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Nothing But Nets Third Anniversary

Just returned from a partners meeting of Nothing But Nets , the movement to provide bednets to prevent malaria. It was an inspiring meeting, almost like a religious experience. Progress is being made in the battle against this disease that kills a child every thirty seconds. We’re at a hinge point in history. It is possible that these deaths could be significantly reduced, if not eradicated in the next five years.

Distribution in Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda shows that bednets can significantly reduce cases of malaria. We must not lose the momentum. We have to keep at this task. The world got to this point once in the 1950s and relaxed only to see the malaria parasite become more virulent and resistant. So we must celebrate the gains and keep working.

This progress itself is inspiring, however, and I came away feeling something equally compelling.

As I listened to various "champions" speak about their involvement in Nothing But Nets I was deeply moved. The United Nations Foundation with backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sparked a movement toward life that is inspiring.

What this movement demonstrates is vitally important in this day of skepticism about global change.

When organizations agree to partner, they bring tremendous assets and creativity to the task far greater than any one can do alone.

When these resources are aligned and focused they can achieve scale that is truly significant. In this instance millions of lives can be saved, the heavy economic burdens of this disease on national economies can be reduced, and the significant drain on national health care systems can be slowed.

When organizations partner with mutual support and seek the good of the whole, everybody wins. The partners get the individual goodwill they need, the cause gets the benefit of broad support and messaging it needs, the constituents associated with the partners get the involvement they desire, the people who are benefitted by the cause get the services they need to improve their lives.

After hearing the personal stories of the various partners last night, I’m sure everyone left the meeting feeling a bit better about themselves and optimistic about the effort to bring life to children in malaria afflicted regions of the world. When we do good, we feel good about ourselves. This is a nice benefit but it’s not sufficient, however. We do good not simply to feel good, but to bring about meaningful, lasting, sustainable change.

Bednets are one simple input that opens the door for this kind of change. They are not the whole solution. But they are a start. A simple technology that if used properly can lead to much greater and quite significant change. Ten dollars to save a life. What a bargain. What a movement.

Are the Jewish People an Invention?

Is the narrative that defines the Jewish people an invention, or does it have a factual basis? It’s an invention according to a book by a professor at Tel Aviv University. In a review in the NY Times Patricia Cohen discusses the method author Shlomo Sand utilizes to build his case. Central to his thesis is that Jews were not expelled from Palestine in AD 70. This undercuts the claim to a Jewish homeland and the right to return.

Sands also challenges the lineage of Jews by making a case for European ancestry. This would further buttress the proposition that Jews have no ancestral claim to Palestine.These contentions are obviously controversial and spark debate and I don’t advocate for them. In fact, the conflicted situation in Palestine is so multi-layered that I wouldn’t hazard to claim enough knowledge to speak about the right to return in this historical framework.

What interests me is an underlying, equally compelling thought. We are shaped by our story and our story shapes us. This process includes facts, but it is beyond fact.

Cohen quotes historians who acknowledge that historical narrative is written from within a context and some historians shape the narrative to meet the needs of the situation in which they write. The narrative is a "mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration," she says.

Out of this mix, self-definition develops and truth emerges. As Cohen writes, even if the AD 70 Diaspora didn’t occur the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple shaped the self-understanding of Jews as an exiled and persecuted people.

The mingling of diverse pieces of fact, fiction, aspiration and experience coupled with religious tenets become the story of a people. We are the products of our environment as well as our genes, of our hopes as well as our memories. Reality itself is multilayered and contextual.

In this sense, and it’s probably not the sense about which Professor Sand is writing, the history of all groups is an invention. It can be nothing less. We shape our story and we are shaped by our story.

The Church of Oprah

As Oprah prepares to wind down her broadcast talk show Elizabeth Tenety asks in the Washington Post if her followers will lose their spiritual guide. Some evangelical Christians have condemned her for not adhering to Christian orthodoxy as they teach it, as if daytime television were indeed the church of Oprah. She’s also been criticized for her new age-like spiritual proclivities.

In this, as Tenety says, Oprah may be more like her audience than their spiritual guide. The growing edge of religious thought in the U.S. has been a claim to be spiritual but not religious. The vagueness of the phrase marks the state of belief in the culture; light on content, heavy on experience; highly personal and  internally focused.

What Oprah has created is a sense of belonging, a community of sorts. By identifying with her audience and becoming vulnerable herself, she has tapped into the needs of her audience for growth, self-understanding and a desire for connection.

Her cultural influence is indisputable. When asked if her support of Eckhart Tolle was in conflict with her Christian faith, she explained she has reconciled her Baptist upbringing with her wider interest in spirituality, particularly Tolle’s melding of psychology, philosophy and spiritualism. This is likely the form of spirituality in the foreseeable future: relationship-based, undifferentiated content, self-development oriented and informal, as contrasted to institutional. With or without Oprah, these dynamics are already unleashed. She has channeled them, and may still. But her audience was already there.

Does God Evolve?

A few years ago I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say the Bible is the story of pre-scientific, tribal people who lived before it was known that germs cause disease. He wasn’t denigrating the Bible. He was emphasizing that context should be considered when we read scripture. Obviously, context affected how people viewed the supernatural and ultimately how they understood and defined God, and much more.

Simple as it is, it’s a significant challenge. It raises the question: How does context influence understanding of the sacred, of God? And, of course, the writing of sacred text? Is religion merely a projection of human hopes and fears? What is the basis for our beliefs?

The question is being discussed today in interesting and relatively new ways in popular media outside the classroom. Robert Wright offers a masterful, comprehensive case for the evolution of belief about God. His thesis is mechanistic. "Scripture is obedient to facts on the ground," he writes in his book The Evolution of God .

As societies evolve, they define the deity from within a complicated mix of culture, politics, commerce and intellectual reflection according to Wright. He reminds us that Aristotle said, "Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life."

I suppose some will consider Wright’s thesis a threat to faith. I don’t. While there is a significant difference between apprehending the mystery of the divine and believing the divine is created out of human apprehension, the rabbinic tradition of on-going conversation about religious perception and teaching provides for a fluid understanding of belief. The conversation occurs over centuries. Rabbis probe teachings, add to, suggest nuance and substantiate or clarify. This makes faith a living stream nurturing thought and practice. And through it teaching about the divine changes.

In the Christian tradition another stream of thought says on-going revelation alters our perception of the divine mystery. It’s about our ability to apprehend the divine. One starting place is textual analysis but it is complemented by philosophical and theological dialogue. And contextual analysis.

These neither refute nor support Wright’s thesis. Nor do they address the persistence of humankind’s search to explain and believe. Wright acknowledges that religious thought is resilient and universal but it is unlikely the result of a "God gene." He rejects an anatomy of belief for the terrain of belief.

Viewing scripture through this lens and considering how the original context shaped what was written or conveyed through oral tradition does not negate faith but it challenges the basis upon which we believe. That’s not a bad thing. It opens us to examine the contours of belief and to ask how our context contributes to, or leads us away from, belief and to what result. In an era of rapid change, globalization, narrow nationalism and fear it’s necessary to think deeply about faith and to disconnect it from partisan ideology.

At a personal level, it presents a challenge to discern how our own biases, perceptions, cultural context and daily experiences illuminate or distort an understanding of the great mystery we call God.

Wright says when commerce makes it more amenable for us to cooperate than fight we are are also more respectful of the beliefs of others and religion contributes to social cohesion. That’s a twist on the common criticism that religion is divisive and harmful to the social fabric.

In an interesting survey of the evolutionary perspective this Sunday, Nicholas Wade asks if this approach could result in detente between religion and science. And he points out that it might not be religion per se that results in good or bad ends, but the way it is used by leaders and others in the society.

Given the fact that we are now coming to the awareness that we are interdependent and our destinies are bound together on this small planet, social cohesion is a great step forward. If Wright leads us to think reflectively about the role of religion in this context, he will have given us a great gift.

(Revised for clarity Nov. 21, 5:33 pm)

Is Faith Relevant?

I needed to break free two frozen screws to remove a solenoid from a starter motor. Lacking an impact driver, I went to the local Pep Boys auto store. I waited as a salesperson explained a tire sale to a customer. The customer weighed the prices and decided all were too expensive. He was a worker dressed in a company uniform.

As I explained my need to the person at the counter, the tire shopper said he might have a tool in his truck that would do the job and the counter person said a mechanic in back might also be able to break the screws free.

It occurred to me that I had walked into the underneath side of the recession, the one that hasn’t been bailed out like Wall Street. The two thought I was saving money by doing this job myself, and both wanted to help. If the government won’t bail out working people, they, at least, will help out each other.

It’s always been like this.

Except I wasn’t looking for a freebie. I expected to pay. The mechanic took the part, and returned minutes later. The screws were loosened. I asked, "how much?" He said, "I don’t know, it’s not on my rate sheet."

It was his way of saying, "No charge." I protested but no one listened. The counter person became busy with a phone call. I stood there a bit embarrassed, and eventually I slunk out.

But the event still bugs me. I’ve just sat through several days of meetings in which I heard lots of talk about the effects of the economic downturn on giving to the church for which I work. A little bit of talk about the effects of the economy on the very poor, but no talk of how the recession is hitting working people. And that bothers me–a lot.

If faith is to be seen as relevant it seems to me it must address the real life concerns that give us meaning and purpose, or stand in the way of us living the fruitful lives that we say we are created for. If, as we are taught, this is what the Creator intends, that we live abundant lives in service to one another, then faith must provide us the guidance to do just that. And people of faith must live by these teachings.

Analyzing how much giving has declined doesn’t lead me to that end. It leads me to wonder if we have lost our way, asking how people are serving institutional needs but not asking how we are serving the needs of those who are struggling and losing in this economy.

If religious faith is to be meaningful today it must address the social settings in which life is shaped, or misshaped. And anyone who doesn’t understand that this relates to Jesus’ teachings doesn’t understand why Jesus was put to death by the Romans. He was a menace to the social order of empire.

If faith is to be relevant, it must address our quality of life individually and collectively. It must assist us to live fruitfully. This isn’t limited to economics, but surely it includes economic policy. And it includes change in individual lives, and surely the economic abuses that have put us in the ditch are crushing many individual lives.

Have the mainline denominations become enclaves of upper middle class wealth? It looks that way, and after listening to the conversations I’ve heard, it sounds that way.  Some members, to be sure, are hurt by this economy. But many are not, and among these are many of the leaders of these denominations.

Bob Herbert writes this morning: "The financial elites have flourished in recent decades to a great extent because they have had government on their side, with the politicians working diligently to ensure that rules, regulations and tax policies established an environment in which the elites could thrive. For ordinary Americans, it has been a different story, with jobs shipped overseas by the millions and wages remaining stagnant, with labor unions under constant assault and labor standards weakened, with the safety net shredded and the message sent out to workers everywhere: You’re on your own."

This is where relevant faith will be lived out today because this is where people are facing the struggle for meaning and purpose. I must make it clear this isn’t about good people or bad people among the leadership. It’s about economic polices and a theological understanding of them and their effects on the lives of ordinary people. It’s about the biblical teachings of justice and respect for human dignity. It’s about Jesus teaching us to serve those who are least among us for when we see them we see him.

It’s about faithfulness and relevant faith.

And if we in the mainline don’t find the voice to discuss these issues along with concern for declining revenues we will be neither relevant nor faithful.

Pharmaceuticals for Spiritual Conditions

Pharmaceuticals for spiritual conditions. Are we medicating for spiritual conditions by diagnosing the painful introspection necessary for growth as depression? And is this as beneficial as we seem to think?

Sometimes, painful emotions are both appropriate and necessary for greater understanding, the recognition and correction of our inappropriate or harmful behavior and the precursor to change in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. Ah, but that is the question.

This is, of course, spiritual language. Psychological language would describe these circumstances differently. Is painful introspection necessary, or is it the snapping of synapses; the chemical processes of serotonin uptake in the brain, a physical process that can be changed by pharmaceuticals resulting in altered mood?

And what are we to make of spiritual despair as the birthing ground for the soaring creativity of the human spirit? Would a properly medicated Beethoven have written symphony no. 9, the Choral? Where would the world be without "Ode to Joy?"

I’m not of the position that suffering is necessary for creativity, nor that depression is a requirement for great art. Rather, the question is, what’s the difference between depression and spiritual despair? The "answers" lead to different destinations.

That’s the discussion on the Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times blog. In an era when psychic life is described in terms of neurotransmitters, introspection–the self-examination necessary for spiritual growth–has become passe. Prof. Gordon Marino discusses the evolving attitude toward despair as a medical condition by citing the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century Danish philosopher.

Marino asks, "Have we lost the distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair?"

I wonder. What do you think?

Pirsig was Right. There is Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s not only about the ride. The ride is great. But after spending parts of several weeks bringing a thirty-year-old motorcycle back to life, I’ve discovered it’s also about the joy of working with your hands, the smells of the garage and the sound of a motor roaring to life after a long, long sleep. Tactile. Auditory. Visual. Visceral.

The 1977 BMW R100RS sat idle for at least ten years. I started it once or twice in that time, but rubber bushings had deteriorated, water had collected in the transmission, brake pads had become soiled, electrical connections corroded. It was a shell of the beauty it once was. Glamor on the outside and corrosion on the inside.

I methodically cleaned electrical contacts, changed fluids and replaced parts that were bad. It’s been a long, tedious process. Not boring, but life-giving. I call it methodical because method is necessary. Doing electrical or mechanical work piecemeal is likely to lead to ongoing frustration. I need the benefit of a methodology. It leads to a way to manage a problem whose result is apparent but whose cause is unknown.

Why won’t that switch work? Where exactly is the fault? How do I trace it down? Test the voltage from the battery to the first connection and measure it. Then test the next section until the voltage drop is isolated. Method.

When I’m working on the bike, my mind is freed from the concerns of the day and it probes deeply into the mechanics of the machine. It’s not only right there in front of me in metal, it’s in my thoughts and imagination. Sometimes it’s necessary to visualize how each part contributes to the whole. In fact, when troubleshooting it’s required. It’s about connection. Each part is connected to another and they interact. A weak part will shut you down on the side of the road. The machine is only as strong as its weakest part, to cut to a cliche.

Connection leads to coherence.  All the parts working together create movement. Coherence is the life of the machine. As the bike, I also need coherence. I live a life disrupted by events, sometimes it seems moment by moment, day by day. Coherence  escapes me in that setting. But in the garage with wrench in hand, coherence gives me focus and reassurance, and leads me forward.

It’s been liberating in another way. I’ve not worked with a wrench for many years; not gotten oil under my fingernails since I can’t remember when. I’m a general secretary, that’s a ceo, if you’re not familiar with church language. This role isn’t really compatible with mechanical work in the garage for many reasons.

I work with my mouth, not my hands. I put together organizational parts, not physical nuts and bolts. But working with nuts and bolts is a part of who I am and as I grew into new directions, I left that part out. I’m rediscovering just how important it is. It’s necessary for me in order to be a together coherent human being, well-rounded and functional. I need to get my hands dirty.

And finally, there is precision, even in the art of maintaining. It’s true that intuition helps you to imagine the cause of a problem, but solving it comes down to precision. I mean more than using the correct size wrench on a nut. That’s precise also. If you don’t use the correct wrench you’re likely to round off the head of the bolt, but there’s more here than that obvious point. It’s about testing, verifying, measuring and outcome.

Some bolts require specific torque. Points and plugs operate with a precise gap. Carburetors flood when the fuel level is too high. When these (and many other settings) are precise the machine runs optimally. It’s exciting when this happens. Uplifting. Soul satisfying.

In my line of work precision is sometimes hard to come by. Not always, but enough to make it difficult at the end of the day to know what has been accomplished. It’s not ineffectiveness nor muddleheadedness. It’s the difficulty of knowing if you’ve made progress in work that isn’t concrete and specific, that can’t be contained in a physical way and measured. Work whose product may not appear but with the passage of time. Sometimes you only know it’s working after it’s working, when an event has been successful, an individual life has been changed, a group has taken up a cause and acted.

As I wrench around the garage, I think about this. Robert Pirsig was right. There is zen in motorcycle maintenance

Is it Melanoma or a Benign Mole? It Depends on Who You Ask.

To follow up on this post: the pathology report indicates all the affected lesion was removed and I have been given a clean bill of health. I’ll be monitored by a dermatologist. But the news could not be better.

An article on “diagnostic drift” today in the New York Times sheds light on a personal experience I’ve had the last month. Four weeks ago I underwent a biopsy for an unusual looking mole. The pathology report came back indicating it was melanoma in situ, a malignant lesion. I had skin cancer. A form of cancer that is successfully treated but which in later stages can be fatal. This is not exactly the kind of news that makes your day.

I was first referred to Fort Worth Dermatologist Dr. Peter Malouf, then to a surgical oncologist and after a ten-day wait marked by anxiety, questions and numerous visits to the Mayo Clinic webstite and WebMD, I heard from the oncologist that a second pathology reading indicated the mole was more likely a melanocytic nevus, a benign mole. According to this interpretation I did not have cancer. Never the less, he said, the chances this mole could develop into a malignancy were good and it needed to be removed.

This is the diagnostic drift referred to in the study highlighted in the article–the growing tendency of some physicians to diagnose benign moles as malignant cancers.  The reasons are discussed in the article. What the article does not discuss is the dilemma of the patient. After having the bejeebers scared out of you, how do you evaluate such discrepancies? To the patient it’s more than an academic reading of the data. Regardless of the second opinion, the diagnosis that stuck in my mind is the first. I had cancer or I would get cancer.

These conflicting opinions presented me with several issues, not all of them related to health. I tend to keep my own counsel on such matters and would have preferred not to make this health condition public. However, given the earlier interpretation, I agreed with the oncologist that the lesion should be surgically removed. As it happened the only surgical date available fell on the same day as a meeting of the board of directors of our organization. I could not leave a meeting of my own board of directors without providing a good reason, so I told them about the situation. They were understanding and supportive.

And I cancelled attendance at another meeting out of town out of concern for hauling and lifting luggage with an incision on my shoulder. So now the word is out.

The surgery was uneventful. I am surprised at the length of the incision (six inches). It’s considerably longer than I expected, but the surgeon said he believes the excision removed all the affected tissue and the prospects for a positive outcome are quite good. I’ll get that pathology report on Thursday.

Whatever it says, I’m convinced we did the right thing. And I learned an important lesson. You have to arm yourself with knowledge from reliable sources. You have to ask questions. You have to assert yourself into the process. And you have to balance your fears against objective information and keep your head in the conversation. This isn’t easy but it’s necessary in order to manage your own care.

It falls to the patient to swim through the cross currents of diagnostic drift.

Depression: A Silent Global Burden

In twenty years depression will affect more people globally than any other disease, according the World Health Organization. A BBC report points out the prevalence of the disease among the poor and those living with disabilities. The BBC says developing nations spend only 2% of their health dollars on mental health while developed nations spend 200 times more.

However, the persistence of depression in the developed world reveals how difficult it is to treat the disease successfully. In a fairly comprehensive article U.S. News says medications are effective for 30 to 40% of the depressed.

Mental health is a sensitive subject, often misunderstood worldwide. The burden of depression adds to the struggle to survive in places where hardship is daily reality. Yet it’s a silent disease, often untreated and in some areas unrecognized.

The seeds of mental health treatment are being sown in many countries where these conditions haven’t been identified before. But they are very few and of limited scope. Anyone who’s seen people traumatized by war, natural disasters or political oppression, those left vulnerable by physical disabilities and diseases, and those struggling with emotional pain of the daily grind of poverty has also seen how these external conditions exacerbate depression. In most developing nations this includes the majority of the population.

WHO’s identification of the problem is a good first step, but many more steps will be required if the projection is correct.

Health Care is About How we Care for Each Other

Despite all the talk about costs, the health care debate is about more than money. It’s about how we care for each other. It’s about connection and community. By connection, I mean our recognition that we are connected as a human family and in a social network. We are no stronger than our concern for the most vulnerable among us. By community, I mean the principle that has been a foundation of the democratic experiment: that in addition to individual rights, we have a mutual shared responsibility for each other and this wider social network protects and assures rights for all of us. Civic responsibility and morality. The political posturing that has marked the debate the past few weeks could not be further from this reality and that’s a national disgrace.

Many of the most vulnerable are those with chronic diseases, some of which are untreatable but for palliative care; the poor who cannot afford access; seniors of limited means; children, who by their innocence are dependent upon adults for proper treatment. In a society of abundance, yes, even in the great recession we live abundantly, the idea that we are unable to care for all our citizens is disgraceful. Health care is a measure of what we strive to be, or what we have become. It is a moral issue.

It’s deeply disturbing that living wills and advance directives have been mischaracterized as death panels. I’ve found these to be among the most helpful and comforting tools available when I’ve faced agonizing decisions for which there are no easy answers. In those difficult decisions, I’ve wanted the wishes of a loved one to be followed and the sanctity and dignity of their lives respected. I’ve not wanted others who don’t know them to impose their views or judgments upon them. That’s the value of living wills and advance directives, exactly the opposite of the description of some political operatives today.

The inaccuracies and outright misrepresentations about reform add to the concerns and emotional burden of people who are already living in a vulnerable state. The harm done by introducing the fear they will lose even more of their access to health care is too high an emotional price to pay for political maneuvering. Many have already experienced significant cuts. Fortunately, some religious leaders in the mainline denominations and progressive evangelicals see it in this way. They are speaking out and organizing. This is as it should be.

If the religious community were to remain silent on this issue of civic responsibility and morality, it would risk betraying fundamental values about the dignity of human life and the value of our connection in community. The real cost of our uncivil debate on health care and our failure to reform, is not the loss of dollars but the loss of connection and community.

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