Judah had been through it. They’d been conquered, uprooted from their beloved “promised land” and taken into exile. After a few decades—and after their conquerors were conquered by someone else– they were allowed to return home to Jerusalem.
In truth, though, it wasn’t much to return to—piles of rubble, little infrastructure, no king of their own. No temple. The people had returned to the same location, but it no longer looked like home. What had been so easy in the past—worshiping in the Temple, governing themselves—what they once had taken for granted was gone now. Yes, they were home, but the rules had changed. There was no other place they’d rather be than Jerusalem… but inhabiting this new Jerusalem was going to take a lot more work than inhabiting the old one.
That’s similar to what environmentalist Bill McKibben says about our home planet in his book, Eaarth; Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben suggests that greenhouse emissions over the last two centuries have set a process in motion that has fundamentally altered our planet. In fact, the planet has changed so much that we now inhabit an entirely different planet, one that’s going to take a lot more work to live on and with.
Like the Israelites we, too, inhabit a home that isn’t as welcoming as it once was. We, too, grieve the loss of a lifestyle we once loved. We, too, might be feeling hopeless.
What did God say to our 5th c. BCE ancestors when, as the hymn says: “hope seemed hopeless?” **To residents of Jerusalem who had been captured and exiled, God promises to re-create Jerusalem as a joy. **To people who had been uprooted from their homes and whose ripening gardens had been vandalized, God promises that they “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” **22To people whose world had been completely destroyed, God promises to create a new heaven and a new earth.
I wonder how our ancestors in faith received these words of hope. Hearing words of doom-and-gloom—that’s hard. Ancient Israel and Judah experienced it when their prophets told them they’d be conquered and exiled. We experience it when our contemporary prophets tell us our planet is fundamentally changing for the worst. But as hard as it is to hear a message of doom-and-gloom, it’s sometimes even more difficult to hear a word of hope…. especially when you’re hip-deep in the debris of your de-created world.
A case in point: my front yard. In 2008, a storm tore through our neighbourhood. It was a bad storm. Twelve houses in our subdivision were damaged so badly, they had to be condemned. Thankfully, just three weeks before, we’d had several pine trees removed, so damage to our house was minimal…but we lost a lot of trees in the storm, beautiful trees, some of them lovely hardwoods. We were devastated.
Shortly after that—you might remember—I began planting trees like crazy, mostly in the front yard. You all gave us a cherry tree; I planted that. Someone gave us several saplings from their yard; I planted those. Someone else gave us a tree from the Arbor Day Foundation. That was a boon, because after that, I joined the Arbor Day Foundation and got scads of trees for a tiny contribution. Have you ever ordered a tree through the mail? You get this little stick in the mailbox, plant it, and it grows into a tree!
The only trees I did NOT plant that Fall were the pine trees offered by Jimmy Loyless. Pine trees were scattered all over our neighbourhood for months after the storm. I couldn’t bear to look at any more pines, so I passed on those…but everythingelse offered by anyone else, I took…and planted….in the front yard…right in front of the house….to the point that now you can barely see the house from the road.
These trees in our front yard are a testament to just how hopeless I was after the storm. I planted all those trees because—in my heart–I had little hope that many—if any—would grow. And I planted the trees in front of the house because I didn’t think they would grow tall. Now, several healthy growing seasons later, our house is all but obscured by trees. Oh, a few trees died, but very few. The rest of the trees have grown like gang-busters! Every time I look out our window, it’s almost like creation is laughing at me. “Ha, ha, ha! Didn’t think I could do it, did you? Just watch me grow!” I laugh with it.
Here’s what I’ve learned from our yard in the last four years: nature is strong. Creation has a will of its own. The world God created wants to live.
But watching a few trees—and tons of weeds, truth be told—grow back after a storm… that in no way equates with our chemically-altered and fundamentally-changing planet. Where is the hope for us, we inhabits of a place we’ve always known as home, but whose glory days might be passed? How do we hope for earth’s healing when hope seems hopeless?
Today’s reading from Isaiah 65 ends with the image of God’s “holy mountain.” The reading from Isaiah 2 talks about the “mountain of God’s house.” In a region that is mostly flat—like much of Israel–a mountain really stands out. A mountain that is taller than all other mountains—as Isaiah 2 describes the mountain of God’s house—is one that people will be able to see from miles around; it’s the peak that will remind everyone of God’s presence and power. God’s holy mountain—by itself–will proclaim a message of hope.
Hear now a message of hope proclaimed by Mt. St. Helens in Washington state. On May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascade Mountain range, erupted. “Within 10 seconds, the northern flank of the mountain collapsed in the largest landslide in recorded history. In a huge explosion, it released millions of tons of magma. A cloud of searing gas and rock raced over the surrounding countryside. Forests were flattened. Thousands of birds from more than 100 species disappeared. Billions of insects were gone. Deer and elk were wiped out. Four miles below the summit, the enormous Spirit Lake was choked with debris, its bed raised more than 200 feet from an avalanche. The northern slope of the volcano was buried in several feet of ash. Virtually all life was extinguished.”
Mt. St. Helens and its environs “looked like the moon.” “It was hard to imagine life ever returning.”
Scientist Charlie Crisafulli was charged with the task of finding life around Mt. St. Helens after the eruption. For the first 3 months, he found nothing. Then, 8 miles from the volcano’s crater, he noticed something—signs of freshly disturbed earth—round earth on top of the gray volcanic ash…. evidence of the work of the northern pocket gopher. Pocket gophers live completely underground….which is where they were when the volcano erupted, safe from the blast.
As the pocket gopher population worked on creating a network of underground tunnels, plant life also began to appear—even on the most damaged part of the plain below the volcano’s crater, the fluffy purple petals of the prairie lupine appeared. As pioneer species, it makes sense that lupines and pocket gophers were two of the first species to appear after the eruption…but scientists were dumbfounded by how fast they appeared.
They were equally dumbfounded by the resurgence of Spirit Lake. The eruption had obliterated all visible life in the lake. The bacteria populations in the lake exploded, killing all the oxygen in the water. Crisafulli and his colleagues thought it would be “decades and decades” before Sprit Lake would recover. “Well,” he said later, “We were surprised.”
Three years after the eruption, they discovered a rapidly growing population of phytoplankton, the basic building block of aquatic life. The beginnings of the population had been brought in by birds or blown in by the wind. Between 1983 and 1986, 135 species of tiny plants colonized the lake.
Ten years after the eruption, life was flooding back to Mt. St. Helens, “the rate of recovery far faster than anyone expected.” As Crisafulli said: “Clearly, our understanding of the ability of these organisms to disperse was greatly underestimated. We found that a lot of our conventional wisdom was just flat wrong.” He describes the speed with which life has returned to Mt. St. Helens as “another form of eruption. It was an eruption of nature. Nature marched back with a vengeance.” (PBS, Mt. St. Helens: Back from the Dead.)
I know, I know….life returning to Mt. St. Helens after a volcanic eruption isn’t anything like trying to refreeze the polar ice caps or reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or clean up all of earth’s fresh water sources. In many respects, we’re comparing apples and oranges here…But…
Despite the differences in circumstances, it is still the same earth at work with Mt. St. Helens and with global warming…still the same natural world with its death-defying, life-affirming processes. I thought my yard was dead. It has come back. Scientists at Mt. St. Helens thought the 200 square mile eruption area was dead. It has come back—with a vengeance.
So, I guess I’m wondering what might be happening with the rest of our planet. Creation definitely suffers when we misuse its resources…. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprints and try to reverse processes that are working to destroy our planet.
But—after hearing the words of hope to the ancient Israelites, after hearing the laughter of my trees at home, after hearing the message of hope preached by Mt. St. Helens…I’m beginning to wonder if things might not be as hopeless as they seem. Oh, things are still dire…but I guess I just wonder if maybe there is some hope . Maybe we should trust in that word of hope, a word that comes from God. Maybe we should trust in creation’s will to thrive, despite its current dire circumstances. Maybe we should dare to hope when hope seems hopeless.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012