Focus on Faith

A Few Words in Praise of the Commonplace 

The commonplace. There’s a lot to be said for it, I think.

By the way, if you do an internet search for “commonplace,” you may be surprised to find that, for more than a few centuries, a “commonplace book” or, simply, a “commonplace” was a book or notebook in which people wrote down and kept quotations, sayings, notes of all sorts, little bits of helpful knowledge, poems, recipes, measures, verses, and much more—stuff that just seemed useful to them and worth keeping handy.

Folks usually divided their notes by subject, topic, or use. Many “ordinary” people used such books, as did a great number of writers, scholars, etc. The commonplaces of some well-known folks were eventually published. Again, just look for this on the internet, and you may find the topic of “commonplaces” uncommonly interesting.

But, of course, when I write here about the “commonplace,” I’m thinking of what we might term the “ordinary,” the “run of the mill,” or maybe the “routine.”

Such moments add up. I think, for example, of sharing life with your spouse, the years cascading into decades and splashing into a vast ocean of moments—some heartwarming and joy-filled beyond description and some so poignant and even heartbreaking that your shared tears spilled into a waterfall of sorrow in which you both thought you might drown. But, sweet or bitter or, more often, just present as a gentle stream of trust—oh, there is meaning and mystery, strength and wisdom, that can only be found in such a far-flowing current of moments.

So much of what gives our journeys color and deep beauty are the gentle slow-moving streams and eddies along the way. A lifetime of cool pillows softly becoming warm. Of rich coffee and a comfortable chair. A fire in the hearth. A hand held and hair stroked. A glimpse of a sunrise, color-fired kindling lighting the sun on fire. A moon winking back as stars start popping out at sunset. A deep winter sky and a refreshing breath of crisply cold air. A child or grandchild’s hug and snuggle. A nice chair and a world beckoning you to enter through the pages of a book.

Enjoy. Thank God. Repeat.

Music is not music without some very ordinary silence between the notes. The silence matters. The ordinary filling the gaps between tones that, unbroken by silence, would become noise.

A well-written paragraph moves along doing its job quite nicely as the majority of the word-notes are clicked out in typewriter cadence. And then a pause or a few, at just the right places, and in a few sweet words, the writer lands the paragraph sweetly, or achingly, or with a grin and then a good-hearted explosion of laughter, any of which the author is willing to share. But the little words and spaces between them add up to make the word-crescendo work.

Little things and little words are not little at all. If we catch ourselves focusing just on the “big events” of life, just “busy-ness,” and, worse, just “business,” real life flits by in a wispy fog.

I hope we’ll slow down . . . and pause . . . and think . . . and thank God for weaving into our lives the sweet and often unnoticed moments and spaces where deep joy pools ever so quietly. It’s the gift of the commonplace. The quiet. The ordinary.

Extraordinary! No one whose eyes are open to that precious gift and whose soul is bathed and healed in it is in danger of living a superficial life, acting as if she’s found exactly the right glue to stick a résumé or spreadsheet onto a granite tombstone, or as if his particular crypt in the mausoleum will feature an executive office suite with a view—and maybe even a digital in-box where minions still breathing can send regular reports.

Come to think of it, maybe having a blank “commonplace book” in which we thoughtfully make actual note of some of the most beautiful commonplaces of our lives might be uncommonly good for us.

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 2022 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Launching into 2022 Feels Strange 

Here we are, two weeks into 2022, and it still feels weird to me.

“It” is ambiguous both in that first sentence and in my head. It certainly refers to 2022, the year itself. How in the name of creeping chronometers did we get to this . . . point, point, point, point, point?

Well, that’s how. A split second and a clock-click, a pendulum-swing and a heartbeat at a time. Time’s faucet drip, drip, drips. Each drip, no big splash. Barely noticed. Until, one day, treading water (you hadn’t noticed that, either), you find yourself in the midst of a new but really not-new-at-all Great Lake that dribbled in while you weren’t keeping an eye on the faucet.

I remember doing a very little math—a very little is the only kind I’ve ever done—sometime probably in the 1970s, and reckoning that I’d likely be alive to see the year 2000, but that I’d be very old. Well, I was right on the first point and wrong, I now reckon, on the second. Nonetheless, 2000 is fading fast in the rear-view mirror

By the way, if you were much farther along than a human larva age-wise when 2000 dawned, do you remember all of the hand-wringing and Doomsday pandering? If so, you might do well to remember that it all came to naught. We were pretty full of ourselves as we embraced the drama, drama that we mostly created and fixated on ourselves. Remembering the hysterics then, I wonder about some of the presently popular pseudo-dramas playing as we move into 2022.

Granted, and with apologies to math majors, 2000 is a bigger number on the calendar than 2022. But the human race is still full of itself. And we still embrace drama. History shows, though, that we’re pretty poor at choosing the particular drama worthy of concern.

At the dawning of more than a few new years, we were worried about world over-population. Now population scientists seem to worry more about the “under-side.”

For a long time, we’ve known that the world’s climate does change, but how? How quickly? How much can we alter it or affect it? Mostly, it seems to me, we’ve babbled a good bit, releasing a lot of mostly self-important gas about “saving the planet” as we’ve formed committees of gnats to hold solemn convocations on the rear end of the elephant to discuss saving the pachyderm . . . who seems not to notice.

Ah, but what about the various dramas put forward by our world’s bullies as Russian, Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian thugs and mis-leaders continue to hate freedom and foment mayhem whenever and wherever possible?

As 2022 dawns, we can’t know now what history’s later verdict will be regarding our world’s choices of worst worries. Cow flatulence? Iran’s messing around with uranium? (It seems likely that 2022 will bring to the forefront the question of whether or not a good, serious “talking to” will be enough to get Iran to behave.) Delusional politicians? Politicized pandemic pandemonium?

But back to Paragraph One.

Yes, it feels weird to be launching into 2022.

But “it” also feels weird—we might as well admit it—to be “in time” at all. I’m reminded particularly of C. S. Lewis’ remarks that, were we created to be creatures “at home” in time’s confines, it’s odd that living in time so often feels unnatural to us. Presumably, he says, fish don’t feel wet in water; it is their natural environment. But we seem to never feel at home in time. And that may be, he suggests, one of the biggest clues that we were created by an eternal Creator for something different. Something beyond our present understanding. Something far better.

Well, we’ll face some timely decisions in 2022. Perhaps we’ll make the best ones if we are truly looking forward to something better, something that transcends time, something that brings genuine hope for both “now” and “forevermore.”

In any case, for you and yours in 2022, I pray for many blessings that will last longer than forever.

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 2022 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 Calendar Really Does Say “2022” 

The calendar says that it’s now 2022. My various electronic devices all agree on that opinion.

What? You say that it’s a fact, actual reality, and not just an opinion? Wow, your thinking is hopelessly dated, by which I mean, out-dated.

In the very advanced—one might say, progressive, enlightened, and “woke” society—objective reality is yesterday’s thinking; reality now is almost completely dependent upon how you feel about “your” reality. Yes, pilgrim, you, too, can now own a parcel of “reality” in a section of the universe designed specifically for you and your feelings regarding “reality” on any given day.

So suppose you wake up on a day when the old multiplication tables seem terribly confining and, well, old? Who’s got the authority to tell you that, regardless of your feelings, two plus two will always and forever equal four (and you’ll be happier if you learn to deal with reality), even if “five” seems to be a more comfortable answer on, say, every third Thursday in months ending in Rs?

Or what if I wake up on a Tuesday in April feeling much like—exactly like, I’d say—a red-spotted toad (specifically “Anaxyrus punctatus in the family Bufonidae found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico”), who, pray tell, are you to tell me that I appear to be quite an ordinary human with, you might say to be courteous if not altogether truthful, a few distinctly toad-like features? And how dare you suggest that “my reality” and objective reality might not be lining up and that perhaps a good counselor and maybe medication might help!?

Of course, these days I’m sure I could easily find a therapist quite willing to help me accept my new “reality” as a heretofore human biological entity now identifying as an amphibian. (Are there pronouns for that? Dunno, but I’m thinking it might be advisable in this new “reality” to avoid kettles, stove tops, and warming water.)

One day, it was in May, I’d say, / I woke up feeling in a very particular way / That right was left and left was right / And white was black and black was white, / So, said I, this change, let’s try. / I’ve found the ticket / Right out of the old reality thicket!

Aye, and a little more sleep and a tad more slumber, / I rose on a Thursday reconnoitering a brave new way, / Pondering a post-post-modern most splendiforous wonder! / What if today, say, / Up would be down and down would be up / Flat would be round and round be flat? / And thus I declared it, and that was that!

And, while I was at it, blue I pronounced green, / And four, two plus two no more, would be, / I then decreed most solemnly, two plus three! / Says who? Says me! / For henceforth and forevermore, / Or for at least a day, maybe three.

All to say that, though I don’t know what I expected 2022 to feel like, I guess reality indicates that this is how it feels. I do distinctly remember thinking, a few decades ago, that I might well live to see 2000, though I would be quite old when it arrived.

And what do I think now? I think I should admit to being pretty darn near the far side of middle age. And then I quickly think that, contrary to the opinion just expressed, I’d probably better adjust to reality; it won’t adjust to me.

And it wouldn’t hurt me to remember that, if I’m making fun of ludicrous ideas that flaunt reality, the best examples of squishy thinking are usually found between my own ears. A little or a lot of humility might not go amiss.

Anyway, no matter how I feel about reality, it really is 2022. Dealing with it wisely means trusting in the Rock of all Ages, even as the paper pages of the calendar flip yet again.

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 2022 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 Central Miracle . . . Is the Incarnation” 

“The Grand Miracle.”

That’s how C. S. Lewis described the Son of God coming “in the flesh” at Bethlehem. And he writes, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation.”

If anyone had asked me, I might at first have been inclined to say that the “central miracle” is Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, his Atonement for our sins, and his glorious Resurrection. And it certainly would be hard to over-estimate the centrality of those events. The message of the apostles, the good news that his followers have always proclaimed, has rightly centered on the “death, burial, and resurrection” of our Lord. 

If we underestimate the power of the Cross and those amazing events, Christianity quickly dissolves into a human-centered glorified “self-help” religion that focuses on our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” and becomes, at its center, based on our own ability to “achieve” salvation. It can become a “cross-less and bloodless” venture more about our power than God’s. Do a few better things than bad things, work hard enough to “get life right,” follow the right rules and be a member of exactly the right group, and you’ll be okay. That’s what religion tends to be all about, right? Being “right.” Being “good.”

Yes, that’s what so much man-made “religion” is indeed about. But that’s not what genuine Christianity is about.

Part and parcel of the “good news” is that faith centered on Christ, trust focused in him, is not about how good we are, or how bad we are. It’s about Whose we are. It is completely centered on what Christ has done for us and his power at work within us, healing our souls when we fall short, helping us do the “good works” created “in advance” for us to do. Whether we’re doing well, or doing poorly—and, honestly, most days we “do” both—the focus is on the One in whom we trust, not on ourselves at all. Both pardon and power are ours through his saving work, not our own.

But before Christ’s work could be accomplished, the Incarnation had to happen. For God to suffer and die as the perfect sacrifice for humanity, he had to become fully human. For God to truly carry away our sin and guilt, he had to be fully divine. Nothing less than both would do. And nothing less is the message of Christianity. 

Hence, the Incarnation. Hence, Immanuel, “God with us.”

For most of this world’s existence, the “gods” were thought to be either too far above humanity to care about us, or too magnificent to lower themselves to have anything to do with us. They were often thought to be at enmity with us.

But central to Christianity is the miracle of the omnipotent God loving us so much that he would literally come into this world to save us, that he would become “God in the flesh.”

And so the Apostle John points us to the Grand Miracle: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

And come our King did. As the great Scottish preacher and writer George MacDonald put it in the first verse of a poem entitled, “A Christmas Carol” (often called “Mary’s Lullaby” to “avoid confusion” with Charles Dickens’ masterpiece), “Babe Jesus lay in Mary’s lap, / The sun shone in his hair; / And this is how she saw, mayhap, / The crown already there.”

The crown of the King of Glory. The crown that would one day be a crown of thorns.

At Bethlehem, God came down to lift us up. The Incarnation. The “Grand Miracle” indeed.

“For thou art the king of men, my son; / Thy crown I see it plain! / And men shall worship thee, every one, / And cry, Glory! Amen!” (“Mary’s Lullaby,” verse three).

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“We Want Christmas to Be Perfect” 

We want it to be perfect, you know. Christmas, I mean.

We really do. Something deep within us wants the lights and the trees, the music and the gifts, the family gatherings and candle-lit worship—all of it—to be Christmas card perfect.

Do I claim to be an exception? No, I do not. Truth be told, though, it’s not so much that I hope each new Christmas will be more beautiful than the last, I just want to do a better job each year enjoying the beauty and joy, savoring each moment. Every year it seems to come more quickly (which is fine with me), but it also seems to be over more quickly (which is decidedly not fine with me). Maybe lurking in my brain somewhere really is that idea of the “perfect” Christmas.

Honestly, I’ve felt this year that the Yuletide train left the station without me, that I was running behind it, trying to catch up. Oh, the church is decorated, warm and beautiful. And I managed to get some of the lights up at the house. But “busy-ness” hindered us in getting the tree and decorations up at home as soon as we wished. My family, particularly the grandkids, think I’m the “king of Christmas” (I’m not, of course; there’s only One), so one of my two seven-year-old grandsons expressed amazement that I was a tardy decorator this year. Oh, the shame of it!

But I’m getting there. I’m halfway through my annual re-reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Old Scrooge is now in the presence of the “Ghost of Christmas Present,” my favorite of the spectres. Oh, that one knows how to laugh a fruity laugh! I try not to press Dickens’ tale too far theologically; I just take it as the sweet story it is. I love it! And it always ends so well!

I admit that, if I’m in the right mood, I can even deal with an occasional Hallmark Christmas movie and willingly “suspend my disbelief.” For a while. The lead couples are always “top of the wedding cake” impressive. But it’s always unwise to do any research into actors’ actual ages, etc. Obviously, the female lead is strikingly beautiful, whether or not she’s actually closer to menopause than a real nativity event. And—not a sexist bone in my body—I hasten to say that the ultra-handsome guy—stubble required—will probably also still be getting soap opera and clothing commercial calls for a good while. The stars are decorative, for sure. But if I catch myself wondering if their characters will still be trying to “find themselves” when they’re in nursing homes, the mood is broken. (Though finding themselves will be easier there. Name cards on the room doors.) Those movies go down better if you don’t push reality too hard.

Oh, and the old Christmas movies? I love them, for sure!

But I suspect that one of the reasons we’re drawn to Christmas movies, the not-so-good ones and the great ones, is, again, that we’re looking for the perfect Christmas, even though we know we’ll never find it here.

No, we won’t, but nonetheless we do find lots of beauty and wonder, light and hope, special blessing, in this season. Why shouldn’t we thank God for it and ask him to help us recognize it and fill up, more and more, on his genuine joy? Oh, we should!

But here’s the snake hiding in the tree. Suffering and pain and tragedy know no season, take no breaks, respect no persons, and seem so very much worse, so much darker, during this time we so want to be bathed in life-affirming light that fully eclipses darkness, admitting no trespassing tragedy.

We never like death, or disease, or bitter disappointment. But how much more despicable and out of place they seem at Christmas.

We never like to hear of “natural” disasters, but how much more “unnatural” and horrible they seem right now.

Of course, we feel that way. Why wouldn’t we? But wait!

Yes, wait, indeed. This season has much to do with waiting. One of the reasons many Christians have for centuries found the observance of Advent (look it up) before Christmas to be a blessing, is that it helps us to “wait” purposefully and pray that God will “prepare the way” into our hearts anew as we celebrate Christ’s coming.

The world waited so long for the Birth. And we await with longing, and often with tears, his Second Coming and the time when all wrongs will be made right, all tears washed away.

So, again this Christmas, we ask him now to come into our hearts anew. And to help us live each day in expectation, even as we wait.

The first Christmas fills us with hope. But even it was not “perfect.” I figure there had to be some manure in the stable. And I know there was a despicable despot in charge with murder being born in his black heart.

But Christ had come! And he would live and teach and die—and live! And now we wait, thanking God for “the light that shines in the darkness,” knowing that the darkness will never “overcome it.”

For God’s people, something far better than a perfect Christmas is coming.

Dear Lord, thank you for coming! Help us to wait in hope for your coming again, and may our hearts be the Bethlehems into which you’re born each day.

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“Do Not Be Afraid” of Christmas 

I don’t know about you; I used to really enjoy celebrating the Fourth of July. But then somebody told me the truth about it.

Somebody who really knows (probably like sore losers on both ends of the political spectrum who “know” that our last two presidential elections were stolen; nefarious Russian “collusion” or magic vote-tampering, take your pick—anything but the more boring truth that the two losers ran rotten campaigns) has figured out the truth. About the Fourth of July, I mean.

One who knows the truth writes, “America’s Independence Day is really a celebration of Britain.” Once you analyze this, it all makes sense. “The national colors, the flag, the music, the fireworks, the food—aspects of all these features are clearly borrowed from British culture.”

So go ahead and celebrate the Fourth of July if you want to. For my part, I like the Brits. I’m a person of British ancestry—one might even say a British-American (why should I be denied a hyphen? God save the Queen!) But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the Fourth’s actual British roots.

Okay. Not really. Most of the above (not my ancestry) is poppycock. (I’d have thought “poppycock” was a word with British roots; turns out, according to my dictionary, it’s from the Dutch dialect pappekak, meaning “soft dung.” Enjoy your popcorn.)

The quotations in paragraph three above are actually from an excellent Christianity Today article written by Timothy Larsen. And he doesn’t believe them, either. He was just making a point in his piece, “No One Took Christ Out of Christmas” (CT, Dec. 2021).

Professor Larsen (Wheaton College) is, quite literally, the “man who wrote the book on Christmas.” A Christian of deep faith and a scholar of serious standing, he spent three years combing through scholars’ research about the origins of our Christmas celebrations, and he read volumes and volumes of historical documents regarding the same, so that he could edit The Oxford Handbook of Christmas. I’d love to have that for Christmas. I thought I’d order it, and then I discovered it costs $130 and (published in Nov. 2020) is almost 700 pages long. Want to know about Christmas trees, Santa, plum puddings, stockings, and much, much more? Bingo.

Do you buy the long-standing “urban legend” that evergreen decorations are pagan? Well, maybe some pagans used evergreens, but, as Larsen writes, pagans didn’t create evergreens, God did. And God commanded the Israelites to celebrate the Festival of Ingathering “by going into the countryside to gather evergreens (Lev. 23:40; Neh. 8:15).”

And guess what? “The real origin of the Christmas tree was medieval European sacred plays performed at Christmastime” that “told the biblical story of redemption and included a decorated evergreen tree, which represented the Tree of Life” and “became a symbol of the season.”

When Larsen, who has done the research to have a truly valuable opinion, writes, “You can be sure Christmas is Christian,” I am more than willing to listen.

As Larsen mentions in his article, we all know that mega-commercialism and excess of all sorts can taint this beautiful season. But because some folks misuse and abuse it, that doesn’t argue for our abandoning it, feeling guilty about genuine joy, and refusing, Scrooge-like, to allow God to bless, use, and redeem our celebrations of the coming of our Redeemer.

I, for one, intend to enjoy all the lights and music and even, at the right time, sleighs and reindeer, and thank God for such blessings. Genuine beauty and joy are always His! And my celebrations, and I hope yours, will be all the more joyful because, at heart, what I’m celebrating is His coming, which gives light and color and meaning, in different ways, to manger scenes and the notes of “chestnuts roasting o’er an open fire.” I suppose an atheist might avoid “Silent Night” and opt for “Jingle Bells” instead; a Christian gets both and much more and thanks God for it all!

I’ve never been convinced that dour “piety” and genuine holiness have much family resemblance. It’s time, as Larsen writes, for Christians to be “released” from misguided (and historically unfounded) holiday “anxieties.” It’s time, he says, to “take a tip from an angel” who gave this Christmas message: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).

God knows there’s a time for joy and celebration, a time to be so sure of our Father that we lay down the burden of being full of ourselves, give our “dignity” a good kick in the pants, toss worry and fear aside, and dance with the children.

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Finding Hope and Joy in the Light 

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

It’s the light, you know!

   Twirling, swirling, splash-silvering

         crisp snow below.

   Liquid luminescence and stardust inadvertently shed

         By pirouetting angels in the sky

                 above the Christ-child’s head.

   They fly, as has been said,

         by taking themselves lightly!

   Ah, the delight! Such glory and brightness!

         O’er that rude Baby King-sized bed.

   And look! Nestled warm in the hay below,

         As the Christmas angels sing,

             Silver-tipped tongues of light hailing the King,

         He lies slumbering ̶ the Truth, the Light, the Way.

    Swaddled against the cold of the night,

          Whiffling and sleeping, the Babe sweetly sighs,

    And on and on the angels dance, and dark gives way to love-light

         And Heaven’s glory shimmers and shines,

               And joy, the angels’ light-essence,

                     Washes over all in His sweet Presence.

Yes, it’s the light, you know!

Wow, my poor poem needs a lot of work! But it really is the light, I think, that is one of the most beautiful features of this season. From the time I was old enough to slide under our family Christmas tree, clad in those wonderful old pajamas that came complete with feet, and gaze up through the branches of the tree and drink in the beauty, it was the light that lit me with joy.

I liked it then. I like it now. I knew instinctively then, and I know more overtly and reflectively now, that celebrating Christ’s birth with joy and light is, well, right. (I’m trying not to stay in cut-rate poet mode; I beg pardon.)

With regard to Christmas, it seems to me increasingly clear that we’re in a “if the people are silent, the very stones will cry out” situation (Luke 19:40), and, though I’m no stranger to self-righteousness in myself (it’s a cancer that all too often recurs), I’ve known for a long time now, as surely as I know my own name, that a far bigger mistake than dancing too much before our Lord in joy is to dance too little and force the rocks to praise him because we’re too full of ourselves and toxic “religion” let our joy—God’s joy—loose in our souls.

I’ve heard all of the arguments against Christmas celebration. Too much, too extravagant, too this and too that. Excessive! And with pagan roots, to boot!

Well, because we can go over the top with celebration is not a good enough reason not to celebrate when celebration is called for! It’s not praiseworthy to inconvenience rocks because we’re praise-mute for no good reason.

And the charges of paganism tossed about by folks who want to pour a little cold water on over-much joy is not all the story by any means. Reading some better scholars telling the historical truth about such will make you feel a lot better about feeling really good about the joy of the season. (I can point you to a great article or two well worth reading, if you ask.)

Our God is not worried that we might overdose on joy. The far greater danger is that we remain so hung up on ourselves that we are unable to dance selflessly before our Lord.

Jesus told us clearly (it’s still a very hard lesson) that being his disciples means laying down our very selves so that we focus on him. That’s the way God molds us into the truest versions of ourselves, exactly what our Creator had in mind when he made us for his joy.

G. K. Chesterton, an amazing and faith-filled wordsmith once wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.”

Too often we stumble around in darkness, always in one way or another taking mental “selfies” to see how what we’re doing is “playing.” But it’s hard to see at all when our universe is bounded north, south, east, and west by self. And how boring!

In his light, we begin to open ourselves up to the lives of others, and we find their lives and stories and personalities, their joys and trials and sheer courage, not boring in the least.

If we would let in the light of Christmas, God’s light, Chesterton writes, “You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

God’s light splashing our souls with God’s joy has been known to grow some very large souls indeed.

My Christmas lights won’t add much to the divine light kindled by our Creator, but nonetheless, I plan to join my neighbors in flipping the switch each night and adding my little attempts at glimmers of light to the nuclear reaction of God’s cosmic glory.

All genuine light is God’s light, you know.

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 2021 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 Confession of Unfaithful Behavior 

I guess I’d better confess.

Before I do, may I just say that I thought I could live with the guilt. I tried to convince myself that the transgression was not particularly serious.

But now I feel unfaithful. I feel dirty. Like I need a shower.

It was Monday afternoon. I’m never at my best on Mondays. I was tired. I was out of town. Temptation is always harder to resist when you’re weary and miles from home.

Those are, of course, poor excuses. Want more? I’ve got plenty. But they all crumble.

Only one Person has ever lived a sinless life. He was, we’re told, “tempted, yet without sin.”

Answering those who charged that resisting temptation must have been easier for our Lord because of his divinity, C. S. Lewis said, basically, “Nonsense!” He explained that, if we want to know how truly strong a temptation is, the only way to find out is by resisting, not by giving in. And he wryly wondered how many of us have been seriously tempted to turn stones into bread.  

Nor, come to think of it, have I ever been tempted to toss myself off the top of any temple and expect angels to catch me, though I have changed our church steeple lights a time or a few. I figure I’ve gotten all the joy that job is likely to hold; I’m done. If you see me up there again, you’ll know it’s Satan who tempted me.

With regard to temptation, we are all incredibly ordinary, and I think I could prove it. Maybe this Sunday at church, we could just go around the room and let everyone stand in turn and confess his/her deepest, darkest, most shameful sin. (Be sure and come. You’d hate to miss this, and we’d love for you to have an opportunity to join us.)

I’ll betcha cappuccino to decaf that we’d start off holding our collective breaths in “reality TV” style voyeuristic anticipation, adrenaline sizzling through our veins. A preference for back pew real estate might finally make some sense: we’d likely expect the confessing to start up front. And I’ll bet that, long before the last person got to “share,” the whole thing would end up being pretty boring.

The real lesson we might learn—along with affirming the Apostle Paul’s indictment of humanity, “all have sinned”—is that we each fall prey to the worst (and most ludicrous) sin of all: we are so sinfully proud that we really fancy ourselves to be very advanced and particularly sinful sinners.

No, we’re not. We’re very ordinary people, spiritual rookies of the rankest sort, who fall to temptation stupidly, easily, quickly, often—and to the very same categories of temptation available since our first parents got snake-bit.

Uniquely tempted? Us!? Are you kidding? None of us is uniquely good at being bad.

So why do I feel so dirty? So small and, yes, unfaithful?

I can hardly look at my phone, but I reach over and put my hand on it gently. It has a fingerprint sensor. But, and here’s my sin—oh, the shame of it!—I fell to sin and to family peer pressure by . . . dare I say it? . . . ordering a phone with fruit on it. Why? Oh, why? I felt remorse even as I left the store!

Samsung’s Galaxy phones have never done me wrong. Sleek, svelte, graceful, and completely customizable, I’ve always loved them. But now I avert my eyes from my faithful phone, and I’m reading about and waiting for its replacement.

The new one has a black notch up on its forehead, kind of like an eye patch. I know. I should not make fun of its deformity. Or its boxiness. My old phone had curves; this one has a metal girdle. To silence it, you flip an actual toggle switch. (Will I need to wait for its vacuum tubes to warm up when I turn it on?)

The new phone comes with half the accessories my old phone did and obtaining them costs twice as much. In overt condescension, it assumes that I’m an idiot and hides most of its actual files.

As my eyes drop down to the fine phone I’m casting aside, my heart falls within me. I am a betrayer. Have I sold my soul, abandoned my principles, for that which is less than what I had? Oh, the shame!

Again the truth pierces my consciousness: faithless folks like me rarely trade up. Yes, and this is also true: the faithless are fickle. Would I be surprised to read my own words in, say, a year from now, snobbishly praising fruitish phones? Not at all, wretch that I am.

But stop. Breathe.

At least I’ve been forced to think more deeply (a few paragraphs above are actually quite serious) about the nature of temptation—and thence my need for grace (serious, for sure). That need is deep. The well of my Father’s mercy is infinitely deeper. And we can call on him at any time.

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“Count Your Many Blessings” 

By Curtis K. Shelburne

Here’s a modernized hymn for Thanksgiving (with apologies to Johnson Oatman, Jr., whose over-a-century-old lyrics I’ve messed with):

Count your many blessings;

Name them one by one!

Giving thanks for all good things,

To whom it may concern.

As most of you know, the first two lines are the originals; mine are the last two. I like Mr. Oatman’s original words much better. (He wrote lyrics for over 5,000 gospel songs!)

But, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been thinking also of something author Cornelius Plantinga observed years ago as he wrote, “It must be odd to be thankful to no one in particular.” So, having pondered that idea a little, I found myself wondering what sort of song might be appropriate for a “to whom it may concern” approach to Thanksgiving in particular and gratitude in general.

I’m sure “counting” our “many blessings,” as Mr. Oatman counsels in the classic gospel song (music by Mr. E. O. Excell, who wrote over 2,000 songs) is great spiritual medicine for us all. And, for us all, even, amazingly, in some very, very difficult times and hard circumstances, the list will be long.

My counsel would be to make a very real list. Write down a bunch of blessings, and then put it aside, but nearby, so you can add more as they come to mind.

And I’d suggest launching out with no particular order or rank in mind. It’s fine to list “life itself” right beside “my fuzzy slippers.” “My grandkids” are in no way demeaned by listing them alongside “a warm fire in the hearth.” Don’t make this hard; just let the items pile up.

At some point, a page or a few into the exercise, spend a little time focusing on a specific item or a few, large or small, and practice “peeling back the onion” a bit.

The “fire in the hearth” example is more than theoretical. I’m writing this in front of my first fire of the season. The onion-peeling thing means thinking about the layers of blessing inherent in any specific blessing. On paper, depending on how you run with this, some layers of blessing might be “diagrammed” onion-like in concentric circles on the page.

Some blessings might lend themselves more to a sort of family tree-like diagram. “Nice fire” up at the top. Then branching out, fireplace, wood, trees, seasons, etc. I’m soon reminded that, though I built the fireplace and bought the wood, I had financial blessings and a job that made such possible. It won’t take long for me to be reminded that I did not make the trees or fashion the seasons. We get past “me” in the diagram of blessing very quickly. Good lesson, that.

Some folks, of course, peel back the onion and see nothing at the center. Or their “blessing diagram” may indeed lead to some fine folks and good things, but (how to say this?) fairly quickly “thins” out.

But I don’t believe “nothing” is at the center. A seed was there. Life was there. And, I believe, the Author of life gave me my life as well, and all of “my” blessings come, at heart, from His hand. If I keep peeling back the layers, “diagramming” my blessings, it doesn’t take me long to get to my Father at the center of it all.

By the way, the more science tells me about creation, the more I thank the Creator in amazement and awe.

For life itself and for fuzzy, warm slippers, I give thanks to Him.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

True Love and Love’s Extravagance 

A brand new washer and dryer. That’s what, as the fervor and devotion of forty-six years of marital bliss burst into full flower, radiant color, and indescribable beauty—such that it could no longer be contained but must be expressed in utter extravagance and proclaimed anew—I recently bought for my wife.

May I hasten to say that I have not shackled my soul-mate to any laundry-room mechanisms. She is absolutely free and completely liberated. If you know us, you know that my wife is not equal to me for the simple reason that equality with me would necessitate a serious descent on her part. I know this. And I do laundry, too. Not well. And with less finesse and fewer rules than she brings to the laundry room, but I do laundry. Poorly, I’m told, but I do it.

Still, my wife feels, with kind equanimity, that I bought the new washer and dryer with her in mind. She is correct, which leads me to another caveat. I know that special occasion gifts for wives are never supposed to have electric plugs. The extravagant purchase of a cutting edge microwave in around 1976 taught me this. But the new washer and dryer were not special occasion gifts, hence not under the “no plug” regulation. They were just gifts of “no special occasion” love, as described in my first paragraph above, though I admit that my words there may be a little over the top.

By the way, one thing we’ve noticed is that the top itself is taller than it used to be. On the washer, I mean. My wife didn’t want a front-loader to stand on her head to get into or to perch on a pedestal. Nor did she want mildew or to have to take precautions against mildew. So, knowing this, I bought a top-loading machine. That’s great, but the massive thing is, mysteriously, ten feet tall and twenty feet deep. A stool or a pair of tongs solve the problem for Her Shortness admirably.

Washers and dryers used to be rather reasonably priced. That has changed. These cost a lot more than my first car. More proof of my devotion.

And more still! Nothing was wrong with our old machines. Over the years, I’d replaced belts, clutches, pumps, rollers, switches, heating elements, etc., and, for a lot longer than the new ones will work, I predict, the old machines worked.

I won’t be working on these. I’d be more likely to work on one of Elon Musk’s rocket ships. I might be able to call one of the machines and ask if there was a problem. For some reason, they have Wi-Fi. For cutting edge laundry apps or self-diagnostics? Or maybe the connectivity is for the convenience of the thugs in power in China should they ever want to hack in and launch a missile from our laundry room.

There’s a lot I don’t understand about these two new tributes of my love. I do know that they are new.

When in Revelation, the Apostle John writes that God will make “all things new,” I’m told that, in Greek, he had two choices for the word “new.” One meant “new” in chronology (in time), but the word that he chose covered not just time but quality. John was sharing God’s promise of life, completely “new” and unimaginably better than the old.

Coming back now to a much lower matter, I should probably just say that the jury is still out regarding our laundry room situation and whether or not “new” is better than the old.

But I personally feel that my unutterable display of unending love and husbandly devotion is beyond question. At least, that’s what I think.

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 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.