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

Take Flight

I stood at first base watching my son Carter crouched at second, waiting for a ground ball.

We are a few weeks into baseball lessons at the Big Vision Foundation from Dan Clouser, founder and president, and a good friend of mine. Clouser is a long time coach.  He threw ball after ball as Carter fielded, pivoted, and threw across to me.

Later he hit and I chased his line drives all over the field.  My boy, the one I held for the first time almost seven years ago, is growing into a young man.  It was a transcendent moment.  The sun-drenched afternoon, sprinklers watering the fields around us, music playing from the loudspeaker above the concession stand, and the crack of Carter’s bat as he hit ball after ball.  It was perfection.

I inhaled and held my breath, willing it to stay in as long as possible.  Our souls were joined; father and son, young and old, across a game and a field, years and time, words and thoughts.

I saw the intersection of past, present, and future.

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This week our church holds Vacation Bible School.  Over 1,000 kids will participate over four nights of activities, songs, dancing, playing, and worship. I picked Carter up tonight and the excitement in the church was palpable.

This month has been brutal for our church and this country, with the horrific accident that took the life of our pastor’s wife and almost his own. He is still in ICU with additional surgeries coming.  Then the atrocity in Charleston has left so many questions, pointed fingers, and broken hearts.

I believe real change is possible and, as I walked through the church tonight to pick up Carter, the answer was there.

We must invest in the next generation.

There are children who don’t know racism, who don’t see skin tone or orientations. There are children untainted by hatred and anger.

Just today a group of students met on Penn Street in Reading to pray for the city and anyone in need.

We talk about lifting up the lives of our peers, family, spouses, and friends. It is time to lift up the lives of the children around us. We must lay the foundation while we still have the chance.

Racism, anger, hatred, and violence exist now but they all have a shelf life.  You may have laughed when you read that but I believe it is true. I have hope, faith in radical love that crosses boundaries and burns down borders. I believe there will be a day of equality.  I believe my boys will be a part of it and it is my goal as a father.

They will dream big, love well, and make peace.

All we can do as parents is to provide the means to make the world a better place, equip them, and let them take flight.

~Matt

For the Love of the Game

A light rain fell under swirling clouds as I stood next to Dan Clouser, founder of the Big Vision Foundation.  We looked across the Charlie Wagner Field, a replica of Fenway Park including its own Green Monster wall.

In this sanctuary, as the wind pushed against us, always blowing at home plate, there is peace.  Kids from across the country, some as far away as Canada, will travel to play here in a varied offering of tournaments. They will even set up an inflatable movie screen on summer nights for the showing of family movies, though not without a screening of Field of Dreams to start the season.

Clouser’s efforts have proved the mantra of the novel and film.

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What started with a group of friends has blossomed to an organization changing lives in Berks County on multiple levels.  On the practical level, they generate needed income from tourism.  Local hotels, gas stations, and restaurants all benefit from Clouser’s patrons.

On a deeper level, they are building bonds that will change the shape of this area. Kids from different sides of society join in unity behind a set of uniforms. Teams from the city get a taste of baseball in an idyllic setting. They are together for one goal.

“Teamwork in baseball is different,” Clouser tells me, “Take basketball.  If you are down to the last few seconds, you can design something for your most talented player to get the ball.  Baseball doesn’t have that option.  If you are on your ninth hitter, then he needs to hit or you can go to a pinch hitter without a ton of game time. Every member of the team must be ready to contribute.”

We forget this in the mix of everyday life as our culture is set up to celebrate the star. We look to individuals as teamwork fades in the background.

When we struggle, it is too easy to get caught in the comparison trap.  We aim our frustrations on one target ranging from our spouse to our children or coworkers. We forget that we do not live outside community as that small voice yells inside, kicking and screaming against a heavy silence that can wash over us.

This week, as baseball season has started on every level, learn the lessons of the game.  Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere. Celebrate unity and carry it through into your own life.  Find a team or create your own. Be a part of a greater cause.

One idea, shared between friends, can change lives.  It can shape the world.  You can, and will, be a part of it.

Play ball.

~Matt

 

 

A Post for My Son’s Bully

Carter is doing kindergarten this year for a second time.  He’s a mid-August birthday and we started him too young last year for his first shot at elementary school.  He’s asked us, more than once, why he isn’t in first grade with his friends.  This morning he was really upset when Val dropped him off at school.  I called and talked to his guidance counselor.  She talked to him and he seemed to feel better.

Then we had baseball practice.

A kid he was in class with last year is on the team and this kid does not let up with the questions as to why Carter isn’t in first grade.  Today it escalated to insults. “Carter can’t hit. Carter can’t throw.  Carter’s a failure (yes, he actually said it.) He’s a big crybaby, etc.”

I was pitching when this was going on and I can’t tell you what it was like throwing to Carter while he was standing there trying his hardest not to cry. As a dad, saying it breaks your heart is an understatement and this is why:

I was picked on in school and, to this day, I can remember every moment of it.

Carter and I stopped and got dinner after practice.  I asked Carter if he likes this kid and he said yes, they are friends, but he doesn’t like when he is mean.

He has his mother’s heart and a soul that cares about the world, even one who hurts him.

So, for this kid, this bully, I have a message.

You will not win.

You will be overcome by the gracious heart of a child willing to look past your antics and be your friend.

You will plant a seed in Carter that grows his heart even wider and deeper, allowing him to love others and stand up when he sees someone being bullied because of empathy, because he was there once when you put him there.

You will be a catalyst that makes my son a better man, father, and husband.

You will not break his soul, deaden his passion, or make him feel like lesser of a person.

You will be a teaching point, a moment in his past that he can learn from and use to build himself into a stronger person.

The hardest thing, as a parent, is to find a balance.  My gut is to grab control and stamp it out immediately. I also know I can’t always be with him, that he’s on his own at school five days a week and will need to navigate his social situation.  This is new territory.

Before bed, I knelt before him and promised him that I would always be there. I told him I would look out for him and that he was the more important than he would ever know.  He hugged me and said, “I love you daddy” and that is all the fuel I need to wake up in the morning and do it all again tomorrow.

~Matt

Soundtrack inspiration:

 

Ray Rice and T Ball Practice

I picked up Carter from school, drove through Burger King to get him a quick dinner, and went to the practice field.  We were running a skills clinic with another team. Twenty-five kids, a handful of coaches, a bunch of baseballs, gloves and bats, and the end of a day in the fall.

I love baseball.

Carter and I share these nights together. I pitched to him, watched him hit, throw, and catch.  After practice he ran and played with his friends.  We went to Wawa, got a pair of sandwiches, and came back to the house.  He sat next to me at the table and we ate together.

My mind flashed back to nights with my dad, eating dinner next to him and feeling proud of where I was and still trying to work out the mystery of the father-son dynamic.

We watched some television, read a pair of books, and I put him to bed.

He looked at me with his hazel eyes, golden blonde hair, and smile just like his mother’s and said, “I love you.”

I sit here and wonder what he will become:

A gentleman? One who opens doors and pulls out chairs? Who picks up checks and helps elderly women with their shopping bags in a parking lot? Who donates to charities, his church, and his kids’ elementary school?

A husband who loves his wife and never raises a hand to her.

A man of faith, of belief in the good in people and a backbone to face struggle and suffering. An activist working to make things right in his own corner of the universe.

A man who reads books before he sees the movie.

A man who reads poetry for the beauty of language and music of the soul.

A father who takes the time to take his son to baseball practice, get sandwiches, and eat dinner together.

A father who doesn’t get lost in his cell phone, or job, or social life.

A servant of his wife and children and a leader of his household.

These things swirl in my mind as he sleeps on his Spongebob pillow and I realize the depth of grace and blessing that comes with being a parent, being a father, being a man with the chance to pass on values to his son.

Carter, I’ll do my best.  Forgive me when I fail, stick with me when I slip up, and know I’d do anything for you and that every time you tell me you love me I steal the moment and lock it deep inside my soul as it is a passing glimpse of Heaven.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: One of Val’s favorites