Oak too small to bother

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Wildacres Retreat Center 3,300 feet in the Blue Ridge under shelter of young oaks left from the clear-cutting a century ago.

Less than a hair, the spider’s thread arched from one heavy oak spar to the branch below catching a glint of light through the shifting fog. Too small to bother when the hills were clear cut and still young as oaks go.  Arching a hundred feet and years above the steep ridge of Wildacres Retreat Center in North Carolina, it shelters writers weaving their craft—and spiders, too.

Dense green now, only a century ago every tree on every knob here was cut to brush. It was a time when the worst swaggered and trash-talked the weakest, bankers laughed about stealing and the children worked the mills. Governor’s mansions and senator’s hallways were safe for the mean, vile and stupid.

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Thomas Dixon Jr, a fellow Wake Forest alumni who lent his busy life to the opposite of everything I do. Fortunately, I’m still at it (he died in 1946).

In the early 1900’s, a brilliant Wake Forest graduate named Thomas Dixon, Jr. spun off novels and screenplays as quick as he could type, including one that shifted culture right off the rails: “The Birth of a Nation.” To a soundtrack with the Ride of the Valkyries, the Klan defended White Christian culture, imperiled by racial dilution the government was too timid to do. Dixon and a swarm of collaborators made millions on the film, some of which was invested on Pompey’s Knob in North Carolina, to create a haven for the white thinking class.

Dixon’s whole proud and tottering mess collapsed in the Crash of 29. He defaulted on his $190,000 loan (about $2.7 million today). The bank that loaned him the money for the mean scheme went down, too, so eventually the note ended up in Texas where it was put up for auction. A Jewish radiator company owner visited the mountain after attending an interfaith event in Charlotte, then put in the only bid of $6,500. The Texas bank approved the sale after the judge’s clerk visited the property on a day when the high mountain fog turned the view grey and cold—which I.D. Blumenthal always considered a direct miracle of God. After the horrors of World War Two, Blumenthal and his wife dedicated the 1,400 acres to building bridges across lines of faith, race and class in 1946, the year Dixon died. Nearly 8 decades after Dixon’s short-lived dream dissolved, they are buried next to the auditorium where the patient work goes on beyond them.

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Pompey’s Knob when Dixon’s tribe controlled the heights.

Last week SUN Magazine held its annual writer’s conference here at Wildacres. The SUN is everything Dixon hated, entirely given to the humble labor of lending accurate words to the wild ways of humankind, the way we love and weep, the ways we hurt and disregard, how we touch and how we see; our skin and body politic, too. Begun in a what-the-hell kind of moment 45 years ago by Sy Safransky who still edits and writes. The tribe of SUN is still only 70,000 readers, which is less than a spider’s filament in today’s harsh media clear cut. Too small with which to bother.

The old pictures of Dixon’s time show a hill clear-cut to knee-high brush and stumps as ugly as any Klan rally. Only a century later, the oaks and hickory that were too small to bother amid the clear-cutting are teenagers, barely 80 feet high. Yet even while only a couple of feet in girth, they stretch strong limbs out and high above those gathered beneath, working at the modest labor of crafting the language and ideas close to the bone and real as dirt. About half of the writers gathered under the trees were people you’d have very  little chance of having heard of. They are lawyers, teachers and no small number of people working in health and education. People who cared about other people and could not stop trying to capture that astonishing fire in accurate image and voice. Sy Safransky started the SUN 45 years ago. Now 73, he is wry and chastened. He read a piece about blue pills, three marriages and two divorces and reflected on he days he thought that Bush was as bad as it could get. The other four faculty were exquisitely transparent and talented, generously protecting lesser writers like a spider her young.

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Wildacres Retreat Center today, in “Little Switzerland,” NC

Most of the SUN writer and reader tribe gathered beneath the young oaks were lawyers and social types, trying to learn how to describe the human way. It is hard to tell the truth about birth, death, sex, mothers bad and sisters lost, longings and hopes that people have along the way of life. We were told to focus on the detail: “go small to go big.”

It is not easy to write one true sentence. Stop tweeting and chattering and try it; just one sentence. It seems so little and surely not in time. You’ll feel the oaks begin to rise.

And with every un-reflected adjective, you’ll feel them fall, a bit of poison at the root. It’s hard to trace all the damage of a bad idea in talented hands. But I’d be amazed if Dixon hadn’t spread some of his venom into the gentle parlors of Winston-Salem, where the powers of industry ended up investing their tobacco wealth into experiments on eugenics, sterilizing “feeble-minded” poor men and women. Other Wake Forest intelligentsia chimed in with scientific not just  literary footnotes. Although it wasn’t focused just on women of color, the legacy of that health system complicity now results in a pattern of dramatic under-utilization of prenatal care.  The problem isn’t ignorance, but accurate memory.  Decades later, the aftershocks of those ugly practices kill another generation as mothers continue to fear getting prenatal care from the hospital that sterilized their aunts. One can almost hear the clicking of Dixon’s typewriter with each needless death.

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Spiders only live a couple years, but they invest every minute in the next generation. Maybe you can see the web there among the branches.

Twenty six letters and a handful of years. That’s all we have to work with in our short lives where we try to raise a few children and do the best we can as neighbors and citizens. We may be in a time as ours, when venal idiots run unbridled. We are tempted to rant louder, or curl up and whine.

There is nothing more important and hopeful than telling the truth and doing real work in a time of such untethered artifice. Blumenthal built radiators, so he had $6,500 to buy a mountain, when all the fancy pants finance boys fell apart. I don’t know anything about radiators, but I know the grain and scent of cherry, walnut and maple. And I can type, giving myself to the slender narrative thread bending in the fog, catching the light, giving the young a chance to have their time.

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Spalted maple from Adam’s Davie County farm. Real. (Others at Druiddelight.com)

 

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Geniverse

Shaw University Students

Shaw University students in 1913 preparing to make the world happen. Still are.

In the beginning was an idea; “I’ll give it all away,” said God. And so, from that first micro-nano of time until this latest Carolina Spring, we’ve been part of an explosive, incomprehensive generosity. God could have done it more like we’d do it: try out life on just a small little solar system with less than a dozen planets; maybe just a few kinds of people who all look just alike. We’d have stopped evolution with the golden retrievers just to keep things polite and tame. Not the God of this place! Life scattered everywhere!

The scale and energy of the giving is entirely beyond measure, but since it is happening even on our little planet out on the edge of smallish garden-sized galaxy, it is not beyond our sight.

I wonder why we don’t notice it more?

And in this hard-hearted time, I wonder why we fall for the scarcity scam nearly every time. Every little despot and predictable tyrant says the same dumb thing: “There’s not enough to go around! We must huddle together against………them! If there isn’t a ‘them,’ they just shout louder hoping we won’t notice that the them-of-the-month looks just like part of us. The immigrants! (Except for a relative handful of First People every damn one of us immigrated here.) ‘They’re poor!’” (Says rich people who haven’t broken a sweat in three generations.)

Meanwhile everything keeps expanding in a riot of new varieties of generosity.  No matter how tightly the rich hold on, the rest of the planet seems to be inclined to kindness. You’d think we’d notice.

Maybe it would help if we renamed the whole thing from universe (it is most certainly NOT uniform) to geniverse. The whole thing is generative, from the first. Just look and see.

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Jeremy Moseley, Director of FaithHealth Community Engagement with co-learners.

You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to see generosity breaking out everywhere, constantly. This week started with another couple dozen of people at our “Learning Forum.” This is a kind of practical potlatch in which we at Wake Forest Baptist provide the pot and brilliant folks from Texas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Virginia and both Carolinas share the ingredients of their version of FaithHealth. None of them are the same; but you can see the common thread—organized generosity. We call it “proactive mercy” here and are bold enough to show the data that indicate that pretty much the only way you can expect the cost of charity care to go down is to be more proactive and smart at giving things away (so people don’t wait to go to the emergency room)(duh).

This is so obvious that it shouldn’t even qualify as smart. But in a hard-hearted time, simple generosity passes for bold brilliance. I suspect the same principle would work in pretty much the same way on any of the billion billion planets God keeps flinging so shamelessly into the darkness. Just because it is obvious, that doesn’t mean it happens without some group of humans making it happen in their particular part of the galaxy, such as Waco, downtown Dallas or Huntington. You still have to organize your work around the principle of proactive mercy and then do that work well.

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One of the FaithHealth Gaston volunteers volunteering to take a picture of the other volunteers. There is no end to the generativity!

A couple days later, we were at Caromont Healthcare in Gaston County, a bit east of Charlotte. This is tough working class country where lots of people have callouses and no small sense of trauma from all the missing mills. It was a volunteer breakfast celebrating the arts, crafts –and outcomes—of one of the most well-organized community-based tapestries of generous care anywhere in the nation. It’s called FaithHealthGaston, but the names that mattered most were those of the heroes and heroines. One volunteer wept as he shared the story of a woman trying to cook by the light of the tiny light in her microwave. What kind of a man would not weep—and then fix kitchen lights?

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Kevin Best, a Carolina classic craftsman who never quits.

Kevin Best is a NC Classic; a skilled craftsman, sharing “Did you notice the pavilion over by the Lutheran Church?  That was the last job I worked on before I fell ill.”  He’s fallen on times that would leave my spirit crumpled and bitter. But the volunteers connected him –and crafted those connections well—so that he’s now on disability, getting his meds, giving him a chance to be alive in the lives of his grandchildren.  A story the the universe likes to see.

Volunteers are not gullible or too dumb to know about money. They know the secret that god shared from the first moment of creation: life cannot be held, much less bought or sold–it lives as it is given, it lives by way of giving away. The mystery, if there is one, is that there is always more to give, the miserly fear of scarcity is utterly and always mocked by the economy of God that creates quicker than we can give. the right side up universe created by a god who loves surprise who mocks the darkness with the light of grace. give it away, god says, and I will replenish; give it away and there will always be more, give it away and you will find it.

What you see in Gastonia is that if you want a healing organization in the heart of a city and region that so desperately needs healing, hope, wholeness, you need to find a way to be in covenant, in partnership closer that words and longer than one life who know that secret — give it away for free. This is not a new idea that only occurred after the Fall, after the bullets and whip and the shackle. No. From the very first, god’s first and last idea and again this and every morning, is that life is for free and will not run out. So give it away.

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Refuge Ministries brings the praise in Davis Chapel.

The next morning Connectors from other such communities gathered in the jewell-like Davis Chapel of Baptist hospital for worship, not lecture or instruction. The Refuge Mission from Surry County brought the music of praise, while Rev. Dr. Anthony Jones managed to squeeze Baptist fire and thunder into a hospital-sized serving of the story of the woman healed by the touch of Jesus rags (he was too poor for anything else, Anthony noted).

The universe said amen. Of course, it did.

Saturday was the most remarkable bubbling stew of hope where hope has been served up for 153 years on the campus at Shaw University. Shaw was built to raise up prophetic pastors of power to let justice roll and intelligence to lay out the plumbing. Every generation has had to catch fire again, find it’s courage and speak truth first to each other and then to the ever-hostile powers of the world around. Shaw sits a short stroll from where the NC Legislature meets; as dumb and mean-spirited a gaggle on any planet within many light years.

Shaw is never surprised by the mean and the dumb. But it is surprised at how hard it is to channel some of the super abundance in the world into the cash reserves of this, the very first of the great Black colleges in the South, the very first four-year medical school anywhere (Harvard copied it in a few years). If the world built for expansive generosity, why is it so hard to find money? It turns out that the hard part is remembering what the money is for; not the bricks or the stuff it buys. There is no gap in listing what. The key is the why it matters.

Once you remember the why, you still have to do the work of communicating it in clean, sharp language. You have to get everybody’s name spelled correctly on the mailing lists. You have to hire somebody to plug in the computer and make a decent brochure. But your work is all illuminated by the why; and it helps if that why is aligned with the universe—the geniverse.

Saturday night we were blessed as guests of the astonishing Isasi family at a thundering gala for  SECCA in Winston-Salem, held in the old Hanes family mansion. Once a pillar of the old Southern way, on this night, it was a festival celebrating Cuban art and culture—and what it has meant to the new southern reality. Jose Isasi has been in Winston-Salem for 43 years, now joined by his three sisters. The feast was no regular fried chicken; no, it was Isasi family recipes! He’s the publisher of Que Pasa, the Spanish Language newspaper published in the major cities of North Carolina, a large part of the reason our hospital has been drawn so deeply into the life, work and future of the Hispanic community.

In the geniverse, the energy and all that matters will always find its way toward what wants to happen next. That’s why they are called generations. The one and only key is to align one’s work—all of it, every bit—with the logic of the ever-creating, ever generous Spirit. When you look like that because you are like that, everything flows, just as it does in other billions of billions of planets like ours. That’s how it works.

It hard to remember that when the mean and the dumb are thumping their hollow chests with the teeny weeny little hearts. Let them preen; they are already being left behind as the rest of the generous planet goes on weaving a stronger and more vital “us”  out of all the broken threads.

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Astonishing

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Melissa Jones, Actress, embodies the words and pathos of Natural Shocks as only a professional–and a woman–could.

“As birds flying he scattereth the snow, and the falling down thereof is as the lighting of grasshoppers. The eye marvelleth at the beauty of the whiteness thereof, and the heart is astonished at the raining of it.”

      The Wisdom of Joshua the Son of Sirach (43:17-18 KJV)

The word “astonishing” bounced around web last week in connection to the staged readings of Natural Shocks, the, well, astonishing, play by Lauren Gunderson. It is about guns wielded by those we tried to love, about fear and terrible choices by love splattered across years and precious moments. It’s a tornado of a play on every level touching down in 104 theaters from Orlando to Marin to New York (www.naturalshocks.org).

The picture above is of the….astonishing….embodied reading offered to 150 stunned members of the audience in our Green Street Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. From the tears and gasps during the reading, you could feel it lance old wounds and release deeply held sorrow in the only way humans ever do—in the presence of others who know, love, fear and hope together. My daughter–Lauren–was my sister (and teacher)  in the work of healing.

The language of Natural Shocks ranges from raw to brilliant to metaphorical and back again, subtly erasing any distance between actress and audience; all of us drawn in closer to each other.

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Jenny Marshall, mom, teacher and candidate for US Congress, speaks of her experience with guns as Melissa Jones looks on. Green Street United Methodist Church, April 20, 2018

Today a dozen of us were back in the same space. The morning light blew through the windows like a Turner painting. But there were no famous people (other than Jesus, I suppose). Kelly gave a a quietly brilliant sermon about a scripture we all have heard (about love from Corinthians 13). We shared some torn pieces of bread and drank juice from a pottery chalice.

Nothing spectacular; just the kind of astonishment that Sirach had in mind; the kind you have to present to in order for it to work its mundane power.

Robert Farrar Capon’s book, The Astonished Heart speaks to both kinds of wonder, that offered up by Lauren and Kelly, by Melissa and Maria Jones (actress and her pastor Mother). “Most of the preaching I hear in the contemporary church is so bereft of … astonishment—so shriveled down to platitudes about life enhancement and moral uplift, so vapidly “spiritual”, to un-earthy, so unlike Jesus whose words leap like grasshoppers and devour like fire—that its too tame to raise even a single hair.”

He continues, “We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. Not between conservative and liberal, not between peasant and intellectual—and, above all, not between believer and non-believer.”

Capon died in 2013 at 87. His obituary in the New York Times noted that he dismissed most forms of conspicuous religious piety, construed the Gospels as a radical manifesto for freedom, and for better or worse championed what he called “the astonishing oddness of the world.”

Many of us gathered in the 104 places made sacred by authentic language washed in the shared pathos of angry lament came near despair of rolling back the weird strutting power of the NRA: an hour’s worth of true words in the avalanche of cynically manipulated Big Data.

Big data can predict but not astonish. It can tell us what is likely, but not what is possible. In the dulling hands of a rented cynic, data can blow fog into the most obvious things (women should not be afraid of being shot by their husbands; children should not have to practice hiding under their desks from automatic weapons).  Of course, you don’t need the internet to stampede people into the fog of fear; you can do it with crackling AM radio, just ask the Rwandans, killed by their neighbors. Worry about it the electronic power. But don’t fear it.

Love drives out fear just as light makes darkness impossible just as hope rolls away despair. The thing about love, light and hope is that they are social; they emerge and exist only where people connect to each other. Only whether we touch, make eye contact, move from autonomy to solidarity and move again to release our newfound common energy into action.

Raising political will is as mundane as the falling snow, which, Sirach says, “the heart is astonished at its raining.” Actual political organizing is dull as old snow, more like the department of motor vehicles than storming the Bastille. It is sometimes goofy, occasionally silly. Slow.

But if you know what you’re witnessing, there is nothing more amazing to watch is the actual movement among the people.

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North Carolina Cherry Burl natural edge bowl. I turned this after letting it season for two years and was simply astonished by the grain and complexity within. You can find this one on my “druiddelight” site. 

Up close to the process you can see the moving people like you can see the grain and drift of the flakes in the falling snow. It reminds me of the silent wonder in the grain of the cherry burl I found up in the high country mountains west of here nearly two years ago. It has aged in the corner of our garage, mysterious, waiting to be opened up for its second life. The band saw whined and I felt like Sirach as the split apple left me astonished with the wonder of its beauty. It isn’t pretty, actually. But it is  astonishing. (You can buy that cherry burl Bowl, with the money going to March for our Lives here )

Natural Shocks raised money, as well as energy ($1,643 just in our little gathering). Jenny Marshall, a mom and teacher, is running for Congress in an intractably locked-in seat. She spoke of her experience with guns, which involved taking a service revolver from a distraught officer threatening his family. She left the gathering with a bit more energy for another day of campaigning. We registered a handful of people who hadn’t gotten around to it, yet. Maybe the spirit will burn all the way till November.

No big deal; but way bigger than Big Data. What matters most is what counts.

 

 

 

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Democracy in three acts

IMG_1126“This is what democracy looks like!” we chanted as we sloshed around downtown Winston-Salem through the late Spring wet snow. Thousands of moms, dad, sisters and brothers had huddled under umbrellas as one startling young voice after another took aim at the NRA and any one of the legislators who takes money from them. There was grief, but mostly anguished anger. Our senators Burr and Tillis are among the top national recipients of NRA money. Our congresswoman gives herself away for nearly free, but sleeps with the same political fleas.

The morning before the march, the county Democratic party met in a high school named Parkland getting the groaning, clanking machinery of democracy in gear. Party politics is incredibly mundane and prosaic; very, very normal people doing the next required political thing for no money at all. Amazing it happens at all. In our county a key reason is attorney Eric Ellison whose brother is a congressman from Minnesota. Eric is in the deep red territory of North Carolina, but fighting just as brilliant and tenacious fight way out of the spotlight.

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Jenny Marshall hoping to be the Democratic candidate for NC 5 District of the US House.

Every single Democratic candidate for school board, sheriff, city and county offices spoke, seeking support and energy. The very first may have been most important, Jenny Marshall, a school teacher speaking with precision about why she is running for the first time for Congress. DD Adams, her primary opponent, is more used to revving up the crowd as a City Councilwoman. Either one will struggle for votes outside the city in a district that runs to the Virginia line, but the winds of change are high and like thousands of women running this year, they are drawing from a deep well of energy.

The county and state party has more money on hand than ever before in its history at this stage in an election cycle, so there is good reason to feel hopeful about breaking the republican majority in congress and the supermajority at the state level where the regressive actions have reached absurd lengths. At least it’s a fair fight; all a grown-up wants.

You can feel the wind shifting, the block and tackling stiffen as the sails snap to catch it.

This is exactly what democracy looks like.

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This picture has hung in the halls of Shaw University for a hundred years as a witness the power never concedes without a well-educated demand.

Fredrick Douglas, born two hundred years ago, inspired generations of African American leaders in far bitter circumstances: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He would see Cambridge Analytica as poofs compared to slaveholding Klan and disdain any who feared the battle with such. Quit whining; go vote.

He lived long enough to see Shaw University rise off the tortured southern ground in Raleigh to educate thousands. Friday the National Academies of Science held one of its formal workshops in Boyd Chapel to study the role of faith-based assets and the health of the whole population, black, white, brown, in or out of fashion. President Dr. Paulette Dillard told the story of Shaw’s iconic history as a Baptist mission to becoming the first four-year medical school in the nation. That history has been a winding and fraught road buffeted by the continual gales of racism and privilege, including losing that proud medical school at the raw hands of the Flexner Reforms (while the little two-year program up the road at Wake Forest passed through).

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Dr. Prabhjot Singh opens the National Academies of Science workshop on faith-based assets in Boyd Chapel at Shaw University.

Douglas’ picture hangs outside her office at Shaw because of another quote: ““It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” While we obviously have hundreds of broken men in positions of political power today, Douglas would focus on raising up the young. He would be cheer the young voices filling the public square, rising up strong and sharp, and clap as Emma wielded silence like a scalpel.

Saturday afternoon I gathered with others in Winston-Salem, one of 800 marches around the world to call BS on the politicians. I had seen one of the speakers before, this 14-year old young woman asking the adults to protect her generation from irrational violence.  Twenty years ago she had been my daughter Lauren at the microphone after Columbine. She, with bullets still flying, is a mom, afraid for her own kids. Back then a ridiculous radio blow-hard named Neal Boortz tried to bully her on his stupid show. It is amazing that poorly educated adults always underestimate brilliantly formed students. She challenged Boortz to a debate, which he ducked, of course. She called BS, confident she’d have the last word given their ages. She is now the most produced playwright in America, while he is blogging somewhere on the edges. He’s the same age as the fellow living in our white house, which makes the point that soon the whole generation of ridiculous blow-hards will pass.

In the meantime a gaggle of idiots has risen up to be voted out. That will not happen by magic, not on TV or Facebook or even in political conventions. It happens in the voting booth, usually when one citizen has asked another to show up and vote.

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President Paulette Dillard of Shaw University speaks to the long tenacity of the Shaw witness to hope and intelligence.

There is angst about the power of computer manipulation and dirty political money. But what could be more American than dirty politics, from counting Frederick Douglas as 3/5th human to the shamelessness of Alabama literacy test to New York’s famously fraudulent voter lists. You don’t have to join them, but you do have to beat them the old fashioned way, one vote one at a time. Facebook manipulations swaying merely a percent here or there are minor compared to the old frauds. Our electoral abyss is entirely on us, the grown-ups who have allowed such transparent piffle to get within cheating range of office. We whine about the billionaires’ money, but we moderates spend billions on hamburgers and wine; plenty to fund any political action needed to stabilize our melting democracy.

The Republicans should, of course, be ashamed of themselves. They deserve the certain bitter flood of revulsion for what they’ve done with the party of Lincoln (who Douglas served in the same White House where John Bolton now runs loose).

That’s not my problem; I’m personally ashamed of my grown-ups, the ones who have allowed ourselves to be out-spent and out-organized by the NRA twenty years after Columbine. Those folks are always going to be present on the edges of the big tent of America. But we should be ashamed before our children that we permitted them to rent the kitchen of democracy.

I’m especially embarrassed as one of the generation of faith leaders who have allowed the gospel of justice and mercy to be out-organized by the same kind of religious Pharisees that killed Jesus. People like Franklin Graham are a problem; but we’re the problem for allowing his ilk to pimp the gospel of mercy into a right wing jailhouse punk.

It is a long time till November. Expect more hand-wringing from adults who will, of course, profess shock over the other shootings certain to ricochet here and there across the villages in the next months. We could wait for the next rounds of bullets to march again. I promise you, they don’t care about us walking around the block. It is the ballots.

Elections are about one citizen getting more votes than another. So go find a decent human running for office and give them your time and some money.

Find out what precinct you are in and who the chair of the democratic party there is—and ask to help. Address some postcard, knock on a couple dozen doors. Don’t forget to give them some money, too. You’ll find there about a dozen nice people involved in most precincts, so you’ll immediately be a jolt of welcome energy. You’ll like it.

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Stained glass in Boyd Chapel. I think that bird looks serious.

Democracy is about who shows up. So show up with enough intelligence and energy to be attractive to at least one other voter who might catch enough whiff of hope to show up, too. Make sure they register to vote. Then remember to call them in November with an offer to give them a ride to vote.

It will feel good and hopeful; you’ll probably find yourself doing it more than once.

This is what democracy feels like.

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Finding Our Bearings

mapbigHow do we find our bearings when we are so far off the known map? Last week I reflected on how bearings were the things we rest our weight on when times are mean. We humans simply must bear each others’ burdens. This is the essence of being human, rather than some other animal that only hurts, breaks down and takes what they can grab. Those lesser mammals are scary, but easily and always defeated by the kind that bears each other up, that tends to our wounded to inspire confidence and coherence.

Bearing means another thing, also helpful in this deeply confused and anxious time. We’ve lost our bearings, wandered off the map. The mariners drew dragons on the edges of their maps to warn the lost. We can see dragons from where we’ve drifted; just turn on the TV. Where do we find our bearings in these uncharted times?

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to lose our way on such a small blue marble of a planet. The problem is that the planet is so small that we can’t find any place where there are only people like our little tribe and no others. We need to find our way into working relationships with those who do not share everything and that we cannot beat into line.

Billy Graham dedicated his every breath to persuading everyone on the blue marble to agree with what he considered life and death and obvious: Jesus. At the end of a century of very serious effort, he got nearly everyone’s attention, but not their agreement. And many who did agree do not yet show they understood the kind and forgiving Jesus that animated Billy through his years.

People of such certainty as Reverend Graham are like a Rorschach test, telling us more through our response than their own witness. Some remember him helping pay Dr. King’s bail out of the Birmingham jail; others remember his voice like a sledgehammer on their teen ears. Gene Matthews, my health policy lawyer buddy from UNC-Chapel Hill, came from the same place as Billy. His  dad knew Billy’s dad and remembers in elementary school in South Carolina that his teacher stopped class and had them put their heads down on the table to listen to the very young Billy on the radio. Gene turned out alright, serving as the General Counsel for the CDC through six Directors over nearly three decades. But many who heard Billy still wince.

I’m guessing that Reverend Graham would be more open and kind than many of the politicians eager for a photo op by his casket. Most religious leaders are more creative thinkers than their followers, especially the ones that turn their ideas into “fundamentals.” Of course, every faith leader should be expected to believe their own stuff enough to want others agree. But every religion has a mean and dangerous side, as well as an attractive and transformative one. Thee Smith, one of my colleagues from Emory, said that one of the key tasks of any religious leader is to try to make their religion safe for the rest of the world who do not share it.

Nobody—not even Billy Graham—can convince everybody on the Blue Marble to believe anything close to the same thing as long as it keeps spinning. Many religious leaders die at the hands of somebody who agrees with them on almost everything. They die for showing tolerance to somebody slightly more different than one of their own finds tolerable. Jesus, Gandhi, Martin, Malcolm were all killed by people who worshipped the same way. Some Lutheran clergy can still get fired for praying in public at the kind of community events we’ve seen following Parkland horrors.

Religious identity remains a useful blunt instrument with which to pummel others who stand in the way of something some 1% wants. However, we humans continue to diversify even as we become more intimately entangled with each other. We eat food grown by, work on machines made by, drive on highways shared with, fly on planes piloted by and are nursed by those we do not expect to worship like us. Not in 2018.

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Foothills Free Clinic in Wilkesboro, NC. About the most mundane place for miracles since the Pool at Bethesda. I think Jesus would have liked that the clinic borrows the Wifi from the tattoo parlor.

These days you just never know whose hands you might find on the the plough next to ours. The Foothills Free Clinic in Wilkesboro, NC is driven by the generous practicality of tough hill people of faith. The key volunteer is Dr. Ernest Cohn, an integrated medicine practitioner and chiropractor who is Jewish. More than a thousand of his neighbors—probably not Jewish—owe their lives to this clinic, now a working partner of the hospital called Baptist that I work for.

Any agency, public, private or faith-based who has a mandate to care for any real place–any real city, any real state, any real neighborhood—must figure out how to make this radical diversity an asset.  On the ground where the poor are trying to find any hope at all, the people who care need every type of person of every persuasion to share the care. The practical daily labor involved in advancing the health of that place depends on aligning all the assets of all those motivated to help.

Weaving difference is an essential competence of anyone trying to heal anything more complicated than one organ system on one occasion. Even there you may damage the human involved even as you get the surgery right, if you make unfounded assumptions about who they are. Pause the knife to ask if the person’s faith is an asset or complication in what you are hoping to do with their organ. Do they believe something that will interfere, or perhaps accelerate, the healing modality?

As soon as you try to do anything beyond one event in one organ in one human, you simply must use the arts of collaboration with eyes wide open for the durable complexity of human populations. Here you look for the social structures of faith that mediate the dynamics that might keep us apart. Those social structures of faith—some 300,000 communities of Spirit in the United States alone—not only buffer, but nurture the capacities for collaboration and compassion.

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Counsellor Anita Holmes in the main hallway of Leonard Hall, built as a medical school, not the Divinity School of Shaw University.

How do we work with those social structures of faith in collaboration with government and private entities such as hospitals? Good question. That’s exactly the question that the National Academies of Science Roundtable on Population Health is addressing on March 22nd in a special workshop exploring faith-based assets and population health. The free, one-day public workshop will explore challenges and opportunities for health sector actors that engage with “faith-based health assets.” These organizations and social structures, in the form of congregations and religious community service networks, collaborate with others in communities, including health systems and public health agencies, to improve the conditions for health and well-being. There will be voices of many faiths including Muslim, Jewish Sikh, B’hai and varieties of Christian.

Please visit the registration page to sign up for the workshop or the live webcast and visit our meeting page for more information (additional resources will be posted before the workshop).

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Leonard Hall, Shaw University, Raleigh, NC.

Shaw University is the perfect place to explore this beyond the chirpy happy talk that often marks discussions of collaboration. Shaw sprung from the bitterly tough minded hope of the post-Civil War black faith, barely around the corner from slavery at the hands of white Presbyterians. They knew racism of every kind–structural, informal, legal, illegal, cultural, subtle and full-bodied screaming, complete with the strange fruit of lynching. And so they created a school. This included a school for preachers, but those preacher-students helped lay the bricks for a school of medicine. Almost at the same time Harvard did, Shaw had a four year school with a hospital on campus. That school was closed by the Flexner Commission, which was charged with standardizing medical education, but went one lap further, taking the opportunity to scrub out nearly all the annoyingly persistent and impertinent Black schools. Wake Forest, up the road with a far lesser story, made it through, so we have the $3 Billion medical center today, not Shaw. Strange institutional fruit, indeed. Yet Shaw persists in its hopeful work today as the embodiment—not of an institutional lynching—but of tough-minded, “gonna-find-a-way” equipping of the People.

Consider coming to Shaw on March 22nd. Who knows what will happen? Who knows what we’ll be able to see together? I suspect we’ll help each other find our bearings.

 

 

 

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Bearing

cckdxHow do we bear it? I don’t mean put up with whatever annoys us, but….how do we sustain life itself amid the traumas, bruises and faults that define the human journey so fraught with frailty?  Some are too public to imagine: high school kids live streaming a semi-automatic weapon fired in a social studies classroom. Others are too intimate; praying with my brother’s immediate family as his ashes are committed to the ground, only forty feet from where his oldest daughter already lies. Bearing.

My dad, an engineer, knew about bearings—the most finely refined part of any machine where weight is born, friction managed and motion made possible. If the bearing is lost or locked, everything blows across the landscape in seconds. A bridge rests on bearings between the superstructure, which has to shift and the foundation, which can’t possibly move at all. He designed the “blue bridge” that was built in 1940 across the Mississippi at LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Still carries 7,000 cars a day. Good bearings.

Human communities are built to bear each other’s burdens. We would never have  lasted long enough to even compete to fight with any other mammals without being able to bear each other. Our mother’s bore us and have to bear our frailties even unto and through teen years (almost unbearable). The bearings of human life are where we absorb each other’s weight, friction is managed and motion made possible. If we cannot organize ourselves to bear each others’ burdens, everything blows across the landscape before our eyes.

That is exactly what is before our eyes on every screen today.

Whose job is it to bear the burdens of the very young and frail, sad and vulnerable, the stranger and those loose from their people, the immigrants?

How will we bear it?

The National Academies of Science Roundtable on Population Health Improvement will hold a full-day public exploration of one key point of bearing, collaboration between the structures of healthcare, public health and faith. If you wanted to disable a society, this collaboration/bearing would be the one to destroy, which is happening before our eyes. The failure of religious leadership to lend strength to the social fabric makes it impossible for the whole to stand. The question before us is not how to start from scratch in building the collaboration, but strengthening the bearings that may be rusted.

You’ll be welcome to join this discussion at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina,  March 22nd 8:30am to 5:00pm.  The free, one-day public workshop will explore challenges and opportunities for health sector actors that engage with “faith-based health assets.” These organizations and social structures, in the form of congregations and religious community service networks, collaborate with others in communities, including health systems and public health agencies, to improve the conditions for health and well-being. The workshop will:

  1. provide an overview of faith-based assets in communities and their relationship to population health and the work of health improvement;
  2. highlight areas where faith-based health assets are using evidence to inform their work and demonstrating effectiveness in improving health outcomes;
  3. provide examples of effective partnerships involving faith-based health assets; and
  4. share lessons learned from working with faith-based assets that could contribute toward principles for engagement for health care organizations and public health agencies.

Please visit the registration page to sign up for the workshop or the live webcast and visit the meeting page for more information (additional resources will be posted before the workshop).

You’d think we’d already know all this but it turns out that we humans have to learn even the most basic arts of life every single generation. There could be nothing more normal than the practical arts of collaboration between these different kinds of structures built for the sharing of burdens—and the preventing of burdens. But these collaborative arts are a bit forgotten in our time, and need to be reclaimed, sort of like wheel bearings need to be repacked from time to time.

It is not hard to map the needs, and not much harder to run the list of programs that might rise to the task. It requires a high art of leadership to see all the assets and how they might be appropriately brought into alignment with each other. Alignment means more than money. You can rent (but not buy) a congregation. You can fuel, but not purchase, the capacities of public health science. And while there seems to be no end to the cost of healthcare, there is a profound limit to what money alone can do to drive quality and be trusted enough to be accessible in any meaningful way.

This one day is about seeing the assets of the structures of faith and what we can learn about the arts of collaboration. Not what they might do in parallel, but what they might do together. It is about how we might bear each others’ burdens so that we can together bear the burdens of what the Bible calls the People, the Public of public health, the humans in the population, whom hospitals are now supposed to be making healthy.

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Cagn Cochrane is an artist with an engineer’s love of structure capable of bearing up the human journey.

The different ways of speaking of bearing point toward Michael Wear, who has thought harder and more clearly than most anyone about finding the voice of normal Christian public witness. He served along with Joshua Dubois in the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships. He has  lamented about the failure of the Democratic Party, including a certain United Methodist named Hillary, to actively include the progressives of faith as visible allies. There were probably enough in Cleveland to flip that state, if they’d only been asked. His new book, Reclaiming Hope, lays out the case for how to speak in public about the public without abandoning the energy and language of normal faith. In an article for Christianity Today he distills his counsel down to a few pages as he looks to Paul and the ragged gaggle of the early church for precedent for how to work in a highly polarized and contentious time:

“Into this polarized environment, Paul instructs them to do something radical, something completely contrary to everything polarization promotes: They ought to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, CSB).

“Everyone together is part of a community as children of the same God, and therefore they ought to “carry one another’s burdens.”

Wear says that “a nation is a different sort of community, but it is a community all the same. The call to carry another’s burden is an extraordinary one, but these are extraordinary times. In our increasingly polarized nation, when many elected officials and their strategists believe they need to listen only to those who already agree with them, we must carry our neighbors’ burdens into politics with our own.”

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How long will do we have to bear it? This brings us to the last bear,  which comes from Dr. Joycelyn Elder, another United Methodist from Arkansas. She used to say that, for those seeking the health of the whole community, the work is like dancing with a bear; you don’t stop when you get tired; you stop when the bear gets tired.

 

 

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Potty

DSC00059It happens. We humans and our systems are what moves through us, defined mostly by how we handle the process, especially how the movement affects those around us. We eat, so we poop; we drink, so we pee. But at some point, not on the floor. My first grandson is learning all about this so he can begin attending preschool. Charlie is very smart with help from parents who he knows love him. It’s his passage to navigate so he’ll figure it out, go to school and then navigate the trillion other passages every human does for better or worse. He’ll help someone else potty train someday.

I was observing all this at the same time i noticed my elected officials learn about their errors in impulse control. A lot has moved through our collective body in recent months, much of it onto the floor. It reminds me less of Charlie’s honorable efforts and more like watching gorillas in the Atlanta zoo throwing excrement at each other to pass the time. That was disgusting, so dragged my young children away from the spectacle. But there was glass to keep the flying crap among the gorillas. We have no glass between us and these guys. So here we are, barely into the second week of the new year with crap all over you, me, our institutions, laws, internet, churches and kids.

We have age limits for elected offices so the most basic behaviors might sink in before someone’s unseated urges can splatter. We don’t count on that, so we also have laws. But laws don’t work very well, except for the most extreme cases (collusion, treason, bribery and sexual abuse of 14-year olds). Even then, laws are difficult, expensive and adversarial, so they can get in the way of groups designed to disagree but find a common course of action. In a sense, politics is more like our bowels than brain, processing all the mess and wonder of human community. We want them unafraid to talk frankly, though hopefully in private, about at all we need talked about at in our complex human systems and then do the best they can. Not everything legal is smart enough; not everything dumb, illegal. We live in the grey, or to follow the metaphor where you know it’s going, the brown.

It is amazing how little of human behavior is hard wired, automatically adapted to the circumstances. We have to learn almost everything and usually the hard way, by experience. Emilie, the cat who lives with Charlie and Asa, does not need potty training. She she realized the litter box was the plastic substitute for her instinctual place to safely hide her waste, it went quickly and involved no drama. Humans have a lot more kinds of a lot more dangerous kinds of crap. We leave plastic that will last for hundreds of year collecting in the oceans so thickly you can nearly walk the waves. Far more dangerously, we crap all sorts of things in the sky. And we crap in the water we need to drink. We are not hard wired to not do such suicidally stupid things. We act as if anything really dangerous is impossible; but it turns out that we can actually make Florida disappear.

DSC00050Humans depend almost entirely on collective discernment to find our way. We talk. For most of our short history, we did this with almost no words, rather like the gorillas or elephants, moving across the Savannah. We found our way out of Africa all the way to Patagonia without Congress. Might not have made it, if they had one. But they had to talk, for the consequences of bad decisions were ultimate for the group. Bad decisions now risk making all human life ultimately impossible. The cockroaches might make it; but not Charlie, Asa or their kids.

The very young have diapers so they don’t have to think very hard about consequences. Politicians think of lawyers that way; protective concealment after the impulsive deed. But in human systems there are no diapers, no concealment, only consequences.

So we have norms to guide us in managing what flows through. We use words. These are augmented by deeply rooted intuition about whether the other humans can be trusted to use their words in ways that are roughly fair and not deceptive cover for blunt power. We count even on those who are different and may even compete with us to use facts and line them up with logic. Then, together, we can go beyond whatever feels good in the moment and letting the crap fall wherever gravity takes it afterward. It’s not as precise as the law implies, but any three-year old learns this, or they can’t survive in pre-school. Almost any mammal our size is stronger and meaner. But we can talk.

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The pendulum swings surely and utterly true.

Dr. Steve De Gruchy died way too young just short of seven years ago next month in one of his beloved South African rivers. He was a spirit at heart of the lively stream of thought about “religious health assets.” He would have been the star of the National Academies of Science workshop on that subject by the March 22nd. He called us to remember our mother tongue of public good and social justice. He spoke like a mother sometimes; he was the first scholar to use the word “shit” in an academic forum, appropriately reflecting on how to do theology in a time of cholera, the time in which we still live. His still-stunning paper is still ahead of us  and appropriate to our time of public potty training (here). Steve had some unprocessed crap in his own life, of course. He was, like all of us , wiser about others’ than his own. But, oh, how clearly he saw us. “There is only one stream of water. What passes through the bodies of humans passes through the bodies of animals, insects and plants, h flushes through our sanitation systems, flows through the rivers, seeps through wetlands, rises to the heavens to become clouds, and returns to nourish us and all living things. There is no life outside this cycle, and theology has to get real about it. Talking spirit without talking water is meaningless. It is the theological equivalent of the miasmic theory of disease.”

And there is only one public, the one in which we must find our way.

I’ve learned from Charlie that when the movement is trying to happen, deliberative thinking is not as helpful as you’d think. Clarity about consequences—what is going to happen…..next….matters more. Aim over here!

I’ve noticed that anxiety, especially about embarrassment, makes embarrassment more likely, whether it’s poop or tweet.

I’ve noticed that you only learn from those you trust; and even then it can be hard to hear. My grandson told my daughter, “mommy, you are not my hero!” But peristalsis– and elections or pitchforks–will out. Nothing stays in.  Everything comes out.

This seems to be the hardest thing for those not doing the pooping to understand, for we come to share in the anxiety, which is mostly about our embarrassment. This is certainly true in 2018 among Americans of voting age. Of course, the man is an embarrassment, of course he is moving through the system toward an indecorous end. Human systems—even those with lots of marble, helicopters and brass—are just ways of getting things in….and out.

Pretty much the only thing the “helpers” can do in the process is point toward the pot at the critical moment. And we must not forget to praise the one doing the pooping when they eventually do the right thing. I’m thinking of Congress here, which is missing more than hitting the pot these days. But should they accidentally do the right thing in coming days, make sure they get some positive feedback.

We’ll have years, probably decades cleaning our current crap up. But the most helpful thing to do is to lower the shaming, deflate the anxiety, assure the ones shouting loudest they are still part of the tribe. We need some grown-ups, not geniuses.

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So many other things to do with our time once we master the arts of the potty.

Don’t forget that all of us were—and will again, should we live long enough—be the poopee. We’ve all strongly held irrationally wrong ideas at some point and lent our energy to movements later proven toxic. We’ve been timidly quiet when we should have spoken. We learn humility in same messy way we learn everything else. Humility is be the most dearly won lesson of all, paid by the pain of others who we hurt with our crap.

So skip the victory dance and help clean up.

 

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