So I was subbing in a biology classroom this week.
First, let me offer how grateful I am to have a job, a steady job, in my field (sort of), that pays reasonably well, keeps my mind animated, and gets me out of the house so that I may interact with other people besides my cats. I’m blessed and I know it.
One of the wonderful things about substitute teaching is that every day is different. (This can also be its curse, but let’s not go there today.) A sub can be coloring zoo-phonic animals with chatty kindergarteners one day (G-Gordo-Gorilla! Guh-Guh-Guh!), or solving algebraic equations with squirrelly sophomores the next.
Quickly one discovers the culture of each school, which is, unfortunately, disproportionately dependent upon Those In Power – the principal, the deans, anyone responsible for maintaining order: The Ones Who Have Your Back. This is important for a sub, for as every student knows, it is open season to misbehave when Mrs. Peterson is out sick. It is a lot more fun to sub at a place where discipline is not a naughty word and Those In Power have firmed established a culture of kindness, trust, and earnest expectation.
The particular high school where I found myself subbing in this bio class was one of those coveted kind places. I’m happy when I get called to go there, and I was happy when, after handing out the reading on volcanos, the students were immediately productive, each finding a quiet place in the lab or hallway to digest the information.
This left me with nothing to do. Typically, I might catch up on the news, check my email, or subversively snack, periodically taking a tour around to make sure students are on task. Anything more invasive is seen as hovering, and teenagers are not huge fans of hovering.
I also like to learn. Since these students were being quiet – in a non-suspicious way – I grabbed the volcano handout and started to read.
The first paragraph transported me back to August 27, 1883, to the island of Krakatau where, at 10:02 AM, an explosion likened to the force of a nuclear bomb blew the tiny island to smithereens, producing 135 foot tsumanis, a column of ash and debris 3 miles high, and an airborne sound that traveled half way across the globe, the longest distance ever in recorded history. All that was left of poor Krakatau were two small, denuded humps they had to rename Anak Krakatau and Rakata.
For a moment, let’s not focus on the enormity of the cataclysmic event, the 40,000 people who died, or the geological re-ordering that occurred when the displaced sea flooded back into the newly formed subterranean caldera. Let’s just say it was big.
What truly amazed me was reading about the re-colonization of Rakata. Nine months after Krakatau blew herself apart, French scientists were combing the sterile surface of Rakata for evidence of life when they discovered one microscopic spider. It was the first living organism to appear, so they were puzzled. How had it come to be on the now-naked island?
As childhood readers of Charlotte’s Web may remember, newly hatched spiders spin a thread of silk from their tiny posteriors; when this filament catches a passing wind, the baby spider soars up and away, joining (and here’s the amazing part) an entire microscopic universe of creatures called aeolian plankton. I was familiar with your garden variety sea plankton, the huge masses of algae and protozoa that course through the ocean on currents, like a mobile delicatessen for the more ambulatory critters of the deep; but AIR plankton? Who knew?
Do we breathe in these planktonic bacteria, these fungus spores, these small seeds and aphids and insects and the myriad other invisible creatures that blow around us waiting for their BIG CHANCE to land somewhere hospitable and begin terrestrial life? Apparently, we do.
More incredible facts about the re-life-ing of Rakata emerged as I kept one eye on my students and the other on Southeast Asia. As the invasion of the aeolian plankton began to green the barren surface of Rakata, other players began to arrive. Lizards negotiated the straight between Rakata and the nearby islands of Java and Sumatra, dining on sea crabs along the way. Birds flew over, and bats, butterflies, and dragonflies. One reticulated python, a serpentine version of Michael Phelps, took to the water and slithered up one day. Lazier species hitched rides on log rafts or buoyant pumice stones, so that decades after the eruption, frogs, rodents, and other small animals once again began to hop and crawl and glide over the island, defecating and dying and decaying, leaving a trail of rich soil behind them for more flora to take root.
Species surged and waned, advanced and retreated, checked in and checked out, until at last, after about a century, the island ecosystem reached an equilibrium.
It made me wonder.
Do we ever reach anything like equilibrium in our own lives? And what would that look like?
I know for a fact that there are times when we ourselves are scoured clean, Krakatau-style, by what the apostle James calls “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). I don’t think James was talking about the I-didn’t-get-a-parking-spot-at-the-mall or there’s-no-milk-for-my-muesli trials, annoying though they be, but the BIG ONES. The death of a loved one. Job termination. Loss of relationship. The inability to conceive. Sickness. These kinds of trials grab us by the throat, cut off the oxygen, force us blue-faced to the throne of grace where we plead and rant and demand that God TAKE IT AWAY.
Instead, we are met with silence. Or worse, His unmistakable answer: wait. What advice does James have for us then?
The answer may be as surprising as aeolian plankton: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-5).
Perhaps for God to repopulate the weedy islands of our hearts with all of the good, fertile things that should be growing there – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22) – He must first create an environment of disorder, even chaos: a soul-slate wiped clean of hatred, pride, jealousy, unforgiveness, lust, bitterness – all the uglies that take root and try to choke out the “Christ-in” us.
When the volcano blows, instead of hiding under the dust, perhaps we need to be open to all of the re-ordering God must do in us and through us. Instead of heading back to the mainland of our old comfort zone, we must, like the reticulated python, persevere to the new landscape of hope up ahead, even when we can’t see anything that looks even remotely hopeful. Instead of desperately trying to squirm out of the discomfort and pain, or try manipulate and scheme it away, we can, like the baby spider, abandon all notion of control. Trust in the One With All The Power, who is always good all the time because He is only one who can see the big picture and because He has our backs.
Maybe there isn’t any such thing as true equilibrium. Looking back on my own life, there have been seasons of violent erasure followed by seasons of slow but gentle growth. Much as I wish God could teach me some other way, He knows my stubborn heart. Knows I can only be truly His when complete surrender to His hand is my default setting, when my desire to be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” overrides my desire to have my own way.
Yep. It’s a battle every day.
This side of heaven, we will never completely be all that we were created to be. I’d like to think, however, that the more we cooperate with the Father, the more we will come to resemble Him. We are His beloved children, after all.
May I ever be able to declare like my big brother Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.”