How Do You Pray about an Oil Spill?

Though the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is now capped and the world has for the most part moved on, the issue of how we as Christians should respond to such situations remains.  I wrote the following article in the early days of the spill, and share it here for further thought and perhaps comment.  Some of the references are now dated – but the issues raised remain, and if they are valid for the citizens (and Christians) of the US, they also are valid for those in the delta region of Nigeria or Bhopal India.  We must pray in the face of these events – but how do we even begin?


How do you pray about an oil spill?

It’s a legitimate question:  The news is getting worse by the day for those of us many miles away, and no doubt by the hour for those living in the area of impact.  This morning we learned that some experts believe the amount of oil leaking may be much more than even the revised estimate of 5,000 barrels per day. More worrisome than that, there is now real concern that the oil may join the Gulf stream ocean current, which would send it around the tip of Florida and all the way up the East Coast of the United States, staining beaches and killing wildlife as it goes.

There are already complaints that BP didn’t act quickly enough, the Federal Government didn’t step in fast enough – but to my mind these complaints are very much beside the point.  What would the Feds have done if they had stepped in 15 minutes after the explosion?  This disaster – easily on track to eclipse the Exxon Valdez spill – is far, far beyond anything any human agency can do.  This picture is a parable for me of the entire situation.  Does anyone really believe that these puny streams of water could have made the slightest impression on a blaze of this magnitude? Some genies simply cannot be put back into their bottles.

Which takes us right to the subject of this post:  When you can do nothing else, maybe it’s time to pray.  We will skip over a couple of tempting side arguments here:  On the one hand, there is an implicit assumption in this statement that prayer is real and worth doing, and on the other, the legitimate argument could be made that maybe one should have been praying long before the disaster arrived.  Setting those aside for another time, how should we pray in a time of disaster such as is now bearing down on all those who live in the gulf coast area?

The topic came up in a phone conversation yesterday.  “Maybe we should pray that God will keep the winds blowing offshore to protect the marshes.”  But that would only blow the oil somewhere else – and as today’s news suggests, “somewhere else” could be the entire East Coast.  We could pray for good weather – but it will take a lot more than a spell of good weather to clean up a leak that is still increasing in volume.  We might, I suppose, pray for a genuine miracle – the complete disappearance of the entire slick and miraculous healing for every bird and fish being poisoned.

I can imagine how God might respond to these requests:  “But my children:  I already did my part – I hid the oil safely away from harm underneath solid rock below 5,000 feet of ocean.  Is it really my fault that you thought you could dig it up without any thought for the consequences?”

If we are to pray over this situation, we need to be  very clear about one thing:  This is not an act of God.  We have done this to ourselves.  This does not mean we cannot pray – it actually means the opposite, we will find no solution unless we do pray.  But it suggests how we ought to pray.

Our model for a prayer suitable for a tragedy we have brought on ourselves might be that of the prophet Daniel.  Living in Babylon in the sixth century BC, Daniel was a Jew exiled from his homeland.  He had endured the destruction of Jerusalem, a disaster unparalleled in the history of his nation – and one that had been predicted by earlier prophets and directly tied to the disobedience of Daniel’s people.

In chapter 9 of Daniel’s prophecy, we find him meditating on the fate of Jerusalem:

I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

Daniel’s prayer is a model of how to pray when the disaster is our own fault:  It is a prayer of confession.  It is an important principle that we cannot appeal to God for something that is our own fault unless we also admit to him that it is our fault.

Listen to Daniel:

5 We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws…

7 “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you…

12 You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. 13 Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. 14 The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

But why should I, living safely in central Wisconsin, have to confess for the sins of a multinational corporation like BP?  What does it have to do with me?  Or you?

From today’s New York Times:

“In the furor over the Gulf disaster, a hard-to-overlook fact: America needs the oil.”

As an individual, I do my part to feed our oil- and coal-driven economy by pumping gas into my car, by burning electric lights and using all kinds of oil-derived plastics to sustain my “lifestyle”.  As do you.  (You are reading this on a computer screen… enough said).  Collectively, we have created an economic and political system that cannot run without these fossil fuels, and we bear collective guilt for this.  Yes, guilt.  We could have designed an economic system that would have functioned in harmony with God’s creation rather than in opposition to it.  We did not.  We are guilty. [See my article on this topic here.]

Another prophet’s confession comes to mind here:  “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5)  BP may have pulled the trigger, but you and I bought the gun.

If the disaster is our fault, what is the point of confession and prayer?  It remains our fault, right?  True – but confession allows us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  Listen again to Daniel:

17 “Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. 18 Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”

We know historically – and many of us know personally – that God will sometimes step in to help in a situation like this, not because we deserve it but because we don’t.  He will act for his own sake when he does not have to act for ours.  This is mercy.  And we need it.

Maybe it really is time to pray.