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.
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
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.
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.