Last Sunday afternoon, my kids joined a friend for a swim in his grandparent’s swimming pool. Afterwards, I swung by his house so we could pick up his brother and come back our way for a movie and popcorn. While there, I talked a bit to their dad, Philip. Phil had been out to check some of his fields earlier that day and had been taken aback at what he found. Last Sunday the Kansas wind was unrelenting and due to the wind, his neighbor to the south lost much of his topsoil as the day progressed. Phil took pictures of two feet of topsoil lodged in the tree row extending down the line between their fields. The pictures looked a little like the desert as you could see all these ripples in the dust. I asked him if he had ever seen anything like this before. His response, “Never.” As of last Sunday, it was still May.
Last Monday I noticed the old, heritage lilac bushes my family worked to transplant at our place early last spring were withering in the dry heat. I turned on the water to my garden at 8 in the morning. When I finished with the garden, I turned my attention to the lilacs. I didn’t turn off the water until 9:00 that evening. Last Monday, it was still only May.
Because of a record breaking warm and dry winter and spring, wheat harvest has begun earlier than farmers in our area can recall in their lifetime. Last Sunday my brother and dad began cutting wheat. Since they farm a relatively small amount, by Wednesday, before the rain and hail fell, they had harvested all but 40 acres of double crop wheat that wasn’t yet quite ripe. I recall well my growing up years, the stressed and frantic goal to have wheat harvest wrapped up by July 4th. Wednesday of last week, it was still May.
A week and a half ago, church women gathered to lay out quilt tops in the church basement. As we worked, our congregational matriarch wondered out loud why, in the midst of ongoing drought, we don’t hear about churches gathering together to pray for rain. Her question kept me company for the next while.
When I read through the lectionary passages last week, the only one that really rallied my attention was Psalm 29, which in my Bible is entitled, “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” It seems to me the writer was looking for signs of God’s presence in the midst of what must have been a pretty catastrophic and violent storm. He seemed to be looking for assurance that even there in the midst of devastation, was God. This Psalm is perfectly appropriate for people around this country who have seen broken cedars and a shaken wilderness in the wake of tornadoes and straight line winds. But as close the door on an unbelievably hot and dry May and as we ready ourselves for what is increasingly looking like another blistering hot and dry summer, I would have been more interested in a psalm entitled, “The Voice of God in a Great Drought.” Using Psalm 29 as my blueprint, this is what I came up with:
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord glory and worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the dry lands; the God of glory whistles in the wind,
the Lord, over dancing dust storms.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord turns lakes to puddles; the Lord drains the lakes of Texas.
It makes Kansas skitter like a lizard, and Oklahoma like a wounded scorpion.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the dusty brush of the plains, the Lord shakes the barren dessert of Arizona.
The voice of the Lord causes the ground to gasp, and strips the grassland bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the drought; the Lord sits enthroned as Ruler forever.
May the Lord give strength to all people! May the Lord bless all people with peace!
These words fit better perhaps, but I find the theology here a little disconcerting. But what this Psalm implies, a text from says outright. In my Bible, chapter 14 is entitled, “The Great Drought”. The chapter begins with some troubling but all too accurate imagery: cracked ground, “the doe in the field abandoning her newborn fawn because there is no grass”, wild donkeys panting for air. This section concludes with an unexpected harshness. “The Lord said to me: Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry, and although they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I do not accept them; but by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them.”
Now I understand the desire to find meaning in terrible situations. One of the most popular ideas in the Bible is that if misfortune strikes you, God must surely be punishing you for something you did wrong. This is the foot Job’s friends lead with when they come to offer their aid. This theology is alive and well today too. We heard it in the voice of a well known televangelist when he accused the people of New Orleans of bringing upon themselves God’s deserved wrath in the form of Hurricane Katrina. Many people jumped on a similar bandwagon in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake declaring the natural disaster a punishment and judgment by God on the nation of Haiti. And I suspect, every week some pastor in Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas suggests from the pulpit that the drought is due to God’s judgment on our sin. But there’s a problem with this line of thinking. Namely…..that it’s wrong.
God’s thundering voice of judgment on Job’s friends in the book of Job makes that crystal clear. Jesus also turns this kind of thinking on its head. The most well known example comes from the gospel of John when Jesus’ disciples ask who’s sin caused a man in their path to be born blind (chapter 9). Jesus replies that the man’s blindness had nothing to do with sin. And in Matthew 5, tucked into Jesus’ exhortations to love our enemies he says (verse 45), “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
If I continue logically along these same lines, then just as I don’t think God sends earthquakes and hurricanes to punish or otherwise, I also don’t believe God withholds rain. Which leads me to question the effectiveness of praying for rain. I believe in a loving, compassionate and just God. If God really did regulate all things weather, I think we would always have the perfect amount of moisture.
I am certain there are many, many people in Texas praying for rain. And yet, weather experts are warning it is increasingly likely a third La Nina system will form causing the drought in Texas to remain in place for several more years. Already, several towns have begun to truck in water because wells have run dry.
If we want to broaden the scope more, we can think back to the drought in East Africa last year, the worst that area had seen in 60 years. Thousands of people in Somalia died last year due to famine caused in large part by the drought. Heading into 2012, they have received more rain and things are looking a little better. Still, if praying for rain actually helped produce rain, East Africa would have been deluged with moisture last year. Much as we might like to control God with our prayers, I think neither prayer nor God works in that way.
But that is not to say we shouldn’t pray for rain. Actually, I think we should. I’ve been really struggling over this last year to wrap my mind around prayer. One of my favorite scripture passages is Romans 8:26-27 - “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
We do not know how to pray. And yet, when we pray, the spirit of God is there, is present. Mennonite theologian, Duane Friesen, refers to God as “a community building Spirit”. Every prayer we offer lashes us to one another with a relational tie. These layered ties very quickly transform into community. When I walk outside and pluck a yellowing bean leaf or see birds diving with gratitude into a temporary muddy water puddle created by my sprinkler, my thoughts fly away fast to farmers I know and love. And I can’t help myself. I begin to pray for rain. I think about how the drought personally impacts those I care for. And I understand that those of us who live close to the land, we wrap ourselves tight around the seasons and feel the pulse, the tremors, the weariness. This is common ground and I know as I send my prayers out they are connecting with daily whispered prayers and hopes and longings said by you, by my family, by my neighbors, by farmers in Moundridge, by rural residents in Oklahoma, by entire towns in Texas, by village upon village in East Africa. And there in the midst of all these interweaving and aching prayers for moisture, the Holy Spirit dances and unity, community emerges. I see God not in the drought, but in our response to the drought and the way in which our responses dismantle divisions.
(An aside: as WDC Mennonites head into a contentious annual assembly this summer with brothers and sisters from Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, our response to the drought, our yearning for a healing river, will be a solid piece of common ground for us to stand upon.)
Neither are the connections forged by our prayers for rain limited to the present. Last summer I remember feeling a sad sort of kinship with those earlier generations who battled drought in the 1930’s. Even here, 80 years later, I can feel the relentless prayers they surely tossed out into the tireless winds of the plains. I send out my prayers to my children as adults, to my grandchildren (God willing) and great grand children, who I fear will face drought on a scope we have yet only conjured in our imaginations. As I read about dismayed farmers covering their heads in discouragement in the passage from Jeremiah, I sense their prayers connect with our own and I feel a fresh connection with these people, gone so long from the face of the earth.
For most of my life I’ve imaged prayer as a vertical line extending between God and myself. Sadly or gladly (I’m not sure which), this personal understanding collapsed on itself last year. But prayer understood as a horizontal line which binds ourselves to one another through our shared hopes, longings, gratitudes and concerns offers new ground for the Spirit to play. Certainly, I “do not know how to pray as I ought”. But I choose to have faith that somehow God’s Spirit works to build community, build common ground through the prayers we offer. So to that end, let’s pray for rain.