A couple of summers ago I vacationed in the Pacific Northwest (an area of the country I had yet to visit) and it was a wonderful experience. Initially I had not planned to visit Mt. St. Helen’s, but did so on the advice of a friend and I will be ever grateful for this travel tip. It was a beautiful, clear day providing an expansive view of the mountain so dramatically changed on May 18, 1980 by a lateral blast of hot ash and debris that killed 57 people and in an instance wiped out nearly 230 square miles of forests, rivers, and lakes. Thousands of miles of roads, highways, and railroad tracks were destroyed and numerous bridges washed away. The explosion created a horseshoe crater nearly two miles across and lowered the mountain’s elevation by over 1,300 feet. It remains the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in our country’s history.
The Mt. St. Helen’s eruption transformed the landscape, blowing away, washing away, and burying in ash over 20 feet deep a remarkably large area. After a flyover tour of the region some days later, then president Jimmy Carter remarked, “Someone said this area looked like a moonscape, but the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there.” His initial impression, like that of most experts, suggested nothing could survive the devastation – no vegetation, no wildlife, nothing – and it was unimaginable how life could ever return to the region, at least in our lifetime.
But just weeks after the eruption and once it was safe to explore, the first scientists on the ground were startled by what they discovered. Insects had already begun making a home out of fallen trees, pockets made by gophers digging for food were evident, and even some aquatic life had managed to survive. Within a year, various kinds of moss and fauna took hold and began to lay a foundation for habitat recovery. The speed of all of this stunned experts and novices alike.
Twenty-seven years later, as I surveyed the scene from the Johnson Ridge Observatory (the park facility named a scientist monitoring the mountain from this location when it erupted and whose body was never recovered), new life was everywhere. Vast tracts of pine forest cover the region. These areas received a jump start thanks to the work of the Forest Administration. But huge swaths of land have been allowed to recover on their own by “letting nature take its course.” And what nature is doing is remarkable. The signs of destruction still abound (most notably in decomposing fallen tree trunks as well as the crater itself), but a new and complete ecosystem is now in place. Life is ample and everywhere, something unimmanageable to all after the initial devastation. Summing up what he learned from this, Don Zobel, a scientist from Oregon State, said, “Our expectation should be that life is incredibly tenacious.”
As we near the end of the season of Pentecost and another liturgical year, our assigned readings from the Lectionary begin to pick up of the theme of last things. They anticipate the end of life and the hope of a life to come. They speak of old things being made new. There is in these readings a suggestion God is at work in the world as a life-giving force. They suggest God has infused all reality with a principle of renewal. It is a principle not always evident at first, often requiring the faithful to live with a faith that “God causes all things to work toward the good” (Rom. 8:28). Still, this principle of life and renewal has the first word, the last word, and permeates every word in between.
Consider this morning’s first reading from the Old Testament prophet Haggai. Lumped in with other works tagged as “minor prophets”, Haggai’s ministry of speaking God’s word covers only a few years in and around 520 B.C. He encourages God’s people to do something they have put off for almost two decades – rebuild the destroyed Jerusalem Temple upon returning to the ruined city from exile. Once work begins a general despair takes root because all involved sense the appearance of the new Temple will pale in comparison to the glory of the previous one. They fear what will be will not be as grand as what was. It is a fear to which we can relate.
Cultural observers note for the first time in our country’s history we now live in a period when the majority of people fret the quality of life for the next generation will be lower than what it has been in the past. While this is a new dynamic in our national psyche, Haggai reminds us it certainly is not a new phenomenon in the history of our world. He spoke God’s word to a people anguishing over what awaits beyond the horizon.
At last Thursday’s meeting of the Worship Committee we did our annual ritual of lamenting the demise of the Christmas Eve Midnight Service. We all want it to be the way it was – the church packed with people, the worship space illuminated by the flickering of candles, a robust choir leading the carols, countless children with stars in their eyes sitting in silent motionless so as not to cause a disruption, a gentle snow falling as the faithful file out the doors after receiving communion exactly at the stroke of midnight, horse drawn sleighs at the ready to whisk worshippers back to their cabins heated by a coal burning stove and decked out with hung stockings each containing an orange and new scarf. Well, maybe I went back too far, but you get the idea. We long for the past – a past we can no longer have and, truth be told, perhaps never was.
Haggai speaks two words from God to the people. First, “No matter what may change, my spirit abides among you; do not fear.” And second, “Someday, the splendor of the Temple you are building will exceed what had been here before,” a promise which is debatable if this ever actually happened (how does one measure such a thing). But the first word rings true. Much may change. Things may not appear to be as grand or as significant or as sure as they once were, but God’s spirit is still with us. Our expectation should be that God’s life-giving Spirit is incredibly tenacious.
Paul’s two letters to the Christians in Thessalonica deal with last things. They reveal the early Church’s thinking as it evolves from an initial notion Jesus will return soon – any day, so don’t be caught asleep –to pondering its mission as the months and years wear on to grappling with the fate of those who die in the faith while awaiting the Lord’s return. In Paul’s final communication with this church he writes the day of the Lord is already here, but accompanying it are all kinds of temptations, trials, and ways to turn off the path. This word, true then, still holds true in our time. God is here and with us, and life can be a challenge. “Stand firm” and “hold fast” writes Paul, “and may God comfort your hearts and strengthen you for every good work.” Have faith, because God’s life-giving Spirit is incredibly tenacious.
It is easy to get side-tracked by today’s Gospel reading; focusing on what it says about marriage when its real force and thrust is about resurrection. There are two main groups of religious leaders in Jesus day – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees rub elbows with the average Joe and extend their ministry into rural locations and villages. The Sadducees gravitate to the elite and often restrict their work to the Temple and upper echelons of society. Not surprisingly, the two groups hold to different theological perspectives. Most notably, Pharisees believe in the possibility of life after death while Sadducees do not and, as we see in today’s reading, have no problem mocking those who do. Jesus states as clearly as possible what his own death will soon reveal – God is the God of the living. The tenacity of God’s life-giving Spirit is stronger than death itself.
Ultimately, this is what impressed me during my visit to Mt. St. Helen’s. The power of death and destruction is ferocious beyond imagining. It is strong, to be sure. But life is more tenacious than we realize because God is the God of life and has made it so. We hold to this faith and hope in ways universal and in ways personal. We pray for the resurrection of all those we love but see no longer while we hope through God’s Spirit that things which have grown old in our life are being made new even as God moves all things toward their perfection. The theory of entropy holds all matter and energy in the universe is moving toward an inert state unless it is being acted upon by an external force. We of the Christian faith hold the tenacious, life-giving Spirit of God works in and through all things, infusing all reality with a principle of life and renewal. We see it in our world and pray for it in our lives.