Crowds

I’m not a fan of crowds.

Give me a beach by myself and I’ll be happy.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I can attend things like church or concerts.  Put me in the midst of a crowded event where things aren’t moving and I’ll start to get uncomfortable. Crowds, besides being oppressive, can hurt us in other ways.

Our older son has had some issues in school the past two days.  As I read over the email from his teacher, I found myself getting frustrated. He hangs out with two kids in his class and, for some reason, they seem to be the center of trouble. And I know Carter is a follower.  He’s not the type to create issues.

So, he’s in the wrong crowd and we’ve found ourselves at one of those parenting crossroads.

audience-backlit-band-154147

I’ve written before how I’m a fan of Pastor Erwin McManus out at Mosaic Church in LA. I remember, in one of his books, reading about how we are a society based on collective worship.  Youtube a popular artist playing live and you’ll find evidence in a second.  There’s an old clip of U2 playing Where the Streets Have No Name at a castle in Ireland and the sea of people is mesmerizing. It is, in condensed form, worship.

We are also wired to find community. As an introvert, this had made me uncomfortable more than once. I do believe that God places people in our lives to help us through the dark times and celebrate in the light.

I sat down with Carter yesterday and asked him about his friends.  I told him he needs to look at the choices he makes, that his friends will show him where he’s going.

We often stress about our own stories but, when your child is involved, their narrative sticks in your mind. More than once today I’ve thought about what he was doing in school and prayed he would have a good day.

I’ve had friends from when I was Carter’s age who’ve gone and had great success personally and professionally.  I’ve had others who’ve ended up in prison. At the time, these people were just my classmates, kids I’d see a few days a week for a few months of the year.

One guy I knew passed away from cancer the summer we graduated high school.

It can’t be easy being a kid today. Their processing demand is much more than anything we had to deal with. There are moments I sit across from him and wonder about the universe inside his mind.

This week has not been once of peace but I hope, as we go, we can find some. Carter will continue to find his own crowds.  We can only hope his internal radar gets tuned towards those that enhance who he is as a person, those he can laugh and grow with, the ones whose friendship will extended into decades.

The ones who will make him happy and challenge him to be a better person. The journey will not be easy, but worth it in the end.

Time

Last night both of my boys were at the baseball fields.  Carter had a practice with his team and Aiden had his first t-ball practice.  The fields were actually next to each other so I was able to bounce between the two.  The entire time I stood there, my mind kept going over how fast things have progressed.  The little boy from four years ago was now down with his friends.

His brother now stood at first base spinning in circles and playing in the dirt.

I took a walk to the fence between the fields to find a friend of mine, a guy I had coached t-ball with back when Carter had started.  I asked him, “Do you remember those days?”  We had a good conversation and part of my heart ached for the time before.

It seems unfair that our lives are packaged with an expiration date, that we only have set years to experience things on this planet before we transition away.  We have limited time to make an impact on our family and our loved ones.

Time scares me.

alarm-clock-clock-macro-100733

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote about the concept of time.  He wrote that God experiences time in ways we do not.  That moments don’t flow like a river, but exist all in connected point.  God has the ability to see the entirety of the past, present, and future as if looking at one painting on a wall.  Eternity is captured well in this image.

In Dante’s Inferno, his sinners can see the past and future, but have no knowledge of the present. They know what they did, they know what will happen to those they loved and the world, but they have no idea what is happening now.  Imagine living a life without being in the present.

Sound familiar?  We spend most of our lives this way.

The hardest part of time is that we marry it to emotions and regret. We set internal goals.  By 21 we will….by 30 we will….by 50 we will…. and soon enough those years arrive and the imbalance plays itself out in many ways.  We find ourselves happy and fulfilled, driven and making it happen, or upset at what we’ve lost and failed to gain.

Because some day you’ll get to completing the sentence. “One day I will” and that day will arrive. Some of the most over quoted verses in scripture come in the form of peace admonitions.  We are often told to have peace and not be afraid, usually in the midst of the scariest moments. As people of faith, we enjoy throwing these verses at friends in the midst of struggle, sometimes without thinking about why or what we are saying.

The key to conquering time comes at night.  In the still moments, when we rest and wonder about the coming dawn, take inventory. Break it into manageable content. Win a small victory.

Get one thing done.

Maybe that is the secret of peace, to know that you’ve done something with your time before it gets away.

Carter, our son dealing with anxiety, is currently obsessed with time.  We were at the playground the other day and he kept asking me how much time was left.  Finally, I told him to just go play and not worry about it.

Maybe that’s God’s point.

Don’t forget to go play. Get off the sidelines and out of the paralyzing grip of fear. Because one day it will be time.  I’d rather be on the playground than on the side wondering what could have been and what games I’d missed.

Noise

I just went home for lunch.

Now where I work, I’m afforded the opportunity to do this as it is about five minutes from our house.  We’re in the midst of a winter revival in the northeast so it was nice to get into the warmth of the house for a quick lunch.  As I walked in, Aiden was sitting on the couch.

The living room was dark and he had a movie on Netflix (a total Matt Shaner move). I went to say hello and he shushed me.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

I said, why?

“If you talk, Happy won’t sit with me.”  Happy is our cat.  Aiden loves the cat and the cat doesn’t like him.  Yesterday, for the first time, Happy sat on his lap.  This afternoon, he’s angling for a round 2.  He was watching the movie and keeping an eye on the cat, waiting for Happy to make his move.

Noise often disrupts our best intentions.

amplifier-audio-bass-302879

We live in a world where we are afraid of the quiet. We’re hammered with images, sensory input from many screens. This normally splits people into two camps.

The first are like Aiden and myself.  There’s a home in the darkness and peace in the stillness. We can stand on a beach at night, breathe in the surroundings and get lost in the waves.

The others are like Carter and my wife.  Get lights on, go towards the lights, thrive in the sensory input. Stand in the midst of Times Square and feel hearts beat in time with the city.

The trouble comes in losing ourselves to both extremes as they can build walls. We defend ourselves with these walls and prevent others from seeing the genuine humanity inside.

I believe there is value in changing dynamics.

This week I had an email conversation with a friend of mine about church.  I told him I’d had this crazy idea. What if church could exist without a building? Without a paid staff? What if it was just random meetings to discuss life, spirituality, the Bible, and build community?  What if it meant random Saturdays doing work on the home of a disabled veteran? Or running a pop up soup kitchen in the middle of a city?

What if speakers were anyone who had something to say? What if worship came from a guitar or piano in the dark corner of a club?  Or a DJ set on the stage?

What if we haven’t scratched the surface of what God wants to do in our lives and in this world? What if a thousand years of history is no more than a heartbeat of practice?

We are standing on the edge of great things and the dreamers and visionaries, regular people with God-sized seeds planted in their souls, will carry us forward. The question is, are we ready to make the journey?

~Matt

Ripple Effect

My dad spent his career in a nuclear power plant.  For a kid growing up with Homer Simpson in his prime on television, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It was always an interesting conversation starter and he has some great stories.

One of the best involves breaking a light bulb.

His job, in the plant, involved many things including keeping reactors and other essential engines running smoothly. He was hired when they built the plant and learned things, literally, from the ground up. One night, a crew of guys needed someone from his department to oversee maintenance on a large machine as an alert had tripped.

My dad followed them to the area where the machine was housed.  After checking things out, he determined that a light bulb needed to be replaced as part of the repair.  He unscrewed the old bulb and placed the new one in the socket.  As he screwed it in, it broke in his hand.

This set off an alarm that tripped to other facilities up and down the east coast and cost Philadelphia Electric a good amount of money.

For every action, no matter how small or planned, there are massive consequences.

black-and-white-clear-drop-of-water-166360

If you are a parent, you know this is true. Try buying two different toys for a pair of siblings, believe me, it does not end well.  If you are a husband or wife, this is also true.  Little things that become routine will pile up until you find yourself buried under them.

You cannot turn on the news without being launched in the midst of the gun control debate. I remember being in high school when Columbine happened.  That day we realized that the world was changing.  Now, things that we hadn’t experienced until teenage years are happening at younger and younger ages. Bullying and suicide has become an epidemic.

Pain is real, ready for consumption on social media, and broadcast for all to see. In years where we may have battled our anger by riding our bikes across town, kids are finding sharp objects and turning the pain inward.

We spent the last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland.  I booked the days after Val’s miscarriage, in hopes that we could get away.  We found some seashells, as a family, and are planning on planting something in the yard and decorating with the shells in memory of what happened.

The boys each had a balloon and we stood by the ocean, white caps painting the waves and wind whipping through our hair.  I asked them to send a prayer up to heaven for the baby and, one by one, they did.  Carter and Aiden each said their own thing and they did it with authentic faith, emotion, and sincerity.  As they finished, one by one, they kissed their balloon and let it go.

We were frozen by the breeze at that point and, when they ran to the car, I stopped for a  moment and watched the red and blue balloons as they twisted on the air currents and made their way into the sky.

We are not a perfect family by far.  We have our issues. The boys fight like cats and dogs.  The rest of the trip had its own turbulence that comes with vacations, too much boardwalk food, and an overload of swimming.

In that moment, though, we had peace. We had a ripple of hope and the prayer of two little boys that made its way to Heaven. We had the chance to release pain and heartache, put it on the wind, and watch it rise.

We had the chance to be whole and we will walk forward, together, into whatever may come.

 

 

Impulse

Peter is one of my favorite dudes in the Bible. He’s all of us getting the chance to hang out with the one that changes the entire universe.  He jumps to the front of the line, speaks before he thinks, and tries way too hard.

He wasn’t always on the good side of Jesus.

The night of the arrest in the Garden, Peter cuts the ear off a Roman soldier. Later, faced with the thought of his own arrest and punishment, he issues his denials. Those moments stand out in the midst of faith stories.  We tend to gloss over them and rush to his reinstatement.  We don’t want to think about denying faith, about what we would do when pressed with a death or decision moment.

Peter, in his fear, acts on impulse and I get it.  I’d bet you get it too. Imagine, all the things he’s seen, all the miracles, the rising tide of crowds and revolution.

The betrayal.

The one who would finally give freedom is now in shackles. All the evidence goes out the window of short-term memory because, if you say yes, you’ll be there too. Suddenly going back to the lake seems like a good alternative.

The familiar provides a warm bed to distract us from a life of electric possibility.

pexels-photo-136931

Last night, Carter was angry.  He was tired and angry, not an easy combination for a kid with anxiety. After talking for a few minutes, he calmed.

I had read something earlier in the day online that reaction for kids dealing with hyperactivity and anxiety are emotion-based.  This means they don’t try to purposefully make their parents angry.  As I spoke to him, the thought bounced around in my head.

It is not an issue of impulse, it is a matter of emotion.

I knelt across from him and took his hand in my own. I looked in his eyes, red and laced with tears, and asked him a question.

“Do you really want to feel like this?”

He took a breath and said no.

For the first time, in the moment, I saw things for how they were.  His issues were something concrete outside himself.  They didn’t own him. They weren’t his identity. They were something we could help with, work with, and teach him how to cope with and forge himself into the person he wants to be.

We stood and I hugged him, pulled him close and shut my eyes. I told him I loved him.

For a second, I understood.  That actions don’t make the person, that impulses are what they are. That Carter’s feelings ran as deep as his soul and that we had hope.  We would walk forward together.  No matter how many bumps in the road, we’d come back to a moment as father and son.

As I was going to bed last night, I stepped into his room and looked at him sleeping.  I thought, for the first time in a while, that we could do this.  It would take effort, time, honesty, and work but we could do this.  We could do this.

We could do this.

The Race

The permission slip was waiting for me when I got home from work last night. Carter said he was involved in a race in gym class.  This race was, from what I found out, part of a series to choose a team of relay racers for an event in April.  The elementary schools in the district all send a team from each grade to race on the big track at the high school.  He will be one of four boys representing the entire third grade for his specific school on their relay team.

I’m not surprised.

If he needs to get from point A to point B, he’ll run. It is easier to go fast than go with the flow. Running is in his blood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Paul writes the following in his letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

We all run in our own ways.  Our minds and our emotions set up internal pathways to prevent trauma and pain.  We navigate these like walking through dark alleys in the rain. When we get too close, to run to something that can dull the pain.  This can take the form of positive things like sports, prayer, study, friends or loved ones.  This can go the other direction into addiction or running away altogether.

Part of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is the path into the unknown, the question out and far away that the heroes must answer.  They must face their demons and, no matter how far they go, they will fight to the end.

The Race will take us where we do not want to go.

Val and I have a friend right now battling cancer.  Her race is to fight, to live and see the sun rise again tomorrow.

My race has taken me on a journey to find what it means to be a father and husband, writer and man of faith.  To discover what the term “faith” even means and find the shape of authentic spiritual experience. To reach out and touch the divine and know, no matter what happens, we are not alone.

I race against being alone.

Val runs with a huge heart, one that allows her to reach out and absorb pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  She runs as a mother, finding strength to feel and love so much and still spend time with our boys and me, to take the extra time to be in the moment and stay there in the midst of being exhausted.  Her race will unleash the beauty of her spirit that flutters there underneath the weight of life.

Carter runs against his worries, against the shadows that seem to take shape.  Against the voice that tells him things are not safe and he needs to find some level of control.

Aiden runs with his mother’s heart, open and loving. He’s a forever friend and I pray he never loses that characteristic as he grows.

As a family, our race has taken us through heights and depths, victory and tragedy.

Paul advocates running as to get the medal.  What does this mean?

Note he doesn’t mention a participation trophy.

Running to get the medal is an image of the process of faith.  Salvation may arrive in an instant but the race is a process.  Faith is refinement that happens over the years. Our pain is shared with those who need to know they are no alone.  Our struggles build trust. Our suffering builds perseverance. Our exhaustion builds hope and we lean on the arms that can hold us up.

Getting the medal is the will to keep going. To believe when everyone else has stopped. To put one foot down when the pressure on your shoulders.

 

A few years ago, I walked Cliff Walk in Rhode Island.  The trail runs next to a set of mansions from the golden age of industry titans in this country.  As you walk, signs appear on the way warning of rough terrain.  The coast line bobs and weaves around rock formations and outcroppings.

The day I walked was hot, the sun blasting off the water’s reflection. I felt my legs tiring and, realizing the old issue that I’d have to go back as far as I’d walked, I finally decided to stop at a sign warning me that rough terrain was ahead.

On the way home, a side street offered a view of the trail. I found myself near the same spot I’d stopped, facing the rough terrain. From there I could see the other side, a point looking out to the ocean with blue waters across the horizon.

Paradise was there.

Just past the point of giving up.

What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

abstract-autumn-backgrounds-beautiful

Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.

“I can’t beat it.”

Last night Val and I rented Manchester by the Sea. Let me first clarify things by saying, I know and understand the issues around Casey Affleck and his treatment of women and that I wanted to watch the movie from the viewpoint of what I could learn as a person and a writer.  It delivered well on both fronts.

Affleck plays a janitor whose brother dies of Congestive Heart Failure. The remainder of the movie reveals the ghosts from his own past as he faces his brother’s death and the care required for his teenage nephew.

(spoilers below)

You spend the movie rooting for Affleck to have a change of heart, that he’ll embrace the kid and stand in as his father.  In the end, he can only do what he knows.  He runs back to Boston and lets his nephew be adopted by family friends, even though he finds an apartment with an extra room incase the kid wants to visit on the weekend.

In their emotional final dinner together, Affleck tells the kid:

“I can’t beat it.”

When we face down grief and trauma, our response is often the same.

pexels-photo-213942

Time freezes.

To avoid the pain we jump around. We think about the past or the future to avoid the present. We do whatever we can to not live in the moment. We check out.

Our smartphones become our pacifiers.

There are conversations floating in the air begging for our engagement and the effort is just to hard. We’re emotionally and physically spent.

We just can’t beat it.

I’ve recently taken small steps to combat this.  Every morning, before leaving for work, I pray with Carter if he’s the only one awake. If everyone is up, we all pray together.  It is a moment he looks forward to now.

I carry an index card in my wallet with three statements on it:

Find Joy Every Day/ No More Wall/ I am My Own Husband and Father

I’d been missing out on the joy around me, living behind an emotional wall, and feeling like I could only measure my worth as a father against those men I knew around me.

Everything, I realized, was wrong.

Joy is there, if you take a moment to see it. The Wall can come down if you take the emotional effort to work through it.

You can be the mother, father, husband or wife you want to be regardless of anything in the past or present. You can take a positive effort to shape the future and create your own identity.

You can create You.

This isn’t easy but it is part of my new journey. I hope you’ll join me and I know, one day at a time, things can change for all of us.

 

The Floor

I hit bottom last night.

I’d woken up not feeling well from the night before, went to work and had a stressful twelve hours, had to stay late for reasons outside my control and, by the time I sat in the car, I was finished.

Everything just piled on. Every area of our lives felt like it is malfunctioning. We’re getting attacked on all fronts.

At these points you stop expecting something good to happen and worry about when the next bad news will hit.

I called Val as I drove home, my voice breaking with emotion. I felt like a boxer in the final round, the punches starting to hit home, and legs starting to give out.

After we ended our call I turned down the radio and prayed.

pexels-photo-215388

God can handle honesty, so I let it fly with every single What is Happening and Why Us question I could find, the pain, hurt and frustration flowing until tears blurred the tail lights of the cars in front of me.

There’s a point where you let go of every cultural reference, movie, book, conversation, influence, or resource that you know. You stop trying to find solutions, give up on logic and sit in silence.

Your heart and God. Creation and Creator.

I wish I could say I heard an answer and found a direction, that a sign fell from the sky and landed in the back seat of the car but it didn’t. The rest of the ride was silence.

And that’s okay.

Because it needed to come out and maybe that’s the point in silence. For God to pull down through the walls we build up as men, husbands, and fathers and draw out the emotions we work so hard to hide.

The truth will set you free.  Even if its standing at the foot of the cross and pointing a finger to the sky in frustration.

At least you’re standing there.

As I type this, gratefully off from work for the day, Aiden is sleeping on the couch to my left. The house is quiet. The day is sunny and warm for November.

The breakdown of last night is still in my mind and I wonder what will happen today.  How will things be different? There’s a cliché that the only constant force is change.

I’m praying that’s true because we can’t live in the brokenness.  The wounds from ten years of struggling are too deep for too long and it is time to start moving again.

One step at a time.

 

 

 

 

What Should Life Be?

It rained yesterday.  The sky was the slate blanket that comes every now and then in the Pennsylvania transition between seasons. It was one of those days you dreaded as a kid, sitting in school with no way to mark the passing of time.

Morning was afternoon.  Dawn was dusk.

I got home from work, we ate dinner, then dressed the boys to go run some errands.  Aiden put on his rain boots and ran outside.  I followed and attempted to get him and Carter in the car.  He found his way to a puddle and started jumping.

Peppa Pig style (for you parents out there) jumping in puddles with his rain boots.

At the end of a dreary day, he’d found his own slice of adventure.

pexels-photo-175353

Kids are easy for this.  They are our stereotypical adventurers.  We watch them play with nostalgia.  If only, we think and sigh, those were the days.

We are meant for more.

We are meant for a faith that calls us out of the darkness.

We are meant for a radical community of faith, hope, and love, to embrace others and show them the grace that allows us to live day by day.

So many dream of Heaven.  We think, then we can finally live, finally see the beauty of sun rays, crystal waters, perfect love and joy.

So we go on auto pilot and try to survive.  All the while, God calls us to the deep.

How will it look for you? How will it look for me and my family?  I don’t know.  I feel like I’m learning more each day.

Learning that the story isn’t over.  That there is still room for adventure, for a life of passion and change, hope and impact. There is room for hope in a better world, that the poor can find help, the hungry can be fed, the cold can find warmth, and the burdened will find rest.

I wish I could explain it to you. I wish I had the poetry that some of my friends and fellow writers have.  I wish I had the copywriting spin to sell you on the key points of the Gospel. I wish I had ten million copies sold to hold up and show you why you should believe me.

The only thing I can give you is honesty.

Faith isn’t easy.  I’ve looked in the mirror many moments and wondered why and where? I’ve held my hands to the sky and asked God to show up. I’ve wanted the concrete conversation, for Gabriel to show up in my Scion one day and, after miraculously healing the brakes, tell me the depths and heights of faith and the song of the Universe.

Hope isn’t easy.

Love isn’t easy.

For in the moment when the voice, the one that sounds so familiar for Adam and Eve so long ago, when it whispers “this is it, just give up,” something tells me No.

This isn’t it. The fight isn’t over. Bigger things are coming. It is a gut response, a fight that rises up from the place that can only be occupied by the fire of the love of Jesus.

What is life about?  It is the fight for Passion, to never give up, to never back down. To taste every sip of the majesty of God’s creation, to work to change lives, to shine the light of grace and love.

To wake up in the morning and do it all over again.