James N. Watkins, Director
Squeezing Good Out of Bad
James N. Watkins
Trade size (6x9) 112 pages
When life gives you lemons, give off a refreshing scent
Type "lemon scented" into the google.com Internet search engine and you'll find over 178,000 sites featuring the phrase!
Of course there are hundreds of lemon-scented furniture polishes, disinfectants, and assorted cleaning products including, and I quote, "lemon-scented vacuum cleaner bags."
Lemon scent is hot in candles and incense promising to "invigorate" and "awaken the spirit."
Feeling hungry? There are recipes for "Lemon-Scented White Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting," "Pasta with Lemon Scented Vegetables and Goat Cheese," "Lemon-Scented Fish Fillet Cooked In Parchment" and "Lemon Scented Lamb with Spinach Potato Cake and Dried Courgettes," (Huh? Courgettes I learned is simply the humble zucchini.)
Thirsty? Lemon tea is, and again I quote, "a zestful treat, delectable both hot and cold. If you have yet to try gourmet lemon tea, you'll be pleasantly surprised by its superior taste. Indulge your taste buds."
Plus, there are lemon scented bar soap, cough drops, refrigerator deodorizers, and even an "electronic/dance/house/
techno band" called "Lemon Scented."
Apparently, everyone loves the fragrance of lemons!
The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us
spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
Do you suppose this fragrance Paul is describing which invigorates and awakens the spirit is "lemon fresh"? If so, when life gives you lemons give off the refreshing fragrance of Christ.
Romans 8:28 promises, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." And what is that purpose? The very next versewhich no one ever quotesspells it out ". . . to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."
That in a nutshellor lemon peelis the message of this book. God miraculously takes the lemons that are dumped into our laps and uses them to produce in us "the likeness of his Son." And that, in a lemon drop, is the essence of what my stream of faith refers to as "holiness." We try to make living a holy life complicated by dividing it up into "initial, entire, progressive, and entire sanctification" and provide several formulas for obtaining this "second work of grace."
But I've become convincedat risk of my ordination certificatethat a) being conformed to the likeness to Christ is the essence of holiness and b) that holiness comes through allowing God to shape us into that likeness through hardships and heartaches. That's why the "prosperity gospel" produces such rotten fruit!
And so, I hope I've clearly communicated that by "good," I'm not referring to happiness, pleasure, prosperity, a "God loves you and has a wonderful Porche for your life" healthy and wealthy kind of good. The Greek word Paul chooses for good, agathos, can be translated "of a good nature, useful, helpful, excellent, upright, distinguished, or honorable."
There is also a condition. God works all out for good of those "who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Unfortunately, I spent the majority of my life stopping at
verse 28. I viewed it as a deal with God. "Okay, God, if I love You and try to live as best I know how for You, then You're obligated to work all out for my good." It became a comforting companion to "all's well that ends well," "if life gives you lemons, make lemonade," "it all comes out in the wash," "when the going gets tough. . . ." and all those other clever clichés on those moronic "motivational" posters.
Second Corinthians 4:8-11 reinforces this concept:
We are hardpressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal body.
All that hard-pressing (a wine-press term in the Greek), perplexity, persecution, and striking down works together "so that the life of Jesus may be revealed" in our lives.
So, if we will bring our lives and lemons to God, He has promised to produce the lemon-fresh likeness of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 2:1-7 gives a detailed description of that likeness:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God Some things to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
Those life-puckering problems, if turned over to God's love and direction, can create a fruitful life that gives off the fragrance of Christ.
I enjoyed a great year in 1993. My book Death & Beyond had gone into a second printing at Tyndale House Publishers after just one month in stores. Two literary agents were interested in representing this "rising star." A big-time California talent agency was interested in signing me up for a nation-wide speaking tour. A Christian recording artist was talking about recording some of my original music. And the church where I was associate minister was growing with plans for a major building project.
Just one year later, Sex Is Not a Four-letter Word, (an earlier book with Tyndale House) was selling negative numbers. I called my editor and asked, "What is this? The Twilight Zone? How can a book sell negative numbers?" It really is possible, I learned, when stores send back more copies than they sell. My two opportunities with literary agents fell through. (A third said, "Until you have a best-seller, we're not interested.") The big-time booking agency had scheduled just one speaking engagement. Four music promoters turned down my music. And at the church, attendance had plateaued and offerings were down.
I was a good writer. At the time, I had eleven published books, over a thousand articles in print, four Evangelical Press awards and a Campus Life "Book of the Year" plaque on my wall, plus a file full of "fan" letters.
But my Christian life was anything but lemon fresh. It stunk like that lemon with legs Rhonda describes in the foreword! I was a small-time author with a big-time ego. And since I had no
book contracts, very few writing assignments, and virtually no speaking engagements, I had a lot of time to spend with God.
For some reason He directed this pragmatic Protestant to the writings of Catholic mystics. God loves to surprise us!
Brother Lawrence's Practicing the Presence of God was the proverbial knock on the side of the head: "Our only employment is to love God." What?! It's not to write best-selling books and speak to stadiums full of fans?
Saint John of the Cross, in Ascent of Mount Carmel, wrote (and this is a loose paraphrase of a translation), "We grow more in the pits of life than on the pedestals of life." It's not having a five-bedroom mansion in Colorado?
And Thomas a' Kempis provided the final punch to the gut and ego: "Be content as an unknown." But I could be such a wonderful witness on Oprah!
To quote Judith Voirst, 1994 was "a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad" year. But Neva Coyle reminds us "God is a refiner, not an arsonist."
Unfortunately that refinement has continued to the present! My latest book series, The Why Files, addressing the questions of love, death, and the supernatural, won a "Christian Retailers Choice Award" but Christian retailers haven't sold a choice number of copiesand the series is now out of print. Church attendance and offerings continued down a ski slope until, as I mentioned earlier, we were asked to leave. Toss in two broken feet, a $4,127 engine repair for forgetting to change the oil in our Neon, my wife's fibromyalgia (which is best described as having the flu 24/7), the death of my favorite grandparent, and just last summer cancer! On top of that pile of lemons, I lost a large editing account that I was counting on to pay escalating medical bills. We could send out invitations to a pity party, but a friend's experience puts it in perspective.
Kathy and her family have had their share of lemons. Her husband was self-employed as an architect and contractor when the bottom fell out of the building industry. Suddenly architectural work and construction projects came crashing down
in the economic collapse. With five children to feed (two in a
private Christian college), they quickly depleted their savings and cashed in their pension fund. Just recently her son-in-law was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor near his heart. Kathy writes . . .
It seems God becomes more and more real to me in the hard times. Even though I know He is with me in the good times. Maybe it's because I become more real and transparent in the trials? We began to meet with a group of our church friends on Monday nights at our office to pray for God's help. Phil and I both surrendered totally to Him and His plan to our lives.
My relationship with Christ became much, much more personal. I began to understand how much He loved and cared for me. Even though I felt like I was being punished, I know He was actually refining me. My prayer life became more of a priority as well. Phil and I now pray together as a couple every morning before we get out of bed and every night before we go to sleep. (There are occasions when we miss our prayer time together). I talk to Him all day long. My focus has been more on Him and less on me and my problems. I have forced myself to thank Him for everything and every situationeven when I don't like what is happening. I have discovered that having a thankful spirit is humbling but so, so soothing to my soul. I loved the Lord before the tough times but I love Him even more.
God has done miraculous things in our business and the life of our son-in-law. He has caused His church to gather together to help and support each of us. He has provided funds for medical treatments, tickets for flights to the IU Medical Center, food, prayer support and so much more. We have seen His people rally to help and we have seen His people praise Him, before there were any answers.
Whether the cancer is gone forever or not, God's presence and help was so real during the entire experience. Whether this upturn in the economy and our business will continue to again prosper is also uncertain. But we praise Him.
What looked like dark, bleak, hopeless situations have become experiences of anticipation, excitement, grace, hope and gratitude. We stand in awe of His "amazing love." My relationship is real and what keeps me going.
My good friendand best-selling authorCec Murphey faced an even greater tragedy. Recently, his home burned to the ground killing his son-in-law. He wrote:
This morning I awakened and pondered the why questionone I've pondered many times since the fire in late February. Why? Why?
Why is God so good to me? Why has the Lord given me such great peace during all of this? Why do I feel so loved? Why has God chosen me to write and to teach? Why have so many people reached out to us during this difficult time?
If I ever find a reason, of course, I'll know it's the wrong answer. I can say that I'm more aware of God's grace and presence in my life than I've ever been. During all this time hundreds of individuals reached out to us, affirmed us, cared for us, and expressed their sympathy and love.
I've been amazed. Some of them were people I met five or nine years ago when I taught in Sacramento or Memphis. And I'm grateful for every kind and caring word.
This isn't some attempt to look on the bright side of life: I truly feel this way. Two days after the fire a Bible verse resounded inside my head. "In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" (1 Thessalonians. 5:18 KJV). So much good has come out of the tragedy and I'm grateful. I still don't understand why God has smiled so brightly on me.
God is able to take the very worst that life can throw at us, and miraculously use it for His purpose: that we may be conformed to the likeness of his Son.
The apostle Paul writes:
And the Lordwho is the Spiritmakes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
And, a whole lot of people who are a whole lot smarter than me, have also discovered this truth:
Watchman Nee, in The Normal Christian Life:
God will answer all our questions in one way and one way onlynamely, by showing us more of his Son.
Brennan Manning, in Abba's Child:
All day and every day we are being reshaped into the image of Christ. Everything that happens to us is designed to this end. . . . as Augustine said, "He is more intimate with us than we are with ourselves."
Nothing is wasted, nothing is missing. There is never a moment that does not carry eternal
Henri Nouwen, in Making All Things New:
Poverty, pain, struggle, anguish, agony, and even inner darkness may continue to be a part of our experience. They may even be God's way of purifying us. But life is no longer boring, resentful, depressing, or lonely because we have come to know that everything that happens is part of our way to the house of the Father.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.
In an interview with Calvin Miller in The Door:
The here and now hell we pass through does indeed conform us into the image of Christ, properly understood. I think our unanswered questions prompt in us a yearning, but usually there aren't any answers. That's why the questions are so horrendous. They show us an insufficiency in ourselves that we only find complete when we finally just surrender to the mysticism of the unanswerable God. We have to learn a level of acceptance that isn't easy for us. Without the here
and now hell, we wouldn't search for the answers.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 in The Message:
So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There's far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can't see now will last forever.
Paul presents four qualities of Christ-likeness:
Being Christ-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose
I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of love and prayers of friends and family during Lois and my "dark night of the soul." We couldn't have emotionally and spiritually survived without Christ-like people in our lives.
Buried under a load of lemons tends to break our independent spirits. As I mentioned earlier, being tethered to an IV pole does tend to limit our independence. It causes us to humbly look to others for our basic needs: being pushed around in a wheelchair, having your spouse wash your hair, allowing others to take on church responsibilities that you feel you could do much better, etc. And this past summer, while undergoing radiation treatment, I was totally and completely exhausted, so Lois had to mow the lawn. Oh, the shame! The humiliation! What are the neighbors thinking?
And it causes us to reach out for support. (I wrote about that in chapter 6.)
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit
One thing that a load of lemons does is crush our pride and self-promoting spirit.
Nothing like books that sell negative numbers to take you down a peg or two! Nothing like losing a client because you have, what my family dubbed, "radiation retardation."
In humility consider others better than yourselves
During my brief time as an award-winning editor (four Evangelical Press Association awards) and successful author (four books in one year), I was asked to speak at some large writers' conferences where I proudly shared my secrets for success. I'm still speaking at conferences where I now humblyI hopeteach my secrets from failure. And I'm getting a much better response.
Working in Christian publishing for the last thirty years, I've been able to meet some of the top authors and editors in the business. Some are prima donnas who demand huge speaking fees, first class air travel, and luxury accommodations. Others that I have been able to know, such as Francine Rivers, are real servants at heart. They willingly fly coach and accept shamefully small honorariums to do what they can for writers and their readers.
I was shocked when Francine asked if she could run an idea for a book past me. Me, who takes a year to sell the number of books she sells on a bad day? She wants advice from me? I love how this humble woman affirmed me with no regard to rank or status!
Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others, taking the very nature of a servant
On the other hand, while working as editorial director at a Christian publishing house, a missionary found out that one of the top executives was traveling to her city in Africa. She asked if he could bring a box of books with him since she couldn't afford the overseas shipping. He wrote back, "I'm not a delivery boy." Somebody needed a delivery of lemonsand it wasn't
Paul writes that "we know that in all things God works" everything for the good of becoming more Christ-like. He has the
assurance of this, not simply by faith, but by what he actually experienced. We know this because he doesn't use one of his favorite words for know, ginosko, which means "to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of." He uses eido that means to "perceive with the eyes, to perceive by any of the senses." Rather than intellectual assent or theorizing, Paul has personally experienced God's working in his life and others. He doesn't hope. He doesn't believe. He knows God works this way!
Maybe I'm slowly beginning to know it! And, as I'm buried with the lemons of life, that "lemon-fresh" fragrance of Christ oozes out from under the pile.
Some things to think about
In what ways have life-puckering problems helped me to become more Christ-like?
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