Dry Trees and the Kindgom of God

Photo Credit: Nebojsa Mladjenovic via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Nebojsa Mladjenovic via Compfight cc

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 56:3-5

I love these kinds of verses, the ones that boast of the inclusiveness of God. I especially enjoy finding them in the Old Testament, where verses like these can seem scarce. Despite the fact that Deuteronomy 23:1 quite bluntly bans eunuchs from the assembly, the prophet Isaiah declares that they are welcome. Though they may feel like useless, dry trees, they are invited to dwell in the Lord’s house, where they will be celebrated even more than the sons and daughters.

I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch read this text, as he was seated in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip surely had, because when the eunuch asked him “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” he did not tell him he was excluded due to his nationality or his sexuality. He simply went down to the water with him and baptized him.  And the eunuch went away rejoicing, for he had been given a new name. 

As I wrote previously, it is significant to me that Jesus addresses the eunuch, those who were made so by men and those who were born as such, recognizing that we do not all fit the same mold when it comes to sexuality. And just as Jesus made room for these outcasts, so the Bible weaves them into its story, inviting them to partake of the Sabbath rest of God and enter into a covenant of life.

We can find in the Bible exclusive, dogmatic language, against the eunuch and the foreigner and countless others, just as the Jews found reasons to kill Jesus, and Saul found the zeal to kill Christians. But we can also read in such a way as to discover a God who has always loved and served the other. It’s a choice we make when reading the Bible, a book as complex as it is inspired.

Can we read the Scriptures with the mind of Christ? The one who…

…allowed a prostitute to soak his feet with her tears?

…fed over five thousand men and women without asking about their lifestyle or orientation?

…washed the feet of the disciples he knew would betray him?

…prayed for the forgiveness of the unrepentant men who nailed him to the cross?

Or will we read it with the mind of the religious leaders, the ones who found within their scriptures the justification to reject and crucify Jesus?

I don’t know how this is all supposed to play out in our modern-day culture, but I do know that it needs to start with listening to others, particularly those we have trouble understanding. For some people it may mean spending more time with gay people, listening to them and learning how to be their neighbor. For me, it means believing the best about people like Mark Driscoll and refusing to rejoice at the death of Fred Phelps. I would love to avoid and bash all the people I consider to be rude or selfish or sinful. But I can’t do that and claim to follow a man who asked for his unrepentant killers to be forgiven. 

There is a lot of talk in our political realm of how we can exclude others, allowing us to see certain people as unworthy of health insurance or fair wages or wedding cakes. Government will always be riddled with this type of corruption, and I know that these are complex issues. But my prayer for the church is that we would not complicate things further by endorsing and justifying exclusivity. The people of God should be a living invitation for all who have been forsaken, embodying the same undeserved grace that we have received.

But the greatest of these is love

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Matthew 19:10-12

One of the most difficult parts of life is being different from everyone else and feeling excluded from the “normal” crowd. I have lived most of my life feeling different in some way. As a child, I was extremely introverted and painfully shy. We moved around a lot, from Canada to Arkansas to Oklahoma to Louisiana, and I felt like an outcast in each new school I attended. I tried to keep track of all my differences and do everything I could to suppress them, but it was hard. I still stumble over words, because I forget the right way to say them. Should I say “y’all” or “you guys”? How should I pronounce “produce”? Do I “call” the person or do I “phone” them? Is it a “napkin” or a “serviette”? In most cases, I learned what not to say because someone laughed at me. My embarrassment and shame drove me to change myself so that I could fit in better.

In my current world of infertility, I often feel alienated from the men and women whose bodies function normally. Most couples our age have several children, and we are different from them. And while I know they don’t hold it against us, I wonder what it would be like if people did hold it against us. I regularly have conversations with imaginary rude people in my head (this is what anxious people do; they anticipate imaginary conflicts). I think about somebody telling me that I’m barren because I have sinned or haven’t prayed enough. I think about people questioning our choice to pursue fertility treatments rather than adoption. I think about whether or not others think we should just give up or try harder or not try at all or just trust God more. There are so many opinions, and I’m sheltered from many of them and surrounded by a loving community, but I still think about the things that could be thought or said.

It is so hard to be different. But what if your difference had a few Bible verses that could be thrown at you repeatedly whenever you tried to be vulnerable? What if you had a core attribute that you could not change despite all your begging and striving? What if you knew that living life without a mask would likely get you kicked out of most churches, or even your own family?

That’s where my mind goes when I hear someone say that they don’t understand how another person could be gay. Because I don’t understand how I could be infertile. I don’t understand why my single friends aren’t married. I don’t understand most things in this world. It might seem ideal for everyone to be born as a heterosexual, but they are not. As much as we want to believe it can happen, 99.9% of the gay population are unable to change or pray away their orientation. For every one “success” story, there are 999 others who have tried and failed. They are different, and they know they are different, and they are looking for a safe place with which to wrestle with these things. But we throw a verse at them to let them know just how much God finds their actions (which they may not have even done!) disgusting.

When discussing marriage, Jesus all of a sudden decides to talk about eunuchs, those without “normal” heterosexual desires. His followers are asking him about divorce, and he is calling them to fidelity, but he is also reminding them that not everyone is like them. For those of us in the church who idolize heterosexual marriage and think everyone should attain to enter it, we need to let these words sink in. Not everyone is like you. Single, divorced, abandoned, homosexual, asexual, widowed; there are more of these people in our church lobbies than we think. So many people who feel alone and broken and different. So many people who wish they could change, but it simply isn’t doable.

I hear a lot of people talk about the need for more Christians who will speak truth boldly. When I think about that kind of person, I think about John the Baptist, the man who called his listeners broods of vipers and warned of coming judgement. But what was he was preaching so vehemently? Those who asked him what they should do were given clear answers: care for the poor, share with those in need, be satisfied with your wages, do not extort money (Luke 4:10-14). I think more of us should get on television and preach about caring for the least of these; I am all about speaking this truth with boldness. But let’s not talk about how we just can’t understand those “other” people. Let us not use our freedom of speech to decry the very people we are called to pursue.

In Jesus’s day, he was regularly seen with prostitutes and tax collectors. Today, I like to think it would be the homosexuals and liberals, and everyone else we cast out as “other”. He would be with them, and he would be loving them, and he would be calling them to a life of loving others as he has loved them. And yes, he would be speaking truth to them, but the greatest truth of God is love.

Jesus includes the excluded.  He embraces the other. He makes the last to be first. Those who feel most broken and forgotten and isolated from the rest of the world are treasured and remembered and honored in his Kingdom. May we preach this truth from the rooftops: You are loved, and you are not alone.