A weeklong trip to Iceland with Good Faith Experiences turned out to be a real treat, and not just because the average daytime temperature was in the 50s.
Quality time with people like John Pierce and Bruce Gourley, along with 17 friends and supporters of Good Faith Media, was special, and then there’s, well, Iceland.
The tiny nation bills itself as the land of fire and ice for good reason. A volcanic eruption on the side of a mountain called Litli Hrútur was in process while we were there. We could see the smoke from Reykjavik, and about half of our crew took helicopter rides to view the action from above, watching the incandescent lava bubbling into long red streams of molten rock that gushed from the crater but grew more sluggish as it cooled.
On the other extreme, we strapped crampons to our boots for an hour-long hike on a glacier, where the guide pointed to landmarks on a cliff to show how much the ice had melted in the past ten years – well over a hundred feet.
We could visit geysers and sulfurous boiling springs one day and watch calving icebergs float in a clear blue lagoon on the next. We marveled at tall mountains, steep canyons, and waterfalls too majestic for words.
Picturesque churches dotted the landscape, most of them Lutheran, which was long ago adopted as the state religion, though only half of the population claims a Lutheran identity now.
In the town of Vik (pronounced “Veek”), we stopped by a hilltop church so we could take in the stunning view overlooking the town and the ocean beyond, where weathered basalt cliffs gave way to rocky columns standing in the surf beyond a black sand beach.
The town is downhill from Katla, one of Iceland’s mightiest volcanoes. Katla has a history of erupting about every 50 years, and it’s long overdue for the next big blow. The townspeople have taken steps to be prepared when that happens, including plans for evacuation.
Our guide explained, “Everyone knows that if the volcano erupts or there’s an earthquake, in case of emergency, go to the church.”
The church is not only known to everyone, but located on a hill, so it is a natural gathering point for taking a head count and evacuating people by helicopter, if need be.
The whole idea had metaphor written all over it. How many people treat the church in precisely that way? In case of emergency, go to the church. If trouble comes, start praying. When all else fails, turn to God.
It’s always bothered me that so many people profess faith in the same way they buy fire insurance, with little regard for what happens between then and the final day of trouble when they hope to cash in a ticket to heaven.
It’s not about following Jesus on the road to a better world, it’s all about covering one’s bases.
The metaphor expanded when we drove by another church in a small seaside community. Known as the Strandarkirkja – which means something like “strand/beach church,” it has developed a reputation as a useful connection to God in times of need.
Our guide told us it was one of the richest churches around because, through the years, when sailors were in danger of shipwreck or drowning off the treacherous coasts, they would often pray and promise to give an offering to the Strandarkirkja if they made it safely to shore.
The practice isn’t limited to sailors. Our bus driver told me that he once worked with a group who had come in winter to see the Northern Lights. After nearly a week of cloudy weather, they were on the verge of having to return home without a single glimpse of the alluring atmospheric phenomenon.
Wanting his group to have a good experience, he promised to give an offering to the Strandarkirkja if his guests could see the Northern Lights. The next night he was able to find a spot where the skies cleared just enough for them to get their wish, or so he said.
When I wrote my PhD dissertation, now ages ago, it was about vows in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. The Old Testament contains several examples of people who faced times of trouble, and they asked God for help, promising to give something valuable to God in return.
We find their stories in places like Genesis 28 (Jacob), Numbers 21 (Israel), Judges 11 (Jephthah), and 1 Samuel 1 (Hannah). Psalmists often promised an extra dose of public praise if God would deliver them from trouble. The practice was governed by clear rules in Leviticus 27, Numbers 6, and Numbers 30: if a person made a vow and God came through, they had no choice but to pay what was promised.
We don’t call that “making a vow” these days, but the practice remains common. Prayers are rare until trouble comes, but in case of emergency, we go to the church, or we pray for God to get us out of whatever unhappy situation has arisen.
Sometimes, we promise that if God will come through, we’ll be more faithful in our living, or more supportive of the church. Whether we keep those promises or not, the practice betrays a commercial approach to faith, an attempt to buy God’s favor.
One doesn’t have to spend much time in the gospels to know that’s a far cry from Jesus’ call to a life of love and self-sacrifice, not for what we get out of it, but for the sake of the world, because it’s the right thing to do.
Take that approach, and in case of emergency, we won’t need to go to the church: we’ll be the church.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.