[Editor’s Note: It’s summer and we’re gonna talk baseball, but not until we recognize the anguish of those who feel like they are always striking out. Lowell continues his series in “lowering the heat” on those emotionally exhausted by too little progress in creation care and environmental missions. Content in this article was first released in Lowell’s video series on Hope: “Episode 35: Targets and the Future Perfect Tense.”]
by Lowell Bliss
[Kim Cobb] had been taking these sorts of research trips for two decades, and over recent years she had witnessed about 85 percent of the island’s reef system perish due to rising ocean temperatures. “I was diving with tears in my eyes,” she recalls.
David Corn has written an excellent article this month in Mother Jones entitled, “It’s the End of the World as They Know It: The distinct burden of being a climate scientist.” When’s the last time you’ve read a piece about the emotional life of scientists? That’s the point: never! But what must it be like to be Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, making one more trip to Christmas Island, a place you love, faithfully recording all that has been lost, fully cognizant of the projections for ocean acidification and coral bleaching?
We may be more familiar with Katherine Wilkinson’s emotional plight. Her job is to communicate the findings of scientists and to motivate the public to take action. Wilkinson “makes a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying ‘they care about it’ but not engaging in meaningful action: ‘That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’ She has noticed that almost everyone in her line of work seems ‘to have one dark emotion that is dominant. For some, it’s anger or rage. For me, it’s deep grief—having eyes wide open to what is playing out in our world, and we have a lukewarm response to it. There is no way for me not to have a broken heart most days.’” I posted the Mother Jones article on my Facebook page and fairly quickly heard back from an old friend, a man who has been involved in creation care advocacy for over three decades. Dean Ohlman wrote, “As one who has been a long-time Christian creation care advocate (for 30 years), my emotions match the emotions of the scientists quoted here. Grief, anger, resignation, and wild hope flood over me willy-nilly--hope being in the minority at the moment.”
In the article, one climate scientist finally posed a question right back to Corn, the reporter: “‘What are we to do with that grief?’ Professionally coping with grief is part of the job training for doctors, caregivers, and those working in humanitarian or crisis situations. But for scientists? ‘It’s a subject rarely broached,’ she says.’"
What are we to do with that grief? Or with that anger, resignation, wild hope, rage, or broken heart—as others have described it above? We are in the middle of a series (which began here) on how to raise the heat on the as-of-yet-unmobilized public while simultaneously lowering it on ourselves, lest we burn out. In the last post, I spoke of three immediate measures for ourselves. Today we’ll begin to consider some larger paradigm shifts for the sake of emotional health and endurance. The creation care movement cannot afford to lose you, not at this critical moment.
Let’s first admit the pain inherent in our climate targets. I am of the opinion that the world has lost the opportunity of limiting warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius target. In other words, I have no hope for this target. I believe that my opinion can be scientifically argued. I believe that my hopelessness, with a little help from Walter Brueggemann and Jacques Ellul, can be theologically argued. Nonetheless, it’s where I’m at, and it’s what I feel. And I am sad about it. I have visited the Maldives. Its average elevation is one meter above sea-level. When now-deposed President Mohammed Nasheed went to the COP 15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, he pleaded with the other parties: anything above a 1.5°C warming will result in a sea-level rise which will cause the extinction of my country, he said.
My grief also has me thinking about future climate targets. The Paris Climate Agreement, birthed seven years after Copenhagen, saw fit to mention the 1.5°C target. It was too insensitive, too despairing not to. But the Agreement holds the 1.5°C target out as an ambition. The true target is to prevent a 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the total of all the nations’ Nationally Determined Contributions (what are called NDCs for short) does not add up to preventing a 2.5°C degree warming let alone a 2.0 degree one. And then the further bad news: that no major industrialized nation: not France, not Germany, not Canada—no country is on track to meet their targets.
So where do we go emotionally from here, when we face the prospect of coming up to a desired target only to see it recede past us beyond hope of ever reaching it again? Compelled by the love of God, the first thing we do is we make the brave statement: each 0.5 degree increase in warming is worth fighting against, because the amount of suffering of our fellow human beings, the amount of devastation of ecosystems is increased exponentially. For example, the scientists at Climate Central unveiled their “Surging Seas” project at COP 21. I caught their presentation. They know the topography of the planet coastlines and the cities that we have built along them. They also know the extent of sea level rise through the thermal expansion of the oceans—water molecules expand when heated—and from the added water from glacial and icepack melt—that is, ice that once was on land, but has now slid into the oceans. So, for example, they can map out which city blocks in San Francisco or Kolkata or Tianjin would be underwater. They also know that if average global temperatures reach a certain level, that “locks in” a certain level of sea-level rise, though there is no way of knowing when exactly that sea level rise will be experienced. To illustrate, the lead scientists had a big block of ice brought into our meeting room, the lecture hall of the National Oceanographic Society of France. “We all know,” he told us, “that this block of ice now in the room will eventually melt. We simply cannot say whether it will be completely melted in one hour or two or two-and-half.” Fair enough. “But mind you,” he said, “nonetheless the melting and sea-level rise is locked in, the moment the temperature threshold is crossed.”
If, under our current business-as-usual scenario, average global temperatures reach 4°C warming, Climate Central projects that 600 million people will be displaced and millions more affected even beforehand due to increased storm surges and flooding. If, however, we can keep warming to the 2°C target, that number of people displaced is cut by half, and if we could keep it down to 1.5, that number is halved again. Each 0.5 degree target, even if we must grieve the loss of the lower ones, is worth fighting for. We may be entering a period of great despair as it becomes, first obvious that the 1.5°C target is beyond our reach, and then when it begins to seem unlikely that the 2.0°C target is reachable. People may be in danger of . . . giving up.
Here's where an illustration from Major League Baseball may prove helpful. Orel Hershiser was a pitcher for seventeen years in the Major Leagues, most notably for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three-time All Star, Cy Young Award winner, World Series Champ, MVP. In 1988, Hershiser set a major league record by pitching 58 consecutive innings without allowing a single run. He was phenomenal. In 1990, Pulitzer-prize winning commentator George Will wrote a book entitled Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. He devotes a chapter to interviews with Hershiser and entitled it “The Pitcher, Orel Hershiser, In the Future Perfect Tense.”
What makes a good pitcher great? Well, catcher Rick Dempsey has a theory about what makes a good pitcher bad? Dempsey says, “There are pitchers who, when you score a run off them, you can see you’ve ruined their perfect day and they lose their competitive edge. Then the dam breaks and they give up six, seven runs.”
Will asks Hershiser if when he goes to mound in the first inning if he plans to pitch a complete game—all nine innings, all 27 outs. No, Hershiser replies. He goes into a game planning to pitch a “perfect game,” which is a complete game where no opposing batter ever makes it to first base, either as the result of a hit, a walk, or being struck with the ball. It’s a perfect game for a pitcher. In the 140 years of professional baseball, in over 210,000 games, there have been only 23 perfect games ever pitched. The last one was in 2012 by Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. Orel Hershiser is not among those 23 pitchers who ever pitched a perfect game, but nonetheless that’s the mentality he always brought to his first pitch of a game.
So, then what happens, Mr. Hershiser, if you do find an opposing batter on first base, if as Rick Dempsey explains, a batter gets past you and you have your “perfect day” ruined? Do you lose your competitive edge? Does the dam break and then you give up six, seven runs?
Hershiser explains, “If they get a hit, then I am throwing a one-hitter.” If they get a walk, it’s my last walk. I deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
Consider all the targets that Hershiser can imagine: He starts with a vision for a perfect game. If a batter walks, he lost the perfect game target, but can still hope for a no-hitter. If someone gets a hit, then he can hope that the runner never advances. Hershiser hopes for what’s called a “shut-out,” where the opposing team never scores a run. If a batter scores, well then, he can hope to keep it to a one run game, or then two runs. We can end our imagining of the future perfect tense there because Hershiser finished his 1988 Champion season with an Earned Run Average of 2.26, giving up less than three runs per game on average.
This is what George Will labels the “Future Perfect Tense.” “We deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
The stakes are so much higher with climate change and environmental missions. If Hershiser ended up losing a game, he could always say, “That’s history; there’s always my next outing.” If the Dodgers blow the season, he could always say, as the old Brooklyn Dodgers did before him, “Wait till next year.” When it comes to climate change targets, we all need to doubly equip ourselves with the future perfect tense. Our current targets of 1.5 and 2.0 are worth fighting for, and will have been worth fighting for, if we must grieve and let them go. But so will 2.5 and 3.0 if, heaven forbid, it should come to that. Hope gives us courage to never give up. I have a modified a definition of Walter Brueggemann’s for hope: “Hope is a bold conviction about an alternative possibility for the future in and through a good, free, and sovereign God.” That “alternative possibility” is the future perfect tense, and we live into it one pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one inning at a time.
by Lowell Bliss
In the months of May and June, before the monsoon rains had come, we were always so careful when we ventured out into the bazaars of Varanasi, India. Temperatures often reached 45°C (113°F) and you knew that exposure could be lethal. If you didn’t go do your errands in the morning, then you waited until the sun began to set before you went outside. And you always, always, ALWAYS carried a water bottle with you. I can no longer remember the reason that took me out to Lanka bazaar so close to 12 noon, and I don’t remember whether I had already finished all my water or if I had just forgotten to bring it with me in the first place, but I can still picture the hot light radiating off the whitewashed concrete walls of the Gandhi Khadi Emporium, and I can remember beginning to swoon. I was in trouble.
But then a phrase of Scripture came to my rescue.
My devotional practice at the time was to start my morning with a random Psalm. I would literally flip open the Psalms and land on some chapter and say, “Okay, I guess I’m reading this one today.” That very morning I had landed on Psalm 121. It is a “Song of Ascents,” in other words, a song for those who are travelling out in the elements toward some prized destination.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever (NASB).
I knew I was in trouble and I repeated the words even though I can’t claim to have memorized them: “The Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun will not smite me by day.” I’ve had a handful of mystical experiences in my lifetime and this was one of them. I immediately felt refreshed, strong, hydrated even. I made it to a shop to buy water. I walked home. I walked into a new understanding of the power of the words of God. They are sustenance.
The headline in my news feed last week read "Are parts of India becoming too hot for humans?” The article included a satellite heat map from NASA and the deepest red section looked like a lake of fire spread across the Gangetic plain. Delhi was listed on the map at 48°C, Lucknow at 48°C, and Patna at 45°C. (Varanasi is located halfway between Lucknow and Patna on the map.) I know that it is confusing to use the language of “raising the heat” when talking about environmental mission’s concern for global warming impacts on the peoples of this world. Isn’t the whole point that we want to keep the average global temperature increase as low as possible? But “raising the heat” is leadership language (which you can catch up on by reading the two previous articles in this blog). When a leader “raises the heat,” he or she induces disequilibrium among the people he or she hopes to mobilize. Human beings grow complacent over time and sometimes, to use an apt idiom, a fire needs to be built under them to make them care, to encourage them to move up into the productive zone.
Yet, as we discussed last week, we’ve got a unique problem at this moment of mobilizing people to care for God’s creation. The strategy that many of us are using to “raise the heat” is to relentlessly report on every climate-related disaster out there. We seek to report accurately but also passionately, to describe if not the depth of the current tragedy than the scope of the potential one. Hence, such headlines about the inhabitability of our world’s second most populous country, the lethality of the home where the most number of unreached people groups reside. The problem however is twofold: 1) our strategy is failing to raise the heat on those not-yet-mobilized for environmental missions, while 2) this one-and-the-same strategy is “too hot” for those of us who are already mobilized and who are employing the strategy. Many of us are yielding to the fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms that naturally kick in when the heat crosses “the limit of tolerance.” We are in danger of burning out.
Future blog posts will look at brainstorming new strategies at raising the heat among the great mass of the public stuck in work avoidance, but first, let’s consider how we can lower the temperature on ourselves. How can we ease ourselves back down into the Productive Zone? Spread out over as many blog postings as we need, here are some actions you can take to lower the temperature on yourself and your colleagues. They will get more profound as we go along, including unpacking the promises of a psalm like 121, but today here are some emergency measures to get quickly rehydrated:
1. Believe that “Take Care of Yourself” is also a leadership strategy
Reportedly, missionary statesman C.T. Studd declared: “It is better to burn out than to rust out.” I reject this sentiment. In my mind, “out” is still out, whether it is from rusting or from burning. The parched and unreached peoples of places like India can’t afford for any of us to be “out.” The Kansas Leadership Center is the source of whatever I am teaching about “Raising the Heat,” but this is not the only leadership competency or skill that KLC teaches in the packaged whole. It is also important that a leader “Take Care of Self.” Business guru Stephen Covey used to explain the balance between “production” and “production capacity” with the fable of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. However unflattering it might be: you are that goose, and the work you produce is a true source of wealth to those who are suffering. As the goose, your body and soul are governed by natural rhythms and limitations. You are constitutionally incapable of rising to the challenge of every headline that comes across your newsfeed. Unfortunately in the parable, you are also the peasant farmer—and it doesn’t have to be greed, it can be your upbringing, your overwrought compassion, your Enneagram type, or any host of things—but your inner peasant farmer can be a taskmaster on yourself, demanding that you work harder and longer, that you ignore the heat, that you slit yourself open in search of golden eggs that just aren’t there yet.
I have monthly appointments with a spiritual director out of Colorado Springs and my drivenness is often a topic of our conversations, because while I know in my head, based on KLC training, that “Take Care of Self” is an important component in accomplishing my work goals, my heart still seems to believe that my worth to God is based on how much I can produce by 5 PM each day. From where I stand as a creation care leader, I believe that our newsfeeds are going to get a lot worse before they get better. My advice: some of the most important work you can do right now is build your own capacity, and even work on resolving whatever inner issues will prevent you from being there for people when they need you most.
2. Take a break.
It’s been a busy summer with my wife Robynn and I working different travel schedules. She came back from a trip, heard my tale of woe of an unproductive week and said, “You need to go the mountains.” And I replied, “I need to go to the mountains.” From our new home in Ontario, it was a short trip to the Adirondacks, where I introduced myself to the ADK 46, the forty-six peaks in upstate New York above 4000 feet in elevation. By the time I had hiked my second one, I felt so renewed I almost laid a golden egg right there on the trail. We all know about vacations. It’s important to plan them and protect them and design them to be restorative and re-creative.
And there are other types of breaks one can take. Most breaks from Facebook that I hear about either a) take place during Lent, or b) are announced catastrophically, such as “Facebook is evil and only adds to my stress.” But you can take short breaks from Facebook or from your newsfeed on a regular basis. Take a week off. Or limit yourself to checking Facebook or your newsfeed to a specific hour of the day, and preferably not first thing in the morning.
If you need to cancel a conference, or get off a team, or re-negotiate an unreasonable deadline, or “fail” at a project for maybe the first time in your life—then please do so. Breaks are just that: breaks. They will be over. You will be back, stronger and healthier.
3. As a “Wounded Healer,” learn to grieve regularly.
Henri Nouwen—priest, psychiatrist, and author—introduces his concept of the “Wounded Healer” by recounting a tale from the Talmud:
"Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave. . . . He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”
For our purposes, Nouwen’s point is fourfold: 1) that the Messiah himself is wounded, and so are all those who wish to be his servants in the healing that he offers to the world. Crucifixions are real. We all have open wounds that are not yet staunched, not yet scarred over, and not yet beatified in glory. Don’t fight them, but instead realize that this is your solidarity with the poor among whom the Messiah sits. 2) The compassion of the Messiah means that he does not want to delay for a single moment in caring for the poor. He shares the same urgency that you have. The heat is raised. 3) In his wisdom, he knows that he must bind up his own wounds, that it is good and right that he attend to his sorrows, but 4) also in his wisdom, he has learned that he need not attend to his wounds like the others do. They unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. He however unbinds and then binds up one at a time. I would argue that the Messiah in this fable has learned to grieve regularly. He has in fact developed what I think we should call, “a discipline of grief.”
It is too flippant to say that he has learned to “grieve on the fly” because that makes it sound like he is too busy to grieve, and is just putting it off until a more convenient, less busy time. It may be true for you that part of your “taking a break” is to take a grief break, where you bind up more than just one wound. In the end though you will want to learn this discipline of regular grief. My seventeen-year daughter is one of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. I mean she is preternaturally so. Occasionally, seemingly out of the blue, she will announce, “I need to cry for a while.” Robynn and I will ask “why?” and sometimes she knows the reason why and sometimes she doesn’t, but she’ll excuse herself for a moment to go weep. The discipline of grief does not mean that we can schedule our grief, like we do our daily devotions. Grief follows its own schedule, and we have to be disciplined enough not to close the door on it when it knocks. If we learn to open that door regularly, we quickly learn that while grief knocks loudly as if threatening to overwhelm us, her visit inside is peaceful. She removes her cloak and reveals the baby she is carrying, a child named hope.
by Lowell Bliss
Then there was the Thursday morning back in the Fall of 1983 when my classmates at Moody Bible Institute woke up to find their hallways plastered with a poster that simply read “55.” In Student Missions Fellowship, we had found a number (probably in Mission Frontiers magazine—thank you, former US Center for World Mission) and we were determined to promote its significance.
Circa 2007, a group of students at Middlebury College in Vermont led by Prof. Bill McKibben found their own number, 350, in the testimony given at a congressional hearing (thank you, Dr. Jim Hansen). 350 parts-per-million is the threshold of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after which the climate would begin to change in ways unfamiliar to established civilization. The students were intent on creating a global movement and thought that numbers translate into all languages better than words, so they named their organization, 350.org. Today 350.org is arguably the world’s leader in grassroots climate action.
Back at Moody, we not only had posters; we also had paper buttons and straight pins: “55.” We’d hand them to our friends. “Here, will you wear this?” “Sure, what does it mean?” We didn’t bother to answer yet. Some students speculated: “A long weekend is coming up, and they want us to drive safely” (i.e., the speed limit at the time). As the morning progressed, I sought out the chair of the Missions Department in his office, the venerable J. Ray Tallman, whom I knew was in charge of campus-wide chapel that day.
“Dr. Tallman, this is getting out of hand. May I have a few minutes at the beginning of chapel to resolve this thing?”
And so that put me in front of the student body to explain that, according to the US Center for World Mission, 55 is the number of people who die every minute without having once heard the story of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, in any meaningful way. A suitably somber air fell over Torrey-Gray auditorium, and if you were sitting close enough to the clock on the balcony, you could hear it tick away one more minute. Dr. Tallman had asked me to pray as well, and I hadn’t thought it through, it just came intuitively, but I asked everyone who was wearing a button to take it off, and everyone who spotted a poster that day to take it down. “Let’s ask God to imprint this number on our hearts instead,” I said and then we prayed together for unreached people groups. Student Missions Fellowship that day had successfully “raised the heat” on our campus, and then we had done another important thing: we had kept the heat in the productive zone.
On this blog, I’ve started a new series on the leadership skill of “Raising the Heat” on those we wish to mobilize for environmental missions and creation care. You can read last week’s post for the graph and the explanation, but let me review using the analogy of microwave popcorn. It is silly, of course, to accuse a popcorn kernel of “work avoidance,” but there it sits in the bag, hard and uncracked. And so, we literally must raise the heat on it. At some point, the heat is high enough to take the kernels past “the threshold of change.” The “productive zone” is that noisily joyous period of white, tasty fluffiness that results. We also know that it is possible for things to get “TOO HOT!”—which in microwave terms means leaving the bag in too long. In my opinion, few things can stink up an office or dorm kitchen more than a burned bag of microwave popcorn. Consequently, the Kansas Leadership Center, from where I have learned this material, explains that “raising the heat” isn’t the only necessary leadership skill. One must also become adept at “taking the temperature.” And let’s remember that we are using the word “heat” colloquially. It isn’t necessarily the same thing as “energy,” as if the unmobilized can simply be rallied with a good pep talk. Our graph uses the word “disequilibrium,” a sense of getting momentarily knocked out of a resting state, releasing inertial energy, beginning to molecularly vibrate like a popcorn kernel hit by a microwave. There may even be some pain involved. “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” This was said by Cesar A. Cruz, a Mexican poet and human rights activist. (A funny sidenote: I had always assumed that this saying was attributable to Charles Spurgeon speaking about sermons.)
Our “55” posters and buttons raised the heat on world evangelization, both in their mysterious appearance and then in their somber reveal. Keeping the posters up for the rest of the day however would likely have changed the heat and brought students out of the productive zone. Some people would have found the whole scene too morbid, the heat “too hot,” and their reflections would have turned to fight, flight, or freeze. For others, the moment would have passed, and the remaining posters and buttons would have been subjected to some lighthearted graffiti, the unreached people groups forgotten. Invoking God to imprint this number on our hearts instead was a way of keeping the heat up in the productive zone as long as possible. After all, we were talking to God who knew each of those 55 people personally from the last minute, and who had called us all to MBI for the very purpose of his Great Commission. Of course, that was the Fall Semester of 1984; by the Spring semester, we in SMF had to once again put our heads together: how do we raise the heat again?
I love the story of 350.org’s branding. Establishing a deadline or a “line-in-the-sand” is a wonderful technique for raising the heat. They could also begin talking about the dread consequences (heatwaves, sea level rise, flooding, etc.) that we risk in crossing that threshold. Invoking the seriousness of science (Dr. Hansen’s finding) was another good ploy. And then from the outset saying that “we are going global” must have communicated to McKibben’s students: “this is not just a Middlebury College class project.” Nowadays however, I think 350.org’s name is part of a unique moment that we are all experiencing when it comes to “raising the heat” for climate action. First, its name fails to mobilize like it used to, or I should say that it fails to mobilize anyone other than those who were primed to be mobilized in the first place, the low hanging fruit, an example of the law of diminishing returns. In May of 2019, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at 414.83 ppm. We aren’t going back to 350 ppm in our lifetimes, and 350.org, in its branding at least, has given us no other compelling vision than that we should not let it get as bad as it could. Appeals to science no longer generate any more heat than a half-used Bunsen burner. 350.org knows this, and they are actually quite good at raising the heat in new ways that keep their members up in the productive zone, and that try, once again, to move the recalcitrant towards the threshold of change. Civil disobedience raises the heat. Divestment campaigns raise the heat on universities, state pension systems, and individual investors which then raises the heat on fossil fuel companies to transition away from coal and oil.
Nonetheless, the second way that 350.org’s branding illustrates a unique moment for all of us in raising the heat on climate action, is that while for some the heat is too low, for others the heat is too high. The unmobilized look at the number 350 and think nothing; it does not move them. I look at that number and it hurts. I’ve been involved in climate action since returning from India in 2007 and 350 is the number of my powerlessness and failure. I look to Jim Hansen like a father figure and lament, “I miss the world that we used to know and, that we will never regain, and that I will never pass on to my children.” 350 is the number of my despair.
So that is our unique moment: well-worn strategies that we keep using to try and raise the heat on the unmobilized do little for them, yet then contribute to the burn-out of the rest of us. It’s like we have a a sourdough loaf and a Baked Alaskan in the same oven at the same time. Let me give a more explicit and widely-felt example using a totally different number: 45.1 (or 113.2, if you like.) That’s the record temperature in Celsius (or Fahrenheit) that the village of Villevieille, France achieved on Friday. I know because that is the report that 350.org and so many of my colleagues, including myself, posted on Facebook this week. Unprecedented. Deadly. The threat of a “new normal.” Even Pope Francis raised the heat on us who are religious by stepping out into St. Peter’s Square and praying for the sick, the old, construction workers and other outdoor labourers. “May no one be abandoned or exploited,” he asked of God.
If it had been a typhoon in the Philippines, we would have reposted about that. If it had been flooding in Kansas, we would have posted on that. If it had been a freak hail storm in Mexico. . . oh yes, we did report on that, just as we reported on June 2019 being the hottest month in recorded history, or about wildfires in Spain, or about precipitous ice loss in Antarctica, or about mussels already cooked in their shells along the California shore. Or here’s a number: 7,140. That’s the size of the Amazon rainforest (“a football pitch’s worth”) that BBC reports is being cleared every minute by Jair Bolsonaro’s new development campaign in Brazil. Hopefully each of these new stories reaches one new audience segment in a unique and compelling way (Francophiles perhaps, or mussel-eaters) but it seems to me that these stories of disaster and threat fail to mobilize people fast enough and in large enough numbers to rise to the climate change in time. Meanwhile, the barrage of these stories threatens to overwhelm the very ones using them in order to mobilize.
In the weeks to come, let’s brainstorm together new strategies for mobilizing others for environmental missions and creation care. Nonetheless, I intend to begin by exploring strategies and techniques on lowering the heat on ourselves first. How can we avoid fight, flight, and freeze and instead ease ourselves back down into the productive zone of our callings? How can we serve our colleagues who teeter on the edge of despair?
by Lowell Bliss
All my leadership training indicates that we work according to “heat.” In frontier missions, when the people groups are hidden away on the other side of the globe: no heat on us. But when we take a fresh look at the heart of God in the scriptures, when the Holy Spirit confronts us with what we believe about the Great Commission: heat, energy to be mobilized ourselves and to mobilize others.
In mobilizing for creation care, you would think that heat wouldn’t be a problem; it’s called “global warming” after all. Yet, here we encounter another difficulty in exercising the leadership skill of “raising the heat” in order to “mobilize others to make progress on daunting challenges” (the definition I use for leadership.) Ten years ago, about the time when An Inconvenient Truth was released, our strategy to raise the heat was built around describing climate change projections: this is what [has a statistically high likelihood] of happening if we don’t act now to reduce our carbon emissions. For some people, this was enough heat to get busy. It certainly was for me when I saw the projections of the heat waves and glacial melt and drought or flooding that would happen to the people and people groups I loved in India. But for most of the public, this was insufficient heat. Projections are too easily dismissed: only "likely" future events based on "questionable" scientific models, we said. All our attention was focused on the global recession instead.
Nowadays our strategy of raising the heat is to report on what is happening RIGHT NOW!!!! Here’s just a sampling of my news feed this morning: Chennai has run out of water; some farmers in the Midwest are still unable to plant their fields due to flooding; a deadly heatwave has descended on Northern Europe; wildfires rage in Alberta; and record single-day ice melt occurs in Greenland. You would think that this daily onslaught of news reports would accomplish what mere projections could not, but no, my impression is that we overestimate the number of people who are even listening any more. It is possible to raise the heat TOO high, in which case even the most well-intentioned of citizens will choose fight (“Credible Threat of Militia Violence Shuts Down Emissions Reduction Vote in Oregon”) or flight (“Stranger Things 3 comes to Netflix in July”) or freeze (“Lowell Bliss sits Blankly in Front of His Computer and has No Clue What to Say.”). That last one may as well be a headline too.
The trick for leaders who choose not to give up is to monitor the dynamics of heat closely and then raise or lower it skillfully so as to keep people in the “productive zone.” Let me explain the theory while giving all due credit to the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and to the work of Ron Heifitz, Marty Linsky, and others at Cambridge Leadership Associates.
In the illustration above, the y-axis is labelled “disequilibrium,” or, the heat or energy to overcome inertia and begin to get some work done. The x-axis represents the passage of time. Many problems we encounter are “technical problems;” they can be quickly solved by just throwing enough expertise or money at them. Like the green line shows, most technical problems (e.g., a broken arm or worn brake pads) start with a high level of pain—“Solve it NOW!”—but then as we locate a doctor or a mechanic, the heat falls pretty quickly and so we need to give no undue thoughts to limbs or brake shoes. Would that frontier missions or climate change were technical problems, that there were quick technological fixes, but instead these challenges are classic examples of what KLC calls “adaptive challenges.” Adaptative challenges have long-time frames which one never really “solves” as much as “makes progress on.” Adaptative challenges require leaders to be learners, to engage multiple stakeholders, and to act experimentally rather than act efficiently. It’s messy. Often adaptive challenges—find the rising and falling blue line in the graph—start out with very little heat. They aren’t on anyone’s radar screen, save perhaps for a missiologist like Ralph Winter or a climatologist like James Hansen. The responsibility of these early leaders is to “raise the heat” on the issue sufficiently above what can be called “the threshold of change.” Think of the saying: “A person will only change when it is too painful not to.”
Crossing the threshold of change puts our people into the productive zone. Below that threshold and we battle “work avoidance.” There’s no motivation or stimulus to do anything. Think of the other idiom of “building a fire under someone” in order to get them to produce. But adaptative challenges unfold over time, and so we encounter changing circumstances and the natural rhythms of human emotion and energies. Sometimes the heat can get too hot and people are pushed above “the limit of tolerance.” It’s not reflected in the illustration, but fight, flight, and freeze, I believe, act like a plummeting elevator which drops people quickly down to work avoidance. In other words, people don’t normally ease themselves back down into the productive zone. (Not that there aren’t techniques for an effective leader to keep his or her people from plunging down through the bottom—but that’s a different part of the KLC training.)
So where would you say that frontier missions is on this chart in relation to, for example, Frontier Ventures’ vision statement “to see movements to Jesus which express the fullness of the kingdom of God among all peoples.” Where is the Great Commission church in relation to the productive zone?
And where would you say that creation care in the North American evangelical church is in relation to the productive zone? We likely need to diversify our answer, so: where would you plot yourself in relation to the task of mobilizing yourself and others to care for God’s creation during a time of ecological crisis? Where are your colleagues? Where is your church, or your pastor? Where are our mission agencies? Where are your traditionally-Republican or conservative voting friends? Where are your more progressive or leaning-Democratic voting friends, especially heading into this week's first primary debates?
Once we can plot ourselves and understand the dynamic of heat, we can, as we will in future blog posts, look at some of the techniques of lowering the heat or raising it. The 8.6 million Hindus, Muslims and other human beings in the Chennai agglomeration badly need us all to plant ourselves solidly in the productive zone.
by Lowell Bliss
This blog post is the last bit of work that I will do before going down to the basement and collecting my backpack and camping gear. I’m headed to the mountains. From our new home here in Ontario, I’m equal distance from the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies. I don’t know yet if I’ll turn east or west once I cross the border. My trip is something of a send-off by my wife, who has been worried about my emotional endurance. “Where can I find happiness?” the Boy Who Spoke to the Earth asks in the illustrated children’s book by the same name.
"'The journey to happiness is difficult, but I can show you the way,' said the Earth. 'Are you willing to make the journey?'
'Oh, I am,' said the Boy, and he meant it."
Robynn had just returned from a Frontier Ventures event in Pasadena, and we were sitting on the couch while she, in turn, listened to my week. “You should get away,” she said. “We’ve been talking about you going hiking. Either do it or don’t do it, but you need to make a decision.” She then walked into her office and came back with a children’s book.
“I found this at the Santa Monica Mountains Visitors Center.” Robynn is a spiritual director and is always on the look-out for children’s books to use in her practice. The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth is written by award-winning photographer Chris Burkard and illustrated by David McClellan. Dreamling Books, the publisher, released this YouTube preview in 2015.
The Earth sends the Boy on a journey: to the ocean, to the waterfalls, to the forests, to the desert, to the mountains, and to the top of the world. The Boy variously “wades and wanders,” “steps and strides,” or “hikes and hauls” as he leaves each landscape behind. “I see the water and the shells,” said the Boy as he leaves the ocean, “but I don’t see happiness.”
The Boy speaks again to the Earth and the Earth simply asks, “My Boy, did you look without seeing?” The Earth sends the Boy back along the trail: “but this time,” the Earth tells him, “stand still for just a moment.”
It’s no spoiler to tell you that the next six double-page spreads contain no words at all. The Boy is simply set as a small and silent figure in some of the most glorious drawings I’ve ever seen in a children’s book. The reader can’t help but “stand still for just a moment” before each page.
I don’t know what I will be looking at in the Adirondacks or the Alleghenies--I don't even know what range I will choose--but my wife, writer Chris Burkard, illustrator David McClellan, and the Earth itself have just reminded me to stand still for a moment and “see” for a change. Do you have vacation or travel plans this summer? May you find what the Boy finds in the same way that he finds it. (And may your spouse or friend buy you this book at the earliest convenience.)
by Lowell Bliss
I’m an American now residing in Canada who lived for fourteen years in India, and still I don’t know Celsius. I think the reason is that while kilometers can be travelled, and liters can be bought, degrees Celsius are felt. We absorb that knowledge through our skin. “Boy, it’s hot outside,” we say, and an Indian and Canadian can tell you: “Yes, it’s almost 40.”
Actually, besides 0 (“freezing”) and -40 (where the two scales converge), 40 degrees Celsius was the one temperature reading I knew how to convert to Fahrenheit. It equals 104°F. It was close enough to 100 for me to know both rationally and experientially that a trip to the bazaar that afternoon would be excruciating. It was also the thermometer reading that we young parents feared the most for our feverish children. Nowadays however, if we had remained in India, it seems that we would have to come to grips with a new number: 50°C. This week in pre-monsoon North India, temperatures are hovering around and above 50°C, which is 122°F. Welcome to the unwelcomed new normal of climate change where 11 of the 15 warmest years on record in India have all occurred since 2004.
We left in 2007, but we still knew the India heat. During our first June in Varanasi (in 1995), we ran a desert cooler in our bedroom, but one night I had to get up in the middle of the night and walk across the marble floors of the living room to get to the bathroom. I advertently touched one of our cloth curtains and immediately jerked my hand away. It was hot to the touch, obviously not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to spark an instinctual response, like if you touched the edge of a stove but not the burner itself. I remember stopping, looking at the fabric, and thinking, “That’s it; we’ve gone past the point of no return.” Fortunately, that next day the long-anticipated monsoon rains came and temperatures dropped.
Fast forward two decades and I am now a certified Climate Leader with the Climate Reality Project, which means that I have been trained by Vice President Al Gore himself to give the latest version of his slide show made famous as “An Inconvenient Truth.” In 2016, his daughter Karenna invited me to a conference to be on a panel with her dad entitled “The Gospel and the Ecological Crisis.” I went to New York a day early because I wanted to catch Mr. Gore giving his slide show to these faith leaders. He has a staff which revises the show on a weekly basis, incorporating new photos and graphs from the latest headlines and the latest science. This show would additionally be geared to a faith-based audience.
I’m sitting five rows back and toward a corner, as befits an unobtrusive auditor. The lights are dimmed. I’m tracking the Vice President through some familiar talking points. And then he turns his attention to the latest heatwave in India. “It’s so hot,” he says, “the streets of New Delhi are literally melting.” Then he shows a short video clip of an older Indian woman crossing the street. I could “feel” the scene. In New Delhi, you must cross quickly since the traffic will close the gap soon. This woman is an “Auntie” like any other I had known. She is wearing a polyester saree and walking with the grace and dignity that only Indian women can convey in conveying themselves. She was wearing rubber chappals, what you and I call “flip flops.” Suddenly, in the video clip, one of her chappals gets stuck and her bare foot steps down into the black, mucky tar of the road. I and the rest of the audience cringe. She reaches down to try and retrieve it but then stumbles again. She looks up to make sure no traffic is coming. Finally, she abandons it altogether and hobbles through the hot tar to the side of the road.
The whole audience cringed, but I uncontrollably burst into tears. The two men sitting around me were polite enough not to notice, but I had let out an audible sob before I got back under control. I didn’t know this woman, but I knew aunties like her. I had loved aunties like her. Her pain hurt me. And I know this is funny to say, but I had also known chappals, or rather I had known what was lost in abandoning one, what it was like to cross the ground unprotected. Once I was visiting my friend John in Bengali Tola, an old and poor section of Varanasi. We passed by the door outside one of the rooms on the second floor and I saw a pair of rubber chappals left (politely and sanitarily) outside by a servant. We’ve all seen worn out flip-flops, I’m sure, but imagine two flip-flops so worn down that the heels were missing, carved out in perfect half-moons. The toes were also worn out so that the front part of the chappals was also missing, scalloped out in five small waves where the toes should be. This servant was so poor that she couldn’t even replace these chappals.
“Climate change is stealing chappals from poor aunties.” That’s what I thought. Like Celsius, this is knowledge which is more felt than rationalized, and hardly seems like the basis for a global transition to renewable energy, but nonetheless. . . when Mr. Gore continued on, he had my renewed attention.
Dag Hammarskjold once said, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” This seems to me to be the attitude we need to adopt for climate change mitigation and adaptation: we each need to identify one single auntie, connect to her pain, and resolve to love her well.
by Lowell Bliss
Some passages of Scripture are such a part of missions to unreached people groups that we are just as likely to quote them in the King James Version, such as Acts 1:8: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the EAARTH.”
For the Great Commission itself, Matthew 28:19-20, a translation like NIV works just fine: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the ANTHROPOCENE.”
Okay. What’s going on?
What’s going on is that the world changes. When is the last time you received a missionary prayer letter post-marked from “Asia Minor?” (When’s the last time you received a prayer letter that was post-marked at all?!) Modern workers, for security purposes, might use the name “Asia Minor” to refer to a modern Euro-Asian country that separates the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, but they still aren’t writing from the same fields in which Paul preached, nor from where the Cappadocian Fathers prayed. For that matter, they aren’t even writing from the same field that existed in 1968. Times change. Geography changes.
Missionaries were once called, as per Acts 1:8, to the “uttermost part of Earth.” Now, for the sake of adjusting to new realities, we are advised to take Bill McKibben’s lead and talk about the “uttermost part of Eaarth.” That’s the title of his 2011 book, Eaarth: Making Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He starts his book, similar to how Al Gore starts his slide show, by describing the Apollo 8 photo of the planet called “Earthrise” taken on Christmas Eve of 1968. Then he writes:
“But we no longer live on that planet. In the four decades since, that earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has—even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth” (2.)
But what about time? Jesus has still promised to be with us to the end of the age, right? Yes, but it’s now a new age that he has promised to unfailingly shepherd us through. In 2002, geologist Paul Crutzen writing in the journal Nature first suggested that we live in a new epoch. He wrote, “The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the late eighteenth century when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.” Last week, Nature reported an important decision. A panel of 34 scientists, a working group convened by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has issued their committee report: they will indeed propose to the ICS that “the Anthropocene” be officially recognized as the epoch which brought an end to the Holocene. For many of us, our missionary careers began in one geological age and is concluding in another.
I don’t know about you, but I want to finish strongly in my time and I want to work with “what is there,” not with what I remember or what I wish was still there. Called to the ends of the Eaarth in the Anthropocene means making myself aware of the impacts of environmental crisis on my people group and adjusting my compassion, my strategies, even my preaching accordingly. Of course, to say that "the world is changing" goes without saying for missionaries, but we often apply that thought only to modernization or globalization. New terminology like Eaarth or the Anthropocene simply opens our eyes to the environmental issues which affect our witness (Acts 1:8), which affect the making of disciples (Matt 28:19-20).
by Lowell Bliss
Reverse Spoiler Alert—If you have not seen the movie Avengers: Endgameand have no intention to do so, many of the specifics in this article will not make sense to you, though the general themes will. If you have not yet seen Endgame but still want to, then you may want to wait and read this article later, but please watch the movie with this suggestion: “consider the birds.”
I returned to the theater last week to watch Avengers: Endgame for a second time. I had a specific purpose in mind, which I’ll explain shortly. Right before I went however, one more article popped up in my newsfeed: : “'Catastrophe' as France's bird population collapses due to pesticides.”
There is a moment in the movie Avengers: Endgame when after the Hulk has reversed Thanos’s “snap” with one of his own, the superheroes are left wondering: has it worked? Has that portion of creation—half of all living creatures across the universe—been restored? Scott Lang hears the sound of birds and walks to the window. A handful of birds are flitting in the trees and Lang turns back with a huge smile on his face. Rachel Carson’s spring is silent no more.
I confess to having forgotten about the animal kingdom when I was watching the sad conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, the Part 1 to Endgame’s Part 2. Thanos snaps his fingers and I watched T’Challa feather away to ash. I teared up at Peter Parker’s fading appeal to Tony Stark. There was no indication that any creature other than family and friends were gone. If anything, the savannah of Wakanda, the site of Infinity War’s final battle scene, was as glorious as ever. In Endgame’s evocative opening scene, Clint Barton’s family is gone but his farm seems untouched. Later, Steve Rogers tells Natasha Romanoff that he has just seen a pod of whales swimming up the Hudson. I had just assumed that the animals were still there.
If Thanos had obliterated half of the animal kingdom as well, as Lang’s discovery seems to indicate, then that seems like an unnecessary injustice, because in reality we human beings had already done that work for him on planet Earth. The Living Planet Report, released last year, claims that wildlife populations have declined by over half since 1970. That means that Thanos would have taken an additional 50 percent more of the remaining. Stark advises the Hulk to only bring back what Thanos had taken. This of course means everything to Barton who, while Lang goes to the window to see the birds, gets a phone call from his lost wife. What Lang sees, however, is only the restoration of what biologists are calling The Sixth Extinction.
I went back to see Endgame because I wanted to track the themes of grief and our responses to it, particularly grief over a lost world and our seeming powerlessness to do anything about it. I was primarily interested in just that one section of the film that begins with the title slide “Five Years Later.” The movie starts, as you remember, at the moment of Thanos’s snap as experienced by Barton thousands of miles from the chaos that was going on in Wakanda. We then skip to Stark and Nebula adrift in space 21 days later. They are rescued by Captain Marvel but when they are returned safely to Earth, they find the remaining Avengers still in shock at their unbearable failure and their intolerable loss. The Avengers discover that they have the means to locate Thanos. Perhaps, they hope, they can retrieve the Infinity gauntlet and reverse their loss. “This is going to work, Steve,” Romanoff tells Rogers. “I know it is,” he responds, “because I don’t know what I’m going to do if it doesn’t.” And actually, it doesn’t. . . work, that is. Their plan doesn’t work. They find that Thanos has used the Infinity Stones one last time to destroy them completely. The Avengers have no hope of reversing Thanos’s destruction. Thor in a fit of useless rage decapitates their enemy.
Marvel takes comic book liberties to set their storylines in our times and they make this explicit repeatedly in Endgame, not only with their time-stamped title slides (i.e. “New York 2012,” “Asgard 2013,” etc.) but also with all their contemporary pop culture references. Similarly, unlike DC Comics with their “Central City” or “Gotham,” Marvel has felt free to set their stories in a real Queens or a real Brooklyn. Technically, Endgames is sci-fi, but it is not futuristic. Consequently, when they say, “five years later,” they mean our here-and-now. When I entered the theater, I already felt emotionally like I was living in that “five years later” space when it comes to creation care. I recognized that I was feeling depressed about creation’s loss and my powerlessness to stop it.
Five years later, how are the remaining Avengers coping? Steve Rogers leads group therapy sessions for average citizens. “I keep telling everybody they need to move on,” he tells Romanoff after a particularly hard session. “Some do, but not us,” he admits. He is trying to therapize himself but with minimum success. Romanoff is trying to keep the organization together. She is joined by the other military types (Captain Marvel, Col. Rhodes, Okoye) who seem to persist from a sense of duty. Their response seems admirable, but there is no energy in their meetings. They seem to simply be going through the motions. Tony Stark is retired at a lakefront property. He and Pepper Potts are raising a family and Stark just wants to be left alone. Barton is so full of rage that his superhero persona Hawkeye has become a bloodthirsty assassin. He swats desperately at the cartels and the triads, but they are a smaller evil, and Barton’s revenge is never satisfied.
And then there’s Thor—indolent, obese, and alcoholic.
I feel like I’ve tasted of each of these responses. The storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) extends far back through the plotlines and character development of 21 previous movies. What the Avengers are feeling “five years later” doesn’t simply begin with the snap of Thanos’s fingers. Similarly, I understand that our current environmental crisis can’t be blamed on the 2016 election in the US, but nonetheless that single Tuesday in November 2016 feels to me like the snap of Thanatos’s fingers. I don’t want to refer to Trump, but rather to Thanatos, the Greek god of death from whom Thanos, the comic book villain, derives his name. I remember how happy and excited I was back in 2015. Things weren’t perfect, any more than the MCU was free from Ultron’s or Hydra’s violence. Nonetheless I was happy in July 2015 at Gordon College when the US and Canada Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network convened for the first time. And I was happy in December 2015 when the nations agreed on the Paris Agreement for climate action. Since Thanatos’s snap however, and with a relentless release of headlines—birds in France, Koala in Australia, IPCC 1.5-degree reports, EPA betrayals, death by ocean plastic—I have tasted of each of the coping responses depicted in Endgame. I have perhaps gravitated most to Roger’s response: ever the optimist, ever the minister, always trying to help my fellow human beings. Perhaps the weekly video series on hope that I produced last year was simply my version of group therapy. The missionary in me and the Midwesterner in me has kept me on task. I am dutiful. (Incidentally, Romanoff admits that there is more than duty that he keeps her close to headquarters; the Avengers is the only family that she has ever known. I too have found a family in creation care and environmental missions, and don’t want to disband those partnerships.) Like Stark, I have often given up and self-righteously blamed others. Like Barton, I’ve had moments of anger, murdering oil execs and political operatives in my heart. Like Thor, I’ve often sought solace in Netflix, food, and exploring craft beers.
My wife Robynn is a certified spiritual director and she has been a big help. For instance, she has taught me the very wording that I employ about depression. I don’t say, “I am depressed.” If one is clinicallydepressed, then that is a disease, and we don’t identify ourselves with our diseases. We don’t go around saying, “I am cancer.” Emotions are an important part of us, but they are not the whole of us, and so neither do we conflate our identities with them. So, I say, “I am feeling depressed,” as a way to identify my emotion, differentiate it from other things I am may be feeling at other times, and yet also maintain some distance from it. I also like to use the phrase, “I recognize that I am feeling depressed,” because it even further puts me in a position of co-participant with God whereby I can ask myself, “So, Lowell, what do you want to do with this depression? So, God, what are you trying to show me here?” Recognizing my feelings of depression additionally reminds me that it is natural that I will seek out a means of coping. I WILL slide into something. Heck, even Norse gods like Thor are “only human.” If I can co-participate with God in my depression than I can identify what my natural coping mechanism is and eventually decide whether I want to stick with that strategy. (“How’s that working for you, Lowell?”) Barton so desperately needed that kind of help from his friend Natasha. I try to be kind to even the worst parts of my self.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, the basis of so much of my Hope series, defines hope as “a bold conviction about an alternative possibility.” I expanded his definition to say that biblical hope is “a bold conviction about an alternative possibility for the future in and through a good, free, and sovereign God.” In Endgame, Antman pops back from five hours spent in the “quantum realm” and has “an alternative possibility for the future” to present to the Avengers. It becomes the plan by which Thanos is ultimately defeated and the curse is reversed. Lang’s sudden appearance on the scene highlights a new dynamic for those of us who are depressed and coping “five years later.” Lang’s idea has never been heard of before. It is labeled as impossible. The knowledge for it doesn’t yet exist. It is ridiculed as so much “Back to the Future” nonsense. Even when the details are worked out, the execution of retrieving each of the six Infinity Stones from back in the past is a long-shot. The interesting psychology is in the different pace at which each of the Avengers finally say, “Let’s go for it.” When an alternative possibility for the future opened up, which of the Avengers was the most ready to act on it? I want to be like him or her.
Let’s not include Scott Lang in our answer. Having just returned from the Quantum Realm, he really wasn’t living with the others in the “five years later” period as much as he was in that scene at the beginning of the movie: shocked but ready to do something. Clint Barton is eager to act, but he is, more accurately, suicidal than heroic. If that first test run back to his farm had killed him instead, at least he would have found peace. Let’s recognize that Stark and Thor were the slowest to come around, such are the effects of self-righteous escape and self-indulgent escapism. Rogers and Romanoff are relatively quick to take the lead. Optimistic service and faithful duty are good soils for alternative possibilities for the future to germinate in, however fallow those soils might feel at the time. In the end though, I am going to argue that the quickest Avenger to respond to Lang’s idea is the one Avenger that we have not yet discussed, the one whose coping strategy we’ve not yet labelled: namely, the Incredible Hulk.
One of the jokes as we were all anticipating Avengers: Endgame’s release was the question of where in this three-hour movie with no intermission, does an old guy like me be able to leave the theatre to use the restroom without missing any of the important stuff. One website advised: at the one-hour mark, when you first meet Hulk at the diner. (The other suggestion was at the two-hour mark when the title slide for New Jersey comes up.) But if you had skipped out of Lang pitching his idea to the Hulk at the diner, you would have missed the explanation of why the Hulk was still big and green but now wore the visage and demeanor of Mark Ruffalo (the notoriously understated actor who plays Bruce Banner.) You would have missed the clue of what made Hulk/Banner so quick and ultimately useful at executing the plan, including being the one to retrieve the Time Stone from an initially reluctant Ancient One. The alter egos of Dr. Bruce Banner and the Hulk had finally stopped fighting each other when they first met each other in the context of their defeat. The Hulk had been defeated by Thanos in the movie Thor: Ragnorok. Banner had been defeated by Thanos in Infinity War. The two could finally integrate, but only by acknowledging and accepting their current defeat. Most creation care activists and environmental missionaries I know are resurrectionists. They live in that hope and they think in those terms and they work with such metaphors. But there is no resurrection without the crucifixion. And Martha and the women would not have been the first to walk in the new alternative possibility for our future unless they had been visiting the tomb “three days later.”
There is so much more in this set of movies, films which I believe are so rich in human meaning, we dare not dismiss them as superhero flicks. For example, we witnessed the sacrifices that Romanoff and Stark were willing to make, and I know many of my creation care colleagues who would not hesitate to make the same choice if it was called for. They love God. They love his creation. They love the generations who are succeeding them. Such a choice to “lay down one’s life for his or her friends” (John 15:13’s “no greater love than this”) has historically been the decisive moment, but rarely do we achieve that moment if we don’t deal with our sense of loss and powerlessness first.
by Lowell Bliss
If ever you are having trouble generating a new post for your creation care/environmental missions blog, just go outside for a walk. You are bound to stumble upon a morality tale.
I live in Ontario on the north shore of Lake Erie. It’s a short fifteen-minute walk to Nickel Beach where this morning I saw a body of a cormorant (family Phalacrocoracidae) laying on the sand. “Oh, it’s dead,” my wife said sympathetically when I showed her this photo. “Yes, things die,” I said cavalierly. It would have been more disturbing if I had returned home with a photo of a dead Fowler’s toad; they are an endangered species endemic to our little portion of the Niagara peninsula.
“Yes, things die,” I said, “but look at this photo and see if you can tell me how the bird died.”
She was first afraid that our dog had attacked it, greatly overestimating our dog’s prowess and her husband’s strength on the other end of the leash. I had walked up to the bird expecting to find bits of plastic—straws, Tim Hortons coffee lids, etc.—extruding from its belly, like in so many of the photos that my conservationist friends post on my Facebook wall. But no. No outside force—animal or human—killed this bird. It had committed suicide, albeit inadvertently.
I had a discovered a morality tale. Please don’t worry, we humans are off the hook in this incident. It wasn’t plastic in our waterways; it wasn’t because of an oil spill; it wasn’t what the fishing industry calls unintentional “bi-kill.” We humans are off the hook, unless we fail to learn the lesson of this “tale.” (And there, I’ve given you two clues in that last sentence about what killed this cormorant.) Examine the photo again. Protruding out by the bird’s tail can you spot the outline of a mouth? Up at the top of the bird’s stomach, can you see the scales?
A cormorant is a sizeable bird, but so was the fish (which may be a large mouth bass) that it had tried to swallow. This bird was killed by its own inadvisable greed.
I admit to being impressed that it could have even swallowed such a large fish. How is that possible with that beak and that jaw and that throat? As an aside, part of this bird’s misfortune was being born near the Niagara River, as compared to the Nagara River in China. A type of fishing called ukai uses trained cormorants and has been going on uninterrupted for 1300 years. A ring is placed around the cormorant’s neck so that it can swallow small fish only. The large ones get caught in the bird’s throat and the fishermen can retrieve the fish as part of the day’s catch.
But I find myself impressed by a lot of the technology that fuels our deadly consumeristic habits. For example, we all know about the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform that exploded in 2010, killing eleven workers, and leaking 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf Mexico. Biologists estimate that the oil spill killed 82,000 birds of 102 species, cormorants among them. But what you may not have ever heard is that a year earlier, the Deepwater Horizon had set a record for drilling the deepest oil well in human history, a vertical depth of 35,050 ft (10,683 meters.) It could drill a mile below the surface of the ocean. Wow. But like our cormorant discovered: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
by Lowell Bliss
A man passed away yesterday whom we should likely acknowledge as the greatest creation care advocate of our time. You may think it an unlikely honor to bestow on him when you learn to whom I’m referring, but Jean Vanier taught us to love most deeply that part of creation which is simultaneously our most cherished inheritance and our greatest suffering. Jean Vanier taught us to love the human bodies among us, including those bodies which most confront us with how broken in beauty, and how beautiful in brokenness, we and all of God’s creation truly are.
Jean Vanier passed away yesterday in Paris following the suffering attendant to thyroid cancer. He was 90 years old. A theologian, Aristotelian philosopher, and former Naval officer, Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche communities in which the spiritually disabled and the physically disabled lived together and found. . . love. As reported by the BBC: “There are now 147 L'Arche centres in 35 countries, where people with and without disabilities live together as equals. There are a further 1,800 Faith and Light support groups, for people with special needs and their families and friends, across 80 nations.”
I was first exposed to L’Arche through the writing of Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who lived at the Daybreak Community in Toronto for the ten years until his death. I’ve long since misplaced my copy of Nouwen’s book Adam: God’s Beloved where he introduced us to his companion Adam Arnett. Adam could not speak nor could he move without assistance. Here’s the one thing I remember from the book: Adam had one job and one job only. Adam’s job was to be loved by God.
In the book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, Steven Bouma-Prediger said something about God’s various creation which Vanier seemed to know intuitively and what Nouwen came to learn through much personal anguish: "We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience." I have not had a great deal of experience with people with disabilities—which is the nomenclature that Vanier used—so the main way I enter into Vanier’s and Nouwen’s stories is through creation care. I’m not a utilitarian, a resource extractor who might stand before a West Virginia mountainside and demand that its coal seams contribute something useful to society. But I am a "One" on the Enneagram—if you are familiar with this typing—and so I have had to learn how to simply “be present” in the face of the imperfect. A One is a reformer. A One is a perfectionist. I have a constant voice in my head of how I can improve myself, and how I can improve what lies before my eyes. But those who write about the Enneagram say that Ones, in particular, find being out in nature therapeutic. To be out in the woods, I am surrounded by the imperfect—by the decaying and the dead, by the broken branches, by the unstraightened deer trail, by last year’s messy leaf-strewn floor. Nature is broken, and it is beautiful. The thought of trying to "reform" it doesn't even enter my head. It is perfect in its imperfection. It demands nothing of me except that I be fully present to it, that I love it.
When I first step into the woods, I often have my camera out. I’m determined to chronicle my hike, as if I were carving my initials into the scene. I’m determined to acquire something to aid my unreliable long-term memory. I might even rehearse what I’m going to write about the photos when I get “back home to Facebook.” At some point—and it happens quicker and quicker now that I am older—I realize that I have taken enough pictures and that none of them satisfyingly captured the joy of this moment. I put my camera away and I just stand there and try to soak it all in. I try to be present. And I’m present in my body, in the very same substance that I see laid out gloriously before me. I love. I imagine that Nouwen had many such moments with Adam: the bath is over, the dishes washed and put away, nothing (and everything!) to do but just sit there and hold Adam’s hand.
Two weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of Krista Tippet’s podcast On Being where she replayed an interview with Jean Vanier from 2007. In the story of one long-time resident at L’Arche, I heard how I want to form my own heart toward God’s creation. “But L’Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies,” Vanier says.
“They are seen as useless, and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. It’s a suffering body which brings us together. It’s our attention to the body. When somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. Bathing, helping people dress, to eat: It’s to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.
We see this with some of our people, like Françoise. Françoise came to our community in 1978 very severely handicapped. She couldn’t speak; she could walk a bit; she couldn’t dress herself; she was incontinent; and she couldn’t eat by herself. Today, she is nearly 30 years older — she has become blind and — a beautiful person.
There was somebody who came to our community not too long ago who saw Françoise, and the reaction was, “Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?” The leader of the little house said, “But madam, I love her.” It’s as if you come in to a home and grandma is in the home and she has Alzheimer’s, and you say, “What is — ” But she’s my grandmother. So it’s based on the body, and then from the body, relationship grows.”