On Hope and Volcanoes

Ever slept on top of a volcano? I have. A supervolcano, actually.  In fact, not only did I sleep on the volcano, but I drove around on the volcano, spotted an osprey on the volcano, and even enjoyed a delicious tuna sandwich on the volcano. And no, Clever Cathy, it wasn’t a dormant volcano. This volcano is, in fact, one of the most active geothermal spots in the world. It is home to top-of-a-volcano features such as: fumaroles (vents that spout hot steam in huge clouds that smell like rotten egg), travertine terraces (places where magma-heated water rises to the surface, cools and leaves chalky deposits in huge terraces that smell like rotten egg), and hot springs (which are exactly what they say on the tin—but do smell like rotten egg, just to be clear). Of all its many geothermal features, though, my supervolcano is most famous for its geysers. It is home to two-thirds of the world’s active geysers, most notably Old Faithful, which has been erupting every 90 minutes since—for all I know—the beginning of time.

You guessed it. I was at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and it was simply wonderful. Standing in the park, snowcapped mountains in the distance, bison grazing peacefully on the valley floor, you’d never imagine that you’re standing on top of a magma chamber that’s 37 miles long, 18 miles wide, and up to 7 miles deep. That, my friend, is a lot of magma. The supervolcano has erupted three times that we know of - generally once every 600,000 to 800,000 years. The funny thing is, despite the widespread destruction wrought by those three eruptions (think, half of the United States under a couple feet of ash), they also laid the groundwork (literally) for Yellowstone’s famous biological diversity.  Yellowstone National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America, and is well known as the largest intact temperate zone ecosystem in the world. Not bad for the crater of a supervolcano, eh?

But enough about Yellowstone. I’m meant to be writing about God. The trouble is, I can’t actually separate the two. Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s character has been made evident to us through his creation. So according to the Bible, Yellowstone’s supervolcano is an actual physical representation of God’s character. To me, the obvious connection is that God uses the destructive forces in the world to ultimately bring about good—in the case of the volcano, he uses lava and ash to bring life and newness. In our spiritual lives, likewise, he often uses the trials of life to bring us joy and healing.  That seems clear enough, right?

But as I get older, I’m realising that there’s a problem here.  While it’s true that God uses the destructive things in life to bring about healing and newness, one look at the news tells me it’s not as simple as that. Creation clearly displays God’s promise to bring new life out of destruction, but creation also shows us that not all of us will get to experience new life in the way we’d prefer. The largest intact temperate zone ecosystem in the world may have grown out of the eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano, but unnumbered plants, animals and probably people met a fiery, ashy end in the process.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s been called “Winner’s Circle Theology”—the idea that when we in the West read the Bible, we nearly always identify with the “hero” of the story. We learn lessons from David and Bathsheba, but never think of Uriah. We rejoice at the restoration of Job’s family and wealth, but never stop to consider his dead children. The fact of the world we live in is that we aren’t all Davids or Jobs. Sometimes we experience the destruction, but not the new life that comes afterward. In fact, most of the world’s Christians live in that reality.

I received a prayer request in my inbox a couple of weeks ago from a woman named Karen* who is a missionary in West Africa. She and her husband have been ministering to a community who were displaced from their village by a terrorist group a couple of years ago. They now live in a town in the central part of the country, hoping that someday they may be able to go back to their village in the northeast. But now, another group is threatening their safety.

Karen writes: At [a town an hour’s run from us] and nearby villages over 200 people were killed and houses burnt and everyone fled. This was over the weekend. The [attackers] have now moved onto the land of the burnt villages and are building their houses.  At [a crossroads 20 minutes away from our village] at least two people were killed. There is now a curfew from 6pm-6am and soldiers are all over the place. 

Pray for us as this is possibly their next place of attack. God protected our people during the last two attacks some years ago. Pray the same will happen now.

We know we are in the Lord's hands and rest in Him.”

Talk about the opposite of Winner’s Circle Theology! Christians are killed in Karen’s country most days. Lord willing, this small community of displaced people will be spared. But many others have not been spared. We in the West always think of ourselves as the winners, the ones who will be spared, who will get to enjoy the new life that arises from our trials. But real life isn’t like this. Our sin-cracked, man-marred world is indiscriminate in its distribution of destruction. We Westerners are neither more immune nor more protected than anyone else. We are not likely to be displaced by terrorists or attacked by land-grabbing murderers. But the truth is that some of us will die of cancer, some of us will lose a loved one to a car accident or violent crime, some of us will experience destruction without the benefit of coming safely through the storm.  In volcano terms, some of us will be caught in the lava flow.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is compelled to state, in no uncertain terms, just how vital the resurrection is to our faith. He sums it all up by saying “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The Bible turns our temporal idea of “coming safely through the storm” on its head. The fact is, if we, as Christians, only think of “life” as something that happens in this temporal phase of our existence—this pre-resurrection-in-Christ bit—then of course anything that leads to death will feel unfair, unacceptable, ungodly. But when we realise that we’re an active participant in something bigger and more permanent than what we see around us, we will find ourselves on a journey to being able to say with Karen and the displaced people she serves, “We know we are in the Lord’s hands and rest in Him.”

There’s much more to say. About the injustice of murder, rape, kidnapping. About how unacceptable it is to lay a Romans 8:28 patina over the agony, grief and hopelessness that invade the lives of victims and their families. About so many of my loved ones’ unwillingness to engage with a God who allows such horrific suffering in the world. About my own struggle to believe and then practice what I preach. Maybe someday I’ll feel qualified to tackle these subjects that today leave me defenceless, but for now I can only cling to faith in the resurrection and the character of Christ, who makes all things new.

I write about the faith that says “I’m in Your hands”  very much as a theoretician, not as a practitioner. Forget about claiming to rest in God’s hands with a machete pressed to my neck. I often can’t even manage to risk my social life to talk about how much Jesus means to me with friends who don’t really know him.

And I know I’m not alone.  I wonder whether the illusion of personal safety—physical, social, professional—is what holds so many of us back from being bold and brave in our faith both at home and abroad. I wonder what would happen if I really got it into my head that there’s more to “life” than meets the eye…that there is actually life after life.

What if, instead of considering it my right to be a winner—to be part of the new life that has bloomed so extravagantly in the wake of the volcano—I actually allow myself to be burned by the flame and buried by ash, willingly becoming part of the rich soil from which the promised new life springs? What if I welcomed adversity, struggle, even death if it’s required, if it meant bringing about healing and new life for others? Isn’t that what Jesus did? And shouldn’t I be following his example? I’m not there yet, and maybe I never will be. But I have to at least try…don’t I?

*Name changed for security


Photo by Julien Millet.