The extreme droughts in the southwestern United States in 2011 and the Great Plains in 2012 have been the greatest threat to North American water and crops since last century’s Dust Bowl. The healthiest Christian response would aim to avoid two equally reckless postures: not taking seriously enough the effect of the drought on our land and our neighbors, and taking too seriously the particular crisis in our place in time.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced hopeful assurance that the worst U.S. drought in 56 years may be peaking. In the same article, weather experts warned that drought will persist through America’s heartland into November. An Aug. 13, a New York Times editorial cited climate researchers’ predictions of a 20- to 30-year stretch of below-normal precipitation and drought over much of the Western and Southern United States. All this disheartening data does not even include the concerns of potential impact from global warming.
In other words, drought may be our new normal.
Last August our family moved from the verdant hills of upstate New York to Austin, Texas, during the city’s hottest, driest year on record. Just 30 miles to the east - close enough for the smell of smoke to make our eyes water - wildfires destroyed almost 4 million acres and 3,000 homes. We felt like we’d landed on the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. In October our son was baptized in a lake so dried up that half of the congregation fit on the cracked mud marking the edge of the typical water line.
We added prayers for rain to our Sunday worship liturgy. We watched the skies, hoping for rain clouds larger than the size of a man’s fist. I considered the ancient pagans’ rain dances and wished I knew a few steps just in case it would help. Also, I began to see the prayers for rain all throughout Scripture as more than a metaphor or a problem restricted to past civilizations. Along with God’s people across time and space, we began to pray for literal rain.
The wildfires subsided near the end of October and the rain arrived in February - about the time it stopped in the northern Midwest. This summer, as Texas slowly turned green again, we keep praying for our North American neighbors, praying for rain to fall and crops to revive.
Last month, we vacationed back in our hometown in the Northeast. In July, our bed-and-breakfast hostess halted our polite conversation about the hot, dry weather, nearly stumping us with the question: “Do you believe in the apocalypse?" We tried not to stammer in our reply, listening to her deeper questions of eternity and judgment. Coming from Texas, we did not laugh at her assumption that extraordinary drought may equal the end of the world.
We told her we believe in a very real Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that often we, too, felt anxious that He wouldn’t protect us in this dangerous world. We told her we believe a real Jesus would someday welcome us into a new heaven and a new earth, free of drought, famine and all other broken parts of our earth. Before we prayed a blessing over her we cheered her diligence in caring for the little piece of earth she cared for. That her work to cultivate beauty and hospitality gave us a tiny glimpse of the new earth. That she should keep making beauty, keep welcoming strangers, keep seeking Jesus’ care for herself, her land and her guests.
Maybe this small encounter with a worried woman, whose land and soul felt dried up, acts as a parable to our role as drought Christians. We make ourselves present to the middle, parched ground, avoiding the pitfalls of not taking suffering seriously enough and taking ourselves (and our anxieties) too seriously.
Whatever steps we take to hold that middle ground, to care for our land and our neighbors, we start with a prayer for rain.