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.