The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Pray for the Planet
A hymn by Dan Damon is popular (in my church circles, at least) because it movingly ties together Christian spirituality and Earth's distress.
Pray for the wilderness, vanishing fast,
But what do we mean by "pray for the planet"? I think it calls us to something far more significant than one passing line in the weekly pastoral prayer.
A couple of years ago, I pondered whether or not drought-stricken communities should "pray for rain," and what that practice might involve. The larger question of prayer in an era of ecological turmoil, though, is more complicated than the matter of supplication for rain.
Three pastoral categories of prayer, outlined in a recent article, have been both helpful and challenging to me as I continue to sort out how traditional religious practices like prayer are relevant in these difficult times.
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Samuel Wells, a prominent London vicar, has a column in the April 30, 2014 Christian Century, "A Different Way to Pray." He doesn't write about rain forests and waterfalls. His starting place is a conversation during the church coffee hour.
After some chit-chat, "your conversation partner takes hold of your forearm, and her tone changes. 'Say a prayer for my dad, will you? He's not himself, the dementia's really kicking in' ... and you say, 'Of course I'll pray for your dad. And I'll pray for you, too.'"
Ah, Wells says, "But then you've made a promise. A promise you have to keep. How exactly do you pray for a person in such a situation?" He sketches out three ways to pray -- two conventional ones, and one that is more unusual.
The first form, which he calls resurrection, is a call for a miracle. The prayer for dad seeks healing of mind and body, and the hope of a long a fruitful life. Wells admits that this kind of prayer is tempting, but he also acknowledges that "part of you can't even say the word 'heal' because it seems that healing just isn't going to happen."
He labels the other conventional form of prayer incarnation. "It is a call for the Holy Spirit to be with your friend and her father ... give them patience to endure what lies ahead ... and companions to show them your love." The vicar notes that there's a dramatic difference between these two kinds of prayer: "while the resurrection prayer expects God to do all the work, this prayer stirs us into action ourselves." Who is better placed to show God's love than you, who she turned to as a friend? And it is quite likely that her request for prayer, at least in part, was a plea that she not feel alone in all of this.
Wells then says that there is a third option, beyond a healing miracle or a comforting presence. A prayer of transfiguration looks for something new. "Show my friend and her father your glory, that they may find a deeper truth to their lives than they ever knew, make firmer friends than they ever had, discover reasons for living beyond what they'd ever imagined." And this kind of prayer also can echo back to the one praying, who comes to recognizes a moment of truth that reveals fresh insights of meaning and purpose.
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I'm grateful for Fr. Well's three-fold reflections, because the two conventional forms of prayer seem fairly meaningless when we try to "pray for the planet brought down by degrees."
The resurrection prayer, that God will intervene to save us, is neither theologically nor practically valid. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not say that YHWH will save us from our blunders. Catastrophe can come as a consequence of sin and evil. God gives us warning and guides us toward change, but it is up to us to act.
When the "pray for us" request comes -- not from a woman at the coffee hour -- but from the wilderness, "the elephant, eagle, and whale," then the incarnational kind of prayer seems downright insulting to me. Creation is being torn asunder, species are driven into extinction, and toxic pollution poisons both humans and wildlife. A lot more is needed than comforting companionship in their time of suffering. Even if we recognize that we might be agents of God's presence, the gentle assurance that we're not alone is an inadequate response. To my mind, it is only if incarnational prayer stirs us into action ourselves -- action that really seeks to halt the devastation and to bring healing -- that we're getting a bit closer to what is needed.
And so I look to that third category -- what Wells calls transfiguration, and I often speak of as transformation -- as the most hopeful approach. When praying for the planet, though, I hope that we're not suggesting that "the dragonfly, spider and snail" are the ones who need to find a deeper meaning in their suffering. This kind of prayer for transformation has to point back to us. The insight of transfiguration needs to touch us, the ones who are enmeshed in the systems of destruction.
In this time of crisis, in these "not ordinary times," transformational prayer may show us deeper truths about who we are as members of Earth community. We may discover reasons for living beyond what we ordinarily experience in a culture of alienation and domination, a consumer culture that lies to us about the goals for a good and fulfilling life. When we genuinely open ourselves to God in prayer, this time of crisis might turn us around, and allow us to claim an entirely different identity.
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Rev. Wells has offered some good pastoral truth about prayer for the ordinary -- painful, but still ordinary -- experiences of daily life. In the one-on-one exchange with a stressed-out friend, incarnation and transfiguration are solid pastoral approaches to prayer.
I find that I need to stretch those three categories of prayer to encompass passionate prayer for the planet. In the honesty of prayer, when we really open ourselves to conversation with God, then incarnational prayer takes us way beyond comforting presence and demands that we be activists. And if we have the courage to delve into the transfiguration/ transformation kinds of prayer, then we may well be changed. Prayer in this time of crisis can turn us toward a passionate seeking of God's shalom, toward a way of living in Earth community that actually breaks down the power of death and destruction.
Take a hard look at your own prayer life, and that of your congregation. When and how do you pray for the planet? In your prayers, who acts, and who changes?
P.S. -- Another Notes, "Pray for the Rain Forest", used Dan Damon's hymn as a starting point for reflections on prayer. Those thoughts about the "unit of analysis" help explain why prayers that are appropriate in a pastoral conversation don't make sense when we're dealing with social institutions and ecological systems.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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