When God Gives You Lemons…

There is a saying–“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” In other words, if your life circumstances are “sour,” you should look for ways to make your circumstances into something sweeter.

Often, it seems like God gives us lemons–even when we pray and do what we know is “right,” it seems like our circumstances get no better. In fact, sometimes, they get annoyingly, frustratingly worse. But God does not abandon us; He doesn’t sit back and laugh at our frustration, or leave us to flounder in chaos with no hope. Sometimes, our circumstances are opportunities for God to make lemonade.

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When God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He did not lead them directly to the Promised Land. Instead, He led them through the wilderness and to the shores of the Red Sea. There, they were trapped by the Egyptian army, complete with horses and chariots and trained warriors. But God’s plans were bigger than the armies of Egypt, and bigger than the sea. God made a path of escape through the sea, and used the very same sea to drown the enemy!

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What a miracle! But it wasn’t long before the people began complaining about “lemons” from God–the complained about the food, the journey, the scenery, and their leader, Moses. Even when God did many more miracles– bread from Heaven, meat from the sky, water from the rock, divine intervention in battles– the Israelites were still complaining about all the “lemons” in their life, and longing to go back to Egypt and slavery!

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There are seasons in life when it seems like God is giving us lemons–a job loss, an unexpected illness, a wayward daughter, a house fire, civil unrest… Struggles and pain will come into our lives; we should not pretend otherwise, or seek to deny them when they come. And God does not expect us to “make lemonade” all on our own. But He may allow us to be squeezed a bit; He may send the lemons today, and sugar next Monday. He may not give us a fancy carafe and cute little teacups. But He will give us all we need to make lemonade if we are prepared for the task. And usually, He will give us more than enough to set up a lemonade stand and serve others!

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Several years ago (2005), I had the opportunity to visit a settlement of Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. Multiple mission groups had banded together to provide basic needs– shelter, basic medical services, toilets and showers, etc. Service teams from Canada and the U.S. had come in to build two-room houses and set up a small clinic and school. Donations had come in– clothing, bedding, toothbrushes… Thousands of Haitians had been displaced after a bad hurricane season and massive flooding, and this refugee camp was home to nearly 150 families. Even with the donations, there were shortages– there was running water, but it wasn’t potable. There was rice, but few vegetables and very little meat. Aspirin and antibiotics were rationed, and most of the children were thin, and sad, half-clothed in rags and bare-foot.

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In the midst of all this, there was a miraculous donation– of flip-flops! Literally thousands of pairs of flip-flops–brand new overruns: different sizes, but all the same colors and style–more than enough for every person to have a pair. God had given the people of this settlement a LOT of lemons. Shoes were well and good, but the people needed water… The shoes were distributed– there were even a few left over. But about a week later, it was observed that most of the people were still walking around bare-footed. What had happened to the donated flip-flops? Were the people ungrateful? Were they too proud to use the new shoes? Too fearful?

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Not at all! These amazing people trusted that God could help them turn lemons into lemonade. They loaded the flip-flops into large bags, carried them (bare-footed) on their backs into town (the nearest town was nearly 10 miles away, but it was on the coast and attracted many tourists), pooled what little money they had to rent a booth at the beach, and SOLD the flip-flops. The money they made from the sale of the flip-flops purchased five-gallon jugs of drinking water. The jugs were carried back from town and shared among the members of this growing community. As they continued to sell the donated flip-flops, they purchased other small items– packets of laundry detergent, fly swatters, plastic dishes and cups–and established a small colmado (local store) within their own community. When I was able to visit again a couple of years later, the refugee camp was a thriving community– many of the houses had been painted, and had gardens and picket fences, on which clothes were drying in the sun. And while some children were still running in bare feet, many others had shoes. Some of the shoes were ragged and some were mismatched, but the children were happy and healthy. In the middle of the community, there was a beautiful church. Inside, there was a woman sweeping and singing songs of praise.

I share this story because it both encourages me and shames me. In this season of “lemons”– COVID-19 and violent unrest in my country– I have a choice. I can complain like the children of Israel. I can pray for God to take away the lemons; I can beg for Him to send me lemonade. Or I can look around for opportunities to use what He has provided– graciously provided– and sing His praises as I make lemonade.

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God, grant me the eyes to see your provision amid whatever challenges I face today. THANK YOU for the lemons you have given me today, and, when I am squeezed, help me to become a sweet and refreshing reminder to others of YOUR Grace and Joy.

I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

The Lord is My Shepherd…

The Twenty-third Psalm is one of the most quoted and well-known poems in the Bible. In its short six verses are contained some of the deepest truths and most beautiful images in scripture.

Today, I want to look at just the first five words of the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. Familiarity with these words can rob them of their true power. Imagine if we used a modern-day analogy: The Prime Minister (or King or President) is my life coach, or home health care nurse, or bodyguard. Can you imagine!?

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How often do we gloss over these words and fail to see the amazingly powerful message there. The LORD– Yahweh, the Almighty, Ruler of the Universe– is MY shepherd. He does all the kind of things a shepherd does for his sheep– feeds, leads, protects, and provides. He fights off predators, binds up wounds, and shears off the extra wool that can get us entangled in briers or slow down our progress. He stands with us in the heat and cold, and finds shelter for us from the wind and rain. He does all of this for me, when I can’t; because I can’t. He knows everything about me– my strengths and weaknesses and limitations. He knows everything about what I need– where the best grass and water are and how to get there; how much rest I need before the next stage of our journey; the likelihood that I will wander off and need to be called back to the flock. He knows what dangers lie ahead, and how to deal with them.

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The Lord IS my shepherd– He is always on the job. He hasn’t left me alone in green pastures, or sent someone else to take me through the valleys. He didn’t start out as my shepherd and then decide to quit. He isn’t waiting for me to reach a certain stage or measurement before I qualify to be His sheep.

The Lord is my Shepherd– not my task-master, nor yet my servant. He is both my Lord and my caretaker– my master and my minister. When I pray today, it is not to someone remote and aloof or powerless and malleable– I am bleating in my sheepish voice all my praise, my love, my irrational worries, and my sincerest gratitude, to the eternal and all-powerful shepherd who calls me by name.

Wealth in the Wilderness

In Exodus, chapter 16, the people of God are wandering in the wilderness of Sin (literally and figuratively!). They begin to grumble and complain about food, contrasting their current situation with their life in Egypt. Whenever I have read this passage in the past, I have assumed that the Israelites lacked food– that they were starving in the desert–and that their grumbling had some merit. After all, they are in a desert. Their complaints about water make sense. Surely, their complaints about food have the same ring of desperation.

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But a few chapters earlier, and a few chapters later, we get a better picture of the true situation of these wandering bands of Israelites. As they left Egypt, they demanded from Pharaoh that they be allowed to take their flocks and herds! This would suggest that they had sheep, cows, and goats with them–meat and milk in some quantity. They may have had other animals as well– chickens, pet dogs or cats, oxen or horses. The need for water was greater– not only water for the people, but for their animals– but the complaint about meat seems to have had nothing to do with actual need. If anything, their complaint might have been about grazing land for their animals– but they never bring this complaint before the Lord. Either there was enough grass, even in the wilderness, or they had brought grain to feed their flocks. And there was grain for bread–just a few short chapters later, God gives directions for the sacrifices– sacrifices that are to involve rams, bulls, and three different types of bread, cakes, and wafers made with wheat flour!

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The Israelites have provisions. They have taken enough food for the journey up to that point, and more. They complain, not that they ARE starving, but that they believe they will starve. God answers their complaint by sending quail– enough that they got sick of it– and bread from heaven (manna). The manna continues to fall without fail every day (except the sabbaths) for 40 years, throughout all their moving; in every location and season, on rocky mountainsides and dusty plains.

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God’s amazing and miraculous provision should have produced thanksgiving and worship. Instead, the people got sick of the quail, and continued with their complaining and grumbling for an entire generation as they wandered around the wilderness.

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How many times do we complain about “needs” that are not needs at all? I find myself worrying about bills getting paid, or the car making “odd” noises, or an aching shoulder. I find myself thinking back to days when I had more money or free time, and far fewer aches and pains. It is tempting to ask God for a return of “the good old days.” But God’s plan for the Israelites didn’t involve pots of meat that came with chains attached. God’s plan for my life doesn’t involve my immediate comfort, but my eternal character. And even in times when I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness, God never leaves me. I have been poor, but I have not starved. I have been sick, but not left to die alone. I have been lost, but never abandoned.

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There is wealth in the wilderness–the riches of God are available to those who will trust Him. Like manna, God will provide what only He can, and enough to see us through each day. He doesn’t promise that we will have “pots of meat” or easy circumstances. Instead, if we open our eyes, we will see miracles of grace, showing us how much God loves us and cares for us.

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God’s people complained a lot, but rarely did they celebrate God’s provision or offer thanks. May we learn from their story, and praise the God who sends quail and manna to the very ones who doubt His mercy and love!

The Lord is My Shepherd

Psalm 100:3 Christian Standard Bible (CSB):

Acknowledge that the Lord is God.
He made us, and we are his—
his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 23 New King James Version (NKJV)
The Lord the Shepherd of His People
A Psalm of David.
23 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not [a]want.
He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures;
He leads me beside the [c]still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will [d]dwell in the house of the Lord
[e]Forever.
Footnotes:
Psalm 23:1 lack
Psalm 23:2 Lit. pastures of tender grass
Psalm 23:2 Lit. waters of rest
Psalm 23:6 So with LXX, Syr., Tg., Vg.; MT return
Psalm 23:6 Or To the end of my days, lit. For length of days

http://www.biblegateway.com

The Bible is filled with imagery of sheep and shepherds. Growing up, I lived in the countryside, but we never raised sheep, and I had little experience with livestock of any kind. We had one neighbor who had sheep, however, and he shared a lot of insight into why we should pay attention to what sheep can teach us about ourselves, and our God.

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Not only does God use the imagery of sheep and shepherds, He uses examples throughout the Bible of actual sheep and shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the sons of Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos– all were shepherds. When the Messiah was born, the first announcement went to shepherds in the fields, keeping night-watch over their flocks!

Jesus used stories of sheep and shepherds in his parables, as well. There is a lot to understand, and I am not qualified to teach anyone about shepherding, but there are several wonderful principles that don’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge:

  • Sheep NEED a shepherd. There are breeds of mountain sheep that live independently, but the Bible stories speak of domesticated sheep…they are “high maintenance” animals– they need food and water, shelter, protection, and a lot of guidance and supervision! We NEED God–He understands our situations, our weaknesses, and our strengths, far better than we do. He knows the future; He has a plan, and He provides all that we need. We may not see the road ahead–we may not see the green pasture or the still waters where He wants to lead us–but He IS the WAY, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and we can trust Him to get us there.
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  • Sheep need to be sheared. Left unsheared, the sheep’s wool will become matted, filthy, and a potential source of danger and disease. The sheep cannot get rid of its wool on its own. However, once the old wool is sheared off, the sheep is clean, and new wool can grow. Not only does God provide for our immediate needs, He provides for our renewal and growth–physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Sometimes, that means we need to be “sheared” of habits, people, or situations that have become “matted”, and filthy. We haven’t even noticed the change, and we don’t see the danger. God wants to free us from the “baggage” we accumulate, and help us experience new growth.
  • Sheep depend on others to stay safe, healthy, and fed–there may be “lone wolves”, but there are no “lone sheep”. God will bring us into “flocks”. We learn to eat together, travel together, rest together, live together, and follow our shepherd’s voice together. Trying to be a “lone sheep” makes for a lot of trouble!
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  • Shepherds make great sacrifices to care for their sheep– they provide, protect, rescue, heal, guide, and clean their sheep. A good shepherd is watchful, faithful, caring, and gentle, even as s/he must be strong, brave, and fiercely protective, risking their lives (or even giving their lives) for their flocks. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows each one of us intimately– He knows how to heal and guide us. He wants us to recognize His voice above all others, and to stay close to Him. He died to redeem you and me!
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May we trust our Good Shepherd today, and every day. May we spend time acknowledging Him as our loving and faithful Shepherd, and call out to Him– in praise, in adoration, in supplication, and in loving gratitude.

Hannah and Her God

The story of Hannah is filled with a network of complex relationships– Hannah and her husband, her rival, her spiritual leaders, her son’s foster-parent, and the son she desired and yet gave away. But Hannah’s most complex and important relationship was with her God.

What can we learn by looking at this relationship?

  • Even when we don’t understand it, God has a plan, and it is always bigger than “us.” God closed Hannah’s womb– that was part of His plan. But it was not the end of the plan, or the point of the plan, or a hitch in the plan. Hannah’s barrenness was not a punishment for anything that she had done, but Hannah’s response to it (and the response of all the others) provides us with an example of faith, persistence, and obedience. Hannah didn’t know the end of her own story– she didn’t know that her son would play such an important role in the history of his nation or in the history of God’s ultimate plan of salvation for the human race. Hannah didn’t know her story would be contained in the pages of scriptures to encourage people centuries into the future. How would our response to current circumstances change if we considered that God may be using us them to bless, challenge, or encourage others through our stumbling steps of responding in faith? The results of our faith (or lack of faith) will have an impact far beyond just our immediate lives.
  • God is sovereign. Nothing happened to Hannah outside of God’s sight; nothing was beyond his control; nothing about this story took God by surprise. Hannah, even in her despair and frustration, could trust her all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God.
  • God is more interested in our wholeness than our “happiness.” Our culture (and our selfish nature) tends to focus on our comfort, our accomplishments, and our happiness. When we are not happy, when we are frustrated in our goals, when we are restless or oppressed, we tend to think that God has turned His back on us. But it is often during times of grief, pain, loss, and darkness that we are stretched and reshaped to be stronger and wiser, growing closer to God and others. God doesn’t want us to wallow in despair and self-pity; but He will lead us through the very “valley of the shadow of death.” But, as Hannah experienced, God sees our sorrow, hears our cry, and answers our call.
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  • God is trustworthy and faithful. God knew Hannah’s heart. He knew her longing for a child. In Hannah’s case, He had caused her to be barren for a season, and then He gave her the desire of her heart and much more. But even if He had not given her a child of the womb, God gave her a loving husband, a compassionate (if imperfect) spiritual leader, a rival who could not triumph over her, and most of all, His presence and love.

Hannah’s Prayer

Then Hannah prayed and said:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;

    in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.

My mouth boasts over my enemies,

    for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;

    there is no one besides you;

    there is no Rock like our God.

“Do not keep talking so proudly

    or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

    and by him deeds are weighed.

“The bows of the warriors are broken,

    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

    but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

    but she who has had many sons pines away.

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;

    he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

    he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust

    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

    and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;

    on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,

    but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;

10     those who oppose the Lord will be broken.

The Most High will thunder from heaven;

    the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

“He will give strength to his king

    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 (NIV) taken from BibleGateway.com
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Bargain Basement Praying

I have a very bad habit (one among many).  I tend to be competitive, and a bit of a perfectionist when I work at something.  I’m never satisfied with “good enough” when I think I can do a little better.  This includes shopping for bargains.  I will go to great lengths to stretch a dollar; to save a few cents–outlet and discount stores, sale shelves, bargain basements–I’ve haunted them all.

But prayer shouldn’t be a “bargain basement” encounter.  God is not in the business of selling.  He’s in the business of redeeming.  God is lavish in his Grace, and sufficient– even abundant– in his blessings.

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Don’t misunderstand– God has not promised us wealth and ease and constant comfort.  And God is not a vending machine or a genii, that I should tell him what I want and expect that he will grant my every whim.  But I tend to come to God as if I had to earn his approval, or pay for his gifts.  I ask for the bare minimum– “just help me get through this meeting”, “you know what bills are outstanding– just help us catch up”– and then I am surprised when that’s what I get.

It’s not that I am asking for bad things or wrong things, or that I should be asking for so much more.  But what does my attitude say about God?  I say that God is Love, I say that he is Good.  I say that he can do anything, and that he is gracious and merciful.  But my prayer life says otherwise.

It’s time that I ask God for “my daily bread”, without expecting day-old leftovers.  And, when he choose to give me Manna, it’s time for me to see that provision for the miracle and the blessing that it is.

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