by Anna Ivey • Director of Student Support Services
In my acre lot, behind the chickens, vegetable beds, and berry plants, I have an olive tree. The tree, situated on the far left corner of the grid, huddles in a low-growing orchard of pears, apples, apricots, oranges, pomegranates and cherries. Olive leaves, silvery green and slender, are lovely. I often use them in bouquets for my home or for gifts. Olive branches are symbolic of peace, the fruit useful for eating in many forms, and the plant can grow to be ancient, thousands of years old in some scenarios.
Paul, addressing the church in Romans 11, wove a beautiful metaphor when he compared the extension of salvation to Gentiles to a blending of two different varieties of tree. He explains, “you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and….grafted into a cultivated olive tree.” Jesus had already wrecked the expectations of His people, the Jews, by not coming as a warrior king or ferocious zealot. The notion of salvation offered to the others seemed appalling to Israel. To blend, to re-craft, and to re-seam an existing person could only succeed because of divine intervention. How purposeful must a farmer be to produce such a tree? How far ranging a vision must he possess to humor the idea of taking what is unusable to weave into what is?
I was also once a soul who lacked the grace and refinement that accompanies experiencing the truest of loves–the cross. A former wild olive tree, how different I looked before I was reclaimed by a Gardener who had a vision for the fruit I could produce once I submitted to His plan to be culled, then regrown. Paul had been involved with the destruction of anyone who followed Jesus, then later became Christian history’s unmatched evangelist.
Because the Gardener carefully crafted me into someone new, how much more compassion I must have for those who have not yet become so, and how much more intention must I have to seek out the ones who need Jesus the most. We do not encourage the new by overlooking what is wrong–Scriptures affirms we must confront in love–but by pairing support of what is right with the humility to recall my own narrative of being stubborn and prideful, and utterly lost. I must not dismiss the wild olive trees. I must remember the Creator who made them. Since I have not been there to witness all of the storms, the shifting soil, the locusts, or the fierce winds through which the wild tree has lived, how little room I have to decide it is not worthy.
Olive trees withstand disease, drought, and fire quite successfully. We have all crafted our coping to adapt to the challenges of life, some of those responses good for us, some not. The cultivated olive tree produces better quality fruit, and more of it. While the wild tree can produce, the outcome is no equal to its tame counterpart. The difference is the care and oversight and selection of a Gardener who sees into a future an eternity away.
Gardening is paramount to soil containing the right combination of nutrients. One key ingredient might release an unfettered yield, or cause a crop to fail. Yet, one part of the growth process remains: the seed, the prospect of a heart to be changed, must be planted in dirt. Mess. That same material we wipe off our shoes and avoid letting our children get into before church. To grow, seeds must be thrust into the ground, remain there for a while, and then, emerging from a hardened shell, be willing to push through towards the sky.
Scripture says in 1 Peter 2:9 that, “You were called out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Trees, wild or tamed, cannot grown without dirt. Nor can they grow without light. We cannot separate those elements and expect to find fruit.
Let Jesus today upheave our expectations of ourselves, and of others. Let Him give us a glimpse into the beauty of the unfinished and the possibility of transformation.
Since 2009, Anna Ivey has been working at ELCA exclusively in Student Support with her favorite type of student: the non-traditional learner. She teaches high school English and also serves as the Director of Student Support Services. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s in English from Clayton State University and her doctorate in writing from Georgia State University. She has published two books, as well as individual pieces in dozens of journals. Her children are Aralyn and Cade, who attend ELCA.