Over the past few days here in Austin, my prayers have included all those whose lives and homes have been affected by these unprecedented wildfires. For those fighting fires and in harm’s way, I pray for safety. For those in shelters and who have lost homes or loved ones, I pray for comfort. For all of us, I pray for strength and the healing power of community.
This morning, though, my prayer began to move in a new direction—toward praying for the land itself, for relief, for rain. Suddenly, I was struck with an awareness that came as a kind of response: The land cannot be saved, this awareness seemed to say. Some things are already set into motion. Focus instead on the people.
I didn’t grow up going to church or synagogue or religious summer camp. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I read most of the Bible for the first time—and even then, there are some books that I’ve only skimmed (I’m working on reading the rest, really I am!). That said, I am in deep relationship with the prophet Jeremiah. During my Hebrew exegesis class last fall, Jeremiah and I spent a lot of time together. He taught me a lot about how to be a social justice advocate, an environmental leader, and a Jew. Today, spurred on by a sudden prayerful awareness and the acrid smell of smoke in the air as Central Texas burns, I am hearing echoes of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah lived during a time of crisis in ancient Israel, when Judah was squeezed in-between rival geo-political powers and rising international tensions. He shares prophesies for decades about impending doom and destruction, arguing in Deuteronomic fashion that this terrible fate can be avoided if the people would mend their ways, return to a God-centered life and pursue a righteous path of justice—but no one listens; no one changes; no one does teshuvah (repentance, or literally, turning). In the beginning of Jeremiah’s career, perhaps there was time for people to repent and prevent the destruction of Jerusalem—but after a while, the destruction is certain.
Today we face a different kind of crisis; ours is global in scale. An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global warming is caused by human activity and is already underway. They tell us that increasing global temperatures will bring more extreme storms and droughts; that rising sea levels will swallow coastlines around the world; and that the weather and rainfall patterns for entire regions will change.
The climate models for Texas aren’t good. Texas is and will be hotter and drier than it used to be. Those two things put together mean a lot less water. Texas will have drier air, drier land, more drought, more wildfires.
Having this information, we should be galvanized into action—all of us doing everything we can to change our ways in order to mitigate disaster. But for the most part, we are ignoring the problem and wishing it would go away, much like the Judeans probably wished that Jeremiah would just be quiet so they could get on with their lives.
And here’s where I find Jeremiah’s example to be helpful. For decades, he prophesies—and I marvel at his persistence. And while Jeremiah sometimes gets frustrated with God, he stays in relationship, continuing to serve God and speak the truth. Even in the face of utter darkness, doom, and despair, Jeremiah remains a faithful servant.
From Jeremiah, I learn the limits of individual human influence: some things are already set into motion and are out of our control, like these Central Texas wildfires and some amount of global warming. From Jeremiah, I also learn human responsibility: if we have a piece of the truth, we must share it with others. Even when it’s truth they don’t want to hear. Even when the message falls on deaf ears. Even when the situation is bleak. What matters is that we remain faithful servants of God and truth and do what we can.
Focus instead on the people, the awareness seemed to say. No amount of praying or acting on my part will change the dry and burning facts on the ground here in my beloved Central Texas, or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. But following Jeremiah’s example, I can share the truth, as I understand it, with others—for as long as I am able, even when things look bleak. And I can pray—for safety and comfort, strength and healing—for all of us.