A Beautiful Collision

“The numbers were bad.  Some were made up. They had pluses where there should have been minuses. It took time, but they’re back in shape.”

I was on the phone with Gordon Mann from Public Financial Management.  PFM is serving as the Act 47 coordinator for the city of Reading. Mann’s passion is for the numbers.  His voice is confident and my pen rushes to keep up with the accounting information we discuss.

Act 47 is a governmental designation here in Pennsylvania saying the city is in fiscal emergency. Mann’s company must guide it back from the steps of ruin. He breaks the image down into understandable chunks. The only solution is cutting wherever possible. Contraction, not expansion.

Not popular terms for politicians promising assertive action to make things right again, to get the homeless off the streets and into jobs.

Two opposing forces are here moving towards collision.

Promises versus reality. Action and reaction. Faith during another night in the cold, unemployed with no answer in sight.

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We live our years here as followers of Jesus, a Savior calling us to shed our old selves and pick up a new cross.  The Bible tells the story of more than once of the rich man asking about entrance to Heaven.  Jesus advises him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor.

Not a story that makes us comfortable.

So where do we stand on the line?  Are we holding tightly to something we are called to release?

Both of my sons love their pillows.  They have favorite blankets that must be on the bed for any chance of sleep.

Where do we find peace?

I’m feeling the challenge this week to live in the midst of the conflict.  To lay down my insecurities, pick up my Cross and start walking. Cutting our comforts for an active faith is never easy.

This is why Monday is a huge day for P356. The next step of this outreach has arrived. I’ll have a post Monday morning with all the details.

For now, I’m standing at the starting line.

Will you join me?

~Matt

 

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Incarcerated

I keyed up my phone navigation just in time as I had passed the correct road. It took me over two more hills before turning left and back towards the woods surrounding Blue Marsh Lake.

Snow flurries whipped past the car, the landscape white and barren.  I was gradually nearing the grounds of Berks County Prison.

I found a parking spot and made my way to the lobby.  A guard sat inside a secure box of bulletproof glass.  I started to speak and he looked up.

“Shift change.  It’ll be twenty minutes before I can help you.  Have a seat.” With that, I took a spot in the empty lobby and waited.

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Ten minutes later I sat in the office of Stephanie Smith, Deputy Warden of Treatment.  The prison was high on my list of research locations as poverty often connected itself with crime and addiction.

Smith, her clinical specialty in addiction, has a drive to help the men and women who cross through her doors.

We spoke for more than an hour.

“They all go back,” Smith said, “I think people forget that. These people are their neighbors, the ones they see at the grocery store.”

She talked about working with prisoners on the start of the Continuum of Change, the balance of pre-contemplation and contemplation. If she can help them spark that moment of thought, it can make a huge difference.

As with each interview I’ve had working through this book, I’ve learned about poverty, faith, and the nature of the human condition.

Compassion- The prison has an extensive reentry program, working to get inmates the skills they need to not arrested again. A stigma rides on the concept of prison, one that must shift.  It is the connection point and catalyst to change lives.

“Do you want them better when they return?” Smith asks. “It’s our job to get them there.”

Consideration- Her point about change is true for everyone. What’s holding you back? What would it take to actually consider it? We’re not talking building your schedule in the midst of the change, we’re looking at the start. Just seeing your plans and dreams is the first step on the move towards success.

Freedom- “I love it when I realize that I haven’t seen a certain person for months, or even years.  It means they made it out,” Smith said. One of the most prevalent misunderstandings with our lives of faith is that they will be easy, that we will not struggle too much.

Grace frees us from the eternal consequences of our actions. Does that mean the addictions will stop?

Not for everyone. Not without help.

If you are under the weight of something tonight, think about your life without it. Addictions can be broken. Find the root, recognize it, and do what you can to make a change.

Some of us will keep going back to the prison of our own creation.  Only one person has the key.

It waits on the cross for those searching for a way home.

~Matt

Find Your Audience

One of the most important things we can do as parents, men, and believers is to find our audience.  We’re told to go, make disciples of the world. We are touched on the heart with the mission to share our faith and be present.

You may be thinking, what can I do?

Check out this article posted today at Bleacher Report.

Carl Lentz is a former college basketball player who found his way into ministry.  He connected with Hillsong church and helped to open their first US location in New York City. He also made friendships with some of the top stars in the NBA.

Lentz has officiated funerals for the families of NBA players, married players to their spouses, and even baptized Kevin Durant in the pool at his home.

So what can we learn from this athlete turned preacher/advocate?

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Appearance doesn’t matter. The article mentions Lentz’s tattoos and mohawk haircut, even quoting one NBA player as being impressed that Lentz was not another “old white guy” behind a pulpit.

You are equipped for your ministry.

I’ll say it again, you are equipped for your ministry.  Your appearance, whether buttoned up or casual, relates you to an audience.  Never count yourself out because of your looks.

Size doesn’t matter. Hillsong NYC has eight services on a Sunday. They are located near Madison Square Garden. For NBA players in the city, it is a perfect spot. Your church may not match Hillsong’s size, yet those walking through the doors are there for a reason. I believe God draws people close every week.

Be prepared to reach out, whether your church is eighty or 8,000 people. Your handshake and hug may be the one that makes a difference in the lives of a new visitor.

-Your connection is already there. Lentz was a former college basketball player at N.C. State.  That gave him an instant bond over basketball. What do you do for a living? Find a community related to your talents and profession. If you are a contractor, you’ll have a bridge of connection with other construction people in your area.  If you are a lawyer, check out the law offices.

Find your peers and serve with them.  Lentz takes players to local homeless shelters to distribute food. He had players working with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, some driving to construction sites directly after practice.

Lentz shares the language of basketball.  Your language, whatever it may be, can be valuable to lift up and encourage those friends and family around you and that is our true calling.

We must make a difference and the time to start is now. You are in the perfect place and time.

Think about that and take the first step.

~Matt

Get Back In Line

It was an illustration I would hear more than once.  I’d spent the last six months deep in research, interviews, and writing of my book on the battle against poverty.

I’d asked more than one person about job creation and received this answer from two local government officials and a CEO.

“You know why Google won’t build a plant here?  We don’t have the educated population to work in it.”

When a business would research this area, they’d pull up statistics on education.  If there were not enough workers with a relevant foundation, the businesses would pass and move on to a new location.

This fact is why articles like this get me fired up.

The attn.com’s article is titled, If We Put an End to Corporate Welfare, College Tuition Could Be Free.

They use the state of Louisiana as an example.  Governor Bobby Jindal, since 2008, has provided more than $11 billion in corporate tax breaks while making the largest education cuts in the country. If recent proposed cuts pass, LSU could be force to close campuses and lay off thousands of employees.

He is not alone.  We, as a country, have skewed our priorities.

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The article makes their final point in damning precision, “states provide $80 billion in tax cuts annually while the combined tuition of all public colleges amounted to $60 billion.

Shift the money and you have tuition free higher education.

You change a workforce in need of a foundation, reinforcement, and self improvement.  You open the door to those in poverty unable to afford schooling for their children.

I have two boys. One will reach college in eleven years and one in fifteen years.  At the current inflation rate for tuition, this is a scary thought.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be.

The time to change is now.

~Matt

 

Christian Artists are Failing and Here’s Why

If you have a minute, go to this article from Vox and check it out. The writer, Brandon Ambrosino, covers the new film Old Fashioned. As you’ll see in the article, the movie was released to be an Evangelical alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Now, say I was asking you to go see it and I explained the movie in that last sentence, would you go?

Me neither.

Ambrosino makes some great points about the failures of Christian writers and film makers to produce quality films and stories. Check out past films like, God is Not Dead and Left Behind.  They gave many churches reasons to have a movie night but, in the big picture, how did they do for society?

Ambrosino quotes Brian Godawa, a Christian screenwriter, as saying:

But even if Hollywood films do contain embodied messages, they’re not always as explicitly drawn out as they are in Christian movies. That’s because, says Godawa, many Evangelical Christians, who are people of the Good Book, have come to value words over images. “They don’t know how to embody their messages in the story,” he says. “They have to hear the literal words [of the Gospel].”

Christian films are wrought with sermons wrapped in dialogue, thin characters, clichéd situations, and melodrama. If you gave me a choice for mainstream fare or a Christian film, as a believer, I’d take a Hollywood product any day and that pains me.

Or should it?

We must redeem our arts and recapture the power of a story. Jesus made his points in stories and images.  Our Savior existed in a world of ugly truth, of oppressive governments, skewed religion, violence, and poverty. He cut a path through the darkness.

Ambrosino provides a final illustration that is key to the argument.

One remedy to this might be an apocryphal anecdote attributed to Martin Luther. After a cobbler converted to Christianity, he asked the German theologian how he could be a good Christian cobbler. Luther responded, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

The answer, then, might not be in striving to convey the message most full of surface-level goodness but, rather, in pushing for artistic greatness. Then, once form and content emerge in harmony, can barriers be broken down and conversation begin.

As writers, I believe we have a responsibility. The lines between secular and Christian art should be much less defined than they are.

If we want to be in the conversation, we must provide a reason for relevance. This reason comes through the creation of powerful, emotional, and meaningful art.

It is accepting our call to great craftsmanship, to fully execute the calling we have on our lives.

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Until then, we’ll keep going in our groups, our gated communities of belief behind sub-par films, books isolated in a section of Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and music we can only find on two radio stations on the local channels.

A day will come when these lines vanish, when great films, books, and music of faith are consumed with those of mainstream culture. We must overcome our pride, fear, and insecurities and encourage our artists to send their work into the world.

We are allowed to be great craftsmen and women, to not hide our talents or our lights behind a bushel.

If we truly want to make an impact, the time is now and the Great Conversation is ready to begin.

~Matt

Walking on Water

Our church had recently posted a chance for writers to contribute to their Easter blog. They provided four prompts and one was inspired by the moment of Jesus walking on water.

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” –Matthew 14:22-30

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As I write this, Val, Carter, and Aiden are all sick with a shared cold and in bed. We’ve had things creep up on us this month, physical and financial issues, that are applying some extra pressure.

I’ve felt, like David, that the attacks were from all sides. I’ve looked to God and wondered about the deeper cause, the test preparing us for the good things that are coming.

Reading the passage above again last night, something stuck out to me. We chalk up the story to Peter succumbing to his fear. He notices the wind and starts to sink before Jesus reaches out his hand.

We miss a few words in the last paragraph.  Peter exited the boat and walked on water.  He did it. He took steps of faith and found himself standing on the waves.

Imagine that moment.  You are a regular guy, the rock, a fisherman trying to figure out his new role in life. You aren’t the one the crowds follow.

You’ve struggled.

There were days the fish didn’t bite.

Then you walk on water.

It may take a storm but, when you step out in faith, the waves can solidify under your feet.

~Matt

50 Shades of Nope

Let me start with a disclaimer.  I have not read the Fifty Shades of Grey books or seen the film.  I have no plans to do either in the future.

The film has generated a fairly intensive debate between those camps feeling it is empowering to women and those who believe it advocates a standard of controlling abuse in a relationship.

We can’t deny that the books have found an audience, selling more than twenty-million copies.  So, as men, how do we engage with the cultural force that is Fifty Shades of Grey?

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Let’s attack it on three fronts:

Writer: There are many other options with better love/passion/sex stories.  Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, is just one example. Don’t box yourself in with these books. They sold because they filled a vacant market need when they were published. Personally, I won’t be adjusting any of my works-in-progress to Twilight fan-fiction any time soon.

Husband: You can break down any book to an essential point or question. The trilogy is about power, about limits in love and what happens when you push them. The relationship is set up in a male dominated power structure. The dangerous part is when these transition into the real world to people who are not fictional characters.  Both sides of a marriage bring in complicating elements. Add in the BDSM influence of controlled violence, and you have a dangerous formula that can quickly hurt women and destroy marriages.

Father: With my oldest son in kindergarten, I’ve lucked out at this point.  If you are the father of a teenager, though, you need to have a conversation.  Think your kids haven’t seen the books? You can download a novel on a cell phone in seconds. We need to reinforce that love is collaborative, that men are called to serve in relationships. We need be sure our sons have a healthy respect for women, from their peers to their relatives. Pain is not pleasure, permission is required for everything from the smallest conversation to the first date. Our sons need to be gentlemen, not abusers.

Final Thoughts:

I’ll give it to E.L. James, she’s written three books that have made her career. The release of the film has pulled the books back into the cultural conversation and this is the key. The conversation must be a dialogue.  If it creeps towards domination, we’ve made a grand mistake. Women deserve respect and empowerment.

If you read the books and found some redeeming qualities, that’s your call. If you are in a marriage, talk about it. If you are a parent, use it as a teaching point.

If you’re like me, you’ll be content living a life without Fifty Shades of anything.

~Matt

The Power of Permission

Our lives are based around the concept of permission. Whether or not we know it, we constantly allow other people and forces to be influential. We accept this as reality.

Change happens when we stop allowing the darkness to effect us and we permit ourselves to start on a new path.

This is the dance of denial and permission.

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Denial

Those who change the world step out against the status quot. They fight the tide. They have a dissenting opinion.

Jesus tells us he has overcome the world. As believers, we are to follow his path of resistance. We are to love well, deeply, and radically. We are to stand up for those who cannot and give voices to ones without strength to open their mouth.

Permission

Some people spend their entire lives waiting for permission. Our children grow their trust and understanding as they watch our cues.

Our spouses treasure our encouragement. When was the last time you told your partner to go and chase their dream?

As a man, I struggle with both of these at times. As a writer, I throw my words into the wind on faith that they will make a difference for someone who catches them.  As a husband, I should lift Val up more often.

As a father, I can get annoyed when Carter asks me to do something new, especially at the end of a long day.

No flows easier than Yes at times.

If you are reading this tonight, I pray it stirs something inside. I believe we are all called to change our world, to find the power of permission, to stand up against the forces around us and make a difference.

So, as Nike says:

Just Do it.

~Matt

Do We Want to be Free?

Yesterday, author Donald Miller posted this status update on his Facebook page:

I’ve never known a religion that wasn’t trying to control people. And the only God I’ve known is trying to set people free.

Miller has written multiple books including the classic, Blue Like Jazz. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, this pair of sentences hit home with me and, as you can imagine, set off some fiery reactions.

We tend to forget about freedom.

What controls your life? Make a quick list.

~Money, time, bills, kids, groceries, stress, worry, the future, the past, family members, taxes, your physical health, etc.

Does your job control your life? Your addiction?

Your church?

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We like to create boxes for ourselves. We fill in the blanks and shape our identity.  Control, though, is a different story.

We exert control in different forms.  We run. We reward ourselves. We punish in positive and negative ways (your body may not want the mile run but it will be worth it in the end).

We think, if we can just do X we can get Y.

So what is a free life? A life of freedom is:

Grace to live without guilt.

Love to overflow into others.

Serving our community.

Sacrificing our needs for those who need more.

Freedom is power. Freedom is responsibility. It is a weight off our shoulders.

As I type this, my shoulders are heavy.  I was up until 4 a.m. last night with Aiden.  Work was busy. Night has fallen and, again, I’ll pray he sleeps.

I rocked him last night and, two hours into it, he looked up at me and said, “Hi daddy.”

Sometimes we forget that, in our midnights, we are held by hands greater than our own, that we can look up and see our Creator, even just to smile and say hello.

Aiden eventually gave in and slept.  Why do we fight so hard to do the same?

 

 

Creating Your Legend

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be adding some posts leading up to the release of my new men’s devotional at the end of the month. Let the countdown begin!

This week, the world of college basketball lost Dean Smith, legendary coach at the University of North Carolina whose tenure included guiding Michael Jordan, the greatest to play the game.  I’m not a huge basketball guy, but I found myself reading the stories and response to Smith’s passing.  In doing so, I found a valuable lesson in the untapped potential of men.

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A phrase that kept coming up in the memories of Smith was, “a second father.”  Many players stated he was the father they never had and they admired his influence. He was a man who taught his players beyond the hardwood. He valued skills that would apply into the world after college.

He graduated 96.6 percent of his players over a career of almost four decades, an impressive number that reflected how much he valued academics.

In 1967, he provided the first scholarship to an African-American basketball player in the University of North Carolina’s history. Imagine this move in the midst of a state, place, and time still dealing with segregation.

As men, what can we learn from Smith’s life?

Our reach expands wider than we know. Even if you aren’t a coach, you will influence the life of a young person out there.  It can be your children, family members, or the children of friends. You have a daily chance to make a difference. Reach out, Talk. Take action. Share your passion with a young person in need. Being a father is one of the greatest blessings in life.  Being known as a “second father,” is just as high of a calling and one you shouldn’t miss.

Push your boundaries. Legends take root in breaking ground.  They do things faster, stronger, and better than anyone before.  Smith, in shattering the racial lines at his basketball program, was working to pave the way towards a new future.  How could this look for us? Find an outreach, charity, or volunteer opportunity. It can be down the highway, the block, or at the corner. Push yourself and you’ll be amazed at what happens.

Two final thoughts to remember from Coach Smith himself as you progress through your week:

“The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring.”

“There’s a point in every contest when sitting on the sidelines is not an option.”