Labels

My birthday was two days ago and, as a gift, my mother gave me a Barnes and Noble gift card. This is my standard answer whenever anyone asks me what I want for a holiday or occasion.

Let me pick up a book and I’ll be happy.

I took it over to our local store and got Shoe Dog, a memoir by Phil Knight. Knight founded Nike and turned his idea of importing cheap shoes into a sports empire. I just started the book and Knight talks about his dream of entrepreneurship.

He mentions speaking with his father about needing money to travel the world and chase down the passion that inflamed him existence.  He was worried, he writes, because people weren’t stepping out in the late 1960’s. At least his family was not.

They were trapped in the appearance of respectability, surviving, and making enough for the nice house in the quiet neighborhood. To his surprise, Knight’s father gave him the money for the trip.

He was willing to break the power of the label.

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One of my strongest influences, Pastor Erwin McManus from Mosaic in Los Angeles, spoke about this is a recent podcast.  He stated that we were originally all created on an even playing field. It took the understanding of self to break the equality.

He mentioned the theory that, when babies first notice their reflection, their sense of self is forever altered.  They cannot go back. The first mirror humanity ever looked into was the eyes of a snake in the Garden of Eden, he stated. He went on to say:

Every label we make; white, black, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, every single one builds a wall.

These walls push us far away from the original design for creation and lead us ever closer into the arms of grace and love.

We love our labels, though.  They are so addicting.

We wear them as badges of honor. They are our possessions. They are our children we push vicariously into territories they never wanted and tell ourselves that we are expanding their horizons. They are our jobs.

They become our paths.

It takes power to break labels and find the depth of what God wants to pour out in our lives. It takes an effort to see people for their souls and not their surface. It takes the touch of God to turn our focus from ourselves and what we can get to others and what we can give.

On that July 4th so long ago, people came together to say they’d had enough.  They were ready to do something drastic and find their freedom.  This year (I always think of my birthday as the start of a new year) my goal is to do the same, to make big moves and take steps for real and valuable change.

It is time to make a difference, for this world needs difference makers that can help us see past labels, destroy walls, and make things better for all.

~Matt

Measuring Up

My most recent blog post for our church’s website will go live on Monday.  We are in the midst of a series on dealing with drastic changes in life and it is on the power of the comparison trap.

It is too easy to paralyze ourselves as we see others succeed.

Some people thrive from comparisons. They live to compete, always have the finish line in sight, and chase goals with tenacity. The thrill of victory is enough.

For the rest of us, competition is much harder.

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I was never a Type A personality. Give me a book on a quiet Saturday afternoon, and I’m set. My motivation was intrinsic, not placed against outside forces.

I was the kid that responded to the individual recognition for the end result, not the race to the finish. Let me work in a vacuum and I’ll survive.

Probably the reason writing lives deep in my soul.

As you age, you realize this kind of success is impossible. There is no vacuum. All it takes is the first bad experience to know you will play a part in the environment around you no matter what you choose.

I remember the negative moments of my youth, the teasing and unkind words. I remember going to college and realizing the world is much bigger, that the point was to find your own identity and maybe getting a job would be the answer.

Then you realize the bullies took a different form as middle managers bent on making your days as rough as possible. There would always be someone grasping for power in their own kingdom.

You get married and have kids and do your best to help them find a safe path while learning how to process the bad things as they come.

The blog post on Monday scares me more than any other I’d written for the church.  It cut deeply. I’d felt like that kid again, that victim wondering why I was getting picked on and just wanting to disappear.

I believe God turns our scars into stories. Looking back is an important step in looking forward and finding the way to truly be free. Life is a journey and these tough nights and weeks are a part of the bigger picture.

The picture that will take shape into more beauty than we’d ever imagine.

~Matt

 

 

 

 

Threads

This week is a unique one on a few fronts. Carter has two days of school, then he’s off for spring break. We are rounding the turn on warmer weather. Baseball, professional and youth, is on the horizon.

Summer seems just over the hill.

Easter is at the end of the week. In terms of Biblical history, Jesus has arrived through Palm Sunday and cleansed the temple.  Soon he will be arrested and find his way to the cross, rising again in victory.

It is a time of resurrection for us as a family. We’re moving towards new things, situations, times and experiences. On Saturday, I drove to Delaware to visit my dad and, driving home I started thinking about the threads that carry us through from past to present and future.

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Our pastor on Sunday said you can’t separate Christmas from Easter, the birth of Jesus from his death and return to life. The experiences of the past speak to our future.

The children we were influence the adults we are.

We throw down gauntlets with every painful experience, internal promises we make ourselves to avoid the same issues decades later. They can have positive or negative results. We tell ourselves we will never ____ (fill in the blank). It can drive us to obsessive levels of perfection or success.  It can also cripple us with doubt.

Every writer is scared of rejection. If I could go back and talk to myself as a kid, I’d tell him that it will be okay. All the struggle will amount to something. The people who have cycled in and out of your life all had their reasons and it was nothing against you. The first publication will feel as good as the first big one.

It takes birth and growing up to face loss and resurrection.

I’d tell myself to make the most of the years because they will pass too fast and you’ll find yourself sitting in front of a laptop typing a blog post while your own kids sleep in their beds. That the dreams will keep coming, the calling will get louder and more clear, that you will make a difference and the words will count for something in the end.

That it is never over, so many years later, and the fight is worth stepping into the ring even when you don’t have the energy to leave the lockers.

~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

 

Guest Post- The Hardest Decision

This is a guest post from my friend Sherry Camelleri, Executive Director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center. Wherever you stand on the issue of abortion, there is no denying the impact it has had on society. Sherry and her organization works with families and individuals throughout the city of Reading providing parenting resources, supplies, a listening ear and a caring heart.  You can find more information at their website by clicking here.

The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Job 33:4
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (II Corinthians 5:17 – please read the rest of this passage)

Throughout this past year, news reports mingled with internet messages and blogs concerning the de-funding of Planned Parenthood were hot topics. We realize that questions and resulting conversations provide an ongoing opportunity to listen, and educate individuals and families regarding the value of each life. As believers, the potential we have is GREAT – providing biblical information on this vital issue.

More than a topic in the news, abortion impacts individuals and families – our co-workers, neighbors, friends and perhaps even family members. The individual/s living with this “secret” do so on a daily basis – facing reminders of the decision can be and often are very painful. During such a time as this, God has placed His children in a position to share the truth of God’s Word with compassion – offering forgiveness, healing and hope to the brokenhearted living and working among us.

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Located in the heart of Reading, Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center provides biblically based volunteer peer counseling and support services for individuals and families in need. An additional service is to provide post-abortion healing – true forgiveness found at the foot of the cross – in Christ alone.

Although Sanctity of Human Life is recognized each January, as the anniversary of Roe vs Wade is realized, the ongoing ministry of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center addresses this vital issue every day the doors are open. While some individuals come to Mercy for a pregnancy test, and others might be in need of supplies, there are also individuals whose hearts and lives have been deeply wounded as a consequence of their decision to have an abortion. Lingering somewhere in their past, this painful memory comes to the surface which can result in extensive efforts to numb the guilt, shame, and regret. Prayerfully, the volunteers and staff of Mercy CCPC share the message of redemption.

Forgiveness, redemption, and healing are the beginning steps of a new walk – a changed heart and a changed life. The guilt, shame, regret and pain of the abortion decision no longer defines that person – yes, there is Mercy in time of need, Grace for each day, and Hope for the future.

As we recognize Sanctity of Human Life, it is our prayer that you will continue to celebrate the precious gift of life given to us by our Creator on a daily basis and also realize the powerful, heart, and life changing gift of eternal life.

~Sherry Camelleri, Executive Director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center

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

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