Tag Archives: Christianity

“Would You Speak About ‘Ministry Today’?”

 

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“Would you be willing to speak briefly to my seminary students?”

In the weeks since one of my best friends and most capable colleagues made that request of me, along with eight or nine other ministers, a fine group whose quality I can only dilute, I’ve been pondering what to say about “Ministry Today.”

The first challenge is relatively minor. He said “brief.”

The second is that my only real qualification to give such a speech is that I feel incredibly unqualified to give such speech. That, by the way, will be one point: Never trust any minister who claims to know all about “doing” ministry.

I’m pretty sure that my task is more than simply to mention how many pastors in “ministry today” need anti-anxiety medication. I doubt my friend wants me just to discuss various pharmaceutical options.

One major point might be that ministry today brings with it some challenges somewhat unique, but that in most ways ministry today is hard because real ministry has always been hard on any day.

Still, as is historically true, prosperity brings challenges more threatening to deep faith than hard times and persecution ever bring. We “swim in a sea of selfishness.” The consumer religion approach—“Have It Your Way,” looking for the best value in “religious goods and services”—which fits our culture like a glove rather than transforming it, is as deadly as it is tempting.

To the ministry students, I will probably say, you need to ponder often and deeply what real “success” in God’s kingdom looks like. The church needs pastors, not religious rock stars. It is very difficult to be a real pastor to a flock so large that you don’t know the faces and names of the sheep. A large church can be a great blessing, but so can a small one. And let’s be honest: Most large churches in our land aren’t large because they’re good at bringing unbelievers to Christ; they’re large predominantly because they’re good at making small churches smaller.

I’ll probably also (ironically, I’m afraid) tell the students to guard their hearts against cynicism.

I’ll warn them against the idea propounded by church growth seminars that most churches are just one amazing program or one big change away from explosive growth, an idea that invariably produces explosions and hurts most the very sheep who least deserve the wounds.

I’ll tell them to look at Moses and his faithful leadership. I’ll also tell them to think about, pray about, and take steps to avoid,  the mistake even Moses made by allowing weariness and frustration to lead him to “strike the rock” (Numbers 20). It’s every tired pastor’s temptation.

I’ll tell them, don’t forget whose kingdom it is you’re giving your life to help build. (Clue: It’s not yours.)

I’ll urge them, love the Lord. Love the flock, real people with real faces, joys, and sorrows. Never dishonor them and demean your calling by using them to feed your ego, as if they are simply a stepping stone on your career path. Remember that these are God’s people whom you’re privileged and called to walk beside as you make this journey together, learning each day to live in faith, in grace, following the Lord.

 

 

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

 

 

Copyright 2016 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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“May I Introduce You to Lancelot Andrewes?”

 

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Lancelot Andrewes. Recognize the name? Probably not. But Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626) was Bishop of Winchester (Church of England), a member of the committee of scholars whose task it was to produce the King James Version of the Bible, and “probably contributed more to that work than any other single person.”

For the information above, and almost everything else in this column, I’m indebted to the very capable James Kiefer for his biographical sketch of Andrewes’ life.

Kiefer’s work shows up regularly in “The Daily Office from the Mission of St. Clare,” an online devotional site and mobile “app” based on the venerable Book of Common Prayer, the incredible centuries-old work whose words still find their way, whether we know it or not, into Shakespeare, into pretty much all traditional marriage ceremonies, into many, many of our church services, into many funerals, etc.

But that’s another story. Suffice it to say here that the BCP is a devotional, liturgical, historical, and English treasure, originally published in 1549, sixty-two years before the King James Version was finished in 1611! I tend to gravitate toward the 1979 BCP revision, and I enjoy most the morning “Daily Office” which includes Scripture readings and prayers. I like the continuity, the discipline, and the knowledge that these are prayers Christians have prayed in worship and individually for, literally, centuries, along with, of course, reading the Scriptures given for each day. To the prayers, I add my own on the days I use this resource (and I don’t every day; the flesh is weak, and I’m a lousy example for daily devotional-keeping).

All of the above to explain where I found the information on Lancelot Andrewes, who, Kiefer writes, was “a master of English prose, and learned in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and eighteen other languages.” But particularly fascinating to me are some excerpts from Andrewes’ personal notebook of “Private Prayers,” published after his death.

The words and “order” of his devotions are beautiful and, no surprise, seem “formal” to us, words affirming faith, confessing sin, rendering praise. But I especially like his many and varied simple words of “thanksgiving” for life, rationality, citizenship, education, gifts of grace, “calling, recalling, and further recalling,” “longsuffering towards me,” for hope, for the “fruition of good things to come,” “for parents honest and good,” for “teachers gentle,” and “colleagues likeminded,” “hearers attentive,” “friends sincere,”  “for all who have stood me in good stead by their writings, their sermons, conversations, prayers, examples, rebukes,” and even “wrongs.”

As he closes, he wonders how he can adequately give thanks to God for all His benefits. And he ends with, “Holy, holy, holy,” praising the eternal God who “hast created all things” and for whose “pleasure they are and were created.”

I love this glimpse into the private devotions of a “long-ago-gone-on” father of our faith who blessed and still blesses God’s people in ways he might never have dreamed. May God continue to multiply the blessings, large and small, of lives lived for Him.

 

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

 

 

Copyright 2016 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 Guiding Principle of Heaven Is . . .

 

 

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In telling the story of his own conversion to Christianity, C. S. Lewis recalls George MacDonald’s striking words: “The one principle of hell is—‘I am my own.’”

But what if I’m not?

In our society, our culture, our world, our country, our very souls, we’re obsessed with the idea that we can almost have heaven right here if we just “get our own rights.” But what if that’s exactly backwards? What if the truly happiest person is the one who claims no rights?

Be careful with that thought. It might explode our heads.

What if I have a horrible progressive disease, and, with all my heart, I’d like to spare myself and my family the horrors ahead? What if “assisted suicide” is incredibly tempting? What if I find myself wondering if it would be the most selfish act in the world—or the least? But then I realize, “I’m not my own.”

What if I’m a woman considering abortion, but I find not only that the little one I carry inside me is not really “mine” but is God’s? And even I myself am “not my own”? What then?

Or much less agonizing . . .

I really don’t feel like going to church on this particular Sunday. I’m not so much sick as just a little “sick and tired.” Sure would like to sleep in! It’s my own little decision, right? No big deal. But what if I’m really not my own? What if what I feel like doing matters much less than what my Lord deserves and what others need me to do to be encouraging?

If “I am my own” is the guiding principle of hell, what if “I am not my own” truly is the guiding principle of heaven?

What if, not only what I do, who I marry, where I live, how I treat my kids, and literally everything else is completely colored by this startling truth? What if, because “I am not my own,” I can’t say anything I like or indulge myself in any bad attitude I care to adopt?

What if, if I’m His, I find myself acting not only as if “I’m mine” but as if my money is mine? What if I find myself living exactly at the same standard as others at my income level who claim no commitment to my Lord?

What if I allow myself to be as gossipy at work, as mean at the restaurant, as critical at church, as self-centered at home as . . . anyone else?

What if I find myself acting as if “I am my own” when the Apostle Paul’s words are quite literally true? “You are not your own. You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6)?

What if my thought life, my work life, my home life, my sex life, my financial life, my play life, my life—is not mine? What if I’m not my own?

If that is true, it makes all the difference in this world. And in the next.

If it’s not true, then we should just roll over, go back to sleep, wake up, and get on with the business of demanding our own way all the time.

But I warn you, once we start thinking, “I might not be mine. In fact, if I have a real commitment to Christ, I’m certainly not,” then . . .

Then everything is changed and all tables are turned.

It’ll spin your head around.

 

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

      

  

Copyright 2016 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


When a Little Church Closes Its Doors

 

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Another church in our little community closed its doors recently. Worshiped on a Sunday pretty much as usual and then, at least temporarily, shut down.

That church opened its doors, I’m told, in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. She weathered tough times; it was prosperous times that were the larger challenge.

That’s not a big surprise, if you read a little church history. The church (the church universal and all her many congregations, not specifically the little church I’ve mentioned) has always been stronger in hard times and much less so in easier times. For Christians in America, the problem has rarely been death in persecution; the larger danger has always been that we’d die in our apathetic sleep.

But the closing of that little church makes me sad. They’ve been a church where “everybody knows your name,” not a mega-glitz church where almost no one does. I’m deeply thankful for my jillions of siblings in God’s large family whose names I can’t know but who wear His. But I’m particularly thankful for folks like these who names and faces I’ve known for years.

You see, we’re not a mega-church mega-town where any of our churches can afford to blindly ignore the others because we’re so busy or big. We have plenty of faults, but I doubt any of our churches are under any illusion that with some super programs and a great business plan we’ll grow to be the “Christian” equivalent of Disney’s Magic Kingdom or make the cover of Religion 500.

Being little carries with it a large reminder: We’re not only part of the larger Body of Christ, we’re part of Christ’s Body right here. When Christ’s people here hurt, even if they don’t hail from my group or worship down the pew from me, I hurt.

During plague times, pastor and poet John Donne wrote, “Don’t send to ask for whom the bell tolls [tolling out news of another death]; it tolls for thee.” What he wrote of individuals is true here. When a good church closes its doors, it diminishes the rest of us.

Tough times. In this world, real persecution against Christians is increasing alarmingly even as in our society prosperity and complacency weaken the church in ways persecution cannot. And, at the very time churches here are losing their older, more faithful members, our society is becoming increasingly “faith-less.”

Attendance is just one symptom, but a symptom it is, crossing all lines. “I’ll be there anytime the doors are open. Providing the dog doesn’t seem to be developing a sniffle. Or if my third cousin’s aunt doesn’t come to visit. Or if the barometric pressure in Bolivia is conducive to my coming. Anyway, I’ll probably almost for sure see you sometime maybe.”

As always, when despair is tempting, it’s time to look up. Time to remember Jesus’ promise that even “the Gates of Hell will not prevail against my church.” Christ’s Body will not only be okay, victory is assured.

In the meantime, it might not hurt to remember how incredibly encouraging such a seemingly small thing as a practical choice to show up and bow in worship can be to the members of Christ’s Body whose faces we know. While the doors are still open.

 

 

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

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 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 Has Forgiven Me, But I Can’t Forgive Myself”

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“I know God has forgiven me; I just can’t forgive myself.”

I hear people say that. To my shame, I probably have also. I’m almost 51% sure that most folks mean well by it. But I’m 100% sure it’s among the most wrong-headed, arrogant, and idolatrous statements we could ever make.

Do we think it sounds humble? “God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself”? How could that conceivably be confused with humility?

It’s completely encased in arrogant pride as, while we acknowledge that God can and does forgive the sins of others, we’re sure our own sins are so much worse than theirs that, though God has forgiven us, we can’t manage to do the same for ourselves.

Are we really such a better (or worse) class of sinners than the run of the mill, ordinary sort? Are our standards (here comes the idolatry) higher even than God’s who says that through his Son, we’re forgiven?

Will we say, “Thank you, but I doubt that even the blood of your Son can forgive me, Sir. Instead of accepting charity, I choose to wear (if I can find them) a hair shirt, sack-cloth and ashes, and a dour expression. Instead of accepting your gift and focusing on your Son, I’d rather, if you don’t mind, go on gazing at my own navel, allowing the universe to be bordered north, south, east, and west by “I, me, myself, and mine,” and go on playing the victim. If you don’t mind . . .”

Oh, get over it. God minds!

Whatever we intend, this false humility is a stinky thing, a slap in the face of God, a denial of the cross. It can be nothing else.

But someone opines, “I can’t forgive myself. I know God says I’m forgiven, but I don’t feel forgiven.”

Two points. First, why would we ever think we could literally forgive ourselves? Jesus said it: “Only God can forgive sins.” If we’re his, he has done the forgiving at appalling cost; our only choice is to accept the gift or not.

Second, though our Father cares how we feel because he loves us, feelings, for folks as self-centered as we are, easily become our most popular idol. But they’re wrong about as often as they’re right. And they make a rotten god.

If God says we are forgiven, then we are, no matter how we feel. I may feel in my heart of hearts that the moon is green cheese; my feelings won’t change reality at all. But my feelings about forgiveness will affect my ability to live a joyful, gracious, unselfish, and fruitful life.

The Apostle John writes that God is greater than our “anxious hearts” and “self-debilitating criticism” (see 1 John 3:19-20, The Message).

You can’t forgive yourself? So what? If you’re God’s child, accept the gift and dance with joy! Or hold it at arm’s length and wallow around enjoying your role as a poor, pitiful victim. The first choice is life and joy. The second is as boring and tiresome as it is deadly. The first is heaven; the second, hell.

Refusing forgiveness is a lot of things, all bad; the one thing it absolutely is not is humility. God sent, God gave, his Son so we could get over ourselves.

 

     You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com! I’m pretty sure some Christmas music is waiting there, as well as some potential gifts!  😉

 

 

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.


Grace Is What Sets Christianity Apart

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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!)

Real grace is always a little and maybe a lot scandalous. If no one who 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 genuinely 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). Afraid that he might make some mistake and tick off his master, 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 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.

 


Christ-followers Are Called To Be Cross-bearers, Not Consumers

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We stand this moment on a holy threshold, waiting to enter into the joy of the resurrection. Easter is almost here!

Almost, but not quite.

I understand the dangerous and common temptation to leap-frog over Good Friday’s pain and suffering, but before we enter into the joy of the resurrection, we need to focus on the cross and ask ourselves some probing questions.

That’s no new idea, of course. It’s funny how often the modern church discovers some wheel that was invented centuries ago. (I suppose learning about wheels late is better than not learning about them at all.)

That time of preparation, introspection, and repentance before Easter came to be called Lent. Whatever we call it, the idea is a good one. I’d not bind its observance on anyone, but I doubt we’ve ever needed such a time more than now.

After a friend asked if I’d given up anything for Lent, I stuttered, but then I realized I’ve been scrupulously avoiding asparagus and liver. But, seriously, many Christians have indeed found that making a small sacrifice for a time helps them center on the One whose deep sacrifice made angels gasp and Heaven weep.

Whatever helps the church to truly focus on the cross before we arrive at the door of the empty tomb is good.

Though we can add nothing of merit to his sacrifice, Jesus told us long ago that following him means taking up his cross. The cross we’re called to bear is not rheumatism or gout, though God can redeem any burden we bear in faith; taking up Christ’s cross means to bear the cross he bore, the cross of self-denial. That’s as practical as it is difficult, and life together gives God’s people plenty of opportunities to practice it.

Even as they faced martyrdom and persecution, as do many Christians today, the early church also faced the same temptations we do to be selfish and self-centered. Two chapters after the Apostle Paul writes beautifully to the Philippians about Christ’s sacrifice of utter self-denial, he writes to two “spiritual” Christian ladies, Euodia and Syntyche (someone has christened them Odious and Soon-touchy) who “just felt led” to cause some fuss about worship styles—or some such. The issues change (no one remembers now what the fussers fussed about; they got mentioned in the Bible for their selfishness) but the real issue never does.

No need for me to wonder if I’d physically die for the Lord in an act of self-denial if I won’t shoulder opportunities to carry his cross each week by singing a few songs in worship not in my favorite style, or changing a diaper I’d rather my wife change, or speaking an encouraging word when I’d rather spew criticism.

Before experiencing the joy of the empty tomb, I need to let the spectacle of my Lord on the cross force me to ask myself hard questions, hard as bloody nails, about how serious I am about denying myself and truly shouldering his cross.

It’s for very good reasons that Good Friday comes before Easter. We shouldn’t rush past it.

 

 

Copyright 2013 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 Faith Never Comes Easily or Cheaply

 

Some things just can’t be rushed.

No matter how badly you want it, you’ll not be able to enjoy the shade from a 75-year-old oak tree unless someone 75 years ago took the trouble and had the foresight to plant it.

Strong faith is much like that old oak tree (and I think it was the late Wes Reagan, well-respected pastor and mentor, who I first heard use this good analogy). Lots of us want the blessings and the stability that can come during life’s storms only through a deep and abiding faith. I want those blessings, too. But I must understand that though salvation is, thank the Lord indeed, a free gift bought by the blood of Christ, faith that is strong enough to stand the tests of time and adversity cannot be easily had or quickly grown. Faith that is in its own way as strong and comforting as a 75-year-old oak tree cannot spring forth full grown in the space of a heartbeat, no matter how badly we need it or want it.

If we want strong faith, we must ask God help us have his power to do what it takes to make it strong. Some of those things seem mundane. None of them has anything to do with the kind of glitzy cut-rate feel-good “spirituality” presently so popular.

Some of these things are just plain hard. Things like really making an effort to forgive someone who has deeply, unfairly hurt you. (Loving enemies is a very warm concept—until you actually have one.) Like using our dollars to help others and not just ourselves. (Our check books write a very accurate picture of our priorities.) Like taking the time and effort to be a genuine part of a church family of faith. (Not just a nominal “Christmas & Easter” member who could never be “convicted” of membership on the basis of such “evidence” as attendance or giving.) Like developing a relationship with God in prayer and by reading his word. Like devoting each day to him and doing whatever we do to his glory, not as a person who is pious or “religious” but as a person who knows that all of life is lived in the gracious presence of the divine Author of all life and joy. Like being a person for whom following Christ is not just a choice, but THE choice that drives all others.

If we want genuine and strong faith, we can have it. Possessing that kind of faith will be a blessing of untold value. But if we think it is a blessing religious consumers can have almost by accident and without any effort, we are seriously self-deluded, and we’ve not learned the truth of Christ’s words, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).

I think what Christ is saying is that, contrary to our world’s “wisdom,” the way to real satisfaction, joy, and deep contentment both here and hereafter, the way to faith that will stand the storms we’ll certainly face, is to truly want God more than we want anything else.

That’s faith. The real thing.

 

Copyright 2012 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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