Characters In The Shadows: Freedom Identity

Two posts ago you met Nahshon, leader of the tribe of Judah and Israel’s tribal council, and last week you met his his son, Shalmon.

Reading about the camp and these leaders in the shadows, it’s easy to overlook something else, something bigger, that was happening during the time of these two men. And, before we continue reading about Shalmon’s son (who is, by the way, an extemely interesting person, as you’ll hopefully see soon) I wanted to take a time-out to ponder that “something else.”

Nation

Where were you 400 years ago? Where was your nation in 1613? Did it even exist? Four hundred years is a long, long time. That’s how long Israel spent in Egypt.

One man’s family disappeared from view like a caterpillar spinning into its cocoon. (The Bible has no history, or even genealogies, covering this 400 year period). Then, what disappeared as a caterpillar family emerged from that cocoon as a fully fledged nation.

But what kind of nation? When you mention nations like Spain, China, Brazil or the United States, each one brings a different identity to mind. No two nations are the same, not even close. Nations, even ones less than 400 years old, have distinct personalities — identities — which were forged by their histories, environments and the leaders they produced.

Israel arrived in Egypt with parties all around. One of his sons was the Vice-President of Egypt, and the king actually got into his limousine chariot to come and pay the patriarch a courtesy visit. The family settled in a fruitful land and they prospered like crazy — the Bible’s version of “happily ever after.”

Then things changed. Israel wasn’t a slave family when they moved to Egypt, but slaves they became… through no sin of their own. It was “just circumstances.” They lived in peace, raising their livestock when, next thing you know, they were slaves.

For a very long time. Exactly how long, we don’t know, but at least a couple of generations.

Then, as we know, the Lord rescued them in a way that makes even Hollywood look like amateur hour. All of us have seen a nature program where one animal chases another one for dinner. Our sympathy almost universally goes to the antelope or rabbit, frantically running for its life. “Run, rabbit run!” And we can’t help but break out in a cheer when dinner makes that final leap to safety, and stands there, wide-eyed, panting, nervously looking around for the next threat to its life.

Israel’s escape from Egypt was just as frantic, if not more so.

Can you imagine the scene when the waters covered the Egyptian army, as the nation stood on the banks of the Red Sea, panting and sweating, debating whether to continue running or keep looking?

Identity

What an escape… by a bunch of slaves.

Someone recently told us something interesting: almost all people who win the lottery end up back where they were before they hit the jackpot. And millionaire businessmen who lose it all are millionaires again after about ten years or so.

There’s something in us, some nebulous thing we call “identity” that shapes our values, which in turn shape our decisions, which over time bring about our destiny. Millionaires have something inside of them that made them millionaires and, when you take away their money, that innate something that caused them to be millionaires once will cause them to repeat.

This identity thing runs deep, very deep. It’s hard for us to even put our finger on it, let alone change it. With God all things are possible, of course.

And so it was with Israel. All they knew as an identity was “being a slave.” They weren’t used to owning anything, and they were certainly not used to thinking for themselves.

The miracle of the Red Sea was a physical miracle, but it ushered in so much more. One of the big miracles that happened slowly, over several centuries, was that thing of becoming a nation.

The second miracle was the shedding of a slave identity, and mentality, and putting on the identity of freedom.

Freedom

Freedom is a twofold thing:

  • freedom from something and
  • freedom to do something.

This was new to Israel. God, in His infinite wisdom, sent Moses to Kingdom Training School at the biggest and best run kingdom in the world at the time, and Moses set about instructing the nation on how to live and behave as a nation of free men under God, and not a bunch of hooligan slaves running amok.

Transition

If we look at recent American history, we can see how the generation of the 60s broke away from the values and beliefs of the generation before them. And it seems each successive generation acquires its own unique identity. Terms like Generation X or Y are becoming commonplace.

Israel, likewise, had to transition from Generation Slave to Generation Free Wanderer, to Generation Land Possessor, to Generation Finally Living In Peace (Gen FLIP).

In the genealogy of the tribe of Judah, then, Amminadab was probably from Gen Slave, Nahshon from Gen Free Wanderer and Shalmon from Gen Land Possessor. Being one of Joshua’s two spies, he no doubt was part of the army that settled the land.

And it was Shalmon, then, who probably was the one who staked out the clan’s land around Bethlehem, and did what no generation had done for centuries: build a home.

This is not a trivial thing. Imagine nobody in American having their own home since 1613. Now, for the first time, they were able to have a home of their own. Some they built, but most were already built for them by the Canaanites.

All they had to do was move in.

Settlement

Now you have a mental picture of the peaceful scene in Israel, as the new nation settled into the new land, the land of milk and honey, the land the Lord promised them, a land with cisterns, houses and vineyards all prepared just for them.

This was the first generation that was able to raise their kids in a home of their own. And this generation, Gen FLIP, was the first generation EVER in this new nation that grew up in this new-fangled notion: a parents’ house.

Can you imagine the joy throughout the nation? What a dream come true! Your own property, your own home, your own vineyard, flock of sheep, and orchard.

This, then was the setting for the home Shalmon and Rahab made for their kids. Shalmon was still the leader of the tribe of Judah, and still The Man at the annual Leadership Conference the fledgling nation held.

But he was the first one in the long line of Judah that had a permanent home, in a permanent, promised land, in which they raise a family. His oldest son, Bar-Shalmon, may have been born by the time they moved in, but he was the first generation in the new nation that actually grew up in “our house.”

Next time we’ll see how that turned out for the young man, the next in the royal line of Judah…

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Characters in the Shadows: Leah

God has a heart for the overlooked. Jesse’s young shepherd son David was disrespectfully overlooked. Tamar was wrongfully overlooked by Judah. Mordecai was forgetfully overlooked after saving the Persian king from an assassination plot. God, though, accomplished His purposes in each case. God’s plans are not hindered by mortal man overlooking one of his appointed vessels.

Jacob probably didn’t even notice Leah. He was young, with a rich dad, and he arrived in Padan-Aram with a track record as a go-getter. Rachel was the golden girl he wanted, the one with personality and beauty, and he set about to get her. God, though, had other plans.

For some reason, God had more of a heart for Leah than for Rachel. The Bible’s description of her physical appearance is not flattering. She wasn’t dynamic. In a word, Leah was imperfect. The more we read the Bible, the more God seems to seek out the imperfect among us for His work. The royal line of King David and Jesus Christ went through Leah and not the golden girl, Rachel.

Jacob, self-absorbed at this time, didn’t ask God what His plans were; he just chased the golden girl. God wasn’t fazed, though; He just used Laban to out-Jacob Jacob and Jacob literally woke up to find Leah in his bed. Imperfection, or being overlooked, never stopped God from accomplishing His purposes.

A very good friend and I were talking about this the other day. The first thing we talked about was God’s heart. He had compassion on Leah, the overlooked one, and therefore gave her sons. There is a therefore there. But my friend pointed out something I had never noticed before: With her first three sons, Leah strove for validation, approval and love from her husband. There was a difference with the fourth, Judah. It seems she surrendered her desires for Jacob’s love to the Lord, and her response to the birth of Judah was simply to praise the Lord. No ifs, ands or buts. And that son happens to be the son God chose for His royal tribe. Judah represented Leah’s surrender to God, and she did it without knowing what His plans for her or for her sons were. She just surrendered. Unconditionally. And in doing that, she set God’s purposes in motion. The surrender of the imperfect, that seems to be what God thrives on.

Leah lived her entire life as the overlooked one. But in the patriarch’s burial plot, Jacob has only wife lying beside him. That wife is Leah. Man may overlook, but God never does.

Being imperfect, even overlooked, looks more and more like the best qualification for use by the Lord in the accomplishment of His plans. In that, I’m more qualified than most. To get from qualification to use, all we have to do is add surrender, complete surrender.

God accomplishes His plans through the surrender of the imperfect.

How imperfect are we? How surrendered are we?

The road ahead, imperfectly seen

Jacob: The Patriarch of Imperfection

God had just made a covenant with a cheat. Jacob had just used deception to receive Isaac’s blessing, and he was on his way, on foot, to find a bride in the land of Padan-Aram. He had a blessing, a walking stick, the clothes on his back and that’s all. Early in the journey, not far from home, he lay down to sleep. That night his life changed. In a dream, the God of his father and grandfather extended the covenant He had made with them to Jacob. God had just made a covenant with a cheat.

Jacob fled to Laban to find a wife, but also to avoid getting killed by Esau. When Jacob saw Rachel, he probably thought to himself: “Hmmm… pretty girl! Let’s see. I have no money for a dowry, but if I commit to Laban that I’ll work for his daughter, that could work for me in more ways than one. I’ll not only get the pretty girl for a wife, but Laban will be obligated to protect me from Esau. Two birds with one stone, this could be really good!”

Actually, there was a third bird, but Jacob didn’t find that out for seven years. God (for reasons known only to Him) decided that Leah, not Rachel, was to be in the earthly lineage of Jesus, and Jacob found himself (a) with a wife he didn’t bargain for and (b) paying the same high price for her as for the wife he really wanted. To Jacob’s credit, and we often overlook this, he didn’t whine, pout or throw a hissy fit. He didn’t grab Rachel and escape into the night. He could have; he had a deal and Laban was the one who broke the deal. But Jacob didn’t do that. Why not?

You know, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the posts on this blog admiring God’s overlooking of our imperfections. And, of the heroes in the Bible, Jacob was probably the most imperfect of all. However, amidst all of Jacob’s questionable behavior, two things are easy to overlook: his resolute faith that God is true to His promises, and his unquestioning obedience to God’s instructions. Jacob took the trip to Padan-Aram in obedience to his father and mother (see Genesis 28). Then, when the Lord told Jacob to return to Canaan, he was on the road within 24 hours. That is obedience with a capital O!

In addition to obedience, Jacob also trusted the Lord totally. God told him at Bethel that He would take care of him, and Jacob trusted Him enough to work for free for 14 years. How radical is that? Honestly, I don’t know if I could trust the Lord enough to work for someone, especially someone as dicey as Laban, for 14 years, let alone for free. I mean, really! The only reason Jacob could do that is because he trusted his God. That is some serious trust! And look how the Lord rewarded that trust: after the 14 year slave labor contract, God made Jacob a millionaire in just six years. How? The Lord came to Jacob in a dream and told him what to do with the pregnant sheep at the drinking trough. Those instructions were pretty off the wall but Jacob, obedient and trusting, followed them to the letter. Seriously: who would have expected stuff in the drinking water to affect the color of the lambs born to the ewes drinking the water? That hasn’t been done before or since that event. So it had to be God, honoring Jacob’s faith and obedience.

God may love and covenant with people like us, who are imperfect. That is wonderful and reassuring. However, there is another side to this picture of love and grace: Our loving Father appreciates and enjoys it when we trust Him enough to surrender totally and obey completely, even if the instructions may at times appear a little off the wall to our puny brains. Moses trusted the Lord enough to obey and stretch out his staff over the Red Sea and divide it. Nobody had ever divided a sea with a rod before, so that was a pretty wacky instruction from a human standpoint. Moses obeyed, though, and the rest is history.

Do we trust God enough to obey Him when He gives us an off the wall command? Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding–isn’t that written in the Bible somewhere? It seems to me God is calling His children across the world to trust Him enough to obey Him when He says to trust Him for healing when that doesn’t seem likely, for provision when there seems to be no way, or for something else so impossible we can’t even mention it. He may take a detour, and He may wait a few more years than we think He should. But He has proven that he can be trusted.

So, what happened to Jacob when he obeyed the Lord and took off to return to Canaan? He got chased from behind by an angry Laban and he received word that Esau, the one seeking to kill him, was coming from his front with a whole army of men. Did Jacob sweat? You bet he did. Did he scheme and try to wiggle out of it? Sure he did. Did any of those actions make any difference? Absolutely none. God spoke to Laban and told him to leave Jacob alone. The Lord took care of everything. (Oh, by the way, He did that in spite of Rachel smuggling idols into the camp.)

If we surrender our lives to the Lord totally, trust Him completely and obey Him to the letter, we can sit back and drink that Diet Coke John Wimber used to talk about.

Cheers!

What about David?

It didn’t happen on purpose. When I started the blog, I had no intention of writing a post every day (except Sundays) but it just worked out that way. Neither did I intend to write as much about our imperfection as I did. Maybe it’s the time of year. Isn’t January always the month of New Years Resolutions? And is there anything that drives home our imperfection as much as New Years Resolutions? It’s simple, really: if we weren’t imperfect, we’d never have New Years Resolutions, would we? Whatever the reason may be, here we are, conscious of our imperfection, but reminded that God is totally unfazed by any of our imperfections.

And we need that reminder, don’t we? We somehow believe God is waiting for us to achieve a state of beautiful perfection before he opens his filing cabinet to retrieve his plans for our lives. Isn’t our imperfection the reason why we’ve been so use-less so far? The answer is no, that’s not the reason. God’s plans for our lives have already been taken out of the cabinet. They’re spread out on the table, and God is waving us over to come and take a look and a listen.

Why have I taken so long to punch in and get to work in God’s kingdom? Yep, it’s that perfection thing. I’m not perfect, and therefore God has to take a deep sigh, sit down heavily, roll his eyes, pour Himself a cup of coffee and drum his fingers on the table, wondering when.ever.is.this.doofus.going.to.get.his.stinking.act.together??? At least that’s what I think. Is that what you perhaps think?

Think again. Who in the Bible are the giants, the ones through whom God accomplished the most? David is close to the top of that list, isn’t he? I just finished the history of David in my through the Bible journey, and I am struck by his, well, imperfection. We all know about Bathsheba-gate, and that’s not what I’m talking about, bad as it is. There’s a whole lot more where that came from. David’s oldest son raped his half-sister, and David did nothing about it. He didn’t protect Tamar (incidentally, named after a forebear who was also maltreated) and he didn’t punish Amnon. Not good. This opened the door for Absalom to exact justice, and David didn’t punish him for that either. Not good. When Absalom was allowed back in the palace, David was passive-aggressive and wouldn’t talk to him for two years. Not good.

Lest someone be tempted to pin these events to the punishment God promised David, let’s look at David’s earlier days. When he fled from Saul the first time, he stopped at Nob and lied to the priest to get food. Not good. He then continued his journey to the land of the enemy. There, he pretended to be crazy when they investigated him further. Not good. While his actions toward Saul certainly were noble, his reaction after the second time he saved Saul’s life wasn’t. First, he accused God of not being true to His promise (“Saul will certainly kill me”). Then he went (again) to the land of the Philistines. Not good. There, he murdered entire villages, women and children included, and lied to his ruler about it. Seriously not good. When he eventually was made king, he betrayed his cousin, Joab, who served David faithfully and competently, by giving his job to Abner while he was away, serving David. No integrity there. Integrity would have dictated that he talk to Joab first, but David simply was a wuss in personal relationships. He did the same thing again a few years later. After Joab rescued David from Absalom (who only dishonored him and wanted to kill him) David gave his job to another cousin, Amasa. Again, no integrity, and certainly no gratitude. Those were but a few examples to prove the point: David is down there in imperfection with you and I.

And yet, as we all know, God called David a man after his own heart. And God certainly gave David a lot of success, militarily and as a ruler.  Why is that? David’s heart was after God when he was a shepherd in the field. His heart was after God when he fled from Saul. His heart was after God when he became king. And his heart was after God when he messed up. His heart was always after God. Anyone doubting this need only read a few Psalms. That was the key. That is what God wants more than anything else: a heart after Him.

God, to achieve the purposes of His kingdom, needs hearts after Him. That’s all. He does the rest. No perfection required, only pursuit after Him. In fact, the purpose of our imperfection is to drive us closer to Him. It’s the enemy who wants to use our imperfection to put distance between us and our Father. Who do we listen to?

When we pursue God, our hearts are after Him, after His own heart. And isn’t that what God called David: a man after His own heart?

It only took me 60 years to get this. How long is it going to take you?

Sunrise over Mt. Baker, Victoria, BC

The fourth quarter

2011 was the year of Tim Tebow and the fourth quarter comeback. It was also the year my lovely wife and I turned 60. In Psalm 90 Moses says if we’re lucky we get to live to 80. That means the fourth quarter of our lives has just begun. We ended the third quarter with a fairly empty résumé for the Lord. But, as we just learned, the game doesn’t end after three quarters.

So let’s see what kind of magical comeback the Lord can orchestrate!Image