This morning we gather here, with the heaters on, comfortably far away from the fires burning in the Northern Hemisphere, or the drought in New South Wales. But distance is an illusion. And so, this morning we will pray.
You will find in our service sheet reference to big G and small g. Big G is the God who is a proper noun. This is the God in the psalm we will sing, and the texts from Jeremiah and Matthew. This is the strong, in charge God, who has the ‘whole world in his hands’. This big G is also said to be the only God, other faiths and cultures have got it wrong.
In a time when the world is burning this God seems to be absent.
The small g is the god who we humbly say we know little about. This is the god that haunts us with uncomfortable questions; who is known in the weak ways of love and cooperation. This god is in the weave of our vulnerability; and has no army. This god is not constrained by our prejudices against other religions and cultures.
In a time when the world is burning this god is suffering with, in, and among planetary life. It is we weaklings with a weak god who have the power to save or the power to fail.
When we undertake that incredible journey away from the security of literal readings of the Bible and the G/god[s] it portrays, often we find that prayer becomes more and more difficult. For when god is more mystery than reality, more unknown than known, when god breaks free of every metaphorical cage our religious traditions have created, then prayer – especially spoken or written prayer - is fraught. For prayers are our attempts to verbalise the ineffable, or at least our approximations of how the ineffable touches our lives. They contain our hopes, our guesses about god, and at best some poetry.
Maybe that’s why the poetic Psalms are still so popular – particularly when sung. It is the rhythm, familiarity, and sounds that become important, rather the theological ideas of 1000 BCE contained in them. Mind you most New Zealanders now would not know what the Psalms are, let alone think they have any relevancy.
Of course addressing a personal God who is ‘above’, ‘in heaven’, or somewhere other than earthed brings a set of problems. Such language can locate God off the planet, and separate God from the planet, like a potter is separate from the pot. Such language also, as in the potter/pot analogy, assumes that God shapes and fixes, or doesn’t fix, our planetary problems. And as our television screens remind us each night, there is no escaping we have planetary problems around climate change. Our planet is burning.
I think there are ways to honour the transcendence/vastness of god without resorting to separatist language. Just as I think there are ways to honour the immanence/nearness of god without reducing god to a mirror of our human needs.
But many of the old prayers address the Mr Fix-it God. And in the absence of a fix it is not illogical to blame that God for not cleaning up the ecological mess our planet is in.
There is an old prayer, several centuries old, that I used earlier in the year. It comes from Portugal. And it is very different from how most of us think about god.
“I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun, and my fruits are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you journey on.
I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat.
I am the handle of your hoe, the door of your homestead, the wood of your cradle, and the shell of your coffin.
I am the bread of kindness and the flower of beauty.
‘Ye who pass by, listen to my prayer: Harm me not.”
The first three sentences, and maybe the last, seem to be about wood. The ‘I am’ is wood. A wood with life. And the point of the prayer is that wood, for the author, is all-pervasive, and by implication evokes both wonder and thanksgiving. The last sentence is an ethical directive to other creatures, especially humans, to ‘do no harm’.
It is tempting to think sentence which speaks of wood as the bread of kindness and the flower of beauty doesn’t fit. Can wood be kind and beautiful?
Why I like this prayer is that, while appealing to the poet in me, it leads me to appreciate wood and the culture from which this prayer arose. It is to see god in beauty, and beauty in god; to see god in kindness, and kindness in god; to see in wood the pencilled writing of the divine connectedness.
Just like silent prayer, written prayer doesn’t have to start with ‘Dear god’ – like a letter to a grandparent. It can begin from any number of perspectives; it’s where it leads that matters.
Of course the last admonition to ‘do no harm’ no longer cuts it. It’s like that provocative prayer of Michael Leunig’s: ‘Father do not forgive them… for they now know precisely what they do.’
We now know that not only have we harmed the planet - cutting, using, polluting, and exploiting vast areas of land, water, sea, and sky – but in many places we have harmed beyond the point of repair. We now know we have destroyed whole species. We have believed we have had a biblical mandate to subdue the earth and use it, abuse it, how we wish. We now know this is a destructive theology, and a theology that has nurtured the worst of ‘developers’ and ‘entrepreneurs’, and the greed within us.
Leunig’s prayer says it like this: “…do not forgive them… those betrayers of nature’s love. Those exploiters of nature’s innocence. Those poisoners. Do not forgive them. Those greedy, pompous people. That greed and pomposity within us all. The sum total of that petty greed and pomposity within us all. We now know precisely what these things are doing to the earth.”[i]
Yes, we need to do no harm. But we also need to restore and repair. As another prayer says, “We need to find the means to repair, not just the tears in our own lives but the tears of the earth, the tearing apart of relationships.” Those relationships being between the whole range of inhabitants of this ecological system called planet Earth. And to do this repair we need all the science, skills, and resources we can muster. For we have gone so far that even our own species is under threat.
Like church prayers that used to refer to all people simply as ‘men’, or god solely with a capital G for a proper noun, or god solely in the masculine pronoun.., we need a gentle revolution where our inter-species dependency [like the wood prayer] is acknowledged and our future caring for each other acknowledged.
Another reason, and maybe the paramount one, why I like this old Portuguese prayer, is that it invites us into a different world in order to think like, be like, and pray like wood. This is what the best of the ancient spiritual disciplines do: they invite us out of our egotism, our smallness, our circumscribed world, to go on a journey into a vast otherness, in order that in time we return to know ourselves and our world afresh. It’s as T.S. Eliot says “[at the] end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Try praying this old prayer with a piece of wood in your hand. Say it aloud twice, or thrice, or more. Allow your mind to journey into the world of wood. And then, in silence, try to stay there for a little while. The ancient wisdom that the health of our forests will determine the health of our human communities is not to be ignored.
At their best polytheistic worldviews, like Maori theology, invite us into symbiotic relationships. A number of iwi can recount how in times past tohunga and craftsmen would enter the forest, ‘the realm of Tane’ [Tane being the spirit protector of the forest], to seek out a tree suitable for a purpose – say to be made into a waka - and then by karakia discuss the matter with Tane, balancing human need with the need of the ecosystem. For many there was an unspoken understanding that the health of the tribe was dependent on the health of the forest, and that we humans needed to assist Tane as kaitiaki [protectors] of this relationship.
As you probably know some of the prayers I write are blessings. Blessings are a way to enter into written and spoken prayer beginning from the premise of gratitude. The following blessing I wrote in February is woven around the divine connectedness we have with wood, the bush, and the life it nurtures.
May we be blessed
by the song of the wooded glen,
singing green, singing hope,
lifting our spirits,
if only we can hear.
May we be blessed
by the boughs of the forest,
calming our souls
if only we let them.
May we be blessed
by the god who holds
the ‘is’ and the ‘not yet’,
the pain of rampant destruction,
and the hope of vulnerable seedlings.
So come, sit, listen, be…
in the nest of the bush,
opening ourselves to the mystery
of the way, pace, and prayer of trees,
and their blessing.
[i] M. Leunig A Common Prayer 1990