How You Leave

Last night I took Carter to restart some baseball lessons in preparation for the season.  Basketball ended in February and this is the downtime between the two, not that Carter knows anything about downtime.  If there is a ball and a sport available, he will play it.

My dad had come up to visit and we watched him hit in the cage, ball after ball cracking off his wooden bat.

By the end of the session, he was getting tired.  His technique slipped.  His arms were dropping.  I could see it in his face  His coach, my friend Dan Clouser, told him he had ten baseballs left.

He went through the first five and slowly set up for the end.  A word came to me that was meant, I believe, for me as well as him.  God will often interject these moments of learning in our lives if we are open to listen. I said:

It’s not about what you do when you arrive. It’s about how you leave.

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We can’t measure ourselves in the easy times.  When we are humming on all cylinders, experiencing success at work and life, finances and relationships it is way too easy to get complacent.  When every day feels like a vacation, we can settle and get trapped.

The key is the point of pain. The moment when we are too tired to go on. When physically and spiritually, we are ready to quit and we feel like our time is up.

Those moments are the learning points. They are where we expand and grow.  They lead our faith to greater heights and depths.

Carter looked at me, set himself up, and hit the last few baseballs.  I prayed the lesson took root and he would remember it the next time he was tired or a conflict emerged. That night, as I was in bed reading, God told me the same thing.

Remember it is not about the easy times, no matter how far away they feel.

Worship and prayer in a crowd at church is easier than when you are alone on your knees fighting a sickness or addiction. Prayer is different walking the streets of a city shining light in the midst of drugs and violence.

Scripture comes easy from a pastor with three points and some cool slides or media presentations.  It is different in the middle of the night when your teen hasn’t come home yet and your heart is frozen with worry.

Faith is easy in times of provision.  It is different when you’ve thrown your last $10.00 in the offering basket.

Let us make the most of our opportunities, appreciate the hard times and understand that with each victory we will get stronger.  Every struggle is strength, every heartache increases our capacity for empathy, every fear makes us conquerors and every anxiety can lead new hearts to Jesus and impact eternity.

It is not about how we arrive, it is about how we leave and what we do when we are stretched to the limit.  If that is you tonight, know that God is close and you will come out of this better than you’ve ever imagined.

~Matt

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Choose Against Yourself

A friend of mine, Dan Clouser, is founder and president of the Big Vision Foundation. Big Vision started as Berkshire Baseball by Dan and his friends from high school.  They were a bunch of guys, he says, trying to figure out how to keep living their glory days on the baseball diamond.

Now, years later, the Big Vision Foundation holds a number of seasonal tournaments in various sports. It is centered on a sports complex currently undergoing a multi-million dollar upgrade.   It generates more than $7 million dollars a year in tourism and income for Berks County.

Dan and his friends could have sat around telling stories but they decided to do something different. He chose against himself.

In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he writes about choosing against yourself.

It is the difference between the status quot and radical change, sameness and resistance, putting in the work when everyone else has gone home for the night.  It is what shifts us from regrets to dreams and visions.

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We all face inborn narratives. We inherit the stories that become our identities before we ever arrive on this planet, shaped by past generations. Every day is a choice. Every moment the scale swings between past and future, what we know and what our faith says about us.

So why break routine and choose against yourself?

It is the key to destroying the bonds that hold us down. Whether addiction or poverty, anger or sorrow.  It is recognizing that the old ways no longer work and the new has come. Because Jesus tells us in Matthew 16:

I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

This is a proactive statement. This is not playing it safe, settling into a routine that keeps us out of what God has planned.  This is not sitting on the bench.  It is stepping up and doing something about it.

It is making a difference, finding a cause, pulling closer to the divine purpose placed in your heart.  It is victory because the darkness shall not prevail, there is no condemnation for those in Christ, and if God is for us, who can be against us?

Today make a choice, just one, against yourself.  Take a step forward. Break routine. Your old stories may not turn into a Foundation changing the lives of thousands of children and athletes like Dan’s, but it will be something even more, a move of eternal impact and significance unique specifically to you.

Your story is waiting. Choose against yourself and let’s get started.

~Matt

Chains

Everyone has a race.

Everyone has a reason.

The path carries us forward, even in moments when we can’t see it, towards an ending we may not know or understand. We have gaps, blank spaces in our souls that are longing to be filled. There are dreams to take form, symphonies to compose, novels to write, songs to sing, and lives to save.

We are 7 billion creations shifting and moving on this planet with 7 billion individual purposes.

We all have our chains.

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What if they are comfortable? What if we’re not Jacob Marley from The Christmas Carol, rattling around our old rich friends and keeping them up at night? What if it is much simpler?

One more drink. One more pill. No, even simpler.

One more conversation. One more argument. One more phrase you wish you hadn’t said but that person at work was so annoying and you just had to let out your frustrations on someone who happened to be your child greeting you when you walked through the door.

One more unspoken word, unmet glance, open hand not held and open heart not addressed.

Oh the chains can be so comfortable. Sometimes we even wear them with pride.

We jump on social media to fight with anyone who disagrees with our opinions as followers of Jesus. We complain about the degradation of the world and forget we are part of the equation.  We keep the hurt at arm’s length, just outside the church walls, and conduct our business with mindful ignorance.

Then we sing about freedom. We pray about it, for the chance to live the lives we want to live in our time, on our plans, within our budget and the realm of space we believe we fit. We want freedom with boundaries, wrapped in our box of choice and designed the way we want.

We’ve missed the concept of breaking chains:

Living lives of purpose and meaning. Giving back to our communities. Opening doors with love available to anyone looking for it. Giving ourselves permission to break the chains because we are new creations, no longer slaves of the past.

A Chain Breaker

A man by the name of Paul is responsible for the majority of the New Testament in the Bible.  He had everything, at the time, worth having.  He was a Roman citizen, highly educated, and zealous in his purpose to hunt down and kill those who followed this messiah from Jerusalem. One day, on his journey, he was struck down and blinded by the very object of his anger, Jesus, the one causing all this trouble.

Think about this for a moment. Paul was good at his job. He’d put many people in jail and killed many others, broken up families, advanced in standing and probably felt like he was on the right track. He was skilled, intelligent, eloquent, and able. His presence struck fear in any town he passed through.

Now he found himself face down, in the dirt, with the world turned to black.

Have you been there?

It takes suffering to break chains. It takes refinement by fire and a touch of the divine. It takes looking into the mirror of the soul, as Paul wrote:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

When is the last time you heard a pastor, church leader, politician, president, or anyone of influence say something like this? This is a man of broken chains, one calling himself the worst of sinners.

Make a list of your enemies, the ones out there doing wrong in the eyes of God, the ones we see on the news and our Facebook feeds.

See that list?  Paul was lower, darker, and deeper into sin. ISIS? Lower. Bin Laden? Lower. Paul is the bottom line and he was shown mercy.

For it is mercy that breaks chains. It is the reprieve, the chance to live apart from your past, to show the fullness of your divine purpose, to mend hearts, hold hands, and rebuild relationships.

Start with mercy and grace, and your chains will fall. Ask for forgiveness as you forgive others. Meet the one Paul met on the Damascus road.

Paul’s pen changed the world so many centuries ago. Imagine what, with all the resources out there, you can do today.

~Matt

The Anger Addiction

I’ve spent a few years working in the medical field, from emergency medicine to rehabilitation and a doctor’s office.  In this time, I’ve met a ton of people and had the chance to see the highest moments of positivity and the darkest times of grief. People often stand at a crossroads.  They can overcome and find themselves better than before they arrived.

Or they can drown in their sickness.

Today I listened to an amazing sum of conversations and it hit me.

When did we get so angry?

As a culture we’ve become obsessed with it.  Watch daytime talk shows. Listen to the politicians.  We love angry people.  Pick up a cause and yell about it, in digital or real form, and you’ll find an audience.

As a church, we’ve embraced it.  If everyone can be offended, why not us?

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There’s a scene in The Godfather, one of my favorite movies (I’m a guy, it is required) where Al Pacino is sitting at his child’s baptism.  As he goes through saying the words, the shot cuts to various murders that Pacino’s character has ordered.  As he renounces the devil, he kills those who oppose him.

It works because of the contrast and the pull at human nature.  Who hasn’t wanted to get back at our enemies, to even the scales, to repay wrongs in prime, Old Testament fashion?

Jesus, the one we all do our best to follow.

The writer Donald Miller posted an excellent article on his blog about Learning to Walk Away.  He talks about the story of Jesus and the young rich man.  How, when the young man rejects his offer of salvation, Jesus walks away.  He didn’t hang out. He didn’t yell, argue, post smart Facebook comments and info-graphics.

He walked away.

Today I made a goal.  I would improve someone’s day when we interact.  Whether that person was Val, Carter, Aiden, or a patient I’m registering.  I would make their day better.  It didn’t matter if they were angry, upset, sad, or annoyed.  I’d do my best.

It won’t be easy.

Right now society is focused on what following Jesus isn’t. We need to revolutionize and embrace what it is.

Break the addiction of anger. Be less jaded. Open our arms. Love when it is hard. Forgive when it seems impossible.  Lay down our lives and pick up our crosses.  They’ll know us by our love.  Not our offense, our politics, money, donations, organizations, or righteous indignation. They’ll know us by our love.

A love without end, that supports everyone in our community, that acts against the logic of this world. When we pick up our crosses we drop our anger.  You can’t hold both.

It is time to choose.

~Matt

Systems Change: Family Promise

I passed the office twice before I could find it, finally pulling over and firing up the GPS on my phone. It took circling the block past Hope Rescue Mission and down the historic section of 5th street.  I parked between a pile of black trash bags waiting for pickup and a section of road construction, jogged across the street, and entered the lobby for Family Promise of Berks County.

Family Promise started almost thirty years ago in New York in an effort to help a growing crowd of elderly homeless individuals. It spread to other states and territories, offering services for the elderly, families, and individuals.  The office in Reading handles around two hundred applications a year for their intensive 90 day program.

I followed a family through the entrance and up the winding staircase, meeting Gwendolyn Didden, director of the Reading office.  Didden has worked in the non-profit world for twenty-five years.  She brings a unique mix of social science, experience, and faith into the mix.

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We spoke for almost two hours about poverty, homelessness, healing, and spiritual sickness.  Many of Didden’s statements stuck with me. She said:

“World systems are flawed, but God’s systems are flawless.”

We often view those that suffer as outliers. The homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and poor fall outside the lines. Suffering equals personal failure. If you are going through something bad, it reflects your faults.  What if our systems are flawed? What if we can only survive through the selfless love and support of others? What if we put our faith in a government that can’t get it right?

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

What if the problem is one of the soul?

I believe in change.  Cities can change. Families can change. Marriages can change. Souls can change. There is hope. The shackles of poverty, homelessness, conflict, and strife can end. The process isn’t easy or quick.  It isn’t immediate.

It is real, when we believe.

~Matt

As a reminder, you can get my e-book: Your First Step for FREE at the following link:

Just Click Here

Check it out and share with anyone needing some hope in their life.

The Compass

I was sitting in an office at Hope Rescue Mission interviewing a resident.  He had lived years of his young life dealing with addiction and crime, illness and death. After listening to his story, he mentioned that he was enrolled in the local community college.

I asked what he was taking.

“Addiction counseling and social work” he said, “I just thought I could give back, you know?”

His life had shifted.

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In the midst of suffering, we feel thrown off the path. The way becomes blurry. Questions that were easy now present problems. Cooking dinner, at the end of the day, looks like a doctoral thesis.

Our pain points are our compass. They are construction signs better than any orange cones on the highway.

They are God’s arrows showing us the way to go.

The trick is to keep moving. How could you give back? What fires have you braved that you could help others put out? How can you turn the emotions into life for someone else who may be in the midst of the same?

We have a choice.  No matter how deep in the darkness, we always have a choice.

Your first step towards reclaiming faith and life in action is seeing a new target and new purpose. It can be the light you need for the next chapter of the journey.

~Matt

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

4 Things I Learned From Watching an Intervention Marathon

Two months back my wife and I gave up cable.  Carter and Aiden had their select shows they watched on Netflix or Hulu. We spent even less time flipping through channels.  After talking about it, we decided it was a monthly expense we could do without.

So, this requires us to work like Carter and Aiden and find shows available on the streaming services.  One of our favorites is A & E’s Intervention. If you are not familiar with it, the show is a documentary that follows an addict around and ends with a surprise intervention and the family trying to convince the addict to go to treatment.

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Photo Credit: Norto via Compfight cc

Every episode is set up the same. You have an Intro, Biography, Dramatic Addict Footage, Intervention, and Post Intervention follow-up. As the show progresses, you see how deep some of these people are in their addictions and, if you do some research, you find out that not every one is a success story.  Some end up losing their lives in their struggles.

As as writer, and father, I am fascinated by what finally convinces the addicts to go to treatment. After watching about 98,154 episodes, I think I’ve seen some patterns. Here are four things I’ve learned from Intervention:

1/Learn to Process Tragedy– Every addict has a catalyst.  No one wakes up one morning with the desire to try heroin for the first time without any reason. Some of the episodes had horrific back stories.  So many were molested or lost friends and loved ones to crime or accidents. One of the hardest things we do in life is process tragedy.

What happens when you break?  Do you have somewhere to fall? Someone to call? Friends? Family? Faith?

2/Set Boundaries– Co-dependency is present in almost every episode of the show.  It is rare to have an addict out on an island with the rest of the family looking away. Spouses and family members hook their happiness on the addict’s happiness and the cycle spirals out of control.

This year Val and I have determined to have more discipline in this house.  It is so easy to let your kids run the place.  If they understand cause and effect and that they have limits, it will help improve things in the future.

3/Fathers are Important- If I had a dollar for every episode where an addict said they would go to treatment because their father cried/showed emotion at the intervention, I’d be set. When was the last time, as a dad, you showed and told your kids that you loved them? They remember everything and they need it, especially coming from fathers.

4/Believe Your Kids- In many of the episodes where the addict was molested, they went and told their parents who then did nothing about it.  The parents either brushed it off in ignorance or told their kids they were lying.  If your child comes to you with something as horrific as a molestation claim, why would you not handle it?

If you haven’t seen the show, be sure to check it out and, soon, you’ll find yourself making these lists like me.  And if you, or anyone you know are dealing with addiction, please get help.  You are worth it.

~Matt

Let’s Talk About Sex

The final message in our church’s series about love, dating, and sex was this morning.  We didn’t make it as both of the boys are fighting colds but, they told us the talk this morning was about sex, so I though we’d jump in on our own.  Great reading for the holiday weekend!

My grandparents lived in the town of Spring City, PA for the majority of their adult lives.  The house was a few minutes away from Pennhurst State School and Hospital (famous for the tragic happenings inside and the haunting that followed). I remember my grandmother telling me that illegitimate and unwanted children were dropped at the entrance and left to grow up in the halls of the hospital.

Sex was different at the turn of the century.

It was always there.  You can check historical records of prostitution “the oldest trade” back thousands of years. It was used for domination, perversion, worship, and procreation. Beauty was recognized, regardless of gender, and the wealthy chased it with passion.  Times have changed.

We have reached a point of sex being a commodity. It is front and center with the advent of technology.  The secrets behind bedroom doors are now public material. The most intimate of acts has been thrust to the center of conversation for better or worse.

I spent almost a year working at the Children’s Home of Reading and spending time with the victims of human trafficking and abuse. I’ve listened to an in-service lecture at a local high school by a lawyer discussing current cases of teens “sexting” pictures of themselves and their partners. It is a dangerous world.

That’s why, as parents and couples, we must take it back.

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I look at Carter and Aiden and I don’t envy the world they will have to navigate as they get older. They will fall in love, date, have their hearts broken, date again, and keep going. They will be able to reach out and connect with love interests at the touch of a button. They need to be prepared.

As parents:

Have the Talk: Just do it. Talk about sex. Explain the importance of the act. Talk about how babies don’t just go away whether you are the mother or father.  Talk about the responsibility that comes with it. Build a bridge of trust and make sure your kids know the door is always open.  Sex is a scary thing and they don’t have to face it alone.

Use Technology to Your Advantage: There are programs available to monitor cell phone use.  Pornography is a vast and active problem in culture. Check the resources here from XXX Church based in Las Vegas. Keep an eye on browsing records, text conversations, and Instagram accounts.  Know what is happening. Be your child’s advocate. Step in when needed and show them you care.

In your marriage:

Have the Talk: Sex is made to bring you together with your partner yet, even in marriage, we use it for different reasons.  It can be a reward or withheld as punishment. It can be the foundation to the deepest level of emotional connection. It can also drive a wedge between you.

After the kids go to bed, sit at the table. Talk about what is working and what isn’t. Make sure you know what the other person wants and needs. Make sure you care.

Make the Effort: When the weight of bills, medical issues, the kids, jobs, and life starts to hit you can forget about your partner.  You walk into the room with a nod and without a touch of the hand or hug.  You say goodbye without a kiss.

You come home from work and hop on the computer, treadmill, or cell phone.

Take time for each other. Even if you have to schedule it. Pay attention. Buy the gifts. Make the dinner. Go to the movies, rent a movie, do something together. Hold hands. Compliment. Recognize the effort spent in a day of work.

Serve each other.

We can reclaim sex from this society and make it what is it supposed to be. I want Carter and Aiden to be gentlemen and, to do that, they’ll need to see my example.  It’s not always easy but it is always worth it.

~Matt and Val