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?