New blade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin and Liberation

Didn’t expect that title did you?liberating structures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Curiosity

Drawn by Kathryn Gunderson
Drawn by Kathryn Gunderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brick Stone Seed

North Carolina clay is richer soil than you’d think. (Thanks to Tebo Cochrane for the drawing)

On the longest night of the year we humans have always wondered whether we are part of something dying or living. There is an oddly appropriate logic behind the decision of the Christian bosses to move the celebration of Jesus’ birth from the summer, when it more likely happened, over to the winter solstice where we really needed it.

We need a seed now.

It is a seed, not a brick or a stone. Hospitals and governments are good at bricks; witness any hospital or the Wall of China. Bricks are all the same size and have edges the keep them from rolling around so they stay pretty much exactly where you put them. You can stack them and build floor after floor of square rooms. Once bricks are in place they are difficult to transform when times change. People are not like bricks although I have seen some departments of “human resources” spend enormous effort trying to make them so. And then wonder why their organizations struggle with change.

Pilot Mountain is part of the Sauratown range that predated the Appalachians.

Stones are also good for things intended to stay put. Universities like stones but usually carve them up to work more like bricks. Robert Frost admired the way stone fences built of carefully chosen stones worked with gravity to make good neighbors. If you want to build with stone, you let the particularity of that one stone at a time guide you to its place in the overall structure.  If you are good at it, you don’t even need mortar; gravity and thoughtfulness can hold for centuries.

God likes to build with stones. The sturdy wall on Pilot Mountain predates the Appalachians and may outlast them, too.

It helps to think of working in community as more like building with stone (and always without mortar)(no, money is not like mortar).

This acorn wants to be a North Georgia Oak tree one day.

If you want something to live and spread, you need to think more about seeds than either bricks or stones. The Jesus Movement, as Clarence Jordan called it, is a seed that surprises us fearful ones every single year (“Don’t be afraid,” the Angels had to say.) It surprises the brick-loving tyrants, too. (The cry of Mary was celebrating their surprising collapse.)

Seeds can be planted, but not made. They can be protected, nurtured, fed, watered and given space. But they are miracles of wonder built for becoming Oak, Kudzu, grain and ideas that live. Seeds last because they create generations of seeds.

Don’t make the metaphor do all the work here. What matters most in our time is to nurture the seeds of hope already alive among us. The seeds of the Congregrational Health Network in Memphis (more like Kudzu now if the New York Times story on Friday is right: ). That seed has blown across the mountains onto Piedmont clay, catching root and heading toward fruit fast (

Tim McKinney tells Heidi Christensen of HHS about the childrenss' programs in Bithlo: "we never give up on anyone ever...."
Tim McKinney tells Heidi Christensen of HHS about the childrens’ programs in Bithlo: “we never give up on anyone ever….”

Look at the ridiculously improbable seed sprouting in Bithlo, Florida where Tim McKinney has planted himself in the literally toxic soil and finding root, too. ( ). Oakhurst Baptist which birthed Seeds Magazine in my youth and Green Street Methodist and Glide Street open late last night in the Tenderloin of San Francisco—all seeds many, many generations alive and thriving. Look at dozens of faith-inspired health ministries, some grown into huge institutions with a simple hope still in their heart.

These are long nights and short days, but the seeds are in the soil.