A number of years ago I was invited to attend a feast and dance circle hosted by the American Indian Studies Program at Michigan State University. An elder was asked to say a blessing. In a conversational tone, he began, “Before we begin feasting, we want to ask a blessing. We are thankful for the health that we enjoy this day. We are thankful for everyone who arrived safely. We are thankful for all this food that we are sharing with each other. We are thankful for the friendships that brought us together…” The prayer continued on, naming the blessings that were present that day. And then it ended before I even recognized that the prayer had started. I thought the man was just talking to us. And he was.
I was struck with how this prayer stood in contrast with my own prayers. Most often my prayers bend toward asking for more and better things, healing this or that person, or even praying for peace in the world. Such prayers assume that our words, our prayers have the power to move God to bring about change or clean up the messes we have made. In the Western mindset, we have a tendency to view our prayers as performative actions. By that I mean that we expect the words of our prayers to perform whatever we are asking for—”heal this person,” “give me this or that thing,” and so forth.
When we pray for the healing of our world, the simple, go-to prayer is to ask God to help us and others to avoid committing sins that spoil our world. I have a hunch that such prayers, though they appear to have the good of the world in mind, hold little sway on our environmental crisis. So how do we pray ecologically? How can our prayers bring about change and healing in a world that has been scarred and wounded? Is there hope of a resurrection for the world, parallel to what Lazarus experienced in today’s lectionary readings?
I would like to suggest that the Lord’s Prayer is an ecological prayer. But before we get to that, I want to provide a little background for why I make this claim.
One of the reasons our prayers fail to carry ecological weight is because we see ourselves as being disconnected from the Earth. We value the Earth because of its resources, not because we are a part of it. We see ourselves as living “on” the Earth, not “in” the world alongside other beings., such as animals, plants, minerals, water, air, soil, and fire. It may strike us as odd to name these things as beings, but I will return to this in a bit.
Not only do we see ourselves disconnected from our world, we see things in our world as being disconnected from each other. The way we go about politics has little to do with the food we eat. Who we pray to has little to do with how we go about making a living. Our education has little to do with our kinship systems. So much of Western society can be summed up in terms of broken relationships. Everything is subservient to our economy—religion, kinship, education, food systems, politics, even the Earth.
Kyle Whyte (Citizen Band Potawatomi), who is an environmental philosopher, writes about the way in which the people descended from those who first lived on this continent see their lives in relation to the rest of the world. All aspects of their lives are interrelated. Using the example of salmon cultures of the Pacific Northwest, Whyte talks about the way in which politics, economy, religion, marriage, kinship, education, and more are all connected to the salmon. When the salmon is taken away, their whole world falls apart. Thus, dams built to support the economies of European settlers not only flood the villages upriver, they destroy the people whose lives have been built around the salmon. It is not as simple as moving to a new location and carrying on with life as before. The very thing that gave meaning to all of life is now gone.
The Native American author Sherman Alexie (Spokane) writes about the importance of the salmon in his poem “Powwow at the End of the World.” In it he writes rhythmically as though he were dancing and chanting in an effort to tear down the dams that prevent the salmon from journeying upriver to their native spawning grounds.
“The Powwow at the End of the World” is a ceremony intended to heal the land and their way of life. Alexie seems to be responding to demands of forgiveness uttered by his audience for the destruction their dams have caused. In his incantations, he promises to forgive when all is restored, knowing that restoration will bring destruction, or at least disruption, to the European settlers’ own way of life. The key to Alexie’s poem is understanding the way in which ceremony is packed with incantation, song, dance, prayer, symbols, stories, and ritual. We forget that prayer is ritual, and that ritual leads us to action. Prayer is not meant to change others; it is meant to change the one who is invoking the prayer.
Let me try to explain. There is a story in a book that has made a significant impact in my life, written by Brian McLaren and titled A New Kind of Christian. In it, Dan, the main character in the book, entertains a group of Native American pastors. At one point, the conversation turns to whether any of the pastors incorporate any of their own culture into their worship services. The pastors hesitatingly begin to talk about their desire to include elements of their culture into their worship but are prevented from doing so due to pressure from other Christians. Finally, one of the pastors speaks up, “I remember being a boy, before our family became Christians, and being at the powwow. We would dance and dance for hours each day. You see, in [our] culture, dance isn’t just symbolic. Dance is actually a form of prayer. Every time my foot stamps the ground, I’m saying something to the Great Spirit that could never be put into words. My whole body is praying as I move around the circle.” These kinds of prayers that McLaren and Alexie are describing are not meant to change the mind of God or even change others, but are meant to instill reverence for the Earth into the one who is praying. This may seem strange and foreign to us, but it is through naming and speaking to the world around us that we gain reverence for the world. And when we have reverence for the world, our relationship to the things in the world (animals, plants, water, minerals, air, soil) change from objects we use for our own benefit into beings we are related to.
These are the kinds of relationships that Robin Kimmerer (Citizen Band Potawatomi), an environmental biologist, talks about. Kimmerer talks about the way in which the Potawatomi go out into the woods to harvest plants. They were taught to name the plant, ask permission to harvest, and then thank the plant for sharing its bounty. At the same time, Kimmerer recognizes that for human—in fact, all biological life—something has to die for us to survive. Our life depends on the death of something else. What regulates this rhythm of life and death is prayer: the naming, the asking, and the thanking.
How can we return to a place where we recognize the world around us as our brothers and sisters? It is not as though it is a completely foreign concept. We were reminded in an earlier meditation for Lent that Saint Francis spoke to the birds, the water, and the rest of nature as his brothers and sisters. What keeps us from doing so? It seems to me that even when we as European settlers try name things, it acts to perpetuate our own settler colonialism, as in naming plants we brought from the Old World “invasive species.” Several Native scholars from Chicago have suggested that a better name for these plants and animals that settlers brought with them to make themselves feel at home but have gotten out of control would be “plants that people have lost their relationship with.” A simple renaming of not just one plant but an entire category can change one’s relationship with a whole variety of plants and animals.
I say all this to try to explain why I think that the Lord’s Prayer is an ecological prayer. While it is a prayer that can be prayed in its own right, it is also a model of how to pray with the Earth. It is a model of how to conduct our relationship with the whole world. It is a model of how to pray for peace on Earth.
Naming—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” When we name the things around us, we gain respect and reverence for things, and our relationship with those things can begin to change.
Permission—“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Seeking the good of the world around us instead of simply pursuing our own good ensures that we will leave enough for those who come after us. Learn to ask permission of what is already given rather than taking what is not meant to be taken—otherwise called stealing.
Sacrifice—“Give us this day our daily bread.” Realizing that some being, something we have named and asked permission of, whether plant or animal, had to give its life to sustain mine is a reminder that our own life is dependent on others and curbs our tendency toward unrestrained and wasteful appetites.
Forgiveness—“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” All of us are implicated in the misuse of and broken relationships with our world. We ask to be forgiven so that the path back to proper relationships can begin to be restored. We cannot repair that which we fail to recognize as broken.
Humility—“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Are we willing to listen to what others have to say in helping us avoid broken relationships in the future? Who are we listening to? Our own desires? The desires of corporations and big business? The stories of scriptures that teach us how to live with others? The wisdom of elders who know how to care for the land we live on.
The Lord’s Prayer is an ecological prayer. We can pray it when we push the grocery cart down the grocery store aisle. We can pray it when we build or fix up a house and are choosing materials to build with. We can pray it when we enter the woods to pick mushrooms. We can pray it when we go to the garden to plant seeds or harvest fruits and vegetables. We can pray it wherever we go. Every time “our foot stamps on the ground” can become a prayer in which we ask ourselves to be invited back into relationship with our world.
Here is what a prayer while picking blueberries might look like:
Mighty, little blueberry bush,
your kind has been very generous for many years.
Your lovely fruit is packed with sweet nutrition
and powerful antioxidants that give life to others.
You provide an abundance of fruit
so that there is plenty for all.
We ask for enough to meet our own need.
In return we will provide what you need to thrive.
Thank you for sharing with us
as we take only what is necessary
and leave the rest for the birds and the rabbits
who depend on you as well.
We regret the years
we have stripped you of your fruit
and not shared it with others.
May we live together in peace for years to come.
I encourage you to create your own ecological prayers and share them with others.
Alexie, Sherman. (1996). “The Powwow at the End of the World.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47895/the-powwow-at-the-end-of-the-world
McLaren, Brian D. (2001). A New Kind of Christian: The Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whyte, K.P. 2017. Food Sovereignty, Justice and Indigenous Peoples: An Essay on Settler Colonialism and Collective Continuance. In Oxford Handbook on Food Ethics. Eds A. Barnhill, T. Dodgett, and A Egan. Oxford University Press.