Monthly Archives: March 2014

“Thou Preparest a Table Before Me in the Presence of . . .”


What we say and what people hear us say are rarely the same things. Nobody knows that better than your preacher.

A ministry colleague told me of sitting in a restaurant after worship one Sunday. Just waiting for his food, he did not intend to eavesdrop, but he overheard one of his members in a nearby booth delivering to a friend a brief synopsis of her pastor’s sermon. Hearing what she had heard him say almost cost him his appetite.

Communication in general is hard. Communicating via preaching is particularly hard.

Maybe that’s why most preachers I know find themselves at times replaying their sermon in their own heads, wondering if they communicated, and wishing they could tweak the message just a tad.

After preaching recently, I found myself doing just that. Most of the time, it’s just mental, but some of my post-sermon analysis this week I did out loud. My wise wife (most pastors’ wives are wiser than most pastors) finally just smiled, “Okay, that’s enough. Give it a rest.”

I will. I promise.

But may I just say that my text yesterday was the venerable Psalm 23. Mostly, as you’d expect, we focused on its message of beauty and comfort and hope.

Then I took just a little side-trip, mentioning that I’d read Psalm 23 for years before I adequately noted two things.

First, in the midst of all the beauty, the psalmist lets us know that he has an “enemy.”

Second, the beautiful feast (“Thou preparest a table before me”) is wonderful, but what we often miss is that the food on God’s table tastes even better to the psalmist because his enemies are having to watch hungry while he eats (“in the presence of mine enemies”).

I still have no doubt that’s part of the picture. What I didn’t say out loud, but what is obvious from our Lord’s teaching, is that we should ask God to help us forgive our enemies (at least, for help to want to try) and not spend a lot of time enjoying their “comeuppance” when it comes up. I should have said that.

Still, don’t read what I just said here and think I blame the psalmist too much. I’m not that nice. I like his honesty, and I like it a lot. (If this psalmist is indeed King David, it’s a lot less than rotten old King Saul deserves if he has to stand hungry and watch while David enjoys a good meal.)

I like very much the fact that the writers of the psalms tell us how they feel instead of how they ought to feel. We can learn from that.

Rather than agonizing over how we ought to feel, we’re better off just being honest with our Father about how we do feel. Then we can ask him to help us act toward our enemies, and others, in the way he wants us to, whether we feel like it or not.

Better that our cups “runneth over” with a little genuine honesty than our buckets be full of pious sanctimony.


    You’re invited to visit my website at


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.

A Need for Sleep and a Need for Humility Share the Same Pillow

Zzzs 01

I’ve slept since then, so I don’t remember when it aired, but several years ago, 60 Minutes did an interesting story on “sleep.”

Sleeping is one thing I’ve always been very good at. But if anyone has pointers, I’m willing to listen. What I heard was fascinating.

Modern folks in our society have been a little snooty and dismissive about sleep, as if needing to snooze at all is something of an embarrassment, a luxury we could likely do without if we weren’t so lazy and unmotivated. Not so!

In 1980 a study was done using rats who were kept awake indefinitely. After five days, they began dying. They needed sleep as badly as they needed food. All mammals do.

Recent studies show that sleep is every bit as important to our health as diet and exercise, and that we need 7 1/2 to 8 hours of it each day. The lack thereof seriously affects our memory, our metabolism, our appetite, how we age, and, it seems, if we drive ourselves and/or others crazy (my phrasing here).

A study at the University of Chicago School of Medicine restricted the sleep of young, healthy test subjects to four hours a night for six consecutive nights. At the end of that time, tests showed that each of the subjects was in a pre-diabetic state, which was naturally reversed when they resumed sleeping normally.

They were also hungry. Lack of sleep caused a drop in levels of leptin, a hormone that tells our brains when we’re not hungry.

Cheating your sleep? No problem. If you don’t mind being fat and sick. One researcher said that sleep deprivation should certainly be considered a risk factor for Type II diabetes. The program host went on to mention studies done all over the world linking lack of sleep to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke—not to mention the mood swings that make sleep-deprived people “hell on wheels” to harmony in their homes and workplaces, and whose brain activity on MRIs mimics that of the severely psychiatrically disturbed.

To Type A folks who think they’ve trained themselves to do fine with little sleep, the researchers reply, “Nonsense.” For a day or two, artificial “counter measures” such as caffeine or physical activity may mask the problem, but it is cumulative and real and can’t be hidden for long.

“People who are chronically sleep-deprived, like people who have had too much to drink, often have no sense of their limitations,” said Dr. David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “It’s a convenient belief,” he says. But he issues a standing invitation for “any CEO or anyone else in the world” to come to his laboratory and prove it.

We easily adopt society’s lie that our true worth comes from what we produce. We’re so impressed with ourselves, our indispensability, our strategies and plans. We quit “wasting time” by sleeping much. Then the wheels come off even as we slog on physically and emotionally as if through molasses.

And the God who is real Rest and Peace but who himself never needs to sleep, chuckles and says, “Time for bed, child. Go to sleep and let me do within you what you can’t do for yourself. I’ll spin the world a few rotations without your help.”

I need to ponder the lessons in that. But right now, I need a nap.


        You’re invited to visit my website at!


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.

Suffering Is a Solvent Stripping Away Easy Answers


Suffering. It’s the solvent that strips away easy answers.

At every time of suffering, some well-meaning somebody is around to toss out poorly thought-out, nonsensical, and unwittingly cruel “pious” platitudes: “God won’t put more on you than you can stand.” That kind of drivel.

Well, God probably did not put this suffering on you at all; you got it by living in a fallen world.

“Life” doesn’t—life can’t—care what it does to you any more than the iceberg that sank the Titanic did so out of maliciously icy motives. Ship hits hard ice. Ice puts hole in ship. Ship sinks. People die. Life doesn’t care. Not because it’s mean or evil. Because it can’t. It’s an it.

Here’s the paradox. Life is not alive, if by “alive” you mean personal. The Author of Life cares deeply about what happens to you and how you feel about it, deal with it, bear up under it. He sees when even a sparrow falls. But life does not. It can’t.

Life is a great gift from God, but living in a fallen world is not easy. We will all go through times when life is agonizing.

Let’s try to be honest for a change—in times of great pain, the only thing worse than being alive would be NOT being alive. One important way God helps us through the agony is by reminding us of the real times of joy we’ve had, and will have, that make life precious.

But that does not mean that the present “agony” is anything less than agonizing. We don’t help ourselves—and I know we don’t help other sufferers—by lies: “Oh, it’s not so bad” when, yes, it is.

“God will use this to make you stronger.” Probably. I know he wants to because he loves the sufferer. I know he can, if we let him. But folks who lightly toss out that line richly deserve the opportunity themselves to be made stronger. Then we’ll see if they prattle on about it.

Yes, our redemptive God can use suffering to strengthen us as fire tempers steel. If we survive suffering, we’ll come through stronger. Not everyone does. And no one in their right mind enjoys it. I’ve never met a soldier who saw thick combat who liked talking about it. Never.

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who has ever experienced the real thing saying to a sufferer in the midst of the fire: “God will use this to make you stronger.” The right to say those words is hard-earned, and those who have earned the right have also earned the wisdom to almost never say them.

Through his own suffering, Dr. Paul Tournier, a man of deep faith, dared to write a book entitled Creative Suffering. I remember it because he threw down no platitudes. He faced suffering’s dark night without lying to himself or others about it’s “not being so black.” Through his own tears, he found that God helped him endure it, even when he felt like he could not, would not, and when just remembering to breathe on some days seemed like incredible success.

That’s real and honest. Those whose faith and presence are most helpful when we suffer are not those who say, “It’s not so bad”; they are those who know that it is bad, very bad. But they’ve endured horribly black times, weren’t sure they could, but are still breathing, living, and managing to find hope—sometimes just one moment at a time—in Him.


      You’re invited to visit my website at


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.

“Out of the Depths” Comes a Cry for Help and Hope



I love the Psalms.

They teach us to pray. They teach us to be honest with God. In each one, at least in a verse or two, and often in every verse, we find ourselves and our own feelings.

Consider, for example, Psalm 130. Ah, here’s a psalm for real people, flesh and blood humans who haven’t got life all figured out, who make mistakes regularly, whose lives have plenty of room left for growth. Real people with blood in their veins.

Someone once poked fun at the Puritans by chiding that they thought themselves so holy that they had to hold on to the huckleberry bushes to keep from inadvertently ascending.

The writer of Psalm 130 is under no such delusion. Driven to his knees and to his Lord by his own weakness, his cry for help and mercy becomes our own cry for mercy and grace. No wonder this psalm has through the centuries often been used in the worship and liturgy of God’s people to express their need, their confession of sin, their trust.

The psalmist (probably not David on this one), starts off “real” and stays that way: “I’m in a mess, and only you, my God, can save me!” The NIV renders this, “O Lord, out of the depths I cry to you!”

Eugene Peterson is right on target, as usual, in his paraphrase (The Message): “Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Listen to my cry for mercy!”

This cry comes from “out of the depths.” The psalmist is sinking in his trouble. He’s drowning and headed for oblivion, and he knows it. If you’re drowning, you don’t politely whisper, “Say, would you help me please? Ever so sorry to be a bother, but I really believe I may be drowning.”

I’ll never forget the day my son Joshua and I went, believe it or not, rafting down the Nile in Uganda. We had great guides, but a Class 5 rapid christened “Silverback” just about did us both in.

We knew our chances of riding the raft all the way through that one were virtually nil; the right plan is to ride it as long as possible before the inevitable dunking and downward plunge. It is incredibly difficult to get your breath in that kind of white water even when, after what seems like thirty minutes down below, you finally bob up (which you do by relaxing [?!] and trusting your vest). The muted underwater world and the green glow you saw overhead as you floated upward has finally turned back into the deafening but welcome sound of crashing waves. You see bright light and foam and froth; you desperately need air, but all you seem to be able to suck in is foam and spray. Seems such a shame, you find yourself thinking, to get to the surface and still drown!

What Silverback did to me, life at times does to us all. And we find ourselves fresh out of wise words and self-help strategies and success seminars. We discover that we’re in the same boat as all humans. We are not “a cut above” and our words are cut down to three: “O God, help!”

He does. And the psalmist’s words in this psalm become ours: “If you, God, kept records of wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped” (The Message).

        You’re invited to visit my website at!

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.

Pious Pete Declines to Attend the Father’s Party


prodigal son 01

Someone has called Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son “the Gospel within the Gospels” as in it Jesus tells us the story of us all, and the story of God’s love.

You know the story.

A father has two sons. The younger son—immature, rebellious, and headstrong— impetuously demands his inheritance, takes off to a “far country,” and proceeds to heartily party until his dad’s shekels are spent and the party plays out. In the midst of a post-party famine, he finds himself starving and in such bad shape that he’s glad to land a job feeding pigs. One dark day he catches himself envying the porkers who are eating better than he is.

That’s when the prepositions start improving. Once full OF himself, the younger son “comes TO his senses” and realizes he needs to go home TO his father and beg to be taken back not as a son but as a hired hand. Hired hands eat better than pigs.

His father sees him coming while he’s still a long way off, and from then on in the parable, the predominant note is JOY as the father runs to throw his arms around his son, his “lost” son who is found.

Before the now-much-wiser lad can finish his “just make me a hired hand” speech, the father orders up a robe and sandals and a signet ring, and he calls for a feast and the best of parties.
Joy abounds! Except . . .

Except in the heart of the older son who never left home but instead, as he puts it, stayed at home to “slave away” for the father. “And,” pious Pete whines, “you never threw me a party!”

Wonder why! This sad-sack is one of those folks who can put a damper on any party and lower the temperature in any room just by showing up.

The guy probably has some good qualities, but he’s the sort that makes you wonder, “Ya know, if heaven’s full of folks like him, . . .” Don’t worry. It’s not.

I admit it: I don’t like him, not least because all too often, I’m afraid I look way too much like him. He’s long on the kind of “virtues” that give the term a bad name, and I suspect he’s a bit short on vices. Vices are bad in many ways, but they do have the worthwhile effect of reminding us that we’re human.

Good Puritans and genuinely good human beings are not, thank the Lord, the same cats.

The young son? Him, I like. Once he’s come to his senses. At one time, yes, he had a mistaken view of real fun and real life. Early on, he had a warped view of joy and looked for it in all the wrong ways and places.

But at least he was looking for it. At least he knew life was something to be loved. Now he knows why. Now he knows where love and life come from: his father. Now he smiles more, laughs more, and drinks more deeply from real joy. He’s found the real party, and his father is the one throwing it!

Henri Nouwen is right when he says that it’s a lot harder to come home when you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the good son, and you’ve never left.

The younger son made lots of mistakes. The older son is living a mistake. And he’s missing the party.


      You’re invited to visit my website at!


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.

%d bloggers like this: