When the enemy barks

journal-picFriday, January 13, 2017

The enemy—I don’t like saying his name, but to be clear, I’m referring to Satan—sure thinks a lot of himself. Sure, he’s tricky, and yes, he’s a havoc-maker, but he’s not the big dog.  Not even close.

While reading John 13 just now, I noticed that when Jesus talks about the upcoming crucifixion, He’s still calling the shots. There’s no hint of Christ as a victim, a helpless saint tossed around by Satan like a chew toy. Not only is my Lord well aware of the evil coming, but He also ultimately annihilates it.

Case in point: When Jesus hands a piece of bread to Judas as confirmation of the betrayer (verses 11-27), the Lord knows  full well what’s ahead. He looks at Judas and says, “What you must do, do quickly.” Is this the statement of a clueless someone in the dark? Of my Christ at the mercy of a formidable enemy? Praise the Lord, no!

It’s not until that moment—a moment Jesus clearly orchestrates—that Satan enters Judas and begins the road to Gethsemane. It’s God’s call, not Satan’s. So you see, nothing that evil dreams up can ever (EVER) trump the foresight, will, or triumph of our Lord.

Whew! I needed this truth today. As a Jesus follower who sometimes feels “beat up, chewed up, and spit out” in a world gone crazy, here is my steady hope: I’m not threatened by that old dog of an enemy; I’m a confident conqueror in Christ.   ~Ava Sturgeon

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Straight from my journal, without much fuss (or much editing).  God’s sweet truth often reveals itself with my Bible open, pen in hand. And more and more frequently, I’m prompted to share and encourage, even though the thought of putting myself “out there” without carefully crafting a piece is uncomfortable. But isn’t that what growth in Christ is all about? And doesn’t hope shine through no matter how eloquently it’s stated? All signs point to “yes.”

Holiness among us

christmas-ornamentBefore Bethlehem, shepherds, and wise men with gifts, there was Jesus. He’s simply always been, residing with the Father in a glorious place. And while He might have stayed there forever, He didn’t. Instead, for thirty-three years, our Lord left His home for an earthly journey; He faced rejection and death. So why would God’s Son choose to do such a thing? The answer astounds me, even now: To save a dying world.

He appeared on that very first Christmas night looking a lot like us—two eyes, ten fingers, ten toes. But Jesus was more than an ordinary baby; He was also extraordinary God. Can you imagine such holiness among us? Can you fathom the King’s humble birth? But there He was, the Lord of Lords, sleeping in a manger, growing up a carpenter, sitting with sinners, and dying on a cross. Why would God’s Son endure all that suffering? In a word, love.

But here are some tidings of joy: His loving sacrifice triumphed! The Christ Child who died as a Suffering Servant is now our Risen Lord. He resides once more with the Father in Heaven where angels bless His name. Can you almost feel their awe? Can you almost hear their praise? “Glory to God in the Highest!” they shout in multitudes of worship.

And we worship Jesus, too. Just as Mary held tight to her Miracle. Just as shepherds ran to their Messiah. Just as wise men brought gifts for the Master. Today, tomorrow, and forevermore, we adore Him, Christ the Lord.

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At the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

In Heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

To the glory of the Father.

~Philippians 2:10-11 (New Living Translation)

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A little bit of glory

A little bit of God's glory in my own backyard, 2013.

An impressive display of God’s glory in my own backyard, 2013.

Isn’t it just like God to announce His presence when we least expect it? To demonstrate His clear power on an ordinary Thursday? Or in the midst of what’s dreary and downright depressing? In my humble opinion, it’s one of His sweetest attributes. And it happened to me this morning.

You see, life lately has been a tad gloomy. And like many reading this blog, more questions abound than answers. But as I heard long ago, when we’re not sure what to do, we must do what we know. And what I know is that God’s Word is life.

So around 6:00 I opened my Bible. Next up in my “Read It in a Year” plan? Chapters 42-43 of Ezekiel. Silent sighs. Ezekiel’s vision of a man measuring the future Temple continued, and I’m admittedly uninspired by numbers. Regardless of today’s content, though, I readied myself for more Temple stats.

Then it hit. From seemingly nowhere, in the middle of architectural minutiae like “the area was 875 feet on each side with a wall around it,” the Glory hit. Glory with a capital G, and besides an undeniable encounter in my own living room (more on that shortly), Ezekiel saw it, too: “Suddenly, the glory of the God of Israel appeared from the east. The sound of His coming was like the roar of rushing waters, and the whole landscape shone with His glory….I fell face down on the ground” (43:2-3).

That “face to the ground” posture is familiar. It’s how believers respond when the Glory comes. The reverence, the worship, the sheer gratefulness that a Sovereign God sees us—simply overwhelming. Is He always there? Yes. Is He always working on our behalf? Yes again. But sometimes, in the middle of our dry-and-despondent days, we need extra-special, Spirit-filled reassurance. And He’s all too willing to shine.

Ezekiel got glimpses of Glory. I did, too. Today, as the words of this Old Testament encounter sank in, another thought suddenly emerged. My eyes blurred with tears. Now, think what you will, but this internal dialogue happened next:

God: “Do you trust Me?”

Me: “Yes, Lord.”

God: “Have I ever let you down?”

Me. “No, Lord. You’ve always seen me through.”

God: “Will you stop trusting me now?”

Me: “Why would I, Lord? Your plan is perfect. You’re all I have.”

God: “Then focus solely on Me.”

And just like that, I was back. Well, face down in worship, but I was back. Still full of questions, still facing day-to-day stuff, but different: Serene. Steady. Strong.

I picked up my Bible to finish today’s reading. Little known fact: did you realize that gutters around the future Temple altar will be 21 inches deep and 21 inches wide? (Ezekiel 43:13). 🙂 Better yet, do you realize that God’s glory is available to all? That He’ll show Himself to you? Even in the drab—especially in the darkness—His radiance permeates all.

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For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

(2 Corinthians 4:6-9)

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The insecure ship of shallow

olivia 2When the words of A Daughter’s Worth poured out of me, the purpose felt loud and clear. Girls were seeking value in boys, popularity, body image. They were struggling to matter. They were drowning in the fight. And I knew the answer to their angst was a loving Heavenly Father.

Strange thing is, as the book took off, God revealed what I probably already suspected; those teen insecurities can linger. Twenty-somethings who taught the study began emailing about their own Christ-worth being challenged. It happened to me as well. As I discussed A Daughter’s Worth with hundreds of teens, my own issues bubbled up. And I was forty-something.

No matter the age, two scriptures can soothe wounded self-esteem: One says that God heals the heart (Psalm 34:18). Another, that we are special to Him (2 Corinthians 6:18). These verses reassure my own worth; they should. But in light of these assurances, there’s a responsibility to go deeper: If we believe God, then why would we stay in insecure waters? Why wouldn’t we leave the me-focused shore to dive, strong and steady, into Christ-centered purpose?

Granted, most new believers wade through a “who am I now?” adjustment. It’s a necessary journey, trying to comprehend that despite a life of swimming in sin, we’ve now been washed clean. We are gloriously, miraculously His. We are forever changed—for the better.

But when we long-time followers truly transform, then insecurities diminish.  We find confidence and contentment in who God says we are. We find purpose and passion in God’s empowerment of regular, imperfect us. Granted, we may not be the prettiest, smartest, or wittiest in the room. But that’s fine. It’s not an issue. Because when we go deep, He’s all we need.

Just yesterday I journaled this thought: “I’ve belonged to God for decades. It’s time to trade shallow, self-absorbed faith for the holy esteem of King Jesus. All eyes on Him ‘cause I’m sick of looking at me.”

Want to stop swimming in circles of self? Me too. Here’s my prayer: “Lord, I need a mature faith. I want the adult swim. So it’s time to look squarely on you, the Savior beckoning me to deeper waters. Please show me how to get there. Please give me wisdom, endurance, power, purpose. Give me more of you. And don’t let me return to shore, Lord. ‘Cause that ship of shallow has sailed.”

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This post is a revision of 2015’s “An eye for deeper waters.” ~Ava Sturgeon

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What God can do (when I can’t)

rabbit-1372928413BYnOnce again, I awoke at 3:30 a.m. with a heavy heart. The room was dark and still, but my mind was racing: current events ending tragically, personal issues seeming complicated. It was too much for a tired, typically optimistic Jesus girl.

As I lay there feeling the weight of several burdens, a prayer—almost a reflex-like response to sadness—escaped my lips. It was simple but desperate: “Lord, help me. I don’t know what to do. But you can fix this. Show me how, God. Please show me.”

Such a downtrodden demeanor is new for me. My usual “propensity for sunshine,” as a friend calls it, has dimmed of late, but even within this temporary state of gloom, God is giving it purpose. One, I’m clinging to the Savior more frequently, more intimately. Two, He is lavishing me with tender, sweet confirmation of His love and presence.

Like this morning, for example. I headed out for what looked like a rainy walk but didn’t get far before hearing in my head, “Go back and get your phone.” The wording, urgency, and peculiarity of this thought (I never take my phone when exercising) meant only one thing: the still, small voice of God was nudging, and a spiritual encounter was coming. Needless to say, I obeyed.

Five minutes later, phone in hand, this happened—dark storm clouds I’d noticed earlier had been outshone with golden, glorious sky art covering the horizon. It simply had to be photographed. As I took the picture with my phone, another thought—as if Someone were speaking directly to my weary soul—settled in: “Guess what I can do that you can’t? Form clouds.” No doubt about it; God and I were on quite the chatty walk, and boy, was I listening.

clouds

Rounding the corner, the cloud thing still resonating, a group of trees caught my eye. The undergrowth was thick and daunting, but a big ball of sunlight was breaking through the darkness. What a photo that’d make! No sooner had I captured the image than it seemed as if Someone were talking to me, although all was quiet: “Know what I can do that you can’t? Tell the sun to rise.” I was beginning to get the picture.

sunrise

There’s not room here to recount all the photos or conversations God brought to me on that walk, but just know that a tiny bunny and annoying crow were involved. 🙂 And a gentle breeze that calmed my anxious spirit—“And when they climbed into the boat with Jesus, the wind died down” (Matthew 14:32).

At some point during what reminded me of a holy ground moment, I hummed the old hymn “How Great Thou Art.” No idea where that came from; it’s not a song I hear often. But soon my burdens lifted. My perspective shifted. And I’m reminded that while I can’t do the hard things, He can. While I don’t have a plan, He does. And when questions linger, it’s okay: The Sovereign One with answers walks with me.

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Murphy’s law of hope

My great-grandparents on their wedding day, June 7, 1903.

My great-grandparents on their wedding day, June 7, 1903.

Yesterday a man named Lewis got into my head; he’s still there. I knew his wife Mattie pretty well, actually, but I never met Lewis. Turns out, that’s a crying shame. After hearing about him from my dad, it’s clear that I missed out on a hardworking, Jesus loving role model. Lewis died far too young, in 1943. He was my great-grandfather.

As Dad relayed story after story, I pictured the faces of rural Alabama poverty and considered relatives I’d not given much thought; suddenly, though, Lewis and Mattie intrigued me. As I listened, it seemed that if anything could go wrong for them, it did. But these were salt-of-the-earth, faith-filled survivors. And I’m realizing that in many ways, they made me.

Lewis had a wife, a farm, and a house full of children. He loved his God. He honored his family. And the farm, even though a Great Depression was looming, hung in there. But then a child got sick, really sick. His name was Fountain, and by the time they got him to a hospital, the appendix had already burst. Prayers and doctors saved the boy. In light of medical costs, however, saving the farm was less promising.

A short time later, as Fountain was healing, his sister Navalou became ill. Recognizing the symptoms, Lewis and Mattie sought medical care before the appendix burst. But surgery was needed, and by then the financial writing was on a debt-filled wall: Lewis must sell the farm.

So he did, and with Mattie and a bunch of children, they left their land, their home, their security. After being offered a rundown, two-room structure, the family moved in and made do. Blankets were laid on the floor for sleeping and then taken up each morning. Rats were frequent visitors.

In this uncomfortable and scary place, Mattie sometimes cried. (Who wouldn’t?) Worry was a dark cloud as finances and food supplies dwindled. Even her faith sometimes wavered. Lewis stood strong, though, riding the waves for both of them: “The Lord’s still on the throne,” he’d say when Mattie was anxious. “We’ll make it.”

And they did. Lewis and Mattie got through that storm and eventually found cozier quarters. Their marriage was solid, and Fountain and Navalou rebounded. More children were born. And all these children—more than ten fingers could count when Baby Phil arrived—were hard working, Jesus loving folks.

But storms have a way of circling back. And when it rains, it pours. In 1935, another illness blew in and took a daughter, Hallie Glyn, when she was thirteen. They buried her in the same cemetery where two stillborn sons lay. Eight years later, Lewis joined them.

Now, in 2016, these real-life, heartbreaking struggles have me reeling: How does a marriage survive such repeated loss? Is my heart prepared for hard winds? When times get tough, what message will I send my own family?

I’m listening, Lord. And You’re teaching me through a man whose faith tread above murky waters. I love that he loved You. And I love that when troubles mounted, he chose hope over circumstance: “The Lord’s still on the throne. We’ll make it.”

Thank you, Great-Granddaddy Murphy. Your lessons still hold water. Your testimony still resonates. And those buckets of blessings live on.

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We put our hope in the LORD; He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name. Psalm 33:20-21

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The one thing I’d say

I snapped this photo of college student Elena spending time alone with her Lord.

I snapped this photo of college student Elena spending time alone with her Lord.

“What’s one piece of advice you’d give Christian girls in their teens or young twenties?” Tough question, even for someone like me who’s spent decades sharing Bible wisdom. And honestly, deciding how to answer the email proved tough; after all, scripture is filled with life-changing truth for Jesus-following girlies. So which one spiritual nugget did I choose to say?

First, two likely contenders that didn’t make the cut:

I almost said this one thing: Believe it when God says you’re valuable, a treasure. You are beautifully clean and worthy, thanks to Him, so ignore the world’s lies and cling to God’s acceptance.

But I needed to add some caution: Yes, we Jesus girls are worthy because of His sacrifice. But we could unintentionally make this truth more about us than Him. If we spend too much time pursuing validation that’s already been given, then we become distracted, self-serving. The question of our value is settled; we’re just fine, thanks to Christ. So let’s keep the focus where it belongs, on the One who made us worthy.

Then I almost said this thing: Everything will work out as it’s supposed to; ask God for direction, and He’ll come through.

But I felt the need to clarify: Yes, God has a good plan and will guide us in realizing it; but it’s His good plan. So what does He desire? According to scripture, God wants us to know Him intimately and to give Him glory. He wants us to love Him and others. And He promises strength, joy, and contentment, even when life gets hard. So when we pray for direction, here’s what happens: He comes through by placing us where these good things will flourish—even when that place looks different than we imagined.

I finally did say this one thing: With all that’s in you, embrace your own faith, a growing, authentic relationship with Jesus that’s steady and strong and satisfying.

Here’s why I chose to say it: At some point—hopefully now—you realize that observing the faith of your pastor or parents is not enough to sustain you. You see, there’s a difference between an obedient spectator going through the motions and an imperfect but sincere Jesus girl connected to her Lord. I wish I could tell you face-to-face how much He wants to awe you with His presence, blessings, and purpose. The secret? It’s really no secret at all: get your own authentic faith.

Maybe you aren’t sure how to connect personally to a Holy God. Start by asking Him to show you. Sounds simplistic, but it’s a prayer He’s sure to answer. Then get alone with God. Grab a Bible. Talk to Him in your own voice, as with as friend, about anything. Join a Bible study (or start one yourself) with those who want a living, breathing faith; then pray for scripture to come alive.

Christ offers to be a real, intimate presence in your life, the One who truly matters. Everything hinges on this promise; I’m praying you take Him up on it.

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Biblical references for this blog: Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 22:36-39, Romans 8:26-28, Galatians 5:22-25, Philippians 1:9-11, James 1:5-6, and 1 John 4:15-19.

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