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?