Testing Positive

bee babies

Bees naturally behaving appropriately taking care of the larvae that is their future. We can do that.

COVID is a nasty little beast only now becoming itself as a global phenomenon. Bill Gates says it is like being in a world war except that all of humanity is on the same side (here). I don’t think that helps as it make the virus seem like is as mean as people whipped up into stupid war frenzy. It is just doing the things that virus do without malice. We need to act like people, too, except the grown-up kind who do the things that people do to look out for each other.

More ugly COVID shocks and surprises lay ahead as the other deep pools of suffering, stigma and exclusion become the new epicenters. Refugee camps, prisons and vast favelas of Africa, Latin America and India will experience a whole new dimension of suffering about the time the nail salons are opening up in the US.

Last week Grand Rounds for our FaithHealth Division  was titled “Testing Positive for Faith amid the COVID pandemic.” Dean Johnny Hill of Shaw Divinity School led the conversation with Dr. Brian Davis who has recently joined the Division after two decades in leadership roles in the NC Baptist Convention.

IMG_6313 2

Growing baby bees need a lot of grown-ups to bring in a lot of pollen. But the older bees kind of enjoy doing such a natural act of generosity. They teach this to me every morning on our deck where they live.

If you google the phrase “testing positive for faith” you’ll be on an odd ride into the edges of the kind of faith that prays when they should be washing their hands, that mocks the God who has given us science as an answer to prayer. You can buy a stupid T-shirt. But don’t let some odd people run off with an excellent metaphor. How would one test for faith in these early years of the 21st century?

COVID teaches us that one can be infected without showing symptoms. Likewise, it is dangerous to judge faith to fit your idea of the proper symptoms. The CDC adds to its list of symptoms to watch for, now up to 19. Although older people seem more likely to have a serious case of faith, it does show up in the younger groups, just not as likely to create a whole change in life. Just as COVID is still becoming itself, so it faith in these months.

We have been told–and come to believe–that the 21st century is marked by a dramatic chasm between large groups of people who declare they want none of organized religion at all and those who “believe.” The “nones” focus on decency and kindness without the sermonic overload. The outer fringe of believers leave reason, science and democratic norms behind.

Like Gates’ war analogy, this one sounds right, but is simplistically wrong. It is unhelpfully superficial way to see the complex mélange of identities in even the smallest modern village. COVID shows us that the divide between communities of faith and the many facets of scientific roles has evaporated. At Baptist hospital we rarely pray in public, even at governance and leadership meetings out of sensitivity to the diversity in a modern academic medical center. But in the early days of when COVID came to our halls, one of our doctors asked if we couldn’t get the chaplains to pray more than once a week; how about every day? With the exception of a few politicized TV wingnuts, congregations listen to Dr. Fauci with as much trust as they would any Bishop. We stay home and we follow the guidance of science as to how to show our faith with an array of creative ways of looking out for our neighbors as ourselves.


This is one of thousands of working girls finding what the young need and bringing it home. Everything they touch thrives, naturally.

In Winston-Salem one of our most faithful pediatricians designed a facemask more comfortable and thus more likely be worn. Bill Satterwhite worked with a sock company in Mt Airy (the model for Mayberry) to get them into production to mask the city. Standing six feet apart, but locked as one, the effort is blending faith networks of all persuasions, business, government, philanthropy and, of course public health and healthcare. The people doing the bold project are all more than one of those identities, testing positive for faith AND science, smart business, democracy and decency. The flexible spine is called Love Out Loud, but mostly works quietly to build the relationships that can carry the freight in times like this. None of them has to think very hard about how to do this collaborative interdisciplinary interfaith inter-everything activity. Nobody has to speak slowly so the faith people can grasp the idea of viral risk. And nobody has to teach the business people and engineers ethics as if they didn’t have mothers. Some of the masks are for sale (the first batch offered sold out within 45 minutes). But most are given away by employers to their staff and many thousands through the non-profit and faith networks.

Normal grown-ups know how to act appropriately and with efficiency. COVID probably thought it was competing against the venal idiots doing the TV press conferences. It turns out the virus has to tangle with more normal grown-ups than anyone thought existed. We were asymptomatic! But infected with faith and science so we can do smart things together.

Of course, to see that, you have to ignore a lot of stupidity from roles you’d expect intelligence. Walk away from the TV and see if the fog of false division is lifting just as you’d hope. We’re very deep in the hole with deep wounds to heal, mostly from long before this virus came out of the bat caves.

JB Phillips translates one of the letters attributed to Paul as “faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1). He continues, “And it is after all only by faith that our minds accept as fact the whole scheme of time and space was created by God.” Science helps us see the scheme and what it is possible to hope for. We can see beyond the horizon of the current chaos to what could yet be.

Public health science is profoundly relational; six feet, showing respect with masks and clean hands. The arts of public justice and mercy require clean hearts and no less science.

Many of the same people responding to COVID were beginning to work on the intractable and pernicious challenge of early childhood.  Some of that is very hard, but most is about as obvious as washing one’s hands. But instead of social distance, we need kind-hearted engagement with the mom’s, men and kids otherwise guaranteed to stay poor another generation. Before COVID, we were meeting, but secretly going through the motions because we didn’t really believe things could be different. The actions planned were entirely precedented. Way more kids would lose more years of their lives to inaction than they ever would from COVID.

COVID shows us that we could make the choices to lead toward life. We can contact trace every kid born in the county, know their name and help their mom and the ones that love them.

We’ve already spent more trillions for COVID than we thought it would cost to give this generation a shot in hell at a decent life. We know now that we could turn around and go another way. It would just take a lot of faith and science to do so.

But a lot of grown-ups are testing positive these days.

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Deviant Birth

cherry burl hosed

Wild Cherry Burl given to me by John Pledger of Trinity, NC. Triad Bee Supply. Not as old as me, but well seasoned and ready for its second life.

I’ve had several early birthday gifts. The best tasting were the cookies my daughter Kathryn sent. Lindwood Jr. and I opened our hives and confirmed that all four of our queens are busy birthing. And last Thursday—best of all—about 75 people from around the world held an UnZoom to explore the confluence of Leading Causes of Life with Positive Deviance. It wasn’t designed as a birthday present, but it gives me more energy than if every one of my 40,000 bee daughters each baked me a cookie.

Five years ago a very unusual meeting gathered in the West Wing of the White House to explore how to align the assets of community to advance the health and well-being of all. The meeting was designed largely by Dr. Arvind Singhal using Liberating Structures. Unlike almost every other White House gathering before or since, this one did not know any answers in advance, only the question. And even more unusual, the question was not posed as a problem but opportunity. How much is possible?

A lot has changed.

cherry burl on the bandsaw

The bandsaw reveals the grain complexity and deep voids.

Some of the same people gathered with dozens of others on Zoom to explore the same basic question of possibilities. How might the integrating ideas of the Leading Causes of Life and the toolkit of Positive Deviance turn on the lights about how much we have to work with? Not “even now” amid COVID, but because of what COVID is teaching us about how very much capacity we have to do things very differently when we choose. One might say that we are forced, but we see the same virus provoking many kinds of response, so obviously it is only posing the question. We humans are choosing to act, informed by different blends of fear, science and imagination.

I have written thousands of pages about one thing—life. I’m not a philosopher or academic, mostly a faith guy who sits near the door when I go to church. Through a winding path that took me from the basement of Oakhurst Baptist Church and Seeds Magazine in Atlanta and then through Africa I found myself at The Carter Center, leading an agenda called the Interfaith Health Program. When invited by Dr. Foege and Jimmy Carter, I deferred until I could try to preach a public health sermon. That sermon became the framework for Carter’s column in the very first issue of magazine in which he says, “we must make the choices that lead to life.”

cherry burl rounding

Flat on both sides and ready to round. Still guessing what life will emerge.

We did then what we do now—encourage and connect leaders who love their communities like God intends—not because of COVID, opioids, or Diabetes or some other cause of death. Life.

From time to time, when Jimmy Carter couldn’t go somewhere, he might send me. Imagine the disappointment! In Milwaukee I showed up at a prestigious University of Wisconsin event on radical infant mortality disparities focused in the slender strip of neighborhoods where I’m sure COVID cases abound today.

Dr. David Williams, the eminent Adventist sociologist now at Harvard, was the first keynote speaker and I (who was not Jimmy Carter) the second. He spoke with stark clarity about race, health and death in the United States. He created a moral and spiritual moment, as accurate data often does, and then handed the microphone to me. I knew my PowerPoint of helpful programs was grossly inadequate, so I spoke the very first time about the leading causes of life. Actually, just the first four causes. Shortly thereafter, I was in Cape Town where Jim Cochrane added Agency, as any African would.

cherry burl coring

This tool releases the daughter bowl from its mother. Because of the dense grain and voids, it took about 8 hours of, well, labor.

I reached out to Larry Pray to help me write the first book on The Leading Causes of Life, which we had hardly begun when he suffered one of his many strokes. The book began with Larry’s wonderful sentence, “life has a language.”

What’s the language for?

A few birthdays later Dr. Paul Laurienti of Wake Forest told us that nobody really needs Life language unless life is complex and dynamic. But it is.  Ask a pangolin or a bee.

Life language flourishes in times of fundamental discontinuity and unthinkable challenge. This is when we must see—and talk about—how life actually works.  Where do we work? The only place is amid the oddly wonderful, ever-muddling humans in what I came to call the boundary zones. Such zones are in between the domains of structure and certainty, settled power, and evidence-based this and that. That’s what you’re watching on CNN and out your window. Today, of course, we can see plainly that almost everything is in the boundary zone!

cherry burl mother daughterWhen we do not have words for life, we lose it. Not because some disease has stolen it, but because we have misplaced it. We literally forget what it looks like. We lost the words to even ask for help in finding it again.

Paul Laurienti described the five causes as tent poles that open up space for our collective imagination and dialogue so that we can find our way. You have to open up a space and hold it open long enough for us to figure out the right next steps that lead to life. In the crush of the pandemic, we need ventilators, masks, and sensible leaders to do the urgent and obvious things. Just past the bio-medical peak, we begin to need another kind of dialogue—about the life we now must craft with purpose and values that will give life a chance in the years ahead. COVID is not our last crisis. Others more profound are likely as the melting planet calls time on our silly fantasies. We must talk life while we have a chance to seek it.

How? Ah, that is what Positive Deviance is for.

And do we need it? On my birthday we have recorded 165,257 deaths from COVID around the world, 41,114 in my own country. This still pales before those quietly lost to HIV/AIDS (roughly 770,000 in 2018). And remember opioids? Tobacco? Diabetes? Suicide?

cherry burl nested

There is so much beauty in the world to be released. If you’d like these, you can find them on Etsy. The money goes to the Joe Biden campaign. I was thinking WHO, Sierra Club or CDC, but one will get you all of them and more.

Heather Wood Ion knows an epidemic when she sees one. Commenting on the UnZoom she said: “we were reminded to trust our own human inheritance.  We know what is needed to bring healing to the fragmented and yearning world around us.  We know that there is around us all a web, invisible but unbreakable, that will bring us the nourishment we need if we are open and accepting of its vitality.”

The angel at Jesus tomb asked, “Why are you looking for life at the tomb?” Go search among the living. Find a vaccine. Elect an actual President. Plant a billion trees and some bee-friendly flowers. Go shop for a neighbor. Sing with your family.

Later today I’ll blow out enough birthday candles to start a tornado. TC has arranged for my scattered but blended family to sing happy birthday …. by Zoom.


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Smart daughters

Bees arriving

Linwood Davis, Jr and I introducing bees into their new home on my deck. Spraying them with sugar water so they are happy and distracted (same thing, i think).

Nature is not out to kill us. The current virus that looks like a crown is a mean sucker perfectly tuned to exploit our human fault lines. It is happy to find us with foolishly fragile global supply lines, unfunded public health infrastructure, and eating pangolins. None of these were ever good ideas, which we see now.

Each generation gives the next one a chance at life when grown-ups do the mundane things that hold us together. This is how the Center Holds (against Yeats). This is the name of a new podcast series about the greatest drama of our time–(public health). The podcast is a collaboration of Stakeholder Health (mostly hospitals), Public Health Law Network and…..theater professionals. In a crisis, leadership is more than normal chattering; we need to cast our voice way better. You’ll listen to Lauren Gunderson and Scott Burris of Temple School of Law make each other smarter, and they were both really smart already. (click here).

Meanwhile, nature gives another Carolina Springtime, marked in our family by the arrival of 36,000 daughters. They came Saturday morning from John Pledger of Triad Bee Supply, who brought 300 boxes of them up from North Georgia to local NC (3,600,000 million little ladies). Our three boxes became two hives, each of which has its own queen cleverly marked with a little florescent dot so we can find her. She buzzes in Italian, as she’s a hybrid developed to be very gentle. She traveled in her own queen cage along with 6 attendants to care for her until the other workers can chew their way through a candy plug and set her free. The picture below is of one of Linwood Davis, Jr’s queens.  We have matching hives, like good friends do.

Bee lindwood's queenThe queen was fertilized by some anonymous drone in North Georgia, which happens. My books mention “an audible pop,” followed by the happy drone falling dead on the ground. This got my attention. Once free, our queen will go to laying 2,000 eggs a day so the hive can gather nectar and pollen and make honey.

So when do you get your honey, you ask? My local bee teachers tell me not to harvest any the first year unless they have really visited every flower within 3 miles. I’m not very patient, so am hoping for a least some this year. Neighbors get first dibs as they had to endure the first day with a lot of bees in our townhouse cove. Not bad as bad me in my cycle outfit, but still quite a sight.

I did get one sting when I tripped and smushed one of the girls. I didn’t blame her.

Bee day 1

The “bee bus” is open, so now the bees can enter the hive, drawn by the queen. It wasn’t actually that easy, but by dusk they all had settled in.

I’ll open the hive in a few days to make sure the queen got out of her cage okay. And then in another week to make sure she’s gone to laying the eggs. After that, I’ll check about once a month. If you want to come visit on one of those occasions, let me know. Bees are good at keeping humans at social distance.

About the time the honey-making rolls, the COVID will peak and then recede. Millions of lives and entire industries, will have suffered enormous damage in ways we can’t quite imagine yet. The bees make it through this kind of thing by working seamlessly, making hard choices with everyone doing thousands of mundane things right, one at a time.

Bees don’t poop in the hive. My many bee books told me so; but actually learned it looking up through the sunroof of my Mini Cooper. It is parked right below the new hives, which makes a nice target. Honeybees only live a few months—not much different than us humans in the big scheme of things. They find humor  amid their work. Good tip.

Bee pickup

Here’s how you distribute 3,600,000 bees. John Pledger is the thoughtful man in yellow. Triad Bee Supply

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Cheating Range

Salisbury Viaduct

My dad took care of this bridge like a grown-up. I think of him when it comes time for precinct meetings.

Here’s how democracy works: people vote in places called precincts that usually contain a couple thousand voters. TC and I vote in Precinct 601 in Forsyth County, with 2,212, including 1,028 Democrats 860 unaffiliated and a sprinkling of Republicans. The precinct starts over at the Moravian cemetery called God’s Acre. In Chicago some of them might vote, but only living people get to do so here. The precinct actually starts with Salem College (the oldest womens’ college in the colonies), then heads west through a lot of condos, a couple cool coffee shops and restaurants. Then uphill through Piedmont International University  and another “public house” serving yet more coffee. The precinct casts votes at the Christ Moravian Church at the top of the hill there. The precinct continues through a few hundred fairly dumpy houses scattered down the hill before ending at Peters Creek Parkway. You can walk from one end of the precinct to the other in 25 minutes which between now and November we will do several times.

In most elections about half the people vote. No Democrat has to try to convince any of the 294 Republicans to change their mind. It might just annoy them enough that they will forget how embarrassed they are these days and vote. We need those among our 1,028 people who are not inclined to vote to show up. If 10% of them vote in all the precincts like our little 601, then Mr Trump and his thieves go back to stealing from their hotel guests and gullible golfers instead of my grandchildren.

We already beat this guy by three million voters with a candidate less likable than anyone still alive in the democratic field. We just needed another 70,000 voters in precincts in the three states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. On the day it mattered, they did other errands and didn’t show up.

Bad on them, of course.

But bad on their precinct workers!

Mr Trump is like a balloon held aloft with the anger of this agitated followers who he keeps frothing by at least one outrage every news cycle. Many of them are Christians who should know better. Bad on them. But his empty balloon is also filled with our anger at him. We should know better, too. Bad on us.

Anger is not like voting. Neither is “liking” Facebook posts or retweeting about his stupid stuff. Voting happens at the precinct level. Boring as hell; about as fun as your average church committee. This is the kind of mundane thing that grown-ups do when we think the future of the species is at risk.

We have all heard about rigged elections and meddling by all sorts of folks; another distraction.  We just have to get this out of cheating range. It turned out that in 2016 we needed slightly more than the 2.09% Hillary won by. So maybe we need to win by 6% (about 9 million votes). That’s not even hard. We just need to show up and get our neighbors to do so, too.

The annual meeting of precinct 601 is this Saturday at 10am at the Moravian Church at the top of the hill. It will probably be 6 or 10 of us and a few candidates anxious to meet some actual voters who might vote. We’ll elect a new chair and talk someone into being the treasurer to whom we’ll write some checks. Then we’ll talk about how to organize rides to the polls and such.

It’s not likely to get all the way to fun. But it does feel good. Come on Saturday.

charlie and Asa through the window

Charles and Asa: why I show up at the precinct.

And don’t forget to tell your kids why you did it.

If you live in another precinct, or state, google it and find your meeting. It will be just as quirky and uncool. (Here’s the link to Forsyth County Democrats: https://www.fcdpnc.org/annual-precinct-meetings.html


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Silent Sky in DC

Lauren and Wynter

Wynter Ruchti and Lauren Gunderson looking forward together on opening night.

Rex Tillerson and I went to my daughter Lauren’s play at Ford’s Theater in DC this week. Left me with a lot to think about.

Silent Sky is about the astonishing true story of how Henrietta, a pastor’s daughter, ended up at Harvard where she figured out, well, the universe. At least how big it is and where we are in it. That sets up the real story, about how short our lives are with so much left unknown, undone and unasked. The play is running in the Ford’s Theater, with the box where Lincoln was assassinated, a few feet stage left. We were there at the opening which Lauren dedicated to Greg Ruchti, an astronomer and nephew, who died in May, of colon cancer. That’s his daughter Wynter with mine looking forward through the telescope. Hard to miss that second point about brevity.

Ford Theater

Cindy Gunderson, Jenny Ruchti’s mom and Wynter’s grandmother at the Ford Theater before Silent Sky. Lincoln Box to the right.

As in real life in our family, some of the best lines in Lauren’s play about Henrietta Leavitt, Silent Sky, go to the quieter sister instead of the famous one. Henrietta, the scientist, is dying, aching at having only begun understanding the universe. Most would revel in her legacy–ironically credited to Hubble, who also got the space telescope named after him (oh, and that Nobel).Henrietta mourns the “work that I can’t finish; she aches to know “what else is true.” But, “that’s what a legacy is,” said her sister, Margaret, who saw life through the lens of her kids and a small town to love. “It could mean that you may not know how you might matter to people right now, and you cannot know how you will matter in the future. But you are already connected—and you already matter. Because what do you outlasts you.”

Lauren notes that these lines tend to make men over 45 years old cry.

I haven’t personally discovered much about the universe, but am near tears these days about the massive work left to Wynter, and our grandkids, Charles and Asa. This April will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which was brought to my attention by the Wake Forest University newspaper wanting to interview me as one who participated in the first one. My blow on behalf of the species was digging a hole to bury a gasoline auto engine in the hard Carolina clay near the library. Like many sophomoric ideas, it underestimated the labor involved. Some frat boys, seeing the engine and me chipping away with the shovel, offered to pee in the hole to soften it up. I thought of that during this week of dismal environmental and political news, marked by the Doomsday Clock getting within 100 seconds of catastrophe. The scientists calibrating the clock noted accelerating decay on both those fronts. I noticed slightly more than half the senate pissing away our future.

We really don’t have the time. And the Senate isn’t the one letting the world down.

Rex Tillerson came to Lauren’s play and sat next to her at the VIP dinner. The best thing he did with his whole life was getting fired from being Secretary of State for telling the truth about his “moron” boss. Other than that, he ran Exxon and wrote a book about exploiting the Arctic oil reserves. And he served on Ford Theater Board for many years. Lauren asked him what he was excited about. His first answer was, “not much.” And then he said it was the kids today, to whom we have left such massive work to do. He thought they seem capable, with great energy. I agree with Rex, who is a year younger than me and probably never buried a single auto engine. But I’m not claiming any moral high ground. I’ve flown 1,571,397 miles on Delta so far, which translates into nearly two thirds of a million pounds of carbon. I drive a 3-cylinder Mini Cooper, but I’ve released the equivalent weight of nearly 240 of them flittering about.

It would be almost possible to tolerate Rex and me, if the first Earth Day marked the great turning away from what we now so clearly see is a great burning. I don’t know about you, but he and I have squandered these years.

The dismal Doomsday Clock could steal our resolve when we need it most. It could encourage us to give up and go look for another planet only a few dozen light years away. I don’t think Henrietta would recommend that. For the lifetime of me and all those I love, this planet is the only one to work with. Anyone who has burned as much carbon as me simply does not get to quit as long as there is anything to be done.

Jesus was often asked dumb questions by snarky Pharisees, much like the frat boys I looked up at. He had been passing his day healing this and that sick person, suffering this and that condition. They thought they had him, as he was doing this and desecrating the Sabbath! Jesus said, “…as long as my Father is working, I will, too.” I’m pretty sure that God has not given up on the planet, yet. But more to the point, we simply can’t stop looking forward, as long as Wynter can find a telescope. And can’t stop cleaning the watershed as long as her grandfather (my brother, Ron) is restoring the church property at the headwaters of a little creek that drains into the Chesapeake.

Bee Class

Two hundred newbie beekeepers at the Forsyth Extension Office. Who knew?

Saturday morning I went to my first beekeeping class at the Forsyth county extension office. I had managed to talk our condo association into letting me put a hive on our deck. I expected to be among a dozen earth day alumni fossils ignoring the obvious bee apocalypse underway. What could be more hopeless; like sand castles against the rising seas? Two hundred people of all sorts and types pressed into the room, including one Divinity school student of TC and mine with purple hair, totally unfossil-like.

I went home and ordered a second hive. The bees come March 28th, just a bit before the 50th Earth Day. I’ll have tens of thousands of new bee daughters, on whom I can’t quit now.

So, what does “not quitting” look like in these hard-hearted times?

Walk away from angry people, especially if they agree with you. We have no time for the friction and drama of anger.

Speak and act as if the children were watching and listening. They are, so we must feed their hopes by meaningful work and thought.

Think about those kids while you’re at work and not just on the weekend. In my case that means spending time in committee meetings about the carbon footprint of the hospital, which dwarves my lifetime impact just about every single day.

Bees on the deck

Me with my cypress hive from Triad Bee Supply. Bees come March 28.

Go lose yourself in others and things that may last beyond you. Do something real for someone real, even if they are a bee.

Go outside and look up. Lauren draws from Whitman as she did again in another play, I and You: “I became tired and sick. Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, in the mystical moist night air, and from time to time, looked up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Silent Sky runs at Ford’s Theater through February 23.


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This tinsel thing

SONY DSCThis tinsel thing we do in late December is not and never has been about the Jewish baby whose mom magnified the Lord with hopes of bringing down the rich and mighty. That baby was born in June, utterly unfit for the ornamental purposes that Empire demands. Empire likes religion to help dangle the promise of wealth and privilege in exchange for complicity. Priests and preaches are usually happy to rent themselves cheap, quick to drop the Jewish Justice Jesus in favor of Christological abstractions. This is not a new political strategy. We do Christmas in December to help the abstracted christ eclipse Rex the Sun God. The bishops even came up with a virgin birth to match all the other invented gods of the day. Constantine chuckled at the priests who thought they were manipulating him. Our current potentate plays an ancient transaction, throwing a few meaningless gestures towards supplicant clergy. Cheap tricks that always work; but not for long.

Christmas was a late deviation from the Jesus story, which always focused elsewhere. It took as proof that something serious was atilt in the order of power the quiet thriving of the most curious sprout from the root of David, the odd Jewish sect that spread across the tough seaport towns of the Mediterranean—the church. For nearly 30 decades the band of deviate Jews that sounded a lot like wanna-be Greeks persisted in what they called The Way. The people called Christians were known by their love for each other and constant creative attention to the needs of the widows, orphans and other disregarded ones.

By the time Constantine pasted Christmas onto the mid-winter holiday traditionally honoring Rex the Sun God, that little band had acquired not just priests, but bishops, councils, theologians and drummers drumming—the whole accoutrement of theological lapdog of Empire. It would be centuries more before we invented the Christmas tree (thanks to my Nordic people) and Jolly Santa (thanks to Coke). I don’t know how we devolved to 14-foot inflatable plastic figures for the lawn entirely abstracted from any meaning of any kind even a little bit. Once you move the birthday anything can happen.

One Christmas eve in Belmont the Baptists were tired of being outclassed by the Catholics with their massively successful midnight service of handbells and fragrant candles. The preacher organized his own darn service, so there we were, with four-year old Lauren scribbling away on the pew awaiting Christmas the next morning. The preacher only had one sermon, so with relentless predictability he went with it. He ignored the Angles’ promise to be not afraid. He wanted us very afraid, reminding us that Jesus tied for our sins. But even a preacher has to stop to breath in. At such a time church can be very quiet. She asked in clear child’s voice, “He died?!?!”

Sometimes very powerful questions make it through the Christmas din. That inconvenient Jewish kid is persistent, lurking on the edges of the Wal-Mart version of the story. Why did Mary go on and on about the rich falling down? Why did Herod try and kill him? Why the stories of him refusing the privileges of power when offered by Satan again and again, right up until his arrest at the end of his brief three-year prophetic run? Why did the people follow him into the wilderness? Why did he give away everything for free? Why did the wise and wealthy who listened carefully to him walk away in tears clinging to their barns and baubles? And what on earth are we to make of the cabal of priests and pirates who killed him as one more leftist irritant?

What does that have to do with hot mess of a culture? Some morn the end of the Christendom, but I’m glad for it. Back to Jesus! Some lament the end of our democratic-industrial-military-techno complex responsible for the melting planet and dumbing screens. Back to Jesus! But not the one in the made-up plastic manger. I mean the one in the manger that scared Herod and all his priestly suck-ups.

Last night we celebrated Christmas Eve in Davis Chapel on the campus of Baptist Hospital. We read the old stories and sang the old songs a few hundred feet from 540 very ill people being cared for by a couple of thousand healing heroines. Gunshots and overdoses in the ED. Eight on suicide watch, impossible to leave alone. And 71 kids in the NICU, a really big manger. Hard to miss the point; God is not done. Not with me, you, us or the whole created shebang. Not yet. Not yet.

Shhh. Don’t tell Wal-mart, Amazon or what’s his name in Mar A Largo.

“Do not be afraid,” said—and still say–the angels among us. Rejoice! But how do you tell the angels from those playing the angles? Read the story for yourself without the lens of empire.

God so loved this place that he sent a little Jewish boy to an improbably insignificant border town into a family so compromised they didn’t even know who the father was for sure.

So does hope come and come again and yet again. So is marked The Way worth walking even now.

I think I will rejoice.

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Inland See

This is the walnut in the corner of our lot now that the wild vine is dropping out of the tree.

Most of the rot is fallen, dead three years ago, but still entangled in the young walnut. I was thinking of planting a walnut on our place on the Ridge so Charles and Asa (our grandkids) could climb in when I was gone. Instead, I found one almost entirely buried in wild grape, quickly cut at the root. I googled and learned it was dangerous to tear out the invasive vine; better to let it rot in place to fall out in a few years. I’ve nudged it a bit, but it’s almost clear. Next season the Walnut will have the sun to itself. You can do the civic metaphor work by yourself; as this has been a good week for watching civic in action.

A year ago we drove a Winnebago from San Diego to Wilmington on behalf of Stakeholder Health and 100 Million Healthier Lives, following a hunch that everything we were hoping for is already happening. We should turn our attention from trying to start things, to the more grown-up humble work of nurturing the life breaking out in all the communities you’d least expect it: East San Diego, San Bernardino, El Paso, Lubbock, Memphis, The Delta, Wilmington and of course our little town of Winston-Salem. It turns out that, even in our hard-hearted times–maybe because of them–people in every town large enough to imagine a Starbucks is hard at work finding their local way to give the next generation a chance. They aren’t waiting for the hospital or university to notice, although sometimes they are involved. And they aren’t waiting for national foundations or networks to notice and help (although they are glad to take it). The human experiment would have never made it out of Africa if it had to wait for hospitals and foundations to be invented. Many of us feel as if we are in a more fraught point in the Experiment of Life,  what with the apparent collapse of the capacity of humans to talk to each other, much less the soon-to-be-missing ice caps. But maybe even now, we are finding our way community by community.

This week we’ll be on Road Trip mode again, this time in a Mini Cooper . We’ll be traveling just below what the First People called the Inland Sea. Huntington, West Virginia, on the Ohio River (from the Iroquois word, “O-Y-O,” meaning “the great river“). Cleveland on the banks of the sea, then across to Dayton, Indianapolis and Bloomington before turning South to Nashville and home to Winston-Salem.  This was land once covered by dense forests, then farms, then factories and now seeking another way. This is land that knows about violation and desecration; seasons of birth and rebirth, too.

Wild grape vine takes years to rot and fall from the tree once it has been cut at the root.

Perhaps we don’t need to plant any big noble trees like I wanted to on the Ridge, but discover the life needed a shot at the sunlight. There’s a lot of it to see.

Although the Winnebago was an environmental catastrophe, the other rules of the Road Trip proved worthy: no powerpoints or microphones, no meeting in a hospital or hotel, never more than 20 people. Listen and dialogue like grown-ups used to do. Last year we road the week after the bitter midterm elections, and were surprised at how little people spoke of national anything, much less politics. Everywhere we found unlikely people crossing supposedly toxic boundaries working on long term goals, not just short term “wins” (as the consultants often advise). Grown-ups at work!

Our ears are tuned to how people in really tough towns are finding alignment built for long term generative goals. Not just preventing this or that troubling phenomenon (opioids being the one currently best funded), but serious about the multiple aspects anything serious must engage. It really doesn’t matter which thread one follows into the web of possibilities. But it does matter to look beyond the local urgent fears to imagine the future. We are listening for how that happens and how it might be sustained.

We work for hospitals, of course, so we have friends among them on this hopeful lap around the sea. We know that hospitals often suck the air, money and attention out of broader civic alignments. But not always. We’re listening for appropriate behavior, the kind humble adults display when they are thinking of their legacy. 

Two weeks ago fifty organizations gathered in Washington about a mile from where the TV cameras are focused now. This alliance points to what is possible once we get democracy functional again. The WINS alliance began as an effort to agree on metrics and indicators pointing beyond our obsession with disease toward wellness. Following one humble-spirited grown up pediatrician, Dr. Soma Stout, the network is staying together for the harder and somewhat endless labor of actually moving the movement. We’ll be surprised if we don’t hear echoes of this turn to wellness, or what we’d call Leading Causes of Life in these tough towns. Here’s a great one-pager: well being trust https://wellbeingtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/WIN-Network-One-Pager-1.pdf 

On the Inland See Road Trip we’ll listen for onething that was surprisingly omitted from the WINS list of hopeful energy: Spirit. It doesn’t help to strip out the natural language of spirit for heavy social lifting: lament, repentance, metanoia, grace, mercy, shalom. Too much DC-chatter. I suspect we’ll hear more powerful language on the road.

Years ago before I actually knew much, I wrote my best book, Deeply Woven Roots, about the strengths of congregations for the health of the community. A bit to my surprise, this is continuing to find itself relevance, cited by the National Academies of Science and, I hear, an upcoming article in JAMA. Toward the end, I wrote about brokenness: “breaking ground is not the name of a ceremony that launches a building, but the place itself. This is where we come to break, to be broken open. Indeed, it is the reason we come,, for through being broken we are made whole. Nothing new happens without breaking the old. This is the pervasive truth of eggs and omelets, wine and wineskins, seeds and gardens, birth and being born again, repentance and forgiveness.”

If you’re along this journey path, don’t hesitate to let us know. Might be tight in the MIni Cooper! But we might be able to share some coffee and dialogue along the way.

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Gloves colour-on-bwThe Ethiopian government says that 23 million citizens planted 350 million trees Friday, which would be better than the 220 million a province in India got in the ground earlier in the week. The Ethiopians plan to have 4 billion trees planted by October. This is a good start to the trillion we need (https://www.trilliontreecampaign.org/ ). You probably didn’t notice this planet-saving activity amid another week of grim and silly American behavior.

The next two decades may well write the story of the next million years. The story could be an autopsy about our tragically missing survival gene. Jonas Salk wrote an optimistic book called, “Survival of the Wisest” in which he argued that our species can adapt at the cultural planetary level precisely because we are not hard-wired for any one set of environmental circumstances. We are not doomed by our genes to repeat the ugly Cro-Magnon versus Neanderthal racial conflicts. We can eclipse one season’s best ideas (bronze clubs) with another’s more appropriate one (the United Nations). Mr. Trump does not tweet because of his genes; and we need not respond to him because of ours. Granted Dr. Salk did not imagine Mr. Trump. But he was familiar with World War Two, sickle cell on the Mississippi Delta, numerous pogroms and our dalliance with nuclear Armageddon. He still thought we could be wise. Not likely, but possible.

We might stupidly squabble past the time that any number of trees could prevent a planetary boil-off. Life would become impossible for all but a few hundred thousand clinging to some isolated niches. Human civilization would collapse of thirst, then hunger. Visit Mesopotamia, if you want a preview. Meanwhile the trees that got planted in the 2020’s will have kept growing. Long after civilization stops pumping carbon into the air the trees will keep sucking more out, triggering a deep chill. The few surviving the bake-off, will face a doozie of an ice-age turning our temperate blue marble into an iceball.

Fortunately, nothing will disturb the orbit of earth, which is perfect for life. So, in a few hundred thousand laps around our little star, life will try again. That future homo sapiens sapiens sapiens might have better instincts (if not quite a gene). Maybe they’ll find it impossible to steal from their grandchildren. Perhaps they will know not to pee in their own soup or that of their neighbor. They will again evolve libraries and librarians (probably not academics) to serve their instinct to understand the wondrous planet they will be grateful to live on. They may wonder about the thin layer of plastic marking our thin season in the archeological record. Maybe in one of the grand canyon caves where we find 4,000 year old grass figurines, they will find one of our plastic trail maps, full of ignored warnings. Who would ever be so foolish to need them?

Or maybe we will follow the Ethiopians and plant some seeds of compassion along with the trillion trees. If we don’t plant some compassion fast, nobody is going to be around to water the seedlings. I don’t mean shouting at the Neanderthals with tactical gear in the Wal-marts to get compassion. Of course, they’re dangerous, but mostly because they are in the way of saving the planet for both of our grandchildren—millions of them.

Stupid fear-based violence is like smallpox, once the leading cause of death planet-wide. We need to surround those spreading the disabling fear with a sea of grown-ups wise enough to de-escalate conflict and make it difficult to spread. Just like violence, smallpox is actually difficult to catch and slow to spread. Bill Foege noticed this when he was a missionary in the Biafran war and realized that if people were armed with the knowledge about smallpox, they could alert community health workers who could inoculate everyone nearby and stop the spread. Violence is like that. Surround it by its opposite. Make it hard to spread.

If the planet spins on without us, it won’t because we lacked teachers–King, Mandela and Gandhi, of course. You have dozens of people in your life to learn from, too. All the great ones annoyed their followers by teaching us to focus first on our own anger. Only then try to forgive those that threaten and then build a bridge of respectful practical kindness to another. Take care of their thirst and hunger. Over and over and over.

This is the most first and most fundamental work of public health. You can’t do public anything without a public that can talk. Read this article in the Journal of Public Health Practice by public health lawyers, no less! (Gandhi was a lawyer, too.) This is the creative capacity better than a survival gene that Salk was hoping for.

Wouldn’t you rather do this this than plant four billion trees in the rocky dust of Ethiopia? Take the temperature down a notch. Be the messenger we need. Plant a tree. Today.




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The passage

Zack Stewart. Barefoot Guide Collective. Generative Leadership: Releasing Life in a Turbulent Time. https://www.barefootguide.org/barefoot-guide-6—generative-leadership.html

El Paso at 2am, last November. We reached El Paso along dusty I-10 swept by heavy winds across the southern desert. We were traveling for Stakeholder Health, curious about how life, health, mercy and justice grow in tough towns. We were a bit dazed from the wind and long miles, late night and very early morning. But also still eager to understand how the idea of Positive Deviance had taken root and produced global fruit in what seemed to be such an unlikely place. We could see the border and the low mountains beyond out the window.

The team of brilliant faculty working with Dr. Arvind Singhal of the University of Texas El Paso named the obvious opportunity as the coffee took hold: let’s look through the duel lens of Positive Deviance and Leading Causes of Life at these tough and beautiful streets on both sides of the border. et’s go back and forth across the border right here and find the life breaking through right where others only see conflict and death.El Paso has for many decades been a place where you can see that happen despite seasons of fear brewed up elsewhere to solve somebody else’s electoral problems.

Even in the impossible hours after Saturday’s spew of violence, you can already see the healing come from among the people of this special place. You’ll see that much more the months ahead as the people in his hard place find the way toward healing. Here they have long practice in finding life amid death. The very name speaks of passing over.

In a time so soon after the bullets, it seems so powerless to offer up the leading causes of life to the bloody streets? But that’s the best I’ve got. Last Sunday we released a book, Generative Leadership: Releasing Life in Turbulent Times. It’s written by people living across all sorts of boundaries, eyes wide open to the traumas and fears burning from the Tundra to South Africa.

We know there is much broken that cries out for fixing, blood flowing from wounds that need to be healed. And we know our small voices seem overwhelmed by the trumpets of the violent and those who gain from their fear. Mr Trump didn’t invent that process and isn’t even the best at it today. This poison is as American as the Thanksgiving gravy. It is amazing the violence is as low as it is and practiced by isolated and damaged people acting on their own. American history is full of much worse. Ask the Navajo. Ask the Chinese who built the railroad across Paiute and Lakota land and were then excluded for their labors. American ugly.

It is not clear that people gathering peacefully to organize, tell the truth and vote is a great plan to heal a culture on fire. But it is our best one. The voting that might heal rests on a politics the opposite of fear; practical and transparent realism focused on what works for most people, their families and neighborhoods. You have to appreciate difference, listen and speak across tribal lines. Politics works when it

Zach Stewart. Interviewed in the Warehouse.org Bog (https://www.warehouse.org.za/2019/07/24/art-faith-and-burden/)

tells the truth about life and what makes it possible.

This is the same in Dayton, Winston-Salem or Cape Town. And it is different in each place, tuned to local possibilities. This is what we saw happening from coast to coast on our Road Trip. It isn’t being force bed down. It is rising up.

In November, we’ll be driving another lap of our See2See Road trip, this one in the land the First People called the Inland Sea. Up from Winston to Huntington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Dayton, Indianapolis, Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville–cities built by on Native American land by immigrants who now fear others.

I work in a job in a healthcare organization and mostly run with folks who do the same, some in hospitals others in public health. We have oddly unhelpful language to talk about the deep and powerful forces driving the health of our communities. In these times it is striking how shallow words like “population health” and “social determinants” are. They feel like shreds of tinsel on last year’s Christmas tree. We need much more powerful ideas to guide our work.

Bobby Milstien is on to something with his focus on “vital conditions,” as is Tyler Norris and Soma Stout‘s hard labor at crafting wellness indicators strong enough for long term policy development. This is the driver beneath our long work on Leading Causes of Life. None of this would stop one particular killer in Walmart or Dayton. Someone else is simmering even as I type.

The practical labor needed to turn around and go another way–together–doesn’t come from just fixing this or that obvious problem. Life doesn’t work because it stops bad things, but because it generates new ways out of old ways. It out-generates the conditions that would otherwise close down all the possibilities but death. Life is the thing that finds a way. You can see this most clearly in the very toughest places where the violent and their anger seem so powerful.

Our new book on Generative Leadership was mostly written by people old enough to be cynical—but aren’t. The oldest soul among us was Zach Stewart, the illustrator who is just graduating from high school in Cape Town. Before our book, he completed his senior project by illustrating a bible with the characters normally left out (the illustrations on this blog). His language is as sharp as a surgical laser, interviewed in the Warehouse blog

“The theologies that create and justify injustice and empire are not strong. They don’t hold up when they’re bent against the reality of humanity and the longing for real good news. They are weak theologies applied forcefully. Perhaps inhuman theologies.

“Originally I was gonna draw the faces of the oppressors in the Bible. That would have been a different project that would be powerful in its own way. Honestly I got bored at the idea of drawing a lot of white men. However, in the process I began to work with the idea that the Bible is more a home for the oppressed than the oppressors. That is hope.”

In times of fear and violence we must help each other think more clearly. Together. That’s what well do next April 16-18 in El Paso for our UnConference. We’re be there next month to plan it, visit the Walmart as well as the neighborhoods on both sides of the border where life is finding a way. There will have been other tragedies in other towns simmering with other unhealed traumas by then, much less next April. Let me know, if you want to be part of this.

Today, we think of our friends and colleagues cleaning the blood off the sidewalks, tending to the wounded, burying the dead, consoling the families. Do not hurry past the sorrow.

But tomorrow we must make the choices that lead to life.

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Clear cut


Mural in Southside Pittsburgh, PA

Rockwell, Pennsylvania is right where you’d cross the “t” in Trump. Like other small towns along the abandoned rails between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland, the town was rich in the past, now mostly broke. One of the few heartbeats is found in the least expected place, the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which carries thousands of spandex-clad bikers, including no small number of liberals, Europeans and rolling pods of Californians. We crossed the American Legion parking lot from the trail to our BnB. An 8 foot trump flag waved across the street as we parked our bikes.

The Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers—and new trail—tunnel through cool green hardwood now as dense as when young Washington walked the wild way. Here was the first push of desperate English through the mountains and tribes to the vast American interior.  Over the next twenty decades the streams ran fast in blood, sweat and more blood, shed in a hundred native and immigrant dialects.

IMG_3503Canals and rails bludgeoned their way across impossibly rugged terrain burning money and lives, most immigrant. The hills were covered in fuel wood and were covering fuel of the most potent kind–coal. Long before there were any laws, the mines went deep, some cooked nearby into the coke needed for steel, millions of tons shipped overseas. The Dar Mine disaster  killed 239 Slovak immigrant miners (none compensated) just a few yards from where my carbon bike spun past. This trail rides the roadbed of the Western Maryland Railroad, which my dad took care of for my first quarter century of life. I wish I knew what he knew about these valleys.

Today most of these towns resonate with Mr. Trump’s angry rants about people who come to work hard while speaking new languages. I know why he’s doing it. It works and always has. But I don’t understand why people who know so much about how the rich use the workers, like kindling for their bonfires of vanities, would listen. They do.  People have gotten elected here–and everywhere–since at least the time of George Washington by blaming one’s problems on the next group that looks like they’re coming for their supper, land, women or coal. Those who carve a living from beaver, lumber, coal or whatever get confused about who to blame when that way fails, as every way eventually does.

The tribes were in the way of British and French land claims given to royal supplicants to pay off war favors. The rails served Rockefeller and Gould dreams of a transcontinental trail to hurry coal to Pittsburgh and the steel overseas. The surviving Slovak descendants  knocking down beer in the American Legion have way more in common with the Hispanics coming with the same relentless desire to work of their grandfathers. Why would they believe a dude renting luxury hotel rooms to Russians who has never been inside of a mine or hung Sheetrock? But he’s got them fearing each other, instead of joining to change the rules of what is very surely not a game.

trail falls

Milepost 43, just outside Rockwell.

Things change fast here. These rivers of steel, blood and coal are now a tunnel of green with more birdsong than steam. The tunnel called Big Savage opened up the rails to coal country; now it’s topped by spinning wind generators. Along the Allegheny every single tree, even the tallest, has grown from seeds left in the frenzied clear cutting. The rally rants are just social clear cut. Burn the whole culture down to the ground in order to burn out the new ones. Ugly. But social clear cut can grow back too. Generative social forms–democracy, normal churches and non profit helping organizations–explode into every possible niche, just as naturally as the oak and bird cover the land.

The world needs people who are not afraid of the future and not afraid of each other. And they get there not just by watching on some screen. Faith works like a drill at a coal face. It chips away down deep and finds the vein worth bringing to the surface where it can lend power to what comes next. Or maybe it is where the fingers touch the bruised soil, clearing the way for the roots of a newly planted tiny oak to have a chance.

//Let me ask you to do something right now. Got to this website to give money to The Shalom Project. Growing in the social clear-cut, it helps the undocumented and left-behind in the most immediate and practical ways possible: Give here.

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