In the Time of Wildfires: The Burnt Prayer, a Prayer of Lament, a Prayer in Burning Need

May 18, 2023
fiery dove on black background

Holy One, we anticipate Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Haloes of flame rest upon the apostles, and we prepare for exuberance: red preaching stoles, flame-coloured clothing, Pentecost shoes, birthday cake with icing images of the Spirit’s fire.

And yet again this year, we put aside these images of fire. We reluctantly open our liturgical resource folder and file the sermon relating to holy cleansing, or rising like a phoenix, or the rekindled glory of a pink carpet of fireweed across a scorched forest floor. We set aside prayers about the fiery, out-of-control exuberance of spiritual awakening. We purge from our metaphors any reference to burning. We return our red shoes to the closet and hang on the rack the necktie with delicate silk images of flames. We phone the organist to change the hymns for the end of the month: no winds of change, no setting the church on fire or striking as the lightning hits a posing spire. Will we ever sing Ron’s hymn* again?

We notice helicopters against the cloudy sky. We receive news reports of Drayton Valley fire smoke in Halifax. Wildfire alerts come on our phones. We feel the smoke and ash closing in.

Yet again, we remember Fort McMurray and Slave Lake. Burned in our memories—oh, there is a metaphor unbidden!—deeply embedded in our memory are the images of homes and forests aflame, and videos recorded from inside cars as families fled along a roadway with fire on each side and overhead.

We remember Kelowna, Sparks Lake, Lytton, Williams Lake, Coldwater, Barrier, Naramata.

Yet again, we are pained by the disasters we remember: flooding in High River, mudslides on the Coquihalla, murder in the Yellowknife mine, hurricane devastation across the Maritimes and Newfoundland, tornado in Dunrobin-Gatineau.

We bring our lament. We pray our sadness. We carry our shock. We resist our numbness in yet another season of wildfire.

Yet again this year, we bring prayers for the persons whose lives are threatened. We bring prayers for the firefighters, armed forces, and other professionals whose work it is to provide, to bring safety. We bring prayers for the communities, the families, friends, community groups, gathering places, farms, businesses, ranches—and politics and politicians.

We bring prayers from deep in our souls for creation and for the crisis in which we have found awkward ways of living. We are aware of the annual accounting in acres of devastation: forest, wilderness, and homeland. We recognize the environmental collapse in which we live and move and have our being. We confess our attachment to selfish ways.

And as we light the Christ candle, as we bring match to wick, as we ignite a small and tended flame, we become the connection of the small to the large, the here to the there, the local to the province,** the prayer to the prophetic. We pray for grace, we pray for help, we pray for rain: we pray in the moment and we pray in community because only in beloved community can we possibly know hope. O God who is with us, bring us the wherewithal to be the people of hope. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Catherine Faith MacLean, St. Paul’s U.C., Edmonton, Alta. May 15, 2023

*refers to “Winds of Change” by Fred Kaan and Ron Klusmeier, More Voices 23
**or British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan (where wildfires are burning out of control)