Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Volcanoes of Pentecost

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
- Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20

There’s been a note in the news lately that Mount St. Helens in Washington has had a swarm of small earthquakes which seem related to the filling of the magma chamber inside the volcano. While it’s a long way from a full-blown earthquake/eruption, it’s still a thing to keep an eye on.

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the last major eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18th, 1980. I was living in Oregon, about 175 miles from the scene of the event. My apartment building overlooked the Columbia River with Washington on the other side. That morning I got up and turned on the TV. All I could find on any channel's coverage was of a volcanic eruption. Having never experienced one of these, it was kind of an interesting experience.

Inside my apartment I didn't see anything, didn't feel anything, and I hadn't heard anything, but not many miles away, to the north of me, ash was falling from the eruption. I went outside and looked up to find that the sky was a brilliant and cloudless blue, at least over my head. I looked towards Washington and I noticed that from about the middle of the river and extending to the north sky was black like some someone had come along and just painted the sky a dark, grayish black. The line was so straight and the color so even that it seemed surreal.

I thought about that is when I read the reading from Exodus where Moses and the Israelites were parked at the base of Mount Sinai. They were gathered because Moses had been told by God to collect the whole group, and to give them certain instructions. The interesting part comes on the third day when there was thunder, lightning, and cloud on the mountain with an increasingly loud trumpet blasting and shaking ground beneath their feet. That’s where the image of the volcano erupting crossed my mind.

 Some volcanoes produce thunderstorms and very visible lightning as they erupt, while some others of them spew fiery sparks. Yet others send out in clouds of smoke and ash. To me, the passage sounds like Moses and his people were in the presence God manifested as a terrifying eruption.

Thinking of eruptions where bright sparks and sometimes bright columns of yellow and red come from the top of the mountain, I thought about the tongues of flame that appeared on the disciples’ heads on the day of Pentecost. The approach of the Spirit on that day was like a mighty wind blowing and a trembling of the earth. At that time, the tongues of flame over their heads, appearing as though there was an eruption going on, an eruption that would change the landscape of their lives forever.

 It must have been somewhat frightening to suddenly begin speaking in other languages, and I’m sure the disciples weren’t the only confused ones. Still, it was the gift of the Spirit to help with the spreading of the word of God, just as the eruption on Sinai was to get their attention.

Pentecost invites all of us to place ourselves in the path of the great wind and earth shaking of and by the Spirit, the place of awe and attention to what God wants of us. Sometimes it might take something on the magnitude of a virtual volcanic eruption to do that.

The reports that Mount St. Helens is awake and the magma beneath it is building up gives us a foresight that sooner or later it will blow up again. Other volcanoes around the world have been erupting, some quite violently and others just as dangerously but with clouds of ash instead.  I wonder if God is giving us a message, and waking us up to go out and teach and preach and live so that others will see and marvel.

Now I don't think we are meant to be human volcanoes, much less disciples with little pinpoints of flame coming out from our heads, but I think there can be a spiritual glow indicating the presence of the Spirit within which might be an indicator. I didn’t see St. Helens erupt in person, but I have seen people on whom I could almost see tongues of flame above their heads. Really.

Some people walk around as if they had a little grey cloud over their heads, or maybe it's volcanic ash. I wonder what we would think if we saw a little flame instead?

I will remember those tongues of flame the next time I see a picture of an erupting volcano, or perhaps the next time I see someone with a particular glow that indicates the fire of the spirit inside them. It's a good thing to look for, and much better for the environment.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 14, 2016.

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