Planting Olive Trees at the End of the World
Something is happening…
It’s not just that LGBTQ+ inclusive, justice-centered Methodists in Virginia are rising up and organizing, although that is clearly happening.
It’s not just that we (*cough* white men *cough*) are discovering that some of our greatest and most inspirational leaders are women of color, although anyone who heard Bishop Tracy Malone’s two powerhouse sermons today knows that is the case.
It’s also not just that young, vibrant, Spirit-led leaders, both clergy and laity, are emerging and bringing with them a renewed vision of what church can be, but that too is happening as we all witnessed during our Service for the Ordering of Ministry.
No, what I have observed and personally experienced happening is bigger than these and in fact, encompasses these.
Hope is being unleashed.
Now Hope, like the Spirit (which I discussed in my previous post), is such a tricky thing to define. And I think we often fail in our understanding of it, to disastrous effect. Far too often we fall for the trap of equating hope with optimism. When we say we are “hopeful”, what we are in fact saying is that “I have a good feeling that a desired outcome will naturally come to pass”. And while this is technically one form or aspect of hope, I do not believe this is what Hope truly is.
When I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Palestine in May 2017 with Eastern Mennonite Seminary, I had the great honor to meet with a Palestinian liberation theologian and Lutheran Pastor named Mitri Raheb. His ministry is based in the heart of Bethlehem, just a block or two away from the church marking where Jesus’ birth is traditionally believed to have happened. When we sat down with Mitri for a discussion about life and faith as a Palestinian, he said something about hope that I will never forget.
“One cannot be a Palestinian and be optimistic. The circumstances on the ground are not good here and there is little evidence that it will get better. But we can hope.”
When someone asked him, “What is hope, then?” he replied:
“Hope is knowing that the end of the world is going to happen tomorrow, but planting olive seeds today.” Seeing as how olive trees take many, many, years to grow to fruition, this sentiment is frankly absurd.
As the bio at the bottom of this post notes, I have been wrestling with the Spirit over my call to ministry for years. I remember feeling the Spirit move in me during a revival event at my Dad’s small United Methodist church in Edinburg, Virginia when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I remember being a high schooler and standing in front of a large gathering of people at the closing of a Chrysalis flight at a United Methodist Church in Salem, VA and announcing that I was being called to ministry. I remember re-discovering my faith after several years of deep spiritual wilderness as a summer camp counselor at Camp Overlook, a United Methodist Camp. I remember repeatedly trying to leave the gravity of the United Methodist Church only to find myself back in its orbit in Illinois, in Fredericksburg, and now in Harrisonburg.
For almost 30 years I have struggled mightily against this denomination of ours. Sometimes it’s been a matter of self-differentiation. It’s the “family business” after all when three of the five members of my nuclear family is in professional ministry in the UMC. Sometimes it’s been because the UMC, or at least key members of the UMC, has wounded me. Sometimes it’s been a sort of spiritual/denominational wanderlust. And for a while now, I have firmly resisted leaning into any calling that would require me to support and uphold a denomination that refuses to fully accept my LGBTQ+ friends and family, of which I have many and whom I love so so dearly.
I have repeatedly resisted fully answering this calling on my heart and continuing to remain on the fringes because I did not think there was hope in the UMC.
But today… today I am wondering if I have been mistaking optimism and hope.
The UMC is deeply flawed. It is full of sin, both personal and systematic. Its priorities are often wildly out of sync with the Gospel. It is endlessly frustrating and slow to change. It is insanely unsexy.
In short: there is not good reason to be optimistic for the UMC.
But what if together, we are discovering anew that we don’t need to be optimistic. What we need to do is HOPE.
And hope is planting olive tree seeds knowing that the world will end tomorrow.
Hope is doing audacious, even absurd work for the Kingdom of God within a system that may or may not actually get better. That might even die for all we know.
Friends, I believe the work we are starting to do in this movement for A New Thing is Hope. And it’s challenging me to risk leaning into this 30+ year long call in ways that has terrified me up to this point. But the other amazing thing about Hope that I’m learning is that Hope, true Hope, does not leave us alone in the struggle. Hope pulls people together to love and support and uplift one another. Hope creates joy and peace. Hope gives us the ability to strategize and dream. Hope allows us to tackle impossible tasks in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit with each other.
So I ask you this question to close. What does God’s calling on your life look like when you encounter true Hope? Will you risk it?
Will you plant olive tree seeds at the end of the world?
And on a personal note, will you please pray for me and the many others in my shoes who have long been terrified to answer God’s call on their life? We need to know that we will not be abandoned if everything goes sideways. We need your Hope.
S. A. King (he/him/his) is the son of a VAUMC pastor, the brother of a VAUMC pastor, and a self-styles “ImPastor” in the VAUMC at RISE Faith Community in Harrisonburg as the Minister of Formation and College Life. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary (MDiv ’18). He has struggles with the Spirit over his call to ministry since high school and has attempted to flee the UMC on multiple occasions, but continues to find himself circling back. It’s likely God has a reason for that. If you have stories to share or you want to connect, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org