by Lowell Bliss
… so long as local regulations during this pandemic allow it.
… so long as you hike only with those with whom you are already sheltered-in-place.
… so long as you stay six feet away from strangers.
… so long as you wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
On Saturday, my dog and I found a padlock on the pedestrian’s gate onto Nickel Beach, a public space owned by the City of Port Colborne, ON. The dog appeared uncomprehending and frustrated. It was a bonding moment for us. I myself almost started scratching at the chain link fence. Truthfully, I felt a moment of panic: How am I going to survive this coronavirus quarantine if I can’t leave our small house and go for our daily tramp down the length of Nickel Beach?
The definition of a “scofflaw” is easily sussed out if you divide the syllables correctly: “scoff·law.” A scofflaw is someone who “flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.” Our need to “flatten the curve” on new cases of infection means that the laws and/or guidelines regarding social distancing is absolutely nothing to scoff at. But Nickel Beach is NOT some crowded beach in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break. Nickel Beach is not some cramped park in New York City where six feet apart from anyone is impossible. The sanctuary that is Ontario’s north shore of Lake Erie is NOT the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge which, despite state restrictions, attracted 500 worshippers yesterday.
True, groups of scofflaws could gather on Nickel Beach if they wanted to, or a crowd of teenage scofflaws could use it to party—but prior to the padlock, I saw little to none of that behavior. I saw families with young kids—whom I assumed were sheltering-in-place together anyway—letting those kids play in the sand. Retired couples were walking slowly together. People with dogs also had poop bags with them, proving that they aren’t scofflaws even under normal circumstances. One couple was out in the water, wind surfing. In every encounter, we all purposefully stayed six feet away from each other. Nickel Beach isn’t huge, but it could have easily accommodated a few hundred more strolling nature lovers, without turning a single one of us inadvertently into a scofflaw.
The term scofflaw was apparently coined during the Prohibition, which is ironic now because our premier, Doug Ford, has declared that along with grocery stores and pharmacies, liquor stores and cannabis shops are officially considered “essential services.” Yep. The measure has been supported by mental health officials, like Larry Grupp, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the neurobiology of alcoholism: “If you’re a real alcoholic, then you’re going to have epilepsy, and (if) you’re going into withdrawal because you don’t have access to alcohol, you could die. . . I think they’re just trying to avoid any more kind of social unrest on top of the (COVID-19) problems.”
Mental health is actually what I think of when I think of Nickel Beach. If hops and hemp are parts of nature considered “essential” to our mental health, well then why not sand and surf? Has Ford never listened to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”? Yesterday, our prime minister addressed the nation. Justin Trudeau said, “Over the past few weeks, our daily lives have been transformed because of COVID-19. You might find that this crisis is having an effect not just on your everyday routine, but on your mental health, too.” (He gets me!) Trudeau helpfully encouraged us to “reach out.” I wish he had also recognized that he was recording his message outside the front door of his residence and had taken a moment to look away from the camera to say, “reach out AND go out.”
We are staying at home because our government wants us to care for our neighbours and for the potentially over-taxed healthcare system that will need to care for our most vulnerable. Yet, to do so faithfully for the length of time required to “flatten the curve,” means also that I need to engage in self-care, and I need to attend to the care of my wife and two adult daughters who are stuck in these four walls with me. We all need to use the therapeutic value of going outside to help us endure this period of social distancing. We need the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair. We need to see a horizon that stretches beyond our wallpaper. If anything, we need to spot the first jonquil of Spring and hear the first robin to return. They are harbingers of hope. This quarantine is like a fallow winter. We will re-emerge.
So, get outside. (. . . so long as you don’t scofflaw it.) Go outside for the sake of your mental health and for your sense of hope. This article is the first in a series. A steel padlock on Nickel Beach, and my reaction to it and my interactions with Port Colborne city officials because of it, have launched additional reflections: about a vision for public space and for wilderness space, about discovering that our own small backyards can be enough, about recognizing our own privilege, about how Wendell Berry’s poem “Stay Home,” is both NOT the perfect poem and is the perfect poem for this time.
For now though, go outside! Attached are links to two helpful articles about how to adjust your outside time during a pandemic—for your own health and for the health of your neighbours. They mention the same guidelines that I listed above (obey laws, hike only with your household, stay six feet away, wash hands) and then add another one: don’t take unnecessary risks while outside, since our emergency rooms should be reserved for COVID-19 patients, not for cocky knuckleheads. In the words of our prime minister: “I know this is tough, not being able to see your friends at school, not being able to have your support network close by or do the things that keep you feeling healthy. It can take its toll. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s ok to have tough days. But I want you to know that you are not alone.” Take one step outside and you will realize that this is true. You are not alone. There is no shortage of flora and fauna providing essential services for you 24/7. Biologists call these “ecosystem services,” named so because they are services provided to society free-of-charge simply because grassy swales naturally purify drinking water, lakes naturally provide recreation, or fertile soil naturally provides food. In our case, go outside and meet the honking geese, the twittering robins and the welcoming daffodils. Don’t be deceived: they are actually a phalanx of therapists mobilized by God during this time of our crisis.
Outside Magazine: “The Rules for Going Outdoors During Coronavirus”
BBC News: “Coronavirus: How to go for a walk safely, without getting shamed”
by Lowell Bliss
I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat and a dull headache. No running nose. . . yet. No fever. . . yet. No coronavirus reported in our small corner of the huge Ontario province. . . yet. But of course, my symptoms were enough for me to turn to Robynn and say, “Can you lead the book study tonight?; I shouldn’t go.” By the end of the morning, we had received a phone call from one of our most faithful book study members: “Maybe we should cancel altogether?” she said. Linda takes her cues from her a daughter, a health care official in Niagara Falls, who told her on the phone last night, “Mom, you have to start taking this seriously.” Robynn turned around and notified the church office.
It was absolutely the right decision to cancel our Tuesday evening book study, but it brought to mind the appeal I had put on Facebook just last week. The year 2020 is a crucial year for climate action, and I had encouraged all my friends to proliferate book studies using the text our parish is using, namely my friend Ruth Valerio’s Saying Yes to Life: The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2020. Sure, we could have organized a book study around the book that our bishop recommended to the diocese--Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired--but we can read Evans’s book in May or in 2021. Ruth’s book seems to have some time-constraints attached, not the least of which are its Lenten references. More importantly, this is the type of book that we should have been reading as a church back in 1989 when James Hansen first told us that global warming had started. In other words, we can’t afford any further delays in reshaping our thinking on climate change, let alone. . . a cancellation.
And then there was the headline in my newsfeed a couple days ago: “U.N. cancels some meetings ahead of climate summit due to coronavirus.” Face-to-face meetings were supposed to take place in Bonn, Germany this week in preparation for the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland this summer. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented: “Our task is made more difficult by the postponement of many meetings due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. But even as we work to contain and address the virus, we must also look to use every opportunity to build our climate action agenda.” This recalled for me a blog post I had published after the COP25 summit in Madrid. COP26 is the summit where the Paris Agreement is actually set to go into effect. It is the summit where the nations are challenged to arrive in Glasgow with targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions that the scientists themselves could sign off on: namely that these revised targets will allow the world to achieve “carbon neutrality by 2050” and thus stave off the worst suffering that the poor and vulnerable will be facing. Unfortunately, COP25 didn’t get done all the preparatory work that it said it would, in part because they were catching up on work that COP24 in Poland had failed to finish in 2018. We entered COP26’s big year working our way out of a hole. These intersessional meetings are important, so is face-to-face interaction, and now the first important meeting has been cancelled. Here’s how Reuters alerts us to the importance of June’s meetings:
Jennifer Tollmann, a policy adviser with international climate change think tank E3G, said the upcoming meeting that had been due to take place in Bonn in March was a highly technical preparatory session, which should be easier to conduct via videoconference than a much more significant meeting that is still due to take place in Bonn from June 1-11. “If they cancel the June meetings, though, that would be a bigger issue for COP26 and the UK,” Tollmann said, referring to the acronym for the climate summit and its host. The June conference in Bonn is seen as an important opportunity for climate envoys from around the world to find ways to address outstanding issues ahead of the Glasgow summit. The June meeting also represents an opportunity for pre-summit diplomacy for the British hosts, led by Business Minister Alok Sharma, who Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed to lead the Glasgow proceedings last month.
Of course, announcements of cancellations are springing up everywhere. Italy is “cancelled,” for crying out loud, as is, I hope, your plans for that ocean cruise. Harvard University has cancelled classes for after Spring Break. The South by Southwest music festival is cancelled. Athletes are worried about the Summer Olympics in Japan (a decision will be made in May, officials say.) We are all being encouraged to limit our face-to-face interactions, especially with large crowds of people who have crossed borders and regions. The disease control and healthcare officials who are advising this, I find them as believable as Linda’s daughter, and the cancellations as advisable as tonight’s book study. And yet. . .
What about the crucial opportunities that we are losing at this crucial moment where a Skype conference seems like a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions? Last week, Ed Brown told me that the Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network has just cancelled its Middle East Conference. Plans for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which intend to emphasize the severity of our climate emergency are also being re-evaluated.
What does a Christian do when the crucial work of a physical presence gets cancelled?
We’ve known the answer to that question since Sunday School days: we pray. “Work as if it all depends on you; pray as if it all depends on God” may have even been a poster on the wall in your Youth Wing. The coronavirus doesn’t change that equation; it clarifies it. The CDC may be turning our homes into self-quarantine units, but we can turn them into prayer closets, which is a term with an allusion to Matthew 6:10: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Certainly, the CDC would affirm Jesus’s earlier instructions—but for different reasons: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”)
Mountain Rain, the biography of the famous missionary in Burma, J.O. Fraser, tells the story of Fraser’s particular burden for a Lisu village that was among the most isolated on his preaching circuit. It was physically impossible for Fraser the preacher to get to this village as much as he wanted. And yet, he was perpetually surprised to see how vibrant the church in that village was compared to the church in the city where he lived and ministered daily. One day, however, he came to realization, namely that because he couldn’t visit this village as often as he wanted, he found himself praying for those villagers more than he did for his local congregation. Locally, he was relying on his preaching and his energy and his physical presence. In that other village, he was relying more heavily on prayer.
I don’t think that God uses a stopwatch on our prayers, but I do think that part of the mystery of intercessory prayer is bound up in James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask God.” I’m not sure I would be praying for the success of the June Pre-COP26 Intersessional meetings in Bonn if there wasn’t the thought they would be cancelled altogether. I wouldn’t be praying for my parish’s reading of Say Yes to Life!—something that they are doing without me anyway—if I had remained so busy preparing tonight’s lesson plan. Be J.O. the pray-er, if you can’t be J.O. the preacher.
First and foremost in our prayer closets let’s pray for the swift end of the coronavirus pandemic, and for protection on those most vulnerable in our community because of age of pre-existing health conditions. Let’s pray for those who can’t afford to skip work, who don’t have health insurance, or who can’t pay for childcare. Let’s pray for wise and truthful government responses. Let’s not pray for just our families, but also for other countries (e.g. Italy!) including other countries we might consider enemies (e.g. China and Iran.) If you like liturgical prayers and lectio divina, my wife recommended to me this excellent meditation posted today by 24-7prayer: (10 March 2020). When I complained about the extra step of having to download the Lectio 365 app, she just said, “So what? It’s free,” and seemed to wonder why a self-quarantined person like myself should have to worry about a little extra work to do. It’s a wonderful prayer to bookmark. I can imagine returning to it often, and am thrilled to know that written prayers are one way that we can still “gather together” during pandemics.
Having prayed these prayers, let’s also turn to interceding for the crucial work that is being cancelled, for the missed opportunities which are passing by, for the work whose effectiveness seems to be diminished without face-to-face interactions. For example, you can join me now as I pray:
“Creator God, grant our climate negotiators extra grace as they try to conduct March’s business over the internet. Please don’t let June’s meetings be cancelled, and please continue to set COP26 up for success. Use the global outbreak of COVID19 to build into us a humility before natural forces and a vision for global cooperation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Get Arrested on April 23 (or Don’t), but God’s Creation Needs Christians to Begin Acting Experimentally
by Lowell Bliss
As might be expected, Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet begins with an explanation of why the misspelling. He tells the story of the Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968 and their famous photo of our planet entitled “Earthrise.” Commander Frank Borman said that it was “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life.” However, forty three years later, at the publication of his book, McKibben arrives at the conclusion:
As the director of Eden Vigil and the author of Environmental Missions, I spend my time with one foot in traditional Christian missions (evangelism and discipleship) and one foot in creation care. On the missions side, I’ve used McKibben’s conceit to declare that we need to explore new ways of doing missions—that, as per Acts 1:8, we are now called to be witnesses “to the uttermost parts of the Eaarth.” And even the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) gets a new colour scheme, with Jesus promising to be with our disciple-making “lo, to the end of the Anthropocene.”
Here in 2020 however, I pivot to my creation care colleagues and I am surprised to discover that I must say the same thing to them: on April 22, go ahead and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but please, on April 23, be prepared to celebrate the first Eaarth Day. You consider yourself a creation care advocate, perhaps even a climate activist? Praise God. But realize, your faithful and hardworking service is now being conducted on a planet that is different than the one on which you started your work. We spend a lot of time talking about business-as-usual CO2 emissions scenarios (BAU). We need to begin a conversation about BAU creation care strategies and tactics. Recycling, composting, changing lightbulbs, lobbying, writing letters to Congress, letters-to-the-editor, declarations, Days of Prayer, voting, conferences, the occasional sermon-- how’s that working out for you? It is time to experiment with new forms of activism.
The first Earth Day (1970). Francis Schaeffer’s book Pollution and the Death of Man (also 1970). But more in the timeframe of our activism: EEN’s What Would Jesus Drive? campaign (2002), the Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006), Pastor Tri Robinson’s interview with Bill Moyer (2006), Lausanne’s Cape Town Commitment (2010), NAE and Dorothy Boorse’s Loving the Least of These report (2011), Lausanne WEA’s Jamaica Creation Care Call to Action (2012), the Canada/US LWCCN conference at Gordon College (2015), Lausanne Base Camp at COP21 (2015). . . all of these events (and so many others before 2016) represent truly remarkable “Earthrise” moments. We contemplated the beauty of God’s creation and renewed our commitment to be good stewards of it. But we no longer live on that planet.
Likely few of us could contemplate waking up tomorrow, growing out our dreadlocks, inking up some new “tats,” and joining Extinction Rebellion by the end of the day. Certainly, Anglican minister from Sussex, England, David Baker couldn’t. Christianity Today asked him to comment on the Extinction Rebellion protests that were gumming up London commuter traffic in April 2019. It’s a good article, and Baker begins by reassuring us that “he gets it.” His first two points are “we should recognise the overwhelming consensus about climate change, especially if we have yet to do so” and “we should wake up to the fact that Christian campaigning about climate change is a natural outworking of our faith.” But his third point is to ask whether the Extinction Rebellion protests are “justified on this occasion” and his conclusion is “It seems to me on balance not.” Nonetheless, it is Baker’s concluding sentence that intrigues me the most. He writes, “But such would be the effect of unchecked climate change on the planet, especially its poorest and most vulnerable, that I would be open to being persuaded...”
I wrote Baker and asked. Actually, what happened is that Baker posted his article on my friend Ruth Valerio’s Facebook page. Ruth had attended the protest and Baker writes, “I have a lot of sympathy with the passion of the participants, and their willingness to take a stand. I silently cheered when Ruth Valerio of Tearfund wrote on Twitter: ‘So I get the questions around [Extinction Rebellion] but we need large-scale societal change & for that we need agitators as well as reformers.’" I read the article through Ruth’s Facebook page, and wrote a question to Baker in the comment stream: When will that line be crossed for you? What will it take for you to be not only open to persuasion, but actually persuaded to participate as Ruth did? In his article, Baker had included a quotation from Christian political scientist David Koyzis: "Civil disobedience is our very last resort, to be contemplated only with fear and trembling. But by no means can faithful believers rule it out of bounds." Consequently, this is how my actual question to Baker was worded: “Thank you for the article. Here's a serious question: if we take Koyzis's statement as a word to the wise, what set of climate circumstances would indicate for you that it has become a time ‘of last resort’?”
Baker never wrote back. (Fair enough; he doesn’t know me.) I didn’t mean to challenge him, as much as I meant to challenge myself. I was genuinely curious. When have we reached a point in climate neglect, where I myself would be open to try new tactics, things that for whatever reason—probably unfamiliarity and timidity—I have reserved for the category of “last resort”? What about you? The problem is that, as per the old adage, “tomorrow never comes.” Baker’s “the effects of unchecked climate change” always seem to stay one step ahead of us, one step ahead of our BAU activism. I am also challenged by the adage, generally attributed to Einstein, that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Maybe the line we eventually cross is not the pain of unchecked climate change, but rather the frustration of unfruitful climate actions.
One of the reasons we only nibble at the edge of last-resort activities is because we think we need to jump all the way in: dreadlocks, tattoos, and card-carrying ER association. Instead, the Kansas Leadership Center advises a better, more realistic path: we can “act experimentally.” We can begin by beginning. We can dip our toe in and test the water. We can try something new and different. The purpose of what are often called “SMART experiments” is to learn from them, to prepare yourself for a fuller, more effective act of leadership the next time, and the next time, and the next time. There was a time when lobbying my Kansas senators and representative was an experiment, though I did not think about it as such. It thought of it as climate activism, and it was. But I also learned from it—namely that the Koch Brothers, based in Wichita, KS, have such a headlock on these three gentlemen that they are deaf to this particular tactic. I learned that a visit to the Kansas offices on Capitol Hill is an exercise in indignity, where your assigned staffer will reassuringly explain to you how their party leader in the White House has “all the best climates.” Fah!
If you are like me—a white member of the American evangelical tribe, erstwhile or otherwise—then non-violent civil disobedience for the sake of the things you value may be new to you. But admit it: you’ve been intrigued by the idea, haven’t you? And maybe, as Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the ailing Paris Agreement process threaten to narrow traditional democratic options even further, you sense that new tactics of climate action are going to be required sooner rather than later. If so, I’ve got good news for you. There is a SMART experiment in non-violent direct action that is already on the schedule and coming to a location near you. (Save the Date: April 23, 2020). And—the best news of all—a team of veteran Christian creation care leaders, led by Sojourner’s and YECA’s Melody Zhang, is preparing a SMART place specifically for you. I keep using the acronym SMART because the letter S stands for “safe:” as we try new tactics, you can titrate the amount of risk that you want to begin with. You are a beginner. We understand. We bless your curiosity and we applaud your courage in trying something new.
#StoptheMoneyPipeline. That’s the name of the campaign. Here’s your chance to do a deep dive into the leading edge of climate action, and to do it safely. If you are interested in learning more about what is likely the highest leverage strategy to compel fossil fuel companies to “keep it in the ground,” then you can read McKibben’s article in the New Yorker:“Money is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” If you are interested in the data behind the campaign, you can read Rainforest Action Network’s report Banking on Climate Change 2019. Here’s the narrative: Chase Bank is the largest funder of new fossil fuel projects—$196 billion since the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement. On April 23, from sit-ins and prayer-ins at national sites and local sites near you, or in on-line actions, we’ll be sending a message to CEO Jamie Dimon: “Defund Climate Change.” The shortest introduction to the campaign is this 5:12 video by 350.org and The Years Project. In the video you can get a preview of what the April 23rd direct action might look like. You can also hear from Rev. Lennox Yearwood what some of the Christian messaging sounds like. And all of it can lead you to the actual campaign website: https://www.stopthemoneypipeline.com.
But don’t be scared off by the police in the video, or by Jane Fonda and the list of other allies, if you find these things scary. Today’s SMART experiment is simply to “Save the Date” and to remain, like David Baker, “open to persuasion.” The next SMART experiment will be to explore what Melody and our team generate by way of a plan and a website. (Stay tuned.) You will learn that, whereas some people will be risking arrest, many others won’t (including myself who do regular border crossings on a brand new Canadian Permanent Resident card.) You will be provided training so that you will know what to expect. Equally as important, you will be provided with some good old-fashioned discipleship and Bible study. What is a Christian approach to an action like April 23rd’s? God has created the planet to be a house of prayer for himself, but polluters have participated in turning it into a den of thieves. You have a zeal for caring for God’s creation. If, on April 23rd, we are going to re-captiulate our Master’s confrontation with the money changers (cf. Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2) then we dare not do so as just a religious gimmick to grab a cheap headline. Only an authentic engagement with our faith and with the Scriptures beforehand will give us the authority to say to Jamie Dimon: “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; defund climate change now!” Our team is grateful to Brian Webb of Climate Caretakers for launching the exploration of this idea and for organizing our first conference call with Bill McKibben. Kudos to Brian as well for discovering this quotation from Rev. Jim Antal: “We need to make civil disobedience a normative expression of Christian discipleship, just like prayer is a normative expression of Christian faith.” We can act experimentally even with Rev. Antal: you don’t have buy his statement today hook-line-and-sinker, but would you be willing to “rent” it for the next two months?
So, please join us on this journey. And if you are a leader of a church, creation care organization, or ministry, please consider joining the coalition that Melody is forming, and bringing your constituency smartly along. Some of you are already diving headfirst in the #StoptheMoneyPipeline campaign. You are familiar with this type of activism. We bless your faithful courage and zeal. But for the rest of us, and the rest of our organizations: please consider the possibility that the Eaarth of the year 2021 (as soon as that: namely, post-US elections, post-COP26) will have burned through our BAU options as effectively as a California wildfire through the town of Paradise. Christians won’t be ready for non-violent civil disobedience then, if we haven’t acted experimentally now.
Save the Date. Stay tuned. Write me with questions if you wish: email@example.com
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.”