When I was little, my parents taught me one lesson early on: don’t play with fire. I may be burned, or I may burn something else accidentally. I was never to get too close to a campfire, never to touch a match. And yet that never stopped me from sitting in my favorite spot on most nights, directly in front of our fireplace, watching as golden and clementine hues danced before my young eyes; listening as the crackle and snap of wood offered sparks skyward. I was mesmerized every single time. There was frenetic energy, a swarm of possibility that came from those moments.
When I was 8 or 9, I arrived at school to find out that one of my friends’ homes had caught fire the night before and that she and her family had lost all their possessions. My mother and I drove by the shell that remained of their home a few days later, and I was stunned at the loss seen by my young eyes. As I sat that night in front of the fireplace, I remember thinking of the beauty and the loss. The warmth and the loss. The dancing and the weeping.
Throughout our biblical text, authors offer fire in a multiplicity of ways. We see it used when the Israelites offer animal sacrifices to God. It is used to lead God’s people through the desert in the form of lightning and warmth on cold nights. God descends on Mount Sinai “wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended it on fire.” John the Baptist explains that in baptism, a repentant person is cleansed with the Holy Spirit and fire. Pentecost brings tongues of fire, and fire rests on the heads of the disciples in the Upper Room. We read that those who refuse to accept Jesus will be sent to a fiery pit for eternal suffering. These references (among a host of others unmentioned) – a blend of literal and metaphorical touchpoints – provide a framework for how fire, and its aftereffects, influence understanding.
Over the last two weeks, our faith family has been affected by fire. Early in the hours of Saturday morning, December 5, alarms rang out in the East Village of Manhattan. The 128-year-old building of Middle Collegiate Church was ablaze. As nearly 200 firefighters from across the city worked to put out the flames, one of the oldest congregations knew it would never see its beloved building restored. The Gothic-style sanctuary, with wood-paneled ceiling supported by three Howe trusses and five pairs of Gothic spandrels, was gone. Also destroyed were the iconic collection of stained-glass windows designed by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. Designed from 19th-century paintings, Middle Church had used a darkening film behind images of Jesus, so his complexion better represented his region’s people. Convergence Board member and trusted thought partner, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, said in a statement, “we are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love.”
This past Saturday night, two historically black congregations in the nation’s capital had their Black Lives Matters banners torn from their buildings and set on fire. The hate crime was perpetrated against Asbury Methodist Church and Metropolitan AME Church by people in D.C. taking part in a pro-Trump protest. Members of the Proud Boys and other groups burned these banners as they changed hate-filled rhetoric. Rev. William H. Lamar IV, the pastor of the Metropolitan AME, said in a Washington Post op-ed, “as a preacher, I view what happened in the yard of our church as a showdown between the God of the universe, the God of all people, the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and the god of white supremacy. One God is for all. The other god is for some. One God has chosen humanity. The other god has chosen whiteness, imperialism and human subjugation.”
Convergence stands in solidarity and holy defiance with the people at Middle Church, Asbury Methodist Church and Metropolitan AME Church. We rejoice as we support you in rebuilding, reprinting, rehanging and recharging. We are defiant in the face of white supremacy. We celebrate the recreation of sanctuary in forms only dreams once held.
“God of all people” versus a “god of white supremacy.”
Flames that provide warmth versus fire that destroys the beautiful and important.
God that dances in the flames, livening them with Her energy.
Hell and brimstone that overshadow “on earth, as it is in Heaven.”
God that sees and embraces us in our loss.
Fire that causes the loss while encouraging a rise from ashes.
God that asks us to see the miracle of Advent in the nonbinary, the indigenous, the disabled, the pagan.
Fire that alights conviction in each of us to squash systemic injustice.
God that accompanies us in the waiting of season.
Fire that mesmerizes us as we look to the womb.