The Gift of 10 Lessons Learned

One of the most valuable things we can do this time of year is reflect on lessons learned.  As the quote from Socrates goes, the unexamined life is not worth living. Val and I have both felt the pangs of growing pains, that we are nearing transition.  As 2016 arrives and I shift to marketing my current book project, I feel the tension of expectation.

Looking back, this year has carried with it many valuable lessons.

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From Carter-When you have a chance, run.

From Aiden-Sometimes nothing is better than a snuggle on the couch under a blanket while you watch Tumble Leaf.

From Val-Your heart can grow big enough to handle the stresses of life.

From Hazel, my grandmother who was called home to heaven to be with my grandfather this year-Be prepared. A gallon of fresh homemade iced tea can go far.

From our pastor, Bryan Koch, and the story of his accident-You can worship in the midst of pain, stand in the midst of sorrow, and offer grace and hope when it seems that none are possible.

From the friends and colleagues I’ve met working on the book-Never underestimate the power of unity, service, selfless love, and the drive of people working to make a difference.

From my dad-Always say, “I love you” before you hang up the phone.

From my mom-Know what you are having for dinner.

From the kids I’ve helped coach in baseball and basketball-We all get a chance to hit or take the shot, when it is your time be sure to make it count.

From God-You are never alone.

What was your greatest lesson this year?

~Matt

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When Going Home is Hard to Do

“The Prodigal Son”

The phrase carries instant meaning in society.  The son returns to the family after a time away.  It is used to mean anyone returning home physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

Yesterday, in church, we talked about the story in Luke 15.

For those unfamiliar, the younger son of a family asks for his inheritance so he can go on and live his life.  He takes off, disowning his father, and spurns his money on worldly pursuits. When he finally hits poverty, he goes home and is accepted by his father with open arms.  He’s given a robe, sandals, a signet ring and acceptance.

The message is an allegory of grace and faith, the idea that all are welcome home even if they’d strayed from their foundation.

What if going home isn’t that easy?

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Our souls long for a place of permanence. We’ve taken the concept of home and weighted it with meaning, looking down on the homeless, the outcast and refugee. We circle our wagons and protect our homes.

When the economy collapsed in 2008, many homes were lost to debt and disarray.

Growing up I always loved my home.  Val’s family moved many times over the years to different homes. We often talk about our boys growing up here.  Do we want them to stay in this school district? This neighborhood?

Carter told us, the other night, that he’ll miss this place when the time comes to move.  Part of me, that little kid such a homebody, feels bad for him.

For some of us, home was hell.

Nights were nightmares. Days were long, hot, physically and emotionally difficult.  At the first chance to run, we took it and never looked back.  If you are one of those people, how do you read the prodigal son? I mean, who cares if you can go home again when it was the lowest point in your life?

I think there’s another side of the story.

Going home is about finding yourself. When we experience trauma, we set up bottom lines as motivation. Poverty can give us drive and hustle to never live that way again. The shadows of abuse can make us better parents and spouses. The harm of betrayal keeps us honest and true.

Going home is about stepping into a calling that existed from the moment you were conceived.   It is about facing down the ghosts of the past and understanding they are not you and you are not them. It is about acceptance by a Creator with open arms and endless grace.

If going home this week is too hard, step back and take a moment. See where you are and not where you were. Be thankful for the strength and life you have and know what is waiting.  You can, and you will, make it through.

~Matt

Stressed Out

Last night we took our kids down to Royersford to the Halloween parade.  Val and I grew up in the town, a few blocks away from each other.  We met at the local grocery store and walked home from high school together. The streets bring back memories.

We found one of the last few spots to squeeze in for Carter and Aiden to sit on the curb. It worked until a group of older kids gathered in front of them and blocked their view for the entire parade. These kids were running up and down the street, taking candy from the parade people, and diving in front of the trucks and floats.

Driving home, Val and I vented at how things aren’t the same anymore.

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There’s a song by the group 21 Pilots called Stressed Out. The lyrics talk about missing the good old days, how if we had a choice between student loans and tree houses, we’d choose the tree houses.  There’s a declaration repeated where, rather than dreaming, it is time to “wake up you need to make money!”

The bridge between our childhood and the present isn’t as long as we’d think.

It is filled with meaning.

When we are young, we search for our identities through our environment, friends, school, and social situations. As we grow, we look inside and put ourselves up against our goals and ideals. The schoolyard transforms into the break room.

I can identify with the lyrics quoted above and I also know they aren’t totally correct.

We don’t need to wake up and make money. We need to wake up and find freedom.

Because the days are limited. Because our worth is not measured by our bank account.  It is found in the values we pass on, in the two boys I strive to raise into gentlemen. In the wife that is my partner and soulmate, my rock and the completion of my sentences. In the past that has driven me forward and the future that is waiting with the chance to make a difference.

Because the job and this life isn’t over yet.

~Matt

The Weight of the Future

I put Aiden in his pajamas and he grabbed his favorite stuffed dog to hold. I rocked him until he closed his eyes and slowly laid him in his bed, taking a minute to watch the soft glow of the nightlight as it fell over his features. As I tucked him in, images flooded into my mind.

I prayed.

Please God let me be the father he deserves, help me do the best I can with him and give him the life he wants.  Please God, let him be happy.

Before I stepped out of the room, God finished my sentence.

Because one day he’ll be tucking you into a hospital bed.

The future always waits in the distance.

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How do we handle it? When our kids are suddenly growing before our eyes? When our friends from school are all married and raising their own families? When the holidays come again and the milestones creep closer and closer?

Because one day the one day’s run out.

So we make the most of it. We tell the stories that need to be told. We say I Love You as much as possible.  We hold hands, pack lunches, kiss goodnight and break the daily routine whenever we can to create memories.

That is the secret, to find the memories, take the chances and chase the dreams. To show our kids that there is never a reason not to try.

For they will get what we leave behind.  The day Aiden tucks me in, I want him to do it with a warm heart and the peace of knowing I did all I could for him, that we made our walks through the desert together, as a family, and that he will never be alone.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

                                                                                                                                                        ~Deuteronomy 31:6

Radioactive

My mother worked in a nuclear medicine department at a hospital for forty years.  She’s still there, inching her way towards retirement.  My father was an operator at a nuclear power plant before he retired.

I used to tell people that I glowed in the dark.

I remember visiting the hospital or the power plant (pre 9/11 years) and being amazed at the concept of radioactivity. Somehow this substance could kill you if you were around it too long.

I called my dad after 9/11 and would hear the stories of increased security, guards with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. Every year the township distributed iodine tablets to help against the possibility of exposure from a fallout event.

We all have our fallout events.

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This week, we took Carter in for some testing.  He’s been complaining of a rapid heart beat and some chest pain here and there. His emotions are erratic and we decided to talk to his doctor.  For two days we’ve wondered about results and the call came in today.

Everything normal.

So I look at him and wonder why?  What changed and what can we do to help?

The other night, after he had flown off in a rage and finally calmed down, he hugged me.  I told him I was sorry, that I wanted to make him feel better.

“Daddy, you don’t hug me enough anymore. You give me more high fives than hugs,” he said.

Feelings came crashing through. I’d seen him from my lens and not his. I’d assumed he would be mild mannered, like me, and not this vibrant, active, and emotional kid. I had parented him by attempting to attach the influence of my past to a person who had not known what it was like, one who never glowed in the dark.

It was an amateur parent thought:

He’ll be cool and low key, just like me.

I was wrong.

He has parts of me, yes, but he is his own person.  One who needs more hugs than high fives, freedom and the chance to grow. He’s Carter, not me.  One day he’ll be a father and I want him to know I’ll be there, with love and support at whatever level he needs.

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This is Carter from last Sunday.  My reason to keep fighting to get this fatherhood thing right.

~Matt

Firewood

When my dad lived in Pennsylvania, he had a fireplace in his house.  It was one of those stove deals where you opened the front grate and built the fire inside.  I remember spending winter nights with my feet near the flames as I laid on the floor and watched television.

A small shed sat at the end of the yard and, behind it, the pile of wood. A large stump served as a chopping block and I’d watch dad line up logs and split them one after another.

Eventually he’d hand me the axe.

By the time we were done, we’d have a pile of wood ready to fuel the burning.

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I’ve written recently about some issues our family is experiencing.  I took Carter to the doctor tonight and we have some important tests coming up that could give us an answer.

I heard a pastor in college say, once, that putting your faith in Jesus is the most dangerous choice you’ll make in your life.  It is a path to great struggle, suffering, refinement, and reward.

Our struggles are our logs.  Our faith is the axe and the Word of God is the blade that splits. The result is the fuel to keep going because the work will always be there. The struggles only end when our work is finished and we are called home.

So we take what comes. Every hard day. Every difficult hour. Every frustration, miserable person, crazy driver, slow cashier, and waiting room that we’ll ever sit in. We gather. We place them on the block and we strike.

It couldn’t just be any swing, though.

If I didn’t get the axe high enough or hit straight on, it would clang to the side and chip off the wood. The accuracy came with practice, the only way we get better.

With every struggle, we get better.

~Matt

 

A Bike Ride and The Storm

I stood on the playground as Carter rode circles around me on his bike, a skill he had just acquired and accomplished without the use of training wheels.  I thought back to growing up, when a bike was the only way to get around.  Our home town was situated on the side of a hill.  Going down was great.  Going across was okay, but I could take it.

I’d avoid going up hill at all costs.

Carter pulled his bike to the side and hopped off.

The playground is with his elementary school.  Someone had thrown hundreds of sheets of colored paper in the dumpster next to where I’d parked. Storm clouds gathered to the west and, as we watched, the wind picked up a sheet of white paper and blew it to Carter’s feet.

He had found a small pencil on the ground and sat down, drawing shapes and figures on the paper.  I sat across from him as he worked, hand moving in loops and swirls, green eyes checking to see if I was watching.

It was a vast difference from the night before.

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An instance had grown to a conflict, to emotions and words, anger and tears.

“What are you drawing?” I asked.

It was the shape of an animal with four backward L feet.

“A turtle,” Carter said.

“What’s his name?”

“Mister M.” He drew a big M on the turtle to make his point.

A second piece of paper blew out of the dumpster, danced on the wind, and landed next to me. I grabbed it and passed it over to Carter.  We traded papers.

He started on a stick figure, paused, and looked at my face.

“Are you drawing me?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said as he colored in a black shirt on my stick torso.

I swallowed.

“I’m sorry about last night,” I said. “We’re going to do better. As a family.”

“It’s okay.” He said.

In a moment, he had shown me grace.  The sun cut through the clouds and he squinted against it.  He finished my stick portrait and handed it to me.

“Keep it,” he said.

I will, Carter.  I will.

~Matt

Swallowed Up

When I joined the Blog Team at church, they provided a list of upcoming topics and we could claim which ones we wanted. I took two.  The first was on the topic of faith and the supernatural. I scanned the list and saw the story of Jonah on deck for a message in September.  I had to take it.

Jonah is one of my favorite stories.

In case you are not familiar with it, God taps Jonah on the shoulder one day and says, hey, I got this job for you. Go and talk about me.  Seems easy enough.  The issue is the destination.  Jonah is supposed to go to a hostile and dangerous city and, as God says, preach against it.

I picture him sitting at the dinner table debating the options. Was there a way out?  Did it have to be now?

He heads down to the local port, books a ship, and sails in the opposite direction. God raises a storm.  The other sailors ask him what is up and he says that he worships the God who made the land and sea.  The ask him what he has done to make God angry and he tells them to throw him into the sea as it will calm the waves.

He had told them he was running from God.

They pray, pick him up, and throw him over the side.

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Your life may fall in line with many parts of this story.  You may have your calling, seen the face of difficulty, and ran the other way.  You may be on your boat, on the run, in the midst of a storm.

Friends and family may be confronting you about your intentions.

The Bible tells us that a large fish (whale if you remember your Sunday School songs) came and swallowed Jonah, holding him for three days before vomiting him up on dry land.

How many of us are spending our days submerged by anger, sorrow, frustrations, struggles, or heartache? By family members making wrong choices, sleepless nights and yearning for a change that doesn’t come?

Jonah goes to the city and they hear his message.  The city repents and, at the end, Jonah is frustrated with God’s compassion. The message was all fire and brimstone.

Why the forgiveness?

This man who just survived a circumstance that would have killed any other human, did he not learn his lesson? God pulled him from the depths. He saved his life with a miracle.

Grace, grace, and grace again.

We have a choice and I know there are people out there standing with me. When you are beaten down, worn, tired and at the end of your rope you have a choice.  Sometimes the first step isn’t even visible.  It may take a journey overboard into the depths.

The process isn’t easy, but I say this out of faith.

Keep fighting. Win a day. Win an hour. Make the right choice once and find your day one.  Even if you have a thousand Day Ones. The next may start you towards your calling.

You are not alone. Jonah prayed in the belly of the whale and God answered.

Your answer is coming.

~Matt

Breaking the Pattern

It was a white board, one of those you’ll find in corporate meeting rooms all across the world.  We had one in Carter’s room.  I went upstairs, grabbed it, and came back down to sit next to him.  We were in the midst of a rough few weeks.  I remember hearing once that a sure way to break addictive behavior is to stop the pattern when it starts.

I told Carter, whenever he feels himself getting mad or sad to stop and write on the board and that Val promised to read it and address his feelings.  The deal was, she could do the same with him.  Now, instead of the conflict, they would communicate.

I had a fun time reading it after work and, overall, today was better.

We needed to break the pattern.

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I just got home from a conversation with Dr. Kay Bower, founder of Many Rivers Learning Center. The faith-based non-profit provides after school and GED classes for children and adults.  They have programs in art, computers, technology, homework help, and sports.  Dr. Bower and her work is impacting and changing the families of north-western Reading with a new and passionate view of education. I am blessed and honored to be a part of it and donate my time and writing services.

My friend Pastor Fred Liggin, head of 3e Restoration Inc. posted a great discussion on Facebook today about Jesus standing with us in the stoning circle as our advocate. What if we viewed our role as Jesus followers to jump into the circle with him?  How quick we pick up our stones (and our social media) and how slow we are to defend those in need. We demand to be heard before we protect and show love.

One of the most uncomfortable passages in the Bible: Those without sin cast the first stone. Don’t see that on too many motivational posters.

We need to break the pattern.

It is time for a shift, a change in the way we interact with the world around us, a change in education, missions, creativity and worship.  It is time for a shift in, dare I say it, church.

From a weekly service to constant serving.

From mission trips to missions living.

From “worship” to high quality explosions of music, drama, lights, sounds, images and action all pointing to the most Divine Creator.

From a Pastor to Leaders equipping others to Go and Make Disciples of all the Nations.

From dropping our kids off to hear about God once a week to parenting with God leading us every minute.

From small groups to small actions of mobile and engaged faith.

From talking about it all to making it real.

~Matt

Lose Yourself

My wife’s birthday is tomorrow.  For a few days in July we are the same age, my birthday at the beginning of the month and her’s at the end, and tomorrow we go back to her being older than me. She took off work yesterday and we decided to drive down to the beach for the day.

Seems innocent enough.

Let me provide some background here. Like many families on the east coast, I grew up going to the beach in the summer for a week at a time.  My dad’s side of the family would rent a house or two and the majority of the extended family would all do the week together. Eventually, my two aunts and my dad all purchased houses near the Delaware beaches and it became easier to visit.

When you spend years making the trip, you learn some things.  One is, during the season, you don’t go down on a Saturday morning.  Renters cycle through on the weekends and that is the day most travel to and from their properties. Usually, we’d go the night before and do the drive around midnight.  This time we didn’t.

It took six hours.

Six hours to make the drive that normally happens in half the time.  With two kids in the car.  One who fell asleep at two in the morning the night before and the other that woke before seven.  Can you imagine?

We finally arrived and spent a few hours on the beach, had dinner at my dad’s house, and went back to the boardwalk before driving home. Overall, I spent almost ten hours behind the wheel.

Ten hours.

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This week there was one of those click-bait articles on Facebook about Losing Yourself when you have kids. The concept has been in my head since then and, as Carter just locked himself in his bedroom because I told him he couldn’t watch television and Val just switched with me as I had been attempting to put Aiden to sleep for the last hour and fifteen minutes, Losing Yourself seems like a valid idea.

I mean, what happens when we become parents (and by “parents” I mean people who care, not those who earned the title only by having a kid and refuse to make any effort)?

Our kids are with us always, whether they are six or thirty-six. They pull on our hearts.  They are mirrors in which we see our good and bad sides, success and failure. They are complicated, dramatic, energetic, demanding, pushy little people. They bless and stress all at once.

In some way, creating another life reflects our divine calling.  We are have the inborn desire to create. We want connection and we find partners who are willing to make the journey with us.  We find supports and hands to hold when the trail gets rocky.

It is a question of balance.

Yes I have goals for myself. Val and I have goals for our marriage. We hope and pray and dream about the future.

This is just one of those nights where the gas tank is empty.

Carter opened his door and I made sure he went to bed without television. Val is still in with Aiden. In a few hours, she’ll be looking at another year of life.

We’re tired. Stressed. The couch and popcorn sound so much better than working out. I’m ready to close the book on this weekend, even though tomorrow is Monday again.

We’ll make it through. The dreams and goals still exist and we will get there.

Someday. (About a minute after this final period was typed, the cat threw up in the living room on the carpet.  See what I’m saying?  Off to get some paper towels.)

~Matt