Tag Archives: God’s grace

“The Gracious Become More Gracious”

How’s this for the setting for a series of mystery novels? It’s twelfth-century England. Following a long career as a soldier and later as a ship’s captain, a short but sturdy Welshman, who still rolls a bit when he walks as if he were still at sea, has “taken the cowl.” Kind and wise, he has taken vows as a monk in a Benedictine monastery where he is in charge of the “herbarium,” growing all sorts of herbs and vegetables from which he blends healing ointments and medicines. Often, he also finds himself playing the lead role in a medieval cross between Sherlock Holmes, CSI, and Law & Order as he becomes a kind of monkish detective.

I have just described the Brother Cadfael mystery series, written under the pen name of Ellis Peters by Edith Pargeter. Many of the stories have been adapted for television by the BBC (starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael) and are available through Netflix, etc. They’re well done, though the best movie can never beat a book.

I love the series, and I love Brother Cadfael, a wise good-humored man with the kind of robust Christlike goodness that loves both the Lord and His gift of life. No surprise that Cadfael finds himself in hot water at times with the pretentiously pious “powers that be.” He is true to the Spirit of God and to what is best in his monastic order, but he has seen enough of both the world and his Lord to know that God truly does desire “mercy and not sacrifice.” I like spending time with him.

I was listening to the audio version of one of the Cadfael books the other day (The Holy Thief) when I came across a quotation that made me think. A servant girl has fallen in love with a young man about to take his vows as a monk but presently accused of murder and being dealt with sternly by a particularly self-righteous abbot. She says openly to Brother Cadfael, for anyone with a good spirit knows they can trust him, “These monastics! They are what they are born, only with a vengeance. If they come into the world hard and cold, they end up harder and colder. If they come generous and sweet, they grow ever sweeter and more generous. All one or the other.”

What do you think? I think she’s on to something not just about monks or pastors or other religious professionals. We note it in them particularly because we know deep down that following a gracious Lord should make us gracious people.

But don’t we often see in all people exactly what the girl describes to Cadfael? The gracious become more gracious until their winsome lives seem warmed within by deep joy. The critical and hard become harder and more critical until cold and alone, they break.

We see it happening, and I see in it both warning and hope. To choose to be cold and hard, or warm and gracious? May we choose well. One day, sooner than we think, we’ll have chosen the direction and set sail, unlikely to look back and even less likely to tack against the wind.

 

 

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

 

 

Copyright 2019 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Reverse Snobbery and “All Things New”

A big part of this is reverse snobbery, I know, but I love my old pickup truck.

That faithful machine already had 90,000 miles on it when I flew down to Houston a bunch of years ago, laid eyes on it, and fell in love. The original owner must have loved that truck, too, because he took great care of it.

I probably haven’t been quite as faithful in that department. I try to do basic maintenance, even a little touch-up paint here and there. I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning on the inside; it’ll just get dirty again. My wife quarrels with the reasoning, and I don’t apply it to my own personal hygiene.

But faithful to me is what that truck has been, and I honor it with the best two words ever used to describe any vehicle: “paid for.” Its odometer recently rolled on past 200,000 miles. There’s a “short” in that thing, so sometimes the screen goes blank, but it was blazing brightly as it proudly crossed the mark. Sadly, I missed the moment, and it was 200,011 when I noticed.

I try not to be superstitious, but I know I’m flirting with disaster by writing this. I’m dooming the transmission. Or the engine will now thrash. A wheel will fall off. Or maybe worse, my good friend Buddy, who sells cars (mostly trucks) in Robert Lee, Texas, will call me with a really tempting offer on a great follow-up F-150 at a good price.

Robert Lee is a truck place. Unless you’re infirm and not up to the step up, most able-bodied adults want trucks and not polite little car-lettes. The only electric vehicles are Old Man Jones’ golf cart with the flag on top or Billy Joe’s truck that lit up after it hit a utility pole.

I trust Buddy like a brother (which if you know my brothers might be scant praise), but he’s a great guy, and won’t steer me wrong. When he calls, I may be tempted to “pull the trigger” on the newer vehicle. I’ll probably love that truck, too. But I fully expect to be left wondering if the purchase was a bit extravagant, and, had I shown just a tad more faithfulness, I could have put another 100,000 miles on my older one almost for free. I’m putting a good many additional miles on my truck right now by ferrying friends to pick up their much newer vehicles at dealerships or repair shops. Their rides seem to break down pretty often and require a lot of pampering.

I splurged the other day and put a nice new arm rest cover on the driver’s side. The original one’s leather was torn, its foam disintegrating, its wooden “bone” about to poke through.

When my long-ago first love F-150 (blue, five-speed on the floor, short bed) needed a new arm rest, I carved and varnished one from an ancient bois d’arc tree on my grandparents’ old Robert Lee home place. It wasn’t soft, but it looked cool. This time, I went with a posh original-equipment-looking new one. I learned a few installation tricks, literally mostly by mistake, but it looks good.

So I admit that there’s a time for “new.” New years, even. And the time will come when God himself says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Already, He promises to those who trust Him new hope, new peace, new mercy and grace, new life. Why? Because it’s been paid for by His Son.

For my truck, an arm rest worth of new is new enough for now.

 

 

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

 

 

Copyright 2019 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


In God We Trust–Not in Us

I am writing this column on December 26. Christmas is not even close to being over. This is only the second of the “twelve days of Christmas,” which was a season a very long time before it was a song.

I’m whistling in the wind, I know, but I prefer to stand with the wisdom of the centuries on this one and not with Western marketing. My little $5 tree and the lights in my humble shed behind the house will stay up until Twelfth Night, the evening of January 5.

I’m not sure if I’m a Yuletide purist or just the son of my mother. Mom liked Christmas and hated taking down trees. Ours often stood in the corner of the living room until February, by which time the tree was a genuine incendiary device we could have sold to terrorists for serious money had we not been patriotic Americans. (My wife, flaunting tradition and my maternal heritage, will slam the lid on the whole thing and shove the plastic tree into a box much sooner than I would prefer.)

Because I’m a Christmas traditionalist, I always hate to see Christmas go. I’m also quirky, eccentric, and loving my second childhood as, I hope, I’m growing younger inside as I grow older outside.

But I also have a deeper reason perhaps worthy of some reflection. You see, at Christmas, for just a little while, we almost get it. We almost understand that genuine beauty and light and joy and life itself do not proceed from us and are not about us. What happened at Bethlehem was something God did. (And though I’d not be legalistic about it, I see genuine wisdom and spiritual blessing in the truly Christian tradition of the preparation time of Advent leading to the sweet 12-day Christmas season.)

We could have sat through a million “success” seminars, strategically planned our hearts out, burned out our calculators creating fine business models, centered on ourselves in a thousand ways, and we’d never have thought of sending God’s Son from heaven and laying him in a manger. Even if we’d thought of it, we’d be as likely to start a nuclear reaction by rubbing two sticks together as to do for ourselves and our world what only God could do by his power. At Christmas, we see with a little clarity, which is far more than usual and about the best we ever muster, that everything we really need in this life is about God and from him, not us.

No wonder it’s a let-down when the lights come down and the lists of resolutions go up. We were centered on God’s great symphony; now we tend to focus again on our own little performance playing “Chop-sticks” on a plastic toy piano. We were enthralled by God’s power; now the temptation is to center on ours, take back the stage, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, start rubbing two sticks together, and get busy trying to do for ourselves what only God can do.

No matter when you take the tree and the lights down, remember the lesson of Bethlehem. In God we trust. Not in us.

 

 

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

 

 

 Copyright 2019 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


Amazing Is What Real Grace Always Is

“Amazing grace.”

Amazing is exactly what real grace always is.

On the other hand, the many counterfeits are pretty much what we should expect—“do-it-yourself” schemes focused on our power to occasionally strike a tiny spark rather than on God’s power to always create a nuclear reaction. Do-it-yourself “grace” is an impostor every bit as dangerous as the real thing is amazing.

The Apostle Paul points to real grace in everything he writes, most notably Romans and Galatians, pounding the point home. If we feel we must earn it in any way, it’s not real grace. If we imagine that we can pay for it at all, it’s bogus. If we think we can deserve it even a little, it’s a sham. And perhaps worst of all, if we reckon that we might need less of it than someone we consider morally below us, we’re dishonoring Christ and denying his Cross.

God’s grace is amazing, astounding, marvelous, incomprehensible, eternal, and so much more. And as we pile up adjectives, we should never forget this one: “scandalous.”

Read the Gospels with eyes wide open, and notice how many of Jesus’ healings, miracles, teachings were offensive to those who could never imagine God’s grace reaching so far, so low, so wide. A woman caught in the wrong bed in the embrace of the wrong guy. A gal who’d been through way too many husbands and was living with a guy she’d forgotten to marry. An acknowledged loser hanging on a cross, a failed thief unable to steal any more earthly chances. And the list goes on. Right down to us. The real grace of Christ always has within it a serious element of scandal. It seems reckless. It seems “over the top.” Too good to be a true.

We can never plumb its depths or exhaust its powers. We’ll never fully comprehend it, but even what we can see rocks us on our heels as Jesus reaches down to forgive those we can’t imagine even God ever forgiving. Certainly not without some lengthy probation. Maybe a written self-improvement plan. And a short leash, for sure.

But Christ just keeps on forgiving, his only requirement being that, having given our lives to him, we keep on accepting the gift he keeps on giving. How reckless is that!? Good luck trying to find that kind of grace in any other world religion—or in the world anywhere else.

Real grace both forgives and empowers even as it refuses to allow us to focus on ourselves. When we do poorly, fall flat on our faces yet again in attitude or action, grace turns our focus back to Christ, forgives, and gives him glory, reminding us that Christ at Calvary has literally taken all of our “badness” away from us. When we do well, grace reminds us that everything good we could possibly do comes through Christ’s power at work in our lives and that what we might once have considered our own goodness is not our own at all.

When we’ve accepted real grace, the focus is never again to be on us; the focus is on God and joyfully giving him glory for what he has done and is doing—all by grace, all through his Son. All for us, and not at all by us.

 

 

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

 

 

Copyright 2018 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


“Short Words Are Best” and Three Are Best of All

“Short words are best,” asserted Winston Churchill, “and the old words when short are best of all.”

So may I suggest three—very short and very old which when lined up and strung together are the best three that could possibly be.

GOD IS LOVE.

These words are chiseled into the rock, woven into the fabric, of the universe. More than that, if anything could be more, they are living and implanted by the Author of life into its every cell, resonating in every breath and heartbeat. How could we not feel the life of those three short words pulsing all around us? Ah, perhaps in part because they are so much around us that we live in them and swim in them like fish enlivened by but largely oblivious to the very thing that gives them life.

God is love.

Note that in this short, old, and every morning new, equational sentence, the verb, the multiplier, and the fulcrum is IS, to BE. Yes, eternally. And, yes, of course, the “great I AM” will always be and will always be exactly what He always is, love.

Those three words mean that as long as our Father wills the universe to be, the stars to twinkle, the worlds to spin—if packed in every grain of sand on every sea-washed beach was a million years and all of those mini-mega-grains were stretched across creation at attention in single sand-soldier file—the dance of the cosmos, the symphony of space, and the music of the spheres, will still play on because God is GOD, and God always IS, and God will always be LOVE.

The order of the short word-cars on this magnificent train matters immensely. “God is love” is a breathtaking stream flowing with the life of the Creator and wash-singing, joy-splashing, over every rock and crevasse of the universe. “Love is god” is an idolatrous sludge defiling its worshipers and leaving a black trail of death, desolation, and the tears of despairing children in its sad and slimy wake. The first sings with the life of the Creator; the latter stagnates and festers in the stench of death-ridden darkness.

And, yes, in a fallen, sin-sick, and sadly twisted world, darkness is real and too often seems utterly pervasive. But no eclipse is forever. The sun’s corona glows around the blackness, impatient to blaze again unfettered, and we have the promise of Eden’s Creator that one day unending joy will again be the watchword of the universe. The first Adam fell, and we see the wreckage and the pain, but Adam’s word is not the last.

Because of the three short words that find their fruition, culmination, and crowning glory in the one Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

Does it sometimes, even often, seem unbearably dark? One Word “shines in the darkness” and will banish it forever, all because of the three short words: God is love.

 

     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.


“Out of the Depths I Cry to You, O Lord!”

 

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It’s amazing how often we can find ourselves within the pages of the biblical Book of Psalms. Consider Psalm 130.

I hope we’re not in this psalmist’s sandals often, but anyone who has lived very long can empathize with him. Hurting and almost hopeless, he writes, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” And then he reveals something about the nature of this fallen world, the nature of needy humans, and the nature of our mighty and merciful God.

The rendering in The Message well paints the picture: “Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cries for help! Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy.”

A Latin term has at times served as a title for this psalm: De Profundis. Something that is “profound” is deep, and the word used for “depths” here has to do with deep waters.

The psalmist is saying, “I’m in trouble! I’m sinking in the deep waters. I’m headed down into dark oblivion! I can’t get myself out! Dear God, help!”

When you’re going down, it’s not a time for polite words: “If you don’t mind, would you help me, please? Ever so sorry to be a bother, but I really believe that I may be drowning.”

In Uganda, in 2007, my wife and I visited our sons who were then in Uganda, and son Joshua and I went rafting down the Nile. We had great guides, and most of the trip was incredibly beautiful. But part of the descent was through what has been called “five of the greatest kilometers of big volume white water on the planet.” (That famous section is lost now, submerged under waters piled up behind the new—in 2012—Bujagali Dam. I’m so glad we rafted it when we did.)

As we came to the Class 5 rapid named Silverback, we knew we’d be tossed out of the raft—yet again. But we wanted to ride it as long as we could. Outside the boat in that class of white water it is surprisingly difficult to get your breath even if you’re on the surface—and we soon weren’t. Cast into the depths and carried off underwater in different directions, we later both confessed that for several long dark moments, we thought drowning was not unlikely. (In the accompanying photo, Josh  & I are in the front of the raft, and headed, in every sense of the word, down.)

“O Lord, out of the depths I cry to you!”

You don’t have to go rafting down the Nile to understand the psalmist. Life has tumbled in, and gone are the illusions that we can handle it ourselves with our strength, our bank account and investments, our professional expertise, our uncommon common sense, our noble character. No! We’re going down, and we’re fresh out of wise words and self-help strategies.

Our words are cut down to three: “O God, help!” From the “depths,” we recognize God as our only help, our only hope. No longer foolish enough to assume we deserve anything, we plead instead for sheer mercy.

In the Lord, both we and the psalmist find forgiveness and mercy and hope. And we praise Him: “My soul waits for the Lord / more than watchmen wait for the morning.”

We can trust our God. He won’t leave us in the depths.

 

 

     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’s Grace: It’s Good News That’s Tough!

 

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“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!”

Grace, the real thing, is precious almost beyond belief. It’s cool water to a man dying of thirst. It’s life and health to a woman who a week before was lying feverish on her deathbed.

Grace really is amazing!

But what even Christians, and maybe especially Christians, often fail to realize is how very tough it is, too.

Yes, it’s amazingly good news, this news flash from Heaven that though we were all sinners condemned to death, convicted criminals languishing on death row, “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

It’s amazingly good news that “God raised us up with Christ” so that for all eternity and to the amazement of the entire universe he could “show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (2:6).

And there’s no catch.

There’s no fly in the ointment. No hook under the worm. No fine print. No “real sinners need not apply” clause.

So how can this wonderful thing called grace, the most beautiful gift ever given, still be as tough as nails?

Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast.” No boasting. Period.

You see, grace is indeed the free gift of God. Grace means for us life and joy and peace. Grace really is amazing!

But, make no mistake, it can’t be earned, not even a little bit. It comes completely from God’s side of the equation. Do I in any way deserve such a gift? No! Thank God, deserving doesn’t even enter in, and to dare to use the word “deserve” in the same paragraph with words praising God for his mercy and grace is a slap in the face of the Almighty, a denial of the cross, and a backhanded attempt to breathe life into an arrogant and self-righteous spirit that really must move out and die before grace can enter in to give us life.

Yeah, I know. When you really think about it, it gets kind of scary. If this grace business is true, then God might let almost anyone into heaven. He might forgive folks who really, unlike me, aren’t as obviously good and religious and among his favorites. If you didn’t know better, you might almost think that God still feels like Jesus seemed to feel when he walked this globe, that not only did he spend time with “sinners” who knew they had no hope except for God’s mercy (but who knew the joy of finding it), he really enjoyed that time more than time spent with Pharisees. Could that be true?

Grace won’t leave me a single wobbly leg to stand on if I want to make my stand on rule-keeping “righteousness” and my own goodness. But if I focus on God and get over myself, I’ll find to my everlasting amazement that “the God of all grace” has given me two very good legs to dance on.

 

 

      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.


How Much Does God the Father Love All His Children?

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God loves his children so completely that he could not possibly love us more and he will never choose to love us less. We are absolutely secure in that love. Why is that so hard for us to believe?

It’s as if we were an orphan in 18th century England who has been bought out of the poorhouse, taken out of the sweatshop, by the kindest gentleman in the world. We’ve traded our rags for the finest clothes and our swill for the finest food. We’re almost afraid to close our eyes at night for fear that we’ll wake up and find that our redemption from poverty has all been a dream.

We see all the luxuries and privileges that go with what the kind gentleman says is our new position, but it just seems too good to be true. And there are many tell-tale signs that we really don’t even believe it yet ourselves. We sleep on the floor and not in the bed. Surely that bed is too good, too soft, too plush for gutter snipes like us.

But still the kind gentleman urges us to take up our place in the household—to eat his food, ride his horses, sleep in that beautiful bed, read his books, listen to his music, walk in his gardens, and he tells us that as the adopted son in this household and estate, all of these things are not just his, they are ours. We can hardly believe it! We begin to try to think of ways we can earn our keep, but nothing we could do would ever even begin to be enough.

Slowly, though, the gift of sheer mercy and grace and love begins to work its way quietly and deeply in our souls. And we awake one morning to realize that the kind gentleman has sometime in the night lifted us from the floor where we were lying and placed us in the soft bed that he calls ours.

As morning dawns, we’re almost unconsciously smelling breakfast smells. Our eyelids are starting to flutter as the door opens quietly, and, thinking we’re still asleep, he says quietly, “I love you, child.” As we come fully awake, we look into his face and are met with eyes full of pure love, more beautiful than the song of the birds in the garden just outside our window, softer than even the thickest down comforter, warmer than the morning sun streaming through the windows.

We’re almost surprised to hear our own little voice say, “Father.” And suddenly we realize that, though we could never in a lifetime of lifetimes earn the gifts that he has given, we have just given him the only gift we could ever really give, the gift that means more than life itself to this one who has given us new life. We have given him our love.

And though we’ve already felt grateful to him, now since that bright morning, our gratitude is deeper, richer, and more filled with joy. And whenever we eat his food, and ride his horses, and walk in his gardens, we know more deeply than ever before how truly they express to us his love. We know that every glimmer of love and joy and laughter in our lives lights up his heart with joy.

For he loves us so completely that he could not possibly love us more and he will never choose to love us less, and we are absolutely secure in his love.

 

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

  

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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