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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Praying for Rain
distributed 7/6/12 - ©2012

Here in Colorado, it has been hot and dry -- very hot and dry. Across the eastern US, it has been hot and wet. Although I find it hard to believe, there are some places where it is not hot.

Much as I'd like to whine about our spell of record-breaking heat, my grumbling wouldn't do much to deepen our thinking about important matters of faith and eco-justice. So today's musings will jump fairly quickly from our local situation and delve into a theological and liturgical question that has some very practical consequences: should we pray for rain?

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The sort of "hot and dry" that we've been having in Colorado has far bigger implications than my personal comfort levels. This year combined a winter with scant snow in the mountains and a toasty spring that brought an early melt to the snowpack. Rivers and streams are dangerously low, and the mountains are parched. The impacts on agriculture, wildlife and recreation are substantial.

Almost all of Colorado is classified as being in severe, extreme and exceptional drought. A striking graphic from NASA shows "Heat Wave Fuels Wildfires in the Rockies" and those fires have been dramatic. A mid-June fire near Ft. Collins destroyed 259 homes making it the state's most destructive blaze. Just a week later, the catastrophic fire that pushed into suburban Colorado Springs topped that record with 346 homes burned in a single day. These unusual conditions have real and dramatic impacts, and have people very worried.

Reflecting that anxiety, the Denver Post ran a front page story earlier this week delving into prayers for rain. The article takes an interfaith perspective, and looks historically at the topic (because, actually, not that many people in Colorado had been voicing the idea of collective prayers!). The story says that extreme droughts in recent years have inspired the governors of five other states to issue declarations calling on people to pray for rain.

Ten years ago -- when Colorado was in another period of extreme drought and record fires -- Eco-Justice Ministries developed a small set of resources on "Ministry in a Time of Drought". Along with a variety of suggestions for practical steps, liturgy, pastoral care and community service, we named several topics for theological reflection. First on the list was "Explore what this occasion reveals about how we think and feel about prayer. Should we 'pray for rain'?"

The shape of our prayer petitions reveals a lot about how we understand our relationship with God, and about how we think the natural world works. Stressful weather might tempt us to be bold and persistent in begging God for precipitation, but a more nuanced approach can deepen our faith and guide us toward more responsible living.

A blunt prayer for rain might express a theology where God is expected to intervene dramatically to accomplish what we request. That's an awkward or distasteful perspective for many Christians and Jews -- throughout our long faith histories. (I've been intrigued to discover that the traditional Jewish prayers for rain are only voiced during what is expected to be Israel's rainy season. Rather than being an attempt to sway God, some prayers for rain can better be seen as gratitude for the normal cycles and blessings of the season.)

The fullness of prayer in our tradition is more appropriately seen as a conversation with God, and an attempt to align ourselves with God. Prayer petitions can be an honest expression of what is in our hearts and minds (rain!), but can be deepened when we try to listen for the message that comes back to us.

I think a more helpful approach emerges if we rephrase the question. Rather than "should we pray for rain?", we might ask "how should we pray in a time of drought?" That opens up a wonderful universe of new possibilities.

  • We can express gratitude for the normal patterns of seasons, and for the blessing of sufficient moisture. Those prayers of thanks lead us into a renewed awareness of our dependence on water, on the changing of seasons, and of our relationship with the watersheds and aquifers that are fed by snow and rain.

  • Our prayers can recommit us to careful stewardship of water, to conservation, and to just distribution of scarce water supplies. We can pledge personal and communal efforts for prudent fire prevention efforts in areas of high risk.

  • We can lift up our prayers of concern for the communities that are most impacted by drought -- farmers whose livelihoods are endangered, those whose wells are going dry, the people who live in areas of high fire danger, and the wildlife that are stressed by lack of rain. These prayers should then lead us to consider how those threatened communities might be served and respected in this time of great need. In the arid West of the US, for example, these prayers would cause us to balance the desire for green urban lawns with the survival of crops, or to question the use of millions of gallons of water for "fracking" gas wells when rivers are going dry.

  • Our prayers in a time of drought will lead us to confession about our impacts on natural systems and the climate. Intriguingly, this year's news reports and editorials about drought and fires in Colorado have usually been very candid about how our situation reflects the effects of global warming, and the expectation that things will get worse. Prayers seeking relief from drought will come back to us with a realization that we must stop warping the climate.

Praying for rain is a problematic way to respond in a time of drought. If that is what we do in our churches, and if that is what governors call for from their citizens, it leads into a theology where we think God will bail us out of our crises if we are earnest enough in our requests. If we can just pray for rain, then we're off the hook for being responsible in our use of water, and we can ignore our culpability in the changing climate. Praying for rain does not make us consider matters of social and ecological justice in the allocation of water.

Deep spirituality and good theological reflection in a time of drought, though, will engage us in a different kind of prayer. We'll be able to go beyond our list of desires, and be drawn into a web of relationships -- human, divine and ecological -- and we'll be drawn into more intentional ways of living in those relationships.

Drought is just one of many situations that can lead us into heartfelt and sincere prayer. Hopefully, our churches are nurturing us in solid theology and spiritual disciplines where prayer is an engaging conversation, not just a wish list.

NOTE: a year ago, a Dallas newspaper gathered comments from a wide range of clergy, academics and religious leaders about praying for rain. A broader range of perspectives on prayer is presented there!

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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