Focus on Faith

Right on Time, Here Comes Punxsutawney Phil 

When I start writing about the weather, my readers might logically suppose that I’m feeling uninspired, dull and unimaginative, and short of things to write about. They would be right. My apologies.

Strange. I just looked back at a few old columns (I’ve got well over a thousand of them), and I see that on several occasions, about this time of year, I’ve written about the weather. So maybe I’m on track. And so is the year. Right on track.

Christmas is over. That’s depressing. The decorations are down. That’s depressing. I’m working on taxes. That’s depressing. It’s been January for almost a whole month. Aside from a few birthday bright spots, January is, to me, depressing—except for the theoretical possibility of snow, the most beautiful weather-wonder our Creator ever creates.

Full disclosure: I’m the grandson of a rancher, but I do not have cattle, or I might be less excited about the white stuff.

It has, thus far, and yet again, been a wimpy winter in my neck of the woods. I’m not qualified to discuss the reasons why. I’m not terribly conversant about La Niña or El Niño. I have some opinions about climate change and weather patterns and how much we humans affect such, but I’m not religious about those opinions. I can, however, smell climate politics. 

Convocations of very religious folks (most of whom wouldn’t admit their religion is a religion) remind me, as I’ve mentioned before, of gnats congregating on an elephant’s posterior debating how to best save the elephant. I doubt if he knows or cares. I could be wrong.

I remember when many experts were wringing their hands over the population crisis, by which they meant, too many folks. Now we’re hearing scary stuff about the opposite. I don’t doubt that climate patterns change. But what to do? I don’t know, and I figure that by the time they come up with an electric pickup I’d want to buy, my kids will have confiscated my driving license. I am, however, concerned that the more real danger is that, busy sanctimoniously “saving the world,” we allow real enemies to make a bigger mess of it while we’re worried that our popsicles might melt. I could be quite wrong.    

I am not a meteorologist or the son of a meteorologist. My only qualification to have an opinion at all is that I like seasons, and I like them best when they behave like the seasons they are. If I wanted perpetual spring, I would live . . . elsewhere.

Each season has just claim to fame but winter may be my favorite. Of course, it’s working at an unfair advantage: it’s got Christmas. And, at least when my wife and I go to the mountains to get it, winter has that snow I mentioned. And roaring fireplaces. And skiing. And hot chocolate. And books by fireplaces.

But in my opinion, this winter, despite a few very, very cold days (we’re in the midst of some as I write) has been wimpy and windy. Almost—and I find this chilling—springlike. Not “springlike” as in birdies singing, trees budding out, new life bursting forth from the ground. No. Picture rodents and small children flying around in the atmosphere as acres of parched land rise up to switch counties. Springlike. And the real thing will be here soon enough.

We surely don’t need “Goliath” type blizzards (December 2015), but I’m always a bit disappointed when winter in these parts consists of about 62 flakes of dry snow. Wimpy.

So I’ll be watching with interest as the redoubtable rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges on February 2, Groundhog Day. I hope he sees his shadow. If we can get the real thing, a little more winter is fine with me. By the way, those who keep track of such things say that Phil’s prediction is reliably unreliable. But it’s fun.

If you’re a beach person, we’re still friends. If you worry about cow flatulence, I’m sorry that you have to deal with such anxiety. Our faith—the kind that really matters—is not dependent upon our climate agreement. We might disagree on how best to do so, but folks with faith in our Creator all agree that he did an amazing job spinning this globe, and we should do our best not to mess it up.

I hope our trust is in the Author of life and all seasons. Whatever the weather (forgive me if I’m tempted to cross my fingers here regarding blowing dust and wind), our Creator makes “everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

January 20: Penguin Awareness Day 

I may need to apologize to a penguin.

Are you aware that Friday, January 20, 2023, was Penguin Awareness Day? I wasn’t, either, until I ran across a “news” blurb flashing across one of my screens late that day, and by then it was too late to do anything very practical about it. (And I just assumed that most likely the event was designed to help people to be more aware of penguins and not for penguins to be more aware of their surroundings lest they step into traffic or something.)

Greeting card companies probably have some (overpriced) cards for that day. Black and white. Maybe tuxedos with black tie ribbons? I could have bought one had I not been so callously unaware of the special day. Better yet, I could have spent the entire day in heightened awareness of the particular difficulties faced by penguins in our modern world. At least, I could have posted well wishes on Facebook. Maybe “liked” or “loved” some awareness-provoking pictures of penguins. Alas, too late.

I figured I had two good options. I could make it a point to apologize in person to the very next penguin I bumped into, or I could just wait until next year’s Penguin Awareness Day and do something really special. Whichever comes first.

My oversight was nothing personal. As far back as I can recall, I’ve had nothing but the warmest feelings toward penguins and, indeed, the whole penguin community.

I assume they have one. A community, I mean. We all seem to have a “community” these days. The right-handed community. The left-handed community. The right-handed and green-eyed people who like chocolate community.

Anyway, I’ve made a special note on my phone’s calendar marking January 20 for those specially-beloved waddlers lest I blow right past their official day yet again.

Ah, but my callous oversight has made me think. Wondering what other special days I might be sauntering past with nary a thought regarding their specialness, I did some Internet searching. Turns out that there’s not a day in the year that’s not been designated as a special day. If you don’t believe it, navigate over to HolidaySmart.com and browse a bit.

The folks at that website somehow neglected to mention that January 11 is my birthday, but they did tip their hat to that auspicious calendar square as being, among other claims to fame, Hot Toddy Day. Good to know.

Just for fun, I looked up my younger brother’s birthday. Cheddar Day. I’ll send him cheese if he’ll send me . . .

As exhaustive (and exhausting) as that website is (I mean, you can’t take a breath on any day and not be trampling on top of somebody’s “day”), it’s quite thorough. I did notice, though, that they completely overlooked Hobbit Day, Sept. 22. (You can look it up.)

With apologies again to penguins, I give up. I plan to try to act like my littlest grandkids and recognize every day as a special day, a day given to them by God to use to run and laugh and play and hug and learn. A day from which to squeeze out every last bit of joy before getting some great sleep so you can do the same to the next one. After all, it was just the other day—a day I’d already mentally pronounced as windy, dusty, and generally unpleasant—when I heard one of those little snaggle-toothed princesses remark, “It really is kind of a beautiful day.” And in her company, ya know, it really kinda was.

I know now that the day Kendall dubbed “kind of beautiful” was also World Quark Day, and Tin Can Day, and Good Memory Day. That last was right on target. But she’s already told me a bunch of times on more than a few days, “Today’s my best day.”

Come to think of it, that’s not at all a bad thing to note on a calendar. I think it even overshadows Penguin Awareness Day. No offense meant to the penguin community.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Toothpaste, Toilet Paper, and Marriage 

Toothpaste, Toilet Paper, and Marriage

By Curtis K. Shelburne

Forty-seven years. That’s how long my wife and I have been married. It probably seems longer to her.

I’m counting pretty heavily on the fact that breaking in a new husband would likely be for her, at this point, more trouble than it’s worth.

These days, the statistics for folks who get married as young as we did are pretty grim. And I will admit, if one of my grandkids expressed a desire to get married at age 18, I’d likely need some sort of sedation.

But for those who marry young and survive to grow up together and grow old together with their first spouse, blessings abound. Of course, all married couples face some challenges. Fewer challenges, I think, than folks who choose to live together without vows and can cut and run at any moment, but challenges nonetheless.

Early on, my wife and I faced and dealt with the toilet paper challenge. She explained to me an advantage or two of the “under” rather than “over” approach to hanging TP. It still seemed rather uncivilized to me, and we went with “over.”

Couples also bump quickly into practical decisions regarding everyday household chores. I am not a great dishwasher, but I am fairly proficient at gathering and carrying out trash. Since my beloved doesn’t like the way I load dishwashers, and since I’m not sure she knows where the dumpster is, the “division of labor” solution we came up with in this regard seemed easy and obvious.

Moving on, we came to the potential contention regarding toothpaste. More specifically, toothpaste tubes. In our marital alliance, I discovered very quickly that my wife takes it as a personal affront if any tube of toothpaste fails to surrender its last molecule of product. I’ve watched in amazement as she tortures toothpaste tubes until they give up every bit of their tooth goop and beg for mercy. She is not happy if I, in frustration, toss a tube into the trash too soon. So now I work my personal toothpaste tube down to a reasonable level, and then I surreptitiously switch out my dwindling tube for her fuller one. Win win.

By the way, her particular talent extends to anything that comes in a plastic bottle. I was a bit concerned (my heart skipped a beat or two) when I first discovered a large butcher knife stored in a drawer on her side of the bathroom. (Does the surname Bobbitt ring any bells?) Turns out she uses that rather frightening instrument to saw lotion-dwindling bottles in two so she can—you guessed it—retrieve any recalcitrant hand lotion molecules out of the containers.

We are somewhat similar in our “chronotypes.” Neither of us is a lark (a morning person), and neither is an extreme owl (a night person), though we (particularly me) definitely tend to be “owl-ish.” Neither of us arises merrily to chase the dawn, and one of us can get along just fine with limited light and speech until quite a good while after dawn and copious amounts of coffee.

The way two streams can come together to form one marital river is rather amazing. Why would we expect to have no occasional turbulence at their convergence? But—and this is also deeply true—who could ever have dreamed of the marvelous beauty and unique blessing their flowing together as one, unselfishly un-dammed, could become?

God. That’s who.

In our society, many self-righteous—and loud—folks may babble incessantly about diversity and equity. Strange, how often they seem to mean, in practicality, forcing lock-step conformity and a dreary sameness. “Equity” tends to mean cutting everyone off at the knees lest anyone grow taller than anyone else.

I think God’s way is better. We’re each and all valued and loved and given varied gifts that we unselfishly use to bless each other, and, to switch to the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor, when each “member” of the body functions well, the whole body reaps the amazing benefit.

All of this, I suppose, to say that “better together” and “more than we could ever be apart” are wonderfully true concepts for those who really do love their Lord and each other more than they love themselves.

Mark my words. A young couple able to deal unselfishly with toothpaste and toilet paper issues is off to a great start.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Selling the Moments of Our Lives 

A new year. In the dance of the universe, the annual calendar flip always seems to me to be mostly a non-event, plastic hype, modern media “News Alert” news. I never notice much difference between 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1.

And yet . . . I’ll admit that the dawning of a new year might not be a bad time to check our smoke alarms and our priorities. Regarding the latter, the sharp-pointed question is actually this: For what price are we selling the moments of our lives?

Because there is a price.

A friend, a man I respect immensely, recalled a conversation he had with a superior in his company. My friend was being offered a significant opportunity for advancement—and a lot more money. But he turned it down. Why? Because, as he told his boss after considering the hours, the time away from home, the travel: “Happiness is worth a lot to me.”

“Well,” the boss replied, “isn’t it to everyone?”

The answer is No. More than a few people are willing to trade their happiness, and that of those closest to them, for any “advancement,” “success,” and more money. They’ll rationalize the decision and hope their own souls and their families won’t notice. But they are willing to put happiness on the auction block.

I’ve been blessed with a number of friends wise enough to know when such was the actual choice, and who made the best decision. I’ve never known one who later regretted making the selfless choice.

The choice is not always that stark. Some very fine folks advance and reap the benefits of their hard work even as they remain happy, content, and continually pray to be a blessing wherever they work and serve. But they are never the ones who equate “more” with “happier” or who spend time saying or thinking, “I’ll be happy if . . .” They know that “if” never really comes.

They know that selling their integrity for success is deep loss. They know that to become strangers to their spouses and kids is terrible failure, no matter their financial “net worth.” They know genuine truths about real worth. (Remember Harry Chapin’s classic “The Cat’s in the Cradle”? It’s worth a listen.)

A wise person whose name I don’t recall once remarked, “Has it ever occurred to you that most of the worst things most people ever do are done to please people they don’t even really like?”

How many people sell their lives to “reach the top” and find that the “top” is cheap and tawdry, though slithering to the summit cost them dearly. And then the moments fly by, dust returns to dust, and their “place knows them not” (Psalm 103). They got a watch or a plaque. Then another climber climbed into their spot. And the process repeats.

Just a few days ago, a well-known politician in our land got the high position he coveted. But more than a few folks across the political spectrum are left wondering if, after all the bowing, scraping, and groveling he’s been willing to do to some very slimy human beings, what he finally got is really worth having or is now so demeaned that it will become dust and ashes in his mouth. I don’t know. When our two national political parties seem mostly characterized by craziness, cowardice, or, at any given moment, some combination thereof, and do their best to expel anyone with much character or wisdom, I don’t expect much. I guess time will tell. But, just from the reports I’ve heard, I hope I’d not have been willing to pay that price.  

Don’t let me sidetrack this with politics. The principle holds true in every arena of our lives and at every level. I’ve seen religious “rock stars” sell their integrity for mega-church fame and neon glitz. I’ve also seen large churches led by folks who were selfless and humble. I’ve seen churches, little and large, split by tyrants, and churches, little and large, blessed by wise and selfless leaders who would “give their lives for the sheep” and were invariably true to the Shepherd. We all know that greedy rich folks and greedy poor folks are easy to find. As are some folks at all levels of income who know what it means to be truly rich.  

Name a business. Name an endeavor. Name a church, or a school, or any organization. Name a family.

And then name some names. Think about the people you remember, and will always honor, who have blessed you by loving you and the people around them so much that they “sold” the moments of their lives wisely to be a blessing wherever they worked and served.

Thank God for them. And pray to partake deeply of that same wisdom and blessing. If God gives you the talents and abilities to be a great CEO, use them, and ask for humility, realizing that the janitor mopping the hallway of the company and humming “Amazing Grace” may be a very rich man indeed if he knows happiness, contentment, and the love of his family.

This is sure: One day, sooner than we think, we’ll each reach a moment when we know—we really know—that, though we’ve made many mistakes and taken some missteps along the way, we’ve journeyed in the right direction. We followed the right Leader. And we sold our moments well.

You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

January Is a Good Time for Looking Both Directions 

Well, here we find ourselves again in January, and maybe some reflection is in order.

On the one hand, author Thomas Mann is right: “Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.” So a new year? January? Big deal.

On the other hand, I’m always a little surprised when 12:01 a.m. of the new year rolls around and there’s not even any perceptible “bump” indicating that our wheels have run over a chronological curb. Even so, the seasons of the year each do have a discernible character, and I like that.

I like seasons, and I like living in a place where weather-wise, they are pretty obvious. It’s strange. I don’t tend to like change, but I like the changing seasons. I particularly like the fact that there is so very little change each year in the way that they invariably change. I like the particular character with which the Creator has endowed each season, and winter just might be my favorite.

I know nothing about Edith Sitwell, but I think she captures for me winter’s winsomeness: “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

There it is: “the time for home.” I like that.

One of my sons recently reflected on the time our family had together at Christmas, and what he said delighted me and may well have been the best Christmas gift I received. He said, “You know, it was really nice to be home. You and Mom have made it a really enjoyable place to be, and that’s true for all of us, from the little ones to all the rest.” I love that, and am immensely thankful for it!

Home matters to me, and there is no place I’d rather be.  Maybe that’s why I can think of nothing better (as long as the cupboard is full and there are some good books, old movies, and firewood available), than being snowed in for a few wonderful days. The only way, it seems to me, that we ever have anything much worthwhile to offer to the loud and bustling world outside is when we spend enough quiet and rich time inside, being gently reminded of who we are and Whose we are. That’s true of our homes, I think, and I believe it’s also true of our minds and our spirits.

Perhaps it’s never more true than in January. I always tend to find January depressing, scrunched up as it is right alongside of December. Granted, it starts off with a few of the twelve days of the Christmas season. It can certainly use the color. It includes my birthday and the birthdays of several family and friends I deeply love. Nonetheless, I hate it when the Christmas stuff comes down and the tax forms come in. Christmas holds so much beauty, hope, joy, and magic. Then comes January, a month that seems, unless we can get some beautiful snow (real snows are always magic), mostly designed for bloodless bureaucrats whose imaginations flat-lined sometime very early in elementary school.

But, I admit, that’s not entirely fair to January. The first month really does have some very good points and some unique wisdom. January gets its name from the Roman god Janus who was depicted on Roman coins as two-headed, looking both ways, backward and forward.  He was the keeper of gates and doors.

Wisdom lies in spending the right amount of time looking in both directions. God is still the Lord of both our “coming in” and our “going out.” He is the God of all times, all seasons, both “now and for evermore” (Psalm 121:8).

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Times Square Is Podunk Hollow Compared to Bethlehem 

And here we are. One more year. Almost as far as you can get from Christmas Day.

I hope your Christmas has been, and is being, filled with everything good. I’m quoting me to me here: “Christians who know the real meaning of the holy days should celebrate everything that is good about them—lights, trees, candles, songs, family, services, bells, friends, snow, sleds, presents, candy, laughter—with more joy than other people and not less. If we truly love Christ more than Christmas, then we’re free to love Christmas immensely and with a real freedom and genuine joy deeper than we could ever have otherwise. All that’s truly joyful and good is God’s. It would be nonsense to thank Santa for God; it may be very good sense indeed to thank God for Santa.”

Oh, I stand by that! My grandchildren have called me “the king of Christmas.” If they mean that no one enjoys it more than I do and is more intent on tasting the joy in every bit of its fruit, I joyfully plead guilty. But, of course, they know as well as I do that there is only one King of Christmas. And we might do well to notice that, as his early disciples figured out and as our little ones know instinctively already, if we’re really looking for Christ, he will be the one laughing with the children.

One of our family jokes is for a grandchild or two, after Christmas Day, to put on a fake frown and intone dolefully (about the time a few of their parents are considering bowing to the temptation to box up all the decorations early—oh, the shame of it!), “Christmas is over, Curtis!”

I beg to differ. And I like to think I have Christian history, dating back to A.D. 567 (look it up) on my side, regarding “the twelve days of Christmas.” History seems to indicate that a time of preparation, Advent, preceding the actual season and the celebration of Christ’s birth, was observed at least from about A.D. 480 [Wikipedia]. In any case, anything that honors the Lord and makes Christmas even more meaningful is fine with me. I want it all—the whole twelve days, “geese a’layin’” and “lords a’leapin’” not required, though they’re fun. (If you press me on the history and mention that Advent traditionally included some fasting, I might have to admit that I’m not a complete purist.)

Here, though, is a very practical point. We’re all tired after the main celebrations, but many of us who lead worship and help churches celebrate this beautiful time, as much as we love it, are truly “toast” pretty early in the days right after the Day. Yes, I’m still celebrating (“No, you sweet little folks, it’s not over!”), but it’s quieter now. And quietness is its own very real blessing.

I’ve tried to lead others in praise and reflection. Now for a few days, I’ll do my best to intentionally slow down more, drink in some stillness, and pause by the fire just to be and breathe and be grateful.

I know. The stillness won’t last. New Year’s sparklers and largely artificial joy are always a bit of a bump in my road. I am not, however, a complete New Year’s Grinch, and I’m truly thankful to be aboard to begin another year. Life is God’s sweet gift. But my hope is not in a new year and my impressive ability to steer my way through it. The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever come close to keeping is the one I made decades ago about never making New Year’s resolutions.

If Christmas does what I’m sure God wants it to do in my soul, I’ll enter a new year buoyed by the hope of Bethlehem and the angelic proclamation that God is with us, Immanuel, and the Almighty has done and is still doing what we could never do and never even imagine.

That’s real hope, real because it centers completely on God and not at all on me. Sparklers are puny light compared to glory-fired angels. And Times Square will always be a backwater podunk anywhere in the same universe as Bethlehem.

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 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 Light Shines in the Darkness” 

Four candles. At church, we lit four candles this morning. I’m talking about Advent candles. One for each of the four Sundays before Christmas. And now, only the “Christ candle,” the large white one in the center of the Advent wreath, is left.

I didn’t grow up lighting candles at church. I do remember getting to light candles at a wedding in my hometown church once. My brother and I were pressed into service as candlelighters. Using real candle-lighters. We looked like altar boys in training. And I still think it was probably a mistake to let Jim loose with fire. But we lit a lot of candles, and I liked it.

I was taught many good things at that church that have blessed me all of my life, and I treasure many of the relationships, but I still think we were short on candles. I’ve been trying to rectify that for a number of years now.

I won’t go into the history, but, truth be told, I think we were a little wary of anything that was perhaps too beautiful. We were certainly wary of anything at all “ornate.” Were our Puritan roots partially responsible? I think so. Right along with the idea that what was not “authorized” in Scripture was forbidden (as if the New Testament were simply an update on the Old, a revised book of laws; as if the cross-bought new covenant itself were really just a revision of religious business as usual). “Silence” in Scripture, particularly regarding worship, was considered to be strictly prohibitive, instead of being an area of complete freedom.

It was no new fight, of course. I understand that the great reformers (and their followers), Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the former in Germany and the latter in Switzerland, disagreed over the same sorts of “issues.” Candles for Luther, but none for Zwingli. Organs for Luther, but not even congregational singing for Zwingli who found no authorization for it. Those two giants dealt with the “silence” of New Testament Scripture very differently.

It seems to me that the Apostle Paul would tell us that we need to make a decision we believe does not hinder the spread of the gospel or violate the law of love toward our brothers or our neighbors in any way, and proceed to worship, glorifying God. No fussing and no judging. “Your brother may disagree with you, but don’t you doubt for a moment that he will stand justified before God—for the very same reason you will” (Romans 14:4, my paraphrase).

But the far larger point, vastly larger than any externals, is also made incredibly strongly by the apostle. What an amazing chapter is 2 Corinthians (that “2” is pronounced “second,” by the way, and this hint is free for politicians) Corinthians 3 where he again contrasts (as if Romans and Galatians and more were not enough) trusting in a written code and the power of human effort, versus trusting completely in the Spirit and God’s “work” accomplished completely through Christ. Even as the apostle warns us, “the letter of the law kills,” he exults, “but the Spirit gives life.”

This is potent stuff! This is the gospel, the good news. It will bring freedom to our souls. It will light them up with joy! If it encourages us maybe to light a candle or two, or sing a song or two, or play a symphony, or dance in delight, or marvel in wonder, or bow in gratitude, or open our hearts for laughter in the very presence of the God of all joy, well, that’s just the beginning of eternal consequences. (Warning: It has also been known to cause religious folks of the toxic variety to start nailing together crosses for crucifixions.)

I’m not particular about the candles. They’re just one sweet tradition (and, look it up, the whole idea of Advent seems like a very good idea, and a “preparation” my heart seriously needs; funny how often we discover stuff someone else discovered centuries ago). I surely do like them. I just wish I could slow down the time between now (the four candles) and the lighting of His. I want to enjoy every moment. Bask in the anticipation. Enjoy the twinkle of every light. 

But I am serious about “the joy” and very particular indeed about our not missing this fact: When we celebrate Christ’s birth, the whole point is that God did it. We didn’t. And we never could. Salvation didn’t come from us. Never could. Never would. Never will.

We celebrate Christ’s coming at Bethlehem. Because. God. Did. It.

Wonder of wonders! The light has come! And the darkness will never overcome it.

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“What Then Can I Give Him?” 

I’ve been enjoying reading Stephen Nissenbaum’s fine book The Battle for Christmas. Most Americans tend naturally to think that the Christmas traditions we share have been relatively unchanged for a very, very long time. Not so.

For example, when the Pilgrims arrived in North America on Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony in 1620, the last thing a child in that colony would expect around Christmas or New Year’s would be a gift or present of any sort. According to Nissenbaum’s rigorous research, the idea of giving gifts and presents during that time of year didn’t really take hold until the 1820s. But when it did, wow!

Early on, in the 1820s and 1830s, books, literary “annuals,” and “gift books,” collections of short stories and poetry, etc., became popular and increasingly ornate. Before long, they included “presentation plates,” opening pages in which the giver could inscribe his name, the name of the one to whom the gift was being given, and even the reason for the gift. “From _____ as a token of _____ to _____.” It might be “a token of” “his regard” or “friendship” or “affection” or whatever.

In this rather ingenious way, a book that was, though a rather expensive (and perhaps very expensive) extravagance, albeit mass-produced and very popular, became a personalized gift. It really was not at all a “one of a kind” gift, but the inscription transformed it into a “one of a kind” gift especially from me to thee.

Not surprisingly, Bibles also became very popular gifts. An incredible array of Bibles in sizes and editions with illustrations and “helps” such as maps and pronunciation keys, and much more, were available in myriad colors and bindings. Again, they were great gifts, mass- produced, to be sure, but also with the “presentation page” at the front to make them intensely personal gifts. Publishers were not slow to recognize both their popularity and marketing potential. According to Nissenbaum, Harpers Illuminated Bible, ornately illustrated and handsomely bound and gilt, earned for its publishers in “its first dozen years” the “staggering sum of $500,000” in retail sales.

And, of course, as gift-giving took firm hold and the holidays began to center increasingly on children, all sorts of toys and dolls and . . . began to fill stockings, and Santa Claus (or some variation of that spelling referring to the “jolly old elf”) became quite prominent. In fact, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” known to most as “The Night Before Christmas” (1823) did more than any other single work to paint the holiday, and especially St. Nick, in our minds as we’ve pictured it ever since.

Nissenbaum follows the experiences of one particular family through several decades and includes quotations from the letters they wrote to each other or others during the holidays as gifts became an increasingly prominent feature of their celebration. He particularly notes the reactions of the children to the gifts.

We begin to see soon in the descriptions of their holidays and gifts some categories of gift-related problems that are as modern as tomorrow.

Various members of the family talk about how hard it is to “find the right present.” Some of the gifts ordered turn out to be “the wrong gift.” Some are “lost in the mail” or “don’t arrive on time.” Or so-and-so, it was discovered, “already has that.” Or “it was really not what was asked for.” Or the gift turns out to be “rather a useless trifle” or “what do you do with this?” Perhaps the toy breaks quickly. Maybe the size or color is wrong. And on the problems went. And on they still go.

One of my favorite songs to sing during the holidays features the lyrics of Christina Rossetti’s poem (1872), “In the Bleak Midwinter.” She takes the reader to the scene of Christ’s birth where “may have gathered,” she writes, “angels and archangels” and where “cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.” His mother Mary “worships the Beloved” with “a kiss.”

But “what shall I give Him,” she asks, “poor as I am?” What indeed can be given to the One all of Heaven cannot hold, “nor can earth sustain,” the One who will “reign” over all?

“If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. / If I were a wise man, I would do my part.” But “what then can I give Him”?

Her answer is still the best, and points to the only real gift that you and I can give to the One who has given us life and breath, joy and hope, and who sustains us and the entire universe every moment: “I will give my heart.”

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

“Presents Did Not Fly About as They Do Now” 

In 1850, which was before she wrote her classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story for Christmas. One of her characters describes the difficulty of buying gifts, Christmas presents:

“‘Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.’”

She then recalls the early years of her life when “‘presents did not fly about as they do now.’” In fact, “‘the very idea of a present was so new.’” But now, she laments, “‘There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.’”

These lines are quoted by Stephen Nissenbaum in his book, The Battle for Christmas. The “battle” has nothing to do with whether we wish each other a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” It has everything to do with this noted historian writing “A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday.” The book is incredibly well-researched, was a “Pulitzer Prize Finalist,” and is packed full of surprises regarding how America’s celebration of Christmas actually came to be what it is. (It’s interesting that America’s foremost scholar on the history of Christmas in America is Jewish, a fact he finds interesting, too.)

The reader probably already knows that the celebration of Christmas was not looked upon with favor, and was even outlawed at times, by Puritans in the New World. When you read his description of the history of mind-blowing rowdiness, party-crashing, uninvited “guests” showing up at the doors and inside the houses of folks from whom they demanded cakes and ale (“trick or treat” on steroids), you’ll have a bit more sympathy for the Puritans. I had no idea!

According to Nissenbaum, Harriet Beecher Stowe is on point when her character describes the kind of gift-buying and gift-giving conundrum we still face. The interesting thing is that, though we’ve faced exactly what she describes for generations, it was indeed a new thing in the early 19th-century. It was in the 1820s, the historian says, that buying presents for folks at Christmas actually became a very major part of the holiday in our country.

At one time, lords of manors in England invited their workers in to their masters’ homes during the holidays for food and drink. That “invitation” later devolved in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc., into the uninvited sort of thing described above. A time of making the rounds and visiting friends, eating and drinking, to excess or not, was also common.

But eventually, the celebrations became less centered in places and people outside the family unit and shifted focus to the family itself. The kids would receive some small presents (fruit, candy, and later, books, etc.). As was the case with the manor’s workers years before, around the holiday times, society’s tables turned topsy-turvy and kids, who occupied a place in the household on par perhaps with servants, were elevated in status during the holidays.

Nissenbaum catalogs it all. In the 1820s, gift-giving really ramped up. Stores, sales, advertising in the newspapers, and so on. Gifts for wives and the mothers of the household soon gained favor, and shopkeepers and publishers, etc., increasingly jumped on the bandwagon which gained, as you know, incredible mass and speed.

I think I’ve reported accurately here, but Nissenbaum’s book is worth a read.

My own history, I know much better. In my family, we pretty much always knew that Santa Claus was Dad. (Nissenbaum talks a lot about St. Nick’s origins.) On Christmas morning, we opened the gifts one at a time. Dad was Santa, and the unwritten rule was that each gift went through his hands to ours. One at a time.

Mom and Dad’s older kids went through sparser times (fruit, candy, clothes), but by the time my brother Jim and I came around, we usually got a special and much-wanted present or two, some much less expensive ones, and, not unusually, some stuff we needed and the family budget would be accommodating anyway—pajamas, socks, blue jeans, underwear, etc. We were far from poverty-stricken, but Mom and Dad were smart. Wrapped socks do constitute an actual present that can be added to the stash under the tree for Yuletide plenty.

One of the worst presents Jim and I ever gave Dad (it may have been a birthday, but I think it was Christmas) was a bottle of “Grecian Formula” guaranteed by its makers to slowly turn gray hair dark. We tried to scratch off the directions regarding hair color and just wanted to watch his surprise in the days ahead. Our trick didn’t work.

If my meanderings bring to mind the history of some of your own Christmases and gifts, I’m glad. But most of all, I hope my words (sparked by Nissenbaum’s great book) help you think a bit about the kind of gifts that really matter and that your loved ones really need. The most precious cost nothing at all but your love.

The history of how we celebrate Christmas is fascinating. But the real celebration centers on the best Gift of all.

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 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 Turkey-induced Stupor—or Not 

I am writing, or trying to write, in a turkey-induced stupor.

Well, that’s at least partly correct. But not, I think, the turkey part.

Our family had a really nice Thanksgiving. I hope you and yours did, too. Into a relatively normally-sized house we crammed more folks than the house was designed to easily accept. The grandkids buzzed around like happy little bees, playing with the dog (who is never happier than when the kids are home and now seems to be in a stupor of his own), heading out to a rather cold trampoline, helping hang lights in the shed/greenhouse “magic” princess-prince castle, pulling out way too many toys, piling onto PawPaw, etc. (“PawPaw,” asked the littlest princess, “who wakes you up when we’re not here?”)

Some of the “littles,” as we call the youngest four, even joined in, for the first time, in a card tournament (with some modifications to help them compete).

Nertz (it has other spellings and names) is usually something we get around to playing when we’re together. As is true with so many holiday traditions, our version is an amalgamation, a blend, of the practices of the families that marriage has brought together to make our bunch.

I was playing at something of a disadvantage for a few hands as I came in late and nobody had told me that our usual 13-card pile had been temporarily downgraded to a 10-card stack. I would’ve lost anyway. I always do. I’m a word guy, and no one will play word games with me.

We’ve long ago come up with rules that work for us. Different members of our bunch come from families with different rules governing how you flip your cards. That disagreement has been handled. And we all agree that it is forbidden to “two-hand” cards when smashing them into the piles in the middle of the table.

I don’t know why I’m picky about such. I am destined to lose anyway. I’m at a disadvantage whenever speed is required and numbers are involved. Two strikes starting out. I enjoy it anyway because I love my adversaries. And losing means that I never have to spend the energy it would take to move to the winners’ table.

Of course, we ate far too much. Which brings me back to the turkey.

From what I’ve read, it seems to me that the turkey gets a bad rap. Yes, the bird contains a bunch of tryptophan, but the research says, not that much more than many other meats and proteins. Yes, tryptophan is, I’m told, involved in our bodies’ serotonin production.

You can do your own research to check this out (I promise that there’s more than you care to read, especially if you’re in a real stupor already), but if you really want to know what makes you drowsy after a big Thanksgiving meal, the culprits are likely at least two-fold: way too much food and way too much dessert (carbohydrate-rich). How much you stretch your small intestine (yeah, that’s a thing), the miles you traveled to get to the celebration, the work you did to prepare for the celebration, and sleep deprivation figure in as well. A whole lot of folks stacked up, a serious change in “routine,” and much more, and, yes, it’s a great time, but you’re toast at the end of getting stuffed with stuffing.

It’s all worthwhile, of course, including the stupor at the end of the festivities.

My wife’s family had a Thanksgiving tradition that, though sensible, was new to me decades ago. Almost as soon as the main Thanksgiving meal was over, what was left of the turkey “hit the fan.” I mean that the leftover bird quickly became turkey salad. It wasn’t bad in that form, but I always campaigned for a little to be left in recognizable form to go with leftover dressing and cranberry sauce. I don’t mind several opportunities for the traditional meal.

No turkey salad this year. The bird was pretty much completely dispatched very quickly.

It was a good time, and I’m thankful for that. Sleepy. Tired. I don’t think I could put two cards together tonight. In a stupor, for sure.

But very thankful.

Oh, and here’s a reminder for this and all of the holiday season. Holidays don’t have to be perfect (there’s no such thing) to include plenty for which we should be genuinely thankful. With that, I am now gratefully taking my stupor and the rest of me to bed.

You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!

Copyright 2022 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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