Sand Dollar Favor

Six sand dollars found on Pensacola Beach, Dec. 25, 2018.

The moment I see one, time freezes. It’s like my brain can’t comprehend that finally, after looking and looking, what I’m searching for is right there. All I have to do is reach down and gently (ever so gently) scoop up the fragile sand dollar. And when it happens—no exaggeration here—pure joy floods my soul.

Today, on a sunny Christmas at the beach, broken shells lined the shore. My husband and I combed the crunchy landscape for one (just one, please, Lord) unbroken sand dollar. It’s always my hope, often my disappointment.

But after a season of difficult days both physically and emotionally, I got bold and asked God for extra favor: “Jesus, today is all about You: Your birth, Your sacrifice, Your glory. The awe is overwhelming! I know You love me, and I sure don’t need a sand dollar to prove it. If there’s one around, though, would you please point me to it?”

Minutes after this prayer–I’m telling the whole truth here—guess what the God of All Sand Dollars lavished on me?

Not one. Not two,

Nor three. Nor four,

Or Five.

But six.

SIX beautiful sand dollars.

The first one was teeny enough to make me stand like a statue and quietly process that there, beside my foot, was a perfect gem in a sea of shards. This jewel had been waiting patiently for me to notice, a small but faithful treasure.

The second was found just moments later, mostly because my eyes now knew where to look. I’ve seen it so many times: where one blessing lies, another soon follows, especially when I anticipate it.

Third time was a charm. Walking farther from the water, I noticed a gleaming circle of white: a BIG sand dollar washed far onto the beach, bleached from sun and time. How had something so fragile survived the surf which brought it here? How had no one’s feet crushed it? What resilience! Much stronger than I would guess.

Number four was almost hidden, barely noticeable under seaweed and sand. But beauty, no matter how seemingly invisible, is always seen and valued.

My husband found the last two of our day. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t love sand dollars like I do. But he patiently helps me search and enjoys finding them for me. With both in hand, he brought them to me like a gift. Like a favor, actually.

Two people searching. Six treasures waiting. One God lavishing.

And on this day, like every other, blessings too numerous to count.

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Thursday miracle: strangers, grace, and a root canal

The following story seems unlikely in today’s self-serving world but is 100% true. I had a front row seat, and observing it in real time reminded me that God works through His children, always. Names have been changed because no one is seeking applause—they simply ask God to direct their actions, and then He does.

Also, please understand that before last Thursday, most of these believers had never met. But God, in a very God-like way, was about to knit them together:

Elena     10:00 a.m.   A toothache has been plaguing her for months, but the past few days have been unbearable. She needs an expensive root canal but has no insurance. She also needs a dentist who’ll see her pronto. So far, no luck. And as each minute passes, Elena—a new believer in Christ—is truly suffering.

Denise     10:45 a.m.   Praying for people is nothing new to Denise; she’s talked with Jesus for decades. On this morning, she is asked to pray for a stranger, a hurting new believer—tooth issue. She asks God to somehow intervene. She is out of ideas on how to resolve it but believes He is able to alleviate the pain and cover the cost.

Leah     11:25 a.m.   Leah used to live in Florida—the location of the aforementioned tooth crisis—but has moved to another state. She hops on Facebook and sees a Florida friend’s question: “Which local dentist will see non-patients ASAP?” Leah remembers a contact from days gone by and quickly messages the number of her former dentist.

Amy     12: 10 p.m.   On Thursdays, Amy leaves her job at the dentist’s office around 2:00. But today before she heads out, a call comes in for a last-minute appointment. Amy listens carefully and shares with the dentist several significant issues: new patient, intense pain, lack of funds, expensive procedure. They squeeze in a 1:30 appointment.

Charles     3:30p.m.   Charles has known Jesus for longer than he’s been a dentist. He is a good man, a compassionate man—and today he finds himself looking a lot like the Savior he worships. As Charles finishes up a two-hour, much-needed root canal on a new patient without insurance, the next step is divinely clear: on the bill, Charles deems the procedure “paid in full.”

Yep, the entire cost for the now pain-free Elena is zero. Goose egg. Zilch.

Who DOES this kind of thing? Well, Jesus. And a man who’s following his Master. But it’s not just a dentist thing: this root canal miracle is a sweet song of grace that all God’s children hear:

  • Elena weeps, overcome by His awe.
  • Denise rejoices, confident of His faithfulness.
  • Leah gives thanks, grateful for His timing.
  • Amy reflects, sensing His urgency.
  • Charles smiles, aware of God’s providence.

Just a regular Thursday, I guess, in God’s kingdom: average people—God’s people—open to His plan. And intertwined by amazing grace for all eternity.

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The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.

Romans 8:26-28

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The rescue we need

This reminder hangs above my office desk. I’m out the pit, praise God!

There’s just something about an underground rescue. Since June 23, the whole world has felt the suffocating horror of twelve boys and their soccer coach trapped in a claustrophobic cave. We’ve held our breath as real-time news has flooded us with anxious faces, pitch-black conditions, and the sobering reality of what it’d take to get them out.

But now we’ve witnessed thirteen unlikely but miraculous salvations from the pit. Suddenly we rejoice! We thank God for answered prayers, and we smile at new hope. I don’t know about you, but each time a boy was taken alive out of that cave, my knees hit the floor in gratitude. I was overwhelmed.

What is the draw, exactly, to stories like these? Why do we clamor for the latest updates and then find ourselves awake at 2:00 a.m. praying for complete strangers? Then why do we dance like kids at Disney when they’re brought out alive?

It happened in 1987 when Jessica McClure, just a toddler, fell twenty-two feet into a Texas well. For fifty-eight hours an entire country begged God to save a little girl. We watched the news for days, and then, when she came out of that grave into the light, an entire nation wept.

Then those trapped Chilean miners in 2010 made all of our hearts stop. Thirty-three men, surviving 2,300 feet underground, endured months of entombment. But they lived! And when the news came of their long-awaited rescue, we felt rescued, too.

I happen to believe that we all, Jesus followers or not, intrinsically respond to two truths:

  • Darkness is deadly.
  • Rescue is miraculous.

And somewhere, deep inside, we want our own cave rescue.

There are no better examples of pit resurrections than those we see in the Bible. When Joseph was thrown into a deep hole by his brothers, the end story was new life in Egypt (Genesis 37-50). When Jonah was literally swallowed in darkness, he found himself on dry land breathing life into a lost city (Jonah 2-3).

And when Jesus was carried into a sealed-up tomb, well, you probably know the rest. That’s pit resurrection on a whole new level: “O, death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

I, Ava Sturgeon, have my own rescue story. My life was headed nowhere, a dark chasm of guilt and shame. Then Jesus, the Light of the world, shone His love in my direction. I took the lifeline. And my future has never been brighter.

How about you? Are you stuck in a pit of your own? ‘Cause Jesus knows the way out; in fact, He’s the only way.  And if you’re not sure how to find Him, rest assured that He already sees you. Call out His name. Consult His scripture. Or send me a private message, and we’ll chat about sweet rescue. Who knows? Today could be the lifesaving miracle you’ve been waiting for.

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From death to life: What my ailing hibiscus taught me

From a leafless tree to full-on flowers. There’s a lesson here.

My hibiscus plant should have felt, by all accounts, confused. It had once enjoyed Belle of the Ball status. Thick and luscious, it had quickly become the showcase of our front porch. People commented, “What a gorgeous potted tree! How do you take care of it?”

“Just the basics,” I always replied. Because sometimes greatness doesn’t require more than a little water, sunshine, and soil; it simply flourishes. That was my hibiscus last summer. But then something happened.

A few leaves fell, then a dozen more, and pretty soon the Jewel of Front Porch Plants took an ugly turn. Within a month it deteriorated into an eyesore I hardly knew: bare, flowerless, forlorn. The cause? Unknown. The remedy? Unsure. As its caretaker, I faced three possible actions:

One, throw it out. Although my little tree wasn’t quite ready for the landfill, anyone could see that resurrection was unlikely. It was in trouble.  And tossing the entire kit and kaboodle—giving up on it, truthfully—might be easier than tackling the problem.

Two, hide it. Trust me, this pile of sticks in plain view wasn’t helping my reputation. Maybe moving it to the back yard—away from anyone who might witness (and comment on) such a pitiful display—would keep my sad little secret.

Three, ride it out. I once heard this practical wisdom: “When you don’t know what to do, do what you know.” And what I knew about my hibiscus was that it still needed tried-and-true care. So perhaps if I continued the simple things, then my plant would, in time, right itself.

In the end, I chose option three. And that made all the difference.

Weeks passed, and one morning as I walked onto the porch, something red caught my eye. Many something reds, actually. Blooms! Beautiful, lush, hibiscus blooms!

Granted, the tree was still fragile. Green leaves, some clinging to puny twigs, were scarce. And the shape of the plant had changed. But even in this altered state—not despite its ordeal but perhaps because of it—flowers like rubies dripped in abundance.

Big flowers. Healthy flowers. Victorious flowers.

“Look at you, all front porch ready,” I said aloud. “Where did you find the strength?” But inside I knew. God made the hibiscus to flourish. He did the same for us. And for each precious soul we fight for.

So let’s not give up when it’s ugly. Let’s not struggle in secret. Let’s do what we can, trust in God’s timing, and believe in a Savior who restores in spades–and sometimes, when you least expect it, through twelve hibiscus blooms.

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When sisters become friends

Two peas in a pod on Christmas morn, Andrea with Big Sis Ava.

We shared a bedroom—not only the room but the bed as well—for over eighteen years. After all that time of snuggling, confiding, and squabbling, you know a person. And I know Andrea pretty well. She’s my younger sister, the always-been-there one who’s shaped my life as much as anyone.

I wish this next paragraph gushed about my kindness to her. But the truth is that Andrea would do anything for Bossy Big Sis, and I took full advantage. For example, when we played church, I led the music, another kid preached, and Andrea accepted her role which was, by my decree, church custodian. Yes, she cleaned up after us, and no, we did not let her enter the “church” until our service was completed. Here’s the craziest part of this outlandish story: she complied without question.

Other times, thankfully, Protective Ava showed up. When we played wiffle ball, for instance, I’d pray so hard when Andrea batted:  “Lord, help her get a hit!” Just the thought of my baby sister striking out in front of the big kids broke my heart. And because she was shy, my blood boiled when grown-ups asked her something open-ended. I’d swoop in to speak for Andrea on a variety of topics in a variety of places. And you know what? She humbly let me do it.

Decades later, I’m 100% Proud Sis because as far as moms, wives, daughters and aunts go, Andrea is killin’ it! She listens and forgives. She gives thoughtful gifts, offers solid advice, and supports big dreams. She talks me off ledges, reminds me of blessings, and challenges me spiritually. The best part about her is this: she does these things with ease.

So why the Ode to Baby Sis? For one, it’s her birthday, and she’s so stinkin’ far away. 😦  But mostly, I’m encouraging everyone who’s still reading to touch base with her sister-friend-type, the lifeline who may or may not share DNA. After all, a friend like this is the one who knows us best; the one with whom transparency is as automatic as breathing; and the one who’s never stopped being important. Maybe your sister could use a belly laugh down memory lane. Actually, maybe you both could. Happy birthday, Andrea. I love you lots. May today be a whopping home run.

Grown up sisters and best friends with our awesome Mom.

“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

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Believe me, we see you

Dress-up day. One of my students wore a life jacket. I think we all need one.

I used to call them rude; maybe some of them are. But lately—largely in part, I’m sure, because God gave me His eyes and not mine—the perspective is shifting. Now when they ignore those “good mornings” or avoid eye contact or stare blankly at playful banter . . . . the reason may transcend insolence. Or self-centeredness. Or pesky teenage hormones.

In this moment, it’s as clear as day  that my students—someone’s children—all of our futures—shoulder a daily, unimaginable burden of detachment. Rejection. Invisibility.

And it’s costing us greatly.

Please know that this blog is one of personal reflection on my responsibility to care for each human in my path. It’s not, however, a declaration of blame, solutions, or criticisms on school violence. I’m not that smart. Or even that informed. But one thing I do know after decades in the classroom and even longer than that following Jesus’s teachings: In order to help each other, we must first see each other.

Many teachers like me get an eyeful every day:

We may allow students to choose their own groups for activities. One kid nervously scans the room, not knowing which to join. So we jump in, asking the members of Group A to pull up a chair for so-and-so. They do so respectfully enough but then essentially ignore him. I’m not suggesting it’s on purpose. But why is that?

We notice isolated students in hallways and during lunches, perhaps masking the awkwardness via earbuds or cell phones. Hundreds walk past—kids and adults—but no one acknowledges the Lone Wolves’ presence, not even with a hello, because they obviously prefer alone time. But do they?

We read the essays, attend the parent conferences, consult the guidance counselors, observe the abyss. . . . and feel our students’ heaviness. We want to take them home. (But we can’t.) We want to whisper to a nice group of kids, “Invite her along.” (But we don’t dare.) We want to write little notes to the warriors: the kids who show up day after day, even though they feel different, misunderstood, unnoticed. (Maybe we should.)

Big or small, grown or getting there, we all want to belong. To matter. And helping teens find their way is increasingly difficult. But Heavenly wisdom abounds, and every day that I ask Him, God shows me a clear way to connect. Just this week, for instance, after seventeen weeks of smiling and trying in vain to make conversation with a student, I finally got a “hi” and a grin. Joy overflowed with this breakthrough; in fact, I almost hugged her! Maybe next time, God willing, I will.

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As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other . . . just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

Colossians 3:12-14

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When birds and shadows preach

The little country church that warmed my heart on Easter 2018.

This morning, just after sunrise, I found myself in a small country church celebrating Easter. If you had been with me—and especially if you’re a Little House on the Prairie fan—then we’d have smiled with familiarity: unpainted wooden walls and ceilings; clear-paned windows with trees peeking through; and just five pews on each side of the aisle. Intimate, earthy, beautiful.

The songs were nostalgic, too, for this girl raised in a tiny-but-thriving Alabama church. Do you happen to know “Up From the Grave He Arose”? It’s a classic for any self-respecting, old-school Southern Baptist, beginning slowly like a funeral march because of the crucifixion but then catapulting suddenly into a peppy chorus tempo because Jesus got up! Every piano note, every pause, every crescendo was exactly as it should have been. Reverent, sincere, celebratory.

As the sermon got underway—spoken clearly and emphatically by a young pastor just getting his feet wet—a bird began its own early morning worship outside a nearby window. I’m not talking a quick “tweet tweet” before the duties of nest building or worm hunting or whatever birds do on Sundays. No, this feathered friend was bringing it! If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve sworn that all creation was in on the news, that every bird, rock, and ray of sunshine announced Risen Jesus. Alive, victorious, eternal.

It was the shadow, though, that got me. Oh, how I wish you had seen it! (Somehow, snapping a pic during the sermon didn’t seem appropriate or Little House-like. So let me describe it with words.) As the pastor stood near the pulpit and held his Bible with one hand, an early morning sun saturated the wall behind him. On the wall, up high, was a wooden cross. And you guessed it—the cross was covered in light.

Then beneath this cross—just at the foot of it—was the pastor’s shadow, a full-length silhouette. As the shadow’s owner preached truth, the wall image became its own sermon. “Oh, Lord!” my full heart realized. “I too am a rescued shadow who is awed by an empty cross. My existence was once dark and dismal—but You welcomed me into Your warmth. My ego once craved selfish fame—but Your hope became the spotlight. My identity used to be nameless—but now You call me Your own.”

Birds rejoice! Shadows proclaim! And a Savior is lifted high.

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