Focus on Faith

In a Dark Night, God’s Stars Are Still Real 

Long-suffering readers of this column know that I care about and try to focus on the traditional foundational truths of Christianity, but one of my deep beliefs is that truth is truth wherever it is found, and all of it is God’s.

When someone begins to talk about “my truth,” as if truth could be changed for any individual like choosing a differently colored shirt, I want to dissent. Gravity is a law that follows laws, and in this world, we all must deal with its truth—and all that is true—or deal with the consequent bruises.

I’m not conversant with writer Annie Dillard’s beliefs or life or writing, but I will say that she has captured deep truth for all of us in a few well-chosen words that I love: “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

You’ve found that to be profoundly true yourself, have you not? If we were to sit together and talk about our own life experiences and share in a setting of safety and trust, I think we would come away with some stories of star light.

I think we would find that, upon reflection (I choose that word on purpose), most would say that it was a dark time that eventually made it possible for them to see some glimmers of light that they might otherwise not have seen.

I’m not naive, and I do not trust or easily accept “throw down” platitudes. Seeing light when the darkness seems impenetrable is not something that happens quickly or easily. I would never make light of anyone’s suffering. But the truth is that stars do shine, even if we have a hard time seeing them. And we learn things only such precious and costly light can reveal when they shine through.

The people we respect the most are not people who have never walked through times of deep darkness. They are people who have learned the hard way that the stars are there. They are people who can share with us from experience, and often through tears, that the time came for them when in darkness, a light pierced the gloom. Maybe only a barely seen star or two, at first. And even one caught them by surprise. Was their pain suddenly gone? No, but any sparkle of hope in darkness is precious, never forgotten, and a light to steer by. Ask the Wise Men.

The most respected figures in the Bible all will point to that truth. It would be wise to invite them into our group. Bring in the sufferer Job, for sure. There’s a good reason that Bible book is called “wisdom literature.” Bring in the psalm-writers, especially the one who wrote of his God, “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12). I’ve probably taken that out of context, but I believe the truth that our Creator knows how absolutely black darkness can truly be. The psalmist reminds us that our Father is in no way blinded by it, nor are we hidden from him in its murk.

Never was a day darker than that Friday at Calvary, and even God’s Son felt dark despair. But hope won. Love won. And stars did pierce even that blackness. They were always there, and so is their Creator.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

All Creatures Large and Small—and Us 

“The world is a great stage,” exclaimed the venerable St. Francis of Assisi, “on which God displays his many wonders.”

So true! And I’m struck yet again that some of God’s most beautiful wonders are on full display as the seasons change and God gives us a new view of the world we walk through each day. We have it on good authority that no two snowflakes are exactly alike. But the truth both of science and our own eyes, if we really open them, is that we have never stepped out our front door and seen exactly the same scene.

I find that realization itself filled with so much wonder that I can hardly wrap my head around it. I’m in good company. The psalmist, in Psalm 104, boiled over in praise: “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”

Praise is exactly the proper response. Awe is more than called for.

Remember that I said that. Nothing I will write next is meant in any way to gainsay that reality. A “but” here is, I admit, completely out of place.

But . . . just a few lines down in the psalm I just quoted, the writer goes on to describe the “vast” sea, “teeming with creatures beyond number, and he talks about “living things both large and small.”

What I have in mind right now during this particular seasonal change is a small creature, the kind who usually comes with friends, who is not a sea creature but is a small, furry mammal and is well aware of autumn’s falling temperatures. He is not the most amazing of God’s creatures, but you have to say that he is, in his own way, a wonder of creation. A committee of the most accomplished scientists this world has ever seen would be powerless to create even one of his kind.

This little creature has a brain that is hardly the size of a pea, but he is as crafty as he is agile. My mother-in-law, a wonderful and wise farm lady who rarely saw much she couldn’t handle, was known to claim that such a critter could get through any hole larger than a pencil eraser, and she took defensive measures accordingly.

I hereby confess my own difficulties in the same battle. I seem to be incredibly challenged when it comes to vanquishing or destroying such a creature and his kin.

You’ve likely already named my nemesis. The temperatures have dropped, and it’s the season when we discover that the aforementioned pencil-sized or slightly larger holes and small crevices in the house evidently come with what such creatures see as flashing “Vacancy” signs and welcome mats.

For, yes . . . mice.

A better mousetrap? Folks keep trying to build one to catch, squash, cage, incarcerate, poison, and otherwise vanquish these little creations. When you ponder God’s majesty, you really do have to marvel at the immense complexity of even such an annoying mini-mammal.

For the present, I simply report that my wife and I have dispatched a few by various methods. I’ve willingly joined the fight. After almost five decades of marriage, I’m still pondering the wonder that my bride has kept me. But I learned many years ago to make peace with the fact that neither man nor mouse will have any real peace at all if the lady of the house is aware of a rodent intruder—intricate creation of God though it certainly is—who is still breathing.

I don’t offer this week’s column as anything very inspiring. I rarely try to “focus on faith” by focusing much on vermin.

But it’s worth pondering the wonder, albeit with some slightly mixed emotions, that the God who designed everything in creation from sleek stallions galloping across verdant meadows to majestic eagles soaring effortlessly on waves of wind . . . on down to, yeah . . . Well, it’s worth some serious reflection that the Creator of all creatures large and small is our Creator, too. And we’re assured in Scripture that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and, uniquely in our case, created “in his image.”  


Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Thanksgiving: Caught by Surprise 

I seem to be having a hard time catching the calendar’s train this year. I caught myself almost writing the wrong year on a check a few days ago. Then I almost wrote the wrong month. All of that is early January stuff, not errors I expect to be making in November. It could be my age, of course. A clue is that I still occasionally write checks.  

Thanksgiving is upon us, and it has almost caught me by surprise. It’s no surprise, I’m afraid, that as we grow older, the calendar pages seem to flip past a lot more quickly. But I don’t need a calendar to tell me that the days are getting shorter (even before we quit saving daylight), the temperatures are dropping, and the leaves are losing their grip. Why should any of us be surprised?

Ah, but the thing about genuine gratitude is that one of its best features is that it does indeed catch us by surprise.

You step outside onto the porch on a dark evening, and when you breathe in, your lungs thrill to that touch of crispness in the air that seems to have just appeared for another year. Before long, at least where I live, you’ll be smelling the lovely scent of firewood perfuming the invigorating air. I love doing my part in the neighborhood to help with that.  

The leaves are indeed falling, but, before they do, they’re blazing with the kind of glorious color that only the Creator himself can splash across the earth’s canvas.

It’s flat where I live on the high plains of Texas, and I try to gain altitude and find mountains as often as possible, but what this flat land has that no place I have ever seen can match are its brilliant sunrises and sunsets. Not one has ever been exactly the same, but they keep coming, thrilling me and commanding my eyes to gaze and my heart to soar.

For most of us, the Thanksgiving holiday comes with tastes that are faithfully familiar. They’re a big part of the celebration. But even though I know that they’re good and they’re on the way, I’m always a little surprised again at just how truly amazing they are.

Best of all, in my estimation, are the sweet surprises from the people we love. Each of them brings out in us, both as individuals and as the group, something unique. The grandkids are laughing and playing, their imaginations in full flower, and then, at different times, one will stop for a moment, look up into my eyes, and say, “I love you, PawPaw.” And that’s a treasure no one can ever put a price on. I’m rich, and I know it.

The prolific songwriter Johnson Oatman, Jr., urged us long ago, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.” If you know the song, you’ll remember that then he immediately promises, “And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.” Again, surprise!

It’s a great plan always, but I hope we’ll make a particular point during Thanksgiving to keep our eyes open for surprise blessings. None are too small. From warm slippers to a fluffy pillow, from a sweet song well-played and/or sung to a symphony of gratitude that makes music in our souls as we realize how truly blessed we are. The blessing itself may be an unexpected surprise, but another kind of fine surprise comes to me when I realize that I’ve just opened my eyes to really see and be grateful for something or someone I usually take for granted.

I know. For many people, Thanksgiving and other iconic holidays can come with some real pain and the kind of throbbing heartache that’s all the worse because so many other people seem so incredibly happy during the celebrations. Maybe it’s an unusual year with some unusual difficulty when the special day comes, and this year it just has to be lived through. Or maybe the dull holiday sadness has come to be the unwelcome but not unexpected norm. I hope not. But, if so, you may know better than many others that a surprise bit of quiet joy doesn’t have to be spectacularly impressive to be real and warm and appreciated. Such moments savored warm the cold and bring some light even in dark times.

Yes, Thanksgiving is here, and it’s caught me by surprise. But, no surprise, embracing some genuine gratitude always leads to even more blessing.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

United by the Blood of the Lamb 

One of the most unsatisfying (at least, to me) sermons I have ever preached was delivered during one of the highest points of my life. I was preaching at a church in Mbale, Uganda.

If it was a weak sermon, it wasn’t because I hadn’t worked hard in its preparation. I knew it would be an opportunity to preach to brothers and sisters I’d probably never get to share the word with again. It was a blessed and humbling experience. I was a rich, spoiled American, and they did me the honor of listening, though I felt sure that most of those simple, poor people had far more to teach me about life and faith than I could ever teach them.

When the time came, I preached, and they listened. But I was terribly aware of how my words and style, and even my Texas flavor of English, all stood between me and much effectiveness. I was used to preaching to people like me.

Later, I was discussing this with my younger brother who’d had a similar experience. His analysis was that we both in our speaking and preaching like to play on words and dance with English in a way that is harder to translate and effectively communicate than is “plain” teaching with little word play. I think he was right. I felt like I was trudging knee-deep through snow.

Ah, but the most important things happened. We weren’t a particularly large congregation that day, but we were bowing before the same King the Apostle John describes in the Book of Revelation. He pictures the throne room of heaven. A great multitude from every tribe and nation and language, all worshiping the King and “the Lamb who was slain.”

He describes the assembled throng all holding palm branches in their hands and wearing white robes. The palms and white robes were symbols of victory. Both would be involved in celebrating, for example, the victory of a Roman general who’d won battles and subjugated peoples by the power of his army and the iron-strong authority of Rome.  

But in Christianity the tables are always turned upside down. “Your great men and those in authority lord it over those under their authority,” Jesus told his disciples, “but it shall not be so among you.” When God’s Son enters this world, he comes as the Servant of all. He washes feet. He loves the poor and downtrodden. The world bows and scrapes to those who are rich and powerful and proud. But the church knows its greatest treasures are the weak, the poor, the sick, the aged. What this world worships as success, God says is garbage compared to the worth of knowing Christ. In God’s kingdom, everyone who knows him is rich and valued. And the more the church adopts the world’s values of success and size and power, the more it bows before the wisdom of this world, the more it looks like any other business but its product just happens to be religion, the less it looks like the church, and the less it knows of real victory.

Who are these people, this multitude, holding palm branches and wearing white robes? The Apostle John tells us that they are “those have conquered.” And how did they win the victory and come through the great tribulation, the great time of suffering and persecution, victorious over all the power and might and wisdom of the world?

The answer is jarring. They died. They testified to the truth of their faith and their absolute hope in the Lord, by the shedding of their own blood. Their robes have been washed white by the blood of the Lamb who conquered Satan and evil by triumphing on the cross. And now, following their crucified but victorious Lord, these multitudes who followed their Lord in death were truly undefeated by all the powers of evil. The Apostle John says that they are the ones who are victorious.

That sermon and that preacher on that day in Uganda were pretty limited, but I consider the opportunity to bow together with those faith-filled confessors of Christ a fine foretaste of a time when we’ll join an amazing multitude of every “tribe and tongue and language” in the most magnificent worship and praise.

In beautiful ways, that blessing is ours whenever we bow together in any place and are united by “the blood of the Lamb.”

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Court Sense and Life Sense 

The picture is a little fuzzy. It was an action shot and so seriously zoomed in that it’s probably amazing that it’s as clear as it is. But it’s plenty clear enough, and I smile every time I look at it.

My next-to-the-youngest grandchild, a precocious little eight-year-old—and, of course, an amazing little beauty in every way—is in mortal combat with another little girl as they’re sliding around on the floor of a basketball court. The ref will soon blow his whistle and signal the “tie ball,” but Kendall is not planning to let go of that ball until somebody pries it out of her hands. Heart and soul, she’s very much in that game.

It’s fun to see her having fun, and it’s fun to see her playing really competitively. In the photo, her lips are parted, and her teeth are gritted, and her face is formed into the scariest sort of grimace that an eight-year-old sweetie could possibly pull off.

This is the same little girl who, in a game a couple of weeks before, missed a good bit of the action because she was busy consoling one of the “enemy.” She had her arm around a little girl who was sobbing, tears welling up in her eyes, obviously scared stiff and not at all happy to be out on the court. The game was rushing on, but Kendall was busy taking care of that little girl. I loved that. I love her heart, and I love her priorities. Kendall could’ve scored a three-point shot, nothing but net, and her PawPaw wouldn’t have been more proud of her.

Need I tell you that in the more recent game, her heart was still the same? But that opponent’s heart was definitely not being broken, and Kendall meant to come away with the ball.

Good for her! The moment called for some serious competitiveness. It was also—and this is the thing that causes me to chuckle—a good photo op. Oh, she had a death grip on that ball, but guess where her eyes were focused? On her mom—and her mother’s camera. Not only does the little girl have court sense, she recognized that her own personal group of paparazzi deserved some good shots.

But photo op aside, our girl was doing a good job, and getting the job done called for grit and determination. It also called, her PawPaw thinks, for some wisdom. Making that kind of split-second decision does not come with time to write an essay about pros and cons, even though her proud grandfather is indeed writing an essay about it. You either know, on the basketball court and in life, when the time is right to grit your teeth and compete full speed ahead, from the time when mercy and compassion and a hug is the only right response—or you don’t.

I know. More than a few people berate those who choose for kindness. You don’t have time for that if you want to get ahead in this world, they say, and they consider mercy and compassion to be weakness, traits for losers. They are wrong.

Just for fun, I googled “soft hearts and compassion.” Surprise! In one psychological journal article, the writer said that a person with these traits could almost be said to possess a “superpower,” a very real strength. And, of course, it wasn’t in a journal but in his “Sermon on the Mount” that Jesus said that “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5). He went on, you recall, to talk about the beautiful blessing that comes from being “merciful,” the incredible power of being a “peacemaker.” I love the paraphrase in The Message: “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

Wisdom means knowing the times and seasons. If you’re on the basketball court, there’s rarely a time when you should kindly offer the ball to your opponent. And it’s no game but a sad truth in this fallen world that sometimes terrible wars must be fought if we care about justice and refuse to let evil misleaders trample the weak and spread their poison.   

But beware of those who never see a time to help a deserving coworker rise to the top and be genuinely glad for their success, never find a time to say a kind word about a political opponent or try to find ways to work together across walls to wisely compromise (it’s a good and noble word, in this sense) to accomplish at least something together.

A person who can always easily find an excuse to be angry and mean and call it conviction is weak and small and cowardly, a loser even if he “wins.” When we live by “biting and devouring” others, everyone loses (Galatians 5).

I think our little girl is showing some real wisdom. We can learn a good deal from an eight-year-old who shows some court sense and some life sense.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

A Kazoo Player Interrupts the Orchestra 

I wish I knew more about the scene. The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 12, begins with Jesus teaching a crowd, a very large crowd. He teaches like no one else, warning them about hypocritical religious teachers, assuring them that God loves his children completely and knows them down to the very hairs on their heads. When will the Holy Spirit of God ever leave them? Never!

Was it right in the middle of these amazing words that a shriveled little man in the crowd spoke up? “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!”

What? An estate squabble? Front and center, now? I wonder how many people in the crowd are beginning to wonder if this amazing teacher might actually be the Messiah? At the very least, his teaching is spellbinding. It taps directly into deep meaning and truth. And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s true to what is. His words point to reality in a way that almost takes his listeners’ breath away; they want him to keep teaching and never stop.

Oh, they’ve heard charlatans and rabble rousers, easy answer manipulators and slimy hucksters. Nothing new. That ilk could always attract crowds for a while. Maybe they gave out caps; they certainly gave out cotton candy “solutions” with no substance, antifreeze lollipops to crowds of cats with a taste for poison. But in the face of this rabbi’s teaching, the fire-up-the-crowd words of the flash-in-the-pan charlatans shattered like glass hitting granite. A penlight trying to light up the morning sun. A kazoo player trying to steal the show from the London Philharmonic.

So, yes, the people listen, enthralled at the words of Jesus, and this stunted little creature with his cap (okay, I’m kidding), his withered soul, and his boatload of resentment, wails out in a thin and grating tone a report of his brother’s greed.

Has this guy not heard anything? Is nothing but a cold black drizzle of grievance left where his living soul once resided? If the tables are turned… If he gets the “win” he wants, squashes his brother, scrapes up even a few more than his fair share of the family shekels, how happy is a person utterly devoid of wisdom, character, and integrity likely to be?

That last is perhaps at the root of the problem. A person with integrity has “strong moral and ethical principles and values.” Many in our society may laugh at such, but even as we deride foundational values, we still bump up against them and must deal with their reality. Gravity doesn’t go away because one finds it inconvenient. And we’re soon reminded of another important aspect of integrity. It’s also “the state of being whole and undivided.” Most of us know it when we see it. Just as surely, when we feel it, it feels good, reassuring, worthy of trust, like something that will bear weight. We might not immediately say, “That is a person of integrity,” but we feel it.

Yes. And here’s a test. Just pick out a few names at random—historical figures, people you know, political figures or other well-known folks—and fill in the blank. “I believe that ______ is/was a person of integrity.”

When I tried this little experiment, I was surprised. It works better than I’d have expected. My reactions were stronger and easier to catalog than I had expected.

With some names, it almost blinks green, “Yes!” With some other folks, you just don’t have enough information. Inconclusive.

But, with others still, it’s either a resounding “No!” or, just as likely, almost a sad giggle or laughter. It’s as if even a sentence with the word “integrity” in it will convulse until it’s shaken that person’s name from its midst. It’s just wrong for it to be there, and your soul issues a groan at the thought. You may even try to coax the sentence into letting the name stay put, but the other words won’t let it. That’s the right call, and you’re honest, and you know it.

Now, for a moment, why not head back to Luke 12 and give the test a try? Try it with Jesus. I’m serious. The meter rushes to the top. Try it with the aggrieved brother. What happens to the meter then? A stark contrast.

How much of this man’s soul has he already killed himself? What is left? All we know is that Jesus says, basically, “Fellow, why would you think your estate squabble is my business? But far more seriously than you realize, and for your own good, we really do need to talk about greed. Not your brother’s. Yours.”

Then Jesus tells his pointed parable of “The Rich Fool.” It’s well worth reading and pondering. The rich guy has obtained much more stuff than he can store away, and he’s planning some serious expansion. But Jesus asks what will happen to all of that pathetic man’s stuff when, that very night, he dies. Will it really matter then that he’s the richest corpse in the funeral home?

I wonder if the poor mistreated brother listening to Jesus teach got the message. I rather doubt it. I’m afraid his soul was already too shriveled. How else could he have been so oblivious to the words of life from the Word of life?

Integrity matters. It matters forever. We disregard it at great peril.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

The Key Place, Four Brothers, and Rooster Calibration 

I spent most of last week in Robert Lee, Texas, with my three brothers at our maternal grandparents’ old home place. It was a good week. Those weeks always are.

Granddaddy Key built that little house in 1928, so it’s approaching a 100th anniversary. I hereby propose to the guys (two are not all that far off from their own centennial) that we plan ahead and extend one of that year’s stays to a month or, at least, two weeks. Anything less would be disrespectful.

For around forty years, my brothers and I have been meeting there a couple of times each year, once in autumn and once in spring. For more than a few of those years, our father joined us—all five of us, pastors. A very special place.

The guys and I try to make sure that those days, the two Coke County convocations, are scheduled a year in advance. I just label them “Coke County Pastors’ Conference.” I’ve never been to a conference where I learned more about ministry. Or had more help and valuable advice in dealing with this or that ministry conundrum. Or, and this is the big item, had more fun.

I really enjoy spending time with my brothers. If I get energetic, I might write a column or two. I usually read a little. We visit a lot. About anything and everything. A bunch of breeze-shooting about whatever comes to mind.

Coffee. Lots of it. Food. Too much. The menu varies very little. Amazing what you can do with a kettle grill (or two, if the ribeyes are large). Hot dogs at noon. Steaks (and occasionally, pork ribs) in the evening. A nice fire in the firepit and more coffee until, well, as late as we wish.

That’s the thing, I guess. We don’t have much of a schedule at Robert Lee. Almost all of the time is “down” time, and that’s good time.

We really do occasionally talk about some serious stuff while we’re there. I offer the following as proof.

My two-years-younger brother Jim and I had headed down to the Austin Street Coffee Company to sit, visit, and drink coffee, which we did. Then we drove back down to the house, perched in old rocking chairs on the porch, and resumed sitting, visiting, and drinking coffee. At least one of us was offering cigar incense. And then we heard…

We heard a rooster crowing rather late in the morning. We went on visiting a while. More crowing. Same rooster? Different rooster? We didn’t know. But it was soon after the roosticular crooning that we began working on an ad that we might pitch to an appropriate company. See what you think.

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Well, I will admit that we’ve had more productive moments than the one on the porch that morning at the old Key Place. And I’ve written much better columns than this one.

But time with my bros at that special place is always a great gift from my Father. I thought that today I’d crow about it a little.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

A Very Old Picture of a Very Old House 

I’m looking at a picture of an old house. A very old picture. A very old house.

It’s the house my mother, Wilma Jean Key, was born in on August 15, 1915. I assume the picture of the house was probably taken a year or two later because another picture, just beside it in the album, is of my Grandmother Key holding my mother in her arms, and Mom is (maybe) a little less than two years old. The photo album was created by Grandmother; my oldest brother just found it, scanned the pages, and shared them with our family.

Another old house and windmill, not much left of them now, and not far from the little place I just mentioned, were both near what was the Edith community, seven miles or so west of Robert Lee, Texas. Grandmother and Granddaddy Key lived all of their lives in Robert Lee. Paint Creek Cemetery, also in what is left of Edith, was within sight of the house with the windmill. That house was the homestead of Alf Key, my Granddaddy Key’s father. For a long time, you could see the crumbling remains of that old house and windmill from both the highway and the cemetery. You didn’t even have climb over the barbed wire fence. Years ago, another of my older brothers did scale the fence and ambled over to the still-standing house. He looked through a window and saw movement—more rattlesnakes than he’d ever seen in one place. That sight was enough to quench his thirst for any more exploration.

Alf Key, who was born during the week in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, donated a chunk of the land for the Paint Creek Cemetery. Alf (along with, I believe, another donor or two) just asked that his family always have plots available there for free. So, I have lots of relatives buried there—Alf and his wife, my maternal grandparents, my sister, uncles, aunts, and many more. I like that cemetery. I’ve never seen more beautiful bluebonnets anywhere than the ones that, on a good year, blanket the earthly remains of its residents who are there—but not really there.

Birthplace. Earthly resting place. All within walking distance. I rather like that.

Grandmother and Granddaddy were married just after Christmas 1911. He would ranch and truck cattle and sheep for all of his life. For years, he had the only cattle truck in Coke County, and he made many a trip to Fort Worth.

Scanned also from the old album are pictures of my grandparents and their young family.  Granddaddy looks like a strong, young cowboy as he holds my mom. Grandmother looks so young and pretty. Both look like they’re no strangers to the strength and character it takes to make a good life. No coddlin’ required.

In 1928 (I think), Granddaddy built the old house I know as the Key Place in Robert Lee. My brothers and I have been meeting there twice a year for around forty years. Dad was with us for a number of those good times. I plan to head that way again next week. I doubt I can do much to improve my three brothers, but it’s worth another try.

I was playfully swatting one of my own grandsons last week at our house, and I told him about how Granddaddy Key would sit, straddling a chair backwards, near an old radio and doorway in the old Key house. He generally held a flyswatter, and the tail section of any grandkid passing through was fair game.

Not that long ago, I was surprised to see Granddaddy looking back at me from a mirror. Not that long ago, I sat on a rocking lawn chair out under a tree as I was watching grandkids laugh and play, and I realized why Granddaddy enjoyed doing pretty much the very same thing.

Right now, I find myself looking at the photo of the first old house I mentioned, Mom’s birthplace. Of course, it’s a black and white photo, which makes it seem even more stark. Were the photo in color, maybe there’d be some little green attempts at prairie grass around the house, but mostly I see dirt. The ground looks hard and dry, and color would seem an extravagance, wasted pigment.

The house is really small. One room? I wish I could see the inside. The exterior walls seem to be of some sort of ancient board and batten construction (long vertical boards butting together with thin boards covering the joints). No paint. The roof appears to be covered with wooden shake shingles. One vent or smoke pipe. Virtually no eaves or porch at all. A very disjointed stone foundation. The sun must be setting. The shadow of a scraggly old leafless mesquite tree falls, as if exhausted, across the front of the house.

Not much to look at, this photo. But much to ponder. And much for which to be thankful as I realize that strong men and women of faith in the eternal living God once lived there. Their bones lie not far away. And their souls are safe with the Father of us all. How many blinks of an eye before I join them? God knows, so I don’t need to. But all will be well.

That old house was never the home of a rich family, but what the residents left their descendants is a precious legacy of faith and hope and love. And that is still very much alive.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“More Than All We Ask or Imagine” 

We’d not often put it this way, but I’m afraid that most of us live way too much of our lives afraid.

When you boil down what bothers us—reduce it to its essence—at the bottom is almost aways fear. Analyze it even further, and at the root of most of our fear is this: we’re afraid that we won’t have enough. And then what will become of us?

In John 6, Jesus and his disciples have just sailed across the Sea of Galilee and landed, probably, near Bethsaida. What they’re looking for is, in part, just a little peace.

Life has been a blur. Jesus had sent the disciples out to teach and heal. They’d returned incredibly excited and with great reports. But you know what often follows exhilaration: exhaustion.

In the background is deep grief. John the Baptist has just been beheaded by Herod. Dealing with grief takes time and energy. They have neither.

People, crowds of them, have been pressing Jesus and the disciples so constantly that there has hardly been time for the Lord and his companions even to stop and eat. So, when Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31), the disciples are more than willing.

I’d have suggested some time high in the mountains, preferably up where mobile phone service was bad to nonexistent and thus just right for rest. What they do is get into a boat, cross the lake, and land at what St. John calls “a solitary place.” Thank God for such places!

But it wasn’t solitary for long. The needy crowd found them and began to crowd in. Crowd out peace. Crowd out quiet. Crowd out respite and rest.

Jesus had walked up the hillside and sat down with his disciples as, in the distance, he sees a slow-moving tsunami of people, a lava flow of need, moving toward them. Physical healing. Spiritual healing. Soul healing. All sorts of need.

John remembers Jesus looking at Philip and asking, “Where are we going to get bread for these people to eat?” (Did any of the disciples think about the need for porta-potties? That’s not mentioned.)

But I wonder. Did John also remember a twinkle in the Lord’s eye? He (John) writes that Jesus “asked this only to test him [Philip]; he already knew what he was going to do.” Philip, though, didn’t know, and the culinary accounting he was doing in his head had him worried.

“Lord, we don’t have enough money to buy bread for these people to eat. Slice it any way you want, and there still won’t be enough bread. Not even close. Not enough.”

More than you may at first realize, you understand, don’t you? Marriage. Family. Work. Health. Wonderful at times. Terrifying at times. So much being juggled at all times.

And we, more often than we care to admit, afraid. Afraid that there won’t be enough… Time. Wisdom. Money. Mercy. Strength. Health. Grace. Love.

Jesus teaches on the hillside near the sea. Andrew, maybe smiling, says, “Well, here’s a wee lad with five little barley loaves and two small fish. How far can they go among so many?”

And you know what happened. The Lord miraculously multiplies that little gift. All of the people eat, and twelve basketfuls are left over. Much, much more than enough.

Philip would never forget. Tradition has it that he would later preach powerfully in Greece, Phrygia, and Syria. And he would die a martyr’s death. It was not an easy life. But it was filled with purpose and blessing in the midst of joys and sorrows. And he knew, beyond doubt, that he truly had nothing to fear. In Christ, he’d always found enough. More than enough.

Philip remembered the loaves and the fishes. And, maybe, Christ’s smile.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” John writes. And Christ’s love is perfect, complete, all we need.

It may not be a story of loaves and fishes you will one day remember and tell. But everyone who loves and trusts Him will one day have stories to tell about times when in the midst of perplexity and trouble, deeply afraid and in serious need, we eventually found our Lord to be… more than enough.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Some Thoughts About Martyrs and Martyrdom 

According to, “martyr” most commonly refers to “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion.”

I recently read an article which asserts that as many as 160,000 Christians each year give up their lives because of their allegiance to Christ. Dan Wooding, journalist and co-host of the “Window on the World” radio show went on to write that “according to current rates, one in every 200 Christians can expect to be martyred.”

I have no way to verify either number, but I suspect the 160,000 figure is high. Trying to arrive at an even moderately accurate estimate is notoriously difficult. The “Center for the Study of Global Christianity” of Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary once put the estimate at 100,000 Christian martyrs per year, but then walked back their estimate.

Some other less specific estimates I’ve seen indicate that the number of Christian martyrs each year is certainly in the thousands and likely in the tens of thousands. Such numbers, sadly, seem to me to have the ring of truth—a truth well worth much pondering and prayer.

Todd Nettleton of “Voice of the Martyrs” tells the story of a Tajikistan pastor named Sergei Bessarab who, in 2004, was shot to death as he was playing his guitar and leading worship in a small city named Isfara where he and his wife had planted a church.

Bessarab had been in prison for criminal activities (real ones) and was finally led to Christ by another prisoner (also named Sergei). Bessarab resisted for a long time, but he eventually became a man of deep faith, led many in the prison to Christ, and, after his release, was often back at the prison ministering to the inmates there.

As the number of Bessarab’s converts grew, the local newspaper sounded the alarm which would lead to the son of the leader of a local mosque firing thirteen bullets into Bessarab on that sad night. But the prison ministry went on and grew. Bessarab’s friend, Sergei, predicted that the time would come when Christians would meet the man who killed Pastor Bessarab and tell him about Christ.

The murderer was convicted and sent to prison. His cellmate was a Christian who had been discipled by Bessarab. And, yes, Sergei Bessarab’s killer did give his life to Christ, accepting the hardship and danger such a decision meant for him. One day, Nettleton writes, these two men who many would have written off as “lost causes” will stand side by side as brothers joyfully worshiping their Lord.

An amazing story, but such stories abound, from the first Christian martyr, Stephen, to the believer put to death across the world from us five minutes ago. We know so few of their names, but Christ knows them all. They are still, as the Apostle John would write in Revelation, “those who are victorious.”

Strictly speaking, a “martyr” is one who dies, whose blood is shed, for Christ. How many more faithful Christian “witnesses” (the word comes from the Greek “witness) are not executed but have faced and are facing serious suffering and persecution for living out their faith in Christ? Those, too, we should pray for and honor.

Of course, the word has come to also be used in a much more “popular” and colloquial sense. More than a few folks who want our vote or our allegiance regarding any number of political, ideological, or other issuesrational or not, true or not—can be said, in common parlance, to “play the martyr.” It’s a use of the word that is as slimy as the former use is noble.

Think about it. Have you ever seen anyone who looked good trying to “play the martyr” and dress up as a self-professed victim? I’ve tried (I really have!) to think of someone I would esteem as a person of character and maturity, a person worthy of respect, who has appropriated that term personally or who has been willing to accept it from his/her followers. I can think of no one.

But then comes a harder question as this gets personal, and I look inward. Making victimhood a full-time job and an integral part of one’s character, or lack thereof, is weak, wrong, and vile. How many times, though, if I’m honest, have I fallen to the temptation to “temporarily” play the martyr or see myself as a victim and thus feed for a while a dark part of my soul? That’s a dangerous game because personally playing the martyr can’t be done without being seriously self-centered.

Isn’t it striking that the real thing is exactly the opposite? One who is martyred for his or her faith in Christ is not thinking about self at all, just praying that the Lord will be glorified and Christ’s kingdom enlarged. Blood freely given by a true martyr is considered by them as no sacrifice at all compared to Christ’s blood. We honor Christ and we honor them, in all ages, for their utterly selfless victory in their Lord.

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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