunday when they were to give the sermon after a year of preparation in which they considered the intersection of the Word with their lives.

I had an admonition for them. “You can be good; or you can be bad; but you must not be cute.” They inevitably took the words to heart and Sunday after Sunday, the congregation inevitably reached for the tissues beneath the pews to wipe away their tears. An easy choice is often no choice at all. Following Jesus; taking the Deuteronomist’s teaching to heart; running against the prevailing norms of slavery—these choices are too deep, too wonderfully complex to not receive serious attention. The reshaping of life, on the part of an individual, or on the part of God is a serious matter.

And now the thought.

A pastoral application of the Leading Causes of Life requires an appreciation of time. No institution is better suited for such an appreciation than the church. When you are born your church receives you. When you graduate your church celebrates with you. When you wed your church clarifies the moment. When you did your church lifts your name in prayer. When you have an argument with you pastor your pastor does not abandon you. When a committee meeting appears to be the very last straw, your church stays with you and you stay with the church.

A piece of clay.
A plan for that piece of clay.
A piece of clay, misshapen.
A piece of clay reworked.
A piece of clay fired.
A piece of clay warned.
A piece of clay shaped yet again.

“There will be times in your life that you fall away from the church,” I’d always say to the kids. “But your church will never fall away from you.”

Is it as true as it sounds? Not quite. Ministry has an intent. Ministry falls short. Ministry is reshaped. Ministry makes choices to begin anew.

Thanks be to God for the gift of time that allows us to take the word to heart over, and over again.


Clarity where life seems in short supply

I have returned to Big Timber after two days with cancer families. We met at the Methodist Camp on the Boulder, a place that understands hospitality as well as the St. Columbo Center that is a spiritual home to the Memphis contingent.

There were 35 people present. Teenagers with cancer; nine year olds who have
sledded with it for nine years; parents with cancers; the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, all of whose lives have been touched by cancer. Perhaps one could say connection” was the central thread, but actually the coherence of healing, and life’s fierce call to the future provided the glue.

Sunday and Monday mornings we made space for the gift of casual conversation;
gathering stories; feeling the pain in some faces, and sensing exuberance in others.
Some stories come quickly with such sharp intensity one can only give thanks that there are five days to unpack them, that the river is there to walk along.

Some of the people have attended this camp, called the Cancer Family Network of
Montana, for many years.

I met with a group of adults on Monday afternoon. One could say my task was to talk a bit about LCL. But that actually wasn’t the task at all. The task was to help us engage in the discernment of life. If “Pretend” walked in the door he or she would not survive ten seconds. If “Despair” walked in and tried to dominate the gathering, it would not have had a chance.

When one talks about circumstance the conversation is usually brittle. When one allows time to make its gentle presence known life begins to come into view and lingers for a while.

I did not start off by talking about LCL. Instead I shared a few stories and the stories, of course, opened the way for others to share some insights. These people did not want a program. They wanted life. There is a difference.

Instead of talking about the five, I just threw out the words. “The story of our
lives could be written with a script called connection,” I said. And . . . sure
enough . . .

One oncologist said he always comes to the camp to connect with stories that most of his colleagues miss. But for him they are a priority.

A woman’s 15 year-old daughter has survived thyroid cancer . . . so far. . . but two years ago her husband collapsed on Christmas morning and was found to have a cancer of the brain. He then died. She tells a story about collecting paw paws in a basket. Each story of survival, each story showing how one navigates is a gift and she puts them all in the basket of her life. Those are my connections she says, connections that come from people who are not afraid to ask me about my life.

Another woman lost her husband; has lost much of her sight; and been through chemo. She speaks of a friend, who is sitting there beside her, who took the time to walk up 28 stairs to have a note that said, “Are you okay?”

This woman has cancer . . . she knows. Two stories of connection bring grateful tears around the share story of coherence.

We move a bit more around the circle. Three years ago an 11 year-old was diagnosed
with leukemia. She is still alive, everyone on pins and needles to see what will happen. “I think she’s doing okay,” says her mom. “But it’s not that easy, says her dad. They give her a bead for every procedure. A red bead for transfusion. Another bead for a blood draw. Another for days in the hospital. All these beads,” he says. “She has over 1,600 beads.”

This giving of beads . . . this gift . . . this connection with the experience of

Her dad had a black and blue ankle. He fell off his horse the day before. “Good
horse but since the diagnosis I haven’t been able to spend time with him so he’s out
of sorts.” Connection yet again . . . take it away and one falls, even horses forget.

For each speaker, each sharer, connection keeps giving itself. Pretty soon I notice
them using the word like a friend.

Coherence also presents itself but coherence is a 25-cent word that does not present
itself as easily. Hope emerges. And so does blessing when one woman who was in
almost too much pain to be present said, “I’ve been blessed . . .”

Time after time, for these parents, we found that cancer itself wasn’t the worst part of their experience. The most difficult part was (and now I wish you all didn’t work in a hospital, because I don’t want you to take this the wrong way) realizing that there was absolutely no way they could pay their bills. What do you do when you get a bill for $200,000? Or two million dollars? How do you reconcile the doctor’s statement that he doesn’t care about money (if I’m cynical I’d say most docs can say that because they’ve got some) but the business office that keeps sending statements? When disease divorces a person from any possibility of taking “responsibility” it is devastating and makes gatherings like this one all the more important.

So . . . over the days I was there . . . LCL took root. Walking up a mountain path
with the camp leader and the woman whose husband died . . . she says, “I don’t go to
church. I’m too angry with God for that.” “Well, if church is the place that tells
you how God works, I’d stay away too.” But what if church is more about connection
than it is one theology or another? The cancer doctor said he doesn’t really believe what the church says about God. But he goes, and has gone for over 30 years because he knows that someday he’ll need some friends.” “Oh, she says. That’s
right.” In talk after talk we discern the layers of coherence, the intricacies of
connection, and the way these are markers.

One closing vignette.

I am at dinner Tuesday night and Mary, the nine year-old whose mom
teaches school a nearby reservation. Mary, whose name means God Provides, diagnosed with cancer at 15 months. The tumor caused her to lose vision in her left eye. This little Mary, who travels to Children’s Hospital in Seattle thanks to Angle Flights . . .

Mary looks across the table at me and sees the patch and metal screen over my left
eye and says . . . “Don’t be afraid about your eye. I don’t see out of my left eye and I’m

“Mary,” I say, “I thank you. We have a name for what you just said. We
call it a blessing. And I will carry your blessing for many, many years.”

As usual, if you want to clarify life go to places where it seems to be in
short supply . . . surround yourself with those affected by cancer, or traumatic brain injuries or, or, or, or . . . and then watch what happens as our five causes find ways to speak with unforgettable eloquence.

Walk softly,

Leading Causes of Life at Cancer Camp

Grace, mercy and peace to all who read these words.

Tomorrow is the Sabbath, Sunday, July 22. In the afternoon I will drive up into the mountains, 20 miles on paved road, and then 20 miles of dirt road. Once I arrive a camp there will be 30 or 40 other people each of whom shares a common calling. In one way or another cancer has touched their lives.

Some children with cancer will be there; so will their siblings, their parents, and perhaps a friend or two. Some adults, some of whom may be in the midst of chemotherapy, some of whom may be recovering from radiation. Some will be in remission. Some will be adjusting to the fact that cancer came their way and now they must figure out how to live with it.

For three days we will be sharing life. I am sure there will be laughter; there will be tears; there will be quiet conversations as the experience of cancer draws us together. I have been asked to speak about the Leading Causes of Life, which I am glad to do. I do so with a hint of hesitation because I know how very much is on the line.

Each of the causes will come into a play with a newfound clarity . . . of that I am sure.

Cancer came their way . . . and so what’s to be done?

Together the families band together to share the “new normal” with others people who walk that same path. Healing should not be a lonely experience and thanks to camps like this it needn’t be. . It is the gift of connection that allows for learning. It is the gift of connection that helps us navigate our way through a forest frought with fear.

But connection isn’t the whole story. We require a theme. It is a theme of life. Just the word “cancer” is enough to disrupt our lives and throw our worlds into chaos. And so we must re-organize our priorities. What mattered before the diagnosis may not seem so important now. What had been neglected before may now come into the light of day. Perhaps the theme of the three days will be healing. Perhaps it will be truth. Perhaps it will be authenticity. For sure we will find it out.

I do not have cancer. But I have had to survive when the odds are against me. I remember as a child going to the Rexall Drug Store with my father to buy insulin. Without that insulin my life would suddenly end. The drugist knew us. My dad and I did what we could to keep the demon of diabetes at bay and to celebrate life inspite of the circumstances. The key is to be about life. And we’ll find, I think, that what applies to an individual also applies to institutions. The hospital’s diagnosis is “a budget shortfall.” The church’s diagnosis may be the same. And so, what’s to be done? We must organize around life.

At cancer camp that’s precisely what we’ll be doing. As usual, the Lectionary for the day fits perfectly. Jesus said to Martha’s sister Mary that she had made the better choice when she chose a conversation whose blessings could not be taken away from her. Yes . . . we may have met the panther that will run us down . . . but neither connection, coherence nor hope are dependent on circumstance.

So what is to be said about life?

I suspect our five causes will lead the way . . .

We are there together . . .
We are looking for meaning . . .
We’re taking time to drive into the mountains . . . mission is always about doing something . . .
We’re listening to hope . . .
We’ll find blessings that will sustain us upon our return home, during visits to the hospitals, during new doses of treatment . . .

I suspect it will all be about life.
As Edna St. Vincent Millet put it, “I shall die but that is all I shall do for death.”

And so our conversation will be about life.

Take care, and I’ll let you know how it went.


Tick, tick, ….tick, ……………….tick

How often does the clock of your life “tick?” For some of us in the hospital world one tick a second is way too slow, especially for those managing information technology and bouncing electrons bearing patient data around the city and to our remote hosting center in Kansas City. Yesterday our link went down for a nano or two which made for a very bad day. Usually our budget cycle ticks once a year, but this year we’re needing to find about $20 million in cost savings mid year as our expected pattern of reimbursements and balance of out and in patients is different that expected. Some aspects of the life of the system tick once a decade when fundamental strategic choices are made about where to build or rebuild a major facility (downtown or in the burbs?). In our IHP Institute for Public Health and Faith, we teach leaders to focus on a half-generation vision—about 14 yeras. For a mom sitting next to the bed of our sick kids life is marked by the drip, drip, drip of the meds flowing into the veins.

Danny Hillis, one of our generation’s wise geniuses who happens to be the kid of former missionaries, Bill and Argye Hillis. So he tends to think about things that are more important than the average genius. He wrote a landmark article in Wired in 1995 ( in which proposed a millennium clock that would help us see the “long now” in which we live by phenomenon measured in decades, centuries and millennium. Tick (wait a thousand years) tick (wait another thousand) tick…… ( )

Hillis tells the story of the new dining room (built in 1386) where the craftsmen built expecting it to last for one of the thousand year ticks. When the room had to be repaired in the late 1800’s the new new carpenters used the oak trees their original brothers has planted for just that purpose. Imagine the life of those original workers, who lived in a thousand year web of blessing where trees have a chance to grow. No wonder they built with a quality admired across centuries! Such quality reflects the life of the craftspeople and their life reflects the web of life that held them up.

Tick, tick…..tick…………………tick.