By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott
We’re transitioning, in this weekly missive. We’re going to try moving through exile in order to lean into hope.
For the last two years, we’ve been Abiding in Exile. That’s the title we chose, six months after the pandemic began, for this series of posts that has contained lament, truth, poetry, prayer, history, social commentary, and more. We chose this theme thinking of the Biblical stories of exile and wondering if they might connect with or give meaning to our own experiences of pandemic, and loss, and dislocation.
Because we know something about exile. More than we ever wanted.
We know about exile because, through the two-plus years since the pandemic began, we’ve found ourselves pulled away, repeatedly, from what we used to know, and thought we could count on, into bewildering patterns, places, and plans. It has been perhaps a modest echo of the stark one we see in the Bible, the residents of Jerusalem forcibly relocated to Babylon where they would remain for decades. Still, we’ve been in exile. We’ve left the way things were, the way we thought things would keep going. We’ve lost things we never worried could be lost.
A year ago, after vaccinations became available and COVID cases began to fall, our writing team considered whether it was time to reconsider the word exile. Were we still in that place? We decided we were, even if we left COVID out of the picture. As we said then, there are other forms of exile that remain true for us, around the uncertain future of the United Methodist Church, and the dividedness of our country, and increasingly marginalized life within our churches.
Then Delta appeared, and Omicron, and exile seemed all too live, all over again.
So, yes, and still, we know something about exile.
A funny thing happened at Annual Conference, though. (Annual Conference is the yearly meeting and decision-making forum of clergy and lay leaders within a geographical region—in our case, Iowa—which is overseen by a bishop.) Our theme at this year’s Annual Conference was “Hope Made Real,” words adapted from our conference’s vision statement. Throughout that weekend gathering, that word hope was repeated, in various contexts and by numerous people. “Hope made real.” I found myself wondering, “Am I that? Are we?” Are we (meaning us as leaders, or our churches as a whole)—would anyone ever in a million years describe us as—hope made real?
The more I pondered that question, the more I wondered, do I even know what hope looks like right now? In my work, my home, my church, my nation? world, even?
I started looking for hope in the words of the Bible and, I have to tell you, the news isn’t all that good. You start such a quest, and you find words like this: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 6.3b-5a), which may be a true statement, but do I want hope badly enough to go through all that suffering and endurance, etc., etc.?
Or this: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). Do you notice the emphasis on what isn’t seen? what is only just imagined, and wanted? dreamed of, maybe? told in what seems like a fairy tale, actually? Assurance is good, but is it enough to sustain our very real visions of peace and plenty, and connection and justice, and love?
Romans 8 seems to want to say those things can be real. The apostle Paul refers to the “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). I could get behind that! But then he goes on to acknowledge that this freedom is not at all imminent. He goes on, “[H]ope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (v. 24b-25).
Patience. Which must mean those good things aren’t coming anytime soon.
It reminds me of those exiles, waiting for generations to be restored to their homeland. Some hope. Obnoxiouspatience.
So you see, I can get myself all turned around in the Scriptures, thinking about hope and what we’re hoping for and what it would mean for us to be hope. I can turn to poetry, but it doesn’t offer much relief. Take Emily Dickinson (read the whole poem here):
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops
Hmmm, if I am / we are hope made real, are we supposed to sprout wings? I’ve always wanted the superpower of flying; maybe Emily is onto something. Anybody got a bird costume?!
All of this is to say, I’m not sure I know right now what hope looks like. I’ve grown pretty clear about exile! But maybe I’d be stronger, in this time, and for this time, if I were spending more time abiding in hope.
I shared a bit of this reflection recently with the Abiding in Exile writing team, and we agreed that it’s time for a shift in our name, and our focus. For now, we’ll call this resource Abiding: From exile to hope. And in a few months, if we can stand it, we might just drop the exile altogether.
Not that we won’t still be there, in exile, in some ways.
But that where we want to abide is on the side of hope. Singing the tune, perhaps, and never stopping.
Are you in?
May it be so.