Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ash, Steam and Volcano Dust

So we've been back on Illinois soil for 25 hours now. I've had a little time to think about the experiences I shared with my wife in America's great northwest. Some trips are just so relaxing, so enchanted, so needed that they are just hard to come back from. This was one of those trips. But you always have to come home and we did. It is still hot and muggy. Our little town is still recovering from a good storm-bashing from a month ago. After 23 years this place has become home in a way that I never expected when I moved here. God has allowed us to put down roots that most youth pastor's never experience. Our kids grew up in one place. I am grateful for that. If our time here ends next month, next year, or next decade I will have to say that He has been very gracious to us. I have no complaints.

Anyway ...

There was a three hour period of our trip that Debbie and I did not share. It happened on Monday. That is the day we drove back to Mt. St. Helen's. It was a stunningly clear day and after kissing my bride at the Johnston Ridge Memorial Observatory I set out on a solo hike. My tools were few. A sweatshirt over my arm, a pair of New Balance sneakers on my feet, an ipod playing in my ears and a bottle of water lodged in the leg pocket of my cargo shorts.

Looking into the crater of the volcano was shocking. The observatory is six miles from the center of the hole where the new "lava dome" is rapidly building. At the rate it is growing it will restore the mountain to its original height in a mere one hundred years. That's not very long in geological years. A very thin and steady stream of ash and steam floats straight up from the dome most of the time. If the missing top and sides of the mountain are not reminder enough, this steam keeps the fact that this is an active volcano in the forefront of your mind. St. Helen's has been in a state of eruption since 2004. Hiking to the rim was banned until about two weeks ago. Now it is limited to, I believe, one hundred people a day and a maximum of twelve in any one hiking expedition. Oddly, the climbers begin from the back side, the south side, of the mountain rather than from the north side where the open hole reveals the gory results of the May 18, 1980 eruption to the world. I am certain there is a reason. I do not know what it is.

My plan was to hike as close to the opening as I could get without leaving the trail. To do so results in a fine of at least $100. And there is always the possibility that you could get lost, injured, swallowed up by some unforgiving crevice or, yes, killed by doing so. I was very satisfied by the trail.

As you leave Johnston Ridge you walk up a rather steep incline on a paved walk way. That is just to hook you. It lures you in. After you reach the top of the first ridge the asphalt vanishes and is replaced by a wide and well maintained trail that turns toward the mountain. There are signs at this point reminding you of the appropriate response to an ash fall. Not to worry though. It will never happen. It's just a wisp of steam. A tiny bit of ash. There is not much going on. Less than a quarter mile down this trail you will find a marble (granite?) memorial to those who were killed in the big eruption. I found the names of David A. Johnston, the geologist manning the ridge when it blew. He was decimated after shouting his final words into his radio ... "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" He was hit by a 300mph blast of super-heated gas, ash, and rock. They never found him. A forest service employee told me that they did find small remains of his trailer. Sadly, David was the man who predicted the eruption and he had not even been staffing the observation point. The man who was happened to be called away for a day and David agreed to take his place. As you might have guessed, that day was the day of the huge explosion that forever changed the face of the region as well as the way scientists study volcano's. I also saw the name of Harry Truman. You may remember him from a made-for-tv movie back in the 80's. The movie portrayed him as a grizzly, stubborn old mountain man who refused to leave his lodge at Spirit Lake. Locals will tell you that the truth is he was quite the entrepreneur in reality. He would not leave because he was concerned about what someone would do to his place in his absence. He was afraid of the mountain but he stayed. The ranger told me that he probably had enough time to turn and look over his shoulder when the mountain blew before his life ended. I'm telling you ... this is a wild place.

As I hiked on I had my eyes on the fragmented mountain. It is very hard to take your eyes off of it. I had my ipod tuned to "shuffle" and music praising the eternal God, maker of mountains filled my head. I walked and I prayed. The wide and maintained walk way tapered off into a discernible but definitely non-maintained trail. When it did I saw the final sign of my journey. It told me that to go any further was a serious decision. If you are afraid of heights, concerned about your physical abilities, or apt to panic in tough terrain you should not go any further. I did what any red blooded male would do. I took a picture of the sign to show everybody when I got back.

I kept walking. I came across a bench with an almost shocking view. I could now see all of the growing lava dome from my new vantage point. I sat for a few minutes and stared, trying to imagine what it looked like to be in that spot all of those years ago. Some strange form of flying insects were buzzing around the area. They made a rattling sound. At first I mistook the sound for a possible rattle snake. That scared me more than the volcano did. And then one of the flying creatures landed on my shoe and started its rattling. I shook it off and ceased to worry about slithering reptiles. I don't think there are rattle snakes in Washington state but I don't want to bet my life on it.

I stood and began walking again. My trail map placed me more than a mile and a half from the observatory. I walked on. Then I walked so more. And then a bit further. I can only guess that I had walked somewhat more than three miles at this point when I came across a large rock. The trail beyond this point turned toward the east, somewhat away from the mountain. It followed a ridge line that appeared to have its view of St. Helen's blocked. I decided that this was probably as close as I could get. My map showed that the trail would split after the walk across the ridge. A right turn at that split would take me directly onto the apron areas of the land slide in front of the mountain. A glance at my watch told me that if I continued on that far I would not be able to return to the visitor's center by their closing time. That would get me in trouble with the rangers and especially with my wife. And so I took my hooded Centrifuge sweat shirt, folded it up, and used it as a cushion on the boulder at the edge of the trail.

And I sat. In stillness. In silence. I could hear the wind whipping through the valley, the rattling of the insects, and pretty much nothing else. I had not seen any other people for roughly the last mile. I do not know if anybody was on the trail beyond me or not but it did not matter. I was ending my treck here.

And I stared. Mt. St. Helen's commands your full attention. It is just too much to take in. A broken mountain. A shattered forest. A river valley buried under 650 feet of pumice and boulders.

And I prayed. I asked God if He wanted to do in my life what He had done to that mountain. Is it time for Him to rock my world? Are there false faces that He needs to blow away? Does He want to expose me to the heat of His inspection and burn away old growth in order to allow new growth to take place?

Silence. No response.

I reached to my pocket and tuned my ipod to the Psalms. I told it to read the scriptures to me in whatever random order it would choose. I asked God to program it to pour into my soul what He desired that I hear. I was listening to Psalm 97 when it happened. I had been staring into the moon-like valley. As I glanced back to the mountain my mouth went dry. My pulse began to race. The small and steady stream of ash had grown into a large and moving plume. It was moving downward and quickly covered the entire lava dome. In retrospect it does not look like much in the pictures. In person? In person it was an entirely different story. The steam and ash kept coming. I began snapping pictures. I turned on my cell phone to see if I had a signal. I had a weak one and I called Debbie's cell to make sure she was seeing this from the visitor's center. She did not answer and so I left a message. (She told me later that people began panicking and running away when the eruption started. The rangers took bull horns and told them to stop running and start taking pictures because they would likely never see this again.) I put my phone back in my pocket and sat stunned on my rock. That is when the words from Psalm 97 penetrated my own fog. I heard the Word of God say, "The mountains take one look at God and melt, melt like wax before earth's Lord. The heavens announce the He'll set everything right, and everyone will see it happen - glorious!" (Psalm 97: 5 - 6.) I remember thinking, "God burped the mountain for me."

All too soon the mini-eruption ceased. The cloud lifted out of the crater, floated above the mountain and formed into a small band of clouds heading eastward. I began a slow walk back to the visitor's center. I had been gone nearly 2.5 hours. After a while I came across a Park Service Ranger. She was walking in the direction I was coming from. She asked if I had seen the eruption. I showed her the pictures on my camera. We walked to a nearby bench, one of two I had seen on the trail, and she spent the better part of thirty minutes giving me a first hand description of what I was looking at on the mountain, in the valley, and to my left at the famous Spirit Lake. There is no space to write it all here but rest assured, when God wants a mountain to melt ... He does a very good job of making it happen.

After our conversation she asked me if I had seen anybody further up the trail. I told her that I had not, thanked her for the guided tour, and began my walk back to Debbie and the Johnston Ridge Memorial Observatory. It was an amazing day.

Two days later I was still finding ash and pumice in my hair when I washed it in the mornings.

It was an amazing day with an amazing God. And yes, He spoke to me. The eruption was a gift. It had nothing to do with what He told me. Neither did the worship songs I tuned in to. Neither did the reading of the Psalms. But He addressed my questions and dilemma's specifically and in a way I did not expect. I am not ready to tell you about that. Maybe some day. Maybe not. For now it is between my God and I.

And now, roughly 100 hours after my own personal volcanic eruption, something occurs to me for the first time. The Words of God spoken softly and quietly within my own spirit are of far great worth than a close-up and personal view of a mangled mountain and hot lava spewing up from the depths of the earth. Yes, it was worth the drive back down from Seattle to see the crater. And yes, it was awe inspiring to see the eruption. But hearing God's voice? Nothing is better than that.

As a side light, we had just taken off from SeaTac airport in Seattle yesterday morning and had not even approached cruising altitude when I glanced out the window of our 737. It was cloudy in Seattle when we took off and was still cloudy now about twenty minutes later. I noticed a few mountain peaks in the distance but I paid no attention because right in front of me. to the right of the jet, close enough that I felt like I could reach out the window and touch it ... was the ridge, crater and lava dome of Mt. St. Helen's. They were rising above the clouds as though they wanted to say a quick "good-bye" before we got too far away. And oddly, there was not even a tiny stream of rising ash this time.

How good is God anyway?

(For more pictures of my hike and the mountain go to and click on the "Seattle 2006" link." To see live pictures from the web came at the Johnston Ridge Memorial Observatory go to )

Weird Happens

Weird happens. It is built into life. You can't run from it, hide from it, or control it. I have already confessed that the last time I flew (before this trip) was 3 days before the horror's of 9-11. Since then I had been earth bound. I drive. I ride my "hardly." I occasionally walk. I even skipped once when no one was looking. But I had not flown again until August 16th. It all went great. St. Louis to Phoenix. Phoenix to Seattle. Piece of cake. And then my bride and I drove around a little bit. Spent a couple of days just enjoying ourselves. I checked e-mail before going to bed on the third day of our journey and I noticed a small headline on I was tired and did not pay much attention to it. But the next morning when I woke up the news was pretty much all under one headline. Terrorism. It seems that some bad people were being arrested in Britian for plotting to blow up many airplanes headed for the United States. I realized right away that we had flown three days ago.


Three days. Three days before. Three days after. I see a trend.

And then they announced that the day the new terror event was planned to have occured was August 16. That is the day I held tickets for to return home. Like I said ... weird happens.

I kind of feel guilty. Like if I stopped flying all of this would stop happening. Ok, not really. I mean, I know better. But you have to admit that it IS kind of strange. For the record I would like to point out that I didn't fly anywhere near the time that "shoe bomber" guy tried to light up his Adidas. Can't hang that one on me.

So this morning I dutifully took off my shoes for the guy behind the x-ray machine, emptied my pockets and disposed of my bottled water before arriving at the gate. My toothpaste and shampoo are in my checked luggage in the belly of the plane. Not only that but I kept all of my electronic equipment off until the nice lady up in front said it was ok. And even then I kept my ipod turned down low. Right now I am typing at 41,000 feet above New Mexico, or so the Captain tells me. I have my seat belt on, I am smiling a lot at the flight attendents and I am watching my wife play "Go Fish" with a little girl flying alone from Seattle to St. Louis. She's a pretty special woman, my wife. So, you see, I am really trying. Today I am doing it all right. Playing by the rules.

Anyway, I think maybe I'll just stop flying again. I don't have any tickets pending. Since I stole the northwest corner of the country on this trip (see previous blog) I kind of thought I might go for the northeast next summer. You know, start a collection of the farthest rocks stuck to the farthest corners of each part of our country. Florida would have been robbed in 2008. San Diego would have lost their rock in 2009. And in 2010 I would have sold them all on e-bay for a tidy profit allowing me to retire early and enjoy life on some mountain. Hey, it was a plan. But I guess it's just not happening. For the sake of national security and the airline industry I suppose I should hang-up my wings.

So here I go, one last time. Everybody singing ... "OFF I GO, INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER..." Tomorrow I'll just drop the top on my 'Stang and cruise the asphalt. The world will be better for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I have to see the crater...

I have to go again.

After flying 2,300 miles, driving 135 miles and walking maybe a mile or two I got to see a really cool cloud. Oh sure, it was covering the most active volcano in the history of the United States but it was still a cloud. It was only shrouding the actual crater of the volcano. The destoyed north side of the mountain was clearly visable. But I did not come here to see a cloud. I came here to see a crater.

When Mt. St. Helen's erupted on May 18, 1980 it was a bright and sunny Sunday in Chicago. My wife and I were at church. I was the youth pastor. On the front of the program that was handed out on that day was a picture of the nearly perfect Mt. St. Helen's in southwest Washington. How odd. We did not know it until we got home but while we were at worship, holding our little program in our hands, that very mountain was exploding. It lost its entire north face. It blew down trees like twigs. It pushed Spirit Lake so far up the side of a mountain that when the water returned it brought all of the trees and soil with it. It killed the entire lake and everything in it. Over fifty people died. The devastation is still overtly evident today, 26 years later. Oh, and that was also my wife's twenty second birthday. What a candle.

And so today we walked through the "blast zone" and found out exactly why it is called that. I think of words like "amazing," "awesome," "powerful," and even "unbelievable." None of those words explain what it looks like. As President Jimmy Carter said, "the moon looks like a golf course compared to this." I am certain it looks much better today than it did when he said that. But still ...

So today the cloud lifted. It is not supposed to return over the next few days. Therefore, I am going back. I do not know what it is. Something draws you to that place. Especially for those who remember the eruption in their own personal history. I plan on returning to the "Johnston Observatory" and striking out on one of the trails into the valley that touches the base of the volcano. I will leave my precious asthmatic bride at the visitor's center for maybe an hour. Maybe two. I cannot hike to the very rim of the crater because I have neither the permit nor the energy. But I want to get close enough to KNOW what the raw power of God feels like in a very small way.

I read an advertisement recently for a children's ministry program. Their motto is, "Experience God at full force." How dumb. Nobody could live through that. Nobody could survive a nano-second experiencing God at full force. My God is the God who can blow the top and side off of a mountain with less than a sneeze. But I do want to get close to that mountain. As close as I can. I think I am looking for my own personal "burning bush." I know that there are no bushes out there. Only ash and pumice. But God and I have been having this situation lately. I keep forgetting about Him having me in the crater of His Holy Hand. I have been getting distracted by perceived threats and the saber rattling of the enemy. The mindless chatter of silly voices that don't know how to keep quiet rings in my ears all too often.

So I am going back to the mountain. Monday. Tuesday at the latest. I am going to stand as close to it as I can get. And I ama going to remember the God who made it ... and the God who took it out. And I am going to see what happens when He sneezes. I am going to let my bush of doubt and fear burn to the ground. I am going to ask Him to blow the top and sides out of my mountain of insecurities and questions about the future. I am going to expose the tall trees of "self" and trust Him to break them like insignificant toothpicks. I will allow Him to turn my jeans and t-shirt to sack cloth and ashes if He so desires.

I want my cloud to lift. I want to see the crater. And I want to remember who my God is.