The Game

We had baseball practice last night.

Now summer baseball is a different animal.  Local seasons usually run through April and May, finishing in early June. This keeps summer for vacations and whatever else families have on their plate.  In our area of Pennsylvania, a variety of summer sports kick in from basketball to soccer and swimming. Summer, for all these kids, is a busy time.

Add in the heat and things really get fun.

We finished practice last night with running the bases.  By the last lap around, the boys were huffing and puffing.  One kid stood off to the side and one of our assistant coaches told him to get back in there because, “it won’t get easier if you are sitting out.”

How many of us get trapped in catching our breath and, before we know it, the sideline is a comfortable place to be.

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We throw around the idea of courage way too loosely.

We hide it in buzzwords like hustle. The Bible tells us more than once to not fear. We who claim to follow Jesus are told to be salt and light in the world.  That implies interaction, for salt is only tasted in contact with something.  Light shines in contrast to the darkness.  Neither can stand alone.

I used to have a repeated dream.  I was back in school looking for the classroom for my final exam and couldn’t find it.  The last test I needed to take to move on was delayed and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete it.

I turned thirty-six last week.  Today at work someone said “You’re still in your prime.”

God, I hope not.

There’s fear and excitement in the unfinished story. Anxiety waits on the horizon like a crashing wave when our faith waivers. When we start to wonder if this is it, if we are in our prime, if our life can’t get any better.

If we are stuck.

We are not designed to be stuck. We are designed to change the future.

I believe the future can change. Hard times will come. Disasters will happen and we’ll emerge stronger.  The trick is to stay off the sidelines and keep running.

Because quitting makes nothing easier.

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Identity

Yesterday was not easy.  A few different things in life have crept up on us.  Money is tight. The kids are crazy. The temps have risen and the weeks are busy, even without school. Carter has a camp in the morning Monday through Friday.  They usually spend the afternoon at the pool and, when they get home, they fight like cats and dogs.

I’ve found out that, at these points, God is trying to tell me something. Yesterday I went to the pool after work to check in with Val and the kids, then drove home.  I walked inside overwhelmed, hot, and tired. Scrolling through Facebook I found a preview of a message from Pastor Erwin McManus, my favorite speaker. I knew, after watching the minute clip, I had to see the entire thing.

The theme of the word was Unchained, a message about where and how we find our identities, about our mentality moving forward.  I was challenged and convicted in many ways.  Today, this morning, it still has me thinking.

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The hardest part of your 30’s is that the foundation of your past is tested.  You spend your teens forming adult you will become, your 20s finding out more about that person and grasping the freedoms (and responsibilities) that find you.  In your 30’s you find out if your foundation was true or needed some adjustment.  It seems to be the testing period more than any other.

In your 20’s you have hope and time to catch up.  In your 30’s, your spot in the game of life has cleared slightly. You start to understand.

One thing Pastor Erwin said in his message is that we often tell a dangerous lie, that once you come to faith things will get easier. Often, it does not. God will tear you down to build you into the person you are designed to be.  I’ve come to understand this is a pillar of faith.  It took time to get there, but I got it.  We are called to refinement through our struggles.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of surviving.  I want to live.  I want to dream big, to write words that impact the world.  I want to step out into the universe and play a part in changing lives. That person, that idealized self, may seem a million miles away right now, but he does exist.

I believe we are called to more.

We try to find our identities so many places.  We grasp onto groups and things, we try to find the mystery of who we are and, in doing so, we push away and pull in those swirling in our orbit. We take out our frustrations, get jaded, and suddenly a year becomes ten.

Faith is so hard.

Ever notice that theme in the Bible? The one the prosperity guys try to ignore?  Paul is blinded.  Peter denies Jesus. John is jailed in exile. One by one the disciples are martyred for their faith. Those meeting Jesus are taken to their breaking points, or are there already.

The hard part is claiming who you are and what comes with it.  The responsibilities of faith, to impact the world and change lives.  To reach out to those in pain and offer solace, to express your feelings when they’ve been hidden away for years.  To open yourself up to pain, to trust, to love from someone when everyone else has broken your heart.

So the journey may not get easier right now.  The choice, though, that is step one. Make the choice.  As I tell my kids all the time,  nothing changes if nothing changes.

If I could tell you the mountain I’m staring up at right now, truly capture it in words, you would understand how hard it is to write this.  Maybe you are staring at your own mountain to climb, chasm to cross, river to swim.  The life God wants for you waits at the other side. It may be easier to turn around but, every time that clock ticks part of your soul will pull you back to the decision point.

One day you take step one.  Until then, be strong and know you will make it.

Time

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

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

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

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

Time scares me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get one thing done.

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

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

Maybe that’s God’s point.

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

Impulse

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

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

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

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

The betrayal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you really want to feel like this?”

He took a breath and said no.

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

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

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

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

We could do this.

The Race

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

I’m not surprised.

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

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Paul writes the following in his letter to the Corinthians:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I race against being alone.

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

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

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

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

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

Note he doesn’t mention a participation trophy.

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

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

 

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

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

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

Paradise was there.

Just past the point of giving up.

What we mean when we talk about dying

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

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

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

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

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

Faith and death are connected.

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

Though this isn’t always true.

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

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

We take things for granted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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