(Section about Mount Saint Helens was written by Rev. Linda Hoddy, abridged by Pastor Kimberley)
Easter may one of the most difficult holy days in all of the world’s religions for Unitarian Universalists. It begs us to set aside our propensity for reason and fact, our disbelief in the supernatural, our suspicion of anything called a miracle.
Easter asks us to consider, for one day, the idea that a man who died at the hands of a threatened establishment not only rose from the dead three days after he was declared dead but that the large stone that closed off his tomb was rolled away so that he could walk out and be with his followers a little while longer. And that there was a point to it all.
Unitarian Universalists bump up against this story a lot – it seems fantastical and unbelievable, and to some, just made up in order to lend credence to a tiny Jesus movement that eventually became the religion we know as Christianity. Many Unitarian Universalists buy that Jesus was an incredible teacher and perhaps prophet, and some UUs even see a level of divinity in the person of Jesus. And yes, there are UUs who do believe, as our Unitarian and Universalist forebears did, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.
But I don’t think we struggle with the entrance into Jerusalem, or tossing the money changers out of the temple – we like that bit… we don’t wrestle at all with the idea that Jesus maybe knew this could be dangerous, and we understand the events that led to the final meal, the betrayal, the arrest, and the shuffling through the justice system up to the crucifixion. All of that makes sense. It’s not miraculous, it’s what happens all too often to those who tell truth to power.
Where we struggle is on that third day. At the empty tomb.
How do we explain this except as a miracle?
And if we do accept it as a miracle, are we sacrificing part of what makes us Unitarian Universalists in the first place – our daring to question, our cherishing of doubt, our openness to many ideas? What happens when we say “yes, there is a kind of miracle in the universe that we call resurrection”?
What happens – in true Unitarian Universalist fashion – is that we look for it elsewhere. And we find them, as the Transcendentalists taught us, in nature. Lo and behold, there’s one standing tall and strong, 3000 miles away.
One of the most powerful resurrection stories of modern times is that of life returning to Mount Saint Helen, in Washington State, in the Pacific Northwest.
On May 18, 1980 – 37 years ago, Mount St. Helen’s erupted, in “the deadliest” and “most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.”
Fifty-seven human beings died.
250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railway, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed.
But that was just the human and economic cost.
The flow of rock and debris and lava from the eruption and avalanches eventually covered more than 230 square miles.
3,900,000 cubic yards of debris traveled 17 miles down the Columbia River. Biologists estimated that 7,000 big game animals, and 12 million fish are believed to have perished.
“Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.” Spirit Lake, source of the North Fork Toutle River, was filled with dead trees and debris. Its outlet was blocked by material from the avalanche, which caused its level to rise 60 feet, changing oxygen levels and destroying the home of most of the aquatic life. What had been lush and beautiful landscape teeming with animal, plant and human life, was now “a vast gray” wasteland. When President Jimmy Carter surveyed the scene from a helicopter, he said, “Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there.”
It’s been thirty-seven years now and scientists are astounded by the recovery of the landscape. This natural disaster has given us an opportunity to study how life returns to such an area. For the thirtieth anniversary of the eruption, the television show NOVA produced a documentary of what had happened at Mount St. Helen. They entitled it “Mt. Saint Helens: Back from the Dead.” To the amazement of scientists, the area devastated by the avalanche came back to life in only 25 years.
“Much of the landscape has filled with plants, and the once stark gray area has been transformed mostly to green,” say Virginia Dale, Frederick Sanson and Charles Crisafulli.
Extensive tracts of the most severely disturbed areas remain in early seral stages dominated by herbs and shrubs and will require several more decades before becoming closed canopy forests, if they ever do. Numerous conifer saplings are present in all disturbance zones, and the development of forest cover is accelerating in many locations. By 2005 the ash-choked lakes and streams of 1980 glisten with clear, cold well-oxygenated water and support biota typical of the region.”
Prior to studying Mt. St. Helens, biologists believed that species would return in a particular succession. But that theory is being challenged by what happened on Mt. St. Helen.
“Plants representing all major stages of forest development appear to be establishing simultaneously,” says Peter Frenzen of the U.S. Forest Service. “This contradicts classic ecological theory that describes the orderly establishment and successive replacement of one group of plants by another (for example, mosses followed by grasses by shrubs by trees.” Classic theory, based upon studies of abandoned fields and formerly glaciated terrain, does not appear to apply at Mount St. Helens. “We underestimated the ability” of nature to disperse species throughout the area, says Charles Crisafulli. “Nobody could have predicted the speed with which nature” has returned growth to the area.
Earth has taught us resurrection. And it has taught us again how connected we are.
The first plant to reappear in the lava landscape was a lovely purple flower called the prairie lupine. It seemed miraculous that it could live on top of seemingly dead lava. But, the lupine knows how to cooperate. In its roots live a bacteria which provides it with fertilizer. And it, in turn provides a home for the bacteria.
Only a few weeks after the devastation, to the astonishment of scientists, an exotic mammal, the pocket gopher, began to roam among the devastated landscape. It turns out that these small animals, no bigger than the palm of our hands, had survived under the ash. It feeds on underground plants and tunnels upward through the snow.
As it does so, it “brings up fertile soil from below the ash, stuffing these long snow tunnels.” That fertile soil then becomes a seedbed for additional plants. And thus we see the beginnings of regeneration. But the regeneration could not happen without the interaction among the species.
There are about 60 species of pioneer plants, which are the first to become established in such areas. They travel in many modes. Sometimes they fly in, as we see in birds and insects, and seeds and spores blown in by the wind. Sometimes they swim or float on a log. And sometimes they hitchhike, “traveling inside or attached to animals that swim or fly.”
The “Interdependent web, of which we are a part,” resurrects because there is great cooperation among species. Yet because resurrection happens only one species, one seed, one amoeba, one bird at a time, the rest of the story can seem like a miracle.
Mount St. Helens isn’t the only place where resurrection happens – we see it over and over again, as the earth adapts and regrows, the circle of life continuing in ever evolving ways.
But resurrection isn’t just in nature. We see something like it all the time, in small ways that to some might seem a miracle but to others seem easily explainable. We see it in the reviving breath of a patient after being saved from certain death by emergency room doctors. We see it in the determined look of an addict who, after hitting rock bottom, gets clean and becomes a counselor herself. We see it in the gentleness of a former gang member who comes out of prison to prevent other young people from following his broken road. We see it in the relieved smiles of immigrant who gets a green card. We see it in the eyes of a motherless child who finally finds a family. We see it in the jubilation of a small group of citizens who see a wrong, set out to change the world – and succeed.
You see, resurrection is not just about the physical body, although it can seem that way to the addict, or the ER patient, or even the immigrant. And just as the many species helped Mount Saint Helens resurrect, so too these miracles of resurrection depend on the interdependent web – of doctors, and teachers, and families, and role models, and organizers, and prophets.
And they don’t happen all at once. In the gospel of John, we learn that on that third morning after Jesus’s death, Simon Peter…then John…then Mary Magdalen, went into the tomb. Peter and John didn’t know what happened, but Mary, who peeked into the empty tomb, saw angels where the body was supposed to be, and then saw Jesus, resurrected, herself. She went to tell the others – one by one, they had their own moment of resurrection – Peter, and John, Bartholomew, and the others, one by one, even Thomas, with his need for proof. (I’m pretty sure Thomas was a Unitarian). But even he experienced the miracle of resurrection.
And while the gospel points to this one moment in this one time, 2000 years ago, it also tells us that the miracle of resurrection can happen for every one of us, happening one seed, one bird, one doctor, one court, one hand, one welcome, one yes at a time.
Resurrection is about the miracle of hope when hope is lost. It is about the surging and resurging power of life. As theologian Walter Bruegemann writes,
The Easter question is not whether you can get your mind around the resurrection, because you cannot. Rather the question is whether you can permit in your horizon new healing power, new surging possibility, new ways of power in an armed, fearful world: new risk, new life, leaping, dancing, singing –and praising the powers beyond all our controlled powers.
We can’t ever know for certain if the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened two thousand years ago. Belief in that resurrection in that moment is a matter of faith and your own spiritual development.
But we do know that resurrection happens when we open ourselves, one by one, to the possibility that just as life returns to seemingly desolate parts of our earth, life can return to those who need a resurgence.
Earth teaches us that resurrection is not only possible but that it’s happening all around us. But we must see the whole board: the miracle is not that new life returns, the miracle is in the interconnectedness of life. We must focus not just on one individual life, not be devastated by just one death, but make that leap of faith that recognizes that while each life is precious, and each moment is explainable, each is only one part of a larger miracle of life and hope.