by Lowell Bliss
If ever you are having trouble generating a new post for your creation care/environmental missions blog, just go outside for a walk. You are bound to stumble upon a morality tale.
I live in Ontario on the north shore of Lake Erie. It’s a short fifteen-minute walk to Nickel Beach where this morning I saw a body of a cormorant (family Phalacrocoracidae) laying on the sand. “Oh, it’s dead,” my wife said sympathetically when I showed her this photo. “Yes, things die,” I said cavalierly. It would have been more disturbing if I had returned home with a photo of a dead Fowler’s toad; they are an endangered species endemic to our little portion of the Niagara peninsula.
“Yes, things die,” I said, “but look at this photo and see if you can tell me how the bird died.”
She was first afraid that our dog had attacked it, greatly overestimating our dog’s prowess and her husband’s strength on the other end of the leash. I had walked up to the bird expecting to find bits of plastic—straws, Tim Hortons coffee lids, etc.—extruding from its belly, like in so many of the photos that my conservationist friends post on my Facebook wall. But no. No outside force—animal or human—killed this bird. It had committed suicide, albeit inadvertently.
I had a discovered a morality tale. Please don’t worry, we humans are off the hook in this incident. It wasn’t plastic in our waterways; it wasn’t because of an oil spill; it wasn’t what the fishing industry calls unintentional “bi-kill.” We humans are off the hook, unless we fail to learn the lesson of this “tale.” (And there, I’ve given you two clues in that last sentence about what killed this cormorant.) Examine the photo again. Protruding out by the bird’s tail can you spot the outline of a mouth? Up at the top of the bird’s stomach, can you see the scales?
A cormorant is a sizeable bird, but so was the fish (which may be a large mouth bass) that it had tried to swallow. This bird was killed by its own inadvisable greed.
I admit to being impressed that it could have even swallowed such a large fish. How is that possible with that beak and that jaw and that throat? As an aside, part of this bird’s misfortune was being born near the Niagara River, as compared to the Nagara River in China. A type of fishing called ukai uses trained cormorants and has been going on uninterrupted for 1300 years. A ring is placed around the cormorant’s neck so that it can swallow small fish only. The large ones get caught in the bird’s throat and the fishermen can retrieve the fish as part of the day’s catch.
But I find myself impressed by a lot of the technology that fuels our deadly consumeristic habits. For example, we all know about the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform that exploded in 2010, killing eleven workers, and leaking 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf Mexico. Biologists estimate that the oil spill killed 82,000 birds of 102 species, cormorants among them. But what you may not have ever heard is that a year earlier, the Deepwater Horizon had set a record for drilling the deepest oil well in human history, a vertical depth of 35,050 ft (10,683 meters.) It could drill a mile below the surface of the ocean. Wow. But like our cormorant discovered: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
by Lowell Bliss
A man passed away yesterday whom we should likely acknowledge as the greatest creation care advocate of our time. You may think it an unlikely honor to bestow on him when you learn to whom I’m referring, but Jean Vanier taught us to love most deeply that part of creation which is simultaneously our most cherished inheritance and our greatest suffering. Jean Vanier taught us to love the human bodies among us, including those bodies which most confront us with how broken in beauty, and how beautiful in brokenness, we and all of God’s creation truly are.
Jean Vanier passed away yesterday in Paris following the suffering attendant to thyroid cancer. He was 90 years old. A theologian, Aristotelian philosopher, and former Naval officer, Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche communities in which the spiritually disabled and the physically disabled lived together and found. . . love. As reported by the BBC: “There are now 147 L'Arche centres in 35 countries, where people with and without disabilities live together as equals. There are a further 1,800 Faith and Light support groups, for people with special needs and their families and friends, across 80 nations.”
I was first exposed to L’Arche through the writing of Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who lived at the Daybreak Community in Toronto for the ten years until his death. I’ve long since misplaced my copy of Nouwen’s book Adam: God’s Beloved where he introduced us to his companion Adam Arnett. Adam could not speak nor could he move without assistance. Here’s the one thing I remember from the book: Adam had one job and one job only. Adam’s job was to be loved by God.
In the book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, Steven Bouma-Prediger said something about God’s various creation which Vanier seemed to know intuitively and what Nouwen came to learn through much personal anguish: "We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience." I have not had a great deal of experience with people with disabilities—which is the nomenclature that Vanier used—so the main way I enter into Vanier’s and Nouwen’s stories is through creation care. I’m not a utilitarian, a resource extractor who might stand before a West Virginia mountainside and demand that its coal seams contribute something useful to society. But I am a "One" on the Enneagram—if you are familiar with this typing—and so I have had to learn how to simply “be present” in the face of the imperfect. A One is a reformer. A One is a perfectionist. I have a constant voice in my head of how I can improve myself, and how I can improve what lies before my eyes. But those who write about the Enneagram say that Ones, in particular, find being out in nature therapeutic. To be out in the woods, I am surrounded by the imperfect—by the decaying and the dead, by the broken branches, by the unstraightened deer trail, by last year’s messy leaf-strewn floor. Nature is broken, and it is beautiful. The thought of trying to "reform" it doesn't even enter my head. It is perfect in its imperfection. It demands nothing of me except that I be fully present to it, that I love it.
When I first step into the woods, I often have my camera out. I’m determined to chronicle my hike, as if I were carving my initials into the scene. I’m determined to acquire something to aid my unreliable long-term memory. I might even rehearse what I’m going to write about the photos when I get “back home to Facebook.” At some point—and it happens quicker and quicker now that I am older—I realize that I have taken enough pictures and that none of them satisfyingly captured the joy of this moment. I put my camera away and I just stand there and try to soak it all in. I try to be present. And I’m present in my body, in the very same substance that I see laid out gloriously before me. I love. I imagine that Nouwen had many such moments with Adam: the bath is over, the dishes washed and put away, nothing (and everything!) to do but just sit there and hold Adam’s hand.
Two weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of Krista Tippet’s podcast On Being where she replayed an interview with Jean Vanier from 2007. In the story of one long-time resident at L’Arche, I heard how I want to form my own heart toward God’s creation. “But L’Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies,” Vanier says.
“They are seen as useless, and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. It’s a suffering body which brings us together. It’s our attention to the body. When somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. Bathing, helping people dress, to eat: It’s to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.
We see this with some of our people, like Françoise. Françoise came to our community in 1978 very severely handicapped. She couldn’t speak; she could walk a bit; she couldn’t dress herself; she was incontinent; and she couldn’t eat by herself. Today, she is nearly 30 years older — she has become blind and — a beautiful person.
There was somebody who came to our community not too long ago who saw Françoise, and the reaction was, “Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?” The leader of the little house said, “But madam, I love her.” It’s as if you come in to a home and grandma is in the home and she has Alzheimer’s, and you say, “What is — ” But she’s my grandmother. So it’s based on the body, and then from the body, relationship grows.”
By Lowell Bliss
Wake up in the morning in the moonlight grey
We got dirt to break, we got a note to pay
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Gonna wake up in the morning and plow to the end of the row
Adrienne Young was determined to take up her place in the Creation Mandate. She was determined to “bless and flourish, rule and subdue, till and keep” (Gen 1:28; 2:15). For Young that meant writing music. Straight out of college, she ran right into thorns and thistles and the sweat of her brow. She worked various jobs on Music Row in Nashville. “No one was interested in my music,” she said. “I was working in the music business offices, and everyone around me was doing what they wanted to do. It was driving me crazy because I knew I could do it, but you can't save up the money to do a record when you're making seven or eight bucks an hour.” She reached out to a friend and confessed she was thinking of moving back to her home state of Florida. “Do you really want to do music?” he e-mailed back. “Then you’ve got to plow to the end of the row,” he told her.
Down to the kitchen with my feet still bare
Children to the table, Papa say a prayer
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Down to the kitchen, got to plow to the end of the row
Cornbread for breakfast, won’t ya boil the grinds
Got to cut the furrow ’fore the sun gets high
Got to plow, plow to the end of the row
Cornbread for breakfast and I plow to the end of the row
My contribution to the Creation Mandate seems to be to write about the Creation Mandate. That’s what I was attempting to do in 2012 in my third try on a manuscript for William Carey Library for a book that was eventually published as Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. The Muse had flitted off to go inspire other more worthy authors, but nonetheless for me there was dirt to break and a note to pay. I got out of bed in the morning. I brewed myself a cup of coffee. Right before I sat down at my computer, I pulled out my iPod and listened to “Plow to the End of the Row” by Adrienne Young and her band Little Sadie. Back then you could buy a muse for .99 cents a download, but not the kind of muse that would do the work for you.
Sun just broke out over the trees
I got an aching in my back and a tremblin’ in my knees
If the mule won’t pull then the plow won’t go
If the seed don’t set, then the crop won’t grow
Chickens to the market, seven miles to town
Gotta make it home ’fore the sun goes down
Big storm coming, I can see it in the sky
Hope it don’ t rain ’fore the clothes get dry
Genesis 1:28 (NIV): “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” Genesis 2:15 (NASB): “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” It’s good work. It’s a privilege, as ever much a privilege as I’m sure a young Adrienne Young felt about living and working in Nashville. And yet there is so much beyond our control. The strength is in the mule and the life is in the seed. What if they don’t go or set? We might hope that the rains don’t come before we have a chance to get the clothes off the clothesline, but after that: what if the rains don’t come at all? The Genesis account tells us that it will be hard work: “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken” (3:19 NASB).
I got rocks in my shoes, dirt in my eyes
Working like a dog till the day I die
You got to plow, plow to the end of the row
I got rocks in my shoes when I plow to the end of the row
I always waited with anticipation for the end of the song, because it reminded me why I was doing what I was doing.
My baby’ s waitin’ for me at the end of the day
She likes to ball the jack in the sweetest way
Gotta plow, plow to the end of the row
My baby’ s waiting’ for me so I plow to the end of the row
Love waiting for me—my “baby,” my wife, my kids, my family, my sweetest way, my completion, a glorious sunset. (I looked up what “ball the jack” means. First, it is a railroad term: jack means a train, and to highball it means “to proceed.” Secondly, it is the name of a high energy ragtime dance from 1913. And thirdly, OF COURSE it is a euphemism for sex, sex, sex!). Love is waiting for us at the end of the day. “It is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy (I Cor 4:2 NASB). We are stewards of creation, just as in this verse the apostles were “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Stewards are to be found faithful. They are required to plow to the end of the rows that the Master has assigned them. While I do long to be found faithful to Christ, more than that, I long to simply be found in him. Christ Jesus waits at the end of the Creation Mandate to find us. We can look into his face and see his lips begin to form the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Young’s song doesn’t end there however, because until the day you die or until the day of the Lord’s return, there’s another moment of strenuous privilege laid out before you:
Wake up in the mornin’ in the moonlight grey
We got dirt to break we got a note to pay
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Gonna wake up in the mornin’ and plow to the end of the row
“Plow To The End Of The Row,” Adrienne Young & Little Sadie, ℗ 2004 Addiebelle Music (BMI) Will Kimbrough Music (BMI); released on 13 April 2004; provided to YouTube by Virtual Label LLC here.
Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission
by Lowell Bliss
It’s been one year since our Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission (CCFM) conference out at the Frontier Ventures campus in Pasadena, and it’s been a busy year for one of our keynote speakers. Katharine Hayhoe didn’t even have time to properly celebrate Thanksgiving. She was one of the lead authors of the Fourth US National Climate Assessment, and here’s how she describes its snap release on the Friday after the holiday:
"The Monday before Thanksgiving, I was in full pie production mode. The counter was covered in apple peels and flour, and so were my hands. My phone chimed. Another message, this time from a colleague. “We’ve been told the report is to be released this Friday!” it said. “Sending proofs right away!”
I immediately reached for my laptop. With floury fingers, I opened the PDFs to see what I had to do and try to figure out how long it would take. The pies went straight into the freezer and the next 60 hours was a flat-out marathon for all of us, with emails and phone calls through the day and well into the night. I finished my own final checks in the car on the way to family Thanksgiving, and sent off my documents in the next pocket of phone coverage we found, driving through rural Virginia."
This past year, perhaps more than any other, has added a “time element” to creation care, at least to climate action. A different report, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, was released in October. The Guardian and other newspapers were quick to run somewhat misleading headlines like “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.” The National Geographic was more measured: “These solutions all require unprecedented efforts to cut fossil-fuel use in half in less than 15 years and eliminate their use almost entirely in 30 years.” IPCC spokespeople simply said, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
Time frames are problematic and that’s why, while I take up the urgency of these climate reports, I am glad that Katharine’s personal story of Thanksgiving 2018 ties us back to “time” as followers of Christ understand it: the kairos moment and not just the chronos one, God-governed seasons, harvest, holidays, holy days, proactive Sabbath-like mechanisms which turn our attention back to the Creator God with faith and hope.
I spent a portion of my time on Thanksgiving Day praising God for what a wonderful time we had together at CCFM 2018. Many of the presentations, including Katharine’s talk “Loving Our Global Neighbor” are available as nicely curated podcasts at www.creationcaremissions.org . The urgency of our times—“the next few years are probably the most important in our history”—makes me pleased to deliver this announcement:
Save the Date!
CCFM 2020 is scheduled for March 19-21, 2020.
(Exact location to be announced.) This will be a Thursday-Saturday event which includes a meeting of the US Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network on Thursday, and a “Young Leaders” program on Friday, with our traditional CCFM programming on Friday night and Saturday. Coinciding with the conference, we will be hosting a “hackathon” for young computer and design students who will, adding to award-winning work done recently at Urbana, create technological tools to help “see movements to Jesus which express the fullness of the kingdom of God [in creation care] among all peoples.”
by Lowell Bliss
I am under something of a deadline with this blog post, but I find myself consumed with the breaking news: it is Monday, April 15 and Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is burning. I watch the footage. I check repeatedly for updates. I recognize that I am feeling sad. I am mourning.
I am not Parisian nor from France. I’m not Roman Catholic. I’ve only been inside Notre Dame once. It isn’t even my favorite cathedral in Paris. Yet, what I’m feeling is more than empathy for a city and its beloved landmark. I feel this personally. Barack Obama spoke deftly to what I’m feeling when just five minutes ago, he tweeted: “Notre Dame is one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can.” Yes, Notre Dame is a great treasure, and because I live in this world, it is also my treasure too. But I recognize, as does Obama, that Notre Dame means something particular to the French people. It is their time of grief, and I want to honor that. I’m glad to be reminded that “it’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost,” or beauty lost, or certainly if lives are host. (At the time I was writing this, there was concern that if the Great Bell were to fall, the entire tower would collapse and endanger the firefighters battling the blaze from below. Thank God, the structure remains standing and no lives were lost—but when we do lose our loved ones, “it is in our nature to mourn.”) If I have any complaint with Obama’s tweet is that it rushes too quickly to words of encouragement and rebuilding. If grief is natural, then all the time that grief might require of us is natural as well.
My one visit to the inside of the Notre Dame cathedral was in 2015 during the time of COP 21, the UN climate summit which produced the Paris Agreement. I skipped out on the climate-related ecumenical service, an act of hooky which I blame on jet-lag and little comfort for such events. Nonetheless I enjoyed the climate-related art installations tucked away in its alcoves and the special tapestries draped down its center aisle. Don’t worry: I don’t intend to draw any garish analogies here about how the planet is burning in like manner as the cathedral. Instead I want to talk about one unavoidable emotion of creation care.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. . .” (Romans 1:20a NIV.) The phrase “what has been made” is translated from the Greek word poiema, from which we also derive