God and the volcano, or: How we are not in charge

By Richard Helmer

God, the life of all who live, the light of the faithful, the strength of those who labor, and the repose of the dead: We thank you for the blessings of the day that is past, and humbly ask for your protection through the coming night. Bring us in safety to the morning hours; through him who died and rose again for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

– A Collect for Protection from The Book of Common Prayer, pg 124

Air travel is as routine, it seems for many, as driving. But as I boarded a plane at Newark International after a trip to Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center in New York two weekends after Easter Sunday, I was confronted with the stark reality of dozens of empty aircraft parked outside the terminal on ramps. “CANCEL” appeared repeatedly in large red letters on the departure screens. With the continuing ash plume from the erupting volcano in Iceland, flights to Europe were put off another day.

It brought to mind our youth and other family members and friends stranded in Europe, with their families here at home awaiting their return. Of families around the world waiting – some anxiously – of hotels overflowing, of airlines floundering, of business and commerce awaiting critical goods, and travelers left wondering. God with them all.

But it was harder to imagine God in the ash cloud, though we claim ashes in liturgy each year. Harder, too, to imagine God in the pressing fires of magma, but ours is the God of the pillar of fire by night in the Exodus story. Ours is further the God of the cloud by day where fire and ice collide.

Flying from Newark to San Francisco – a cross-continental flight that some of our members complete far more regularly than I – is in itself a singular reminder of the size of the country and the variety of landscapes knit together along with the vast array of God’s people and God’s creatures. It served me yet another reminder that we are so very small, after all. And even with the tremendous human ingenuity that enables us to cruise at 37,000 feet in comfort at speeds our ancestors could scarcely imagine, the unanticipated eruption in Iceland put us all collectively back in our place.

On further reading, I noted that this eruption was relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Scientists now contemplate the Toba eruption around 70,000 years ago, one so massive that it may be connected with a huge transition in the human family – what some call an “evolutionary bottleneck.” The Toba eruption may have been so devastating to the entire ecosystem that it left only a small remnant of humanity – a relative handful of our ancestors who then left Africa to populate the rest of the world following a cataclysm of truly Biblical proportions.

Volcanoes may have a part to play in the great cycle of endings and new beginnings that mark the history of life on our planet. Somehow, God is gracious in those terrifying prospects, too. Death and new life are the tell-tale signs, small as we are, of our being an Easter people – people of the crucifixion, and people of the resurrection. We simply do not have one without the other.

One of our youth members stuck in Paris (and there are far worse places to be stuck in the world!) wrote home that her school group had stopped by Hemingway’s apartment. A plaque outside noted the beauty of humility of not only Hemingway’s condition, but the condition of the students at the mercy of ash clouds and safety concerns:

We were in Paris….We were very young, very poor and very happy.

Perhaps our happiness does not depend so much upon our power to build or control even our own life or death, but rather on our vulnerability, on how we are not ultimately in charge – that true poverty that is the opening in our lives to God’s grace. Maybe that’s one way God is in ash clouds, fiery volcanoes, and all the disruptions in our lives and all life, both small and great. We are reminded of our poverty, our true condition, where even the oldest among us are quite young in cosmological terms: very poor, indeed. . . and yet, potentially, very happy.

For it is with that freedom from control that we learn to rely so wholly on our loving God who is about the business of remaking us, both individually and collectively.

Even if it is only to the market or next door, no journey is truly routine. Our prayer for protection reminds us that our lives are wholly contingent in the end, and we rely on this God in Christ who has conquered death, volcanoes, disruptions, and all else that we might fear, and offers us a love that embraces the whole cycle of life.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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