Tag Archives: prayer

Standing Rock Reflections: Pray, pray, pray…

“Get up everybody! It’s a beautiful day! Get up! Come to the sacred fire!”

The voice on the loudspeaker carries over the frozen camp, the dawn little more than a gray blush on the eastern horizon. Teepees, tents and campers are still mostly dark. The wind howls. It’s still snowing. This is definitely not a beautiful day.

“Get up! Come to the fire and pray. Come and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

Aceti Sakowin Camp before dawn, lit by DAPL pipeline construction lights

The inside walls of my little tent are glazed with a solid sheet of ice. The moisture from my breath in the night now fused with the structure of my little home. I cinch down the drawstring of my mummy bag tighter around my face, and close my eyes.

“Get up, my relatives! Get up Christians! It’s time to pray!”

Now that’s not entirely fair. I’m a Christian, and the voice is basically calling me by name. So this old white man groans and struggles to unzip the cocoon of warmth that has swaddled him through the night, and reaches for the stiff, icey trousers frozen to the tent floor.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux sprawls along the Cannon Ball River and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction route for what seems like a mile or more. For some reason, I have pitched my little tent a long, long way from the “sacred fire,” where the morning Prayer Circle meets. So by the time I slip and stumble my way to the gathering crowd, the prayers have begun. An elder of the Lakota Sioux – the voice that aroused me from sleep – is still speaking.

“Mother Earth, she is hurting right now. She is hurting. She needs us to help her. You know, we now have earthquakes all the time. This is not good. And I hear that up north, the ice and snow are melting, and flowing into the oceans. The sea creatures are being harmed, and the water is rising.”

This is what I have come to expect from Sioux elders. Concern for the whole earth. Concern for the local ecosystem. A keen sense of our place in the larger creation.

“Governor Dalrymple tells us we’re breaking the law. But we’re protecting the earth. They think that they can take, and take, and take from Mother Earth. But you can’t only take, without injuring the creation. At some point, you have to stop taking, and give something back….”

Then he begins to pray. I don’t understand a word. He sings. The notes are unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard these sounds in film – the eerie tune, the drums. They are foreign. This is not my religion. He’s praying to an indigenous God, no? Still, I try to remain in the spirit, praying as best I know how in my own language, in my own faith.

Suddenly, the speaker turns to English: “Our Lord Jesus Christ! We thank you for your love and grace! We praise you! We call on you to protect the earth that you love…”

Whoa! What’s going on here? I had thought….

“… In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The prayer service is not nearly over. We are given tobacco, cedar leaves, sage, and small cups of water from many other rivers. We are marching in procession to the Cannon Ball River, to bless the waters, and to pray for them. Eventually, it is my turn at the river’s edge. As the women sing, I kneel in the snow, and reach out over the water.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it,” I recite as I offer my tobacco and cedar leaves to the icy waters. “For he founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” I pour out my little cup of waters collected from afar.

“Get up and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

I am finished. I struggle to my feet, and the singing women smile as they offer me their hands to keep me from falling. I reach for them gratefully.

If you are looking for theological answers from this post, I’m so sorry. You will be disappointed. But theology tends to be challenged and refined by the rough and tumble of life, doesn’t it? I have said that I have come back from Standing Rock believing that Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that. I don’t fully understand it, however. But this I do understand: The apostle Paul tells us in that most famous of gospel passages – Romans 8 – that the groaning creation “waits with longing for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Who, today, are the sons of God bringing relief to the groaning creation in the Dakotas? Who are these sons of God? Up on the distant ridge are the armor-clad police, the massive earth movers and drilling machinery. Overhead, the planes and helicopters, keeping an eye on our every move. Here, by the river, are the Lakota Sioux, praying, singing, preparing to confront the engines of the petro-state.

Who are the sons of God? Who are the ones bringing good news to the creation?

A singing woman meets my eyes. I smile weakly as I take her hand, and steady myself for the climb back up the riverbank. There is much work ahead today.

Note: This is the third in a series of Standing Rock Reflections. Prior posts are

 

Why We Are Praying: NO KEYSTONE XL

The news today is grim.

We hear that Democrat Mary Landrieu, fighting for her political life in oil-dominated Louisiana, is joining with Senate Republicans in a bid to force the Obama Administration to approve the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, linking Canada’s toxic petro-moonscape in Alberta to export refineries on the Gulf Coast. Harry Reid, the lame-duck Majority Leader, will do her the favor of letting the vote come to the floor. In the House, Speaker Boehner will easily roll over the opposition. Before you know it, legislation will almost certainly land on President Obama’s desk, demanding that he approve the pipeline now.

But for months now, a prayer-band of Christians has regularly raised its voice to God, begging Him to stop the powerful forces seeking to enrich the wealthy at the expense of His Creation, and especially the poor and vulnerable. Today, we recall the many who have prayed in the face of overwhelming power. We recall Judah’s King Jehoshaphat, who looked from Jerusalem’s walls at an overwhelming swarm of invaders, and prayed: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you…” (1 Chron. 20:12). We remember the apostles Peter and John, facing threats from the Sanhedrin that had just murdered the Son of Man: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness…” (Acts 4:29).

It has looked grim for God’s people many times before. But we continue to pray: Lord, stretch out your hand to protect the poor, the powerless, the Creation that you love, from the hand of the powerful, the greedy, and the willfully ignorant. God has not always answered the way we have hoped. But He always invites us – even more, He commands us – into His presence to pray.

But most Americans – many Christians included – seem not to understand why we’re on our knees. Isn’t this pipeline a major source of jobs? Isn’t this our ticket to “energy independence?” Shouldn’t we believe the hundreds of TV commercials we’ve seen promising huge economic benefits and a pristine environment – if only we’ll give the multinational oil companies an easy pathway through our agricultural heartland to the sea?

Well, in a word, No. And no. And no.

But we can do better than that. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. And their reasons vary depending on their home community, their tribe, or their particular interests. But for brevity, let me pick four key reasons why we wish that all people of faith would join us in praying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline:

  • Tar sands expansion harms native Canadian nations, already being poisoned by tar sands mining.
  • Just when the world’s two largest carbon polluters have finally agreed to act on climate change, the Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil.
  • Big-money oil exporters will profit, but ordinary people will suffer.
  • The world is desperate for climate leadership from America.

Tar sands mining harms Canadian native people: The First Nations, especially the Cree and Dene people, have lived sustainably in the Alberta tar sands region for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. They rely on the water, the fish, and the game to sustain their communities and their lives. But the tar sand mining of the last two decades has irreversibly polluted much of their land and water, spawning an epidemic of cancers, and other ills. Indigenous communities like Fort Chipewyan – so remote and pristine as to be accessible only over frozen rivers – are now reduced to buying bottled water and importing all their food. We now hear the disturbing word “genocide” in connection with some of these nations. And if we’re offended by the word, perhaps we should try to imagine the offense taken by its victims.

I spent a week among the tar sands nations earlier this year, and can attest that these concerns are not exaggerated. In fact, the cultural gentleness of these people tends, in my opinion, to mask the full extent of the harm that the carbon-industrial complex is wreaking on them and their children.

But you don’t have to make the long trip to Fort McMurray yourself. Just watch any of a number of easily accessible videos. It’s worth hearing from the principal doctor serving some of these cancer clusters. Here’s one that’s worth the three minutes of run time:

Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil: It’s not for nothing that TransCanada, Exxon, Shell, Valero, Total and others are desperate to force Obama and Kerry to approve the pipeline. Alberta has unimaginable petroleum resources, and these giant companies have bet billions that they can get their hands on it and sell it on world markets.

The problem is, Alberta’s tar sands possess enough carbon to cook the planet several times over – almost certainly enough to drive a mass extinction to rival the end of the Cretaceous Period (goodbye, T-Rex!). The world’s climate science community has told us that we are on a strict global carbon budget now: a total of no more than one trillion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere if we are to have a serious chance of keeping the world’s temperature increase below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages.

The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half that amount, and on our current pace, we’ll cross the trillion-ton threshold by 2030. It’s important, therefore, as we transition from fossil fuels, not to double down on the most polluting ones. But tar sands are much more polluting than conventional oils. The extraction and refining of Alberta tar sands generates about three times more CO2 than conventional extraction.

And there’s so much of it in Alberta. If the living species that God has created are to survive in His world, then most of the tar sands simply must stay in the ground.Picture1

From a planetary perspective, the good news is that Alberta’s heavy crude is landlocked, far from refining and export infrastructure, and largely impeded by lands controlled by indigenous First Nations, many of which are hostile to polluting industries. Without the Keystone XL, the industry uses smaller pipelines, trucks and trains, all of which add to costs. In fact, most analysts agree that tar sands production is a money-loser at world prices below $75. Today, the world price is about $74.

So anything that we do to increase the flow and lower the cost of tar sands oil will inevitably add to the flood of carbon that is endangering the world and its many threatened species, including the billions of humans most vulnerable to flood, drought, sea level rise and ocean acidification, all linked to carbon pollution.

Ordinary people will suffer: To hear the oil company commercials – and their politicians – you’d think just the opposite. Mainly, they promise jobs. And sure enough, the State Department has concluded that constructing the pipeline will produce about 1,950 temporary jobs over two years. But the total of permanent jobs (excluding environmental clean-up jobs from pipeline leaks) is now estimated at a total of less than fifty. Actually, it’s only 35 operators and inspectors, to be precise. For perspective, the US economy generated 142,000 new jobs last month, or about 5,000 jobs per day.

So whatever numbers you buy into, can anyone imagine scores of Congressmen scrambling to push through a pipeline project as a jobs program, if it generates less than one day’s worth of job creation?

But if ordinary people won’t benefit, the flip side of this reality is much darker. We now know that climate change always harms the poor first. Environmental degradation of every sort has been shown in study after study to affect minority and low-income communities disproportionately. And what’s true for pollution of all sorts is especially acute for climate pollution, where all the most climate vulnerable countries are low emitters, and all the highest polluting countries are rich.

The world is desperate for climate leadership from America: Together with China, the US accounts for 40 percent of global carbon omissions. Worse, we are among the very worst offenders on a per capita basis, at more than 19 tons of CO2 per American each year, more than double the world average.

In the past, the US actively undermined international efforts to address catastrophic climate disruption. Our refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol – alone among all the nations on earth – contributed significantly to the failure of that effort. On this site, we’ve quoted Rev. Peter Karanja, Kenya’s leading Protestant church leader, who begged us to send this message to our country:

“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change. They are not willing to reduce anything, and they’re not at all willing to finance the cost of adaptation….  

“The message needs to get to the American people. You need to tell your leaders: ‘We are the ones who put you in office. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.’

“We have these international conferences on climate change. But at the end of the day, the U.S. always comes up with something to make them collapse. We come away with nothing, and no hope. Because Christians are one family, they must be the ones to pressure their governments to act responsibly.”

Well, as of yesterday, the US (and China) could hold their heads a bit higher, and ask other countries to join us in fighting climate change. The spillover effect on other countries is cited by virtually all observers as the most important effect of the Obama-Xi agreement on reducing carbon emissions. But in a single stroke, Congress could negate this advantage entirely, declaring loudly that whatever we may say, we have no intention of actually doing anything to relieve global suffering from climate disruption.

So there you have it. For me, those are the big reasons we’re asking God daily to stop this one pipeline project. And today, it looks like we’re pretty seriously outgunned. We have been from the outset, of course. But now, they seem to have the votes.

But Christians believe that the world is fundamentally broken, and that Christ’s plan is to fix “all things,” and to reconcile them to Himself. We’ve never believed that this requires a Senate majority, or a friendly President.

And so we pray, even today.

How Do We Pray When It’s Too Late?

We have been praying.

We have prayed for Kenyan farmers and Sudanese pastoralists beset by the onslaught of advancing deserts and permanent drought. We have prayed for Bangladeshi delta dwellers facing encroachment from rising seas. We have prayed for Filipinos in the path of the most destructive coastal storm ever to make landfall in recorded history. We have prayed for Texans and Californians locked in the grip of the worst fire seasons in memory. We have prayed for Gulf Coast survivors of repeated 100-year storms and devastating oil spills. We have been praying and praying.

And some of us have gone beyond praying for victims, but for the causes of their suffering. Some have prayed for a global awakening to the peril of our abuse of the Creation; for resolve to limit our use of fossil fuels; for a change of heart from powerful people who resist climate action. And some have prayed for specific struggles, like resistance to toxic mountaintop-removal coal mining, mercury poisoning from power-plant smokestack emissions, or the newest carbon menace currently being developed in the Canadian tar-sands fields.

Some of us pray because we believe that the Creation that we love has a chance to recover, if only we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by cutting our use of fossil fuels.

But today, our prayers have been met head-on with a crushing blow. We read of the “collapse” of one of Earth’s three massive ice sheets. In this case, “collapse” means the now-irreversible slide toward certain disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which will add 4 more feet to the inevitable rise in sea levels in a warming world.

“This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”

And evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe added in comments today in an interview with Alexei Laushkin of Evangelical Environmental Network: “These glaciers are melting from the bottom now. It will take time, but these glaciers will now melt. We can’t stop them.”

Unstoppable. Add those 4 feet to the approximately 3 feet of sea level rise widely believed to be “baked in” to the balance of this century, plus the alarming trends in the Greenland ice sheet, and there’s no longer any question about the inevitable result for millions of human souls.

Miami: the world's #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

Miami: the world’s #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

New York, Boston, Miami, Norfolk and New Orleans – all significantly flooded or scarcely recognizable. Kolkata and Mumbai, Guangzhou and Shanghai, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, London and Amsterdam, Lagos and Alexandria, Dhaka and virtually all of Bangladesh – with exposed populations of more than 100 million people, not counting the additional billions who will likely be forced to migrate because of related failures of infrastructure.

So now, how do we pray? God, don’t let this happen? We’ve enjoyed our consumption-fueling carbon binge, but now, please stop its effects on us and our children?

I don’t find this narrative in the Bible, or anywhere in the history of redemption for that matter. I can’t recall God altering the laws of nature on a global scale because you or I don’t like the consequences of what we’ve done – or what our parents have done. People prayed all over the world in the 1600’s for safety and sustenance, but global climate chaos (cooling, in that time) still wiped out as much as one-third of humanity. I can’t believe that it’s unfaithful to doubt whether the laws of physics will be rewritten simply because of my really earnest prayers.

Perhaps it’s time for praying people to begin to recover the prayer of lament. More than one-third of the Psalms cry out in lament. Psalm 42 is a familiar one, among many: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, Where is your God?”

And then there’s the book of Lamentations. If you’re at all like me, you might even have difficulty finding it. But if our church hymns or worship songs are mainly of the “Victory-in-Jesus” variety, it may do us good to find it more often: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16).

What’s the point of lament? If you’re wondering this, it’s little wonder: Our prevailing theology today is rooted in the idea that God’s kingdom is progressing everywhere, as is our sanctification. The gospel working in us has made us better, somehow. If we’re Americans, our exceptionalist mythology adds to it the remarkable notion that we can overcome virtually anything because we’re special. And if we’re Evangelicals, perhaps we add to these notions the call that we should take all this triumphalist energy to some poor corner of the world that desperately needs us and our message, and then all will be well – or at least better.

But as we read the Gospels, this illusion is rudely interrupted by Jesus the Christ himself. St. Mark’s gospel gives us this synopsis of his very first sermon: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe….” Repent?  The first thing the Bearer of “good news” has to tell us is that we need to repent? Little wonder that these words don’t mean much to us: We haven’t been weeping. We can handle it. All things are possible. It’s never too late.

But now, we’re confronted with those dreaded words: Too late. We can’t make it all better. Whatever prayer we pray, whatever new laws we pass, whatever votes we cast – West Antarctica is collapsing, and the seas will rise in an unstoppable tide.

How to pray? How to pray when it’s too late?

Perhaps our prayers can be informed by this modest proposition: Yes, it’s too late for West Antarctica, and for the children of people living on today’s low-lying coastal regions. But it’s not too late for anything. Sure, West Antarctica’s collapsing glaciers hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 4 feet. But the rest of Antarctica holds enough ice to raise sea levels by more than 180 feet. And the world’s most imperiled ice sheet on Greenland could account for another 23 feet.

Perhaps it’s obvious to us all. Our prayers of lament will only lead us to repentance, and real repentance is always active. Pray. Pour out grief for what is lost. And then do everything we can to salvage what can still be protected.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” Psalm 137:1-3.

For a thoughtful meditation on the role of lament in God’s kingdom, please visit Sojourners website for a powerful article by Soong-Chan Rah.