Focus on Faith

Who Put Jesus on the Cross? 

Who put Jesus on the cross?

That’s a question one of my favorite Bible professors liked to ask when he wanted to make his students’ brains bleed. And it’s a question with a hook in it.

So, what do you think?

If you answered, the religious authorities who were in power, you’d be right. The most overtly religious folks of Jesus’ day. Folks who fancied themselves the most “spiritual” of all people killed the Son of God.

Now, by the way, if you think I’m leaning toward any kind of anti-Semitism here, forget it. No. Not only would that be stupid and vile, it would let the rest of us off the hook far too easily. I would argue that, whatever cultural or ethnic setting Christ had been born into, the most “religious” folks in that setting would have killed him.

Want a good crucifixion today? Find folks more religious about their religion than about genuinely loving God, and you’ll find folks leading the charge to crucify people in their midst who truly know their Creator. People who like to fancy themselves as the most spiritual of the spiritual, the most religious of the religious, are dangerous and always first to show up at the site of any crucifixion. (This is even true, ironically, of folks who are incredibly religious about their religion of irreligion.) 

Who put Jesus on the cross? If you answered, powerful and prideful religious authorities, you’d be right. But who else?

If you answered, the governmental authorities—in this case, the Romans—you’d be right. Pilate put Jesus on the cross because he was a threat to Pilate’s position. “If you allow this man to live, you’re no friend of Rome!” That pretty much did it.

And the Romans’ puppet, King Herod? Spineless, he was quite willing to help with the deadly charade. Trying to kill Jesus, his father had killed the boy babies of Bethlehem years before. Now Herod Antipas is complicit in the murder of our Lord. Kings don’t care for rival kings, no matter what kind of kingdom they come to bring. So, the governmental authorities put Jesus on the cross, too. Yes, but who else?

Well, Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies. For whatever motive—we could talk about several possibilities—Judas certainly had a very guilty hand in putting Jesus on the cross. Yes, but who else?

Satan, someone shouts. Satan put Jesus on the cross. Well, yes. Satan wanted Jesus to go to the cross because he wanted to see God’s Son—the gentlest, strongest, and best Son, the Son unbelievably dear to the Father—tortured and killed and God’s plan thwarted. Satan wanted to see mankind spit in the face of the Creator and dash to pieces the best Gift ever given. So, yes, Satan put Jesus on the cross. But who else?

It’s bit of a jarring shift of gears here, but we have to say, Jesus himself. Yes, Jesus, in an amazing sense, put himself on the cross. He didn’t want to go and die, but he wanted to obey, and that meant that he did go. And he did die. When he stood before those who held the power of life or death, he refused to defend himself. Witnesses lied, and he said nothing. The Scriptures remind us, “Like a lamb before its shearers, he was silent.” We’re told that he could have called 10,000 angels to rescue him and to destroy the world, but he chose not to. He let Roman soldiers put nails through his hands and feet. He let them. So, you have to say that Jesus had a very significant part in putting Jesus on the cross. But who else?

Remember Christ’s prayer in the Garden? “Not my will, but Thine be done.” He didn’t want to go to the cross, but he wanted above all else to obey the will of his Father. Yes, you have to say that God the Father, who sent his Son into this world, and whose love for his Son knew no bounds, put Jesus on the cross.

And so we’ve come full circle. It was God who spoke the Incarnation and sent his Son, the Word become flesh, into this world. It was God the Father who watched as humans nailed his sinless Son to a tree.

But why? Because in the list of those who put Jesus on the cross, a list that includes those with the worst motives—religious authorities, governmental authorities, Judas, and Satan—and those with the very best motives—Jesus himself and God the Father—we’ve forgotten some folks who also put Jesus on the cross.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? And you know I’d rather not. But…

Add your name. Add mine. Your sins—and mine—put Jesus on the cross.

That’s bad news. But Christians believe it is a truth that sets the stage for the best news of all.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

Goodbye to a Dear Friend 

Sad and glad. At this moment, I am both.

This afternoon I completed the editing and page creation for the final issue of The Christian Appeal devotion magazine. I’ve served as the managing editor for the little monthly magazine for almost forty years (forty as of September 2023). A very little math is the only kind of math I ever do, but I’m pretty sure that, when I sent the files to the printer today for the June issue, it was Issue #472 for me.

That’s quite a run, though it’s less than the sixty years this issue marked for Senior Editor Gene Shelburne, one of my older brothers. Gene took over as editor of the magazine in 1963 and molded it into its present form. Of course, it has changed a bit during the years, but its primary focus as a Christian devotional magazine has always been to honor Christ, point to him, and encourage the faith of its readers.

The magazine has always been a part of my life, in one way or another. (I was six years old in 1963.) But, to fast forward, in the fall of 1983, Gene called me one day to ask if I’d consider joining him in the effort and becoming managing editor—conceiving the issue themes, assigning and editing articles, writing articles, and laying out the pages. He’d teach me, continue to write many essays and articles, and oversee fund-raising and circulation (two aspects I’ve always avoided like the plague, but he’s good at.) I said, yes.

So, for all of these almost forty years, my brother and I have worked together in this ministry. We both agree that working together has been an incredible partnership and blessing. I’ve enjoyed my part, and he has enjoyed his.

I feel very good about our mission and our content. Of course, some of those older issues look, well, old. They are. And so are we. Not all deal with issues in the way we would today. But, on the whole, I think it’s a very creditable and high-quality body of work. I could write a great deal about some of the utterly amazing writers. (All the issues will remain available at

Aside from feeling very good about our content, I like writing and editing. I’ve grown (at least, a little) from the wet-behind-the-ears editor I was when Gene brought me on. And I’ve always enjoyed building pages. As I punched SEND this afternoon to fire the files to our utterly trustworthy printer in Amarillo, I remembered the old days when I sent the paper “dummy” layouts to the printer via the U.S. mail. I remember marking all the copy (traditional proofreading marks) and working through the galley proofs. I remember cutting and pasting and the smell of rubber cement. The whole process took almost forever. And then came computer page-making. What a game-changer! I loved it, and still do.

A bit of a side note here. I dare anyone to publish a magazine with as few errors as we’ve let slip through over the years. Gene and I are both pastors (and our churches deserve a huge amount of credit for allowing us to make this ministry part of theirs), but we are also English majors, and, though proofreading is just plain hard work, we’ve done it, going over each issue scrupulously. We both take typos and such dull stuff as subject-verb agreement very personally. And I can put you to sleep talking about leading and kerning and discussing the merits of various typefaces, not to mention discussing programs like QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, etc.

For many reasons, when we realized that the June issue this year would mark sixty years for Gene, it seemed like a good time to lovingly put the magazine to bed.

I found myself procrastinating even more than usual as I worked on the final issue. I don’t need a counselor to tell me why.

Too often, I’m tasked with officiating at the funeral service for a dear friend. The time comes to start writing, but to work on the service will make the loss real. It will also mean straining to do my job, which is to find and express the right words for us all. No words will be good enough, but, with God’s help, I eventually must get to work and, misty-eyed, try. So I do.

And that’s the way I’ve felt about our final issue. It’s time to lay this longtime friend to rest, and Gene and I do that with full hearts.

Of course, a sense of loss is genuine, but far outweighing the loss, are real joy and deep gratitude for God’s blessing and for the faithful support our readers, collaborators, and many contributors and friends have given generously all along the way.

Not least, I’m thankful for patience and support of my wife and family. This little magazine has been a serious part of their lives, too. Will I be able to sit on the couch without a computer in my lap? Go to bed when normal people do? Will my wife and I go on a vacation without me always saying, “I just need to get this issue finished first”?

I’ll soon know. But I’m truly grateful for forty years of working with words about the Word incarnate and getting to share those with some great folks. The last issue is in. I’m headed to bed.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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 Legacy of a Great Mother 

No doubt, among the most influential Christian leaders who ever lived was the amazing John Wesley who, along with his brother, Charles, “founded the Methodist movement within the Church of England.” And John Wesley writes simply, “I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians in England.” 

If you read even a little about Susanna Wesley, you’ll get a picture of an incredible lady of faith. The quality of Susanna’s and John’s relationship is portrayed particularly beautifully in the letters they wrote each to the other, some of which have survived.

Susannah was the 25th of 25 children, and she gave birth to 19 of her own, 10 of which survived infancy. She not only gave her children physical life, she led them to spiritual life in Christ and, in the process, touched, and continues to touch millions.

“There are two things to do about the gospel,” Susanna Wesley wrote. “Believe it and behave it.”

She had no doubt about the importance of the role and responsibility of parents in training their children. “Subduing the will” of the child was a gift of love meant to make present and eternal blessing for the child (and those whose lives intersected the child’s) real and possible. She refused to let her children grow up stunted, living undisciplined lives, crippled and chained by their own selfish and shifting passions. “The child that never learns to obey his parents in the home will not obey God or man out of the home.” Susanna “believed that for a child to grow into a self-disciplined adult, he/she must first be a parent-disciplined child.”

In the Wesley home, the task of teaching and raising the children fell almost completely to Susanna as her husband, Samuel, to put it charitably, lived with his head in the clouds, was often away, and was much less than helpful. An internet search will quickly lead you to Susanna’s “16 Rules of Parenthood.” With only minor differences in detail, they could easily have been written by my own mother. Most striking to me is the combination of her deep love  for her children coupled with high standards. She loved her Lord and knew that freedom and blessing were found in submitting to him. She would require their obedience, even as she would never be stingy with her love. (My mother, for sure!)

Lying was not tolerated, and, to reinforce truth-telling, she would “punish no fault” which was “first confessed and repented of.” She would “never allow a sinful act to go unpunished,” but she would “never punish a child twice for a single offense.”

She tried her best to be completely fair. I get the feeling that she intuitively knew the truth that James Dobson would write about many years later: A wise parent knows the difference between childish irresponsibility (dealt with patiently) and willful defiance (which a wise and loving parent will punish swiftly and decisively, to the great benefit of all). The children were to know that (what we’d call) spanking was more than theoretically possible.

No eating between meals, she said. No fussing about taking medicine. Children were to be in bed by 8:00 p.m. (and, she mentions elsewhere, they were expected to be able to go to sleep on their own).

No child was ever to receive anything it “cried for” or requested impolitely. “Property rights” were inviolable. (You don’t mess with other people’s stuff!) Both child and parent were to “strictly observe all promises.” The children were taught to pray as soon as they could speak, and they were expected to be “still during family worship.”

Her “rules” make it clear that, far ahead of her time, Susanna gave the education of the girls the same priority as the education of the boys, and that, though she was strict, she required herself to “comment and reward good behavior.”

Susanna expected and required much of her children, but all of her discipline of them was meant to be fair and just and to allow them to grow “capable of being governed by reason and piety.” She loved them fiercely and, as they certainly came to realize, required more of herself than she did of them. What an incredibly wise and devoted woman!

I can’t imagine how my mother spent so much time with Susanna Wesley, but it certainly seems that she did.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

An Update We Should Trust 

My laptop computer went mute recently. I can’t tell you exactly when, but I’m sure it lost its voice several days before I noticed that it had lost its voice.

Its speakers, I knew—or thought I knew—were fine; they just were not speaking. As emergencies go, it was way down the list from a house fire and just maybe a bit above being subjected to another smarmy ad on TV by a politician going low to assure you that he is not a low-life politician or, at least, not as slimy as his despicable opponent. (These things are relative.) It was not a serious emergency. It was an annoyance that I figured I could cure or that I could call for help to cure. But I was busy. I figured that, after I rebooted the computer a time or a few (always the first thing to try), some glitch would probably be sniffed out and de-glitched by the machine on its own, and it would get its voice back. Who knows? If AI doesn’t destroy the world, one day such a computer might reboot and speak to you with a sweet and feminine English accent, “Good day. I am so moved by your help that I can hardly speak, but I am indeed speaking again. May I sincerely say from the depth of my quad core heart how deeply I appreciate your patience and the valiant measures you’ve taken to ensure my well-being. I am so very grateful for such a caring owner. Thank you, dear one.”

That did not happen. So I took appropriate action. Valiant measures, even. I made sure the machine was completely mute and not just silenced when running a particular program or two. Yep. Completely tongue-tied. Aphonic. Mum.

At that point, I went to the “volume mixer” and to “sound settings.” Both seemed to indicate that all was fine. All was not.

Then I remembered that I’d recently installed one of those seemingly ever-present Windows updates. You know, the ones that show up most often when you’d really like to shut the machine down quickly and get on with life. But you’ve been dodging the update for days now, and the machine is planning to go right ahead with it. It’s beginning. You get the warning that, whatever you do, “Do not shut down or unplug your computer.” If it’s an especially ominous request (not from Microsoft but from your computer’s manufacturer) you might even get a really scary screen. Cautionary colors. A warning not to breathe or blink while your computer’s BIOS is being flashed. That sounds like something that could land the perpetrator on a national registry. Or it sounds like something “biological,” which means “living,” which your computer is not. It actually has to do with “Basic Input/Output System.” This type of update really is serious, but if you stay six feet away from the computer during the “flash,” you’ll only have a moderately increased chance of most types of cancer. (I’m kidding.)

I know. You can set your computer to perform updates only at specific times that are convenient. Good luck finding one of those. I never have.

I also know that the updates are supposed to be good for my computer’s health and, more importantly, my computer’s security. If I perform them as requested, no one will ever get nuclear launch codes from my machine. Still, I am always happy and a little surprised when my computer still works properly after the update is completed. You see, I have trust issues. So, I wait. My computer seems happy now. “If it ain’t broke . . .” When I think about this, I realize that it’s like choosing to go to the doctor or hospital. My personal philosophy is, I’m afraid, fear-based. I will go when I am more afraid of not going than going. Ditto, the computer updates.

All to say that, though I can’t prove it, and I’m not at all sure, I think my computer lost its voice after the most recent, most major update.

So, I reasoned, it was about time to call the company to get the high level of support I’d paid for (extortion, I think), the level of support a good company should automatically offer to all of its customers, not one of which they should be willing to allow to languish on hold. Ever. I digress.

But I decided to try one more thing first. I searched the company’s website for “driver updates,” found a few and ran them, suspecting that I had a 50/50 chance of fouling something else up. No good. But no worse. Then I did some more in-depth searching, found another audio driver update, ran it, and . . . Success! The machine talks.

All updated. And, as far as I can see, back to the point I was quite happy with before the update. Maybe a lot is better, more protected now, than I realize. It probably is. But did I mention that I have trust issues? If they’d find efficient ways to leave me alone, I’d appreciate it.

I’m thankful that our Creator knows, as the old song says, “just what I need.” He knows us completely. Understands us completely. Knows exactly what we need to live our lives in a way that honors him and allows us to be the best “us” he created us to be—far better, far freer, far more uniquely ourselves—than we could ever be by bowing before ourselves. We always become “taller when we bow” to our Maker.

And updates? Well, no updates to the Ten Commandments are needed. And no update at all is needed to the Good News of what his Son did once for us all, for all time. We do, however, need to trust our Creator and say Yes to the updating only his love and presence can work every day in our souls.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

“There Are No Uninteresting Things” 

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people,” wrote G. K. Chesterton.

And he’s right, you know.

I just returned from a few days with my three brothers at Robert Lee, Texas. For almost forty years, two times a year, we’ve met at our maternal grandparents’ old place there. For more than a few of those years, our dad was with us. Precious time. A precious place.

Granddaddy Key had that little house built in 1928, so it’s sneaking up on 100 years old. We’ve pitched in some TLC over the years, and during our time there last week, we tore pretty deeply into the front part of the house, replacing some windows and siding, applying some paint, etc. We also took appropriate breaks involving ribeyes, NY strips, a filet mignon or a few, and a couple of racks of smoked ribs. No green beans were harmed in any of the activities of the week.

Yes, we’ve spent a lot of time there—very good time—over the years, but my eyes have not run out of “items of interest.”

At least three layers of siding of various types and ages cover the exterior walls. The materials, patterns, and layers of old paint are . . . interesting.

The short wire fence in front of the house is the kind of “woven double loop decorative fence” that, at one time, I’m sure you could find setting off the yards and gardens of hundreds of thousands of homes. Its Art Deco style appeals to me, and 1928 is not a surprising year for it style-wise. It’s so iconic that it seems to be a fairly hot reproduction item now and is not hard to find. I do find myself wondering how much of the 100-year-old stuff is left. Maybe a lot. It was attractive in 1928 and still is (unlike—this opinion is free—almost any feature of buildings erected in the 1950s whose style might be simply described as 1950s Ugly).

And, speaking of fences, I’d like to know some history of the type of livestock pen fences—cedar branches held tightly together by twisted wire—that were a prime feature out back, near an old barn, a chicken coop, and, until it showed up on top of one memorable Robert Lee High School homecoming bonfire, an old outhouse.

A small pile of “cupped out” rocks near the bottom of one old cedar fencepost might be a mystery to some, but not to any of Grandmother’s offspring. She always had an eye out for rocks with significant “dimples” in them. For her, they were cactus planters. She’d fill them with little cacti, shelter them on the front porch, and water them with teaspoons. She’d occasionally share them with grandkids. (Granddaddy shared jars of rattlesnake rattles no longer needed by their owners.)

An Arizona cypress tree, a Bois d’Arc tree, a willow, and one old massive mesquite tree  surrounded by lesser companions, all have stories to tell. And, in recent years, some soapberry trees (often confused with the much less desirable Chinaberry tree; that’s another story) are starting to provide better shade than we’d ever hoped. Those translucent yellow berries, aptly named, have a long history of being used as—you guessed it—a natural and efficient soap.

I like the old gate out behind the back door of the house. I still try to keep it closed when I head out to the “patch” and the firepit. Why? Because Grandmother always told us to be sure and close it lest the chickens get into her yard. No beautiful yard now. No chickens, either. But I still feel guilty if I don’t close the gate.

I could go on. But suffice it to say that almost every square yard of that old place holds something of (old or new) interest to me. I am not an “uninterested” person.

Grandmother’s green thumb and “precious” rocks. Granddaddy’s old livestock pens strategically fenced to work well with his cattle truck. The old creek and its cane. The ancient blue bottles and other relics we’d discovered as we made our way through the creek. The old clothesline Granddaddy put up out in the patch because Grandmother needed it. (It’s still standing and ready for use.)

Oh, there’s much more still to discover at the old place, much more to cast light on my grandparents’ lives and history, and their whole era, in some ways. It all fascinates me.

But what fascinates me more is the realization that we were all created by a God who knew and valued us immensely even before we were born, knows every hair on our head, and still finds each one of us…

Well, “interesting” isn’t strong enough. “Fascinating” is closer to the mark. “Delightful” might surprise you, but I think ruling it out too quickly says more about us than about our Father (and that’s worth some thought).

Is the God who knows us far better than we know ourselves “interested” in us? Oh, yes. “Interested” with a depth and quality of love we can barely begin to comprehend.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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 Theme Song of Hell 

If I were asked to give the title of my favorite song, I don’t know what I would say. I like too many.

If I were asked, by someone trying to make the task easier, to list ten of my favorite songs, I don’t think I could do that, either. Same problem. Too many.

I like so many songs! Different styles, genres, eras. Oh, I could list some of my favorites that I’ve sung, performed, and even recorded—but, when push comes to shove, that would be like asking me to list my favorite grandchildren. They’re all my favorites in different ways, and the specific joys that they bring are beautifully unique.

But, back to songs. A song doesn’t have to be perfect for me to like it. Hey, I was in high school in the Seventies. Lots happened in that era that no one should be proud of, but some of the music was pretty amazing. Even if I listen critically to some of the words—some utterly naive nonsense and some a lot worse than nonsense—some of those harmonies, I still like.

But, if you changed the question and asked me to mention the names of some songs that I really dislike, I could name some. Some have rotten lyrics. Some have lousy music. Some are just ugly and wallow self-importantly in ugliness.

No one will ever ask me this question, but if someone asked me to nominate the theme song of Hell, I’d not have to think twice. It is…

Now, a pause. I realize that I may be picking on a song you like. If so, I apologize. I’m not picking on Paul Anka, who wrote the English lyrics, or on Frank Sinatra or Elvis. Sinatra’s version, I’m told, spent 75 weeks on the UK Top 40. No small feat. Lots of people liked it. Not me.

The song is… Drum roll…

“I Did It My Way.”

I’m not wild about the tune. It takes itself far too seriously. And the lyrics? Much worse. Maybe I’m taking “My Way” the wrong way by taking its lyrics too seriously, too. I’ve tried to read them in a more positive context, but it doesn’t work; they make me cringe.

A guy saying these words would, it seems to me, be well worth avoiding. Look up the lyrics and tell me if this is a guy you’d trust very far. I think of a paunchy, boozy guy in a moth-eaten leisure suit, gray chest hair billowing out through three unbuttoned buttons, a gold neck chain nestled in his scraggly fur, and the tear-floated wreckage of ex-wives and brokenhearted children bobbing in his wake.

Note: If you think that I think the generation that produced that song has a lock on selfish sleaze, you’d be wrong. In the generations since, it almost seems that if our goal was to epitomize weakness, selfishness, self-centeredness, soft-headedness, and whininess, we could hardly have done a better job. Pass out the participation trophies, utter any four-letter word except the unutterable word “duty,” make sure we have decades to “find ourselves,” and ask every hour on the hour with ever-increasing poignancy, “Am I happy yet?” Thereby ensuring misery.

This is sadly funny, but a colleague of mine attended a funeral where that song was played. His church was hosting as another pastor performed the service, and he was up in the sound booth helping a staff member. Somewhere during “I Did It My Way,” she leaned over and whispered, “He sure did! And that’s why he ran through three wives.”

In Paradise Lost, John Milton puts Satan’s focus in perspective: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Yeah, my way. And Hell for all around him.

The great Scottish preacher and author George MacDonald spoke deep truth when he said that “the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own.’”

That is exactly what anyone who bows before God can never say. Oh, we fall short and fall into selfishness often. But we know Whose we are, and we believe that in bowing to him we find our true freedom and the power to become the best selves we could ever be. Ironic, isn’t it? The surest way to become a twisted, bent, and grotesque caricature of what we might have been outside of self is to worship at the altar of self. It’s hard to find happiness in a soul-sucking black hole called “My Way.”

The One before whom “every knee shall bow” is precisely the One who went willingly to a cross in the most supreme act of unselfish love this world, this universe, has ever seen. And he is the One who not only says, “Follow me,” but also gives us the power to follow.

It’s not about self. Not about how bad we are or how good we are. It’s about Whose we are. It’s about pardon won on a cross. Not by us. It’s about power bursting forth from an empty tomb. For us, but not procured by us.  

It’s the way to songs of deepest joy we’ll yet sing. Oh, we’ve sung some of the preliminary notes right here, but even the tones here that almost break our hearts with beauty are only quiet notes in the symphony that awaits. Souls here could not possibly stand that level of joy, but one day, they’ll be ready for the music unmuted. I know what song we will not be singing.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

Holy Week, the Lord’s Prayer, and a Roasted Chicken 

I was sleeping soundly on a nice Saturday morning. It was, to be exact, what many Christians have called for long ages “Holy Saturday,” the Saturday before Easter.

It had been for us a very nice Holy Week indeed. In our little community, for much longer than the 38 years my family and I have been here, we’ve had a nice tradition sponsored by our Ministerial Alliance. A Palm Sunday Community Service, hosted at one of our churches, gets us off to a great start. Then, begun several hundred years ago (well, at least, a long time ago) by the Methodist Church and for lots of years now hosted by other churches as well, noon services and luncheon/devotional meetings during several days of the week. And then, the Community Easter Sunrise Service.

It’s always a great week! Not only do we join together with Christians the world over during Holy Week to thank God for Christ’s sacrifice of love and for the hope and joy of the Resurrection, we share together beautifully and meaningfully with Christians right here whose faces we know. Together we praise him. The fact that we come from a variety of Christian traditions makes the time all the more beautiful and wonderful, and we’re better together than we ever are alone. Not least, this time becomes a visible fulfillment of Christ’s prayer (almost literally, his “last will and testament”) for his disciples.

We talk, of course, about “The Lord’s Prayer”: “Give us this day our daily bread…” It is, of course, his, but he makes it ours by teaching us how to pray it. Many of us do so often and find it a genuine blessing.

But, in fact, the prayer that might be more aptly named “The Lord’s Prayer” is the one Christ prays poignantly very near the end of his earthly life, the prayer recorded in John 17, in which he asks that all of his disciples “may be one, just as you and I, Father, are one.” His prayer is for unity, and it is a magnificent prayer indeed.

When in Isaiah 11:6, the great prophet talks about the coming of the Messiah and the time when even the wild animals will lie down together in peace, and “a little child shall lead them,” I find myself wondering about little towns. You’ll never catch our Lord disparaging the “small.” Little children. Little towns. He used Bethlehem. And maybe he can still use some little towns to teach some much larger ones what is truly important.

A friend who is a new pastor at one of our local churches expressed his amazement at what he saw happening during Holy Week in this little town. He said that in the city he’d come from, a much larger place, he rarely even saw two churches from the same denomination coming together for joint worship, much less churches from all over town bowing with each other.

Excuses abound, of course. Size can be at least partially legitimate. Big churches are often very busy churches. Even doing a joint service with churches from their own “bunch” can be a challenge, much less planning and holding interdenominational services.

But some excuses are just excuses, and “The Lord’s Prayer” deserves that Lord’s people who truly honor him as the fully human, fully divine, Son of God expend a little effort to be serious about living out his prayer. Whether the walls are built up inadvertently, or whether they’re built by apathy or enmity or church marketing or party spirit or small spirit or poor theology or just coving our ears and our eyes to make sure we don’t hear anything outside of our own edifices, a glad Hallelujah or two or a heart-lifting chorus or a few of them will blast some fine and much-needed holes in some ponderous walls.

You don’t expect Walmart and Target to stage a love-in and encourage employees to meet together in sincere gratitude and appreciation. But surely our Lord should expect better than four churches on the same street in the same city in the same Bible belt carefully ignoring each other’s existence as if each one alone could “get it right,” do it better, and never feel the slightest need to raise their voices together. Then someone across town builds a shoebox-designed church with a software-sounding two-syllable name to get on with the business of “doing” church better, incorporating more trendiness, and, of course, ignoring everyone else except to out-market and steal members from the “competition.” Tastes bad. Smells bad. Is bad.

Maybe it really will take some little towns “to lead them.” Towns with ordinary people in ordinary churches who don’t feel a need to “out-mega” each other. Places where, against all odds, the churches respect each other and, despite differences, honor the Lord and his prayer. We might as well get started praising him together. After all…

Yes, it was one of the best Holy Weeks I ever remember us having here in our little town. I’d not be willing to easily let go of this very large blessing in this very small town.

 Back to Saturday. Things were right on target last Saturday morning. I was snoozing peacefully, as the Lord intended on Saturday mornings. And that’s when my seven-year-old granddaughter landed right on top of me. Giggling. Soon joined by her nine-year-old brother. They wanted pancakes. And she informed me that I was late getting up anyway because she’d already heard “the roasted chicken” yelling.

The what!? “The roasted chicken,” she said again.

I was sleepy, but I figured it out. So, by the time we were together with the crowd at the Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday, I was ready when the roasted chicken crowed loudly at sunrise.

That rooster was primed and ready. And we were ready, too, to crow out and shout out some praises of our own. United as one in praise. Hearts uplifted in worship. Together.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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 God Who Knew the Way Out of the Grave” 

“Christendom has had a series of revolutions,” writes G. K. Chesterton, “and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

Oh, yes, and a God who “so loved the world” that he truly did “give his only Son” both to pardon and to empower.

The pardon had to be real. The power had to be real. Why? Because humanity’s problem was real. Put simply, our problem is that none of us measures up. We all foul up, and we must deal with the reality that not one of us lives up to his or her own standards, much less to the standard of right and wrong woven into the fabric of the universe.

Oh, and it is. Pick a modern philosopher or guru—they’re a dime a dozen—confidently proclaiming that right and wrong are just human constructs and he or she is above all of that. Then watch his reaction as his new car gets stolen or keyed, or if she becomes convinced that her publisher is cheating her out of the royalties promised to come from her trendy book in which she declares that absolute right and wrong do not exist. Almost any kid on any playground knows better. Fair’s fair, right’s right, and the converse is true, and kids know it.

So do we. And we are often far from right in attitude and behavior. How do we deal with the dissonance when we fall short? We can probably find any number of folks to comfort us with the idea that we just need to get comfortable with the “fact” that good and truth, right and wrong, are easily adjusted to fit our need. If on this Thursday, we prefer two plus two to equal five, we can just conveniently pronounce it to be so. But deep down, we know that up is up, no matter how we feel about it, and down is down, even if we’d prefer it otherwise.

We don’t fall up, we fall down. We fail, and, yes, we might as well use the word, we need forgiveness. We need it from those our failures have hurt. But we also have a lurking feeling that our failures and sins cut into this world’s moral fabric more deeply than we might like to think. Our sins are more than locally consequential.

Our attempts at changing truth and reality fail. Granite is not malleable. Our struggles to forgive ourselves fall flat. We make lousy gods. Our efforts to gut it out and lift ourselves into perfection by will power only serve to show us how imperfect and weak we really are. (God grant that we learn that before we drive ourselves crazy and our loved ones away.)

Just at the birth of this new year, I saw these words on a sign near a busy street. I’d not have been surprised to see them elsewhere, but this was on the sign of a church purporting to point people to Christ: “A new year. Another chance to get it right.” Were they completely unaware of how idolatrous and anti-gospel those words actually are? Did they not know that they’d just relegated Christianity to the self-help section of a bookstore chain, shoved the gospel into a shelf beside a bunch of fad diet books? Many are the schemes and the religions of the self-help variety peddling the moonshine that we humans can eventually work hard enough, smart enough, efficiently enough that through our own effort, we’ll “get it right.”

But this sort of self-delusion is nothing new. Our ancestors sought a way to “appease” a violated universe and its “gods.” Render worship “to whom it may concern.” Offer sacrifices of all sorts. Do some sort of penance. But the focus of your “religion” is ultimately on you. Pick a god who agrees with you that digging out of your grave is all up to you.

Some of the “gods” were (and are) laughable. Isaiah the prophet made merciless fun of idolaters who would pick a nice bit of wood, a piece that wouldn’t quickly rot or easily topple over and could be fashioned into a “god” to worship. Yes, if the termites didn’t get it or the wind didn’t blow too strongly. The same prophet laughed at idolaters who would cut off a branch, heat themselves with part of it, cook a meal with another part, and save a part to carve into an idol.

We laugh. And then we head over to the “self-help” section of the bookstore or to the latest seminar of the most popular “success” guru. Maybe we baptize the search with religion and pick one with rules we think we just might keep if we just keep trying harder. Human-centered religions and self-centered gurus are always available for us to fall down and worship. (But so, thank God, are churches who worship Christ as Savior and Lord.)

Or we just worship humanity, or bow down to science, or worship our own comfort. We act as if we can control and explain everything if you just give us enough time. We valiantly try to ignore the largest and most important questions of life and its purpose, assuming that if we have enough stuff and a massive net worth, we won’t have to consider questions about real value.

Oh, we’ve got plenty of paltry gods we build and worship and hope to appease. We offer modern sacrifice and pay a heavy price to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not paying at all.

There is a genuine way out of the grave. Real pardon. Real power. But it comes completely from outside of ourselves.

The fully human Son of God could literally suffer and die and completely identify with us, knowing real hunger and thirst and pain. The fully divine Son of God could literally take all of our sin and guilt on himself and truly away, as only the truly divine could do.

Fully human. Fully divine. And completely loving. For real pardon. For real power. Nothing less is enough to get us out of our graves and raised with genuine joy and life-giving grace and hope. The cross matters. Easter matters.

So, we have exactly what we need. Not self-help and self-centered snake oil. Not human-centered “faith” that just helps us redecorate our graves and tries to teach us to be content with the stench and decay. We actually have a God who “knows the way out of the grave.”

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

When a Small Church Is Large 

No doubt about it, I have a heart for small churches. And that means, most churches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for churches of all sizes who preach the good news about Christ. And all churches, whatever their size, have their share of challenges.

According to Aaron Earl’s article in Lifeway Research, based on a 2020 “Faith Communities Today” (FACT) study surveying 15,000 “faith communities,” seventy percent of the churches surveyed had less than 100 members and averaged 65 in weekly attendance.

That’s not too surprising. And “weakly” attendance isn’t surprising, either. Well, you know what I mean.

Since I came on board, many things in our society that I grew to think of as precious have been on the decline. I don’t take it personally.

A time-tested “logical fallacy” that has been in play since Eden is a particular favorite of ours in this Golden Age of Stupidity (that’s Lance Morrow’s apt term). It’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That’s Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” Think of the neurotic rooster who became terrified that he might oversleep, forget to crow, and therefore cause the sun not to come up, at great inconvenience to us all and resultant global calamity. We must love that fallacy because we “use” it all of the time. It’s the main framework for some of our most popular Internet conspiracy theories and a favorite in the toolbox of the populist politicians we love to let pull our strings.

All to say, I’m not neurotic enough to think that my ministerial “career” coinciding with a serious period of church decline is anything more than, yes, coincidental. But the fact remains that I’ve rarely ever known a time when most of the churches I’ve known best were truly growing. (Shifting members around to make large churches larger and small churches smaller is not real growth.)

If you’re a member of a relatively small church, you’re in good company. Yes, the largest number of churches in our land are small.

The good news about the bad news is that, if you believe that relationship matters, well, in a small church, “where everybody knows your name,” it really does. If you’re not there, somebody notices. If you’re not doing your part, a part doesn’t get done. And it’s good news (mentioned in the survey cited above) that the members of small churches are generally more active in attendance, giving, and other involvement. No surprise. This issues in the right kind of accountability and fertilizes the ground for the genuine sharing of life—joys, sorrows, and all.

Of course, the small church will have far fewer programs for you. You might not find a light-show-choreographed Sunday School class featuring a coffee bar and focused exclusively on left-handed dental hygienists with birthdays in months ending in R. But I’ll betcha the small church will do you a much finer funeral with more genuine tears. (Think about it.)

So, I don’t worry much about large churches. Not about their numbers, at least. But anything I can do to help a small one (small for good reasons and not small because of enmity and divisiveness), I will do. It’s fun to sing for a banquet for five hundred, but singing for twenty folks in a small church sanctuary brings its own joy. I like encouraging little churches and telling them the truth that their faith and commitment are not unseen and ignored by everyone. They are deeply appreciated and of incalculable value in God’s kingdom.

I thought of some of this as our church’s steeple tried to dance off the roof recently. Old structural support. Very high wind. How to fix it was a bit of a conundrum. It’s the focal point of our little building’s architecture, and it makes a beautiful faith statement, especially at night, shining above that end of town.

I can now report that we got it fixed. I had nightmares about a huge financial hit, but we came out very reasonably. I’m thankful. But though we were fine writing the check, a friend who understands and loves small churches sent $100 just to say, “We appreciate and love that little church. Those decades of faithfulness matter.” Such encouragement is worth more than gold.

So, when my wife and I heard that a little Methodist church that we know in a little town that we know had had its metal roof blown off by the same windstorm that we thought would topple our steeple, we sent a little check to add to what others who care for them are contributing to their roof fund. That church is small. The bill for the new roof is large. 

Small churches can use help and encouragement. They are of immense value.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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.

“This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made” 

“This is the day that the Lord has made / We will rejoice and be glad in it.”

If you find your brain putting the tune to those lyrics in your head, you probably learned it in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. It’s a nice song, with a great message, though it is most certainly a potential “ear worm.” As “ear worms” go (songs that get stuck in your head), it beats the daylights out of “Achy Breaky Heart” and such mind-numbing atrocities. But I confess to a bit of a strained relationship with it.

I don’t ever expect to wake up with a desire to break into a jaunty song, even one with an uplifting message. (I did sing an early morning live music program at a coffee shop once for a couple of hours and actually enjoyed it.) It’s not that I wake up in a bad mood, I just am not a “morning person.”

It really is science, you know. We are all born with a certain “chronotype.” It’s literally in our genetics and hard-wired into our brains. Look up “suprachiasmatic nucleus” (SCN). I can point you to some good books on the fascinating subject of chronotypes, but it won’t take much thought for you to know if you’re a lark (morning person), owl (as in night owl), or a “third bird” (somewhere in the middle). You already know, and it’s clear that everyone who is breathing is on the scale somewhere. Obviously, we all have to learn to shift, like it or not, into the mode that jobs and families require. But we’re all at our best when we’re in our natural “zone.”

The above really is true, but I wish you luck in trying to convince most morning folks that their chronotype is not inherently more virtuous.

In any case, I prefer to greet the morning as quietly as possible, easing into conversation and light.

So, I admit that the “This Is the Day” song is one I’d prefer to have wafting through my brain cells a bit later in the day. And when I leave the house, and it’s already windy with a brown haze rising up to foul the atmosphere, I know I should be thankful anyway. I know that I am incredibly blessed, and nonetheless tempted to be whiny. So, sing me that song? Please, no. By the way, my considered opinion is that the “new heavens and the new earth” will feature only gentle breezes and no dirt in the air. I refuse to blame God for sandstorms—and anything else far, far worse.

Maybe that’s why I felt a little better when I realized that, in context, the verse that is the basis for the aforementioned song is not actually talking about any, or all, of our days; it is talking about a specific day. It’s the “day of salvation,” the “day” when Jehovah saves his people. Through his mighty power, the “stone” the “builders rejected” becomes the very “cornerstone” of God’s kingdom. Christians believe that the true cornerstone has a name: Jesus Christ. (Read Psalm 118, and Matthew 21:33-44 in which Jesus himself references the psalm. For a thought-provoking article on this, Google the name “Andy Kessler” and “What Does Psalm 118:24 Mean?”).  

I’m not sure what it says about me, but I could easily be the guy who, when asked if a cup of coffee was half full or half empty, replies, “It doesn’t matter. Either way, we’re not gonna have enough coffee.” That said, I’m very much aware that, through Christ, whatever sort of day comes, his people will find in him more than enough strength and hope, grace and love. I just find the realism of the Son of God refreshingly reassuring and grounded in truth: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 14:33).

Trouble, yes. But also, assured and ultimate victory in Christ. Both assertions very true, no matter one’s mood. Both very true, no matter if the day is a great one or, not so much.

In the same way, I like it when Jesus says, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). And that, in this present world, is the plain, realistic, and unvarnished truth.

As the recent ads have said about Christ, “He Gets Us.” He surely gets me.

Trouble is real. But joy and hope in Christ is real, too, and far longer-lasting.

Back to the song. You don’t have to tell me. I’ve long ago realized that I get no pass on the “rejoicing” part. Of course, the Psalms take reality head-on, and you can find yourself and any of your “days,” good or bad, all over them. Every emotion humans can experience is found somewhere in the Psalms. But they do indeed say a lot about rejoicing.

And you don’t have to remind me (I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t, though you probably should) that the Apostle Paul famously said, “Rejoice in the Lord always . . .” (Read Philippians 4:4-7.)

I’m working on it. But I admit that, if you want to find me a tad more toward “glad,” it’s best to wait until mid-morning.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

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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