Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil, an environmental missions organization which seeks to combine church planting with creation care particularly among least-reached people groups. He and his wife Robynn, a proud Canadian, were church-planting missionaries with Christar in India and Pakistan for fourteen years.
The Book Lowell mentions in his talk, People, Trees, and Poverty, can be found at WilliamCarey.com. He also is the author of Environmental Missions, Planting Churches and Trees can also be found there.
As Lowell shares in the talk we are about to listen to, it was in that context, alongside the polluted Ganges River, that he developed the conviction that he must be just as much an environmentalist as he is an evangelist. For him, sharing good news with people about Jesus Christ has to include good news for their bodies and the environment they live in.
As you listen to Lowell's story and his journey with God to reach the place he is now, trying to be fully committed to creation care AND frontier missions, reflect on how you're feeling. How would you respond in the circumstances he describes? Does his story give you a different perspective on caring for creation as an integral part of mission work to reach the unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
We want to give a little warning that his stories do get a little graphic. It is not inappropriate, but death, illness, and idols can be "PG13."
Steven Spicer and Paul Dzubinski host this edition of the Creation Care Missions Podcast. Below is the full text of talk that Lowell Bliss gave at the Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission conference.
So, it's September 1986 and I am excited because for the first-time I am in Pasadena, California and I'm visiting the campus of the U.S. Center for World Missions now called Frontier Ventures. And, cliché of clichés, irony of ironies, I feel like a Muslim going to Mecca. I recently graduated from Moody Bible Institute where we use the Perspectives Courses, the second edition, I think with this ugly purple color as a textbook. For some reason I had not only one, but two copies of Roberta Winter's book, "Once More Around Jericho" which talks about the purchase of this property. You know, last year when they were organizing this conference or thinking about conducting this conference even last year, they billed it to me as a Ralph Winter Memorial Lecture Series, the founder of the U.S. Center for World Missions, Ralph Winter. And all I have to say to you, is that I don't think this is what this conference is about now, but I have to tell you, no take backs. I have some professors at Moody Bible Institute who need to hear, "Look at me, Ralph Winter Memorial Lecture Series, baby." And I am sure I will only add to the dignity of the proceedings.
Two Doors: Creation Care and Frontier Missions
Now it strikes me though, that there are some of you who are like me. We can take the title of this conference, Creation Care and Frontier of Missions, and we can recognize that perhaps you have come in from one door in that statement, more than you have come in through the second door of that statement. For instance, some of you are like me, you have come in through the door of Frontier Missions. For you, your world is unreached people groups. And it's the 10/40 window and its evangelism, proclamation evangelism, discipleship and church planting. And if you are one of those people, if that’s the door that you have come in through for this conference, I would like you to raise your left hand up in the air. Okay, very good. You know, those of us who have come in through the creation door of this conference have something to say to you: God bless you. Thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for carrying that torch and not letting it go out. I know it’s been hard. You have been faithful. We owe our own salvation, our own life in Christ, to proclamation evangelism. We can trace it back through our ancestry and our cultures. And we can trace our own salvation back to cross-cultural sending. Thank you for your faithfulness.
The Creation Care people would like to something to say to you: "You know what? We share a founder." Now of course, as Katharine said yesterday, the Sunday school answer to that question is Jesus. And that's true. But we also share William Carey. The person for whom this University is named, the publisher's name, the William Carey, went to India in 1792. [He] is often considered the father of protestant missions or the father or modern missions, and as Ed talked about yesterday, William Carey was a world class botanist. There are five species of plants that are named after him. He introduced the Linnaean system of classification into India. He helped start, co-founded, the Indian Agri-Horticultural Society, which is still operating today and still blessing it today. And he understood it as a blessing to India. We share that founder in common.
Now, how many of you have walked in through the creation care door into this conference? You are all about biodiversity loss, climate change, sustainable use, you are about wildlife conservation? Okay, if you walked in through that door, please raise your right hand. Very good. People at this door have something to say to you. Thank you. We bless that in you. There was something placed in your heart by God. And we recognize it is placed there by the Creator God. And when it was placed there, and He began to blow on ember, you didn't say no. You received it as a stewardship. And we bless you. Thank you for your faithfulness.
And, you know, the mission side, the frontier mission side, has other things to say to the creation care side. We know how hard it is to mobilize around a big global idea. Most of these buildings on this campus aren't named for great practitioners or for great missiologists, they are named for great mobilizers. Even this very auditorium that we are standing in, John Mott and the Student Volunteer Movement and mobilizing people around evangelizing this world as the Lord wills, in our generation. And of course the great Edinburgh Conference was a 100-year foretaste of the Cape Town Congress that we had in 2010. We know how hard it is to mobilize. We know the obstacles, we know the push back, right? William Carey himself, when he went to a group of elders in London, laid out a vision for going to Kolkata and setting up a Serampore mission, do you know what he was told? "Sit down, young man. If the Lord wants to evangelize the heathen, He will do so without you." And how often have you heard that, creation care? "Sit down, young woman. Shut up, young man. If the Lord wants to restore the earth, He will do it without you." We understand that opposition.
We also want to tell you, in creation care, that we understand the obstacle of national exceptionalism. America's exceptionalism. The elder George Bush steps up to the podium at the first Earth Summit in Rio and he declares to the world, "The American way of life is non-negotiable." His son's vice president, Dick Cheney, during the time of the Iraq war, considering all the oil there, says the same thing. "The American way of life is non-negotiable." Those who have worked in frontier missions and who have mobilized for that, we've heard that time and time again. The Lord's call upon us to reach out and cross borders and cross cultures to go to the unreached peoples of this earth, and we hear, "But no Lord. My way of life is not negotiable." We know, and we understand.
Now Ralph Winter, whose Memorial Lecture Series I am currently speaking at, right before he died, he spoke at the Korean World Missions Conference in Seoul Korea. July 28, 2008 he said this: "The biggest trend in world mission is the polarization occurring among mission agencies that either focus exclusively on personal evangelism or in contrast, physical needs, when they should be doing both. Or the polarization of some doing good things, and some saying good things, when the two need to be brought together."
A Direct Flight from Chad to Paris: Living at the Point of Integration
I have entitled this talk "A Direct Flight from Chad to Paris", and it's in that pesky downloadable book that they're always talking about. And it refers to a moment back in November when I'm going to Chad, Central Africa, with the mission agency Christar, a traditional church planting mission agency known only for working among Hindus, Buddhists, East Asians, and Muslims. There's four. They were looking to develop a work in the Sahel Sub Saharan area among two particular people groups. And this is all just so familiar to those who've come in through the missions door, right? They are listed on the Joshua Project, quite likely. This institution [Frontier Ventures] prayed for them one Friday morning—here when they pray for un-reached people groups—a Muslim group, Arabic/French mix populating the eastern coast of Lake Chad. The Gospel witness [was] largely pushed out because of Boko Haram coming in from the south.
Christar wanted to set up a work of proclamation evangelism, discipleship, church planting among these two people groups, but they also wanted an environmental approach. Not because going green is so trendy. Not because they thought they could recruit from our biology departments, and our engineering departments, and from a generation who just intuitively understands creation care. Not because they wanted to get creative access visas into a country which really isn't closed. They wanted an environmental approach because they knew that was what was needed. Lake Chad is an iconic environmental image in the world today. It has shrunk down to one-fourth the size of what it was in 1970. The fishery has collapsed. The Sahara is encroaching even further into the country. Wildlife populations have been extirpated out down toward Central Africa and Congo, where they are being heavily poached. It just made sense.
So I went, and we did our survey work, and then it was time to leave. But I wasn't heading straight home, I was stopping in Europe first. And I was going to Bonn, Germany, where I meet up with Brian Webb and Kyle Shop and, others of our friends, Cookie and Jason. We're going to be there for COP23, the latest round of the U.N. Climate Summits, this time held in Bonn, Germany. Now I stopped in Paris, and of course that comes in there as a title by virtue of the Paris Agreement where we had last met up in Europe at COP21 where the nations had come together and formed the first goodwill cooperative voluntary effort for the sake of addressing climate change. I had a lay-over in Paris. I had twenty-four hours and I was going to repeat that prayer meeting. I was going to go to Sacre Coeur, even if I had to do it myself, I was going to sit down there and pray for what's transpired in climate change over the past two years, and then I was moving on to Bonn.
But you see, I had something of a dilemma because I had to write back to my constituency and I had to help them to understand—and Lord please help me to help them to understand—that I wasn't going to Bonn simply because, you know, I had to fly through Europe anyway. I was going to Bonn, and I was stopping in the home of the Paris Agreement, because there is a direct link between how we love unreached people groups anymore, and how we care for creation and address the issue of climate change. And in fact, the day before I got on that flight—leaves on a Thursday night, quite late, Air France, wonderful service—the day I got on that flight, I am searching the internet, and sure enough, here comes a study of 159 countries surveyed about their vulnerability to climate change. You know who was number one on the list? Chad. Chad. And I knew that I couldn't head to Bonn without bringing with me, the Kanembu people and the Bidommy people.
And you know, when I'm doing it right, when I'm focused, I'm living at that point of integration, that point of integration between bona fide scientifically rigorous roll-up-your-sleeves, do it right creation care, and traditional proclamation evangelism, and discipleship, and church planting among these unreached people groups—living at that point of integration. And it's been such a thrill to be here and to see that integration lived out time and again from this stage, from our workshops, from the concert of prayer last night, and from people who haven't been publicized. It's beautiful. Truly is beautiful.
One place I see that integration is in my own story. The story of my calling first to unreached people group missions, and then to what we're calling environmental missions. Here's the thing: it's the same story. But, it's lived out twice. So that I may understand that these two callings are really a single endeavor and here's that story.
Lowell’s Story: Two Metaphors
So, it's 1984 now and I'm in the summer of my Junior year, Moody Bible Institute as a Missions Major, and there's a requirement I must go somewhere for a summer field work. Six weeks of summer field work and I could have chosen anywhere. My friends were all headed on some big organized China trip. But I knew that I wanted to go to the place in the world where the needs of the world were the most visible. Now, I don't know even now, how to judge where the needs of the world are the greatest. But I felt then, and I still believe now, that when it comes to visibility you go to India. It's all laid out on the shirt sleeve there, the spiritual needs, the physical needs, and so I went.
I was in the city of Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal. TEAM was hosting me, and the missionary said, "Lowell, if you really want to see India and Hinduism, you need to go to the city of Varanasi." Overnight train ride again. So, I did. Overnight train ride. I was there for three days. Three days later, I was never so happy to leave a place in my entire life.
Now, Varanasi is considered the holiest of all Hindu cities. It is to Hinduism what Mecca is to Islam. So back then the statistic was that every day 150,000 new pilgrims would circulate into the city. They would visit the temples. They do the Panch Kroshi pilgrimage but mostly they would be there to bath in the Ganges River at sunrise to pour out the water to the sun rising in the East, to clean and cleanse the bad karma that they've accumulated.
So I went on the Government of India Tour. I was staying at a guest house near the railway station. I take this tour and it's not too long before we get down to the cremation ghats. The ghats are concrete steps that lead down to the river. And there's a complex mythology to Varanasi. There's this belief that if you die in the sacred confines of the river you're automatically released from the wheel of life. And if you are cremated, your ashes are poured into the Ganges. And just like the Ganges floats out through the Bay of Bengal on to the ocean, so your spirit, your being, your self, is released into god. There's another belief that there are five types of bodies that should not be cremated. And the tour guide explained: smallpox victims, lepers, snake bite victims, sadhus, the holy men, and little children. And instead those bodies are wrap wrapped up in a heavy cloth tied to a rock and then just dumped into the river. And sometimes that rope frays, the body will float to the surface, [and] you'll see it floating down the river. And sure enough on that first tour, we did.
So that afternoon, I decide I want to go back down to the river with my journal and with my bible, and I made the mistake of going downstream. I even had to ask someone if I could use their ladder to climb down on to the riverfront. And one of the first things I saw was the body of a child still wrapped up, and it was floating down the river. And there was a vulture perched on top of it, pecking at the cloth. And a little further along, there was the body of an adult, and it had come unwrapped, and there were two dogs who were pulling it further onshore, and who are eating on it. And it was such a strange sight. I didn't have any category. To tell you the truth, the first thought was, "should I take a picture of this or not?" But, you know, I was there and then I was gone.
And it wasn't until that evening that it hit me. I had been back in the guest house, laying on the single bed on top of the sheets because it's burning hot, the ceiling fans whirling above me. I turn off the light. And suddenly, wham. It hits me. I'm bawling. I am just weeping. And I feel like the Lord told me, "This is an image. This is a metaphor of what Satan and sin and evil and injustice does to God's highest creation, or even just God's creation. Satan is like a dog that the defiles. Pollutes. Tears down." It became a metaphor for me of compassion. Compassion for the Indian people. I fell in love with Indians. And I didn't know it at the time, but I fell in love with their bodies.
Now the second day I went on the same tour and I saw something, that in my estimation at the time, was even worse. Same tour, same temples, same river front, but that was when my eyes were open to the idols, to the idolatry. And of course I'd studied this at Moody and in the Perspective Course, God bless you, and I knew that one form in which the patron god of Varanasi, Shiva, is worshipped is in the form of the Shiva Lingam. A stone about the shape of your fist fitting into a concrete base like the shape of the palm of your hand. And, basically what it is, is a phallic symbol, male and female genitalia. And of course we saw it everywhere. And there's a saying that even the stones in Varanasi are lingams and you would go into the new Vishwanath Temple, the only temple where foreigners were allowed, and there were people offering coconuts and flowers and milk and there was an urn of water that was drip, drip, dripping water from the Ganges on to the top of the Shiva lingam.
Again, I saw it again that night at the guest house. Again laying on top of the sheets, the ceiling fan going over me, I turn off the lights, and wham, it happens again. I just can't control it. And I felt like the Lord was saying, "Lowell, this is a metaphor of what human beings do to Jesus Christ. They perpetually make this declaration over Jesus. That wood and porcelain, material things, penises and vaginas, are more worthy to be worshipped than Jesus Christ. And it's just not so." And that became a metaphor for me of zeal for the glory of the name of Jesus who is worthy to be worshipped, in India and around the world.
Lowell’s Story: Abishek and the Ganges
When I went back to India full-time, it was to Varanasi. Those two metaphors had infected me and gotten under [my] skin and when I found out that Christar had a team in Varanasi, that's the team that I joined. We were there for 14 years, my wife and I. We say India and Pakistan because my wife grew up as a TCK in Pakistan, so I try to honor that side of things as well, but we were right on the banks of the Ganges. We ended up at an ashram retreat and study center, up above the banks of the Ganges. And I saw all these things related to bodies and related to the Gangetic plain in the river itself and it was data that I was collecting, and it was impacting me profoundly. I didn't know at the time that there was a filter called creation care that I could look through and understand these things.
But there's the Ganges River down below for instance. There's an endangered species in the Ganges. We used to sit up on the roof and we used to watch them jump out, and try to catch a glimpse of them jumping out. It's a river dolphin and it's an amazing part of God's creation. They swim, kind of pinkish in color, they swim on their side. They're blind. They hunt with sonar. An astounding thing. I never knew that they were on the IUCN list, red list, of endangered species. Of course I knew the river was polluted. Right? Before the River Ganges comes into the city it qualifies WHO standards for water sports. You can go water skiing on the Ganges if you wanted to. Once it passes the Assi Nala tributary into the city, there are so many parts-per-million of fecal matter in it that it's on the WHO list for sewage. It's not even called water before.
And I can tell you the names of the children who first drank the water, then they got giardia, then they got dehydrated, and then they died. But one of the biggest differences is that with that water and those bodies, my own hands were used to push people into the flames or to dump water into those bodies. Savitri, the servant girl from Nepal, who when she died, her parents called up to Nepal. The parents said, “We are too poor to do anything, can you take care of the body?” The landlords were too proud to do anything, came to me and the temple boys, and we took her and in my own hands I pushed Savitri right into those flames. But of course nothing [was] more impactful than the death of Abhishek. Now that's not his real name and if I lapse into a different name you'll know the mistake I am making.
Abhishek, a nine-year-old boy on the property, our landlord's son, he began to develop these little blue spots on his skin like a felt marker. And what it was, is he had aplastic anemia. He began to bleed through the gums. His bone marrow was no longer producing red blood cells. And they couldn't find a bone marrow donor among their family. They don't often do attribution studies in India so we didn't know exactly what was the cause but often a cause of aplastic anemia is exposure to benzene which is a chemical in petrol, and sure enough a lot of petrol had been dumped on the property and at the farm. So we don't know. The only treatment really was blood transfusions. And in India if you want to get blood for your patient, you have to give blood, and since I had the only blood type, or I had Abhishek's blood type, sure enough I gave blood. Then the big joke among the family was that Abhishek, you know, came home speaking perfect American because he now had my blood.
There was a Wednesday morning when I woke up, and Robin woke up, my wife, and we just knew. We knew we needed to talk to this family. We needed to tell them that Jesus might save their child. Jesus might not. But that there's hope in this world and there's hope in the next. Made an appointment for the afternoon. We got everyone praying around the world, people we knew. We went to this appointment with Abhishek's mother and father, his aunt and his uncle. We wanted to tell them that they need to give their child to Jesus. As their parents, as the adults, they need to give their child to Jesus.
Now the family, the patron god of this family—they are a Bengali family—was the goddess Kali. And maybe you've seen her: the black skin, the tongue, the necklaces skulls, the fangs that are dripping blood. Kali is one of the only gods in Hinduism that still requires blood sacrifices. And sure enough, on our property every year at Diwali, they would sacrifice a goat right there on the property. I asked the family, "How long have you been doing blood sacrifices to Kali?" [They] said, "800 years." I said, "It seems to me that this year, Kali is requiring Abhishek as a sacrifice." I wanted to tell them and I did, "You know, Kali takes blood but Jesus gives His blood." We told them that Jesus might heal him. Might not. There's hope in this world. There's hope in the next. We prayed that evening. The Church came over. We had a meal together. The family did not feel alone. And then a week transpired and during that week I would be up in the roof and I'd be looking down into their courtyard and there would be the nani-ji, the old mother, actually reading the Hindi children's bible to Abhishek, and I could see that there.
We would pray for Abhishek and then the next Wednesday, I'm taking a nap in the afternoon and Robin wakes me up. "Lowell wake up. Abhishek has died." So we go next door. Preparing the body. Robin is asked to be the one to take the mother, Dhwani, off of her son. Dhwani buries her head in Robin's chest and says, "But I gave him to Jesus. I gave him to Jesus." Felt more like an accusation then it did a declaration. And then his body was prepared, and I went with the men and then we went down to the cremation ghats, and they negotiated and bargained for a rock and a cloth, and he was tied to a cloth, and he was dumped in the middle of the river.
Now I never told Robin this until we got back to the States, after we got back to the States many years later, but you know, a few days later I was walking down along the river and I saw Abhishek's body washed up on shore. And I could tell because they had dressed him in these goofy gold trousers with this piping and it was his bottom torso.
Conclusion: Desiring Full Salvation and Redemption
And you know, I'm 56 now and I've been in missions for 30 years and I think back of the history that I have in Varanasi. It goes back to 1984. And you know what? It's no longer enough. It's no longer enough for me to want Abhishek's body to have the best medical care possible. No longer enough for his body to be treated with respect. I want to have that boy and his body resurrected. And see, that's a function of calling on the Lord Jesus Christ. Which is a function, we know of, "How will they call on unless they believe? And how will they believe unless they hear? And, how will they hear unless someone preaches? And, how shall someone preach unless they are sent?" Romans chapter 10.
And I look at the Ganges River, and I love that body of water, it's part of my life now. I baptized two of my children in that water. And it's not enough to want to clean-up that river. It's not enough to get rid of the trash and the sewage and, you know, the giardia of that river. It's not enough. I want that river to be part of the new heaven and the new earth. I want it restored. And that's a function we know. Romans chapter 8. The Ganges River groaning. Waiting. Pleading for the sons of God to be revealed. And of course that's a function of what we've received, our sonship, is a function of what we received in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You know, there's the part of me that is an evangelist but not an environmentalist. I grieve that place, that spot. The part of me that is an environmentalist but not an evangelist. I grieve that spot. That feels empty and dark. And I picture it in my mind like that portion of water where Abhishek's body was dropped. And I can still hear the sound where his body hits the water. But here's my other meditation: crucified, risen, Lord Jesus Christ, ascended to the command and control center of the universe, surely coming again. His nail pierced hands are under that body of water to contain and to hold the River Ganges, and all the places that we love, that had been polluted. His hands are under there to catch anything that falls through whether it be my children baptized in that water, whether it be Abhishek. The Lord is good, trustworthy, he is free. Thank you very much.