Allow me to Reintroduce Myself

It has been a while.

I left off here in a dark place. In the few months since, things have changed. I’d looked in the mirror, stared into the abyss as it looked back at me.

I realized a few things.

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Ironically, it took watching Tony Robbins on his Netflix documentary to help see the truth. To look at some limiting beliefs, to realize what I’d cost Val and the boys over the last ten years.

Things have changed.

I’ve given myself permission to be the best father and husband I can be, to be my own man and stand on that foundation.  We cleaned out our house taking almost twenty bags of various things to be donated/trashed. My book collection is down to a few volumes of importance (everything from here out will be digital).

Some weight has lifted.

I started a new job, taken far too long to settle back into writing. I’ll start my first season as head coach for Carter’s baseball team this spring with opening day on April 1st. We are making steps towards a more purposeful life.

The boys are still crazy and active. They still surprise us with what they do and say on a daily basis.

So this blog will be a return to the words, the calling to put things down on paper, to stay honest, to honor the permission to write.

That’s the biggest thing that’s hit me in the past few months.

I’m allowed to learn and grow, to not have all the answers. To be a father and figure it out on a daily basis.  To be a husband and do the best I can. To be a writer no matter where the words end up.

To reach an audience because I know you are still out there. You’ve been there like me and you’ve grown.

To know that it’s okay as we go forward.

I hope you’ll join me on this new start.  Through a crazy baseball season and busy summer of sports for Aiden and Carter, trips to the pool and our first family vacation. Many stories wait to be told and I’m excited to see how they end up.

And I’m okay.

It’s taken a long time to get there, but I think I’ve finally found the starting point, the foundation to look towards the future and I’ll take that for 10:09 PM on a Tuesday night.

 

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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.

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

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

ReFrame

I just started reading Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. If you haven’t checked it out yet in book or movie form, download or grab a copy today. It is the story of Mark Watney, astronaut abandoned on Mars after his crew believes he had died in an accident.

The concept is simple and powerful.  In the part I read last night, Watney realizes he is accomplishing many firsts as the days pass and he lives on the planet.  He figures out how to plant and grow food while maintaining his atmosphere.

The character must reframe his situation to survive.

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On Pastor Steven Furtick’s podcast last week, he spoke about the importance of frames in our lives. Someones how we speak is more important than what we say.  Our spouse, loved ones, and children pull so much from our tone and physical expressions.

We frame our speech, homes, jobs, and faith. We frame our conflicts and antagonists.

Tonight we had baseball practice.  One of the basic strategies in the game is that, if you are a runner on base and there are two outs, you run on contact.  The minute the batter hits the ball, you take off and never look back. For some reason tonight, the boys were having an issue getting it.

I probably yelled “run on contact!” twenty times (I usually coach first base). The coach turned to me, laughed, and said, “the thing is, they don’t have any idea what that means.”

I was using a phrase from the years I played so long ago.

We tend to fall back on the familiar. How many times have you criticized your children or spouse with a phrase from your past? An exact expression that makes you cringe and thing, “that’s something my dad/mom said?”

A glass is dropped on the floor and it shatters.  The sound takes you back to your parents and their fights while you pretended to sleep upstairs.

The familiar isn’t always negative.

A fresh glass of iced tea will always remind me of my grandmother. A good laugh takes me back to moments as a kid with my mother where she’d pretend to talk to me through my stuffed animals and I’d end up in hysterics.

Sitting in a diner with Val takes me back to our early dates, when we had no money and nothing to do but look at each other and marvel in the mystery of the early forms of love.

This week has been hard so far, but I’m working on changing the frame to one of faith and hope. Once your frame hits the foundation of God’s Word, the sky is the only limit to how high you can go.

~Matt

 

Help Yourself

Shopping on Amazon is almost too easy. In a few clicks you can find whatever book, movie, tech product, or toy you want. You’ll find recommendations and different price levels. Take the app to any retail store and you can scan items to see their immediate price on the website.

One of my favorite features is reading customer reviews.  Now, not all are honest. Sellers will pay people for reviews.  Even with this understanding, you’ll often find some interesting observations and consistencies.

Today I was reading a review of Pastor Steven Furtick’s book, (Un)Qualified. The guy wrote that the book was merely a combination of Furtick’s podcasts and reformatted stories from his prior publications.

His final line was this, “Do Christians really need another self-help book anyway?”

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Today was Opening Day for Carter’s baseball team.  I stood with the kids talking to another coach.  He is also the field commissioner for the league and spends a ton of time keeping them in shape.

As we watched, kids and parents crossed around us, all sinking deep into the dirt infield, now mud, created from a wet Saturday. He looked at me and said, “I wish I could say something.  I’m going to have to fix all this.”

Do we need another self-help book?

It depends on how you see your faith. At this point in life, I’m a work in progress.  Our family is a work in progress and I know Val and I have a ton of growing to do as a couple and parents. Personally, I find value in the work of speakers and writers holding up the mirror to life, telling me how to avoid sinking into the mud and how to climb my way out.

There is still a mystery of faith.

There are still many why’s waiting for answers.

There are still days I wake up wondering how much longer until the tide turns and the trajectory of life shifts.

So I guess maybe some people who follow Jesus feel they don’t need any more self-help books. Their lives are fine and they are secure. Someday I’ll join that club, even if it is day I do it in heaven.

Until then, let the work commence.  Tomorrow is a fresh start for different and better things.

~Matt

Playing Catch

A few days ago I received an email from Verizon about eligibility for a free early upgrade. I went to the store and picked out a new phone, took it home, and messed around with the different apps and features.

In scrolling through an app that previews books, I downloaded a sample of (Un)Qualified: How God Uses Broken People to Do Big Things by Pastor Steven Furtick. Furtick is the head pastor of Elevation Church, one of the more popular churches in the country that consistently put out quality worship albums and books.

After reading The Comeback by Louis Giglio, I considered buying the book to see how it compared.

There seems to be a recent theme in writings for a faith-based audience.

Look back far enough to C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton and you’ll find thought leaders.  You’ll find writers putting forth fiction and nonfiction materials that shifted society. They stepped up and stood behind what they put on paper.

At some point, we’ve shifted into defensive mode. It is now about rescue and recover, respond and react. Inspire and understand that things will be okay.

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Tonight we went to the playground. Carter asked to practice some baseball stuff and we had a catch on the field while Val and Aiden were on the equipment.

The field doubles for lacrosse practice and they had goals set up on either end.  After Carter went back to the equipment, I picked up his wooden bat and a few baseballs.

I walked across the field and stood in front of the net, the sun setting in my face, and tossed up the first ball.  It was comforting to hear the crack of the bat as the ball shot into the net.

I kept swinging one after another until my arms burned and hands stung.

When did we shift to the back seat and why have we accepted it?

It would be nice to live the difference, to see life on the other side.  To know and understand the promise.

Hitting those baseballs didn’t adjust anything and it will still take time for the lightning strike, but I know it is coming.

There’s a change in the air.

~Matt

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

Protecting vs. Preparing

“Do it again.”

The sun slowly crept towards the mountains surrounding the Big Vision Foundation’s baseball fields as Carter stood in the hitting tunnel.  Dan, his coach and my good friend, was working on his swing.  Carter had other ideas.

“Get lined up and try again.”

I watched Carter’s face as he gradually disengaged.  He’s more like me than I realized, I thought. Criticism never goes over well for us both, even if it is constructive.

“Eight more.  Make it count.”

After eight more hits, Carter ran off to play with Aiden and I thanked Dan for his time.  The question haunted me.

When do you shift from protection to preparation?

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As parents, we have natural instincts to protect our children. We build bonds that grow as they do, with the traditional “daddy’s little girls” and “momma’s boys.” Every generation has questioned the efforts of the ones before. With Carter, I’m standing on the edge of the protection and preparation barrier and it’s killing me.

Jesus spent the final three years of his life in active ministry.  At one point he tells his followers that he is sending them out like sheep among the wolvesHe says to go and make disciples of all the nations.  They had a choice here; to listen and go or live in fear and stay behind, meeting in the Upper Room to reminisce.  These were wanted individuals, men known for hanging around a criminal inciting rebellion against the Roman government.

They were equipped, empowered, and set free. Every one followed their calling, even to death for their faith.

For every calling includes opposition. That is why we are refined in the first place. We only gain strength through struggle, harmony through hardship, and grace through forgiveness of others and ourselves.

It is okay to struggle.

We are in the midst of a generation that avoids it. Struggle is a bad word. It is not the American Way. We have apps to help our fitness, budget, diet, and lifestyle. We read magazines that promise improvement. We follow motivational speakers and writers making millions because we struggle and want to get out of it as soon as possible and maybe, just maybe, their new book will give us the answers.

For a moment take a breath and give yourself permission.

It is okay to struggle because it is the only way to find peace, real peace that passes all understanding.

Carter will go back and have another lesson next week and we’ll keep at it.  Because the cold October nights will pay off when he’s playing baseball years from now and looks back in his memories. I want him to have a well of resiliency, strength, hope and inspiration that he can use when he’s an adult facing down challenges much larger than figuring out the right way to hit a baseball.

So maybe I’m not on the barrier as much as I thought.  This fatherhood stuff isn’t easy.

I’m praying I get it right one day.

~Matt

 

The Closer

Let me make something clear at the start of this post.  I am not a NY Yankees fan.

Last week I picked up Mariano Rivera’s memoir from Barnes and Noble. The book is titled The Closer. It tells the story of Rivera’s childhood in Panama and his journey into being one of the best closers in baseball history. Regardless of your feelings about the Yankees, you can’t deny the contributions of players like Rivera and Derek Jeter to the game.

He is also a man of deep and profound faith.

Last night I started a chapter where Rivera mentions the Holy Spirit talking to him before a game.  He was riding high in the prime years of his abilities, just having found the cut fastball that would make him famous. Before taking the mound on a hot July night, he had the distinct impression of the following word:

I am one that put you here.

He went on to have one of his worst performances of his career.  He describes it as a wake up call.  Throughout the book, Rivera is humble and thankful.  He believed he was thinking way too highly of himself and God had stepped into even the scales that night.

Sound familiar?

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We have a choice in the midst of struggle. We have a choice in the midst of moments of pain, relief, and joy. Our walk with God is a process.  We read, in James 4:8-

Come near to God and he will come near to you.

Look again at the title of Rivera’s book.  As a baseball fan, I knew the clear meaning.  Rivera was a closer.  He pitched the last inning or two of a game to close the door on the opposition and get a win.

As a follower of Jesus, I see the other meaning.

It is a story of getting closer.  Walking with God through it all.  Tonight know and understand that God has a purpose for your life.  He yearns to break into your reality, to answer your petitions and open the doors of your heart.

It will not be easy but it will be worth it. Draw near. Ask. Seek. Knock and the door will be open. Your field of battle may not be Yankee Stadium.  It may be something even greater. God can use you to change your family, break the bonds of anger, addiction, or mistrust. You can change your workplace, community, and even the world.

You can walk next to someone and give them hope to wake up tomorrow.

The ball is waiting.  Will you take it and get in the game?

~Matt