Monthly Archives: February 2014

“Blessing” and “Luck” Are Not the Same Things


fortune cookie

Fortune cookies. Like most folks, I’m quite willing to pop one open and chow down on it at the end of a Chinese sort of meal.

Like most folks, I look at the little piece of paper inside.

Like most folks, except for the kind of people who actually pay “palm readers” and “psychics” as an alternative to stuffing their money down a toilet and taking a chance with plumbing bills, I usually pay no attention at all to the poorly worded little messages inside. But . . .

I still remember one I pulled out years ago that would quickly catch anybody’s attention, kick-start some introspection, start a belly laugh, or make a person pack and leave town: “That which you thought was secret is known by all.” Whoever wrote that one was in a weird mood.

Just the other day, I cracked open a fortune cookie and read this: “You will have good luck and overcome many hardships.”

Hmm. Just how many hardships can a really lucky person bump into, overcome, and still be considered a very lucky person?

Being a pastor, I tend to mull over the theological implications of everything from a “good morning” to, yes, even fortune cookie “wisdom.”

“You will have good luck . . .” Well, okay. I like “good” much better than “bad.”

But a friend and mentor, Eddy Ketchersid, taught me something years ago. A ministry intern, I did some simple task at the church and spouted, “Well, I had good luck with that!”

Eddy smiled, “It might have been a blessing and not luck.” Christians should use the word “luck” sparingly, if at all; most of what the world chalks up to “luck” are blessings from the hand of God, better filed under “God’s love” than “good luck.”

But the cookie’s words went on: You lucky person, you! You’ll “overcome many hardships.”

I don’t like hardships. It just takes a windy, brown, dusty day to make me surly, and on days when I’m dealing with, or my family is facing, a certifiable “hardship,” I’m very disappointing.

Like almost all of our society and most fat, lazy, and selfish western Christianity (which holds an utterly inadequate view of suffering), I tend to equate the most blessed life with the life that endures the least pain. I know not to trust most of them, but I’m tempted to buy the message of TV preachers who pawn off a “magical” view of Christianity as “self-help” where you dump all the right ingredients, “principles,” into the pot, and a life of health and wealth and blessing pops out.

Oh, we like our witch doctors. We want lives of unbroken blessing. Heaven here. Never mind that such an approach forgets about Christ’s cross, focuses on us and not God, and is at heart cruel, implying that if you suffer, you just didn’t cook the recipe right.

But change a few of the cookie’s words, and suddenly it speaks profound truth to God’s people: “You will have great blessing and overcome many hardships.” Yes, both. Not because of luck. Because of your Father.

The Apostle Paul said it like this: In “all these things [hardships] we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).


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Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“It’s Just a Fact, But a Fact It Is . . .”

school 01

It’s just a fact, but a fact it is, that the teachers who most influenced my life early on were Methodists.

San Jacinto Elementary in Amarillo, Texas, was evidently a hotbed of Methodism. Or maybe it was just that my primary school path there was colored by the presence of three of them. Someday I’ll write another column and give Baptists and Church of Christ folks and Lutherans, etc., some well-deserved good words for their blessing in my life. But today, these fifty years after they taught me, I’m thanking God for three “Methodees,” as Franklin Roosevelt smilingly called their breed.

My first grade teacher was Mrs. Vera Carmody. I thought she was old and fierce. But she couldn’t have been what the Bible describes as “full of years” because she had a great many left to fill up. She lived to be 1000 or so. (Actually, 101! Born in 1899; died in 2000!)

But I was right about the fierce part. (Lucille Ball’s red hair was just a sparkler compared to Mrs. Carmody’s fireball red!) Mrs. Carmody was fiercely devoted to teaching first-graders not only how to read but how to live. She checked our hair, our teeth, and our fingernails, as well as the notebooks where we pasted pictures of apples for A, bananas for B, etc. I’d still like to see some trendy educational egghead try to tell Mrs. Carmody that kids could learn to read worth squat and not be taught phonics. She’d swat the prof’s hand with her legendary ruler, sit his tail in a chair, and enforce silence in the room until he sounded out whatever word she prescribed for his cure.

I don’t know if Mrs. Carmody believed that “every child can learn.” But I’m sure she believed every child in her classroom darn well would learn—or else. Fierce? Oh, yes! She fiercely loved us all. Methodist, she was.

And then there was Mrs. Maxine Faulkner. Third grade. I learned the “Lord’s Prayer” not at church where I should have, but in Mrs. Faulkner’s third grade class. We stood and recited that prayer, along with the Pledge of Allegiance, every morning. We had no idea how much damage we were doing to the Constitution of these United States. (I’m kidding. And crying.) I remember singing as she played the piano. By the way, she played the piano for her Sunday School class two months before she died. Also age 101! Methodist, she was.

Setting the tone for the whole school (all six grades) was one of the finest men I’ve ever known, Mr. Robert Birchfield. I will always think of this big, kind, gentle, amazingly strong and loving man with deep affection and gratitude. A father to us all, what a smile he had! What a hug! What a man! Methodist, he was.

All three of these folks were members of Amarillo’s Polk Street United Methodist Church. No particular point here—other than what a nice thing it is for any congregation when folks think of their members and “blessing” in the same thought—I’ve just always had very warm feelings toward Polk Street UMC and these three fine “Methodees.” I owe them much.

Christians, they were. Unashamedly so. Committed to Christ and thus committed to little children like me.

I hope I’ve made them proud. I know I thank God every day that folks of deep faith, and these three of the Methodist variety, have been such a blessing to me.


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Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Christians Should Not Be Surprised by Faith Struggles


faith 001

I want, I strive, to be a person of faith.

Given that I’m a Christian pastor, you’d sort of hope so, right? I don’t expect any “attaboys” from the stands.

I know you know that having real faith implies an on-going struggle—whoever you are, whatever your vocation. Pastors are not exempt.

I well remember talking to a ministerial mentor about some hard “faith questions” I was struggling with, when he replied, “Where do you think many of my sermons come from? My own questions and struggles, exactly like the one you’ve just laid out. Why would you think having faith means not having deep questions?”

He’s right. The One who affirmed that we should “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is not averse to our using our minds. We should apologize for not using them enough—as long as we don’t forget that, at the end of the inquiry, it’s childlike faith Christ values most.

Real faith is not unquestioning. By all means, use every tool available to hone your mind. Read. Study. Learn how to ask the right questions. But do so in the full realization that no bridge of logic will extend across the whole chasm. Eventually, everybody has to make a choice and take a leap of faith, even if it’s the negative faith that chooses to believe in unbelief. Choosing not to choose is its own poor choice. Instead of “minding the gap,” as the London Tube (subway) signs admonish, being careful when you cross the space between the platform and the subway car, choosing not to choose is trying to camp in the gap.

But even those who’ve made, I think, the best choice, agree that it’s not easy. C. S. Lewis, almost certainly the greatest defender and expositor of Christian belief in the past century, once said that no proposition of Christianity ever seemed less likely to be true to him than at the very moment he had just supposedly successfully “defended” it. That’s just the nature of the beast we call faith. Sometimes it purrs. Sometimes it growls.

Lewis also noted that believers should not be surprised if faith is at times difficult or fleeting. We are humans, after all, whose feelings are affected by everything from the weather to the state of our digestion. Refreshingly realistic, Lewis said that when he was an atheist, he had moments when he suspected that Christianity just might be true. Why should he be surprised to find that as a Christian, he had moments when he wondered if there was really anything to it? In such moments, it’s good to remember that, at a particular time, you’ve already, for good reasons, taken the leap, made the jump, sealed the promise, committed to the journey. Don’t navel-gaze too much in times when just hanging on to the precepts of faith seems difficult.

The good news is that those times pass. The bad news is that living out the faith is a lot harder than just holding to its central beliefs. The best news of all is that Christ understands our faith struggles and will buoy us up in the midst of them all.


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Copyright 2014 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Real Life and Real Faith Are the Same Real Story


jesus stories

One of my favorite authors is also one of my favorite storytellers.

A reviewer of my How To Measure a Rainbow book once called me a capable “storyteller.” Alas, that’s far too grand a title for me, but one I’d love to deserve.

The man I’m thinking of is the real deal. Most of his stories have come to me via the written word, but on one occasion I listened to him in person.

For two hours Walter Wangerin, Jr., spoke, and it seemed like only minutes. I’d have gladly listened for many more hours as this amazing Christian man, a Lutheran pastor and writer and father, wove seamless stories of life and faith.

Therein lies much of the beauty of his stories, I think—that in them life and faith are so completely undivided, and every part of life itself, from the mundane to the sublime, is seen as a sacred and holy whole, a gift from God. It’s when we allow our lives to be cut up and divided—never more fatally than when we separate the “religious” part of our lives from the rest—that we fall into all sorts of senseless and hurtful idiocy, call it our religion, and use it in an attempt to tie up and tame God.

But, you see, that last paragraph is weak. A good storyteller would craft and tell an engaging story to point to a deep truth rather than just lecturing about it. People sleep through lectures; they remember truths they learn from stories, which is why Jesus always taught using stories.

A few years ago, I stumbled across an article about Wangerin. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he had written a book about his struggle to live out in his last days the faith which has been his life.

Such a struggle is suddenly more poignant and pointed than the challenges most of us face on most days. He wrote about faith in the midst of the unremitting pain and indignities brought on by the disease and its horrible treatment. It’s one thing, he said, to tell a story about loving your neighbor; it’s another to try to write the story while dealing with the nausea of chemotherapy. It’s one thing to write about hope eternal; it’s another to try to get through an afternoon without barking in pain-induced frustration at the spouse upon whom you are increasingly dependent for the most basic aid.

You and I may not be engaged in such an obviously final struggle, but seamlessly living out life and faith is rarely easy. We believe the words, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, . . .”

But, even in “normal” life, as we pay our bills, fight traffic, work with difficult co-workers, weep over damaged relationships, and daily fall far short, our struggle is to believe these words: “For God so loved me, that he gave his only Son for me.”

If we believe them, then we are learning that faith is life and life is faith and the two separated are something far less than real life and real faith.

By the way, against the odds, Wangerin is still alive. Still writing. Still committed that his death will be yet another chapter in a life pointing to the unending story of God’s life and love.

If we love Christ, we’re living the “good news,” the greatest story of all. And his story is ours.

[By the way, if you want to read a really short, really amazing and beautiful story illustrating what Christ did for us on the cross, it’s more than worth checking out Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s The Ragman. If you’re interested, “Google” it.]

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Copyright 2014 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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