What I Learned from Straight Outta Compton

On Friday night, after Val and the boys went to bed, I rented Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of the rap group N.W.A.

There’s a scene where Ice Cube’s character, played by his son in real life, is doing an interview for a television show.  He looks at the guy and says, “I’m a journalist, just like you.” The line itself captures the spirit of the movie and what it can teach us as writers.

Honesty

As the group starts in the music scene, critics emerge.  They tell them they will never get radio play, that music isn’t about anger and all people want to do is dance and feel good.  The guys stick to their roots and write what they live.  There’s power in honesty.  I know I struggle at times with editing my thoughts or scenes.  Honesty comes down to a choice of what voices you hear.  Will it be the critics or your own?

Do you believe enough in your story to say it no matter what the cost?

History

A dynamic shifts around the idea of Compton itself.  It was home, the reason to get out and find success.  Later in the film, as Dr. Dre’s character is in a new recording studio trying to work, he hears noises in the next room and opens the door to find a party.  In his anger, he tells the crowd that this isn’t Compton, this is the fight to survive and succeed.  The path of the story takes the characters away from their discontent and, when it comes back in the drugs and crime Dre finds at the studio, it is a stark reminder that the shadows of the past will always be there.

We must know our history and decide how we’ll use it.  It can be a platform, a gas pedal, or an anchor.

MV5BMTA5MzkyMzIxNjJeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDU0MDk0OTUx._V1_UY1200_CR64,0,630,1200_AL_Encouragement

In the movie, Dre’s younger brother dies.  Reading some behind-the-scenes facts, I found that the real Dr. Dre was watching filming when they shot the scene where his character discovers his brother had died. He lasted through two takes of the scene before having to leave the set overwhelmed with emotion.

N.W.A. itself split and dealt with some questionable financial moves by their manager, played by Paul Giamatti in the movie. Each member found themselves down their own path of success or destruction, from Eazy-E dying of AIDS to Ice Cube acting in movies and television. Dr. Dre continued in music as an artist and producer, developing Beats headphones (eventually selling to Apple for $3.2 billion in their largest acquisition ever).

As the credits rolled, they played interviews with rap artists impacted by the group. One of the clips was from Tupac Shakur, himself sadly losing his life to violence, saying that he would never have succeeded without the encouragement of Dr. Dre on the other side of the glass in the recording studio.

We have responsibilities to share our craft with others and spread our wings of influence.  Who, from your life, could be interviewed and say the same about you?

Final Thoughts

The movie isn’t for everyone.  These guys partied and lived the excess of music stars. There’s a ton of language and that reflects the environment of the time.  If you can watch it for story and meaning, it is a great experience.

For what is rap, but poetry? What is writing, but honesty and reflecting what we see and know?

It takes courage to overcome the past and keep moving forward, to know our voices matter.

We must speak up.

For there is always power in voices rising at the right time. If you are hearing the call, stay strong.  Your time may be now.

~Matt

 

Advertisements

Suspension of Disbelief

Edgar Allen Poe created fiction that defined a genre. He made the literary rounds of his time, eventually dying mysteriously in the city of Baltimore  and starting a tradition where followers would leave a black rose on his grave for the anniversary of his death. I have a Collected Works of Poe on my bookshelf.

When he ventured into writing about writing itself, he gave us the idea of suspension of disbelief.  It was the dividing line when a reader gives in to a story no matter the content.  The lovers cause your heart to race, the stormy night makes the corners a little darker, and the fanciful world seems like it is just outside your door.

Think of your favorite book or movie.

Odds are it is a story with a quick suspension of disbelief.  Whether a space opera, teen post apocalyptic fantasy, or guy building a baseball field to connect with his dead father. The themes of great stories cross over into our lives and provide an escape that keep us coming back to turn the page or see the movie just one more time.

mirror-light-black-glassToday didn’t feel like one of those days.

Maybe you went to a job you don’t like, clocked in and out, and drove home to go through the motions.  Maybe your spouse or loved one didn’t acknowledge you when you walked through the door, the house is a mess, the cushions are off the couch for the 1000th time as portable gym mats while your kids do flips from the couch (not that I speak from experience, or anything).

Maybe the paycheck arrived and it is already spent. The student loans pile up. The lenders are calling and the car is two months behind an oil change, but getting one means taking time you don’t have and money you don’t have.

So something has to suffer.

How do we learn to love our own stories?

Embrace the characters- Your circle will expand and contract as the years pass. People come and go but some will stay forever. Find those who make your life full; the dreamers and visionaries, the creatives and the ones that make you laugh.  Find joy and the hearts it inhabits.  Bring these people close and, when you do, look out for others who could use some joy in their own lives.  Expand your circle and make a difference.

Embrace the conflict- It will not always be clear or easy. Some of the most powerful conflict has shifting lines of allegiance.  In one of my favorite novels, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, the conflict is between the author, his lover, and her husband. All sides falter and the humanity of the characters draws you in. When conflict comes, you have two choices.  You can run or fight. There is no other option. I tend to procrastinate and, really, it is only another form of running. As the saying goes, if you aren’t moving forward you are falling behind.  Always keep moving forward.

Embrace the crescendo– The hero is down on the mat and the ref is counting to ten. The bases are loaded with two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. The big presentation is due and the PowerPoint file is corrupted.

Thunder sounds over a trio of crosses on a hill so many years ago.

You’ll know when it happens.  We are all called to a crescendo, to a taste of the edge, to the point where all seems lost. We are called to suffering.

That may make some uncomfortable.  It is not a popular message in a world of quick fixes, success strategies, coaching courses and prosperity ministries. You won’t find too many graphics at the local Christian book store with the phrase behind an artistic sunrise print.

We suffer because we are being refined as part of the Greatest Story Ever Told. We suffer because we follow the one who went before us.

We suffer because we are called to do great things, to change lives and spark a movement that will electrify the world.

You may be facing a crescendo right now as you read this.

If you are, I pray you find courage to stand and be in the moment. I pray you love your story and walk forward with suspension of disbelief. As you wake tomorrow, look with new eyes and know you are a part of something so much bigger. Embrace the flow of the story, the characters and the conflict and start writing your own fresh pages.

~Matt

 

One Word

In the wake of the blizzard that hit the east coast this weekend, Carter had off school today and will be off tomorrow. Streets are clear but narrow, with mounds of snow taller than the average person. Val took Carter and Aiden down to see her sister during the day.  They played and went sledding.

They came home in time for dinner, just after I arrived home from work, and the boys were bouncing off the walls. The mixture of a snow day and the excitement of the winter overflowed into flips on the couch and wrestling.

I asked Carter if he could sit down for a minute and relax. He said to me:

Sometimes I feel like sitting. Sometimes I don’t.

The formula, in his mind, was simple.

pexels-photo

We humans complicate things.  As a writer, I would be out of a job if we didn’t complicate things. This week, I read through a devotional on the YouVersion Bible app by the authors of One Word that Will Change Your Life.

The premise is to find a single word to build your 2016 around. They present a selection of verses and material to support their idea and I love it. Why not a single word, a clear idea and a straight forward target?

I’ve been praying about my word for 2016.

What waited at the end of the road by the time 2016 is over? One gradually emerged.

Brave.

2016 will be a year to be brave, to stand up and push boundaries.  It will be entering new territory as a father, husband, writer, and follower of Jesus. It will be a filter to hold up moving forward, a catalyst for the times when the gas tank is running low, and the image of a new creation waiting to be realized.

What will be your One Word for 2016?

~Matt

Guest Post- The Hardest Decision

This is a guest post from my friend Sherry Camelleri, Executive Director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center. Wherever you stand on the issue of abortion, there is no denying the impact it has had on society. Sherry and her organization works with families and individuals throughout the city of Reading providing parenting resources, supplies, a listening ear and a caring heart.  You can find more information at their website by clicking here.

The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Job 33:4
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (II Corinthians 5:17 – please read the rest of this passage)

Throughout this past year, news reports mingled with internet messages and blogs concerning the de-funding of Planned Parenthood were hot topics. We realize that questions and resulting conversations provide an ongoing opportunity to listen, and educate individuals and families regarding the value of each life. As believers, the potential we have is GREAT – providing biblical information on this vital issue.

More than a topic in the news, abortion impacts individuals and families – our co-workers, neighbors, friends and perhaps even family members. The individual/s living with this “secret” do so on a daily basis – facing reminders of the decision can be and often are very painful. During such a time as this, God has placed His children in a position to share the truth of God’s Word with compassion – offering forgiveness, healing and hope to the brokenhearted living and working among us.

pexels-photo

Located in the heart of Reading, Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center provides biblically based volunteer peer counseling and support services for individuals and families in need. An additional service is to provide post-abortion healing – true forgiveness found at the foot of the cross – in Christ alone.

Although Sanctity of Human Life is recognized each January, as the anniversary of Roe vs Wade is realized, the ongoing ministry of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center addresses this vital issue every day the doors are open. While some individuals come to Mercy for a pregnancy test, and others might be in need of supplies, there are also individuals whose hearts and lives have been deeply wounded as a consequence of their decision to have an abortion. Lingering somewhere in their past, this painful memory comes to the surface which can result in extensive efforts to numb the guilt, shame, and regret. Prayerfully, the volunteers and staff of Mercy CCPC share the message of redemption.

Forgiveness, redemption, and healing are the beginning steps of a new walk – a changed heart and a changed life. The guilt, shame, regret and pain of the abortion decision no longer defines that person – yes, there is Mercy in time of need, Grace for each day, and Hope for the future.

As we recognize Sanctity of Human Life, it is our prayer that you will continue to celebrate the precious gift of life given to us by our Creator on a daily basis and also realize the powerful, heart, and life changing gift of eternal life.

~Sherry Camelleri, Executive Director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center

Chasing the New

There are seven basic stories.

Every writing class I had, from college to grad school, I found at least one professor stating that old line. Seven stories told over and over. Our only hope, as writers, was to put our own spin on them. In On Writing, Stephen King says we develop a style as we read.  The end result is a mashup of our favorite authors combining to a unique voice.

This may be true in writing but it is not true in life.

We must never lose sight of the New.

pexels-photo

In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he recounts a moment that set his foundation for ministry in the years to come.  At a conference he had attended, the speaker said:

There are ways of doing church that has not been thought of yet.

The New is the line between fear and faith, sorrow and hope, doubt and assurance. It is the difference between the end and the _nd.

The New is the mystery.

I believe there are stories yet to be written, worship songs that will ignite a fire all across the world, ministries and charities that will change lives and provide for families. I believe there are ways of church waiting to be discovered, ways of worship only found in our dreams.

Zoom in.

Your story is not over. The _nd is not complete. Change is one choice at a time. One shift from if only to what if. One phone call, cup of coffee, meeting with a friend and plan with a spouse. One jog around the block, lifting of the dusty weight set, breaking out the easel and paints from college and opening your creative eye. It is the first choice against the addiction, depression, stress and sorrow.

There is another side, roads not taken, opportunities that will emerge as 2016 unfolds.

The New is chasing the calling, stepping towards discomfort as God stretches us into new territories of faith and guarding ourselves with the essential promise:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

~Matt

 

 

 

Never Gonna Stop

A life is a story.

We move through phases as we grow.  At the moment Aiden, our youngest son, is obsessed with touching his nose with his tongue.  He calls it his talent and shows as may people as possible.  Carter had some dental work done on Wednesday and, while his mouth was numb, bit his cheek.  He spent all day in pain and refusing to take medicine.

Today ranks up there as one of those Saturdays, as parents, you wish would end. Even when a season of your life is challenging, it will keep moving.

We spend our time shooting for moving targets, yearning for peace. We grasp at fleeting glimpses of paradise and when we feel secure we can be at our most vulnerable.

I had dinner with a friend of mine on Thursday, a man at the head of a local outreach organization for almost thirty years.  Two years ago the county government cut their funding abruptly.  I asked him if he ever doubted his purpose.  He said, only since the funding was cut. For decades he had security. Now he’s decided to dig in and fight to exist, to keep the dream alive.

He has a reason to hope.

photo-1432821596592-e2c18b78144f

I’m in the midst of reading The Comeback by Louis Giglio.  Giglio is the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and the founder of the Passion conferences that draw thousands of college students internationally. In a chapter I read this week he says:

But no matter the pain we’re going through or the distance we’ve traveled away from God, Jesus is always there for us. He doesn’t stop healing us. He never stops forgiving us. He won’t stop restoring us. He refuses to stop loving us.

Those five sentences are life changing. No matter what is happening, God is still working in your life, still healing, still forgiving.  You are still being restored and loved.

No.

Matter.

What.

Every struggle. Every failure.  Every time I’ve taken three steps back after two forward.  Jesus is there.  The process is never-ending. Even in the darkest pit, we are being restored and healed.  Even in our hottest desert, we are loved.

Tomorrow, if you need a reason to worship and turn your heart to God, remember this.  You are a work in progress and, no matter where you are or how you feel, the work never stops and the greatest craftsman in the universe will never walk away.

~Matt

Blinding Light and True Detective

I love the HBO series, True Detective. Written and created by Nic Pizzolato, it follows the path of two main characters per season as they investigate crimes. The first season stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as they chase down a ritual killer. McConaughey and Harrelson make an interesting pairing and they have quotable dialogue about faith, love, family, violence and life throughout the season.

Pizzolato, I’m assuming on purpose, has McConaughey’s character as an atheist and Harrelson’s character as a believer. In real life, their personal beliefs are switched, with Harrelson the atheist and McConaughey a practicing Catholic.

The show is intense and gritty. The pair break down doors and shake down criminals, all through the quest to do what is right, even if it means being “bad men” in the process.

The one we know as Paul, the writer of the majority of the New Testament, was the lowest of the low, the most “bad man” in his time. Paul was the enforcer. Here was a unique combination of Jewish man and Roman citizen tasked by his government to ferret out and arrest those following this new belief system rising out of Jerusalem.

At the time, Rome ruled the territory and these believers were opposition, insurgents whose actions led to wild claims and movements causing disquiet in the halls of power.

Imagine a dusty street two thousand years ago.

light-road-nature-night

Life passes on a daily routine to the market, work, meals and family. Yet there is a buzzing, a movement stirring. People speak in the corners in whispers as they look out for wandering ears. They spread messages of great things and renewed hope as this Paul rides into town with soldiers at his side.

There’s a scene in the first season of True Detective where McConaughey’s character, acting as an undercover member of a gang, raids a suspected drug house. He kicks down the door and gathers opposition guys at gun point.

In the book of Acts, a similar scene plays out. We read of the stoning of Stephen and, in the midst of the violence, Paul stands to the side admiring the work.

This was not someone to mess with.

As his group progresses down the Damascus Road, a blinding light appears.

There are times that our vision will vanish, times of tragedy, sorrow, loss or distress. Health issues materialize out of the blue and life changes before you leave the doctor’s office.

In 2008, I had spent five years at a financial company. I knew it wasn’t my destiny and I’d stared at many computer monitors dreaming of a change. When the recession happened, I was laid off with three hundred other employees. I drove home to the house we had just purchased, picked up our six-month old son, and cried.

The light was blinding and, in the midst of it, the narrative shifts.

If you are enjoying these posts, preview selections of my upcoming publication The _nd, please share and follow. There are changes coming in the near future that I’m excited to share. The _nd is truly the beginning.  Stay tuned!

~Matt

The Beginning of The _nd

The last post and this one combine to give you a preview of one of my upcoming projects.  Here is the introduction to The _nd, a story of transformation, redemption, and a life worth living. I hope you’ll hang in and follow as the story unfolds…

I got down to a knee on the gym floor facing a trio of first graders, my son Carter in the middle of them. The youth basketball game happened behind us. We were getting killed; I mean not even a competition, by a team older and more experienced. The boys were dejected in the special way that young boys can get, faces down, tears just hovering on the surface. I looked at them in the eye.

“It’s not over,” I said.

“Yes it is,” Carter told me. “If we were better, it would be different.”

My father logic searched for an answer. I tried to explain the thinking behind sports and competition, dipping towards an eternal lesson they could take into their adult lives. I pictured them accepting awards one day saying, “this guy that helped my basketball team when I was younger, he told me…”

The best I could do was something about small victories, about taking a fight one step at a time. They nodded. I added some of the usual sports clichés, patted them on their respective shoulders, and went back to yelling instructions at our players across the gym.

How many of us are sitting on the sidelines, heads down, looking to get out?

The opposition seems bigger, stronger, more experienced. The score is not in our favor. It may be real numbers like age or finances. It may be a force like an addiction that will not go away. We try and try, putting in our best shifts on the court, yet nothing works.

So we limp over and wait for the final buzzer.

blue-basketball-american-basket

This project is about more than motivation. I’m not throwing on my spiritual Richard Simmons workout gear. This is about a major shift in our narratives.

For every life is a story.

We are born with divine purpose, called to dreams beyond our belief and comprehension. We are meant to push our limits, exceed expectations, and feed off endless hope.

Then our past kicks in.

We grow and build the stories around us. The first lines often come from parents, positively and negatively. Kids internalize everything. They remember and start shaping stories early

When conflicts come, it is these stories they fall back on. If they are flawed, which humanity dictates they will be, fear and anxiety result.

We must start listening to a new voice. One that tells us the ending has yet to be written on our lives, that we can break free and start fresh, that we can push towards higher destinations on the journey….

Stay tuned and check back as we continue this path of the unwritten ending.  Share with anyone you know needing some hope and I pray you’ll find some too along the way.

~Matt

The _nd.

On Friday night we met with another couple, dear friends of ours, to start our small group centered around Mark Batterson’s book, If. We talked about our goals in life, our current spots, and what we see for the future.

How can we shift If Only regrets to What If possibilities?

The idea of shifting regret to possibility is one of changing stories. As a writer, I’ve always seen the catalyst for changing a story as finding a more complete ending.  Some writers know the ending before it starts.  I’m not one of them.

In my formative years, I read Stephen King’s On Writing where he mentions stories as fossils to be unearthed and his aversion to outlining. I know this spurs hours of conversation between creative types but, I believe, there’s a divine mystery to writing without an ending in mind. You may find yourself in a corner but, at the same time, mysteries and wonders will be revealed that enrich a story far beyond any outline.

The flow of shifting regret to possibility starts when we realize our ending is not complete.

pexels-photo

I think of Saul riding his horse down the Damascus road.  You think we have violence today?  This guy had raided homes, pulled Christians out and stoned them.  He was an enforcer, the best of the best, a Roman citizen working for the government doing his job.

He had blood on his hands.

Maybe that day was hot and dry as he rode forward with his companions.  Maybe he replayed the latest raid and killing in his mind.  Maybe he thought about a cushy government pension and villa somewhere that he would spend his days in after retirement.

The next moment, in a flash of light, his If Only had shifted to What If.

In his transformation days, blinded by the Redeemer he had chased so virulently, his regrets were fuel for his What If’s. He would now walk into cities and tell a new story.

He, the worst of the worst, was saved by grace coming from the greatest sacrifice in history.

When his eyes opened, he was now Paul, and would go on to write more than half of the New Testament. His ending, at the time, was not written.  Even in later years, when he understood he would face death at the hands of the same government he had served, he kept writing.  He kept pushing for expansion of the church.  He kept reaching out, burning away the regrets with new fire and new dreams.

He changed the world.

No matter where you sit tonight as you read this, your story is not over. The end is not complete. Time is not a conviction, it is the conviction to get moving. We must, as Einstein put it:

Try not to become a person of success, but rather a person of value.

Where can you make a difference? Contribute to a story? Add value? I know the arguments, believe me.  It is so much easier to curl up with some popcorn and Netflix.  Let this year be your year.  Let it be OUR year.

Look forward and see your What If as it emerges from the blinding light of contact with your Creator. As your eyes open, you will never be the same.

~Matt