Monday, November 08, 2010

empty-handed

A long time ago, there was this group of people called the Israelites. Their ancestor, Israel (or Jacob) moved his family to Egypt to avoid a famine, and after a number of years, when this one family had multiplied into a very large clan, the Egyptian king freaked out and forced the people into slavery because he was afraid that they might leave or, even worse, turn against him in a war. It was a pretty ugly situation, but God had already planned for the Israelites' breakout. God got in touch with Moses and told him that he, Moses, was to go see the Pharaoh of Egypt and convince this stubborn king to let these people go that God called his own.

I am reading through the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and a particular phrase in chapter 3 of Exodus jumped out at me. When God is having a conversation with Moses about how things will play out, God warns Moses that the Egyptian king will be stubborn, but in the end, the ruler will be glad to see the Israelites go. In fact, God promises that his people will not leave empty-handed. I started to think about this word, "empty-handed." Slavery is one of the most horrendously oppressive situations you can be in, where everything is taken from you and you are left with nothing. And it is about this brutal scenario that God says, "You won't leave empty-handed."

This remarkable reversal is quite characteristic of someone who calls himself Redeemer. And I believe that this promise can be applicable to every situation that we find ourselves in, no matter how bleak or horrific or irredeemable it seems. We don't have to leave empty-handed. We can have failed miserably at something, hurt someone and been hurt (Moses did all of those things), but we don't have to come away empty-handed. We can be abused, mistreated, misunderstood, betrayed, and abandoned. But we don't have to leave the situation empty-handed. There is always something that we can take away from a place, even a bad place. But it takes a bit of effort. These riches don't just jump into our laps.

Here a few of the riches that I have found can be taken away from less than ideal circumstances, whether they were of our own making, the result of bad people exerting their power over us, or some unfortunate accident.

1. Humility. This is a great treasure that many situations offer to us if we want it. Take it! Humility attracts God; he is drawn to it like a bee to a flower. If you want God as a constant companion, embrace humility. On the other side of things, if you are the owner of any pride, you would do well to grab a giant knife and hack it off, because it repels God. And that is a very bad thing. A very, very bad thing.

2. Trusting surrender. Many of us (me) don't realise how little we trust God until things don't go well for us. Then we begin to whine and complain and pout. Some of us make demands. Some people get angry and close themselves off from contact of all kinds. None of those are signs of trusting God, just in case you wondered. If you find yourself in a tight situation, surrender to God. This priceless treasure is one you can enjoy every day, if you like. It improves with use! It also reduces stress in your life.

3. Loving better. I don't know about you, but it just takes a random encounter with an unattractive or rude person to make me realise how badly I love. Anyone can be loving when things are good and we hand-pick the people we hang out with. But can we love when someone is taking advantage of us? Can we love when confronted with something or someone unlovely? It takes #1 and #2 to get to #3.

4. Leadership skills. Moses went through leadership boot camp. The one where you do some things right, you do some things wrong, you try to quit, you blame others, you see only the negative, and suffer from a lack of confidence. I have been through my own boot camps, not only in leadership but in pretty every much every skill I have ever developed. No one becomes a good leader or develops other skills just by reading a book or taking a seminar. Good leadership is a treasure you only get by being in overwhelming situations and realizing that you don't have what it takes. Only then do you realise that you were never meant to do this alone or rely on your own ability. God wants to be in all of this life with us. And he wants us to take others with us as well.

5. Legacy. When the Israelites left Egypt, they took the riches from their Egyptian neighbours and put them on their sons and daughters. Never leaving empty-handed is something we do not do primarily for ourselves, but for our children, for our successors, for posterity. It is time to think bigger than simply making ourselves comfortable or obtaining our own freedom. Our whole community benefits when we open our hands and loot every situation for all it is worth. Let us take every treasure that is hidden in the pain and the suffering and injustice and invest it in those around us.

I want to lay my head on the pillow every night and know that I took something of value from this day. I did not waste it, no matter what transpired. I am richer for having gone through everything I did. Never leave empty-handed.

This is a photo of some feather treasures my niece found in a barn loft this past summer.

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