Climate Conversion, Memory, and the Fire

As I was about to put together a posting with some of the liturgy from last Sunday’s Roundtable Worship, news and pictures reached me of the horrific fire on Table Mountain in Cape Town that has gutted the rare books library of the University of Cape Town. I could see the building, flames pouring out of its windows, where I had read some old journals containing articles about race relations and comparisons between South African and American experiences of “the frontier,” slavery, emancipation, and ongoing apartheid and segregation. Lost.

UCT Rare Books Library in Flames

And I thought about our loss of memory and the distorted memories that keep us from addressing our racist divisions and our alienation from a nature now consuming us. On Sunday we sought to speak about the deep conversion we must undergo to come to terms with our disruption of the world we have taken for granted. We didn’t speak about the consuming fire the Biblical writings invoke to speak of repentance and conversion. We spoke of caterpillars changing into butterflies, of renewed longing for the good. The fire devours and destroys. How can it redeem and renew?

On more than one occasion in our sojourns in Cape Town we would look with alarm at the brush fires consuming the fynbos and pine trees on Devil’s Peak behind the university. Some were “natural.” Others were set to control the accumulation of tinder-dry vegetation. We walked many times along the trails with desiccated leaves and stalks crunching underfoot. But now those paths had erupted into fires uncontained by controlled burnings. Our civilization has pressed too close upon the proper boundaries between life and life, become too contemptuous of the laws that still control our movement on this globe. The uncontrolled fire roared through the rustic café above the university buildings and somehow reached the library, turning it into a funeral pyre of collective memory. We do not yet know what other damage it caused, including to human life.

We gathered virtually on Sunday to try to imagine the people we need to become in order to be faithful earthlings, stewards where we have the power, friends where we must stand among the animal equals of this world. Neither the fires nor the floods, the droughts or scorching heat, are through with us. In our fear before this storm of Nature’s rage we turn against each other, turn against the messengers of doom, turn against the very knowledge that might guide us to a new convivium with the other creatures and forces of this world.

The fires, like so many other disruptive events in our midst, call us to a conversation open to a greater mystery and to a hope that there is a nurture at this special table that might help our eyes to clear amidst the smoke, our lungs absorb the air that brought us into being, our minds to wrestle with the task before us in the fire we have fueled.

Here are some words from our own gathering:

Call to the Table

            From stagnant waters of our brutal dominion

                        You lead us to the flowing river of your life.

            Out of the fiery furnace of our insatiable greed

                        You draw us to the cooling balm of your everlasting mercy.

            Through the swirling refuse of our careless exploitation,

                        You guide our fragile boat to peaceful shores.

            Out of the burning desert of exhausted habitations

                        You bring us to the shelter of your welcoming trees.

            We gather ‘round the table of your bounty,

Your table of Peace.

            ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

A Moment of Visualization: A painting on Native American wisdom by Wes Yamaka

Remembrance

From the dust you drew us into being as an earthling.

From the air you gave us breath to live by words and songs.

From the waters of the sea you brought forth the blood of every life.

From every plant in your abundant garden you gave us daily nurture.

By your grace and mercy we received the life of fellow animals.

By the moon and sun you ordered out activity and rest.

In the desolation of our globe we feel your judgment and your rage.

In the faithfulness of spring we feel your call to resurrection.

At the table of self-giving life our hope in you is once again renewed.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Thanksgiving  

O Source and Savior of Creation,

For the power of your love in overcoming our destruction, our lips are opened up in thankfulness. For the life you give beyond the death around and in us, we lift our voice in thanks and praise. For the love that brought us into being and upholds us to this day, our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the self-giving love that brings us to this table of your peace, our tongues burst forth in song.

Song, prayer, thought, words, listening—we seek to walk ahead toward a greater light.

 

 

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Demons Personal and Public

America needs its own day of Yom Kippur—a day of repentance and atonement, a day of confession and renewal. Without a time set aside for naming this essential human task, we have no container for the lament and grief arising in us as we look at our history of slavery and racism, for genocide and the wanton destruction of our habitat. We need a time and ritual forms to confess that we are not “the greatest” and do not live on a one-way express train to the Promised Land. Moreover, we need to suspend our belief in the quick fix and find ways to be open in humility to new possibilities for our personal and collective life.

Christians have Lent, where we are invited, indeed called, to do this work personally, but it rarely guides us to our collective need for confession, lament, conversion, and renewal. America has a long history of Jeremiads and “awakenings.” Indeed, we may be in one right now. But the old formulas and practices have lost their legitimation in the wake of corrupt would-be Messiahs and foolish fantasies and conspiracies. In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic leadership and its reawakening in the Poor People’s Campaign led by William Barber today, we see lineaments of it. Whether we can enlarge the wider canopy of our deep culture to accommodate this work as a regular and intentional part of what it is to be American requires contributions from all of us.

Part of the challenge is to find links between the personal and the public, between our work of personal reconstruction and the reconstruction of our social order. We need language and symbols that take seriously the depth of the problem and open us up to the vistas of possibilities that can only emerge from the One who holds all things together in a divine purpose. In a Lenten meditation I wrote for our church recently I explored one source for thinking about the personal and collective demons that hold us in thrall and bondage. It might be a launchpad for your own search as well.

(You might want to refresh your memories by reading the three versions of the story of the exorcism of the demoniacs in Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; and Luke 8: 26-39.)

These three Gospellers relate versions of a story that has gripped, fascinated, and perplexed Christians for two thousand years. Scholars can speculate on the differences among them (was there one demoniac or two?), but certain points appear in all three. The demoniacs are outcastes. They live in the tombs outside the town. They are unrestrained wild men, who injure others as well as themselves. Mark says they are possessed by unclean spirits. In their mental pollution they have lost almost every element of their humanity and been severed from every social bond.

They are inhabited by multiple demonic forces who take over their psyches so they even lose their very identity. Today we might say that they had multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, or severe psychoses. Mark and Luke write that the demoniac tells Jesus that his very name is Legion, because of the multitude of demons that have taken over his life. When Jesus approaches them to throw out their demons, they fear that Jesus is bent on tormenting them. The demons also fear Jesus and ask him to let them flee into the pigs nearby. The herd of pigs then carries them away into the sea.

And then, most strangely, the people of the area beg Jesus to leave. They dread the very power by which Jesus heals the man. Matthew says nothing about the man’s fate, but Mark and Luke speak of Jesus leaving the man, now fully clothed and in his senses, and commanding him to witness to people east of the Jordan about what God has done to him.

We are passing through a time when it seems that demonic forces have taken control of people who have cast off normal loyalties, ranting and injuring others as well as themselves. And we are aware of demonic forces within ourselves, whether those of racism and economic injustice, or the destruction of our planet by the very practices that we have always taken for granted. It is a time longing for release from these corrupting forces but deeply afraid of such an exorcism as well. What shall we do when others return to their right minds and we are forced to examine the demons within ourselves? What will we do when our elaborate self-constructions for handling the torment inside ourselves are torn away with the removal of the fears and obsessions that gave rise to them? What will happen when Jesus tears down the wall between the in-groups and the out-groups, making the legion of humanity into one people? What will we do without the familiar scapegoats by which we heap our own sin, fear, and failure onto others? What will we do when the scorned creatures of the natural world can no longer bear our own demons and are thrown into chaos and destruction?

No wonder the Gospellers speak of people’s fear before the appearance of the Christ who will make all things new. It means not only a radical change within ourselves but in our ordering of our society and our relation to the other creatures of our world. It means giving up an identity that is “legion” for one that is focused and centered in God’s healing life within us.

We are in a time and a season when, like the demoniac, we take time to ask “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” This is not only a question, but a prayer to ask God to help us open our hearts for the new life awaiting us, if only we trust in our new identity beyond the demons of our time.

 

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Down Size

 

Let’s build a new nest for our love, my dear.

We’ll make it from memory and hope and slow falling steps.

It will not be so full of the plans born of yearning.

It will fit us with lay me down space for our heads,

with only a flower that blooms on the table

where wrinkled hands curl around palms of devotion.

The doors will rejoice in enough and in gratitude,

a roof full of stars,

a moon from the day we began.

 

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History: The Tragedy and the Farce

Karl Marx begins his famous essay of 1851, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A few sentences later Marx goes on to say “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [My italics for emphasis]

These two passages have haunted me ever since I first read them in college, when I was only beginning to sense the historic and burdensome memories that shape our present action. It wasn’t until the events of January 6 that I realized what forms the farcical repetition of tragic history might take—and that they can be comedic and deadly at the same time. (The actual events in France at that time are mind-numbingly complicated but bear eery similarities to some of our own recent history.)

From the time we dress up for Halloween as little children we begin to shape our lives and actions through the costumes handed down to us by the Big People who are guiding our lives. By the time we realize that the Big People running our lives are simply older and no longer bigger, we think that History or God must be the guiding author of the drama for which we costume ourselves every day, especially for the great occasions of graduation, marriage, funerals, work, and court appearances. We know what to do, we know the scripts, we know the plot. We are secure in the immense uncertainty of action.

That is our everyday life. If we become responsible for thousands, yea millions, of others whom we are designated to represent, the power of these costumes and roles becomes even more enormous. For those who act in the pure freedom of not having a script, bold actions can result in victory, praise, the confirmation of the crowd and oft-remembered stories for future generations. If they fail, even with the best of intentions, it is tragedy. The noble effort falls into a black abyss of self-destruction.

The costumes, scripts, and plots of great successes in the storied past become the props of risky action in the present. We act believing that history will repeat itself, that it will fulfill and confirm the play that once worked upon the world’s stage of our ancestors. But, Marx intones, it ends in farce. Why? Because history is not a stage that can be reconstructed for each play. It is constantly changing in response to deep contradictions and unseen forces, not to mention fresh players. The players come dressed for a stage that no longer exists. Their once-victorious performances are soon exposed to ridicule because they no longer fit the stage on which they seek to enact their noble drama. They are no longer vessels of greatness but of mindless parody. Their efforts to re-enact heroic epics soon reveal themselves to be a farce.

And so the horrendous attack on the Capitol—the first effort in American history to overturn an election—was enacted by men in Revolutionary War hats, Norse warrior get-ups, Confederate flags, and more, I am sure. They had scripts of Revolutionary Patriotism and Confederate rebellion to guide them, but now detached from the actual, present-day world they sought to rescue or destroy. And indeed, they, like many of us, did not acknowledge that the historic successes of our past all contain profound expressions of tragedy: the compromise over slavery that made possible our Constitution, the genocidal attacks on indigenous peoples that cleared the land for European settlement, the despoliation of the land in the drive for “progress,” and many more. They dressed in the costumes and chanted the scripts of their imagined heroes.  It was as if the play world of a million TV programs had been unleashed upon the world while its author watched it all with delight on TV.

In the face of seeming anarchy we all search for scripts to guide us in our action and quell our fear. But history does not repeat itself, though we would have it do so for our sakes. What we must do is try to see the world around us as it really is, not merely as an instant in some all-encompassing drama whose outcome is clear and whose author is known. We are like children seeking the Big People who will provide us with the costumes to navigate this strange world. But they are not here. What Marx was trying to tell his would-be leaders of the revolutionary Proletariat in the mid-nineteenth century was that they needed to look at their situation with the eyes of a scientist trying to understand what is going on around them. Marx may have been wrong about those facts, but that is what we need to do now.

What is the real world? It is shouting at us in extreme weather events arising in the warming of our atmosphere, in the unparalleled global systems of communication and information transfer, in the immense immediate diversity of the varied peoples of the earth, in the suffering of our fellow creatures and the diseases of a disrupted ecology. The destructive farce of recent weeks must not leave us in anger, searching for outworn plots and costumes, but open to discovering the world that scientists (yes, scientists), craftsmen and women, mothers and fathers, farmers and healers are finding in their actual lives. There is where we are called to act in response to the extreme disruptions in the real world around us.

 

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