What are we praying for when we pray for those affected by or “about” Hurricane Matthew? There should be some easy and simple answers. After all, this happens on a regular basis. Storms are a fact of life. Even people I never see in church seem to be trying out prayer. We’re praying for those in the path of the storm, those most directly affected by the wind and rain. This covers lots of people and animals. Without going into specifics, you’ve just prayed for the dogs, cats, Firefighters, EMT’s, linemen, people who refused to evacuate, people who did evacuate, and guys from the weather channel. In this instance, praying for those in the path of Hurricane Matthew means you’re praying for upwards of 20 million people. Is that how prayer is supposed to work? In one fell swoop, we’ve covered it all, a bcc message to God and we’ve got it done? Something about that approach to prayer makes me uncomfortable.
Here’s a second question, one that makes our Hurricane Prayers a little tricky. Imagine, whether you’re on Facebook or in worship on Sunday morning, you’ve asked people to “pray for those in the path of the storm”. OK, so what are we doing when we “pray for those in the path of the storm”? It sounds good and the perfectly appropriate thing to say at a moment like this. But what have we actually said or done? Take a deep breath and step back for a moment. At best, “praying for those in the path of the storm” is like a vague well-wish on a cheap greeting card, sent in someone’s general direction. What are we praying for, from our perch of relative safety, while others suffer death and destruction?
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. If you wanted to find wonderful people condemned to live in the combined hells of poverty and corruption, it would be Haiti. The 2006 Earthquake nearly destroyed the country. They are completely dependent on international aid organizations, foreign governments, and the United Nations to maintain a government. The last thing the Haitians need is a hurricane of any strength. One might propose praying to God to turn the Hurricane away from Haiti. I saw few prayers like that. Here’s what I also know. If we don’t see it on the news most people won’t care. We care about what we see. We also know that storms have a mind of their own. Storms like people have free will, or so it seems.
So my question is this: Are we praying for God to act against nature, for our self-preservation, the preservation of property, or perhaps ever time travel itself? Are we praying to be returned to a place and time so that we might live as if the hurricane never existed? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Privileged people like privileged prayers. And from the moment we call forth the deity’s name, we are afloat on a sea of time no longer of our own control. Beyond the glass which divides the sanctuary walls; our words (our “maybe not”) stand between Abraham’s “Why, God?” and Noah’s “Yes, God!” Thousands of years collapse into this single meditative moment. We are human beings trying to understand the mysterious ways of the God we believe in and natural world created by this God. Our prayers carry us back in time.
As each of those who preceded us and entered into a covenantal journey with the deity will attest; the status quo, today was preferred to the unknown future. Self preservation, the now, and keeping things the same was seen as infinitely better than anything on the horizon. It is within these emotions, between reticence and fear that our prayers begin to form.
Our prayers, even when confronted with God’s evolving future, often begin with the past firmly in mind. Sure, using the vagaries of the present we may sound like we’ve prayed for 20 million people. But is this what we’re really saying:
“God, do not change me or the world I know. I want my needs, habits, and ideas to remain just where they were, before this Hurricane or whatever happens to be going on at this moment.”
What happens when God pulls us out of the present and takes us into the future? What might that prayer sound like (especially as it relates to a Hurricane)?
Does it take a storm to make us vitally aware of your presence?
Does it take a storm to force us to say thank you to people who risk their lives?
Does it take the futility of humankind naming a storm for us to realize how powerful the forces of this planet truly are?
Does it take death and destruction for us to appreciate human life over property, technology, and material things?
Does it take evacuations for us to meet our neighbors and make new friends?
Does it take the wind and rain for us to realize you move in the stillness and silence after the clouds pass?
Forgive our ambivalence toward the irrelevance of tomorrow as we look only at the strangeness of our own version of today.
Help us to see the tenuous hope to which others grasp, bewildered by a despair we have never known, help us encounter those remote sounds and smells so they do not produce anxiety and fear in our hearts.
Gracious God, You do not call us to accept death as a way of life for any of your children.
We cannot do what we do alone.
Words alone are useless unless they are overwhelmed with love. Forgive me when all I do is pray.
I place these words on the shattered dreams of my recalcitrance, may they be embodied with love, placed with the risen Christ, who calls us to act, Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps, when I pray about Hurricane Matthew, I will pray something like that.