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.

God is not a spectator

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP via Compfight cc

We live in a finite world where everything is dying, shedding its strength. This is hard to accept, and all our lives we look for exceptions to it. We look for something strong, undying, infinite. Religions tells us that something is God. Great, we say, we’ll attach ourselves to this strong God. Then this God comes along and says, “Even I suffer. Even I participate in the finiteness of this world.” Thus Clare and Francis’ image of God was not an “alimighty” and strong God, but in fact a poor vulnerable, and humble one like Jesus. This is at the heart at the Biblical and Franciscan worldview.

The enfleshment and suffering of Jesus is saying that God is not apart from the trials of humanity. God is not aloof. God is not a mere spectator. God is not merely tolerating or even healing all human suffering. Rather, God is participating with us–in all of it–the good and the bad! I wonder if people can avoid becoming sad and cynical about the tragedies of history if they do not know this.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Job and the Mystery of Suffering

The above quote was one of the most meaningful texts I read last year. It is radical, this idea that God enters into our suffering. Our picture of God is often one in which he is unaffected by us, removed from our grief. But this is not the God revealed in Jesus.

That God has suffered and suffers still has been incredibly meaningful for me these past few days. I can not seem to sleep in while pregnant (which I still am, for an indeterminate amount of time), and Friday and Saturday mornings found me awake and entrenched in pain beyond anything I had felt before. It was agony, the kind of grief that makes you want to just quietly give up and die, rather than living another moment in that pain.

During these hours, the most helpful activity was imagining Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There he knelt, this man of sorrows, sweating blood and tears and begging for things to be different. His closest friends lay a stones throw away, but they were sleeping, unaware of the agony so near to them. As I lay in bed, I imagined myself crawling up to Jesus in that garden, looking at him in his grievous state, and telling him that my baby had died. I knew that this pain was not beyond him, that it was not too great or too insignificant for him. And I knew that he grieved with me.

This is the kind of God that we have, and it fills me with peace. He is not an impassible, unmovable God. It is easy to feel like I should ignore or push away my grief during times like this, but I’m glad that I don’t need to feel that way around Jesus. I’m glad he lets me join him in his suffering and shares with me in mine.