A Song Outside a Hospital Room

I ran into a friend today.  We’d met at church a few times and our families had crossed paths once at the local Dunkin Donuts.  He’d been dealing with some health issues.  I asked him how he was feeling and he said:

God is good.

This friend works in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania running a halfway house for men dealing with a variety of addiction and legal issues.  We’d talked before about the book I was writing dealing with poverty in Reading. (You can find it on Amazon here and the kindle download is only $1.00)

As he walked away, my mind went back to when we’d first met.  Just after our pastor was involved in the motorcycle accident that would take his right leg and kill his wife, getting plowed into by a driver under the influence on a warm night last June.

I remember his tears.  He said to me that, just maybe, a group of us could visit and sing to Pastor Bryan from outside his hospital room.

Something in the sincerity of his voice from that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

And it shows the hardest part of faith.

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All of creation, from day one, points us towards God.  We matter.  We believe we matter and this places meaning on our lives.

We sing songs outside hospital rooms because our voice matters and we want to show love. We run halfway houses in the midst of one of the poorest cities in the country and work with men we may never see again, because we can make a difference.

We get up in the morning because we know something better is coming.

This positive result only happens if we matter.

The knife-edge falls with suffering.  If we matter, then why do bad things happen?  Why car accidents that kill spouses? Why child abuse? Why war, famine, and desolation?

Humans hurt each other on a daily basis. This world groans with imperfections, longing for the day the universe is back in alignment with the Creator.

Suffering is a mirror.  Our weakness is our target.  Our pain is a sign that we mean something. We hurt when we break because we are designed to be whole.

The fulfilled promise, the tight rope, the parted Sea is the glorious power of the love of God.

I believe God is for us.  I believe this world needs more love and less condemnation. I believe these words matter because someone out there will bring up WordPress on their phone or computer and come across this post and understand.  They’ll identify with it, at the end of their rope, and know things will be okay.

I believe I’m not perfect, that I’ve screwed up more times as a husband and father than I can count but I know I’m surrounded with a loving (and patient!!) family.

I know I’ll get it right someday.

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Intersection

Val often tells me a story about how brother attending church.  Her brother is an extremely talented guy.  I knew him before I met her and we had some good times growing up.  Over the years, he had visited a church or two but never really found one he’d liked.

The story goes that he was visiting a church where the youth pastor happened to do the message that Sunday.  He did the sermon barefoot first off (something that would weird me out also) then started talking about how great his life was.

The moment you hear a supposed man or woman of God talk about how great their life is and how you never suffer as one who follows Jesus, feel free to get up and head towards the door.  You’d learn more about Jesus at the Dunkin Donuts down the road.

The church stigmatized anxiety in a world full of it.

There’s a line in one of my favorite Bret Easton Ellis novels, Lunar Park, that I loveThe gist of the book is Ellis writing himself as the main character with his creations coming to life, including killer Patrick Bateman from his most famous work, American Psycho.

His character states that, as he drove down the road, every intersection was one turn away from a car accident waiting to happen.

The thought has stuck with me for years as a dad and husband.  Many days the car accidents feel one intersection away.

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We are allowed to be anxious.  Yes, friends can rattle off verse after verse about faith and hope, where our help comes from and casting our cares on Jesus. These are all good things.

They can coexist with anxiety.

I heard a pastor once say that faith and fear can’t coexist.

He’s wrong.

I have days of both.  Some weeks Faith is called Monday and Fear is called Tuesday.

As men we often try to pad things.  If you are reading this and married to one of us, know that the waters run deeper than we show. For me it is a constant feeling of electric tension, like a power line running through my chest.  I check my phone more often, waiting for that text message or voicemail of bad news.

Even if none seems on the horizon.

Anxiety opens the door to voices that can try to sell you wrong messages. You start talking circles around the tension in an attempt to beat it down. The words build on the feeling and you end up back where you started, looking at the ceiling as the night drifts past.

If this is you tonight, know that the sun still comes up tomorrow.  The story isn’t over.  Your worries carry an important lesson.  They can be a compass towards a better future.

It takes one step to move forward.  I know it isn’t easy, but movement is the key.

Thomas, the one stating he would only believe Jesus had risen if he appeared in the Upper Room, he personified anxiety and was, by far, one of the most human disciples. He is us.

“Yeah I get it, he’s alive and all, when I see it, I’ll believe. When I touch his wounds, I’ll believe.”

Jesus appears and holds out his hand offering Thomas a chance to do what he asked.  Thomas had to reach out to make it happen.  He could have stayed in his feelings, even staring face to face with Jesus.

He chose to move and see his faith complete.

~Matt

Turn

I’ve spent all of last week and will spend all of this week working in an area with a television.  That allows me to watch the news and the morning talk shows. In the midst of this election season, it is not always a good thing.

I’m tired of the bickering, the scandals, the email leaks and name calling. I’m tired of listening to both parties fighting like school kids on a playground.

As annoying as it gets, conflict has defined this world recently more than ever before. We have terrorist violence in Europe, opposing groups here ready to step up in an instant.  Even when we know there are good and honorable police officers, the headlines seem filled with ones that cannot do their job without issues.

In one of the more challenging passages in the Bible (Matt 5:39), Jesus gives us a valuable statement on violence.

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

This doesn’t fly with America.  We’re fighters! We stand up to evil and sniff it out wherever we find it. We’re the big dogs ready to police the world.

Yet, Jesus tells us differently.

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In that sentence, he’s speaking on the street to an oppressed people. Violence was a fact of life. The Roman Empire ruled over Jerusalem. They could take, and do, what they wanted.

Jesus tells the crowd not to resist.

See, violence gives us a few choices: Counter punch.  Bob and weave.  Hit them first before they can hit us. All of these are responses in fear.

Jesus tells us to not be afraid.

Stand firm. Turn the other cheek.

It takes more strength to stand your ground.  Jesus knew this.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. Anyone who has faced down opposition and held to what they believed, they’ve known this.

Every martyr living in the midst of a hostile country and serving in love. Every mother sitting up late for her son when she has to work in the morning because she refuses to give up on him.

Every teacher reaching out to the kid sitting alone at the lunch table.  Every coworker speaking out against harassment.

Every hero in the midst of the city understanding that the norm is not acceptable.

All of these know about turning the other cheek.

The key isn’t fighting back.

It is rising above.

~Matt

 

The Night Of

If you are looking for a new television show, head to HBO or download their app and check out The Night Of. Penned by outstanding crime author Richard Price, and based off a series in the UK, it is a classic murder mystery set in the tensions of today’s society.

I’ll spare more important plot details and just tell you to watch it.  Seriously, you’ll be hooked.

There’s a scene where John Turturro, playing the veteran defense lawyer, is counseling his client, played on point by actor Riz Ahmed. Turturro tells Ahmed not to speak to anyone.  It doesn’t matter who comes into his cell and asks questions, just say “I don’t know,” and “Talk to my lawyer.”

Ahmed states he just wants to tell the truth, asking “don’t you want to know the truth?”

Turturro says no, that the truth doesn’t matter.

It is only their story versus the prosecution and which one will stand up in the eyes of the jury.

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Story has the power to move.

Write a sentence that plays the right chord and you’ll have an audience in the palm of your hand. I once had a professor tell me that no story is unbiased.  Watch the news and you are seeing an interpretation of events. There is nothing that scrolls across the screen of our smart phones without being filtered through an agenda.

One of the most interesting statements in the Bible comes from Pilate at the trial of Jesus. We read in the Gospel of John that Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate replies:

“What is truth?”

You could take this multiple ways and write multiple books on the subject. Pilate certainly wanted to move on from the trial.  He ends it after his rhetorical question and tells the audience of religious leaders that he has no basis to charge Jesus of any crime.

He could have assessed Jesus to see if there was any claim to royalty, any threat to Roman rule.  Or, as one experienced in litigation, maybe he followed the rule Turturro stated a few thousand years later.

What is truth?

The story matters, for in the story hides the truth.

There’s a reason Jesus preached in parables. There’s a reason a movement started inside an empty tomb a few days after that trial as the story spread mouth to mouth. There’s a reason the movement caught fire when people realized the potential of true, selfless love.

We stand at a crossroads, a country facing a change in leadership that could drastically shift the future. It is time for those who claim to follow Jesus to stand on the power of the story and know the bottom line.

The line that ends, and starts, at the cross.

~Matt

The Alternative Path

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

“Did you ever picture an alternative path?”

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

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

He laughed at my question.

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

We all feel the pressure of The Alternative Path.

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

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

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

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

“When I am weak, then I am strong.”

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

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

Know that you are able.

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

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

~Matt

Growing Up

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

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

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

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

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

The question strikes a fine balance.

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

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

The answer is to keep moving.

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

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

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

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

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

~Matt

The Seed

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

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

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

Other moments are planting the seed.

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

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

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

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

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

This book is a seed.

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

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

Miracles happen.

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

For this story isn’t over.

Have a great weekend!

~Matt

 

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

 

The Job Effect

It is ironic that the name of the one man from the Bible associated with suffering is spelled exactly the same as “job”, the one thing that can cause a large amount of suffering from Monday to Friday, but I digress.

In case you’ve forgotten your Sunday School, Job was a guy seen in high regard by God. One day, the devil makes an appearance in heaven challenges God. He makes a bet, that if Job is shaken he will renounce his faith.  God believes so much in his servant that he allows it to happen.

The losses move fast.  Money, provision, the death of family and the scorn of friends.  Job persists in faith until the devil asks God to touch his health. God allows it and suffering rains down.  Finally, Job looks to the sky with open hands and asks:

WHY?

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God replies in a perfect defense, asking where Job was at the creation of the universe and, on what grounds does he question his situation.  We read that Job repents and is restored more than what he had lost in the beginning.

If it was only that easy.

There are times when it feels like every fiber of your life is under attack.  Nothing is safe.  From faith to family and finances, health to stability.  You get hammered from all sides.  Friends show up, as they did with Job, and question the causes.  They look down on you and wonder what you did to deserve it.

The days feel like a cosmic game, like you are moving around a board waiting for the next strike.

Two things we can learn from Job.  First, God defended him before any loss and suffering.  He was highly regarded, in the same position we are as followers of Jesus seen through the grace of his sacrifice. Secondly, Job was allowed to question.  God could have ended the story in a moment.  Job was still breathing for a reason.  He needed to step into his restoration found only through repentance.

The attacks will come. Cars break down, health fails, stress and conflict build.  You look at the one you love and you are arguing for no reason.  Your kids are wild and suddenly you don’t have the energy to fight.

God’s answer to Job is our own.  Take a minute and read the list he lays out in Job 38-42. All things are possible.  Our restoration is not a challenge for the one holding the universe in his hands.

The sun comes up tomorrow. When you look in the mirror, you have a choice.  Climb back in bed or keep going. Run or fight. Fear or faith. Be scared or be strong. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon that starts in one step.  Make it count.

~Matt

 

I Will Rise

We took Carter to the doctor tonight.

I’m not a huge fan of doctors, even though I’ve spent some years working in the medical field with scheduling and health insurance stuff.  I’ve overheard too many conversations and seen too much to have blanket trust in the medical industry. We’ve been blessed to find a pediatrician that cares and takes time for us and him.

In a few weeks, he will be tested for a possible hearing issue and to see if we can figure out why he can’t sleep through the night.

My car, all 182,000 miles of it that I’ve had since college, goes in to get inspected at the end of the week.

The movement has started on my author’s website and I’m excited to see the result.  Change is coming in the Shaner household.

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I read an email this morning from one of the few entrepreneurs I follow online.  He asked the question, what is the unique way you connect with your audience?  I started thinking, if I could communicate one thing with you, what would it be? The answer is found in the small book of Micah 7:8.

Do not gloat over me my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.

Two sentences sum up the point of every word, blog post, devotional, thought and sentence.

Though I have fallen, I will rise.

Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.

We often fall and find ourselves sitting in the darkness.  The pessimists out there wonder why it matters, why not give up? Because the pain and frustration is real. We aren’t wired to give up. We are made to RISE. We are called to follow the light as the journey takes us out of the darkness.

My life doesn’t often feel light and I’ll find myself flat on the floor looking up to the sky and wondering what happened. There is hope. There is a reason to keep fighting.

Take the verse in Micah and read it out loud.  Scream it to the skies.  Speak it over your life and the lives of your children.  It is a call to action, a reason to move and get back in the game. I WILL RISE.

I WILL RISE.

No matter what happens, I will rise. The medical problems may come, the car could die, the bank account could hit zero, the house could get flooded again and I will rise. The emotions swirl and it seems like darkness is our home and we know the LORD is our light.

Tonight, wrapping up another Monday, think about tomorrow.  Look in the mirror and read the verse.  Keep it on your lips all day. Make it a chorus. Find the energy to fight.

Faith tells you it is there, deep inside, ready to ignite. It’s time to rise.

~Matt