What is Sacred?

There is a strong connection between our whys and our whats. Cause and effect, action and reaction.  As writers, we love to play with it.

Every character has a goal. Every conversation points towards a desired result. Every move has meaning.

When we lose touch of the sacred we can feel a profound sense of disconnect. Joy is a struggle. The sunsets look dimmer, the nights darker. We give until the tank is empty.

If we’re not careful, we can take down the loved ones in our orbit.

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I read a blog post last week from Michael Hyatt, written by his daughter Megan Hyatt Miller, who is also an executive in his company.  She wrote this:

The Goal is sacred, the Path is not.

It was a line burned into my head.  Permission to find new paths, to keep the target in mind and do what is necessary to get there. My dream is to write.  I write.

I will always write. (You can find my most recent book here.)

When you find yourself forgetting the sacred or in the midst of the struggle, allow a pivot. Stick and move. Look for a new way to chase your dream.

Let yourself go.  The joy will come.

~Matt

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Chapter 1

For the summer, I’ve decided to post some creative works on the blog as a change of pace.  Here is Chapter 1 for a novel in progress.  Let me know what you think and I hope you enjoy it! Follow and stay tuned as the story continues and more chapters are posted.

 

SOUTH

                The sun was no different.  When the old men gathered at the diner, they talked of years past, of summers and flowers that bloomed sending perfumed air across the entire neighborhood. They spoke of family reunions and sharing stories, times when that kind of thing still happened.

This afternoon the men gathered at the baseball field.

The grass was browned and crisp, weeds punching through the dirt infield. The teams were not even and the men were amazed that the kids had enough will to show up.  They shared two bats and three gloves.  The ball was scuffed and the laces loosened with every hit.

Still, they played.

The field backed to a high school building that was no more than bricks and broken glass. Pock marks from automatic weapons scarred the standing walls.  Mortar shells reflected the sunlight as they emerged with the erosion of wind.

The building blocked the sound of the approaching Security Transport Vehicle.

Wilbur Robbins, a fine hunter in another life, looked towards the school when he felt the vibration through his boots. The metal bleachers were excellent conductors.

“We have company,” he said.  The four other men turned to his comment.

Ray Davis leaned on the fence to watch his boy Dalton pitch.  He lowered his head and spit on the grass, rubbing it in as puffs of dirt emerged from his efforts. As the youngest in the crowd, not counting the kids, he’d be responsible for what was happening. He pulled his Colt from the holster and quickly checked the magazine.

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The gun was a gift from the war in Afghanistan.  It came with a new leg and a new mind where shadows shifted into enemy soldiers and backfiring cars became incoming rounds. He had emerged from the war a different man.  Silence was addicting.

Dalton had been the hand to pull him out of the fire.

He was an accident, a miracle really.  The hospital was under truce from the antiquated UN regulations. Sandy started in labor at midnight.  He had loaded her in their truck and shot across fields and highways in the midst of a driving thunderstorm. Hail pinged off the hood. The windshield cracked.  He slowed at a checkpoint and, when the soldier saw Sandy screaming in the passenger’s seat, he was waved through.

The parking lot of the hospital had no empty spots so he pulled the truck to the curb.  A young nurse noticed his waving and ran out to meet him.  In a minute, they had a gurney out in the rain, loading Sandy on it and rolling back inside.

Five hours later, he held the little boy in his hands.  The storm passed and he stood by the hospital window. A moon emerged.  Helicopters on patrol crossed the moon and cast shadows onto his face as the boy slept in his arms.

These thoughts faded as the STV stopped behind them.  Two men, by the sound of it, wearing regulation armor and holding automatic weapons.  The kids had stopped playing and turned to watch.  The old men were silent.

“Keep your hands visible.” The order came from over his shoulder.  The gun felt heavy on his hip. “You people are gathering outside the approved time.”

The footsteps crunched closer on the dirt.  Five more paces and they would be at this back.

“Where’s your identification?”

Three steps.

“You hear me? Identify yourself.”

“Staff Sergeant Ray Davis.”

One laughed. The other joined in.

“You are yesterday’s news, hoss. Scraps of paper in the wind.  No more need for war.”

He felt breath on the back of his neck.  In a moment, they would confiscate his gun and haul him off.

“That’s right, we are peace now.” The exhale carried the scent of coffee and tobacco.  It reminded him of the past. They were playing off each other, this pair, probably spouting the same routine with every search and seizure.

The bleachers shifted.  Ray lifted his head to the sun and grasped warmth for a moment.  He looked at Dalton.

“Go home kids.  You know you shouldn’t be here.”

They scattered.  Dalton stood on the mound.  He dropped his glove and it hit the dirt.

Revolutions start with the striking of a match, with a leader rising up at the right time in the right place. 

His friend Jensen would get drunk at night and howl at the moon, spouting off his impromptu history lessons enough that he’d gotten the nickname the Professor, until an IED relieved him of his tenure.  He left behind a different world.

“Hand over your gun.”

“I have a permit.”

Dalton took a step closer.  Ray shook his head slowly, enough that he could be sure the message was clear. They had spoken about this, about an emergency. All the drills and the years had passed.  At least he would see what the boy learned.

“You know you can’t carry in public.  Those permits don’t mean shit anymore.  Hand it over.”

Ray slowly moved to the holster.  He felt the familiar imprint of a barrel in the back of his neck.  The smell of gun oil hung thick in the air.  One of the old men coughed.

“Don’t get pretty.”

He raised his hands.  The guy pulled the gun out of the holster.  He spun to see their faces, only finding a pair of his reflections back in tinted sunglasses. Their uniforms were black, the three wave symbol reflecting the sunlight in silver bars on their chests.

“Two violations from what I can see.  First, gathering in public without a permit.  Second, this is the weekend.  You rest on the weekend, get it? That means nothing like this little fiasco.”

He did the math.  If they decided to take him in, it would be months. Two strikes in one shot.

“Judge not, right fellas?”

They laughed.  Dalton was by his shoulder now.  He could feel it.  His boy carried a presence beyond his years.  He took up space like some men do, without saying a word.

“This your boy?”

“Yes sir.”

“What’s your name?”

“Dalton.”

“Dalton Davis take note.  Today you could have lost your father for a year. We take our jobs seriously.  Understand?”

Dalton nodded.

“Good.  Then you’ll also understand that we can’t leave without some kind of punishment.  It would be, how should I say it, unbalanced.”

The gunshot caused a flock of crows to starlings to emerge from the line of trees in the distance. Ray felt a pain like fire shoot from his only good knee straight up to gather behind his forehead.  His foot gave way and he fell to the ground.

“This is your warning boys.  We know all.  This is our territory.  We better not see you out here again.  Son, go get your old man some help.  He’ll need it.”

Dalton watched the STV leave the field.

One of the old men said something about the hospital.  He walked to his truck as fast as his legs could move in the heat.

Ray bit down on his hand to try to redirect the pain.  His jeans felt wet where the blood came through the denim and started to spread across the dust. A siren sounded in the distance.

Make Your Hands Clap

My son Aiden loves music.  Not just songs for kids either.  We’ll be riding around in the car and, before I know it, he’s singing along with whatever I have on the radio.  I can listen to pretty much anything but country music so I feel like he’s picked up this quality from me.

The other day the song HandClap came on the radio.  It is the newest release from the band, Fitz and the Tantrums. If you’ve never heard it, check out the lyric video below.

I showed him the video and he insisted I make the hand motions.  On a whim I decided to look up the band and found one of those rare moments of inspiration that can speak into your life.

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Lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick had always loved music.  He studied it throughout school and found his way into a career behind the scenes of recording and production.  He decided, at age 32, to take piano lessons.

This expanded his world musically and led to their first hit, Breaking the Chains of Love, that Fitzpatrick composed on an old church organ he purchased from a friend for $50.00.

Imagine, living more than thirty years with a vague idea of what you want to do and, one day, you decide to take a shot at it. You take a risk and it pays off.

We often go through lives with vague ideas and passions. It takes effort and risk to see the end result. Fitzpatrick could have settled and yet he looked forward.

It takes courage to keep moving when the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. There are times when you get caught up in the circumstances and forget the why that drives you.

Find your joy, even in the future, and chase it down. Don’t settle. There’s no time limit to the race.  You can find it in your twenties, thirties, forties, and onward.

Make sure to stop and clap your hands every once in a while and experience the happiness you find on the way.

~Matt

 

The Alternative Path

Rain had started to tap against the umbrella over our table.  I spun the Starbucks cup in my hand and looked up to pose a question to my friend, and our assistant pastor, Scott Kramer.

“Did you ever picture an alternative path?”

In the 1990’s, Kramer was drafted by the Cleveland Indians.  As a pitcher, small for the pros but powerful, he’d set a single game strike out record at Emory University. Scouts started attending with their pads and radar guns.

A stint in the minors, and three arm surgeries later, he was finished.

He laughed at my question.

“Of course I have,” he’d shuffled through a pair of jobs before being called to ministry and settling at our church for the past decade, “I wonder about what could have happened if I left baseball on my own will.”

We all feel the pressure of The Alternative Path.

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Life can feel like a series of swings and misses.  I help coach Carter’s baseball team.  When he doesn’t hit the ball as hard or as well as he wants, he gets upset.  I get frustrated.

Then I think about life and realize he’s mirroring me.

The Bible often paints pictures of lives shifted in the midst of their path. Mary, Joseph, Moses, Paul, everyone coming in contact with Jesus. We tell ourselves to Let Go and Let God (oh the profits for graphic designers).

I was listening to the Pastor Louis Giglio’s podcast from Passion City Church.  He mentioned one of the most misquoted verses as this, “In my weakness he is strong.” The verse, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, is:

“When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Our regrets can feel like weakness, but they allow grace to shine through. When we are destroyed, we can find and reflect God’s strength to others.

The Alternative Path is tempting, the Greener Grass seems to surround us just out of reach. In these moments, stay strong.

Know that you are able.

Even if the hits aren’t perfect, there’s always the next game, the next moment, the next conversation to make it work on your journey.

The fog will lift and the day will come when it all makes sense.

~Matt

What I Learned From Captain America: Civil War

On Friday night I took Carter to see the new Captain America: Civil War movie. He loves his superheroes and we hadn’t gone in a while.  It had rained early and I didn’t anticipate the crowd we faced so we ended up in the front row.

Not fun with a seven-year old!

He loved the movie.  I won’t hit too many specific plot details and I thought it did a good job making a relevant political and life statement.  Hear me out.

The point of the original comic story, and the movie, is the registration of the super humans (something the X Men franchise had tackled already) involved with Captain America and his fellow Avenger crew.

Due to the death of innocent people surrounding their battles with the bad guys, the government decides to step in and demand they act only under control of the United Nations. This splits the team and starts the “Civil War” between those who agree with the plan and those who want the freedom to act on their own will.

The story is one of consequences, brokenness, and revenge.

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The power structures in our society play off a love of consequences.  Check the current political landscape for a minute, if you can do it without vomiting. The two parties in power bicker and threaten to get what they want without any thought to the end results.

As parents, we see our kids act out and we try to steer them in the right direction even as we know that falling down is sometimes a better teacher than avoiding the risk altogether.

In our marriages we can settle, stop putting in the effort and thinking that things are okay until the laziness finally cracks the facade and we face an emotional and hurting spouse.

Jesus didn’t play with consequences.

His view on them made him dangerous.  He faced down the religious establishment of the day and said, to their faces, that they were wrong. He said to love, not hate. Find peace, not violence. Serve, don’t rule.

Reach out with an open hand, don’t strike with a closed fist.

He said he was the way, the truth, and the life. The sides were clear and the gray area vanished.

Oh how we muddied the waters.

There’s a scene where Robert Downey Jr. is getting onto an elevator with Alfre Woodard.  Woodard hands him a picture of her character’s son and tells him that he had died an innocent bystander during the battle scene earlier in the movie.

She asks the question, “Who will avenge him?”

The movie holds up a valuable mirror to our relationship with those in power and, for someone attempting to follow Jesus, asks a valuable question of faith:

Are we able to trust without seeing the end result? Can we relinquish control? Can we keep believing when things get ugly?

If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out and let me know what you think!

~Matt

Growing Up

You can find my newest book, The Glass Jar City: Stories From the Fight to Save Reading, Pennsylvania by clicking this link.  It is available in print and for a limited time, download for $1.00.  I’m donating proceeds from sales back to the organizations working in Reading to break the grip of poverty.  Thank you for your support.

There are days when the passing of time feels closer at heart. I always find myself getting sentimental at the transition between projects. My oldest son played a baseball game on Wednesday and did really well.

Thursday night Val and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary.  We’ve been together since 1999 (high school sweethearts) and we’re nearing twenty years as a couple. She still asks me what I want to be when I grow up, and I pray we never lose that hope.

Before we went out to dinner, I met with a friend who runs a local company posting and recording podcasts for businesses and entrepreneurs. We talked about the book and my goals for it.

I sat across from her in a conference room overlooking a major intersection in the middle of the city.  She asked about my dreams for writing.  What did I want to get from the project?

The question strikes a fine balance.

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There’s a line between what we dream and what we see. I always struggled with a search for the cosmic Green Light from God. I’d read the account of Moses where he received his orders directly from God and still doubted.  He went over every possible reason not to return to Egypt and yet, God told him to go.

I believe we all have a calling and a purpose. This week more than one opportunity opened up in our lives. We had our usual struggles with things (Val can’t seem to shake a black cloud of bad luck) but we kept moving.

The answer is to keep moving.

What you do when no one is looking pays off when everyone is looking.  The time alone reflects in the time of the crowds.  The preparation period, no matter how long, gets you ready for the arrival.

I’m leaning on a passion to make a difference and find an audience, to change lives with words.

It is one day at a time and, even in the moments of questions, it is moving forward. It is facing fear and doubt, quieting the voice that tells you to settle.

It is understanding you are worthy of success and giving yourself permission to do it.

The next project is coming and, no matter what happens, it will be done.  Legacies are built one brick, prayer, book, phone call, conversation, and act of faith at a time.

~Matt

The Seed

There are times when God asks us to step out of the boat and walk on water.

These are the benchmark moments; losing a job, a home, getting the diagnosis you feared or the phone call from the police about car accident.  You are on your knees, the weight too much to stand, and you call out for help.

And God tells you to step out in the wind and waves, to have purpose when it seems that all is lost.

Other moments are planting the seed.

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In the gospels you find Jesus telling a crowd that the kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. On Pastor Steven Furtick’s podcast he’s working through a series on functional faith.  He mentions this part of the story, that faith must be planted in the grounds of adversity. He states that:

We are told to walk by faith and not by sight so we must close our eyes to what is to see the potential of what could be.

Jesus tells us that, when the seed is planted, it grows.

This is a special day. The book I’ve worked on for almost two years now is complete and available on Amazon.  It is a seed, one I compiled and published on my own in an effort to shine light on the battle against poverty and the heroes making a difference.

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You can find it by clicking the link here.  I’m donating proceeds from sales and downloads to the charities profiled in the book, local shelters and outreach agencies that deserve recognition for the lives they change on a daily basis.

This book is a seed.

I started this blog two years ago to chronicle writing the book and to discover my identity as the guy behind the keyboard, the father and husband trying to define his faith and follow his passion.  The experience has changed my life.

I’ve learned that our systems are broken and must be fixed. Our economy is closed to those in need and must be opened (taking work from both sides). Selfless love is real. Faith is powerful. God breaks through the veil and into our world on a daily basis.

Miracles happen.

If you are interested in checking out the book, please click above. Thank you, followers and readers, for joining me on this journey so far.  I’m about fifty pages into my next novel (back to fiction) and will be excited to share more details as it progresses.

For this story isn’t over.

Have a great weekend!

~Matt

 

The Glass Jar City

In the summer of 2014, I graduated Fairfield University’s MFA Program.  I remember getting home from the final residency and thinking about the future.  I had a thesis novel in hand and stood at a crossroads.

What if I could tell a story that made a difference?

The question kept me up at night. One day the second part of the equation fell into place.

In 2011, the city of Reading, Pennsylvania was named the poorest in the United States.  This city was five minutes down the road.  What if I could tell the story, conduct some interviews, and find the pulse of the place fighting to find new life?

The journey started at Hope Rescue Mission on a hot August morning. Executive director Robert Turchi and Assistant Director Frank Grill opened the doors and provided the first glimpse of what it meant to be homeless. Their connections served as a guide to future emails and contacts.

Now, almost two years later, The Glass Jar City is a week away from arrival.

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The title came from a conversation with CEO Peter Barbey.  Barbey currently runs The Reading Eagle media organization.  His investment company recently purchased The Village Voice out of New York City. We were in his office, rain pounding against the windows, talking about the current state of the city. He said:

“It is like Reading turned a glass jar over on itself, on all the problems and issues, and said ‘okay now deal with it’.”

The story is one of inspiration, of heroes on the front lines and businessmen moving on higher levels. It is a conflict of personal interest and economic stability, the hands of history reaching deep into the present and those struggling hard to move into a new future.

I spoke with Vaughn Spencer, the mayor of the city at the time, and the lead Berks County Commissioner in Christian Leinbach. I met with Sheriff Eric Weaknecht and Deputy Warden of Treatment Stephanie Smith at Berks County Prison.

I was inspired by Craig Poole (manager of the DoubleTree hotel on Penn Street) and Dan Clouser (founder of the BIG Vision Foundation), two men leading their perspective businesses with an eye towards changing lives and making a positive future.

My interview with Sherry Camelleri, guiding Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center from its office on 5th Street, helped to deepen my faith and show that the smallest acts and donations can make a difference.

Stay tuned this week as I’ll post more important updates and get ready to join me on this journey through what it means to hit the bottom, shatter expectations, and find your way back to life.

~Matt