When it is Not Fun Anymore

The clouds drifted in over the baseball field, pushed by a fall wind and bringing an early end to the night.  We had arrived late to the practice as I was at a meeting at City Hall.  Carter had a chance to hit twice, field a few grounders, and practice was over.  We went to the playground as the light finally died and, when I convinced him to go, walked to the car together.

He wasn’t himself.

I asked what was happening and the conversation moved to baseball.

“I’m not having fun anymore, dad.”

He looked at me from the backseat as we drove home.

This evening I met a young man shooting a documentary about the city of Reading.  He filmed me in the cafe of our church as I talked about the book and the fight against poverty.  He asked how the average person can get involved and what would be the biggest help.  I looked at the cameras in my face, took a deep breath, and answered.

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We all struggle on two fronts; connection and consistency.  We believe we are different, that the poor are “out there” and we are “in here.” Conversations must happen to change any societal system. Service must be redefined. Help must be given on a consistent basis.

It is one thing to give on the holidays, serve a meal or lead a community group.  It is another thing to do it monthly.

To serve when it is not fun anymore.

There’s a song by Cold War Kids that I’ve been hooked on for the last few days called, First. The lyrics talk about life when you get trapped in a destructive cycle of disappointment, breaking of trust and going back to the start.  A verse reads:

There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite
Call it a dark, night of the soul
Ticking of clocks, gravity’s pull
First you get close, then you get worried

Flying like a cannonball, falling to the earth
Heavy as a feather when, you hit the dirt
How am I the lucky one?, I do not deserve
To wait around forever when, you were there first.

Cold War Kids have a fascinating story themselves as a band (check Relevant Magazine here) that includes faith, brokenness, trials and redemption. The connections are the same.  Father to son. Producer to consumer. Community member to community member.  Believer to believer.

We’ve all hurt.  We’ve all struggled.  We need to face down this life together and do it for the long haul.

That is when walls come down and grace, hope, and mercy rise up.

~Matt

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Chains

Everyone has a race.

Everyone has a reason.

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

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

We all have our chains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve missed the concept of breaking chains:

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

A Chain Breaker

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

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

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

Have you been there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Matt

Winning Over the Other

For the last few years, I’ve spent time in the medical field working with patient registration and insurances.  This experience spanned an emergency room, a rehabilitation hospital, and a doctor’s office. The last two weeks, while checking in patients, I’ve heard this statement or a variance on it more than once:

“I’m not used to seeing a guy here.”

“This is a woman’s job, I can’t believe you’re doing it.”

“I’ve never seen a guy working in this spot.”

“Wow, you don’t see guys doing receptionist work.”

For in those moments of awkwardness, I’ve experienced a taste of the Other.

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You can write off antiquated opinions all you want but, in the end, the Other remains the same.  It is every person standing out in the crowd, breaking the mold, crushing through the glass ceiling. The Other isn’t often spoken of in positive tones, though. It is the immigrant, the refugee crossing boarders. It is the small business owner starting a family restaurant on the wrong side of town.  It is the family moving in down the street looking, talking, or worshiping differently.

It is difference in living form and we don’t like difference.

2015 is the year of the Other.

And oh how we fight it. We, as ones who claim to follow Jesus, call ourselves victims. We point fingers. We are not like them. We demand to be heard, picking the parts of the Bible useful to the cause while ignoring the command to Love our Neighbors.

Still, there are those finding victory over the Other. People serve; hands reaching across the aisles, street corners, and school yards. Children play with other children of all colors, ages, and backgrounds because it is fun and fun is a universal language.

If there is to be true change, terms must be rewritten.  For victory is not claiming power or privilege, not for those following Jesus. Victory is service. Victory is sacrifice. Victory is selfless love and honor.

Because the last will be first. Because we store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. Because it is our job to give, not receive. To love and not hate. To not let the sun go down on our anger and never ignore the plank in our own eye when we call out the speck in the eye of someone else.

Not everyone can ignore comments like the ones above (and I know some of you hear much worse on a daily basis from coworkers, family, and even friends) but, if one person reads this and decides to make a change tomorrow, it will start a ripple effect.

Victory comes with compassion, the choice to care about the Other, to shift perspective and find unity.

I look in the eyes of my sons and know they will face negativity one day, probably without cause.  I want them to know their identities as men, as believers, and treasures to Val and I. I want them to rewrite the books, stand up for those in need, and change the world.

Nothing is impossible.  For them and for you. Never forget it.

~Matt

Is It Too Hard to Serve?

I sat in the cafe at church this morning drinking my coffee.  Four people were at a table to my left, two interviewing the other two about serving in the church.  The questions flowed on a predetermined path from jobs to hobbies and interests.

I know this because, a year ago, I sat through the same interview.

The guy I spoke with gave me a questionnaire that I completed and handed back.  I was going to school for my English teaching certification at the time and though I’d help out with the youth program. I met the head youth pastor and was given a binder of information including a link to a pair of videos I was supposed to watch as a form of training.  The following week I visited the youth service and shadowed a small group leader.

He was a nice guy and led a group of, if I remember correctly, ninth grade boys.  After the service we sat there and talked about the message.  The guy leading told me he usually brings some kind of snacks for the boys and plans activities during the week.  As he spoke, I was still okay with it.  Then I asked:

“So how often do you do this?  I mean, is it a rotation or something?”

“Every Sunday,” he said.

Every week. No break. Our church has two morning services.  This guy and his family would attend one while he served at the other, every week.  I get the concept, to have consistency, but it still made me reconsider.

I mean, how hard should it be to serve?

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The early church was instructed to care for the poor, orphaned, and widowed. Jesus preached love and acceptance, stating “what you do to the least of these, you do to me.” The direction is clear and, in Acts, we read of believers selling belongings and giving to those in need.

So what have we done?

We’ve complicated simple instructions.  We’ve turned love and provide into analyze and assess. There are numerous organizations out there asking for monetary help.  Wait for a natural disaster and you’ll see the donation jars arrive at supermarkets and other public places. Needs aren’t always dictated clearly and, when they are, we don’t always listen.

At one church we attended, a small start-up, the pastor announced to the crowd that my wife would be working in the nursery before he asked her.

Serving has moved from a command to a corporation.

Let’s make it easy.  If you want to serve, church is a great place to start, even if not for the church at all. It should be a gateway, a door to direct the curious and interested towards families and charities in need. What if it didn’t take an interview and a weekly commitment?  What if it took one conversation for one need met?

No more pressure. No more quizzes or personality tests. No more barriers, political or personal.

The message today was on Jonah, a guy God called to serve and deliver his Word.  Jonah ran the other direction. It took a trip to the depths to get the point. It shouldn’t be that way for everyone.

The church and those who claim to follow Jesus are standing at the ledge of a movement, a chance to unleash radical love and service in a world existing in desperation. Jumping off can only happen if we get out of our own way.

~Matt

The End of Boring

This afternoon I had to go and pick up a refill of Val’s medicine at the local Target pharmacy.  I left work and drove over with thirty minutes to spare before I needed to get Carter from after school childcare. The pharmacy, as per the usual practice, did not have the refill ready so I ambled around the store to kill time.

I stopped at the magazines and, in the current Men’s Health edition, they surveyed a large segment of women and found that they were bored in their marriages. The writer offered a number of suggestions to spice up the situation, but the underlying issue remains.

How many of us are bored with our marriages, our jobs, our lives, or our walks with God?

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We are beings hard-wired to chase satisfaction.  Addicts find it many different ways, from money to fitness and drugs. We demand value and will sacrifice whatever it takes. Talk to the bully or the one throwing themselves at others for acceptance. We want to be wanted and in control.

At the same time, we want to consume.  Our drive to gratification demands one more minute on the phone, one more text message, one more status update or photo upload. And don’t wait because, in the minute you put your phone down, you could miss a friend’s baby picture or workout status and clean meal of the morning.

Maybe we’re missing the point.

Bored is focused inwards.

Passion is focused on them.

Passion is about what we give to a situation, whether a job, family, marriage, or faith walk.  Want to light up your days? Think about what you can do for someone else.  Tip the scales the other direction.  Sacrifice your time for a greater goal.

Donate. Create. Shape your contribution and release it into the world.

So tonight, if you are living in a stagnant situation, there is time for change.  There is time to step out of your comfort zone. Time to give, to enter a new situation and make it better.

Anyone can sit back and consume.

The time for waiting is over.  Take a small step and do something for a friend or family member or, even better, someone you don’t know. See what happens.

A life of epic faith, love, family, and passion is possible.  It takes one day of change at a time.  Let tomorrow be your Day One and see what happens.

~Matt

Fix My Eyes Week Day 1- Fearless Love and Unfair Giving

My new favorite album is RUN WILD. LIVE FREE. LOVE STRONG by For King and Country. The third track on the disc is titled Fix My Eyes and the chorus is serving as inspiration for this week of posts. It is a section of statements that serve as a reminder of the destinations we should be chasing as believers and humans wanting to improve this world.  A lyric video is below.  Check it out and pay attention to the chorus as we’ll be taking it apart a few lines at a time.

Love Like I’m Not Scared

Love scares us.  It means opening up when our instinct is to protect ourselves.  It means acknowledging someone is important and searching for acceptance. A friend of mine recently completed her divorce.  She was talking to me about the prospect of dating again, telling me how she never though she’d be in that position.

We don’t take our marriage vows to break them.

Love scares us on a faith level. Jesus provided the example of perfect and selfless love. The church as political unit gets hung up on the idea of a closed fist and pointed finger, not open hands with nail scars. We invite people in and, as long as they know their place, we are comfortable to have them around. We’ve convinced ourselves that revolutionary love is a thing of the past, confined to Jerusalem a few thousand years ago.

We can be the reps of Jesus, as long as the audience is Republican, moderately wealthy, white, and willing to not discuss their struggles at the dinner table after the small group meeting.

Give When it’s Not Fair

I love these five words and they are worth a book of writing. In the Bible, we read Jesus meeting a wealthy man in the streets.  He’s asked, as the guy looks up from checking his portfolio on his IPhone 6, how do I get into heaven?

The reply is simple and, as he did often, Jesus cuts to the core of the issue.

Sell everything.

He doesn’t say, sell some stuff, set up shop in the market and get rid of your antiques.  He doesn’t say to keep the receipts for a tax write off. He doesn’t say, make sure you give me ten percent and we’re all good, or go to the temple on Mission’s Sunday and put some extra in the pot.

He says, sell it all.

Not an easy statement.

The central idea here is a selfless life. Loving and giving, taking a risk to be there for someone else, taking your time to serve a family, charity, or group in need. 

It is pushing the capital ME (sell it all) down for the capital US (love without fear). It is a concept that can change the world when we embrace it fully and go forward.

~Matt

Also, for the next four days, my novel The City is available FOR FREE on Amazon.com

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If you enjoy some action and post-apocalyptic sci-fi, check it out.  You can download it by clicking here.

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

 

 

The Intersection of Faith and Action

I remember the night like it was yesterday.  Val and I had just started dating.  We were both in high school.  I drove her around in my mother’s green Mazda.  It was winter, bitterly cold, and we were stuck.

The area around our home town consisted of a railroad track that twisted and turned through the suburbs.  An urban legend existed of a park by the tracks that you did not want to visit at night.  Of course, I took us right through it. The road was snow-covered, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and a small creek.  The exit was a choice between a flat road and a steep incline. I took the incline as the car slid to the shoulder and stopped.

I tried spinning the tires, steering back and forth, anything I could do.  It wouldn’t move.  I called my dad and he said he would make his way over with a shovel to dig us out.  I rolled down the window and a dog started barking hysterically from somewhere in the distance.

Val and I looked at each other and prayed.

A minute later, headlights approached. A group of snowmobiles parked behind us.  I exited the car and one of the guys asked me if we were stuck.  I said yes. Three of them pushed the car back to the road.  They never removed their helmets or visors, returned to their snowmobiles, and drove away.

I turned the car around and started back the way we came. We stopped to get our bearings and I stepped out of the car again. There were no tracks on the ground, no sign of a snowmobile.  Two minutes before, I had watched them take that road to leave us.

The snow was fresh and untouched.

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Photo Credit: hodge via Compfight cc

I’ve spent the last eight months interviewing local charities, businesses, and community members, gathering story after story of God’s involvement in the lives around us.

When we seek, we will find.

In the whir of our lives, it is too easy to get caught up in the process. Kids, bills, jobs, starting a business, writing a book, keeping up a website, getting in shape. We tend to miss chances to make a difference.

I prayed, eight months ago, that my words would make a difference. I’d give the writing to God and tell the story that needed to be told.  I’d give voice to those on the front lines of the battle against poverty.  I’d work with faith-based businesses and charities.

My next e-book, coming out in April, will be about reclaiming Christian Arts and producing creations that have deep impact in the world. I have an article upcoming in RELEVANT magazine and will be starting work as a volunteer journalist for BCTV, a local nonprofit covering the Reading and Berks County area. We’re preparing a powerful series of stories on poverty and the efforts happening to reclaim the soul of the city.

Things happen when we decide to serve, when we give our talents back to the God, the Creator who gifted them in the first place. Now is the time to make your move, consider what you can give and ask how you can serve.

The intersection between faith and action is waiting for your arrival.

~Matt

Paris is Full of Surprises

Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis is Vogue‘s style editor at large. She’s my age and has been in the position since 2012. She is also a member of a royal family.  She posted a picture on her Instagram on Saturday from Paris and Fashion Week.  The picture showed a homeless person reading a copy of the magazine with the caption, “Paris is full of surprises…and @voguemagazine readers even in unexpected corners!”  You can find coverage of it here.

The irony in this situation could fill more than a single post and it shines a light on a deeper issue.

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Photo Credit: Jonttu Leskinen via Compfight cc

The news article I mentioned above calls out the contradiction of Fashion Week as a spectacle of consumption with the presence of the homeless population in and around the city.  The contradiction of Paris is often played out in our own lives.

We all have reward mechanisms. Go long enough without rewarding yourself and the impulse will kick in. Some people go big and others go small.  It can be good or bad, from a workout to a cigarette.  Addicts hit their reward impulse without reservation and it can destroy their lives.

As people of faith, we struggle with delayed gratification.  We tell ourselves that things will happen in God’s time, as we watch others get promotions, cars, vacations, etc.

The cycle can shift with a moment of recognition.

Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis saw her magazine and not the homeless person reading it. In my time researching and interviewing for my current project, I’ve had a chance to visit the front lines of charities and hear their stories.  When you see someone crying over a pair of donated socks for their new baby, you understand that there are concerns deeper than yours.

You notice the person holding the magazine.

When you see every part of your community, you are inspired to do something about it.  When you give, God’s time stops haunting your worries and starts driving you forward. You become a part of a greater movement.

Suddenly it all matters.

~Matt

Find Your Audience

One of the most important things we can do as parents, men, and believers is to find our audience.  We’re told to go, make disciples of the world. We are touched on the heart with the mission to share our faith and be present.

You may be thinking, what can I do?

Check out this article posted today at Bleacher Report.

Carl Lentz is a former college basketball player who found his way into ministry.  He connected with Hillsong church and helped to open their first US location in New York City. He also made friendships with some of the top stars in the NBA.

Lentz has officiated funerals for the families of NBA players, married players to their spouses, and even baptized Kevin Durant in the pool at his home.

So what can we learn from this athlete turned preacher/advocate?

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Photo Credit: Fuzzy Images via Compfight cc

Appearance doesn’t matter. The article mentions Lentz’s tattoos and mohawk haircut, even quoting one NBA player as being impressed that Lentz was not another “old white guy” behind a pulpit.

You are equipped for your ministry.

I’ll say it again, you are equipped for your ministry.  Your appearance, whether buttoned up or casual, relates you to an audience.  Never count yourself out because of your looks.

Size doesn’t matter. Hillsong NYC has eight services on a Sunday. They are located near Madison Square Garden. For NBA players in the city, it is a perfect spot. Your church may not match Hillsong’s size, yet those walking through the doors are there for a reason. I believe God draws people close every week.

Be prepared to reach out, whether your church is eighty or 8,000 people. Your handshake and hug may be the one that makes a difference in the lives of a new visitor.

-Your connection is already there. Lentz was a former college basketball player at N.C. State.  That gave him an instant bond over basketball. What do you do for a living? Find a community related to your talents and profession. If you are a contractor, you’ll have a bridge of connection with other construction people in your area.  If you are a lawyer, check out the law offices.

Find your peers and serve with them.  Lentz takes players to local homeless shelters to distribute food. He had players working with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, some driving to construction sites directly after practice.

Lentz shares the language of basketball.  Your language, whatever it may be, can be valuable to lift up and encourage those friends and family around you and that is our true calling.

We must make a difference and the time to start is now. You are in the perfect place and time.

Think about that and take the first step.

~Matt