I am a religious person who prays every day. I believe those prayers have been answered in ways that exceeded 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.
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. 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. The hot sun beats down all summer, tanning even the rocks it seems 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 wind up onto 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 into the sky, to 14,000 feet in places. Trees cease being able to exist above certain elevations. The gray and red rocks of Colorado mountains stand stubborn against the sky, thrown up by tectonic forces deep within the earth. The entire ridge of the Rockies running from the southwest United States into the Canadian wilderness is like one giant park, peppered in spots by major cities and romantic towns were people live, work and play all along the Continental Divide. Many vacation there as well, drafting on the mountain air and dipping toes into cool lakes or raging meltwater rivers.
The mountains are so profound it can almost be difficult to recollect the profusion of forests in the Rockies once you're back home. That is, unless your home itself is nestled in the Colorado forests, built onto a mountainside or snuggled in a canyon among the red rocks.
It is easy to forget that Colorado forests––like all forests around the world––actually depend on occasional fires to clear the way for new growth. It has been that way for millions of years. It's nature way. At least, that's what scientists tell us.
But some people don't believe in what science says. 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 in fact 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 literal interpretation of the Bible demands that people deny these facts. Numerous national opinion polls tell us that approximately 50% of the population in America denies basic geological facts and contend that the accompanying theory of evolution that syncs with earth's geophysical history are just fairy tales. People who deny evolution in favor of the creationist worldview prefer to 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 some of the prayers being thrown to Colorado square perfectly with 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 to those whose homes and 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. Fire 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 a decade back I witnessed hundreds of acres of forests burning away along an east ride of the park. Firefighters dumped water and flame retardants on the runaway fire every day. It finally burned out when it was damned good and ready, not when humans put it out. On the other side of the park an entire mountainside still bore the deadstump 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. And I honestly don't think God controls the lightning either. Not in the providential sense anyway.
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. But we were wrong, so when are we going to get that through our heads; that both the heaven of creation and its imaging opposite in hell can be found 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, because it acknowledges that we live in a world where those forces are in balance, but also in collaboration within and without our persons. Some forces don't like the names we give them. But they still exist.
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. 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 or disparages those less fortunate because it somehow confers a perceived advantage to their political power.
We've seen the consequences of forced and casual negligence in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, where delayed response and disorganized or even dismissive attitudes toward those affected result in human and natural tragedy. We also know that it has been human activity that put cities like New Orleans at risk, because it was human activity that led to coastline erosion of wetlands that put the 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. And no matter how much we pray for their safety, nature may win out. The tsunami in Japan and its power were foretold in a book by Pearl S. Buck in which the residents of a coastal town were wiped out by a giant wave, only to resettle the same spot where the tragedy occurred before. That, apparently, is human nature.
Because it is often our selfish or sentimental interests that blind us to the reality that it is human habit, casual greed and stubborn belief that can make us think nature is supposed to be benign to our consumptive habits and acquisitive natures. God may care about us, but nature really doesn't. Do you understand now? As wonderful and sustaining as creation is, it is not God. And life itself may not be all that precious if you trust statistics, because 99% of all types of living things that ever roamed the earth are now extinct. The story of Noah's Ark in the Bible tells a similar story to evolution in that respect.
But let us be clear: the end game of the creationist worldview insists that human beings literally have dominion over the earth. If we buy that approach, it makes no sense to engage in prayer during natural disasters. We've clearly either brought them upon ourselves as punishment for our actions or else God is a vengeful being who does not care about whether we live or die.
Better to take the more liberal example of Jesus Christ, whose natural parables repeatedly point out the fact that we are engaged with creation as a living thing, connected to the world in ways both large and small, that we might show it respect and appreciate its force as an expression of God's almighty power, which just might include the ability to set things in motion through the results of geology and evolution expressed in the random nature of the universe––which directly parallels the spiritual concept of 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 eventually strike, but 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 spare our houses, keep green our grass or even save 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.