I am a religious person who prays every day. I believe those prayers have been answered in ways that exceed the ability to comprehend or imagine how it happened.
Having been the beneficiary of answers to my prayers, and to those of others praying for me and us (wife and family) it makes spiritual sense to return the cosmic favor and pray for others as well. Now people are asking for prayers for Colorado.
And I will pray for the people whose lives are being turned upside down and burned to rubble as wildfires consume acres and acres of Colorado forest. As recently as November 2011 I walked in those hills near Colorado Springs. Hiked up in the cool morning air for a look around, and saw rings of snow lacing the mountaintops, much higher than where I stood.
The red rocks of Colorado crunched underfoot. Tiny stubborn oak trees with miniature leaves clung to the crumbling ground. Colorado seems to be eroding by the inch in fact. The hot sun beats down all summer, tanning the rocks themselves perhaps, and giving the skin of Colorado visitors and residents that ruddy feel of mountain peoples. It is a unique place.
People have turned Colorado into an environmental plaything. Miles of hiking trails run up into the hillsides above Colorado Springs, home to an Olympic training center and epicenter for the Colorado good life. To the immediate west the Rockies jut higher and higher into the sky, to 14,000 feet in places. Trees cease being able to exist above certain elevations. The gray and red rocks of real mountains stand stubborn against the sky, thrown up by tectonic forces deep within the earth. The entire ridge of the Rockies runs from the southern United States far into the Canadian wilderness. People settle in towns all along the Continental Divide. Other vacation there, drafting on the mountain air and dipping toes into cool lakes or raging meltwater rivers.
The mountains are so profound it is almost hard to recall the profusion of forests in the Rockies when you go back home. That is, unless your home itself is nestled in the Colorado forests, built on a mountainside or snuggled in a canyon among the red rocks.
It is easy to forget that Colorado forests like forests all around the world actually depend on occasional fires to clear the way for new growth. It has been that way for millions of years. At least, that’s what scientists tell us.
With Colorado’s well-known conservative political and religious bent there are probably plenty of people living there who don’t believe that Colorado and its ecosystem are millions of years old. They probably don’t accept that the mountains were pushed up by movement of whole continents across the face of the earth.
The conservative worldview based on a literal interpretation of the Bible demands that people deny these facts. And that is truth for approximately 50% of the population in America, who deny basic geological facts and contend that the accompanying theory of evolution that converge with earth’s geophysical history are just fairy tales. People who deny evolution in favor of the creationist worldview believe that nature is the direct work of God’s hand, and God’s hand only. Those mountains? Created by God in an instant 10,000 years ago. Those forests…while changing and dying and growing anew over the last 10 millennia are still no sign that forests in general are part of a greater cycle of evolutionary development. Forests are forests. The words are clear, just as human beings were thrown together from dust at the dawn of time.
So the prayers being thrown to Colorado do meet the conservative worldview of creationism, where praying to God might somehow earn the mercy and favor of the Almighty and stop the fires. But tell that to the people whose homes have already been consumed. And tell that to those whose homes and all their belongings might still be burnt to a crisp. Is this punishment for some sort of spiritual crime on the part of Coloradans?
Some earthcentric “pagans” might leap to that argument on grounds that human abuses to the land have brought down the wrath of Mother Earth. That’s the other extreme of the deist-driven universe. But be cautious; begging mercy and exacting vengeance for one cause or another are not so very far apart.
That leads us to the natural explanation for the Colorado wildfires, for fires will always burn away forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California and yes, even New York state and southern Florida. On a vacation trip to Glacier National Park I witnessed hundreds of acres of forests burning away along a ridge east of the park. Firefighters dumped water and flame retardants on the runaway fire every day. But it burned out when it was damned good and ready, not when humans put it out. On the other side of the park and entire mountainside bore stubble across its face from a grand fire 30 years before. These things happen. Smokey the Bear once tried to prevent people from starting forest fires, but he doesn’t control the lightning that starts the bulk of natural conflagrations.
Fire has been part of the earth since its inception. Hot lava forms the very guts of our planet, erupting at times in fury that once was credited to the power of the Gods. When are we going to get that through our heads, that both the heaven of creation and its accompanying hell are right here on earth? The symbol of yin and yang seems to get that idea more clearly than the Christian notion of good and evil. Some forces don’t like the names we give them. But they still exist.
And until we grasp that our prayers for or against the fires that form our planet are likely fruitless, we are not likely to grasp the real meaning of prayer, or its consequences and potential benefits. These are the real miracles. For the Bible itself tells us that the kingdom of God is alive in the things that we do. That when natural disasters strike it is the welcome hand of those who care that brings the favor of God alive in our world. So it is fine to pray for Colorado, but it is also important to pray that we can find ways to help those affected by the natural disaster, that our government officials will not turn a hardened heart toward those in need simply because they are tight with a dime, or stingy, or worse; possessed of a political worldview that somehow disparages those less fortunate, holds prejudice against the misfortunate, need or poor.
We’ve seen the consequences of forced negligence in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where delayed response and disorganized and (even) dismissive attitudes toward those affected can result in human and natural tragedy. We also know that it has been human activity that put cities like New Orleans at risk, where human activity has reduced coastline wetlands and put that city at even greater peril when hurricanes hit. Perhaps we even need to stop being stupid in certain circumstances, like building major structures on barrier islands, or on the face of flood plains, or throwing up junk houses in earthquake zones. Or, we simply accept that that’s just people being people.
Because it is often our selfish or sentimental interests that override the facts and blind us to the reality that it is human greed and stubborn belief that makes us think nature is supposed to be benign to our consumptive habits and acquisitive natures.
But let us be clear: These are the end games of the creationist worldview, which insists that human beings literally have dominion over the earth. If we buy that approach, then it makes no sense to engage in prayer during natural disasters. We’ve clearly either brought them upon ourselves or else God is a vengeful being who does not care about us. Better to take the liberal example of Jesus Christ, whose natural parables explain that we are engaged with creation as a living thing, that we owe it respect and appreciate its force as an expression of God’s almighty power. That just might include the ability to set things in motion through the results of geology and evolution that express the random nature of the universe, which also parallels free will. See, the natural world and our spiritual choices align much more closely than you might think. It really is a yin and yang thing.
So it is ours to make sense of the world, not for the world to make sense of us. The idea that prayer can somehow stave off the fires, blot out a hurricane, seal up the earth to prevent a quake, or prevent flooding, hail, drought, tornados, erosion and powerful storms at sea is overreaching.
Indeed the Bible speaks of Christ committing miracles that silenced the wind and settled the sea, but we must understand that those metaphysical parables are designed to help us comprehend that the peace that passes all understanding is ours to engage before the tragedy happens, not during or after. That’s real faith, for it calls us to accept that tragedies will strike, and that we must be prepared to extend love or even beg help from our fellow human beings in a world that is imperfect, random and sometimes cruel. God wants us to help each other.
For we are bound to a cycle of life and death that unfortunately does not guarantee that any one of us gets out alive, or spares our houses, keeps green our grass or even saves the family dog from a passing car. Life is painful, real and fiery at times. Our prayers need to be focused on how we can help each other get through, because God did not design the world to operate in a way that bends to our prayers. We must bend and aim our prayers to the eternal conscience of human need and conscious grace. We must ourselves be the grace appreciated that God extends to us in giving us life. This is the favor we must return to God, through prayer and other means, if we hope at all to be a reflection of God’s image. It is a wonderful, perilous creation we live in whether you believe the earth is a mere 10,000 years old, or 10,000 x 10,000 years old. None of us is old enough to know, nor will we ever be. So let’s pray for each other, that somehow we really can make our world a better place.