Walt Shelton brings decade of faith lessons from Statesman column to new book
By Nicole Villalpando
For more than 10 years, Walt Shelton has delivered his view of what his new book calls “The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living” ($16, Crosslink Publishing).
Roughly four times a year, Shelton writes a faith column that appears in the pages of the American-Statesman.
It started in 2009 when, after decades of reading the faith columns that ran every Saturday, he decided to write one and send it to then-editor Dave Harmon.
The first one was about the death of his father. He tells the story of a store clerk who came to his father’s funeral. The clerk said, “I did not really know him, but he always spoke to me, called me by my name, asked me about my day and made me feel special — every time he was in the store.”
Shelton then writes, “Thank you, Dad, for showing me what is truly important, to the point that strangers remember your consistent acts of kindness.“ After he wrote that first piece and got good feedback, he continued to submit articles. There’s always a real-life lesson in Shelton’s stories about the way he thinks we should live our lives.
There are also lessons Shelton learned from his
dog, Cooper: “He ‘speaks’ to me gently with his eyes and a touch of his snout and enthusiastically with a wagging tail, all without any words. What instructive, counterculture wisdom. Often it is best just to be quiet and simply touch others with kind actions.”
There are also lessons that Shelton learned while visiting a woman who had written to him from prison after reading his column. He writes in the book about the dangers of stereotyping. While some might label her “a criminal,” he writes: “She is a model Christian in so many ways. She is humble, thankful and kind. ... She often thanks me for my time and friendship, but I am the primary recipient of God’s grace through her.”
Shelton, 64, writes about growing up in Tyler in the 1960s. The first time he really had an interaction with African American people was the summer after his first two years of college when he worked at Lake Tyler on a crew in which he was the only white kid. He writes: “During those two summers when I was age nineteen and twenty, I learned a lot in a short time about what is really important in life. I learned not to be color-blind, but color-appreciative. ... I will never forget those fine men. Their positive footprints in my past continually inform my life.”
One of the most profound parts of the Bible for Shelton comes from Genesis and the creation story. “God created everyone in God’s image, and it was very good,” Shelton paraphrases.
He also writes about his understanding of Jesus as rooted in the Judaism that Jesus practiced, and cites modern Jewish thoughtleaders like Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose most famous book is “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” and neurologist Viktor Frankl, who is best known for “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
They both, Shelton says, “speak” to him.
Shelton says in writing for the Statesman, he saw himself as not just writing for the Christians, even though that is his faith tradition. “My view of Jesus is that he was one of the most inclusive people who ever lived,” Shelton says. “He was a champion of what I think of as Biblical justice, what we call social justice. He was nonviolent.”
Shelton says sometimes people use Jesus to exclude others or to put a fence around their group; that’s not how he uses Jesus when he writes about the messages he feels we can take from Jesus’ life.
“It’s a real misunderstanding to not fully connect Jesus with being Jewish. I don’t see how a person can start to understand what Jesus was about without studying Judaism.”
Shelton has been studying religion since college. By middle school, he thought he wanted to go into the ministry, but when he went to the University of Texas, he changed his mind and thought he would want to teach religion at a college level. He got a history degree in 1977 instead because it allowed him to study philosophy, Greek, Hebrew and classical studies.
It put him in a position to do graduate work in religion, and he earned his master’s degree in religion from Baylor two years later.
Marriage and starting a family came first, and Shelton put aside the doctorate program at Baylor to become an insurance adjuster.
All along, his wife, Roxanne, was encouraging him to go to law school.
His experience as an insurance adjuster with lawyers representing the other side made him realize that as a lawyer, he could actually help people. He got his law degree at Baylor in 1989 and focused on environmental law, but soon after graduating, he went back to Baylor to teach a class in 1990. One class turned into the four classes he teaches now. He lives in Austin and commutes to Waco each week.
Even though he now teaches law, Shelton never lost his desire to teach religion. He’s been leading small study groups on the Bible for a variety of faith-based groups since 1978. Currently, he teaches a Bible study by Zoom on Sunday mornings at the Church at Highland Park.
“I have just loved it,” he says. “It put to use what I really cared about.”
His first thought for writing a book was that it would be about how to lead a small group study. Those first few chapters, which he wrote years ago, made it into this book as the appendixes. Some good words to live by: “Allow for open discussion”; “Be prepared to listen more than you talk”; and “Respectfully disagree and allow others to do the same.”
Leading these groups, he says, helps him appreciate a lot of passages of Scripture more. “There needn’t be one answer or one way to understand it,” he says.
His columns are just that, one point of view, open to others from readers who might contact him after reading something he wrote.
Shelton’s first 40 columns made it into the book. He’s now written another 10 and continues to submit columns.
“I’m a huge believer in working to find common ground both within and across faith lines,” he says.
“The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living.”
By Walt Shelton $16, Crosslink Publishing waltshelton.com