Monthly Archives: October 2017

What Sets Christianity Apart? Grace!

Author Philip Yancey writes that at a British conference, scholars from around the world were discussing the most basic beliefs that set Christianity apart from other world religions.

As they debated some important possibilities, C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and he was told that they were asking what Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions might be. He answered, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Yancey continues, “After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

We could never be saved by our own effort or by keeping any law, as St. Paul makes clear.

“We all [sinned], all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ” (Ephesians 2:3-5, The Message).

It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? Yes, and that’s a good sign! Real grace always sounds that way as it amazes those who receive it. Read the Gospels! You’ll find a lot of smiling, amazed people there. (Watch out for the Pharisees, though; they never smile. No surprise. Toxic religion never leaves its adherents anything to smile about.)

Real grace is always a little and maybe a lot scandalous. If no one thinks you’re too gracious, you’ve probably not felt and internalized enough of the grace of God yourself. If our churches aren’t regularly accused by some folks of being too gracious—too loose, too accepting, too free from law—that’s a very bad sign. It almost certainly means we don’t understand how much grace we’ve received and how rich is God’s supply. Read the Scriptures! The Good News, the real thing, the real Lord, has always scandalized people by the depth of his love and mercy.

If you’re God’s child, you don’t have to live a fearful, tentative life. Indeed, how dare you!? You don’t have to be careful lest you exhaust God’s amazing resources by being too loving, too gracious, too joyful, too free. God’s supply of love and grace, joy and freedom, is boundless!

You don’t have to live like the “one talent servant” in Christ’s parable (Matthew 25:14-30). Terrified that he might make some mistake and tick off his master (whom he misjudged completely), he made the worst mistake of all, not loving his master.

If we’re living lives cowering in fear, afraid to dance before our God because we might miss a step, we’re making the biggest mistake of all, not knowing and loving our Father as we should—the Father who continually amazes his children by the depth of his love and mercy, his grace and joy, and the genuine freedom that only he can give.

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

 

Copyright 2017 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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When Foundations Shift, Cracks Begin to Show

“Wow, I wonder how much farther that old sagging column supporting the corner of this old sagging house can lean out southward before the corner of the house just collapses and wordlessly pleads, ‘Help! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!’”

Nothing about that column is plumb, square, or level anymore, but I do notice some symmetry this morning. I’m writing my weekly Focus on Faith column weakly, sitting beside a weak porch column, and displaying at least some weak faith that this will not be the morning when that weak column collapses.

I don’t think the problem with that porch column started with the column. I’ve got my bag chair perched on the porch; if I look down, I see two things: 1) concrete, almost 90 years old, of an incredible quality no longer available; and, 2) in spite of the quality of the concrete, one big almost inch-wide crack bisecting the porch.

So the real problem is that the column is perched on the porch, the porch is concrete perched on a “stem-wall” foundation, and the foundation is shifting because the ground below it (drought-ravaged) started shifting first. Hence, that porch column leans, and even world-class concrete is defiled by a big crack.

When foundations become weak and begin shifting, much that we depend on to be sturdy begins to falter. We can no longer count on “plumb, square, and level.” Cracks that have been forming soon become too obvious to ignore. And, yes, eventually, columns tumble and what they have long supported crashes down.

We don’t have to look far in our society to see cracks becoming obvious. Look for their source and you’ll find foundations that are shifting and no longer able to support the weight they were designed to carry. Cracks. Crumbling. Collapse.

We’ve laughed at truth. I hear phrases like “your truth” and “my truth” which make about as much sense as “your gravity” and “my gravity.”

We’ve twisted real freedom, freedom to live a truly freeing, unselfish life of love that broadens our souls and blesses others, into the counterfeit “I’ve Gotta Be Me” no matter who I hurt.

We abandon foundational values as timeless and real as the multiplication tables (“your math” and “my math”?) and are surprised when what we build using false figures won’t stay standing. C. S. Lewis described the situation: “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

If this old porch column is to go on bearing weight, my brothers and I are going to have to rebuild it on a firm footing.

And where can we find a foundation that will bear the weight of our lives so that our lives can be built not only to bless ourselves but to bless those around us?

May I suggest a walk down the street this Sunday morning? You’ll likely find a place where people meet to honor the Builder who set the foundation posts of this universe. As cracked and weak and crumbling as many of us who meet below them are, steeples still point in the right direction—to the One who is eternally faithful and strong.

 

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


God Pays the Price for Bread That Is Free and Freeing

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).

Five little barley loaves and two little fishes. That’s all Jesus had, you know. And even those were sort of borrowed that day by the Sea of Galilee.

But the Lord who turned water into wine at a wedding feast took those loaves and fishes and turned 5000 hungry people hoping to see miracles into 5000 well-filled people whose bellies were rounded out by a miracle.

Now, when you’re hungry, about all you can think of is being hungry. But when you’ve been filled up with a miracle meal just a few hours ago but are well on your way to being unfilled and hungry again, what next?

Well, if you’re like the folks in John 6, you form a committee, take a hike to find the miracle worker, and start planning to force your feeder to become your free food king. Who knows? Maybe if he plays his cards right and gives away enough “Make Israel Great Again” caps, he just might amass enough power to take over as king and kick out those sorry Romans! At the very least, well, did I mention free food?

When they find him on the other side of the lake—by the by, how in the world did he get there?—Jesus says, basically, “I know what you want, and what you want is not nearly enough.”

“Oh, Rabbi, that free food by the sea . . . we liked it, don’t you see?”

“Oh, I see. But you should want food that’s better than free. Food that isn’t a few hours away from leaving your belly hungry again and your soul still starving. You should want more. Food that doesn’t spoil. You should want more. Food that gives real life. You should want more. You filled up with free food, but a day later what hadn’t turned into dung had turned into rot. You should want more! Food that’s not only free but frees your soul and fills it up forever. You should want more.

Now the wheels in their “bargain basement bread heads” were already turning. But this Rabbi’s words are a wrench tossed into their mental machinery.

Free food forever? Rot-free food that doesn’t route through your belly to fill your soul?

Oh, they could get pretty religious about “free,” but somebody tosses out a religious question. “You say God says “really free.” But our real creed, ages old, is as modern as tomorrow. ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ So what do we have to do before God does bread “free”?

Jesus answers, “One word. Believe. God’s work is this: believe in the One God sent.”

But one word can’t be enough, can it? “Let’s just get back to that old time religion, the kind we like that talks a lot about God and centers a whole lot more on us. We had a redeemer once named Moses who gave our ancestors manna to eat in the wilderness. Free food’s fine, and your barley loaf bread was mighty fine, but a really good sign would be . . . let’s see . . . You know, the old preachers said that when Messiah, the second Redeemer comes, he’ll bring not just bread, he’ll bring manna again. That’s the ticket! Show us a sign, and we’ll sign up! Show us some manna!”

I think they were disappointed in the answer.

“Manna was a miracle, and Moses was a great man. But you should want bread that’s better than manna, and you need to look a lot higher for a Redeemer. Even then, way “back when,” your Redeemer-Bread Giver wasn’t Moses; your Redeemer-Bread Giver was God. I warn you! If you keep on looking for life in stone-cold law that will never be bread, your bread will rot, your souls will rot, and you will very religiously rot trying to be your own redeemer. Do you want the real Redeemer? Do you want real bread? I AM the bread of life.”

“Is there work to do? Oh, yes. The work of believing. And even that is God’s work in you.”

“So, Lord, how do we get that bread?”

It’s still our question. And this is still our Redeemer’s answer.

“Believe. Receive. Take and eat.”

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Hymn-tinkering. Just Say No.

It was none other than the venerable Charles Wesley, writer of hundreds of grand hymns, who in the preface (1779) to one of his hymnals pronounced a word of stern warning against anyone who would mess with the words—and thus the theology, not to mention the beauty—of one of his hymns. He had little use for “hymn-tinkerers.”

During most of my growing up years, my home church, and most others of our brand, used a hymnal that contained 665 songs, or 666 in one edition if you counted “1-a” printed inside the front cover. (Cue scary music here or not, depending upon your eschatological views.)

I later learned that 130 or of those songs had been tinkered with by the compiler. I also learned why my Uncle Kline (not really my uncle but whose name was given to me as my middle moniker and whom I am proud to claim) referred to the hymnal as Sacrilegious Selections. Uncle Kline was an English professor and much of the tinkering grated on his ears; more than that, he also loved the gospel and hated to see it gutted.

It’s rather amazing that while Christ’s people have so often made a real mess of recognizing the unity for which the Lord prayed so poignantly just before he died (John 17), at least we’ve all sung an incredible number of the same hymns. Most of us don’t know or care about the “religious preference” (as in Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, etc.) of the hymn-writers; we just know that their Lord was Jesus Christ, and, as hard-headed as we may have been in lots of areas, music did what it so often does— tore down walls, lifted hearts, and united us in praise.

I’ve got the words in my head, verse upon verse of many of those hymns of my childhood (most of which included a bit richer vocabulary than the presently popular variations of “Father, I love you—Jesus, I love you—Holy Spirit, I love you—repeated thirty-nine times).  But I still sadly discover on occasion that the words in my brain are a few words or phrases off of what the writer originally wrote.

Some of them don’t surprise me much. References to harps, lyres, zithers, stringed, or other instruments might be all over the Psalms, but you can bet your pitch pipe they’d not make it into that hymnal. Sad, but much worse was some of the theological tinkering. Done with pure motive, I don’t doubt, some of the tinkering nonetheless cut at the very heart of Christ’s cross. (It was, thus, more serious than some of the modern linguistic atrocities perpetrated by politically correct hymn-tinkerers who failed to learn in, oh, about third grade or so, that “-man” is a suffix for “human” and that words like “mankind” are no assault at all on “womankind.”)

Fanny Crosby could write beautifully, “Pass me not, O gentle Savior / Hear my humble cry.” And then in Verse 3, “Trusting only in Thy merit, / Would I seek Thy face.” But the hymn-tinkerer in his version changed “only” to “always.” Why? Because he wasn’t sure that “only” Christ’s merit, his sacrifice, is enough—which, whatever the tinkerer’s intent—makes his “cry” a lot less humble and effectively undercuts the cross.

“When We All Get to Heaven” became “When the Saved Get to Heaven.” As if someone unsaved might somehow sneak in?

But the absolute worst example comes in, of all places, “Amazing Grace” where Verse 2 was tinkered with, and Christ’s cross violated, when “How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed” was changed to “When I His Word obeyed.”

So wazzamattuh? We want to obey Christ, right? Yes! But if for salvation I trust in my power to obey, that is not at all the same thing as trusting completely and only in Christ and his blood. That hymn-tinkered “grace” suddenly becomes not very amazing at all. The world didn’t and doesn’t need yet another “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help program or do-it-yourself religion. God’s Son did exactly what we needed. He did it once. He did it all. He did it forever. On a cross. Amazing!

 

    You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

 

Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Is the Tweeter a Twit? That Is the Question!

Twits.

Twitter is for twits.

That has been my opinion pretty much ever since I learned several years ago that birds tweeting sweetly in the sky had been joined by twits tweeting, sweetly or not, in cyberspace.

It just seemed like a very lucrative, very bad, idea. I found it hard to believe that our world would be improved by folks, many of whom are incredibly short on impulse control already, suddenly having the opportunity to net any thought, crazy or not, that happened to be flying over their own head, and, in 140 characters or less, release it into the already polluted cyber-atmosphere so it could fly over the rest of us. We already know what pigeons do, given a similar opportunity. I couldn’t imagine Twitter droppings being much more of a blessing. The whole thing seemed likely to lend itself to the usual social media temptations of narcissism and voyeurism but ratcheted up a notch by the ease with which any twit could launch birds.

I know. Social media is here to stay. It is a tool that becomes a blessing or a curse or something in between depending upon the character of the folks using it.

Really healthy well-balanced folks use it to catch up on old friends and classmates and share pics of their kids or grandkids. They occasionally even choose to turn it off for a couple of heartbeats in order to spend a little real time in the real world nurturing real relationships.

Really unhealthy and unbalanced folks use it to escape into an alternate and unreal universe, becoming more unbalanced than they already are. Of course, they almost never turn it off. Seriously, has it been your experience that social media helps unbalanced people become more balanced? I thought not.

But most of us who are pretty normally abnormal and try to confine ourselves to being completely unhinged only on third Wednesdays in months ending in Rs find ourselves somewhere in the middle of the social media continuum.

I read an enjoyable article the other day by a guy who says that for him Twitter has just been a lot of fun. I had just written an article for a magazine, and they wanted my Twitter address to share along with the article. (I did set one up ages ago; I never use it.) I’d also just completed the audio narration for a book on “Proactive Grandfathering” in which the wise granddad/author suggested that grandparents should try to use and be familiar with all the social media that their grandkids use. He had a point.

So I guess I should admit that not everyone who tweets is a twit. And I should also confess that what bothers me most about Twitter in particular and social media in general is the twit under my own hat. I am not short of strongly held opinions. The same skills, such as they are, that I can use to build people up and point to Christ make it much too easy for me to fire a pithy (and poisonous) 140-character shot. And I worry about my character and influence if I too often fall to that temptation.

St. James warned God’s people that the tongue is a fiery instrument. A twit with a finger and no impulse control can set off some pretty serious blazes, too. I probably do a better job honoring my Lord if I choose not to play with matches.

 

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!

 

 

Copyright 2017 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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