Monday, February 25, 2013

Lenten Reflections: Heartsick

"The heart is deceitful above all things
    and beyond cure.
    Who can understand it?"

Jeremiah 17:9 

Look within. We don't like to admit it. It's not a pleasant realization. We don't talk about it in social settings. But each of us, deep within the recesses of our hearts, have the capacity for evil. We are all prone to mistreat others and ourselves in the most unthinkable ways and yet always seem to find ways of justifying or excusing what comes out of our hearts. Look within. 

"I would never do something like that!" That's what he said before his divorce.

"At least I'm not like those scumbags!" You are. You just think about it. They do it.      

"What a sick freak!" You or her?  

Look within. Darkness. It lies just below the surface, waiting for just the right time. A moment of weakness. A temptation that is just too strong to avoid. The next little incremental step in progression. Baby steps.   

"How did I get here?"   

Give evil an inch, it takes a mile. 

Out hearts are sick. There's no sugar coating it. We just have plenty of band-aides and antibiotics to keep the inflection at bay. 

The water within is dark and contaminated. We just have a good filter to purify what comes out.  Most of the time.  CHANGE FILTER AFTER 6 MONTHS

Admitting how messed up we are and what we are capable of is essential. It builds our defenses. We become alert. More aware. We avoid being caught off guard because we know what could be.  We keep evil in remission. 

Look within. Embrace what's within.

"The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works." - St. Augustine    

As we begin this second week of Lent, let us keep in mind that it is through Christ and His Holy Spirit that transformation is possible. Our dark hearts can become hearts of light. The sick tissue can become healthy. Our hearts of stone can become loving hearts that beat within us and give hope to the world around us.

Look within. Embrace within. Embrace without.  

Lord, we know that we have the capacity of evil. We admit this and come to grips with it this morning. But as we trust in You, help us to open ourselves up to Your love, in order for our hearts to be transformed. Work in us so that Your Kingdom can be realized in a dark world. Amen.   

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lenten Reflections: Ash Wednesday - Humiliation

"You are dust...." - Genesis 3:19

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

As Lent begins, we're humiliated. Lent is not joyful. Lent is not a season that we greet each other with glad tidings. Lent is dark. And as Advent culminates in celebration, Lent culminates in death. Advent is intricately melded into Christmas.  Lent is broken by a week of reflection, healing and preparation for the joy that resumes at Easter.

Ashes mark our foreheads, reminding us of sin and the deteriorating nature of this world. We are dust. The world is broken. And the dust that we come from will become our humiliation when it finds us again. When our mortal bodies breath their last breath, we are humiliated one last time in dust. We are dust. We are broken.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The ashes also remind us that the God of the universe faced humiliation as well. By becoming dust and returning to it's embrace, Jesus was dust. Jesus was humiliated. Jesus was broken. The heavenly became earthly. The immortal became mortal, if only for a brief interlude of history.

He became humiliation so that one day our dust may life forever. We will cast off the dust. We will be fixed. 

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

As we begin the Lenten Season, let us remember that our healing of humiliation comes through Christ. By His humiliation, ours was lifted. By His temporary embrace of the dust, our dust thus becomes immortal. By the donning of ashes upon our heads, let us face our humiliation with the hope of resurrection. Through Christ, our ashes become beautiful. Through Christ, the broken is repaired. Through Christ, our humiliation becomes joy.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Advent to Lent.

Birth and Death.

Beginning. Ending. Rising.  

Lord, as we begin this Lenten Season, humiliated by the ashes we receive, enable us to reflect on the sin that we so often try to avoid. Help us to remember that although we are dust, broken and mortal, we will one day rise with You, perfect and immortal. 



Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: Tragedy to Truth: A Story of faith and Transformation by Casey Cease

I met Casey Cease while we were both making our way through seminary. Our paths crossed from time to time as we shared a couple of classes together, but we didn't know each other very well past the superficial acquaintance. Other than the occasional greeting in the hallways while waiting for classes to begin, I don't think we shared more than a few words during those four years at Southwestern. This often happens as we journey through life. Our fast-paced culture drives us in different directions, with our field of vision focused directly in front of us. People pass on the left and right, quietly in our blind spots as we push the speed limit, hoping to "get there" without being bothered. Unfortunately, and much to our disadvantage, we often realize that we’ve missed scenery along the way that would have blessed our souls and made the journey all the more brighter. Casey was that scenery that I missed on my journey, and now knowing more of his story though his book Tragedy to Truth, I wish that I would have slowed down just a bit and glanced through my side windows.

Casey and I are also both writers who have been able to incorporate writing into our ministries. One of the most important elements of good writing is the ability to tell a story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the most important aspect of communicating through the written word. Casey has the ability to tell a story, and reveals that fact very clearly in Tragedy to Truth. As I began to read the first few pages, I was given the opportunity to be an observer and was transported into a story of which I felt I was part.

Casey and I have also both battled anxiety through much of our lives. As the book begins, I read of a sensitive boy that is dealing with childhood anxiety and I share his fear. Through his vivid description of his early years of life, I remembered with sadness similar scenarios in my own life. As we walked together in the story through junior high, I began to get to know Casey. I remembered the similar experiences of awkwardness during these years of life and the struggles that most of us face in trying to fit in while developing an identity of our own. As Casey shared his first encounters with the opposite sex, I remembered that familiar feeling of indescribable joy in the pit of my stomach, and felt the pain that assuredly always accompanies it. Junior high is a tough time for many kids, and Casey does an incredible job of painting that picture with vivid imagery. He takes you back in time, puts his arm around you and confesses, “I was just like you.” You feel it. You hear it. You smell it. You’re there. 

Things inevitably change in high school, and Casey paints a picture of striking and contrasting ups and downs that make his story unique. I felt as if I was more of an observer at this point of his journey, but none the less felt captivated by the story. It becomes obvious that the path of his journey is becoming darker and I began to read with nervous anticipation of what was to come. Bad decisions, creating false personas, feelings of isolation and self-destruction become elements of Casey's story. The warning signs begin to appear in on the road. Yield. Proceed With Caution. Rough Road. Reduce Speed Now. Road Narrows. And although I could not relate to all of the particulars of his journey, I could feel the intense pain. I shared the fear, anger and frustration and was saddened by the turn of events that culminate in the "Tragedy" of this story.

Death has a feel to it when encountered face to face. I could feel death as I began to read of the life changing event that is the pivot upon which this story turns. The eerie cloud of unexpected death covered me as Casey shares this dark part of his life. Feeling as though I was standing at the scene of the accident, I could smell the gasoline, oil and engine fluids mixed with blood that must have been pouring on the street. I could feel the chill in the air as well as the chill upon Casey's soul as he became conscious of what had happened. I could hear the screams and panic in voices as others reacted to their surroundings. I could hear the distant whine of police cars and emergency vehicles and felt the fear that must have overwhelmed him at the exact moment that reality joined the unconscious. I felt as if I were the one sitting in a crashed vehicle, covered in glass and blood. I imagined the feeling of not knowing exactly what had happened, but knowing something tragic had occurred and that life as Casey knew it was about to be drastically altered. Casey's life was altered forever, and this is this is the point when truth begins to be ushered into his life.       
Casey earns the right to share his faith with you. By building trust in sharing his story, the reader senses that trust has been built and I found myself eagerly wanting to hear him out. I will admit that even though I work in ministry as well, I’m not a big fan of traditional evangelism. The “in your face” techniques never worked with me before I found Christ, and they don’t appeal to me now. I believe in building relationships and sharing my faith through my life, actions and love. From all practical perspectives, I could have tuned out during the second half of Casey’s book. But there is one element that kept me reading, engaged and connected with his story: Love.

As Casey shares the details of how he found Christ, you sense nothing but love for the reader; not just “readers” in general, but “reader”, because he's talking to you. As I read of Casey’s faith, I felt as we were sitting at a table in Starbucks. He clearly reveals how his story is intractably connected to his faith in Christ and this kept me listening and wanting to know more. I found myself wanting to continue reading because I felt that Casey cared about me.  If I were not a follower of Jesus Christ, I may not be convinced, but I would have quite a bit of thinking to do about Christianity. I would dig deeper. I would read more. And had I not already been conversing with the God of the universe, I would definitely consider initiating a conversation. 

As Casey shares his faith in Christ, I imagined the Apostle Paul, standing on Mars Hill while debating with the Epicureans and Stoics in ancient Greece. As he pleads his case with love and compassion, revealing the identity of the UNKNOWN GOD, the philosophers of the day listen with interest, fascination and anticipation of a new possible truth being revealed. In Acts 17:22-31, the words pour from Paul’s heart because the truths that he speaks of are intertwined with the truths of his own life. The facts are presented, his heart is poured out, his case is made. And as he ties everything together in the truth of the Resurrection, some walked away unconvinced, but some opened the door for further discussion: We shall hear you again concerning this.” 

In reading Tragedy to Truth, some may walk away unconvinced. But many will close its pages, reflect on Casey’s story and resolve in their hearts, “I will hear you again concerning this.” Casey will be there; the pastor as well as the accomplished writer.