Coming Home

On Wednesday afternoon I was finishing up a research interview for my current book project with Bryan Koch, head pastor of Glad Tidings church in Wyomissing.  Val and I have attended there for six years now and, after attempting to set up interviews at multiple area churches, Glad Tidings was the first, and only, one to reply.

Koch has guided the church for more than twenty-five years, from a single building and small numbers to a complex with multiple services and thousands of members. His passion is action, movement in the community to truly make a difference.  As we wrapped up our conversation, he said,

“If there is anything we can do as your home church to support you, let me know.”

I drove home thinking if I had ever, in thirty-two years, had a church leader tell me something similar.  The idea of having a home church settled in my head and on my spirit.

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The concept of “home” is a weighted term. There are plenty of people with negative experiences settled around the idea, people who left as soon as they could and never looked back.

Home, for some, symbolized conflict, poverty, abuse, anxiety, instability, and the knowledge that it would only last until the next eviction notice.

Home should stand for peace, unity, a place where worry and strife can be left outside the door and families can reconnect. Home means you are welcome inside.

So thank you Pastor Bryan for that statement, that sentiment that we’ve finally found a church where we can plant roots and grow together, where our boys will make friends and build relationships, where we feel like we belong.

I pray, this afternoon, that anyone reading this who feels like they are drifting will find their own home and place of peace.  The best journeys need a starting point and home is where it happens.

~Matt

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What Uptown Funk Teaches Us About Worship

The only way you haven’t heard Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars on the radio is if you’d been under a rock.  Their hit, “Uptown Funk”, has had massive air play. Ronson’s song is a throwback to James Brown and Mars adds the vocals to make it into an instant classic.

So what can we learn from the song about worship?

The Value of Past and Present Together- The first engaging and intimate worship experience happened for Val and I when I was in college.  We attended The Bridge, a service for students that saw over a thousand kids at two different meetings every Sunday night.

The church was blessed with talented musicians. The room was dark, the stage lit by candles. The songs were modern, relevant, and emotional. As you stood in the presence of God you felt a connection to the early church and their worship in the dark under the eyes of governmental persecution.

You Can Dance- A few months ago, we attended a worship concert with Kristian Stanfill.  He covered Chris Tomlin’s song “God’s Great Dance Floor.” The music and the environment had you moving. Now, I know not everyone is down with that level of engagement during worship, but part of connecting with God is experiencing Joy.  When was the last time you felt it?

Keep Looking Forward- As we consider worship in the church today, how will it progress?  Technology will move forward whether or not the church is in step with it. What else could enhance worship? How do we find a balance between multi-sensory engagement and drawing an audience towards God?

Think of the untapped potential. What will worship look like in twenty years? Lights? Sounds? Art? Instruments, voices, and electronics? I can’t wait to find out.

~Matt

 

Bring Back Fair Play

The Super Bowl used to mean something for me.  Growing up, we would gather at my grandmother’s house, have dinner, and watch the game. This year, as we near the game, a headline came across my sports apps asking, out of Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, which one would you rather have as a role model?

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Belichick is the coach of the New England Patriots and Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks.  Both men have their teams at the top of the league.  Both have instances of cheating in their past.

Belichick was involved in a scandal with an employee of the Patriots taping the opposition’s practices and, of course, Deflate Gate after the AFC championship game against the Colts.  Carroll escaped coaching USC‘s football team in the midst of a large amount of sanctions for recruiting violations.

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To answer the original question of the article, I think I’ll pass on both as role models.

The issue really encapsulates one of the prime struggles we have as fathers. We start early measuring our sons against their peers, much in the same way we were measured against ours.  The drive to win manifests when they square off crawling across the carpet.

I look at Carter and Aiden and wonder about the competitions coming in their future. Where will they find their self worth?

I pray that they’ll be willing to take the hard road, to avoid the easy path especially when it can be gained through cheating. I pray that they’ll be gentlemen, with personal and professional standards.

For the journey and the struggle are worth it. Nothing good comes easily and, as fathers, we must teach the value of the fight. We must make sure our boys know they will never walk alone.

Because one day we won’t be there, but our spirits, and our voices will, even if they are born in memories.

~Matt

What Guardians of the Galaxy Teaches About Faith

I apologize for being late to this show but, Friday night, I rented Guardians of the Galaxy and watched for the first time. I’m a fan of the comic-based movies out there and this one lived up to the hype.

It isn’t the normal superhero movie, in more ways than one, but Chris Pratt and his crew put together a fun ride.  In the midst of the movie, we can learn some important lessons about the nature of faith.

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We All Lose Something- In the scene where the Guardians are seated in the ship preparing for the final battle, Pratt’s character Star-Lord says, “We’re all losers.” He clarifies the joke by saying, “We all lost something.”

This is a fact that we can too quickly forget. We’re a world of broken people searching for an answer.  The search can lead us down glorious, and dangerous, paths.

We Are All Valuable- Rocket, the raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, spends the movie defending his identity.  As they walk through the prison, he says, “I’m the only me.”

You can see this fact two ways. Rocket is a torn character.  He says he didn’t ask to be the way he was.  In the end, he turns from a cynical outlaw to a hero fighting to protect those he looked down on in the beginning of the movie.  He embraced his uniqueness and what it offered.

We Need to Know Our True Father- Spoiler alert, though I doubt anyone hasn’t seen this film yet.  In the climactic scene, Star-Lord grabs the infinity stone.  The stone is an object of great power. He is able to hold onto it when everyone else who attempted the same had died.

We find out that Star-Lord isn’t totally human.  His father, not from this world, gave him an extra-terrestrial bloodline that enabled him to do great things and save the day.

We can forget our lineage as we face our struggles.  We are called to better things, to a world of living out our divine purpose.  We must never forget our creator and that we are only visitors here.

Groot, the living tree voiced by Vin Diesel, only has one line of dialogue.  He says, “I am Groot,” though this shifts slightly in the climactic scene.

This week, you can borrow Groot’s line and fill in the blank.

I am saved. I am free.  I am a new creation. I am beautiful. I am called to greater things.

I am a child of God.

~Matt

Change Your Answer

“Do you trust God or fear man?”

I was seated in Barnes and Noble across from Randy Simmons and Merlin Weaver, two men working to change the face of the fight against homelessness.  Simmons, the founder and head of We Agape You, was in the midst of telling me his story.

His pastor had challenged him with the above statement and it served as a barometer ever since.  As I drove home, it stayed with me.  As God often does, he speaks to us through everyday conversations.

Did I trust or did I fear?

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Quick, make a list of your disappointments this week.  Large or small.  Can you come up with any? Our justifications to fear come so quick. Doubt hovers just below the surface:

-When the job interview doesn’t go well.

-When the man or woman you were sure was the one ends up leaving.

-When the money runs short and the account is overdrawn and your kids are hungry for a dinner you may not have.

What if we lived in trust and not fear? What if we stepped out in faith? How would things change?

If you are reading this tonight in the midst of doubt, I’ll encourage you.  Write down the question and hang it on your bathroom mirror, put it in your Bible, make it your cell phone wallpaper.

Do you trust God or fear man?

Change your answer and see what can happen.

~Matt

A Monologue

My Thoughts at 2 a.m. Every Night for the Past Two Weeks:

I should be sleeping. What’s that noise? Did Aiden get up? Maybe he’s out of the crib. Maybe he’s downstairs making popcorn and watching Caillou.

I hate Caillou. We’ve seen every episode a thousand times. Stupid cartoon with the perfect dad who’s an athlete, musician, worker, overall renaissance man.

I could eat some popcorn. Forget popcorn, I could eat some hot wings.  Yeah, hot wings and a beer.  Wonder if there’s any in the fridge? I need to start working out.

Do I really have to go to work tomorrow? How many things need to be handled? I need to print off our tax return forms. Need that tax return.

So many things to be fixed. Bills to be paid. Problems to solve.

I should be writing. Chapters need editing, sections need improving. I should be submitting essays, short stories, fiction, new and old creations.

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How can I do better tomorrow? How can I make sure it is different from today? How can I keep this stress to myself and not let Val know about the weight that sits on my shoulders?

How can I live up to my expectations, to be a provider, to build a future, to put two boys through college and help them on their way to their own families?

We’re getting older. I graduated high school fifteen years ago. Our prom songs are mysteries to kids today. What about fifteen years from now?

How can all this shift from reality to inspiration, from doubts that masquerade as “common sense” and cynical misunderstandings to inspiration that unlocks the future of change and liberating truth.

I have a dream. A dream to write, to provide a voice for those who can’t speak, a dream to operate a business and outreach that can enhance and revolutionize the fight against poverty. A dream to change the world and make it better.

So my sons can be proud of me.

So they can tell their kids, one day, that their dad is their hero.

Speaking of the kids, how were they off school yesterday and I wasn’t off work?

Tap on my shoulder. “Daddy will you lay with me?”

I’ll be down in a minute.

What Wild Teaches Us About Writing

On the way home from our night away, Val and I went to the movies.  There wasn’t a ton of options that appealed to both of us and I think the last movie I was really excited about seeing was The Dark Knight Rises. After checking showtimes, we settled on Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon.

The movie is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I haven’t read the book, but had seen previews of the movie. Novelist Nick Hornby and Strayed co-wrote the screenplay adapted from the book and, knowing how much I enjoy his work, I felt that we were in for a good experience. We did not leave disappointed.

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I won’t include any spoilers here but, just to give you an idea, Wild portrayed the story of Strayed as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to find herself after the death of her mother to cancer, her drug addiction, and the ending of her marriage.  I recommend it for anyone who enjoys the literary and cinematic tradition of stories about the loss and recovery of identity.

Here are three points from the movie that can help us as writers:

Connect Your Cuts: The movie used a plethora of jump cuts often cued by a sound, song, item, or dialogue.  It wasn’t distracting as they made sure to have a connection point on the other side.  If you are working through a story that moves back and forth in time or place, be sure to keep a thread for the reader. Stories must flow and, if your audience is flipping back to a prior chapter to see what they missed when you abruptly started a new section, you can lose that flow.

Play With Empathy: Strayed, as the character, is not perfect.  She’s human and has faults, which Witherspoon does an amazing job capturing in her acting. You watch the movie with your heart breaking at the sad moments and your anger rising as you see her destroy her marriage.  Her life is torn down and the interplay between good and bad allows us to feel for her. Great writing is willing to blur the lines and Hornby and Strayed master it with the screenplay.

Smooth Your Ending: My only issue with the film is how it ended.  There are movies that you watch and you can tell that they put effort into every moment, start to finish.  There are endings that have made movies into classics.  In the opposite cases, you’ll watch something that feels like they rushed it. This had the vibe that Hornby and Strayed faced a hard page limit.

When you get to the end, not everything needs a bow on it. Write until it is clear and doesn’t feel rushed.  Your audience can sense it,  trust me.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, check it out and you’ll enjoy the experience as it makes you think about life, happiness, and enjoying every moment you are blessed to have.

~Matt

Creating a Treasure

Last night, Val and I stayed at the General Warren Inn in Malvern, Pennsylvania. I had picked up a package that included dinner and breakfast with a room, and gave it to Val for a Christmas gift. In a busy life of routine and stress, it was a welcomed escape.

The General Warren Inn was founded in 1745. The building started as a carriage stop on the route from Philadelphia to Lancaster. British loyalists used it to hold planning meetings during the Revolution.  One of William Penn’s grandsons owned the building and passed it down through history.

Val and I looked at each other across our table, located next to one of the antique fireplaces, working on our grilled salmon and pork loin.  We talked about the past and the future as a waiter made bananas foster at an adjacent table, flames dancing up from his skillet. We ate a meal more expensive than any we’d had in a long time and enjoyed every moment.

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We both acknowledged what our marriage was lacking.  We had lost ourselves in the boys, stress, finances, life, and the future.  We hadn’t spent enough time together and reconnecting. We missed dates on the calendar as goals, as end points, as dreams and positive experiences.

One of the most important things we can do in a relationship is to create our own treasure.  We must reward ourselves and our loved ones. This can be in the form of a night away, a date night dinner, or a movie. It can be sharing coffee after the kids go to bed.  Whatever you choose, make a point to focus and be with each other.

Don’t miss your chances. Even if the struggles continue, always have something to look towards and desire.  Put the work in and you will see the rewards.

~Matt

Crossroads

Say you have a hobby.  Your regular job is in the corporate world but, on the weekends, you referee low-level football games.  The 2012 NFL season arrives and the usual refs are locked out.  Your friend tells you to apply to be a replacement.  You do and you make the cut.  One night, you are stationed in the end zone watching the final pass of the game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks as it flies towards you.

Both Seattle and Green Bay players catch the ball at the same time.  You call a touchdown and, suddenly, your life is changed forever.

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Yahoo Sports posted a great article profiling Lance Easley, the referee involved in the play I mentioned above, now known as the “Fail Mary.” Easley was a family man, a believer, and a guy taking a chance to do a job on the biggest stage in football.  His incorrect call drew vast criticism, as far as getting mentioned by President Obama on the campaign trail.

You can find the article here. Even if you are not a fan of sports, I recommend reading it.

Easley is now suffering from PTSD and severe depression.  His wife of almost thirty years left him.  He has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and rehab centers, receiving numerous death threats after the game.  He is on medical leave from his corporate job and struggles financially to make ends meet. As the article says, the only thing remaining of the old version of the man is his faith.

The lesson is an important one. We all have moments where we are on our own stage and our choices, right or wrong, carry consequences.  Healing takes time, sometimes years, but it will happen.  The fight to silence our worst critic, the voice inside, can be overwhelming.  We must know where we stand, even if we write it down and read it every morning as a reminder. The truth can always silence the noise.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10

~Matt

A Walk Through the Desert

There are a few sections of the Bible that grabbed my attention as a child and still keep it to this day. One of these areas can be found in Matthew 4: 1-11 where Jesus is led into the desert after fasting for forty days and is tempted by the devil. It reads as follows:

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

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Yesterday, the message at church was about facing our insecurities and how we fill in the blanks in our lives (I am so _____).  What voices do we hear and how do we respond? Do we know our values and our value? When we look in the mirror, do we see our image reflected or our reflection the way God sees us?

In the desert, Jesus is offered physical provision to answer his hunger and material wealth and power.  He is told to jump from a cliff because he would surely be saved. Jesus replies that the word and worship of God is essential to all.

That leaves us with the test.

When we move towards God, we will be tested.  Things will not be easy.  We’ll reach the end of the day exhausted and drained, looking in the mirror and dreading the sunrise.

As you go forward, searching for the strength to stand, know that you are not alone. Fortify your thoughts because your head and feelings of your heart will direct your steps. Quiet the noise. Find peace in the desert because the test will pass and, before you know it, the angels will arrive.

~Matt