Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Pray for the Rain Forest
distributed 1/4/13 - ©2013

There's a wonderful and unusual song found only, I believe, in the New Century Hymnal and the hymnal of the United Church of Canada. Not only does it express a vivid care for all of God's creation, it also suggests a way of being in prayer that could be transformative for many people and most congregations.

In the New Century Hymnal, the first verse of Dan Damon's hymn is slightly different than the typo-filled version on the website of copyright holder Hope Publishing:

Pray for the wilderness, vanishing fast,
pray for the rain forest, open and vast.
Pray for the waterfalls, pray for the trees,
pray for the planet brought down by degrees.

The poet's creative approach shifts a perspective that tends to shape our prayer, much of our conversation about the world in which we live, and even our own self-identity. When he names wilderness and rain forest as subjects of prayer, he has moved into a realm of ecological relationship instead of individual identity. If we can learn to adopt a similar approach, to pray for systems as well as individuals, then our faith, theology and spirituality can expand.

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In our prayers, we often pray for individuals or groups of individuals. On a Sunday morning, we name the church members who are sick or grieving. We lift concerns for the poor and the hungry. When disaster strikes, prayers are voiced for those who are suddenly homeless or displaced.

These prayers can extend into the more-than-human community. After one set of Colorado's raging wildfires, I heard prayers for the people and the wildlife who were forced from their homes. I have heard a congregations respond with murmurs of assent when prayers were lifted for a beloved pet that was nearing death. But those prayers are still for specific creatures, or groups of creatures.

The rain forest is something different. A rain forest is a collective thing, an ecological setting, a natural system. If we pray for the rain forest, we're seeking the health and vitality of a set of relationships, the appropriate interplay of a multitude of plants, animals, soils, streams and weather patterns.

Ecological prayers shake up the way we tend to think and act, even within a purely human context. We're called to think differently about identities and outcomes.

Sociologists speak of the "unit of analysis" to describe what is being studied in their research. A textbook says, "Social scientists most typically ... have individual people as their unit of analysis." Characteristics such as age, race, gender or income are gathered and are used to describe the qualities of a population. "We tend to describe and explain social groups and interactions by aggregating and manipulating the descriptions of individuals." Within the population, we know that some people are rich and some are poor, some percentage has cancer, and some of them report being satisfied with their jobs. But the world that is being described by sociologists, and in most of our prayers, is made up of a collection of individuals.

We pray for Mary, Fred and Jan who have cancer. We pray for those who are homeless. We pray for teachers and their students. We pray for legislators. That is good, but that should not be the only way that we pray.

The sociology textbook notes: "Social groups themselves may also be the units of analysis ... Realize that this case is not the same as studying the individuals within a group." Studying the characteristics of street gangs -- big vs. small gangs, "uptown" vs. "downtown" gangs -- is different from studying the people who are the members of a gang. The characteristics of families -- single parent, same-sex, extended families -- lead to observations and measurements that are quite different from studies of individuals.

How might we pray differently if we consider larger "units of analysis"?

  • We might pray not only for teachers and students, but for schools, that schools and school systems might have the resources they need to fulfill their mission.

  • We might pray for the political systems of our nation, so that campaign finance and legislative rules and the role of political parties might be shaped toward responsive democracy and just governance.

  • We might pray not only for the individuals who have cancer, but for our environmental setting which is filled with toxic chemicals and hormones that lead to cancers.

  • We might pray with concern about our culture of violence and fear, where guns are pervasive and protected by law, and where movies and games and sports desensitize us to violence.

  • Many of our prayers would seek "the common good", the health and well-being of our society as a whole, instead of only seeking individual health or freedom or prosperity.

  • Environmentally, our prayers might follow the guidance of the hymn, and look toward the flourishing of a community which is greater than its individual members: the rain forest, coral reefs, a watershed or river system. (In 2001, Roman Catholic bishops in the Pacific Northwest released a pastoral letter and study materials on The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.)

  • We might, indeed, take seriously the prayers we sometimes voice for God's entire creation so that Earth's entire biosphere, the health and sustainability of planetary systems, is the "unit of analysis" of our prayer.

We are different when our prayers and our questions and our stories take seriously collective identities. Our ethics and our policies are different when we seek good for natural systems and social institutions.

Pray for the rain forest -- for all of the diversity of terrain and species found throughout the Amazon. Pray for the coral reefs -- those fecund settings that spread life far into the oceans, and that are critically threatened by global warming, ocean acidification, toxic chemicals and over-exploitation. Pray for your denomination of the church -- that as a powerful social institution it might have rituals and resources, traditions and heroes which proclaim and embody the realm of God.

As we enter into 2013, I invite and challenge you to examine the prayers voiced in your own congregation in the next couple of months. Listen to the prayer concerns voiced by church members, and pay heed to the pastoral prayers spoken by clergy. Are they all, at their heart, dealing with individuals? Or do you hear prayers for the rain forest and the schools?

Let me know what you hear, and whether your view of God's creation is changed when prayers speak about communities and environmental systems.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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