by Lowell Bliss
All my leadership training indicates that we work according to “heat.” In frontier missions, when the people groups are hidden away on the other side of the globe: no heat on us. But when we take a fresh look at the heart of God in the scriptures, when the Holy Spirit confronts us with what we believe about the Great Commission: heat, energy to be mobilized ourselves and to mobilize others.
In mobilizing for creation care, you would think that heat wouldn’t be a problem; it’s called “global warming” after all. Yet, here we encounter another difficulty in exercising the leadership skill of “raising the heat” in order to “mobilize others to make progress on daunting challenges” (the definition I use for leadership.) Ten years ago, about the time when An Inconvenient Truth was released, our strategy to raise the heat was built around describing climate change projections: this is what [has a statistically high likelihood] of happening if we don’t act now to reduce our carbon emissions. For some people, this was enough heat to get busy. It certainly was for me when I saw the projections of the heat waves and glacial melt and drought or flooding that would happen to the people and people groups I loved in India. But for most of the public, this was insufficient heat. Projections are too easily dismissed: only "likely" future events based on "questionable" scientific models, we said. All our attention was focused on the global recession instead.
Nowadays our strategy of raising the heat is to report on what is happening RIGHT NOW!!!! Here’s just a sampling of my news feed this morning: Chennai has run out of water; some farmers in the Midwest are still unable to plant their fields due to flooding; a deadly heatwave has descended on Northern Europe; wildfires rage in Alberta; and record single-day ice melt occurs in Greenland. You would think that this daily onslaught of news reports would accomplish what mere projections could not, but no, my impression is that we overestimate the number of people who are even listening any more. It is possible to raise the heat TOO high, in which case even the most well-intentioned of citizens will choose fight (“Credible Threat of Militia Violence Shuts Down Emissions Reduction Vote in Oregon”) or flight (“Stranger Things 3 comes to Netflix in July”) or freeze (“Lowell Bliss sits Blankly in Front of His Computer and has No Clue What to Say.”). That last one may as well be a headline too.
The trick for leaders who choose not to give up is to monitor the dynamics of heat closely and then raise or lower it skillfully so as to keep people in the “productive zone.” Let me explain the theory while giving all due credit to the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and to the work of Ron Heifitz, Marty Linsky, and others at Cambridge Leadership Associates.
In the illustration above, the y-axis is labelled “disequilibrium,” or, the heat or energy to overcome inertia and begin to get some work done. The x-axis represents the passage of time. Many problems we encounter are “technical problems;” they can be quickly solved by just throwing enough expertise or money at them. Like the green line shows, most technical problems (e.g., a broken arm or worn brake pads) start with a high level of pain—“Solve it NOW!”—but then as we locate a doctor or a mechanic, the heat falls pretty quickly and so we need to give no undue thoughts to limbs or brake shoes. Would that frontier missions or climate change were technical problems, that there were quick technological fixes, but instead these challenges are classic examples of what KLC calls “adaptive challenges.” Adaptative challenges have long-time frames which one never really “solves” as much as “makes progress on.” Adaptative challenges require leaders to be learners, to engage multiple stakeholders, and to act experimentally rather than act efficiently. It’s messy. Often adaptive challenges—find the rising and falling blue line in the graph—start out with very little heat. They aren’t on anyone’s radar screen, save perhaps for a missiologist like Ralph Winter or a climatologist like James Hansen. The responsibility of these early leaders is to “raise the heat” on the issue sufficiently above what can be called “the threshold of change.” Think of the saying: “A person will only change when it is too painful not to.”
Crossing the threshold of change puts our people into the productive zone. Below that threshold and we battle “work avoidance.” There’s no motivation or stimulus to do anything. Think of the other idiom of “building a fire under someone” in order to get them to produce. But adaptative challenges unfold over time, and so we encounter changing circumstances and the natural rhythms of human emotion and energies. Sometimes the heat can get too hot and people are pushed above “the limit of tolerance.” It’s not reflected in the illustration, but fight, flight, and freeze, I believe, act like a plummeting elevator which drops people quickly down to work avoidance. In other words, people don’t normally ease themselves back down into the productive zone. (Not that there aren’t techniques for an effective leader to keep his or her people from plunging down through the bottom—but that’s a different part of the KLC training.)
So where would you say that frontier missions is on this chart in relation to, for example, Frontier Ventures’ vision statement “to see movements to Jesus which express the fullness of the kingdom of God among all peoples.” Where is the Great Commission church in relation to the productive zone?
And where would you say that creation care in the North American evangelical church is in relation to the productive zone? We likely need to diversify our answer, so: where would you plot yourself in relation to the task of mobilizing yourself and others to care for God’s creation during a time of ecological crisis? Where are your colleagues? Where is your church, or your pastor? Where are our mission agencies? Where are your traditionally-Republican or conservative voting friends? Where are your more progressive or leaning-Democratic voting friends, especially heading into this week's first primary debates?
Once we can plot ourselves and understand the dynamic of heat, we can, as we will in future blog posts, look at some of the techniques of lowering the heat or raising it. The 8.6 million Hindus, Muslims and other human beings in the Chennai agglomeration badly need us all to plant ourselves solidly in the productive zone.
by Lowell Bliss
This blog post is the last bit of work that I will do before going down to the basement and collecting my backpack and camping gear. I’m headed to the mountains. From our new home here in Ontario, I’m equal distance from the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies. I don’t know yet if I’ll turn east or west once I cross the border. My trip is something of a send-off by my wife, who has been worried about my emotional endurance. “Where can I find happiness?” the Boy Who Spoke to the Earth asks in the illustrated children’s book by the same name.
"'The journey to happiness is difficult, but I can show you the way,' said the Earth. 'Are you willing to make the journey?'
'Oh, I am,' said the Boy, and he meant it."
Robynn had just returned from a Frontier Ventures event in Pasadena, and we were sitting on the couch while she, in turn, listened to my week. “You should get away,” she said. “We’ve been talking about you going hiking. Either do it or don’t do it, but you need to make a decision.” She then walked into her office and came back with a children’s book.
“I found this at the Santa Monica Mountains Visitors Center.” Robynn is a spiritual director and is always on the look-out for children’s books to use in her practice. The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth is written by award-winning photographer Chris Burkard and illustrated by David McClellan. Dreamling Books, the publisher, released this YouTube preview in 2015.
The Earth sends the Boy on a journey: to the ocean, to the waterfalls, to the forests, to the desert, to the mountains, and to the top of the world. The Boy variously “wades and wanders,” “steps and strides,” or “hikes and hauls” as he leaves each landscape behind. “I see the water and the shells,” said the Boy as he leaves the ocean, “but I don’t see happiness.”
The Boy speaks again to the Earth and the Earth simply asks, “My Boy, did you look without seeing?” The Earth sends the Boy back along the trail: “but this time,” the Earth tells him, “stand still for just a moment.”
It’s no spoiler to tell you that the next six double-page spreads contain no words at all. The Boy is simply set as a small and silent figure in some of the most glorious drawings I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. The reader can’t help but “stand still for just a moment” before each page.
I don’t know what I will be looking at in the Adirondacks or the Alleghenies--I don't even know what range I will choose--but my wife, writer Chris Burkard, illustrator David McClellan, and the Earth itself have just reminded me to stand still for a moment and “see” for a change. Do you have vacation or travel plans this summer? May you find what the Boy finds in the same way that he finds it. (And may your spouse or friend buy you this book at the earliest convenience.)
by Lowell Bliss
I’m an American now residing in Canada who lived for fourteen years in India, and still I don’t know Celsius. I think the reason is that while kilometers can be travelled, and liters can be bought, degrees Celsius are felt. We absorb that knowledge through our skin. “Boy, it’s hot outside,” we say, and an Indian and Canadian can tell you: “Yes, it’s almost 40.”
Actually, besides 0 (“freezing”) and -40 (where the two scales converge), 40 degrees Celsius was the one temperature reading I knew how to convert to Fahrenheit. It equals 104°F. It was close enough to 100 for me to know both rationally and experientially that a trip to the bazaar that afternoon would be excruciating. It was also the thermometer reading that we young parents feared the most for our feverish children. Nowadays however, if we had remained in India, it seems that we would have to come to grips with a new number: 50°C. This week in pre-monsoon North India, temperatures are hovering around and above 50°C, which is 122°F. Welcome to the unwelcomed new normal of climate change where 11 of the 15 warmest years on record in India have all occurred since 2004.
We left in 2007, but we still knew the India heat. During our first June in Varanasi (in 1995), we ran a desert cooler in our bedroom, but one night I had to get up in the middle of the night and walk across the marble floors of the living room to get to the bathroom. I advertently touched one of our cloth curtains and immediately jerked my hand away. It was hot to the touch, obviously not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to spark an instinctual response, like if you touched the edge of a stove but not the burner itself. I remember stopping, looking at the fabric, and thinking, “That’s it; we’ve gone past the point of no return.” Fortunately, that next day the long-anticipated monsoon rains came and temperatures dropped.
Fast forward two decades and I am now a certified Climate Leader with the Climate Reality Project, which means that I have been trained by Vice President Al Gore himself to give the latest version of his slide show made famous as “An Inconvenient Truth.” In 2016, his daughter Karenna invited me to a conference to be on a panel with her dad entitled “The Gospel and the Ecological Crisis.” I went to New York a day early because I wanted to catch Mr. Gore giving his slide show to these faith leaders. He has a staff which revises the show on a weekly basis, incorporating new photos and graphs from the latest headlines and the latest science. This show would additionally be geared to a faith-based audience.
I’m sitting five rows back and toward a corner, as befits an unobtrusive auditor. The lights are dimmed. I’m tracking the Vice President through some familiar talking points. And then he turns his attention to the latest heatwave in India. “It’s so hot,” he says, “the streets of New Delhi are literally melting.” Then he shows a short video clip of an older Indian woman crossing the street. I could “feel” the scene. In New Delhi, you must cross quickly since the traffic will close the gap soon. This woman is an “Auntie” like any other I had known. She is wearing a polyester saree and walking with the grace and dignity that only Indian women can convey in conveying themselves. She was wearing rubber chappals, what you and I call “flip flops.” Suddenly, in the video clip, one of her chappals gets stuck and her bare foot steps down into the black, mucky tar of the road. I and the rest of the audience cringe. She reaches down to try and retrieve it but then stumbles again. She looks up to make sure no traffic is coming. Finally, she abandons it altogether and hobbles through the hot tar to the side of the road.
The whole audience cringed, but I uncontrollably burst into tears. The two men sitting around me were polite enough not to notice, but I had let out an audible sob before I got back under control. I didn’t know this woman, but I knew aunties like her. I had loved aunties like her. Her pain hurt me. And I know this is funny to say, but I had also known chappals, or rather I had known what was lost in abandoning one, what it was like to cross the ground unprotected. Once I was visiting my friend John in Bengali Tola, an old and poor section of Varanasi. We passed by the door outside one of the rooms on the second floor and I saw a pair of rubber chappals left (politely and sanitarily) outside by a servant. We’ve all seen worn out flip-flops, I’m sure, but imagine two flip-flops so worn down that the heels were missing, carved out in perfect half-moons. The toes were also worn out so that the front part of the chappals was also missing, scalloped out in five small waves where the toes should be. This servant was so poor that she couldn’t even replace these chappals.
“Climate change is stealing chappals from poor aunties.” That’s what I thought. Like Celsius, this is knowledge which is more felt than rationalized, and hardly seems like the basis for a global transition to renewable energy, but nonetheless. . . when Mr. Gore continued on, he had my renewed attention.
Dag Hammarskjold once said, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” This seems to me to be the attitude we need to adopt for climate change mitigation and adaptation: we each need to identify one single auntie, connect to her pain, and resolve to love her well.