The Measuring Stick: Honestly Breaking Down 2014

This morning I received an email newsletter from Jeff Goins, a writer I follow through social media.  The email included three questions of self-evaluation for 2014.  Now, I know you’ll see plenty of resources offering opinions on setting goals and reflection of the past year.  As you sift through, consider these three questions as the most valuable you’ll find.

Have I settled? Where did I fail? Did I measure the right things?

I spent the day thinking about my answers and it wasn’t an easy process.

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Have I settled?

No. I’ve stayed restless.  Every day, living unsettled is my inspiration to launch this outreach, write this book, and make a difference in this community.  My story is just getting started and, in my early 30’s, that is an intimidating thought.

My life this far was a journey of refinement to get here and I truly feel that we, as a family, are close to finally breaking out of our struggles.  So no, I haven’t settled, and I don’t plan on it.

Where did I fail?

1/ I failed Val by checking out emotionally way too much.  I sent my anxiety, worry, and frustrations inside.  I let my shortcomings as a husband shut down my emotions and that is one thing I plan on fixing in 2015.

2/ I failed my sons by not putting in the extra efforts when I was too tired or distracted.  This too, I plan on changing in 2015.

3/ I failed my writing by stalling on the nights I should be attacking and squeezing every word onto the page. My work, and craft, will pick up in 2015.

Did I measure the right things?

This is the hard one, if you take a second and think about it. I don’t believe I measured the right thing. I believe we inherit our measuring sticks in our childhood.  We grow with an instinct to put ourselves up against others.  Watch toddlers playing together when a favorite toy is involved.  You’ll see value being assigned fairly quickly.

I spent too long comparing myself and worrying about the other stories out there that differed from my own. 2015 will be the year of a new focus, a goal to write to make a difference for the highest calling.

I want it to count, for every day to change someone’s life.  If one post, one sentence or thought provides a glimmer of hope, then I’ll consider it a success.  We are called to great things and must start by measuring the right places.

A great place to start is with service.  Who can you help today? For 2015, my goal is to never miss a chance to make a difference in the life of my family, my kids, and my community.

Let the journey begin.

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!'” Matthew 25:23

~Matt

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Activation: Love and Marriage in 2015

Yesterday we packed up Carter and Aiden and took them to the elementary school parking lot.  Both of the boys had received new bikes for the holiday.  Carter’s is a smaller version of a regular bike with training wheels still attached.  Aiden’s is a smaller version of the Big Wheels tricycles we had as kids.

Carter took off like a rocket around the empty lot, doing circles and turns around the light posts.  Aiden pushed himself along on the ground, not yet willing to put his feet on the pedals.  I looked at Val and stole a rare moment of peace.  It was inspiration to consider what our marriage could be in the new year.

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May 2015 be the year we reclaim ourselves and not lose each other in life, work, and parenting.  May we make the most of the down times and rare moments alone.  May we rededicate ourselves to each other and go on a date night when possible, even if it means sharing leftovers while the kids play in the living room.

If you are single and searching, I pray 2015 is the year you find that person who is searching for you.  I pray for patience and peace, that you can know you are worth finding the right person and being loved and respected. Know that you are valuable as a person, friend, romantic partner, and child of the Creator.

I pray that 2015 offers a new dawn and second chance for those relationships and marriages struggling under stress from outside and within. Never forget that love wins, that we are called to serve with a selfless love like the one who died to set us free. Keep the lines of communication open, say what you feel and trust the person on the other end of the conversation.

It does get better.

I promise you that.

“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” 1 John 3:23

Activation: Faith in 2015

This post starts a short series this week wrapping up 2014 and looking forward to some specific goals for the year to come…

I stood in the doorway of the dining area at Hope Rescue Mission at noon on Christmas day. They would serve, as with Thanksgiving, almost 250 men with their holiday meal. The chaplain, Steve Olivo, stood to my left.  We exchanged some small talk and I asked him if he was keeping an eye on things at Hope.  Steve normally is present for the “second shift” of time in the late afternoon and early evenings.

Robert Turchi, the director, passed by us and said, “Yeah he is, twenty-four-seven.” It took me a second.

“Really?” I asked.

“I live here now,” Steve replied. “It’s not the first time.” This is a man with a family and a home outside the walls, living at the Mission and overseeing the more than one hundred residents. I’m still struck by his comment.  I spent the rest of the day asking myself if I could do the same.

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Pastor Olivo is one of my heroes and one of the reasons I’m writing Overcome. The men and women in the city of Reading working on the front lines of the fight against poverty deserve to be highlighted and my goal is that this book shines a light on their efforts.

I pray our faith transforms in 2015, that it is active and moving, engaging and passionate.  I pray that our boys see God reflected in us. I pray that I can serve Val and help guide our family to follow this path we are traveling.

2015 will be a year of lifting.  I’ll be honest, I’ve spent too much time on the sidelines.  I was Zacchaeus climbing the tree.  I’d get myself closer, higher up above the noise of life, yet wouldn’t push though the crowd to get my hands on Jesus.

I know now he has come to me and told me to climb down.

I’m praying that 2015 is the year your writing, your faith, and your dreams are realized. Give yourself permission to climb down or, at this point, just jump for it. The hands of grace are ready and waiting to catch you.

~Matt

When We Must Respond

When was the last time you felt peace?

Val and I had our honeymoon in Mexico and we always joke about being back there, on the beach, side by side as the crystal water rolled in and the tropical sun provided a blanket of warmth. We often get pulled so many directions and peace can seem like a distant dream.  Recently, I’ve had this increased anxiety, for some reason, and I’m not sure why.

The interviews for my book-in-progress are increasing with five additional ones in the month of January.  It is growing and I’m feeling the importance settle on my shoulders.  I believe God can, and will, do something with this and I hope I’m ready. Thinking about the nerves, I believe they fall on this area.  God may finally be moving us out from these years of struggle and I pray we are prepared for what is coming.

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The line between faith and worry, desire and doubt can sometimes be razor-thin.  As believers, we are walking through our journeys of faith and life.  When we are pressed, our faith is distilled to the core.  One day, at one moment, we are all called to respond to the reason for our hope.

On Sunday Greg Hubbard, our church’s evangelist, played this clip in the midst of his message.  It is a CNN interview with New Orleans’ Saints football player Benjamin Watson.

In all the turmoil and violence, he offers a powerful message.  As you can see, CNN cuts him off for it.  Watson told the reason for his hope.  He’s a man on the national stage, unafraid to proclaim his faith.

So what is your stage?  Is it your living room? The dinner table? Sitting across from a loved one who you haven’t seen in days, weeks, or months? When will you be called?

If you are lacking peace this week, know that I’m praying for you and that you’ll find a moment of it with friends and loved ones.  If this holiday is your time to respond, I pray that you’re ready. We are all a work in progress and this week we celebrate the One who came to finish the job.

~Matt

The Greatest Gifts

Thursday morning I was getting ready to leave for work, gathering my stuff in the kitchen.

“Daddy,” Aiden called from the living room. “Daddy. Daddy. Daddy sit. Daddy sit.”

He was sitting on one of the dining room chairs and patting the spot next to him. I sat down and folded my hands.  He did the same and looked at me with a smile.  He had just turned two years old at the beginning of the month.

As I drove to work, I thought about his birth.  Carter was an emergency C-section and I was unable to be in the room.  Aiden was different, a scheduled procedure, and I had a chance to be at Val’s side.  They completed a second C-section procedure and started cleaning him off.  I watched from across the surgical suite.

They hooked him to an oxygen monitor.  His blood oxygen levels started normal and, gradually, dropped.  The nurses called in a NICU doctor for consultation.  She arrived, watched the monitor, listened to his lungs, and said they were sending him to the NICU.  He had fluid in his lungs and stomach, the product of not having it squeezed out during labor.

In a moment, our second son had ended up in the NICU, just like our first.

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Carter and Aiden both recovered from their challenging deliveries. I took Aiden Christmas shopping with me today and, as he grows, I’m always struck by the passage of time. In this season where we focus on giving, we can get caught up in the rush and forget about what truly matters.

We are blessed to have each other, our families, and the chance to chase our dreams and make a difference.  As you go through this week, this last mad rush to get things done for Thursday, make sure you take the time to enjoy it.  Remember the hard times and celebrate the blessings, the small victories, and the opportunity to do it all again tomorrow.

~Matt

Lessons Learned

Next time you’re in a social gathering and the conversation lulls, start talking about school.  Just the word carries an interesting association for us.  Some people have good memories of school, others not so good with things like bullying or struggle.  School meant proving yourself against the standards of your friends, parents, and society.

It was a metaphor for life.

A story stuck with me this week out of Pakistan. A terrorist group had broken into a military school and killed more than 150 people including more than 100 children. This was done in retaliation to military activities in the region.  A hundred children lost their lives in a war they had nothing to do with.

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I was a student in high school myself when Columbine happened and I remember our teachers turning it on to watch on televisions in the classrooms.  This kind of thing was so foreign at the time.  Schools were safe, our 9-5 jobs while the real world happened outside the walls.  Suddenly, when kids could get guns and bring them into a school building to kill people, life was not the same.

Last week, I wrote about why we write. There is something else to add.

As writers we have a responsibility to the world. We are called to be voices in the darkness, to stand up for those who cannot speak, to let our words capture outrage against violence, fury for those who suffer, and hope against discrimination.

Our pages should be fiery sermons delivered digitally and in print calling the world to attention.   We should be Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, lone figures shining bright for peace and refusing to go quietly into the night.

We should be matches that light the fires of change.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend from Reading, Pennsylvania, the city that is the topic of my next book-in-progress.  She has resided there twenty years now and seen the true depths of poverty and redemption.  We were talking about what it meant for her to call the poorest city in the country home.

She looked at me and said:

“You need to tell the story, to tell what’s happening in this city with these people who are struggling.”

She’s my inspiration and her advice applies to you too.

You need to tell your story, so what are you waiting for?

~Matt

The Closed Doors

There was no room at the inn.

The expression, from the Christmas Story as recorded in scriptures, has come to mean many different things.  Mary and Joseph needed a place to stay.  She was pregnant. They checked around and found no inn with a spare room, ending up in a stable.  They faced many closed doors.

We all face our closed doors.

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You can be moving along and gradually, or suddenly, things fall apart.  Your path shifts. The climb is now up hill. The promises you know as truth seem so far away and you look to God and wonder where the target on your back came from.

Closed doors are a necessary part of life.

On Thanksgiving, I spoke to a friend at Hope Rescue Mission.  He was having a rough few weeks.  His children and wife were dealing with medical issues.  An extended family member was seriously sick.  He felt beaten down.  He sighed and looked at me.

“You know you’re moving in the right direction when the Devil tries to hit back,” he said.

Where are you taking your hits this week?  Looking for a new job? Kids creating stress with the holidays? Finances getting thin while your waist line may be moving the other direction?

When we follow our calling, we will face closed doors.  God’s answers will come in their time, not ours.  We can’t lose hope and I write this sentence for you as much as for me. We will get pressed, and pressure is a good sign to keep fighting.  Use it as a barometer to know you are making a difference.

Even if  you end up in your version of a stable, shake off the cold, ignore the animals, and know that the universe was changed in such a place so many years before. That night it was the perfect, and only, option.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration:

“When I am weak, you’re strong.  Your grace is all I’ve got.  What love is this that loves no matter what?” ~Strong by The City Harmonic

Why We Write: To Answer a Calling

Great writers are born, not made. This cliché is all over the world of writing, as if it is some exclusive club.  I’m here to tell you this is not true.

If you’re like me, you probably have looked in the mirror once or twice and asked what you were meant to do. In my application essay for Fairfield University, I wrote that we are all incomplete sentences. We spend our lives looking for the ending.  We try relationships, work, substances both good and bad.  We throw ourselves into things to find meaning.

I am a writer. There was never a different option.

The trick is giving yourself permission to claim your ending.

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The trick is understanding why.

There are a handful of “overnight” success stories. Stroll through your local bookstore and you’ll see shelves full of people who have gained contracts and released something for the world to consume. The mistake is measuring yourself against these other writers.  They have their stories.

You have yours.

We aren’t called to write for the shelves or Kindles. We write to make a difference.  You are called to make a difference.  The payoff is when one person, someone you’ve never met, posts a comment, sends an email, or tells you they were impacted by your work.  When they tell you that you’ve changed their life, gave them hope, and let them know it will be okay.

We write to serve, not to sell.  When you answer the call and put your thoughts on paper, you’ll be amazed at what can happen.

~Matt

Why We Write: To Heal Old Wounds

I had worked my way through writing a novel about a dysfunctional family and pair of brothers in a complex relationship.  Their lives were filled with jealousy, betrayal, and power struggles. After my climactic scene of Part 2, I had one brother call the other on the phone, only to get his voice mail and leave a message in anger and frustration.

My mentor read the section and called me on the phone.

“They need to have that conversation,” she said. “He can’t avoid the fight.”

Just the thought made me uncomfortable. I’m not a guy who likes conflict.

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Every story contains a part of the author.  Writers are born haunted people. We work to chronicle life and human emotion.  We push our hurt and pain into our words. The old saying is that there’s only seven original stories to tell.  The great ones, from the Bible to Shakespeare and Steinbeck, contain deep and powerful conflict.

They also have hope.

Stories allow us to live vicariously through our characters, to test drive solutions, to have arguments we wanted to have with people we may never see again. They allow us to get the last word and, when we empty out our emotions it creates a cathartic moment. We see different angles and empathize in places we may not have before.

Writing allows us to face our demons.  Words can heal. They deepen our understanding of life and teach our audience how to be more authentically human. They are a psychic connection of thoughts and images, flow and feelings.

We write to heal ourselves and, by extension, those who honor us by reading our stories. It is not easy but, in the end, it is the most rewarding part of the job.

~Matt

Why We Write: To Leave a Legacy

Everything we do leaves an imprint in the universe.  Every statement and action, breath and thought come together and impact the world.  We write to make this impact, to change things and leave a lasting imprint for generations to come.  Creating a legacy is a divine purpose and operates in a dichotomy of forward and backwards movement.

Let me explain.

One night I was sitting in the dining room at Ender’s Island Retreat next to Da Chen.  Chen is an author, artist, lawyer by education, musician, and all-around awesome guy.  He asked me what my thesis novel was about.  I proceeded on this lengthy explanation of plot and characters, running through the story as he watched and listened.  I finally stopped and took a breath.

“You know what your novel is about?” he asked, “it is about being a father.  You teaching your boys how to be a man.”

Chen has written a selection of award-winning novels including, Colors of the Mountains, Brothers, and My Last Empress. His works are textual paintings, brush strokes of scenery and richness detailing his past and the past of his native China. Part of his writing legacy is casting his glance backwards and capturing what he sees from memory and history.

His comment was perfect.  The novel was my glance backwards, analyzing my past and teaching my boys about their future.

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I met another good friend the first night of my first residency on Ender’s.  Colin Hosten is a skilled author, professor, and activist.  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him read more than once and tell the story of his past on the island of Trinidad. We roomed together that first residency and I’ve met very few people so easygoing and friendly.

One of the main points of his writing has been efforts to see his marriage with his husband validated by a change in law, capped with the end of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. His words capture the fire and passion of an activist.

His legacy, and his words, are changing the world moving forward.

As you look at the blank page, consider what legacy you want to leave.  Can you look back at the past or is it too painful? Can you look forward and blaze a new path, pick up a new cause or accomplish a new goal?

All it takes is a first step, one word, and the time is now.

Soundtrack Inspiration: A classic from Van Halen.  This video has been around a long time and most of the messages still apply, regardless of how they make us feel.