Tag Archives: pastors

Cemeteries Help Keep Life in Perspective

I’m weird, and I know it. But I sort of enjoy spending some time in cemeteries. I’m talking, of course, about the times when I want to be there, not the times when I have to be. Big difference. There’s been way too much of the latter recently, it seems to me.

But I find cemeteries peaceful and interesting. Strolling among the tombstones (since I don’t have to mow around them, I much prefer the standing ones), I get the chance to play Sherlock Holmes and deduce all sorts of life stories from all sorts of inscriptions.

Some cemeteries are quite beautiful with well-kept shrubs and trees and grass. They are quiet places; I like quiet places. And, if I may say so, the folks who populate cemeteries tend to be incredibly easy to get along with.

Since I’ve been a pastor in my community for over thirty-four years, more than a few of the names I see on the stones in our area cemeteries are connected with lives and stories that I know. I stood at the heads of quite a few of those graves and spoke words I hoped would point to the Author of Life just before the earth’s blanket was rolled over those remains.

When I think of my life and the life of our community, it’s hard for me to visualize life without many of the folks I’ve just mentioned. I no longer bump into them at worship or at the coffee shop or wave at them as we pass on the street. I miss that.

But they are still very much a part of me. A part of us. And that’s especially true if they were part of the community of faith. They may or may not have been part of my congregation or my denomination, but so what? Christ’s church is so much larger than the fences we build to try to keep God all tied up and tamed. Thank God indeed, God won’t be shut up in anybody’s box, and he has never been willing to be successfully tamed.

Death is the harshest reminder of all that we’ll never get even this world tamed, much less its Creator. We may not look long upon those boxes that we bury, but they are nonetheless a constant reminder that life can’t be successfully controlled.

Cemeteries help put our lives in perspective. The “drop dead” late-filing date for filing federal taxes just passed, but folks who have passed away care not at all. And even if life’s cost is (almost certainly) increasing at a steadier clip than your paycheck, once your heart stops, the meter quits running, too. Perspective.

Cemeteries help us divide what really matters from what really does not. What matters most is who we chose to ultimately trust in this life—ourselves or our Creator. That’s a serious decision.

But once that decision’s made, cemeteries also remind us that life is far too precious to be taken too seriously. God is the God of all joy. Those who love him can dance in his presence both here and hereafter. They know better than to think that love and laughter and beauty cease on the other side of the tombstone.

 

      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.


A Pastor’s Job Description: Point Out What God Is Doing

All honorable work is God’s work, a calling, and anyone serious about doing a good job in his/her work derives priceless benefit from the example of respected mentors. Surely teachers and doctors, business folks and farmers, all need mentors to encourage them to “soldier on.”

One of my most influential mentors passed away almost a year ago, and I never met him. Eugene Peterson, best-known for his amazing paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, never wrote anything poorly, but his books written particularly for pastors have blessed me immensely.

I particularly love Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. I think it should be required reading for would-be pastors, and I think “veteran” pastors probably should read it again once a year. Reflecting on fifty years of ministry, Peterson reminds those still on that journey that God does not call us to be religious CEOs but to love His sheep. Our calling is not to be little gods who think we can make the sun rise but simply to walk with our people through life each new day reminding them, and being reminded, that God is the One who bids it rise.

The job has never been easy, and it certainly is not now. The statistics are dismal and, as Peterson notes, pastoral “defections and dismissals have reached epidemic proportions in every branch and form of church.”

The pressure comes from all directions. Some groups, saying very truly that “every Christian is a minister,” draw some conclusions that are simply silly and demeaning and make as much practical sense as saying that everyone who has ever cut up a pork chop is a butcher. Of course, every Christian is called to the service of God, but our roles, functions, training, and gifts are, thank the Lord, all as different as they are all valuable and needed.

Our culture itself, and especially our “religious” culture, is toxic to real ministry; it devalues and demeans it. “The vocation of pastor,” writes Peterson, “has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” God is treated as a consumer “product to be marketed” and the marketers scramble to find the right “model” for “success” which is then “religiously” measured in our culture’s terms rather than Christ’s: if it’s big, if it’s quantifiable, if it’s impressive, it’s called success. Never mind that measured by such standards, Christ was remarkably unsuccessful as he loved the weak and little children, the powerless and the “foolish” of this world; he chose the cross instead of “success.”

Desperate for the latest program to “revitalize the church,” pastors often fall to the very temptations Satan offered in the wilderness and Christ resisted. When we do, we act as if the “fruit” we push the church to produce (and measure) is the only thing that validates its existence. Buying that lie, we devalue worship and prayer and become blind to the real fruit (much that is visible but much more that is “unseen”) that God produces. We proceed by displaying a profound disrespect and denial of God’s presence in the “ordinary.”

It’s good to have someone particularly ordinary particularly charged with pointing out what God is doing every day through His presence, forgiveness, and grace in our seemingly ordinary lives. It’s work worth doing.

 

 

     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.


“I Dreamed a Strange Dream”

 

Everybody dreams. Or so the sleep experts say.

I feel most refreshed when I wake up with no memory of dreaming during the night. I feel most exhausted when I had a bad or intensely frustrating dream, got up a time or two in the night, and each time was launched right back into the same past-midnight mess.

If I remember what I learned in some long-ago psychology class—maybe I just dreamed this—we all dream during sleep, but the only time we remember the dreams is when we wake up during them. And even then, as you know, they soon vanish like morning mist.

What do you make of the ones that don’t? The dreams that are particularly memorable, for good or ill?

Some are jumbles that make no sense at all. I chalk them up to fried jalapenos the night before. Some are pretty easily and obviously “interpreted.” Still, if a counselor or therapist tells you, “Oh, I know exactly what that means,” you need to fire them. He/she might have a suspicion, and depending upon how wise or crazy (that’s a technical psychological term) the professional is, might be on target. But a good one will ask the client, “Tell me, what do you think that might mean?” And they talk.

I’m just gonna talk to you. I’ll tell you my dream and then ask, “Tell me, what do you think that might mean?”

In a recent dream (it was a Saturday night, by the way), I was at a Christian church—Protestant, for sure, and Baptist, I think (choir behind me; flanked by piano and organ)—preaching at a weekend revival. That was the first problem; I’d rather be doing the music.

Second problem, it was a short revival. We’d gotten our wires crossed. For some weird reason, the bulletin said the local pastor was going to preach the Sunday morning sermon (no offense to him, I guess we were already supposed to be revived after Saturday), but there I was again, and he kindly asked me to preach. And things went south.

I’d misplaced my suit coat. Looked all over, but couldn’t find it. Oh, well. And I’d had a message prepared, but when my time came to bat, I couldn’t find that, either. For some reason, though, I had with me two large folders full of old sermon manuscripts.

So I rifled through, retrieved one, and homiletically launched out, not very sure of where I was going. An illustration started at the bottom of one page. I’d written it, but didn’t remember it. I confidently jumped into it anyway, fervently hoping that it was continued on the next page. Maybe it was. But, at some point, as I recall, the pages were blank. I was about to crash and burn, fly that sermon right into the ground. And it was “pilot error” for sure.

Ya never wanna do that. Not standing in a pulpit in front of a crowd. And, worse, I had a pastor brother and friend or two, excellent preachers, sitting in the back of the sanctuary.

Ah, well, a choir member or someone near the front suddenly had some sort of medical crisis. Attention was diverted, and that sermon is forever unfinished. Unless I have to give it another try tonight. I hope not.

Jalapenos? Quite likely.

Or am I just a small church pastor dealing with the same challenges most of my breed are dealing with these days? Stuff we feel (mostly irrationally) responsible for but can’t control. And I’m letting that bug me worse than I thought.

Eight-word sermon to me: God is in control. Now, sleep, fool! Amen.

 

 

    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 profiteering is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.


“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.


An Icy Road Here Does Not Mean an Icy Road Everywhere

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“Are you crazy?!”

That was the reaction of our Amarillo kids as my wife and I loaded up to head home on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

“Do you not want these grandchildren you love so much to grow up with two sets of grandparents? Don’t drive home!”

Normally, we can make that trip blindfolded. The problem is boredom. But the problem Saturday was ice. Not snow. Freezing rain. Ice. Lots of it.

Did I mention it was Saturday? They come before Sundays. As a pastor (Protestant with kids!) I decided long ago that I’d vote for an even trade between Saturdays and Sundays. Just switch ’em.

I like Saturdays (except for Saturday nights), and I love what happens on Sundays (though I also love Sunday nights; they’re as far as you can get from Sunday mornings). I just think Saturdays (especially the nights) would be improved by following Sundays. I won’t bore you with all of my reasons for thinking such nonsense, but . . .

Christians would go to church whenever Sundays happened. (At least, as many of them as go to church now.) Pagans would still have what they count as two Saturdays and the two evenings before them on which to misbehave and create mayhem. So I can’t see that the switch would much alter anyone’s plans.

It won’t happen, of course. I doubt even a current presidential candidate who, for votes, would promise to turn the moon into cheesecake could make it happen.

So Sunday was barreling down the track like a runaway train. Chasing Saturday. And Saturday in Amarillo was covered in ice.

I’d spent an hour or two helping one son try to shovel ice off the driveway. Snow’s easier. Another son had been on duty driving a fire truck on the ice. No fun at all.

Interstate 40, heading west, had been closed. Nobody up north of Amarillo was going anywhere. Churches were canceling or altering service schedules.

I’d heard of ice-wrought power outages back home, 95 miles southwest, I wasn’t hearing anything about road closures, cancellations, etc.

So we loaded up and slid that direction. Slowly. Carefully. One lane most of the way. Then, about 30 miles out, some clearing.

I drove into the church parking lot to check things out and turn up the heaters inside. I’d been dreading getting to shovel more sidewalk ice. But . . .

But though it was cold, and ice was covering trees and roofs, the walks were mostly just moist or dry! I stopped. My wife and I gazed through the windshield, and I just said, “This feels weird.”

We’d waked up at the North Pole, but now . . .

God cares how we feel. But it’s a mistake to let “ice” in one patch of your life’s journey convince you that the whole universe is icy. Our view is skewed by the weather under our own hats. It’s wise to take our own view into account; it’s very foolish indeed to completely trust it.

Only our Creator sees reality perfectly clearly. If you’re navigating an icy road right now, you’d be wise to let him chart the course, deal with the storm, and get you home.

 

 

       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.


Success: What Does It Really Mean?

 

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I wish we would consider being a bit slower to trust our culture’s methods of evaluating “success.”

In our terminally shallow society, absolutely the only thing you have to possess in order to be considered “successful” is—this will not surprise you—a big pile of money.

In our culture, if your bank balance is almost as vast as your ego, very few will pause to notice how many vows and hearts you’ve broken, how many times you’ve stabbed colleagues in the back, and what your word is truly worth. Your name may be listed as the first example under the dictionary definition of “hubris,” meaning “extreme pride and arrogance” (the kind that leads ultimately to disaster), but our society will be too impressed by what you possess to care much about what you are.

Why, then, should we be surprised at all if even Christians buy into a similar lie with regard to the “success” of churches, believing that absolutely the only thing a church has to be in order to be successful is BIG?

If it’s “mega,” by which most statisticians mean over 2,000 in membership, most folks will figure a church simply must be mega-successful. (Maybe some of those churches really are, and in ways that God values.) But many of the folks who buy this particular lie “hook, line, and sinker” are themselves “pastors,” if you use the term very loosely, who like the idea of a big flock a lot better than the messy reality of walking through life alongside individual sheep. So they rush to embrace every temptation of Satan that Jesus eschewed in the wilderness—temptations to glory and glamor and glitz.

I’m thankful whenever Christ and his cross are truly being preached. But I’m suspicious when the church uses Fortune 500 methods of determining value.

I’ve been enjoying Brandon J. O’Brien’s book The Strategically Small Church. He says that “mega-churches” make up “less than one half of one percent of churches in America.” The vast majority of churches are small, and yet ministers allow “the ministry experience of 6 percent of pastors to become the standard by which the remaining 94 percent of us judge ourselves.”

Hmm. I wonder if, at the very least, churches might not be wise to consider enlarging our view of “success” to accommodate more factors than just our numerical size? I wonder if we might not be wise to ask, once ever blue moon or so, what factors might be most important not just to a modern consumer but to a crucified Lord?

We might find that churches don’t have to be enormous to beautifully and genuinely touch lives. Small churches, often feeling beaten down as failures, might learn that the Lord of the universe, beaten down, derided as worthless, and hung on a cross, has a special place in his heart for small and seemingly powerless little groups of his people who love him and his little ones with a love that is large.

 

 

     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.


Warning! Paragraph One Is a Lie!

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Not only does size matter, it’s the only thing that matters.

That statement is a lie; it smells of the smoke of hell. But few lies are more deeply held by our terminally shallow society. We might as well tattoo it on our foreheads. We embrace it like a lover. We suck it in like life-giving oxygen even as its pollution shrivels our souls. Why not bow down and chant Paragraph One ten times daily? We can’t imagine that it might not be true.

But, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Wash your ears out with this!”

“Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.”

The statement has been attributed to Albert Einstein, but the online “Quote Investigator,” traces it to sociologist William Bruce Cameron (1963). I’d just trace its truth a good deal further back. Back to our Creator.

In a fallen world, spreadsheets and bank statements and analyses of gross national product, etc., probably must be counted. Quantified. Measured. Weighed.

But not everything can or should be. Not what really matters. Taking a cue from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I wrote a book one time entitled How To Measure a Rainbow. I’m pretty sure the point was, you can’t do it! But, oh, how we try!

Even in the one organization devoted to a King and kingdom whose life-giving values are always counter to this world’s dance with death we blindly fall to Paragraph One.

In his heartwarming memoir The Pastor, pastor Eugene Peterson calls his colleagues to be true to their calling and not desecrate their vocation by becoming “religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”

For years, he met with a group of pastors encouraging each other to live life with and love God’s people, something far deeper than just morphing into religious CEOs running organizations in competition with other religious CEOs. They were pastors calling people to worship God and find their identity in Him.

Occasionally, a group member desiring to “maximize his effectiveness,” meaning he wanted a bigger church so badly he could taste it, would cut and run. (Of course, there were other moves in and out and to different churches for valid reasons.) But the pastors tried to remind each other that bowing to size and seeking to worship (and be worshiped by) a crowd is idolatry and that God’s people, congregations of whatever size, are to be treated with respect and dignity as holy and of immense value not because they are large. Because they are His.

Knowing that we are God’s, we worship Him. Everything else springs from that worship. To worship means “to acknowledge worth.” If we are first and foremost worshipers of God, then our outreach and evangelism and mission work and service become the beautiful fruit of worship. If we don’t, it begins to rot by becoming just something else we try to count and quantify and stick on a pie chart so we can worship our work, our “effectiveness,” ourselves, rather than our God.

Worship reminds us that Paragraph One is a lie.

 

     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.


Notes from the Coke County Pastors’ Conference

Robert Lee-JLS

As I write this column, I’m attending the Biannual Coke County Pastors’ Conference.

“Biannual” is not one of my mother tongue’s brightest children. Wishy-washy, and depending on which authorities you consult, it can mean either “occurring twice a year” or “occurring every two years.” “Semi-annual” and “biennial” already handle “every two years.” I need “biannual” to pay for its keep, quit playing it both ways, fully adopt the best verdict, and mean “occurring twice a year.”

The Coke County Pastors’ Conference occurs twice a year. Biannual.

But if you call Coke County to inquire about the conference, most folks—county, clergy, Chamber of Commerce, and the smartest yard dogs—won’t know anything about it, even though it’s been happening biannually for well nigh 30 years.

That’s probably because the conference leaders, four of them, billed on all advertising as having accumulated collectively 175-200 years of ministry experience, are all my brothers, sons of G. B. and Wilma Shelburne. And we are the full roster of planners, speakers, attendees, and target audience members.

Oh, and I exaggerated a bit about the advertising; honestly, there is none, though we do send each other notices about the upcoming event each time around, including inquiries as to whether any one of us has a pending funeral (we’ve accumulated two since we’ve been here this time), wedding, church meeting, etc. Anything that might affect conference attendance. (And it better be a very good reason!)

The conference is held at the lovely and historic Key Place in Robert Lee, Texas. Well, we think it’s lovely, though our wives would pay good money not to stay here. (They’d likely engage in pernicious behavior, vacuuming and such). But it is certainly historic, our Granddaddy and Grandmother Key’s old home here.

Some sessions are held at the old kitchen table. Same table as a thousand years ago when we were kids except now we’ve got a light fixture on the ceiling above the table, not just old wires holding a socket and bulb with moths and other flying insects in continual orbit.

The best sessions are night meetings around the fire pit in the back “patch.” (“Yard” would be far too pretentious.) On one side is the pecan orchard. One tree is hardly an orchard, but this sole survivor is grandfathered in. On the other side is a densely-brushed creek, surely home to some interesting neighbors we never see.

In the midst of other serious business at the conference, we manage to confer some on, well, pretty much everything.

Granddaddy Key was a wise man. When he planned and built this humble Key Place in 1928 he blessed far more folks than he could imagine.

I wonder. What might the Father of us all have in mind even for this little place when “the heavens and earth” are all made new? And when our Lord says he has gone to prepare a “place” for us, that sounds exciting to me. All God’s family together.

I doubt we’ll need to do much conferring. Just some amazing praising!

 

    You’re invited–yea, verily, encouraged–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.


A Good Book Sounds an Important Warning

I don’t know how long it took Eugene Peterson to actually write his book The Pastor, but though he’s written around thirty others, it took him almost eighty years to be able to write this one.

An amazing book (Peterson doesn’t write any other kind), what he says for pastors and churches (and Christ’s church as a whole) has never been more important for us to hear. We live in a culture “uncongenial” not only to the vocation of pastors but to what is most truly important in the life of Christ’s Body, the church.

As Peterson says, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.” The church has often become just one more business among many, the only difference being that it specializes in religious goods and services.

Congregants become consumers, always shopping for the best deal, the best show. Congregations become competitors instead of outposts of one Kingdom. Pastors, whose idea of “success” is measured only by numbers, jump on a career ladder where God “calls” them to ever larger churches where their “effectiveness can be maximized” and the beautiful term “pastor” loses any meaning. Always on the prowl for more exciting pastures and more promising sheep, they don’t even know the names of the sheep, much less their needs and struggles, hopes and dreams.

In their drive to be religious rock stars, “religious entrepreneurs” have little time for the sacred trust of living life walking beside “ordinary” sheep whose lives are notably short of dazzle and drama. Desperate to orchestrate the next eye-popping program or the next worship explosion, they bow to the very temptation Christ eschewed as Satan cajoled, “Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple! Play to the crowd!” No addict ever needed cocaine more than they need a crowd.

Much of the religious business marketing could be carried out just as effectively if God had retired. It pays lip service to God’s presence, but almost completely disregards God’s most truly amazing work: his presence in the sacred realm of what we easily disregard as the ordinary—ordinary people and places and events and life.

So much of the modern approach to mega-religion is profoundly disrespectful of sheep and of the Shepherd as it trades the values of the Kingdom of God for those of the kingdom of man. The whole thing becomes impersonal, competitive, and manipulative, functional rather than relational, something to be counted and charted, quantified and graphed, and thus judged valuable or not.

Those “ordinary sheep” are God’s sheep. He loves them and lives in them. What a sacred privilege to walk with them and “be present” together with “what God has done and is doing.”

 

  

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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