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June 14, 2007

Of droughts and flooding rains...

When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers

(Chinese Proverb)

When Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a public appeal for prayer for rain a month or so back, it provoked significant discussion amongst many of my colleagues. Many questioned the motives of the PM, particularly in light of the increasing propensity for Australian politics to court the Christian vote, much in the same way in which American Republicans have managed to successfully garner the conservative Christian vote over the past decade. Others questioned whether it is appropriate to ask for prayer without being prepared to act at the same time in response to the challenges. Given the PM's very public scepticism in relation to climate change, and unwillingness - or at least reluctance - to embrace any responsibility for reduction in carbon emissions, which are widely regarded as responsible for the changes in weather patterns which are evident throughout the world, and of which the extended Australian drought is just one evidence. The link between repentance (for actions which bring us to the present problem) and prayer was expressed. Then there were those who applauded the willingness of the PM to acknowledge the existence of a 'higher power' and a sense of dependence upon God. Other issues (such as cultural sensitivity) served to push the call into the background, many writing it off as a political stunt. Until...


Last week in the Hunter Valley region, torrential rain fell - over 170 mm in 24 hours in some zones - causing severe flooding which resulted in the death of at least seven people and property damage estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars, not to mention the loss of personal property, memories, and disruption to family life. It is an unmitigated national disaster. Where in the world would you find a community in the middle of a drought suffering such flood damage?

But these events brought the PM's request back onto the national agenda. It began in an innocuous way for me, when a parent at school commented, "we prayed for rain, didn't we?" when discussing the situation. It is a theme which has been picked up by Philip Adams, and The Chaser team on last night's show (big file, but you only need to watch the first five minutes).

Which brings us back to the nature of prayer.

Did we pray incorrectly (as some have suggested)? Perhaps we needed to be more specific... indicating what, when and how much. But of course this is absurd. It implies a God who is unknowing and uncaring - one with loads of power but no idea how to use it. Jesus said of our anxiety for the basics of life "your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things," (Mt 6:32) and that "your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him." (Mt 6:8) To recast God as a cosmic Santa Claus who needs to be manipulated by numbers or words (weight or choice of), diminishes the very character of God we are seeking to acknowledge and esteem. Are we suggesting that God does not know our need? That he doesn't know how to provide correctly? Of course not (and I am obviously caricaturing).

The Chinese proverb "When the gods want to punish us they answer our prayers" seems salient in this setting. How is it that we, being mortal beings, are able to cast the consequences of our desires and decisions better than the One whose vision and power is not limited as we? We cry out for rain, thinking that this would be good for us, and then are overwhelmed by it. Having cast drought as the an unmitigated evil, we paint rain as our friend. The reality proves otherwise.

When we journey back through the Bible, we see drought playing an important role from time to time in the purposes of God. It was drought that brought reconciliation between Joseph and his family. It was drought that brought the confrontation between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, ultimately turning Israel's heart back to God. It was in the desert that Israel was formed for entry into the promised land, and it was in drought that Jeremiah emerged to lead Israel. When we call for rain out of our own sense of need, might we be missing the greater purposes of God?

Which is not to say that it is wrong to pray for rain. My voice has been part of that chorus in prayer for some time. But, when we ask for something, we also need to be aware that God might have a different purpose at work. Prayer is about much more, and much greater things, than simply rolling out our requests before God, who has no need of increasing His personal approval ratings, but is more intent on shaping his kingdom 'on earth as it is in heaven'. When I pray for rain, I need to listen... to discern whether there is a response of the Spirit of which I am called to be part.

There is little doubt that this extended drought has sharpened our awareness of the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Would we be as aware of climate change without it? Would we be equally willing to make changes to our lifestyles if we were well-watered? The issue of stewardship of creation is firmly in the forefront of our minds as we contemplate shortages in water, impacts on our river and eco-systems, and the consequences of our increasing reliance on fossil-based fuels. Rather than simply telling God what to do about the drought ("send rain") ought we not also be asking God what we should be doing? There is a partnership in existence since the dawn of time when in the Garden of Eden responsibility was given to the humans to care for the land which we need to reconsider. Our care has been lacking, and a decent fall of rain isn't going to solve the continuing problems.

If it comes to the point where, in prayer, we need to be very specific about the amount of rain we want, and where we want God to put it, then we have moved so far from where our relationship with the God who created and redeemed us ought to be. Far from expressing dependence upon God, we are making Him our servant, and at our beck and call. That seems to be the exact opposite of where it ought to be.

Posted by gary at June 14, 2007 11:18 AM

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