Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Putting DOWN our Dukes: Exodus' Compelling Argument for Why Believers Should Stop Retaliating

I must admit something to you: I don't like being taken advantage of, or abused, or used. I know, you're thinking, 'Who does?' The confession is that one of my biggest challenges as a believer, a representative of our Great God, is maintaining self-control in the face of what I perceive as attack of this sort. It's so easy to succumb to that feeling of emotional charge, defensiveness, and to let it compel us to do something reckless, and sinful - like completely unleashing verbal abuse on someone or slanderous, poisonous gossip and the like.

We think we create these defense mechanisms to protect our hearts, our egos, and our reputations. When someone throws a punch - be it a snarky remark, a dig at our professional reputations or whatever it may be - the biggest temptation is to don those sparring gloves and give it right back to the opponent. It seems like the most justified and rational response at that moment. Right? However, in studying the opening chapters of Exodus this week, I noticed something that made me look at this response a little differently.

Retaliate or Repair?

In Chapter 7 of Exodus, YHWH (God's formal name in Hebrew) begins to exact - via Moses - a number of plagues on the unbelieving, unrelenting Egyptian Pharaoh, who is ruthlessly enslaving the Israelite people. In response to the first sign given to him (Exodus 7:10-11) Pharaoh calls together his counsel of wise men and sorcerers and magicians, who are able to replicate it with seeming ease.

This pattern continues. Egypt's primary and precious water source, the Nile, is made like blood, having to be filtered out in order to be drinkable (Exodus 7:20-24). In response to this terrifying act, "the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts" (Exodus 7:22). Again when frogs begin to swarm the land, "the magicians did the same with their secret arts, making frogs com up on the land of Egypt" (Exodus 8:7). These problems were really serious. Drinking water attacked; frogs filling up every home and road and public place. And their response is to copy it. Call me crazy, but it seems like this is an irrational response. Certainly it is self-serving. There is a nation of terrified, suffering people. As far as Egypt knew, they had the skill set to potentially improve or resolve these issues, to help their people, to heal their land. But instead, they chose the road of retaliation.

Someone once told me that negativity is thrown around like a little invisible ball of energy. Once someone throws it at you, it eats at you unless you throw it back out at someone else - that it's the only thing that can relieve you. But I would argue that this short-lived 'relief' leaves an awful lot of collateral damage. Rather than resolving the ultimate issues, we are only creating a larger wake - more tension, more stress, more negativity. When you think about how unproductive the labor of these magicians really was - and think about how similar it is to our reactions to altercations in life - it really does shine some light on how fruitless and irrational it all really is. Let's be different than these guys. Because as we'll see - you can't win 'em all with this method.

You Can't Win 'Em All

By plague number three, the magicians come up against a plague they simply can't replicate: lice (Exodus 8:18). Two plagues had passed and they still hadn't learned that this method was not helping anyone! And now they were faced with a challenge they couldn't overcome. Guess what? Maybe you've succeeded in putting people in their place in your family or in friendships. Perhaps your quick wit and retaliation skills have served you well with most people. But eventually, you will encounter someone that will outmatch you. Maybe it will be someone in authority, maybe it will be a large entity that is unaffected by your angry response.

Today I read a letter posted online from a man who had been issued a 'cease and desist' letter for the use of one of their drink names on his menu. The name was honestly merely similar and not exact; it was a small business that could never have really done any real damage to the business of Starbucks - he wasn't even selling a coffee drink! Instead of just simply changing the name, though, he responded with a punchy letter and a $6 check, paying sarcastically the entity for the profit he'd made on the name. In the end, he still had to remove the drink name from his menu. And Starbucks didn't much care that he had sent that letter. In fact, they probably totally disregarded it. What good did that do? While many applauded this man for 'giving it to them,' I thought it was quite sad - his actions were, in truth, insignificant - a waste of time. People applauded sarcasm and slandered Starbucks. But nothing changed for the better. Eventually, if this is your modus operandi, you will find that it doesn't always work, and it certainly doesn't always make you feel better and that no real good ever comes from it. It's like Solomon says, "striving against he wind."

The Great Divide

Another detail that must be a consideration in this whole episode between the Egyptians and the Israelites and their powerful God (who is ours too!) is the reason they were being targeted in the first place. In Exodus 7:5 God makes is pretty clear what he is up to: "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord." He could have just removed the Israelites from Egypt at any time - but He wanted to do more than that - He wanted to reveal Himself to them, and show them the distinction and privilege of being a people who love Him.

By plague number four we see that the Lord begins to specifically target Egyptian homes and not those of the Hebrews living in Egypt:

I will send swarms of flies on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians, will be full of swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they dwell. But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of flies will be there, in order that you may know that I, the Lord, am in the midst of the land. I will put a division between My people and your people. (Exodus 8:21-23)

Beloved, when the Lord God enters into covenant with us through our belief in Jesus Christ, we go from one corner - that of the bondage and self-sufficiency represented by Egypt - to God's side - one that includes provision, protection, and promise. God once told Israel that there was nothing special about them that warranted His redeeming them. He did it that the world would know what He could do and provide, that He might be glorified. We certainly don't deserve God's protection, His redemption. There is nothing, really, that separates us from those we perceive as most sinful - EXCEPT God's sweet grace poured out at Calvary. Let that be a reminder to us to be grateful every day for the privilege of being one of His chosen - to remember that instead of chaos and confusion, we enjoy peace. Instead of an unsecured future, we have sturdy foundation, a future, and a hope. Knowing all that should cause us to live to bring glory to His name, to sing His praises, to tell His story, to live by His principles. And that means, as hard as it is sometimes, not resorting to the methods of the losing team, and instead, being patient, kind and resilient in the face of ugliness - and remembering just Who's "got your six."

Who's Side are You On? 

Let me share with you one final bit of information I discovered in Exodus about God's team. In chapter 6, there is a genealogy inserted that, at first glance, seems to have little significance to us. But when the book you're reading is titled Names (that's what Sh'mot, the Hebrew name for Exodus means) then you can bet that the names in that book are of particular relevance.

These are the heads of their fathers' households. The sons of Reuben, Israel's first-born: Hanoch and Pallu, Hezron and Carmi; these are the families of Reuben. Exodus 6:14

This verse alone tells us a great deal about ourselves, when we look at the meanings of these Hebrew names:

"Reuben" --> Behold! A son! (the first born of Jacob, later renamed Israel)

"Hanoch" --> Dedicated

"Pallu" --> Distinguished

"Hezron" --> Surrounded by a wall (fortified)

"Karmi" --> My Vineyard

If I put these names together, they tell us just who Israel - and you and I - are to God. From God's firstborn son, who is Jesus Christ, come a people - they are dedicated to His cause, they are distinguished, set apart, holy. They are fortified by God because they are His special vineyard, created to bear, acts, according to that holiness.

Sweet friends, this must be our agenda, our identity. We must remember who's corner we are in. Ultimately, the fight in Exodus was not between Israel and Egypt. It was between God and Egypt. When we encounter tough interpersonal situations, let's remember that the battle isn't really ours either. But the choice is. We can choose to resort to futile and fruitless enemy tactics, or we can remember who we are, remember our call, and choose a better response, instead of a careless, sinful reaction. We can love, we can be patient, we can forgive - and create a win for Christ.

Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. 
1 Peter 3:9

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 3:35

Praying blessings over you in this New Year - Make it count, stay in the battle - with open hands full of mercy and praise for our remarkable God, not fists full of anger.

See you in 2014!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vantage Points

This past week I had the delight and privilege of performing in one of our church's Children's Ministry productions that retells the Christmas story through hilarious videos, a huge cast of puppets and amazingly talented young dancers who serve as our children's worship team. In the midst of memorizing lines and late night rehearsals followed by an onslaught of seven performances in addition to my already very hectic holiday season and work load, I was struck with a thought.

The character I played in the show was discovering, at a rather remedial pace, the story of Christ's birth. In the apex of the show, she finally pieces together all the elements - Mary was told she would conceive a son, shepherds saw angels who proclaimed the birth of the Messiah, a star led wise men to the newborn King of Kings. Often, it is in moments that I'm in the middle of teaching that unbeknownst to the listener God is actually teaching me. This was one of those occasions. I stood in the spotlight recounting the details before the crowd and suddenly realized something: not one of the parties involved on that fateful night in our salvation history had the luxury of the full picture of the events!

Maybe that seems rather obvious, but think about it: The wise men only knew they needed to follow a star, the shepherds only heard the angels proclaiming Messiah, Mary stored up the beautiful prophecies pronounced about her son in amazement. Each had his or her own compartmentalized role, knowing nothing of the many and miraculous others. It was not until much later that all of those parties came together in a linear story for us to enjoy and recount.

So often in life, we want the whole scoop from God regarding our own circumstances, don't we? We want to know what He's doing and every move He's making on our behalf. We get so frustrated because we can't see everything that's going on and so we often mistake that limited vision for inactivity on our Lord's part. We throw up our hands in impatience and frustration because we feel entitled to have the knowlege of the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, and even the camel if it can make us feel like we're somewhat in control! All the while, the Lord longs to remind us that, far from the main point of the story, it's simply not all about us. We tend to look to ourselves as the heros and heroines of the plot, while truthfully, our role is to use our vantage point to draw near and command attention to something - or rather Someone - else.

What a beautiful reminder the story of our Savior's birth is, that we don't have to have all the details, we don't have to be burdened by those things - that our imperfection and poor timing don't keep us from God's best for us. Our Father can orchestrate the story perfectly with each of us right where he or she is, and we need only a faith-filled and willing heart, not the inside track. Notice, despite all they didn't know, all those men and women of the Nativity ended up right where they were supposed to in that story: on their knees before the Savior. And that is where you and I are being called as well, sweet friends.

During this season of remembrance, can we let our hearts be humbled? Let's allow this time of celebration to remind us that we need only keep our focus on Yeshua, Jesus. We don't have to keep the story of our lives going. God is moving, He is working, He has not forgotten about the tiniest of details, and His timing is just right. I pray that as you wait, as you dream, as you walk, as you live out your faith, that this small reminder brings the sweet blessing of releasing your grip and instead raising your hands in praise. After all, God is with us!

Blessings to you and yours from the Tadlocks!

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6
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