Monthly Archives: April 2015

Some of God’s Best Blessings Are “Background Blessings”


“Music with dinner,” writes G. K. Chesterton, “is an insult both to the cook and the violinist.”

In wordsmithing and logic, no one beats Chesterton, and I think he’s right on this subject at hand, more often than not. If the musician is not very musical. If the violin or guitar or whatever is too loud or too close to your table and your ear.

If the music and the menu are mismatched, that can lead to indigestion, too. You don’t sing “You’re the Hangnail of My Life” at a classy Italian restaurant. (It’s pretty hard to imagine a venue that song would help much.) And heavy metal doesn’t aid digestion. Or much else.

But, with apologies to Chesterton, and with your indulgence as I’m obviously short on column ideas this week, I beg to differ just a bit in a minor key and on a personal note.

I’m asked pretty regularly to croon a tune or two at dinner meetings and programs. If I’m the program, that means I’ll usually have thirty minutes or so to divvy up between singing and talking about the songs or whatever. For a guy who loves to sing, loves music, and enjoys telling stories about life and music, thirty minutes is a starvation diet, but I try to make it work.

If our program time is limited, I like it when my hosts ask me also to provide a little—sorry G. K.—dinner music and I become the vocal “violinist.” I think I’ve learned a little about how not to mess with the cook’s meal or the diners’ digestion.

First, you let folks know that you know your job. “During the meal, I’ll provide a little music, but keep right on visiting. Right now, I’m background and nothing more. Bon appetit!”

Then you turn up the volume and kick in with “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone!”

No, just the opposite. You turn the volume down, and here’s the trick: During dinner you stick almost exclusively with smooth, soft songs they know and enjoy having in the background. If you foolishly force stuff on them they have to work to listen to, well, that’s just annoying, and it messes with their meal and dinner conversation. At program time, I know they’ll give me both ears. I can wait, and I’ll try to give them some songs worthy of the gift. Then they’ll consciously listen.

Both parts of the experience are fun, I think. I like the program part, but I also enjoy getting to help folks just sit back, relax, enjoy what the cook’s done, and tune into each other. That’s the kind of time our world needs more of. Anytime we can add anything at all to a little beauty, joy, and peace, that’s a blessing.

Come to think of it, some of the best blessings of God are “background blessings.” They don’t break in and demand our attention. They’re not firework flashy. They’re just quietly there. Beauty and joy and peace. Real. Present. Rich. Filling the background spaces of our lives. His flavor. His music.


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Copyright 2015 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 Was a Dark and Stormy Night . . .”

Galilee Storm and Christ

Fear and faith. Both color our journey in this life. I hope we know ourselves well enough to just frankly admit that it’s no rare occasion when the former threatens to swamp the latter. It’s nothing new.

In Mark 6:45-52, the disciples of Christ have gotten into a boat on the Sea of Galilee to go ahead of the Lord into the village of Bethsaida. Jesus himself has stayed behind to dismiss the crowd of 5,000 which he has just fed, and to go up on a mountainside to pray. Out on the lake, in the middle of the night, a storm has come up, and the disciples are straining at the oars “because the wind was against them.”

You know the feeling, don’t you? We’re in the same boat.

Often in our own journeys, the wind seems to be against us. It blows in the form of trials that test our faith, weaknesses in ourselves or others that cause us pain, bad decisions complete with unpleasant consequences, awful diagnoses, sudden tragedy.

Sometimes we’ve steered the wrong course and are in treacherous waters. We should have been wiser sailors. We should have consulted the Captain of our souls, His compass, His chart.

Sometimes the storm is simply upon us and the most experienced sailor in the world could not have seen it coming. But come it did.

Several of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee that night were experienced sailors, fishermen who knew its every league, every fathom, every eddy. From the sea, they had drawn out their living, but suddenly they are faced with the prospect of dying in its depths.

At around 3:00 a.m., in the middle of that dark night, Jesus goes “where no man has gone before” (at least not without a boat), walking on the water. He hears their cry for help, and he gets into the boat.

That’s the Incarnation, folks. That’s the Lord of the sea saying to them, to you, to me, “Don’t be afraid; I’m with you on the journey.”

On the sea that night, the disciples had lots of fear, precious little faith—just enough to let their Lord get into the boat. Maybe his gift to them was that on that day, when that was all the faith they had, that was all the faith required. Maybe that is his gift to us, too.

Ah, it is a wonderful gift! When we’re tempted to be paralyzed by fear in the face of all that has happened and all that might happen on the journey, the Captain of our souls comes to you and to me and says, “I’ll never ask you to take a journey that I won’t take right by your side. Just let me into your boat.”


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Copyright 2015 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Genuine Worship Focuses on the Source of All Beauty

worshiping 01

I love what happens when God’s people worship, and I count it a joy and a high honor to help lead worship. It’s odd, though, that leading worship and worshiping are not the same things. They can be very difficult to do at the same time.

Conscientious worship-leaders can easily get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of leading worship that they themselves worship hardly at all. Some of that tension is unavoidable. Trying to structure worship so that it flows smoothly and feels spontaneous takes, ironically, a great deal of planning, preparation, and hard work that is not spontaneous at all. Leave off the preparation, and it won’t feel spontaneous; it will feel shoddy because it will be.

Surely the best and truest worship occurs when what we do and see and say and sing and hear in worship is designed to point beyond us. We ourselves, what we’re doing, and what is being done, cease to be on center stage as through worship we’re focused on God and what he has done. When we open our hearts to praise him we also open our hands to receive the blessing he reaches down to impart.

Sometimes, though, we worship-leaders can structure worship in ways that make worshiping harder. About the time worship really begins to happen, we short-circuit praise to call out hymn numbers. Or a chatty worship-leader breaks in so often urging us to praise that he makes it harder for us to do what he’s incessantly asking. About the time we’re centering on the Healer of our souls, an ill-timed and lengthy announcement calls our attention to Sister Smithers’ gall bladder. We’re about to feast at God’s banquet, but next Sunday’s all-church picnic takes center stage.

Just when we’re about to worship, thoughts about worship intrude, tastes or scruples about forms of worship stifle, and the Life-connection that God graciously gives when we freely adore is lost as we’re slavishly drawn back to focus on ourselves, our leaders. Was it C. S. Lewis who observed that, as long as you’re worried about the steps of the dance, you’re not dancing?

Make no mistake, genuine worship has far less to do with the quality of the service than it does with the quality of the worshiper’s heart. But conscientiously leading worship—planning it, structuring it—is still a big responsibility. Do it badly, and a shoddy, ill-prepared service calls attention to its shoddiness. Plan it and execute it well, and even then, if our attitudes are wrong, the attention may focus on the messenger and not the Message, the singer and not the Song.

By the way, as hard as our consumer society finds this to believe, we might even worship best at times when we’re singing a song we really dislike but we sing anyway out of love for a fellow worshiper down the pew who finds it a blessing. We are, after all, worshiping a Lord who went to a cross rather than have his own way.

Ah, to worship can be tough. So much inside of us and outside of us can derail the train. But it also can be breathtakingly beautiful if—only if—it helps us connect with the One who is all beauty.


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Copyright 2015 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 Ministry Centers on Relationship, Not Marketing


Thirty years. Easter Sunday was for my wife and me our 30th anniversary.

“Interesting,” someone might say, “since three of your four sons are older than 30. Glad you got around to tying the knot.”

Now did I say it was a wedding anniversary? No, I did not.

But, though I couldn’t have known it fully at the time, Easter Sunday 1985, my first Sunday in the pulpit of the church I still serve, bore witness to a covenant much more akin to a marriage than to a business contract or a casual employment arrangement between preacher and church, each looking for a good deal.

I remember that some of my pastoral colleagues in the city from whence I moved were worried about me. They didn’t like the look of the marriage. I was headed to a smaller town and a small church. These were pastors in “connectional systems” who, if they did a good job, could pretty much count on at least some “upward mobility.”

I tried in vain to explain that seriously prestigious churches (which probably should be a contradiction in terms anyway) in our little group were rare to non-existent. Any preacher in my anti-denomination denomination wanting to climb a career “ladder” had better jump the fence and look for ladders elsewhere. Our little group of churches had plenty of problems of its own, but an over-abundance of “ladders” was not one of them.

Maybe in a sense my colleagues were right. Thirty years in a small church “marriage” may indeed spell death to a “career.” And in that may lie great blessing as both church and pastor learn some precious truths, and together they grow in ways that matter.

Real ministry is more than marketing; the real thing centers on relationship. It starts, of course, with loving the Lord first of all and then building on that divine love in human relationship. Building anything worthwhile takes time.

Relationships can be messy, and the best and the worst in life in a local church centers on the fact that the church is as human as it is heavenly. On any given day or any given moment, it can and does veer wildly off in either direction. And pastors face choices. To be law people or grace people. To be organization people or relationship people. To be bean counters or to be shepherds. Somewhere along the way (and this is true in other professions, too, by the way), they find out if their lives are about “calling” or “career.”

Pastor and author Eugene Peterson warns that in our market-driven consumer society, the last folks the church needs as pastors are religious entrepreneurs with business models who cut and run whenever the present church “marriage” loses its glitz: “The vocation of pastor has to do with living out the implications of the word of God in community, not sailing off into the exotic seas of religion in search of fame or fortune.”

Thirty years of laughter, love, and precious tears. I’m still very thankful indeed for the “marriage.” But if this is just a “career,” boy, do I need a ladder!


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Copyright 2015 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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