Tag Archives: God’s mercy

Even for Night Owls, God’s Mercies Are “New Every Morning”

What a sweet morning I’ve just experienced! And this from a person not in the habit of gushing about mornings. A “morning person,” I am not.

The preceding sentence is just a fact. No moral ramifications are attached. Not by me. I have actually even met a few humble morning folks who seem to harbor no self-righteous “early to rise” prejudices. I refer the others to mounting research and genuinely science-based books such as Dr. Till Roenneberg’s Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Get up with the roosters if you want to; just please be quiet and don’t crow about it—and, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t bang the lights on!

Our chronotypes—whether you’re a morning lark, a night owl, or a “third bird” (something in between—check out Claudia Hammond’s fun and fascinating Time Warped)—are as hard-wired as our eye color. Granted, the time you’re due at work or school is likely beyond your control, but nobody can control the genes and physiology, your “chronotype,” that dictates when you will generally be most alert, effective, and efficient. The owl under my hat has no problem with mornings; I just like them as dark, as silent, and as still as possible, until caffeine and hot running water can accomplish a resurrection.

All said to underline how very beautiful this particular morning was, even from an owl’s perspective. (My wife and I had the sweet blessing of an unusually un-rushed morning.)

When I awoke, it was deliciously dark. Darkness can be a metaphor for evil, but in a safe, warm place, it can also be as beautifully enfolding as a blanket. I’d banked the fire the night before, tucking in with ashes what was left of the glowing embers so that this morning I could simply rake the ash-blanket aside, lay on some more wood, and wait for the flickering fire to spring into life and warmth. Flickering in darkness is the best kind of flickering a fire does.

I made coffee so as to be able to find my pulse. Later on, I perused the headlines in a digital version of The Wall Street Journal. It was nice to get a couple of my prejudices confirmed. Article headline, front page-below the fold: “Please Do Your Sneezing at Home: Employees Strike Back Against Coughing Colleagues.” (Of course, one colleague will spray disinfectant and sniffle-shame you if you show up sick, even as another will call you a slacker if you take sick leave. Catch-22.)

And I smiled at the book review of Dreyer’s English, a book by Benjamin Dreyer (review by Ben Yagoda). “Being well copy-edited is like getting ‘a really thorough teeth-cleaning,’” Dreyer writes. And he mentions a famous New Yorker editor’s rule: “Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style.”

But before heading to the Journal, I sought more timeless wisdom. I decided today to read and pray the “morning office” from the venerable Book of Common Prayer. (There are apps for that! For iPad, iPhone, or PC, search “The Mission of St. Clare.” It’s one of the best. By the way, if you think this sounds terribly “spiritual,” you obviously don’t know me.)

One of the Scriptures for the morning was Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God, / and the firmament shows his handiwork.” I love that psalm in any translation, but I decided to check it out also in The Message, and, wow! Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is always amazing, but never better than this: “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, / God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. / Madame Day holds classes every morning, / Professor Night lectures each evening.” (To read it all, head to http://www.biblegateway.com and go to Psalm 19 in The Message.)

No, I’ll never be a morning person. But I do indeed believe that God’s “mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3). And I really enjoyed this one.

 

 

     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.

 

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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.


God’s Grace: It Just Isn’t Fair!

A surpassingly strange story it is, and enough to make a math or accounting major bite nails. I’m talking about Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

Here’s the story in a nutshell: It’s grape-harvest in Palestine. A vineyard owner goes out early to hire men to work in his vineyard, and he agrees to pay them a denarius, a normal day’s wage. They go to work.

At 9:00 a.m. he finds other men standing around in the marketplace and also hires them, promising to pay them a fair wage. At noon and at 3:00 he does the same thing. Finally, even at 5:00, he finds others standing around, and he hires them also.

When evening comes, he pays the workers, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first. To the workers he hired last, he gives a denarius, and so on down through the line. Every worker receives the same pay.

The workers who were hired first begin to complain that it isn’t fair, that the landowner has made the fellows who worked just one hour “equal to” those who have worked all day long in the hot sun. But the landowner replies that he paid exactly what he agreed to pay, and that he has every right to choose to as generous as he wishes with his own money and pay the men hired last as much as those hired first.

Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Quite a story, and not so much a story about vineyard owners and workers as a story about grace.

You see, where real grace is found, you’ll find our gracious God.

Law may ask grudgingly, “I know I’m to love my neighbor. Who qualifies? And under its breath it mutters, “I’ll not love anyone I don’t have to.”

Law may ask grudgingly, “Who and how many times do I have to forgive?” and mutters with frosty breath blown out over a cold heart, “It’ll be a snowy day in perdition when I forgive that one.”

Law may ask grudgingly, “How much do I have to give?” and under its breath mutter, “I’ll not give a penny more.”

Law may ask grudgingly, “How many times do I have to go to church?” and under its breath mutter, “I’ll go not one Sunday more.”

Those are not the kind of questions grace asks because they are not the kind of questions God asks. God loves, forgives, gives, walks with us, because our Father is the God of all grace. Do we deserve his gift? No! It is enough for him that we desperately need it. His loving us will never make black and white, bottom-line accounting sense. Legally, it will never add up or balance. Not even close.

Sadly, where you find real grace, you’ll also find, just as in this parable, grinchy grumblers who aim to get their salvation the old-fashioned way: they want to earn it. They are angered by a God who freely offers salvation to a thief on a cross or a prisoner at Huntsville with a needle in his arm but faith on his lips. That kind of grace just doesn’t add up! That God gives it always angers some.

May we be far too busy praising him and thanking him to ever listen to complaints from those who’ve not yet learned that to get what you deserve is hell.

 

    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 profiteering 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.


Repeat Regularly: “There Is One God; I Am Not Him”

“Oh, I guess I’m just a perfectionist,” I opined, in an “Aw, shucks!” sort of feigned shame tone, as I tried to hide the weird contortions required to pat oneself on the back.

But twisted pride is one of perfectionism’s pernicious symptoms. Perfectionists like to think they are a cut above ordinary folks. We have, we think, higher standards, work with more diligence, and see more clearly than pretty much everyone else.

Granted, low standards, lazy workers, and the lousy outcomes produced by such are not hard to find. But those ills are never cured by perfectionists; if anything, they are made worse. Even folks who do an average to slightly above average job just want to give up under the incessant pressure of a perfectionist’s thumb; folks on the lower end of the scale won’t even try.

Perfectionism’s thinly-veiled arrogance, along with out-of-balance priorities, and deep (and sick) need to be in control, spells death to any sort of genuine contentment and pushes family, friends, and co-workers, away. Perfectionism sucks the air out of any room and throttles healthy relationships. And perfectionists are sadly unable to see perfectionism’s malignant imperfection.

Yes, its pride is stinky. But the real rot at its heart is the poison of fear, the soul-throttling terror of never being able to measure up, which leads to frantic effort—never ceasing, never resting, and, of course, never succeeding—to be completely in control.

In the final analysis, perfectionism is idolatry, and idolatry always fails. Since we are incapable of being in absolute control of our own lives—and were never meant to be—we fail at being our own gods. And since others were never meant to acknowledge us as their gods, we fail at forcing those around us to “have no other gods before us.” Bowing down to the true God is freeing; bowing down to a perfectionist is enslaving and utterly exhausting. Eventually, the slaves will revolt. The spouse has had it. The kids’ act out or get sick. The co-workers quit.

Based on miserable insecurity and fear, not on “high standards” as the perfectionist likes to suppose, perfectionism never works. “Good enough” will never be “good enough” under a perfectionist’s reign. No victimless malady, it will render both the sufferer and those who suffer the sufferer miserable.

And forget the myth that perfectionism is productive. Study after study has shown the truth one song-writer put into words: The way to write a really good song is to write a good many bad ones. Living life in a fear-based, frantic attempt to produce perfection really means not producing much at all (and certainly not enjoying the process).

Anne Lamott has written, “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

For Christians, the truth is even more serious. Perfectionism is a denial of the gospel, a slap in the face of the Savior, as perfectionists live and act as if they need no saving at all, certainly not as much as ordinary folks. But to accept Christ’s sacrifice requires admitting our utter inability to save ourselves. It’s only when we confess our powerlessness, weakness, and imperfection that he enables us to throw off the fear, futility, and idolatry of perfectionism, to embrace his deep peace and joy and live truly gracious lives in the sure knowledge that we are saved by sheer mercy and grace.

Maybe I should delete all of the above and just write (and repeat each hour) an eight-word anti-perfectionism creed: There is one God. I am not Him.

 

     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.

 

 


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