by Lowell Bliss
It was a convoluted epiphany which almost ruined a nice weekend moment of movie-watching. I had not seen Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, starring a young Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, since it was first released thirty-five years. My mind began to play decidedly modern games. I tried to imagine Karen Blixen—on whose memoirs, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, the movie is based—sitting at her small writing desk back in Denmark and googling: “What has been the change in wildlife population numbers since Denys and I were lovers in Kenya?” Then I wondered what research Pollack had done. Had he suddenly called out: “Hey Google: how much additional wildlife has Kenya lost since Dinesen’s book in 1937?” But that would have been 1984, the time of the film’s shooting, of which 70 percent took place on location in Kenya. I, however, was re-experiencing Pollack’s film and Blixen’s story in 2020. I paused the movie, and reached over for my laptop. Here was a movie about loss that evoked such longing and nostalgia and grief in us back in 1985 that we gave it an Oscar for Best Picture. Yes, Kenya is different than in Blixen’s time, but it is now also different than in Pollack’s time. I too was different. I typed in the search terms: “Change in wildlife population, Kenya, 1984 to 2020.”
This may appear to be another conservationist’s blog post about the global decline in wildlife populations, but it is not. This article will end—in a surprise to me the writer—with my late dad’s binoculars in my hands and tears in my eyes. It is an appeal to artists—to film makers and poets, to painters and dramatists, to musicians and novelists. Please, for every black rhino who dies on the pathway to species extinction—please take up his fallen body and make something mournfully beautiful of it. We failed the species; please, artists, don’t fail us. We need you to help us understand our losses, as Pollack, Streep, and Redford did in 1985. Will you give us a re-make of Out of Africa now in 2020 with whatever medium you choose: canvas, words, song, stage or screen?
Out of Africa is a tale of loss. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Meryl Streep plays Blixen, and these words are said early in the film, voiced over scenes which might be a beautiful sunrise, but might be a sunset—we don’t know yet. (Probably a sunrise.) Streep puts age in her voice, but it just adds to our anticipation. Blixen is a storyteller, we quickly learn, and we know that we are at the beginning of what has been billed as an “epic romance.”
At the end of the movie, Blixen’s narrator’s voice will repeat the phrase, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Now the age in her voice sounds like grief and loss. A slight emphasis seems to linger on the word “had”, as in, she once had a farm in Africa, but now no more. Blixen lost her coffee plantation to a fire, and thus to a lost crop, no insurance, and an overdue loan. She lost her family fortune. She lost her reason to stay in Africa. Most of all, she lost her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, played by Redford. Finch Hatton dies in a plane accident near Tsavo.
Out of Africa is a tale of loss, the irrevocable passing away of one person’s idyllic moment. The film tries its hardest not to be nostalgic about British colonialism, something that I fear often creeps into tales of the British Raj in India. The story has some natural protection against glorifying colonialism. Blixen herself is a woman, a fallen woman, and a Dane. In an opening scene, she is literally not “welcomed into the club.” Mostly though we have the sage and independent voice of Finch Hatton, who surely inherits the mantle from Last of the Mohicans: he is the one enlightened white man who walks as freely among the Maasai as Hawkeye did among the Indians of the American frontier. Finch Hatton sees and understands—or at least director Sydney Pollack in 1985 thinks Hatton does.
Long before Blixen returns to Denmark, Finch Hatten is the voice of loss. He misses his friend Berkeley who dies of black water fever. Kanuthia, his Maasai tracker, also dies. Mostly Finch Hatten misses the way Kenya used to be before the Great War and before the British officially colonized the country. He regrets the coming of the railroad and the tire ruts which are carved into the African plain. He pulls out maps to think through where to hunt on safari next. Wildlife populations are in decline and the hunting is no longer “good” in areas where once it was plentiful.
And that’s where we need to stop because, whereas honestly my epiphany this past weekend had nothing to do with Google search engines, it was concerned with cinematography (also an Oscar winner for the film, by the way) and set location and camera angles. You see, Pollack’s art had done a wonderful job of wrapping me up wholescale inside Blixen’s and Finch Hatten’s story. I was back in Kenya of the 1920s and I was genuinely feeling the same loss that they were feeling, of Kenya before the Great War, of the Rift Valley before the British officially declared it a colony. But then a momentary misfiring of a synapse in my brain made me realize—“Hey, wait a second!”—Pollack isn’t showing us archival footage of Cape buffalo herds in the 1920s. There is no CGI involved when they fly that bi-plane over the flock of gloriously flamingo pink color on Lake Nakuru. The storyline may be from the 1920s, but Pollack’s reality—my reality at the first viewing—was from the 1980s, from a time when I was alive, and young, and a man, a man who dreamed of being as free as Denys Finch Hatten and as attractive to women as Robert Redford. In 1985, I too had a dream of visiting Africa. But it was no longer 1985; it was 2020. I have in fact visited Kenya in the meantime, even gone on safari there, a word incidentally which simply means “travel” not “hunting.” All good art makes you reflect on who you are, and what your current reality is. Blixen’s and Pollack’s framework of grief and loss were still there for me, if I was willing to open my heart to it.
There are no statistics about the size of wildlife populations in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s. There are plenty of anecdotal accounts however of the bounty, not the least Isak Dineson’s itself. Pollack must have been cognizant of the smaller populations when he began filming in 1984. Pollack had to locate the herds and determine the camera angles which would best replicate the early 20th Century. He did have to import a couple lions from California, but that was primarily to ensure the safety of his actors during those scenes where tamed animals and trained wranglers were required. Mostly though, Pollack seemed to be able to find what he wanted, though not really. For instance, we first meet Finch Hatton as he approaches the train that is taking Blixen from Mombasa to Nairobi. The train has stopped on the middle of an immense plain. Finch Hatton is with Kanuthia and they sling two huge pieces of ivory off their shoulders onto the flatcar. In 1985, when I first saw the film, I don’t remember if I had a visceral reaction to this scene of ivory harvest, or whether Pollack even expected me to. (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, did not ban the international commercial trade in African elephant ivory until 1989.) But now in 2020, seeing the film again, I had that same uneasy feeling that I get when I watch Carey Grant light up a “fag”, or when Grant uses that term. Of course, even back in 1984, these two massive tusks were no doubt plastic Hollywood props. Watching the film back then, I probably nonetheless had the reaction, “Wow, if those tusks are that big, can you imagine the glorious creature that they came from?!” Watching the film in 2020 however, I felt cheated that Pollack never gave us footage of such elephants—surely Finch Hatten and Kanuthia hadn’t killed them all--but of course, Pollack couldn’t; as of 1984, that type of unbridled glory no longer existed.
My Google search could not find a study that began in 1984 and ends in 2020. The study I found looked at wildlife population decline in Kenya from 1977 and ends in 2016. (Close enough.) Dr. Joe Ogutu and his team of six report, “Our results show that wildlife numbers declined on average by 68% between 1977 and 2016.” Sixty-eight percent, more than 2/3rds lost, from Pollack’s time to ours. Ogutu et. al. reports: “The magnitude of decline varied among species but was most extreme (72–88%) and now severely threatens the population viability and persistence of warthog, lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, oryx, topi, hartebeest, impala, Grevy’s zebra and waterbuck in Kenya’s rangelands.”
In 2014, one month after my father Larry Bliss had died, I was in Kenya. My dad was born in the same year that Dinesen published Out of Africa. He loved spotting wildlife, whether in Michigan where he hunted whitetail deer with my Grandpa and my uncle, or in Colorado while on family vacation where we scouted the mountainside for big horn sheep, or out of the back window at the farm where he could maybe catch a glimpse of a bobcat or coyote walking through the meadow. He kept a pair of sturdy and stout black binoculars ready at hand. I inherited those binoculars when Dad died a death not too unlike Finch Hatten’s: out in the wild, betrayed by a machine—in this case, a tractor which he rode around the farm like a bi-plane. I brought Dad’s binoculars with me to Africa, on safari at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy at the foot of Mt. Kenya. It was late afternoon before we saw our one and only elephant, an old bull tucked away back in the bush. We saw one lioness. The rhino were all kept in paddocks where armed guards could protect them against poachers. Other tourists told us, “Oh, you should have gone to Amboseli or Maasai Mara National Parks instead,” but that’s like telling Finch Hatton that the hunting was still good down by Tsavo. Nonetheless, in terms of 21st century African wildlife spotting, my experience in Kenya was still better than my experience in Chad, which I visited in 2017. I saw nothing by way of big game. I did hear stories, like the kind Karen Blixen might have told. A village chief in Chad on the banks of the Chari River told us, “Yes, hippos used to climb up out of the river and eat our vegetables right before harvest. Now we don’t see any.” Or there was my conversation with Craig Sorley, who grew up in Kenya as a missionary kid, and who now directs Care of Creation Kenya in Kijabe. He told me, “Driving home from boarding school as a kid, we used to get stopped by herds of giraffe crossing the road. Now, I don’t know the last time I’ve seen a giraffe on that stretch.”
“He began our friendship with a gift,” Blixen the voice-over narrator says in the opening scene of Out of Africa, “and later, not long before Tsavo, he gave me another, an incredible gift.” In her dream, she is remembering her flight with Finch Hatten over Africa. She calls it, “a glimpse of the world through God’s eye, and I thought ‘Yes, I see. This is the way it was intended.” In the end, I can see that Finch Hatten with his bi-plane was as much an artist as Blixen with her pen or Pollack with his camera. So, I suppose, was Larry Bliss with his binoculars: “Here son, look at this.”
by Lowell Bliss
I accepted it as a given when the Kansas Leadership Center listed as one of its five underlying principles about leadership: Your purpose must be clear. “People have to care,” they say. “You have to care enough to do something different. Without a clear sense of purpose, nothing is going to change" (KLC Handbook, 9). Shortly thereafter, when I encountered Simon Sinek’s TedTalk, I immediately understood what he meant when he said that such people or organizations like Apple, Martin Luther King or the Wright Brothers all “start with Why.” Sinek said, “By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? . . . The inspired leaders and the inspired organizations—regardless of their size, regardless of their industry—all think, act and communicate from the inside out.”
That’s one of the reasons why I have found our climate targets to be so problematic. When I have stood before an audience with a copy of The Paris Climate Agreement in my hand, and declared “Our purpose is “to prevent an average global temperature warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels,” I feel even my own consciousness scrunching up to say, “Huh?” UN Secretary-General António Guterres took a giant leap forward in clarifying our climate purpose when in September of 2019 he wrote every single head-of-state and challenged them to pursue “Climate Neutrality by 2050.” Wow, just four words. That’s even shorter than John F. Kennedy’s challenge before Congress in 1961: the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Nonetheless, anyone in Kennedy’s audience could go outside and look at the moon. They might know of its distance there and back (477,710 miles.) The nature of the challenge is crystal clear. In September of 1961, at a packed football stadium at Rice University, Kennedy was additionally able to drill down into the inspirational “Why?”:
“Carbon Neutrality by 2050” might be a clearer purpose than temperature preventions, but that doesn’t make it clear. Do you know for certain what “climate neutrality” means? And why is the year 2050 significant? And, equally important, what in the statement, as a rallying cry, should make you care? I appreciate Secretary-General Guterres’s challenge, and I do adopt it as my own, but I also recognize that it may take more than just its four words to make our purpose clear. And so, I undertook an exercise:
Our Climate Purpose Must Be Clear:
“Carbon Neutrality by 2050”
But what does that mean?
Before I took up this explanatory challenge, I gave myself another one. I borrowed from a popular urban legend from the 1980s that goes like this: the CEO of Sony one day walked into a meeting of his engineers. He pulled out a small block of wood and placed it dramatically on the table among them. “Design for me,” he told them, “a tape player of superior sound quality that is no larger than this block of wood.” The result was the first Sony Walkman. For me, I was determined to fit everything I wanted to say on a single half sheet of paper, the size of what we used to use for church bulletin inserts. If you read it out loud, it clocks in at a two-and-a-half minute “elevator speech,” which should be okay so long as you and your listener are both travelling up to the top floor. After choosing a suitably evocative photo, here’s what I came up with for my half-pager:
Simply, that the nations of the world would live
in balance with how God has created
our common home.
When God created his oceans, vegetation, and rocks, he gave them capacity to absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at an astounding rate of 9.5-11Gt of CO2 per year. That’s drawing out of the sky the equivalent weight of one billion African elephants every year. We call these carbon sinks.
We want to live in balance with how God created the world. We want to honor what our Creator God had in mind when he designed natural processes like his carbon sinks. What carbon neutrality simply means is that the total amount of CO2 that our human activities (like the burning of fossil fuels) puts up into the atmosphere would not exceed at least 9.5Gt in any given year, the amount that God designed his carbon sinks to handle. “Net zero” is another term for carbon neutrality:
9.5Gt emitted (minus) 9.5Gt sunk = 0
neutrality, balance, honoring God’s mechanisms
In 2019, the nations of the world emitted, not 9.5Gt of CO2, but rather 36.81Gt. It was another “carbon positive” year and that meant a further thickening of our atmosphere with these gas molecules which re-radiate heat back to Earth instead of letting it escape into space. We were once again out of balance, and the accumulated effect of extra heat energy resulted in many devastating disasters in 2019, such as bush fires, floods, and droughts.
But what’s so special about the year 2050? If we can decrease CO2 emissions by 7.6 percent each year until a carbon neutral year of 2050, then the atmosphere will not be as thick with greenhouse gases as it could be. It will still be different than what our lifetimes, indeed our civilization, has ever known, and indeed many good people will suffer, but at least not as badly as what we would if average global temperatures were to rise over “1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.”
So you see, “carbon neutrality by 2050” is the same thing as talking about the old 1.5ºC target, but in a way that is easier to understand and more directly under our control (“7.6% decrease a year, folks!”). Plus, with a bit more reflection, “carbon neutrality by 2050” ties us to some of our greatest values: we want to honor God by living in balance with how he created our common home.
by Lowell Bliss
Remembrance Day 2018 fell on a Sunday. It was the 100th Anniversary of the armistice which ended World War I. On that Sunday morning, Lorenzo, our deacon, solemnly walked to the back of the sanctuary at St. James and St. Brendan. He stood before the roll on the wall and read the names of our parish dead, the local men who had sat in those same pews but who had perished in the Great War and subsequent conflicts. At five o’clock that evening, my father-in-law and I returned to the church. We took our turn in a ceremony that was happening all across Canada: we grabbed the coarse rope that hung below the belfry and we rang out 100 times in a steady rhythm which seemed to matched the cadence of the poem: “Ask. . . not. . . for. . . whom. . . the. . . bell. . . tolls. . . It. . . tolls. . .for. . .thee.”
If 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the armistice, then 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, talks which would end in the tragic portent known as the Treaty of Versailles. The talks began on January 28 following a jubilant victory parade. The Treaty would be signed six months later with fanfare and foreboding on June 28. If you think about it, Paris has played host for many of history’s diplomatic turning points, but not with a particularly encouraging record. When I was a child, I remember Walter Cronkite reporting about the Paris Peace Talks that were to end the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh had been in Paris back in 1919 and had requested to speak to the Supreme Council about decolonizing Indochine. He was denied.
Future historians however will look back and say that, more than the Treaty of Versailles or the Paris Peace Talks, the global negotiations that occurred in the French capital which had the most consequence for the most number of people over the largest portion of the globe for the most number of decades, were the ones that produced the Paris Climate Agreement. “Adopted” in 2015 at the climate summit known as COP 21, the Paris Agreement has been “signed” by 196 states plus the European Union. Of those countries, 183 plus the EU have taken the extra step of ratifying it, as if it had the force of a treaty. The next twelve months will be crucial, as the nations will gather in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020 for COP 26. They will bring with them their revised Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, country-by-country plans to reduce their share of greenhouse gas emissions. Those NDCs will be matched up to the reductions which the scientists tell us will be necessary to meet the agreed-upon goal: to limit global average warming to no more than 2.0°C—a warming whose effects alone will feel like the loss of Poland in 1939. The Paris Agreement is not simply about GHG emission reductions. In the Paris Agreement, the nations also pledged to mobilize $100 billion per year in adaptation funds to help lesser developed countries as they adjust to a changed climate. The giving would ramp up to that amount until 2020, after which $100 billion per year would be the floor of what the nations contribute. Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres considers 2020 to be a make-or-break year for climate policy: “If we do not change course by 2020,” he claims, “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”
Meanwhile back in Paris of 1919, in his more lucid moments, Woodrow Wilson understood that the negotiations of the Peace Conference had one goal and one goal only: to prevent World War II. He spoke of his pet idea, the League of Nations. “The League of Nations,” he told the conference, “will offer security that until now could only be found in military alliances. Once you prepare for war, you get it. So maybe, for once, we prepare for peace.” Understand what Wilson was trying to say: the French president Georges Clémenceau and the British prime minister David Lloyd-George could not conceive of a world where military alliances were not the only way of doing business, not the only means of maintaining security and prosperity. And there were other “hardening of the categories” which would eventually stop Europe’s heart. For example, whereas Wilson seemed to foresee the end of empire, the other victorious powers could not, and so used the Treaty to make some “business-as-usual” adjustments such as creating the demographic monstrosities of Iraq, Palestine, or Japan’s control over Shandong in China. Finally, there is the issue of German reparations, against which Germany’s argument was: “Yes, but you too share blame for starting this war and for the atrocities which were part of it.” Lloyd-George and Clémenceau could not conceive of a world where they alone did not hold the moral high ground. Apparently, the reason the Paris negotiations were delayed until late January is so that Lloyd-George could call an election back in Britain and emerge with a mandate. He promised his constituents that the Germany would be forced to pay for the entire cost of the war, including pensions for war widows, about $300 billion. Economist John Maynard Keynes was in Paris and served a similar role to what the scientists of the IPCC serve for the COPs; he was meant to be a voice of data and of budgets and of economic flows built around hard numbers. Keynes eventually quit when the politicians refused to give up the idea that an economy built on mutual-assured-destruction is a viable future.
It is said of the French president: “History has taught Clémenceau everything he needs to know about war: you make alliances, then you fight other alliances. The League of Nations is for dreamers.” Once you prepare for World War II, you get World War II. “So maybe, for once,” Wilson suggested, “we prepare for peace.” I could imagine that Secretary-General Guterres might stand before the United Nations and admit that, in this brief period of history known as the fossil fuel bubble, we sought our security and happiness in burning as much coal, oil, and natural gas as possible. For once, let’s prepare for something different: for climate peace and justice.
If COP 26 in Glasgow in 2020 is so important, what does that make the year 2019, the actual anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919? COP 25 will be held in Santiago, Chile, December 1-14. The only reason that the summit will be held in Chile is that the previously-scheduled host, Brazil, had rescinded their offer immediately upon electing a nationalistic government. I will be co-leading a group of 24 students and participants—Christians from the US, Canada, Argentina, Ghana, Colombia, and Panama—in the first ever Christian Climate Observers Program, CCOP.* I must admit that one of the most profound of my spiritual preparations for COP 25 is when I happened upon the documentary Paris 1919 at my local public library. (I’ve since discovered that it is available on YouTube here). The film is based on the book by Margaret MacMillian, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I watched the film once and immediately felt the parallels to what here in 2019 we call “the Paris Process.” I watched it a second time and shuddered at the similar future in store for us should the Paris Agreement repeat the mistakes of The Treaty of Versailles. At some point I asked the question—tongue-in-cheek—“Who forgot to pray for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919?”—when I was brought up short by how limited my own efforts have been to pray for the COPs. But that changes now: we at CCOP will be publishing a newsletter over the next two months—including daily from Santiago. Please consider subscribing here. What is COP 25 in 2019? To me it is that moment in May of 1919, a month before the short trip out to the Palace of Versailles, where it is still not too late to envision a different way of running the world. One day a future historian will write a book entitled Paris 2015/Glasgow 2020: Five Years Which Changed the World. Through our prayers now, we can influence what he or she must write later, but only so long as we embrace the words of Psalm 146:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them--
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free
The documentary often turns to Harold Nicolson for commentary, a British diplomat who kept a diary during the 1919 Conference. Looking back, Nicolson writes, “The peace negotiators of Paris were convinced that they would not commit the blunders or iniquities of the Congress of Vienna. Future generations will be equally convinced that they will be immune from the defects which assailed the negotiators of Paris. Yet they in their turn will be exposed to similar microbes of infection, to the eternal inadequacy of human intelligence.” I pray: “Lord God, we have suffered the World War II which the world inadvertently prepared for, despite warnings. Oh God, since we carry no immunity in ourselves, since our inadequacies are evident, please deliver us 'from the defects which assailed the [original] negotiators of Paris.'”
*CCOP is a joint project of Eden Vigil, Climate Caretakers, Climate Witness Project (CRCNA), Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network (US and Canada), and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Please pray with us and sign up for our newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/gHb8hz.
by Lowell Bliss
Hey Dad, if you are determined to train your children up as activists—and I will unashamedly say that I hope you are—then there are a handful of things you will need to learn:
My daughter Bronwynn’s signboard read:
“HOES MAD about your lack of urgency!! (*it’s me. I’m hoes.)”
What does that even mean? I suspect, of course, that “hoes” is slang for hookers, which itself is slang for. . . well, you know.
On Friday, September 27, students and employees from around the world conducted the second major day of the Global Climate Strike. Greta Thunberg and her father Svante were in Montreal. I’ve met Greta and Svante and wrote about it here: “Greta Thunberg has a Dad.” We were in Poland at the UN Climate Summit, COP 24, and I chatted with Svante Thunberg about what it means to raise such wonderful sixteen-year olds. (Bronwynn and Greta are the same age.) Svante chauffeured Greta from Sweden to New York in an eco-powered sailing yacht and then from NYC to Montreal in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric Tesla. Bronwynn and I, as mentioned, were on the QEW headed toward Toronto.
The first and fun-est duty in any protest march is to generate an idea for your signboard. I went with the Lorax on my Side A--"Unless someone like you DARES a whole awful lot. . . "--and on my Side B with the lame phrasing: “My daughter gets an excused absence because of your inexcusable inaction.” (Told them!) On Bronwynn’s Side A, she chose to identify. She wrote: “Just Another: ‘. . . very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.’” It’s a quote. . . from Donald Trump. . . about Greta Thunberg. . . after the President encountered her ire the past week at the UN General Assembly in New York. Trump had mocked her on Twitter. Greta, the powerless girl, however subverted the President of the USA by proudly adopting the appellation on her social media. Yes she is: she is a very happy girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. My daughter added her own “Just Another” and declared, essentially: I stand with Greta, including in the subversion of power. Very soon after arriving at Queens Park, Bronwynn locked eyes and smiles with another powerless girl, and it resulted in the following priceless photo:
But it was Bronwynn’s Side B sign that she bragged ahead of time would get the most action, and, sure enough, throughout the day, individuals—invariably of her age group—would give a flicker of recognition and then a broad smile. “Nice sign.” “Ha, hoes mad!” “May I take a picture with you?”
An old friend wrote me on Facebook messenger this morning:
Actually, I had a loose idea of what “Hoes Mad” meant, and so was speaking tongue-in-check, but my friend’s comment made me want to investigate and reflect more deeply. When it comes to climate change protest, exactly what are Bronwynn’s young cohorts—male or female—"going for”?
“Hoes mad” is actually something that men would say to each other in a conversation. The Urban Dictionary (of Slang) claims: “It is generally used when females are expressing anger in an irrational manner.” The example dialogue included in the Dictionary goes like this:
It’s a dismissive statement, not un-akin to Trump’s response to Greta. Here’s how maybe an old white guy like me might translate it:
If I were going to dissect this whole phrase and Bronwynn’s use of it on a sign in a way meaningful to other young climate strikers, it would go like this:
But then along comes someone like Bronwynn Bliss who won’t be dismissed so easily. She intuitively subverts “Hoes Mad” by declaring in parentheses and with an asterisk: “(*it’s me; I’m hoes.)” She essentially declares: “No, you don’t get off the hook. Polluters and politicians, you ARE wrong. And I own my anger. And there is a rational basis for my anger. And if you are looking for someone to hold you accountable, well, that person is ME. Even if it means that I have to identify as a “hoe” in your derision, that person is ME, and yes, I am MAD.”
Sticks and bones may break my bones, but your failure to act with urgency on GHG emissions reductions has the potential to kill me and many from my generation.
In 1992, a group of powerless Kenyan mothers were camping out in Uhuru Park in Nairobi, protesting the incarceration of their sons, many of whom were political prisoners in the pro-democracy movement, or at least held without trial, a recognized human rights abuse. On the fifth day of the protest, policemen showed up with batons to flush the mothers out of the park. The women responded by showing their breasts. Wangari Maathai explains:
Wangari Maathai, who passed away in 2011, was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win a Nobel prize. She would understand “Hoes Mad.” So I think would a certain woman from Syria and Phoenicia, circa AD 30. Her daughter was tormented by demons and she could get no help from anyone. She cried out to a Jewish rabbi who had power and authority, but he dismissed her: You are not Jewish and “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She bravely persists and subverts him: Go ahead and call me a dog if you must, but I love my daughter dearly and “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matt 15:21-28).
No, I am not training my daughter to be a prostitute, but I pray every night that she will live in solidarity with them and with all the other outcasts, powerless, and climate vulnerable in this world. “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment.”
by Lowell Bliss
[Editor’s Note: Lowell finishes his series on how to “lower the heat” on ourselves as creation care advocates and environmental missionaries who may be in danger of being burned-out by our own relentless messaging. This is also the second part of an article about intentionally choosing to mobilize from a more receptive audience. You can read Part 1 here.]
That was mobilization failure; now here is David.
I sat on the roof of our ashram overlooking the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. I was in a melancholy mood. I wish my devotions that morning had been spent in I Chronicles 21 or in 2 Samuel 24: I would have been forewarned about the stirrings of my soul and the task I was about to embark on. Instead, I grabbed a piece of my children’s sidewalk chalk and performed one single action wherein I was immediately convicted of four different sins.
King David numbered the people of Israel, and I did something similar. “But seriously Lord,” David and I could have pled in unison, “we were just thinking about mobilization for the glory of your name. Isn’t mobilization what you’ve called us to?”
My melancholy was of the “oh, poor me” variety, where I was thinking about all my missionary colleagues who had come to my city intent to stay for a good portion, if not the entirety, of their careers. . . but who were now gone for whatever reason. In missionary circles, we call this “attrition,” but what it meant to me was that they had come to join in and help with the workload, but now they were not available to lend a hand. “I wonder how many names I can remember,” I asked myself. I found some sidewalk chalk left down in the courtyard and climbed back up to our concrete roof near the water tanks: a nice flat surface on which to write up my list.
I looked at the list of those who were called but who didn’t stay. I counted them again to make sure. Then, wham!, conviction! I immediately felt crystal clear clarity about the need to confess four specific sins:
I’m sure a good harmartiologist (one who studies the theology of sin) could accuse me of even more transgressions, but four is what I felt, and these four were all that I could handle. It’s a grace that all I was given was conviction with the kind opportunity to repent and to grow. In other words, I wasn’t visited with David’s options for punishment: three years of famine, three months of invasion, or three days of plague.
Have I grown enough to apply this moment to my current melancholy regarding climate change’s and environmental mission’s mobilization? I was invited to grieve the loss of my missionary colleagues—some of them had quickly become dear friends, others were more talented than I was. It was a loss. And if I had written their names as a way to grieve before the Lord, I suspect I would have experienced his ready comfort. As it is, I tied my loss to the task and imagined that success in the task required ME, and more people like me, or just more people period. I do grieve the loss of those who—for whatever reason—refuse to be mobilized for climate action, creation care, and environmental missions. But I need to stop there, lest I lapse into the judgementalism, pride, despair, and self-sufficiency that fails to hold fast to the truth that “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” (I Samuel 14:6 records these words of Jonathon to his armor-bearer as they go out to fight the Philistines against ridiculously overwhelming odds. I have a 9:32 minute video explaining this passage in my Hope Series here: scroll to Episode 24.)
That was David; now here is Gideon
We likely know the story of Gideon gathering his men—32,000 thousand of them!-- ready to pounce upon the camp of the Midianites (Judges 7). Thirty-two thousand sounds like a healthy mobilization, but God told him, “You have too many men.”
What?! Has God met the Midianites?!
God explains, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” He allows those who “tremble with fear” to leave, and 22,000 take him up on the offer. Only ten thousand remain. “There are still too many men,” God says, no doubt driving Gideon crazy. “Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there.”
The test, if you will, that God applied was whether a soldier drank from the creek on his hands and knees like a dog lapping up water, or whether the soldier cupped his hands and took the water up to his mouth instead. Only three hundred used this latter method, and God told Gideon that those were the only soldiers he was leaving him. I have heard some preachers and Bible professors explain that to drink with your hands meant that, as a soldier, you were remaining alert; you were never taking your eyes off the enemy even for a second. In other words, God was giving Gideon his three hundred best men. This may be true. After all, the first test winnowed out 22,000 soldiers who would have been impeded by fear and cowardice. Nonetheless, these exegetes of military readiness miss the big point of the story. “The few, the proud, the Marines” may work for a modern TV ad campaign for the world’s biggest military, but God’s slogan is “I’m looking for the humble—however few—who genuinely believe that deliverance depends on God, not them.”
Read the victory in verses 22 and following: in the end, only 100 of the 300 advanced on the camp, and it was the sounds of the trumpet and not the clash of the sword by which “the Lord caused the men throughout the [Midianite] camp to turn on each other with their swords.”
We are likely familiar with this story, but if you are moved to meditate on this story, let me suggest you read the moment of Gideon’s original calling. I find it quite relevant to my own calling as an environmental missionary, a climate activist, and a mobilizer for unreached people groups.
That was Gideon; now here is Elijah
It leaves me with nothing left but to explain the title behind this two-part article. Today meditate on Judges 6. Tomorrow try your hand at I Kings 19. Elijah was exhausted. The heat of a failing mobilization was just too high for him, even despite his recent victory at Mount Carmel. Sometimes I fancy that 2015 and the Paris Agreement was a Mount Carmel moment for us, but here in 2019 I long to be called into the wilderness by God, ministered to with food and water and rest. I keep listening for his voice in the big dramatic events of a wind, or an earthquake, or a fire, but this genre of events—like the climate-related events which relentlessly fill my newsfeed—just wear me out further. I long for the gentle whisper of my Good Shepherd.
And then, as I project going forward, I feel like the Lord has told me that it is okay to “give up” on mobilizing those who refuse to be mobilized. Instead, I can peaceably give my attention to the 7000 out there who have not bowed their knees to the idolatry of the age. I can “lower the heat” on myself by mobilizing from a more receptive audience, and by believing that the Lord doesn’t need even the smallest number when he is ready to save.
That is what I felt he was saying to me. What is God saying to YOU, in these passages?
A Kansas girl finds sunflowers and wheat and an exciting new technology at one of the side exhibitions at COP 21, the UN Climate Summit in Paris in 2015. The first ever CCOP program intends to train a new generation of UN climate observers from a Christian perspective. C-COP: "see-COP". C-COP: "Christians at the COPs".
By Lowell Bliss
COP 21 in Paris: I was in Paris in 2015 for the UN climate summit known as COP 21, the negotiations which produced the Paris Agreement. For all the headiness and historical importance of the event, for all the legendary wonders of France’s capital, I find it easy to choose a single highlight. My single most favorite thing was that I was able to bring an intern with me, a 21-year-old Environmental Studies major from Kansas State University. Though this was my first COP too, it was a precious gift to watch a future of compassion and service open up for a young leader like my intern.
COP 22 in Marrakech: Didn’t attend. Didn’t know any Christians or creation care organizations that did.
COP 23 in Bonn: Met up with three friends and wrote about it in my e-book: People, Trees, and Poverty:
"Where Do the Nations Gather? We have read that at the end of the Age they will gather at the throne of Jesus Christ— the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all creation. He will provide justice for all who have been treated unfairly. He will “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev 11: 18). I don’t exactly know how to interpret that verse, but it sounds ominous . . . and relevant, considering where I am standing.
I am standing outside a huge, white, tented complex, the size of five US football fields. It is reminiscent in my imagination of where the nations used to gather during the time of our great grandparents, namely at the World Fairs, which were celebrations of progress. At the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, workmen shoveled coal into twelve AC polyphase generators and the planet blazed to light. The nations marveled at the spectacle. I wonder if anyone turned around to look at the smokestacks, giving a thought to unintended consequences? Probably not. Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am: here in Bonn, Germany, November, 2017. There is a slight chill to the air, overcast, drizzly, but no snow. Soon the nations will gather in Pyeongchang, Korea for the Winter Olympics and even North Korea will show up. The nations do get together regularly for fun-and-games, but where I am standing, they get together for serious work. Here they do turn around and consider the smokestacks. The scientists here calculate consequences. The philosophers here redefine the concept of progress, too naively handed down to us from the World Fairs. The governmental leaders engage in a type of self-judgment, and the agreements which emerge declare that we refuse to be numbered among the destroyers of the earth. I’m at COP 23, the latest round of UN sponsored climate summits. In our time, where is the one place the nations gather on an annual and serious basis? They gather at these COPs; they gather around the issue of climate change year after year. In 2018, they will gather in Katowice, Poland for COP 24. Since a molecule of carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming, stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, you can bet that there will be a COP 25, 26, 27, 28 . . .
COP is an acronym which stands for “Convention of the Parties.” Parties are the nations who are participating in joint climate action. (Convention of the Parties thus literally means “the gathering of the nations.”) And it is all the nations, including North Korea and Russia, including Qatar and Bolivia who were hold-outs at previous COPs, including war-torn Syria who became the last nation to sign the current climate agreement, including the low-lying island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives who may be overwhelmed by sea level rise and no longer exist when future COPs convene, including the United States even though her current president has withdrawn his cooperation.
And it is not just the political nations who have gathered. One of the most active areas inside the conference grounds is the Indigenous Peoples pavilion. I will spend time in that pavilion listening to speakers who wear colorful shawls and feathered headgear, and who speak in melodiously powerful, but rarely heeded, languages. The religious blocs are also here. In the Indonesia pavilion I will hear a Canadian Muslim woman quote from the Quran about good stewardship of the earth. I know in my bones that, unlike anywhere else on the planet in our day, here I am encountering the “panta ta ethne,” all nations, of Christ’s Great Commission, Matthew 28:18– 20. We are called to go among all people groups, many who are still “unreached” with the Gospel, but clearly encroached upon by extreme weather and the immutable reality of climate change."
COP 24 in Katowice, Poland: I was there by myself, that is, without my old friends of the Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network (LWCCN). When I got back home I e-mailed everyone: “Listen, if you hear that I’m going to COP 25 in Santiago, Chile but that I’m going without that discipleship program that we’ve been talking about since Paris, I want you to accuse me of being the crassest form of ‘a climate tourist.’”
Members of the US and Canada LWCCN—including Climate Caretakers, CRCNA Climate Witness Project and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action—have spared me this fate. Eden Vigil at the Ralph Winter Launch Lab, Frontier Ventures, is facilitating the launch of the first ever Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP). An “observer” is an official role for NGOs (non-profits) including faith-based ones. It is recognized by the United Nations. Observers influence government negotiators and communicate back to their own constituencies. They use the COPs as invaluable networking space. CCOP is designed to train the next generation of Christian observers and climate activists to be as effective as possible, and to view their work in the light of Scripture and the kingdom of God. If this program interests you, or if you know of someone who could benefit from such an experience, please read our webpage here. Applications are available on-line.
Learn more about the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP)
[Editor’s Note: Lowell continues his series on how to “lower the heat” on ourselves as creation care advocates and environmental missionaries who may be in danger of being burned-out by our own relentless messaging. In this first of a two-part article, Lowell wants merely to get some random thoughts into the room before addressing a shift of audience in our mobilization efforts.]
A Joke: A man saw another man banging himself over the head with a hammer. He approached him and asked, “Why are you doing that?” The man didn’t miss a beat as he replied, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
A Failed Thought Experiment: There was already a climate march scheduled for 100 days after the Inauguration of 2017, whether the election was won by Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. I went to DC and marched with 200,000 others. Some of my colleagues scheduled two days of training and lobbying on Capitol Hill, and asked if I wanted to participate. “No thanks,” I said. I had previously paid lobbying visits to the Kansas delegation, spoke only with very polite staff interns, and was sweetly told how much “the senator” or “the representative” cares for the environment, despite in each case his deep ties to the Koch Brothers. “At some point,” I tried to explain to my friends, “it’s a blow to one’s dignity to keep talking to these guys.”
“You know what I really want to do,” I told them. “Let’s organize a two-day consultation, where we put our heads together and discuss where we go from here now that Scott Pruitt was dismantling the EPA, now that the US was weeks away from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.” We met in Sojourners’ offices. There were perhaps thirty of my dearest friends in attendance.
“Okay,” I announced for the third session of our discussion, “we are going to embark on a thought experiment. That’s all this is—a thought experiment. It is NOT a serious policy or strategy discussion. Got that? Good. Okay so here is the question: “When it comes to climate action, what would it look like if we gave up on trying to convince and mobilize the Republican party and the white evangelical church (or rather, that portion doubling down on their support of a climate-denying president)?”
Crickets. We couldn’t bring ourselves to seriously engage the question. Many wanted to argue the premise instead.
Dallas Willard speaks from the grave: It is hard to interpret Matthew 7:6 sympathetically. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” If anything, the traditional interpretation of this verse fuels our self-righteousness as we tend to understand our own understanding as “pearls” and the unconvinced masses as “swine.” Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy, writes:
“The problem with pearls for pigs is not that the pigs are not worthy. It is not worthiness that is in question here at all, but helpfulness. Pigs cannot digest pearls, cannot nourish themselves upon them. Likewise for a dog with a Bible or a crucifix. The dog cannot eat it. The reason these animals will finally 'turn and rend you', when you one day step up to them with another load of Bibles or pearls, is that YOU at least are edible. Anyone who has ever had serious responsibilities of caring for animals will understand immediately what Jesus is saying.
“And what a picture this is of our efforts to correct and control others by pouring our good things, often truly precious things, upon them--things that they nevertheless simply cannot ingest and use to nourish themselves. Often we do not even listen to them. We 'know' without listening. Jesus saw it going on around him all the time, as we do today. And the outcome is usually exactly the same as the pig and the dog. Our good intentions make little difference. The needy person will finally become angry and attack us. The point is NOT the waste of the 'pearl' but that the person given the pearl is not helped.”
A Quotation from Albert Einstein:“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
A Modern Parable: I approached Jesus and asked him, “Why the political theater?”
“What?” he responded.
“From Luke 9, you sent out the Twelve and included the instructions, ‘If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’”
“So?” he asked.
“Well, on one hand that seems to violate the missionary principle of ‘never giving up.’ I have an uncle who was a missionary in Pakistan for 23 years before he saw his first Muslim choose to follow you.”
“Or another approach would be to quietly surrender to reality, politely bow out of the village, and sincerely entrust their souls to God. They aren’t welcoming. They aren’t listening.
“You’re right. Those are two approaches.”
I continued, “Instead, I know a thing or two about the dirtiness of sandals: to take them off and pound them against the doorpost ‘as a testimony against them,’ . . . well, that just seems plain rude. So why the extra step? Why the political theater?”
“Not theater; testimony.”
“Potay-to/ Potah-to,” I replied.
Jesus didn’t respond. Instead he knelt down, unstrapped my own sandals, and washed my feet. When he had finished drying them with a towel, he took out a brush and shined one of my sandals—but only one—and replaced it on my foot. The other one he pressed into my hand and said, “Let fly. It’s only dust and a doorpost.”
Thwack! I did.
“Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” he said with a smile, “Now let’s get moving.”
“What about retrieving my sandal first?”
“No, leave it. There’s a kid with only one sandal, who will need to wear yours if he hopes to catch up with us before we get to the next town.”
“And if the same thing happens to us there?”
“That’s why you have another sandal and eleven other colleagues and now the new kid. Don’t be afraid: in the Pilgrimage of the Burning Bush, we will all remove our remaining sandals anyway.”
[Editor’s Note: It’s summer and we’re gonna talk baseball, but not until we recognize the anguish of those who feel like they are always striking out. Lowell continues his series in “lowering the heat” on those emotionally exhausted by too little progress in creation care and environmental missions. Content in this article was first released in Lowell’s video series on Hope: “Episode 35: Targets and the Future Perfect Tense.”]
by Lowell Bliss
[Kim Cobb] had been taking these sorts of research trips for two decades, and over recent years she had witnessed about 85 percent of the island’s reef system perish due to rising ocean temperatures. “I was diving with tears in my eyes,” she recalls.
David Corn has written an excellent article this month in Mother Jones entitled, “It’s the End of the World as They Know It: The distinct burden of being a climate scientist.” When’s the last time you’ve read a piece about the emotional life of scientists? That’s the point: never! But what must it be like to be Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, making one more trip to Christmas Island, a place you love, faithfully recording all that has been lost, fully cognizant of the projections for ocean acidification and coral bleaching?
We may be more familiar with Katherine Wilkinson’s emotional plight. Her job is to communicate the findings of scientists and to motivate the public to take action. Wilkinson “makes a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying ‘they care about it’ but not engaging in meaningful action: ‘That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’ She has noticed that almost everyone in her line of work seems ‘to have one dark emotion that is dominant. For some, it’s anger or rage. For me, it’s deep grief—having eyes wide open to what is playing out in our world, and we have a lukewarm response to it. There is no way for me not to have a broken heart most days.’” I posted the Mother Jones article on my Facebook page and fairly quickly heard back from an old friend, a man who has been involved in creation care advocacy for over three decades. Dean Ohlman wrote, “As one who has been a long-time Christian creation care advocate (for 30 years), my emotions match the emotions of the scientists quoted here. Grief, anger, resignation, and wild hope flood over me willy-nilly--hope being in the minority at the moment.”
In the article, one climate scientist finally posed a question right back to Corn, the reporter: “‘What are we to do with that grief?’ Professionally coping with grief is part of the job training for doctors, caregivers, and those working in humanitarian or crisis situations. But for scientists? ‘It’s a subject rarely broached,’ she says.’"
What are we to do with that grief? Or with that anger, resignation, wild hope, rage, or broken heart—as others have described it above? We are in the middle of a series (which began here) on how to raise the heat on the as-of-yet-unmobilized public while simultaneously lowering it on ourselves, lest we burn out. In the last post, I spoke of three immediate measures for ourselves. Today we’ll begin to consider some larger paradigm shifts for the sake of emotional health and endurance. The creation care movement cannot afford to lose you, not at this critical moment.
Let’s first admit the pain inherent in our climate targets. I am of the opinion that the world has lost the opportunity of limiting warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius target. In other words, I have no hope for this target. I believe that my opinion can be scientifically argued. I believe that my hopelessness, with a little help from Walter Brueggemann and Jacques Ellul, can be theologically argued. Nonetheless, it’s where I’m at, and it’s what I feel. And I am sad about it. I have visited the Maldives. Its average elevation is one meter above sea-level. When now-deposed President Mohammed Nasheed went to the COP 15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, he pleaded with the other parties: anything above a 1.5°C warming will result in a sea-level rise which will cause the extinction of my country, he said.
My grief also has me thinking about future climate targets. The Paris Climate Agreement, birthed seven years after Copenhagen, saw fit to mention the 1.5°C target. It was too insensitive, too despairing not to. But the Agreement holds the 1.5°C target out as an ambition. The true target is to prevent a 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the total of all the nations’ Nationally Determined Contributions (what are called NDCs for short) does not add up to preventing a 2.5°C degree warming let alone a 2.0 degree one. And then the further bad news: that no major industrialized nation: not France, not Germany, not Canada—no country is on track to meet their targets.
So where do we go emotionally from here, when we face the prospect of coming up to a desired target only to see it recede past us beyond hope of ever reaching it again? Compelled by the love of God, the first thing we do is we make the brave statement: each 0.5 degree increase in warming is worth fighting against, because the amount of suffering of our fellow human beings, the amount of devastation of ecosystems is increased exponentially. For example, the scientists at Climate Central unveiled their “Surging Seas” project at COP 21. I caught their presentation. They know the topography of the planet coastlines and the cities that we have built along them. They also know the extent of sea level rise through the thermal expansion of the oceans—water molecules expand when heated—and from the added water from glacial and icepack melt—that is, ice that once was on land, but has now slid into the oceans. So, for example, they can map out which city blocks in San Francisco or Kolkata or Tianjin would be underwater. They also know that if average global temperatures reach a certain level, that “locks in” a certain level of sea-level rise, though there is no way of knowing when exactly that sea level rise will be experienced. To illustrate, the lead scientists had a big block of ice brought into our meeting room, the lecture hall of the National Oceanographic Society of France. “We all know,” he told us, “that this block of ice now in the room will eventually melt. We simply cannot say whether it will be completely melted in one hour or two or two-and-half.” Fair enough. “But mind you,” he said, “nonetheless the melting and sea-level rise is locked in, the moment the temperature threshold is crossed.”
If, under our current business-as-usual scenario, average global temperatures reach 4°C warming, Climate Central projects that 600 million people will be displaced and millions more affected even beforehand due to increased storm surges and flooding. If, however, we can keep warming to the 2°C target, that number of people displaced is cut by half, and if we could keep it down to 1.5, that number is halved again. Each 0.5 degree target, even if we must grieve the loss of the lower ones, is worth fighting for. We may be entering a period of great despair as it becomes, first obvious that the 1.5°C target is beyond our reach, and then when it begins to seem unlikely that the 2.0°C target is reachable. People may be in danger of . . . giving up.
Here's where an illustration from Major League Baseball may prove helpful. Orel Hershiser was a pitcher for seventeen years in the Major Leagues, most notably for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three-time All Star, Cy Young Award winner, World Series Champ, MVP. In 1988, Hershiser set a major league record by pitching 58 consecutive innings without allowing a single run. He was phenomenal. In 1990, Pulitzer-prize winning commentator George Will wrote a book entitled Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. He devotes a chapter to interviews with Hershiser and entitled it “The Pitcher, Orel Hershiser, In the Future Perfect Tense.”
What makes a good pitcher great? Well, catcher Rick Dempsey has a theory about what makes a good pitcher bad? Dempsey says, “There are pitchers who, when you score a run off them, you can see you’ve ruined their perfect day and they lose their competitive edge. Then the dam breaks and they give up six, seven runs.”
Will asks Hershiser if when he goes to mound in the first inning if he plans to pitch a complete game—all nine innings, all 27 outs. No, Hershiser replies. He goes into a game planning to pitch a “perfect game,” which is a complete game where no opposing batter ever makes it to first base, either as the result of a hit, a walk, or being struck with the ball. It’s a perfect game for a pitcher. In the 140 years of professional baseball, in over 210,000 games, there have been only 23 perfect games ever pitched. The last one was in 2012 by Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. Orel Hershiser is not among those 23 pitchers who ever pitched a perfect game, but nonetheless that’s the mentality he always brought to his first pitch of a game.
So, then what happens, Mr. Hershiser, if you do find an opposing batter on first base, if as Rick Dempsey explains, a batter gets past you and you have your “perfect day” ruined? Do you lose your competitive edge? Does the dam break and then you give up six, seven runs?
Hershiser explains, “If they get a hit, then I am throwing a one-hitter.” If they get a walk, it’s my last walk. I deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
Consider all the targets that Hershiser can imagine: He starts with a vision for a perfect game. If a batter walks, he lost the perfect game target, but can still hope for a no-hitter. If someone gets a hit, then he can hope that the runner never advances. Hershiser hopes for what’s called a “shut-out,” where the opposing team never scores a run. If a batter scores, well then, he can hope to keep it to a one run game, or then two runs. We can end our imagining of the future perfect tense there because Hershiser finished his 1988 Champion season with an Earned Run Average of 2.26, giving up less than three runs per game on average.
This is what George Will labels the “Future Perfect Tense.” “We deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
The stakes are so much higher with climate change and environmental missions. If Hershiser ended up losing a game, he could always say, “That’s history; there’s always my next outing.” If the Dodgers blow the season, he could always say, as the old Brooklyn Dodgers did before him, “Wait till next year.” When it comes to climate change targets, we all need to doubly equip ourselves with the future perfect tense. Our current targets of 1.5 and 2.0 are worth fighting for, and will have been worth fighting for, if we must grieve and let them go. But so will 2.5 and 3.0 if, heaven forbid, it should come to that. Hope gives us courage to never give up. I have a modified a definition of Walter Brueggemann’s for hope: “Hope is a bold conviction about an alternative possibility for the future in and through a good, free, and sovereign God.” That “alternative possibility” is the future perfect tense, and we live into it one pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one inning at a time.
by Lowell Bliss
In the months of May and June, before the monsoon rains had come, we were always so careful when we ventured out into the bazaars of Varanasi, India. Temperatures often reached 45°C (113°F) and you knew that exposure could be lethal. If you didn’t go do your errands in the morning, then you waited until the sun began to set before you went outside. And you always, always, ALWAYS carried a water bottle with you. I can no longer remember the reason that took me out to Lanka bazaar so close to 12 noon, and I don’t remember whether I had already finished all my water or if I had just forgotten to bring it with me in the first place, but I can still picture the hot light radiating off the whitewashed concrete walls of the Gandhi Khadi Emporium, and I can remember beginning to swoon. I was in trouble.
But then a phrase of Scripture came to my rescue.
My devotional practice at the time was to start my morning with a random Psalm. I would literally flip open the Psalms and land on some chapter and say, “Okay, I guess I’m reading this one today.” That very morning I had landed on Psalm 121. It is a “Song of Ascents,” in other words, a song for those who are travelling out in the elements toward some prized destination.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever (NASB).
I knew I was in trouble and I repeated the words even though I can’t claim to have memorized them: “The Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun will not smite me by day.” I’ve had a handful of mystical experiences in my lifetime and this was one of them. I immediately felt refreshed, strong, hydrated even. I made it to a shop to buy water. I walked home. I walked into a new understanding of the power of the words of God. They are sustenance.
The headline in my news feed last week read "Are parts of India becoming too hot for humans?” The article included a satellite heat map from NASA and the deepest red section looked like a lake of fire spread across the Gangetic plain. Delhi was listed on the map at 48°C, Lucknow at 48°C, and Patna at 45°C. (Varanasi is located halfway between Lucknow and Patna on the map.) I know that it is confusing to use the language of “raising the heat” when talking about environmental mission’s concern for global warming impacts on the peoples of this world. Isn’t the whole point that we want to keep the average global temperature increase as low as possible? But “raising the heat” is leadership language (which you can catch up on by reading the two previous articles in this blog). When a leader “raises the heat,” he or she induces disequilibrium among the people he or she hopes to mobilize. Human beings grow complacent over time and sometimes, to use an apt idiom, a fire needs to be built under them to make them care, to encourage them to move up into the productive zone.
Yet, as we discussed last week, we’ve got a unique problem at this moment of mobilizing people to care for God’s creation. The strategy that many of us are using to “raise the heat” is to relentlessly report on every climate-related disaster out there. We seek to report accurately but also passionately, to describe if not the depth of the current tragedy than the scope of the potential one. Hence, such headlines about the inhabitability of our world’s second most populous country, the lethality of the home where the most number of unreached people groups reside. The problem however is twofold: 1) our strategy is failing to raise the heat on those not-yet-mobilized for environmental missions, while 2) this one-and-the-same strategy is “too hot” for those of us who are already mobilized and who are employing the strategy. Many of us are yielding to the fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms that naturally kick in when the heat crosses “the limit of tolerance.” We are in danger of burning out.
Future blog posts will look at brainstorming new strategies at raising the heat among the great mass of the public stuck in work avoidance, but first, let’s consider how we can lower the temperature on ourselves. How can we ease ourselves back down into the Productive Zone? Spread out over as many blog postings as we need, here are some actions you can take to lower the temperature on yourself and your colleagues. They will get more profound as we go along, including unpacking the promises of a psalm like 121, but today here are some emergency measures to get quickly rehydrated:
1. Believe that “Take Care of Yourself” is also a leadership strategy
Reportedly, missionary statesman C.T. Studd declared: “It is better to burn out than to rust out.” I reject this sentiment. In my mind, “out” is still out, whether it is from rusting or from burning. The parched and unreached peoples of places like India can’t afford for any of us to be “out.” The Kansas Leadership Center is the source of whatever I am teaching about “Raising the Heat,” but this is not the only leadership competency or skill that KLC teaches in the packaged whole. It is also important that a leader “Take Care of Self.” Business guru Stephen Covey used to explain the balance between “production” and “production capacity” with the fable of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. However unflattering it might be: you are that goose, and the work you produce is a true source of wealth to those who are suffering. As the goose, your body and soul are governed by natural rhythms and limitations. You are constitutionally incapable of rising to the challenge of every headline that comes across your newsfeed. Unfortunately in the parable, you are also the peasant farmer—and it doesn’t have to be greed, it can be your upbringing, your overwrought compassion, your Enneagram type, or any host of things—but your inner peasant farmer can be a taskmaster on yourself, demanding that you work harder and longer, that you ignore the heat, that you slit yourself open in search of golden eggs that just aren’t there yet.
I have monthly appointments with a spiritual director out of Colorado Springs and my drivenness is often a topic of our conversations, because while I know in my head, based on KLC training, that “Take Care of Self” is an important component in accomplishing my work goals, my heart still seems to believe that my worth to God is based on how much I can produce by 5 PM each day. From where I stand as a creation care leader, I believe that our newsfeeds are going to get a lot worse before they get better. My advice: some of the most important work you can do right now is build your own capacity, and even work on resolving whatever inner issues will prevent you from being there for people when they need you most.
2. Take a break.
It’s been a busy summer with my wife Robynn and I working different travel schedules. She came back from a trip, heard my tale of woe of an unproductive week and said, “You need to go the mountains.” And I replied, “I need to go to the mountains.” From our new home in Ontario, it was a short trip to the Adirondacks, where I introduced myself to the ADK 46, the forty-six peaks in upstate New York above 4000 feet in elevation. By the time I had hiked my second one, I felt so renewed I almost laid a golden egg right there on the trail. We all know about vacations. It’s important to plan them and protect them and design them to be restorative and re-creative.
And there are other types of breaks one can take. Most breaks from Facebook that I hear about either a) take place during Lent, or b) are announced catastrophically, such as “Facebook is evil and only adds to my stress.” But you can take short breaks from Facebook or from your newsfeed on a regular basis. Take a week off. Or limit yourself to checking Facebook or your newsfeed to a specific hour of the day, and preferably not first thing in the morning.
If you need to cancel a conference, or get off a team, or re-negotiate an unreasonable deadline, or “fail” at a project for maybe the first time in your life—then please do so. Breaks are just that: breaks. They will be over. You will be back, stronger and healthier.
3. As a “Wounded Healer,” learn to grieve regularly.
Henri Nouwen—priest, psychiatrist, and author—introduces his concept of the “Wounded Healer” by recounting a tale from the Talmud:
"Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave. . . . He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
For our purposes, Nouwen’s point is fourfold: 1) that the Messiah himself is wounded, and so are all those who wish to be his servants in the healing that he offers to the world. Crucifixions are real. We all have open wounds that are not yet staunched, not yet scarred over, and not yet beatified in glory. Don’t fight them, but instead realize that this is your solidarity with the poor among whom the Messiah sits. 2) The compassion of the Messiah means that he does not want to delay for a single moment in caring for the poor. He shares the same urgency that you have. The heat is raised. 3) In his wisdom, he knows that he must bind up his own wounds, that it is good and right that he attend to his sorrows, but 4) also in his wisdom, he has learned that he need not attend to his wounds like the others do. They unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. He however unbinds and then binds up one at a time. I would argue that the Messiah in this fable has learned to grieve regularly. He has in fact developed what I think we should call, “a discipline of grief.”
It is too flippant to say that he has learned to “grieve on the fly” because that makes it sound like he is too busy to grieve, and is just putting it off until a more convenient, less busy time. It may be true for you that part of your “taking a break” is to take a grief break, where you bind up more than just one wound. In the end though you will want to learn this discipline of regular grief. My seventeen-year daughter is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. I mean she is preternaturally so. Occasionally, seemingly out of the blue, she will announce, “I need to cry for a while.” Robynn and I will ask “why?” and sometimes she knows the reason why and sometimes she doesn’t, but she’ll excuse herself for a moment to go weep. The discipline of grief does not mean that we can schedule our grief, like we do our daily devotions. Grief follows its own schedule, and we have to be disciplined enough not to close the door on it when it knocks. If we learn to open that door regularly, we quickly learn that while grief knocks loudly as if threatening to overwhelm us, her visit inside is peaceful. She removes her cloak and reveals the baby she is carrying, a child named hope.
by Lowell Bliss
Then there was the Thursday morning back in the Fall of 1983 when my classmates at Moody Bible Institute woke up to find their hallways plastered with a poster that simply read “55.” In Student Missions Fellowship, we had found a number (probably in Mission Frontiers magazine—thank you, former US Center for World Mission) and we were determined to promote its significance.
Circa 2007, a group of students at Middlebury College in Vermont led by Prof. Bill McKibben found their own number, 350, in the testimony given at a congressional hearing (thank you, Dr. Jim Hansen). 350 parts-per-million is the threshold of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after which the climate would begin to change in ways unfamiliar to established civilization. The students were intent on creating a global movement and thought that numbers translate into all languages better than words, so they named their organization, 350.org. Today 350.org is arguably the world’s leader in grassroots climate action.
Back at Moody, we not only had posters; we also had paper buttons and straight pins: “55.” We’d hand them to our friends. “Here, will you wear this?” “Sure, what does it mean?” We didn’t bother to answer yet. Some students speculated: “A long weekend is coming up, and they want us to drive safely” (i.e., the speed limit at the time). As the morning progressed, I sought out the chair of the Missions Department in his office, the venerable J. Ray Tallman, whom I knew was in charge of campus-wide chapel that day.
“Dr. Tallman, this is getting out of hand. May I have a few minutes at the beginning of chapel to resolve this thing?”
And so that put me in front of the student body to explain that, according to the US Center for World Mission, 55 is the number of people who die every minute without having once heard the story of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, in any meaningful way. A suitably somber air fell over Torrey-Gray auditorium, and if you were sitting close enough to the clock on the balcony, you could hear it tick away one more minute. Dr. Tallman had asked me to pray as well, and I hadn’t thought it through, it just came intuitively, but I asked everyone who was wearing a button to take it off, and everyone who spotted a poster that day to take it down. “Let’s ask God to imprint this number on our hearts instead,” I said and then we prayed together for unreached people groups. Student Missions Fellowship that day had successfully “raised the heat” on our campus, and then we had done another important thing: we had kept the heat in the productive zone.
On this blog, I’ve started a new series on the leadership skill of “Raising the Heat” on those we wish to mobilize for environmental missions and creation care. You can read last week’s post for the graph and the explanation, but let me review using the analogy of microwave popcorn. It is silly, of course, to accuse a popcorn kernel of “work avoidance,” but there it sits in the bag, hard and uncracked. And so, we literally must raise the heat on it. At some point, the heat is high enough to take the kernels past “the threshold of change.” The “productive zone” is that noisily joyous period of white, tasty fluffiness that results. We also know that it is possible for things to get “TOO HOT!”—which in microwave terms means leaving the bag in too long. In my opinion, few things can stink up an office or dorm kitchen more than a burned bag of microwave popcorn. Consequently, the Kansas Leadership Center, from where I have learned this material, explains that “raising the heat” isn’t the only necessary leadership skill. One must also become adept at “taking the temperature.” And let’s remember that we are using the word “heat” colloquially. It isn’t necessarily the same thing as “energy,” as if the unmobilized can simply be rallied with a good pep talk. Our graph uses the word “disequilibrium,” a sense of getting momentarily knocked out of a resting state, releasing inertial energy, beginning to molecularly vibrate like a popcorn kernel hit by a microwave. There may even be some pain involved. “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” This was said by Cesar A. Cruz, a Mexican poet and human rights activist. (A funny sidenote: I had always assumed that this saying was attributable to Charles Spurgeon speaking about sermons.)
Our “55” posters and buttons raised the heat on world evangelization, both in their mysterious appearance and then in their somber reveal. Keeping the posters up for the rest of the day however would likely have changed the heat and brought students out of the productive zone. Some people would have found the whole scene too morbid, the heat “too hot,” and their reflections would have turned to fight, flight, or freeze. For others, the moment would have passed, and the remaining posters and buttons would have been subjected to some lighthearted graffiti, the unreached people groups forgotten. Invoking God to imprint this number on our hearts instead was a way of keeping the heat up in the productive zone as long as possible. After all, we were talking to God who knew each of those 55 people personally from the last minute, and who had called us all to MBI for the very purpose of his Great Commission. Of course, that was the Fall Semester of 1984; by the Spring semester, we in SMF had to once again put our heads together: how do we raise the heat again?
I love the story of 350.org’s branding. Establishing a deadline or a “line-in-the-sand” is a wonderful technique for raising the heat. They could also begin talking about the dread consequences (heatwaves, sea level rise, flooding, etc.) that we risk in crossing that threshold. Invoking the seriousness of science (Dr. Hansen’s finding) was another good ploy. And then from the outset saying that “we are going global” must have communicated to McKibben’s students: “this is not just a Middlebury College class project.” Nowadays however, I think 350.org’s name is part of a unique moment that we are all experiencing when it comes to “raising the heat” for climate action. First, its name fails to mobilize like it used to, or I should say that it fails to mobilize anyone other than those who were primed to be mobilized in the first place, the low hanging fruit, an example of the law of diminishing returns. In May of 2019, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at 414.83 ppm. We aren’t going back to 350 ppm in our lifetimes, and 350.org, in its branding at least, has given us no other compelling vision than that we should not let it get as bad as it could. Appeals to science no longer generate any more heat than a half-used Bunsen burner. 350.org knows this, and they are actually quite good at raising the heat in new ways that keep their members up in the productive zone, and that try, once again, to move the recalcitrant towards the threshold of change. Civil disobedience raises the heat. Divestment campaigns raise the heat on universities, state pension systems, and individual investors which then raises the heat on fossil fuel companies to transition away from coal and oil.
Nonetheless, the second way that 350.org’s branding illustrates a unique moment for all of us in raising the heat on climate action, is that while for some the heat is too low, for others the heat is too high. The unmobilized look at the number 350 and think nothing; it does not move them. I look at that number and it hurts. I’ve been involved in climate action since returning from India in 2007 and 350 is the number of my powerlessness and failure. I look to Jim Hansen like a father figure and lament, “I miss the world that we used to know and, that we will never regain, and that I will never pass on to my children.” 350 is the number of my despair.
So that is our unique moment: well-worn strategies that we keep using to try and raise the heat on the unmobilized do little for them, yet then contribute to the burn-out of the rest of us. It’s like we have a a sourdough loaf and a Baked Alaskan in the same oven at the same time. Let me give a more explicit and widely-felt example using a totally different number: 45.1 (or 113.2, if you like.) That’s the record temperature in Celsius (or Fahrenheit) that the village of Villevieille, France achieved on Friday. I know because that is the report that 350.org and so many of my colleagues, including myself, posted on Facebook this week. Unprecedented. Deadly. The threat of a “new normal.” Even Pope Francis raised the heat on us who are religious by stepping out into St. Peter’s Square and praying for the sick, the old, construction workers and other outdoor labourers. “May no one be abandoned or exploited,” he asked of God.
If it had been a typhoon in the Philippines, we would have reposted about that. If it had been flooding in Kansas, we would have posted on that. If it had been a freak hail storm in Mexico. . . oh yes, we did report on that, just as we reported on June 2019 being the hottest month in recorded history, or about wildfires in Spain, or about precipitous ice loss in Antarctica, or about mussels already cooked in their shells along the California shore. Or here’s a number: 7,140. That’s the size of the Amazon rainforest (“a football pitch’s worth”) that BBC reports is being cleared every minute by Jair Bolsonaro’s new development campaign in Brazil. Hopefully each of these new stories reaches one new audience segment in a unique and compelling way (Francophiles perhaps, or mussel-eaters) but it seems to me that these stories of disaster and threat fail to mobilize people fast enough and in large enough numbers to rise to the climate change in time. Meanwhile, the barrage of these stories threatens to overwhelm the very ones using them in order to mobilize.
In the weeks to come, let’s brainstorm together new strategies for mobilizing others for environmental missions and creation care. Nonetheless, I intend to begin by exploring strategies and techniques on lowering the heat on ourselves first. How can we avoid fight, flight, and freeze and instead ease ourselves back down into the productive zone of our callings? How can we serve our colleagues who teeter on the edge of despair?