Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why I Pray About Rain

I have a lot of opinions, especially about religion and politics, but I don't write about them here. I think my garden blog ought to be about plants and birds and dirt and compost. God does make it into my blog from time to time, because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I think that God does exist and is, at this moment, working in the world. (I have numerous suggestions for how God might run things more effectively, but for some reason, he has not yet asked my opinion. )

I am going to break my rule today and write about an event down in Atlanta, where the governor convened an interfaith public prayer for rain to alleviate the drought. I don't know a thing about the governor, don't know whether he's a statesman or a demagogue or something in between, I don't even know if he's a Republican or a Democrat. (I'm neither, and wish a pox on both their houses, but, like I said, I don't write about politics here.)

I do know about the drought, however, and I do a lot of praying, so I think I'm qualified to write on this subject. (Granted, my prayers often involve screaming at God, or praying that I can get through the day without choking the life out of some jackass who richly deserves it, but anyway...) As soon as I saw this story, I predicted three responses.

Militant atheists would criticize the governor for using a public forum to promote religion.
Militant Christians would make him a hero for the home team (at least until they realized that he invited Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu clergy to participate as well).
A lot of people would say, "Whatever," and go back to watching television.

I'd like to offer what I hope is a thoughtful Christian perspective on the whole subject of praying for rain. Thoughtful comments, whether you agree or dissent, are welcome. If you're not interested, check back tomorrow. I promise my next post will be about gardening.

The first question, of course, is whether or not God exists. That can't be proven one way or the other; there's a lot of evidence against God's existence, but there is a fair amount of evidence in favor as well. I would refer the reader to Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, Simply Christian by NT Wright, and Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith. (The first two are limited to Christianity, while Smith discusses all of the major religions.) All three writers are intelligent, well-educated, and open minded--none of this "The Bible says it, so that settles it" certainty that passes for religious discourse these days.

So assuming there is a God, why pray for rain? Is God unaware of the drought? Is God going to alter the track of a low pressure system at the behest of a Georgia governor or a Greensboro gardener?

The real problem here is a view of prayer that sees God as a cosmic butler (albeit much more capricious than any actual butler who values his job). It's not quite as simple as asking for something and, if you've been good enough or you've asked in the right way or if you follow the right religion, you get it. Prayer is not manipulating supernatural powers to do your bidding--that's magic.

I think the reason for praying is to allow God to begin the work of transforming the person doing the praying. We all need to be transformed from our self-centered, fearful, angry, arrogant, greedy selves into something different and beautiful. Prayer should begin the work of putting a person in a right relationship with both God and the world.

That's a big topic, being in a right relationship with the world, and whole books have been written on that subject. This is a blog post, not a book, and it's about rain, so let me go right to that subject.

The right way, in my view, to pray about rain, is not just asking for rain when we are in the middle of a drought, but saying a quiet "Thank you" for the rain whenever it comes and treating water (and for that matter, the whole earth) as a gift, and handling it as such. The amazing thing that happens is that you start to be more careful with water, to tread more lightly on the earth as a whole, to consider how your actions affect other people, the animals, and the plants. (Of course, one does not need to be religious to live this way. Christians have been notoriously unconcerned about environmental issues and have been put to shame on this front by people who do not profess any faith but live, as well as they can, in a right relationship with the earth. There are encouraging signs that this may be changing.)

When you are living in such a relationship with God and the created order, then of course, when a drought comes, you ask for rain and trust in God to send it as he sees fit. You pray as though everything depends on God, and you conserve as though everything depends on you.

If God does send rain in a timely manner, enough even to fill the lakes to overflowing, what do we do then? Go back to wasting water like we own the clouds? Or make permanent changes in the way we live, the way we relate to the water and the air and the land. That is the acid test of any person's religious faith: does it have the power to change that person for the better?


Marion in Savannah said...

Thanks for this lovely, thoughtful post. Gov. Perdue, in addition to holding the interfaith prayer for rain, has also made television and radio PSAs urging people to conserve, and to take pride in their dusty cars and crispy lawns.

I certainly can't speak for any other faith community but I know that in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer for rain. I think that it's significant that this prayer is preceded by a prayer for the wisdom to conserve the natural resources we have been given stewardship over.

I hope all of our rain barrels will be filled soon. Thanks again for your post.

David in Greensboro, NC said...

Thanks Marion. I wish our governor would get on TV and encourage people to conserve. I think you make a keen observation that the prayer for wisdom in stewardship over the earth comes before the prayer for rain for a reason. I don't know much about the Episcopal denomination or the BCP, and so I appreciate you pointing that out.

Wrenna said...

Hi David. I've been pretty busy, and almost missed this post altogether. I'm from Arizona, where we treasure water like it's our blood. The native americans there, do there own version of praying for rain, in the form of rain dances. But, they dance for the children, and their childrens children. They believe that the prayers take three generations to come to fruition, and so live in a state of gratitude for the dances of their ancestors, and in a state of caring for who comes after them. I think it's a lovely state of mind, and my own opinion is that when you live in a state of gratitude, whether or not you have any religion at all, you are blessed.

Thanks for the lovely thoughtful post, I really enjoyed it.

David in Greensboro, NC said...

Thank you Wrenna. That is a wonderful, and I think a very true understanding of prayer. I agree with you about gratitude. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic, said "If the only prayer you say in your entire life is, "Thank You," that would suffice.

carolyn said...

I like what you have to say about prayer acting on US, as well as on G-d. In the Jewish liturgy, we not only pray for rain, but the prayer changes seasonally based on the way in which water becomes available. (The prayer is part of the Amidah, a central prayer which is recited in each of the 3 daily worship services.) So, in winter, we say, "You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall." From Passover until the fall harvest (Sukkot), some traditions say "You cause the dew to fall." As a landscaper, I often feel this verse intensely as I pray it, and feel lucky to be part of a tradition whose liturgical calendar is still so close to its agricultural origins.

Mary said...

David, thank you for an enlightening post. We all need to rely on each other to save ourselves, with prayer and faith in God.

I think people are forgetting the seriousness of this drought since the weather has cooled. I still worry every time I turn on the faucet.

We can't always rely on prayer - we need to rely on our inner strength to get us through.

Great post.