Be Careful What You Pray For…

When I was a young woman, I prayed for patience. Several well-meaning friends and family tried to tell me that this was a mistake. “Be careful what you pray for,” they said. It was their belief that, if I prayed for patience, God would send situations into my life that would force me to be patient. God doesn’t “give” patience, they warned–He merely teaches us to be patient.

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I wanted more patience, in preparation for marriage and children; I wanted to be a patient wife and mother. But I was unprepared for this reaction of others. DON’T ask God for something good? Isn’t patience (long-suffering) one of the attributes listed as the “Fruit of the Spirit?”(Galatians 5:23-24) Why should I hesitate, or fear to ask God for something that will help me serve Him better?

Looking back, I suppose some of those same friends and family might say, “I told you so!” I’m sure they wanted a happy and easy future for me– one that didn’t include some of the challenges that I have had to face. And in their eyes, I was “tempting fate” to draw attention to my lack of patience. On the surface, it probably looks like that’s exactly what happened. I never had any children; I didn’t marry until I was in my mid-40s, and I have learned patience in many areas through many challenges.

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But that’s just one perspective. What if I hadn’t prayed that prayer? Would God have let me drift through life without “needing” more patience? Would I have “avoided” the years of loneliness and lack of children? Would I have married and had a family and lived happily ever after without having to learn patience? Would my life have been totally different? Or would my circumstances have been the same, except that I never would have learned patience–never sought to become more patient during the same trials and challenges? What kind of life might I have had WITHOUT patience?

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During the years that I was single, I worked full-time in youth-oriented jobs– teaching and serving in the youth department at a library. I learned patience by disciplining teenagers, cleaning up after toddlers, answering the same questions twenty times a day, and dealing with obstinate parents! I suffered with my students when one of their classmates died; and when it happened again the next year. I agonized with my student who chose to keep her baby after those close to her wanted her to have an abortion. And I rejoiced with her when she brought her son to visit me a year later. I suffered the frustration of parents whose children were rebellious, or had learning issues, or had been diagnosed with autism or ADHD. But I also endured the long nights when I had no little ones to tuck in or talk to (and learned to be thankful for the nights I didn’t have to deal with fever and sickness, or arguing–again– about the rules of the house!) But in the course of my work, I connected with hundreds of children and teens. They were never “mine” to hold or scold or say, “I love you”, but they touched my life, and I hope that I touched theirs as well. I didn’t choose my career path knowing that I would never become a “mom.” But I needed (and learned) patience in the process. I learned patience in the years I spent single–and I learned to appreciate my husband in ways I wouldn’t have as a young woman.

Story hour at the library c. 2009.

There IS some truth to the phrase, “Be careful what you pray for.” When we pray, we should pray for things that align with His will– like wisdom, patience, courage, or peace. We should not pray for things that contradict His will– instant popularity, wealth without work, or relationships or circumstances that dishonor Him. We should also be prepared for God to answer in the way He deems best–which may not look or feel like what we desired. It was His best for me not to marry young or have children of my own. He has since blessed me with a wonderful husband and step-children and grandchildren. But He might have chosen not to. And I would still thank Him for the life I have led. It’s been fantastic. I’ve met amazing people, had amazing opportunities, and traveled to wonderful places. I don’t feel like God ever “punished” me for asking for patience– instead, I feel that He has more than answered my prayer. That doesn’t mean that I have learned to be perfectly patient in every situation (just ask my husband!) But God is eternally good and faithful to give us what is in our best interest– if we ask, AND if we trust His answer more than our expectation. (see Hebrews 11:6; John 17; 1 Peter 5:7)

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Don’t be too afraid or too proud to ask God for any good thing. God will not only give you what you need, He will be with you every step of the way as you learn and grow, and develop into the person He wants you to be!

When God Sends Clarence

I’m a huge fan of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It tells the story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve. His uncle and business partner has lost $8,000– enough to ruin their business. His rival has called for him to arrested, after George has begged him for help. He had nowhere left to turn. In desperation, he leaves his family, goes to a bar, has a drink, and finally, broken and crying, he prays a simple prayer. Almost immediately, an angry man slugs him in the jaw, and both men are thrown out into the cold. George runs his car into a tree, and proceeds on foot to a bridge, where he plans to jump to his death before he can be arrested and sent to prison. Not a feel-good holiday movie, right?

However, that simple prayer has been heard in Heaven. George thinks that the “answer” to his prayer was being punched, but God has other plans, which include sending a “guardian angel” to help George change his mind. But God doesn’t send a mighty angel to prevent George from jumping off the bridge. He doesn’t send a glorious angel of light to amaze and instruct George. He doesn’t send a warrior angel to protect him from his rival or the consequences of his uncle’s mistake. Instead, He sends Clarence.

Now, I have to pause a moment to say that I disagree with the film in its depiction of angels. I believe angels are spiritual beings who serve the Lord of Heaven, but I don’t believe that humans “become” angels after they die, nor do I believe that they must “earn their wings.” In fact, this flies in the face of the Gospel, that we are justified by faith in the saving work of Christ on the Cross.

But I mention Clarence, because, in the film, he is precisely the sort of “help” we do not expect of God– someone who is earnest, but inept and uninformed. Clarence has almost no clue how to keep George from throwing away his life. He tries to reason with George, but to no avail. He tries to cheer him up, encourage him, and befriend him, even explaining that if George would just let him help, Clarence would earn his wings. George is still determined that his life has been in vain. Finally, he tells Clarence to go away, and claims it would have just been better if he (George) had never been born.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who has never seen it, but the story reaffirms the value and the joy of life, even as it faces the very real darkness of depression and despair. George finally realizes that his life is really far more wonderful than his circumstances– and very much worth living!

We live in a desperate and dark world– many people are discouraged and facing dark days. Debt, sickness, grief, homelessness, betrayal, alcoholism and addiction, prison, abuse–they are all very real and overwhelmingly oppressive. Sometimes those who face such circumstances cry out in desperation, only to have an experience similar to George Bailey’s– they end up getting punched in the jaw! But this is NOT the answer from God– this is the world’s “solution.” Anger, despair, chaos, violence and abuse come when we try to run away from problems or solve them in our own powerlessness. God’s answers often come in unexpected packages. An unexpected encounter with a stranger; an overheard conversation on a bus or train; even an ad on TV or a song on the radio. God doesn’t usually send an angel– He often “sends” ordinary people in ordinary ways to do His extraordinary work.

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But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

1 Corinthians 1:27 (KJV)

God delights in using the “simple” things and ordinary people. (See a much fuller exposition here:) https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/1-27.htm#:~:text=To%20confound%20the%20wise%20%E2%80%94%20To%20shame%20those,he%20does%20it%20in%20irony%2C%20he%20aggrandizes%20them. George Bailey is a simple man who stays true (often in spite of himself) to what he knows is right. Even as he despises his life, it has produced dozens of small miracles. But it requires a change of perspective to see them. “Clever” people; “powerful” people, and “successful” people have surrounded, and even “surpassed” George, but it takes a “Clarence” to make him see the eternal value of a life well-lived. George’s life is worth far more than money; far more than worldly success; far more than power and greed. George is truly “the richest man in town” in all the things that most matter.

It’s a Wonderful Life– George with his family

If God has blessed you by sending a “Clarence,” take a moment to thank Him. If God is calling you to be a “Clarence” in someone’s life today, take a moment to thank Him for that, too! You may not earn a pair of wings, but I guarantee you will be blessed.

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Always Remember, Pray, Give Thanks

The Apostle Paul is consistent in opening most of his letters with a phrase that uses the same four key words– Always, Remember, Prayers, and Thank. The order of the words may change, but the idea stays the same. Paul is always remembering others, always praying for them, and always thankful to God for them.

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Paul uses similar phrasing whether addressing individuals, like Timothy or Philemon, or church groups, like the Ephesians or Philippians. But the message is always very personal. He is not saying a general “Thank You” to God for people “like” Philemon, or “like” the church in Ephesus. He is remembering shared burdens, shared laughter, shared experiences, and thanking God for those deeply held memories. He is lifting up individual burdens, such as the on-going disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), or Timothy’s stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23).

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It is easy, and costs nothing, to pray generic prayers for a large, faceless mass of strangers. It is easy to love humanity from afar. It is another thing to enter into another person’s “messiness” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); to remember struggles and sacrifices made on behalf of others (or to remember being the one in great need of another’s sacrifices). Life– abundant, vibrant, and glorious–calls us to get involved. Not just from the sidelines, not just when it’s convenient, but “always.”

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Prayer calls us to be involved. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray “general” prayers– for peace in foreign lands, or and end to drought or hunger, etc. But we must not neglect “wrestling” prayers–prayers for our unsaved loved ones, prayers for persecuted believers (whether next door or around the world), prayers for our community workers, and prayers for those who are in need. Nor should we neglect prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving for those who have come into our lives. Finally, we need to be willing to let individuals KNOW that they are being remembered, prayed for, and appreciated.

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One of the greatest blessings I know is remembering all the special people who have crossed paths, shared the journey, and borne shared burdens with me, and knowing that each person, each memory, each moment, is eternally and infinitely precious to God! What a privilege it is to share good times and even “battle scars” with so many amazing, unique, beloved people! What a privilege to lift them up before the throne of grace!

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Have you ever doubted? Wondered, “Where is God?” Maybe even wondered if He exists at all? And then someone came along and made you feel wicked and small for having such a thought…”How could you!?”

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I know there are people who believe that faith is not really faith if you can have moments of doubt– that true faith never wavers, stumbles, or has tough questions. I don’t think this is Biblical, nor do I think this reflects God’s relationship with us. The Bible is full of “faithful” people who had moments of doubt.

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Abraham, when told that he would become the father of many nations, believed, and it was counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Hebrews 11:11, Romans 4:3, etc.) Abraham’s faith was so solid, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the son of God’s Promise! Yet Abraham and Sarah acted outside of absolute faith when they brought in Hagar and tried to start a family on their own. God still blessed Hagar and Ishmael, but they were not part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. And over four thousand years of bad blood between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are a sad reminder that Abraham did not trust God absolutely and completely.

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King David was a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet David wrote often about his feelings of being abandoned or forsaken by God. (See Psalm 10, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 among others.) Elijah, within hours of a great victory over hundreds of angry priests of Baal, after a miraculous demonstration of God’s power and faithfulness, hid in despair and asked to die, sure that God had abandoned him to his enemies (1 Kings 19).

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Most telling is the statement from Jesus Himself on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34) Although He was quoting one of King David’s psalms (22:1), the words still ask a very harsh question. Did Jesus Himself doubt God’s presence or His boundless love? (I don’t think so, but it is this kind of statement that often invites condemnation from those who cannot allow for any momentary doubt of any kind.)

I don’t believe any of these moments in the Bible are accidental. I believe God wants us to know that His presence and His faithfulness do not depend on the absolute strength of our faith. I believe it is one of the reasons that Jesus spoke of faith “as small as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20). It is not the size or the strength of our faith that determines what God can or will do. It is the size and strength of our faith that causes US to understand what God is doing and to participate more fully with Him. And taking our momentary doubts and questions to God shows a different kind of faith– one that is strong enough to BE tested and triumph. God rewards those who SEEK Him. If we never need to seek, or ask, or knock (See Matthew 7:7), could it be that we are not trusting in Him, but in our own wisdom?

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Take heart! Have faith! But don’t be afraid to go through valleys of doubt, or wrestle with difficult questions. And if someone else is struggling–be willing to listen to their doubts and questions, rather than just dismissing them. God does…

Prayer and Pizza-making

Maybe it’s just because I was hungry, but I started thinking about making a pizza from scratch, and how it can be like praying…I know it’s kind of a stretch, but stay with me..

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  • Faith/Crust–every pizza has to have a solid crust–and making crust from scratch usually involves stretching and pulling, flattening and forming it to make a round(ish) base for the toppings. Prayers rely on a solid foundation of faith. Even if it is a “thin” crust, faith is what gives us the confidence to approach God with our thoughts and thanks, our confessions and our concerns. Our faith is often stretched and pounded by circumstances, and it gets strengthened in the fires as God refines us.
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  • Salvation/Sauce– right there with the crust comes a sauce. It is usually red (tomato-based) or white (cream-based). I am reminded that our faith, and our ability to approach God freely is “covered” by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Our sins, though scarlet, are made white as snow. Whatever weaknesses we have– even our small or weak faith, are “covered”– God pours and spreads His grace and salvation over us. Jesus advocates for us every time we pray.
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  • Content of our Prayers/Toppings–pizzas come in all types of varieties. I’ve had pizzas with goat cheese, tomatoes, onions, shrimp, smoked sausage, carrots, blueberries, ham, scrambled eggs, spinach, olives, gravy, cornmeal, mushrooms, grilled chicken, dried beef, taco meat, cocktail sauce…just not all on the same pizza! My point is that our prayers are as unique and individual as we are. Some of us pray “single topping” prayers– raising a special concern that God has laid on our heart– all day long, or for days or years on end. Some of us pray “scattershot” prayers– a little of this and a little of that as things come to mind. Some of us pray “house favorite” prayers– we follow a formula or a pattern in many of our prayers. But each prayer gives off a delicious aroma– each one has a unique combination of flavors, textures, and pleasing smells as they are offered up to the Father.
    And we prepare our toppings/our individual prayers…our thoughts may be chopped up, diced, sliced, and spread around. They may get layered and mixed up and melded.
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  • Meditation/Baking– I’ve had fruit and vegetable pizzas that are served “uncooked” (except usually the crust has been pre-baked), but most pizzas have to go in the oven before they can be eaten. Some prayers are spoken in public or “in the moment,” but God wants to spend some time alone with us– even if it is in a “hot” oven for just a few minutes! Taking time to immerse ourselves in God’s presence not only refreshes us, it gives us time and space and openness to hear God’s voice; to catch a glimpse of His vision for our day; to close our eyes and ears to distractions and false promises, guilt and self-justification.
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  • Reading/Recipe–great pizzas don’t just happen by trial and error. Even though I love to experiment with different toppings and different seasonings–even different crust variations–if I don’t follow a recipe, I can ruin an otherwise great pizza. If we’re not reading the Bible regularly, we can begin to fall into bad prayer habits– selfish or prideful prayers, praying in the wrong spirit (bitterness or anger), even praying in ways that don’t recognize God for who He is.
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  • Serving/Serving! Pizzas are not meant to be created and left to sit and grow cold or moldy. Prayers offered up without obedience and active service don’t nourish anyone. Prayer should nourish our souls– we should be strengthened, changed, and experience growth. And God is gracious. Even if our prayer life has grown “cold”– well, cold pizza is still really good!
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So build a great pizza/prayer today (and throughout the day). “Taste and see that the Lord is Good” (Psalm 34:8)! Come back tomorrow and repeat!

Mama Said There Would Be Days Like This..

Yesterday was a roller-coaster ride–pain, annoying interruptions, difficult encounters, successful ventures, bad moods, beautiful skies. And I almost forgot to write this post. It was just one of “those” days.

I am comforted by three things, though:

God’s love is never a roller-coaster. It is steady, eternal, and extravagant. Even on days when I can’t feel it or turn my back on it, God’s love surrounds me. No matter what the circumstances; no matter what I’ve done or what’s been done to me, God’s love never changes– it never falters, it never diminishes. He loves me just as much as he would on a perfect day; just as much as He has on my “better” days. God’s love is not based on what kind of day I might be having. It is based on WHO HE IS!

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Jesus had days like this, too– he KNOWS what I’m going through. He knew pain, frustration, misunderstandings, betrayal, loneliness, grief, joy, struggle, success, and even “failure” (at least in the eyes of those around him). Some days, it feels like no one understands; that no one wants to listen. Jesus was a great listener during his time here; better than any of his friends or family. And when no one wanted to listen to Jesus, he simply found time to get away and talk with the Father. What a great example for us to follow. Better yet, Jesus is always on call to listen and advocate FOR us to the Father. And the Holy Spirit gets involved, too, helping us find words and expressions when we pray. God made us. He understands our weaknesses. He doesn’t condemn– He stands ready to help!

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God is Alpha and Omega. He is eternal, and He is God of the Past, Present, and Future. Today may be an awful day– or a wonderful day. Tomorrow is a mystery to us. Yesterday tends to haunt us. But God is present in all three times at once. Nothing takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wallow in worry or regret. And that should give us courage to live in the present (even if it seems chaotic or frustrating), knowing that God’s plans and timing are for our Good. Even if we “mess up” in the present, God has the power to redeem and renew our future– if we let Him.

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My wise Mama told me there would be days like this–she knows from experience. And she also knows all the ways God is ever-present and ever-ready to give wisdom, courage, and comfort. Today, I want to pass along a little of that wisdom– just like she passed it on to me. I hope your day is not the kind of roller-coaster I had yesterday. But even if it is: God Loves you, He knows what you’re going through, and He is eternally present and powerful to give you all that you need to get through.

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El-Roi–The God Who Sees…

Do you ever feel invisible? One of the common complaints among depressed people is that they feel as if no one sees them. “No one would notice if I just disappeared..” “No one really notices me…I just fade into the background.” “I always get passed over; pushed aside; ignored…” “Everyone just seems to look right through me. It’s like I don’t even exist.”

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In a world of 7.8 billion people, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#:~:text=In%20demographics%2C%20the%20world%20population,more%20to%20reach%207%20billion. it’s easy to see why someone might be tempted to feel that way. But it isn’t true. No one exists in a vacuum. Even when it feels like we are being ignored or dismissed or forgotten, someone is always watching.

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Hundreds of years ago, Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, believed herself to be abandoned and alone. She had been used by her mistress as a pawn in a scheme to give Abraham a son. Hagar was able to do what Sarah could not (get pregnant by Abraham), and she let it go to her head. But she was still a slave. When Sarah complained to her husband, Abraham reminded her that she still had power over Hagar. Sarah used that power to mistreat Hagar, causing her to run away into the wilderness. But God was watching. The “angel of the Lord” not only saw Hagar– he found her beside a spring and called out to her by name. He asked why she was in the wilderness, and then gave her a promise– that her descendants would become too numerous to count! In response, she gave God a name– El-Roi– “the god who sees me.”

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The Bible is filled with stories of people–sometimes warriors and kings, but often ordinary, even lowly, people: slaves, younger siblings, nameless servants–who are seen and chosen by God for His Glory, to play a special role in history. God sees them all; He knows them all by name (even if their names are not recorded in the Bible!) He knows each person’s strengths and weaknesses; He knows everyone who will cross their path, how their story began, and how their story will end.

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We can take great comfort in knowing that God sees us. There is nothing hidden from Him– when we are slighted or mistreated; when we are the ones wronging others…He knows our thoughts and emotions. He knows our strengths and weaknesses (better than we know ourselves!) He understands– even when we don’t–what’s happening in and around us. God sees us exactly as we are– and He already knows all that we can become! Hagar could see that she was a pawn. She could see herself giving Abraham a child when Sarah had not. But God didn’t see her as “just” a slave girl or “just” a pregnant woman. He saw her her as a young woman in distress; as a woman with unique hopes and dreams, aches and disappointments; and as the ancestress of millions upon millions of people– unique people, each one loved and seen and known intimately by their creator. He saw her as someone worthy of being found and called and reassured. And even though God sent her back into a difficult situation, He kept His eyes on her, and came to her rescue again years later.

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On days when you feel invisible, or forgotten– when it seems that no one would notice your absence– remember Hagar’s experience with El-Roi– “The God who Sees.”

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.

Peace Like a River…

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my Soul.
(It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)

…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)

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When Horatio Spafford wrote the poem that later became this famous hymn, he was not writing from a place of peaceful circumstances. He had suffered a series of financial and heartbreaking personal losses (https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/horatio-spafford-it-is-well-with-my-soul-11633070.html). He knew very well that our lives will be blessed by pleasant and peaceful times, and tossed about during storms and waves of loss and despair. But through it all, God’s presence is the source of our strength and hope.

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Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.

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Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.

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It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.

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!

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