Activation: Faith in 2015

This post starts a short series this week wrapping up 2014 and looking forward to some specific goals for the year to come…

I stood in the doorway of the dining area at Hope Rescue Mission at noon on Christmas day. They would serve, as with Thanksgiving, almost 250 men with their holiday meal. The chaplain, Steve Olivo, stood to my left.  We exchanged some small talk and I asked him if he was keeping an eye on things at Hope.  Steve normally is present for the “second shift” of time in the late afternoon and early evenings.

Robert Turchi, the director, passed by us and said, “Yeah he is, twenty-four-seven.” It took me a second.

“Really?” I asked.

“I live here now,” Steve replied. “It’s not the first time.” This is a man with a family and a home outside the walls, living at the Mission and overseeing the more than one hundred residents. I’m still struck by his comment.  I spent the rest of the day asking myself if I could do the same.

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Photo Credit: Karin Viva via Compfight cc

Pastor Olivo is one of my heroes and one of the reasons I’m writing Overcome. The men and women in the city of Reading working on the front lines of the fight against poverty deserve to be highlighted and my goal is that this book shines a light on their efforts.

I pray our faith transforms in 2015, that it is active and moving, engaging and passionate.  I pray that our boys see God reflected in us. I pray that I can serve Val and help guide our family to follow this path we are traveling.

2015 will be a year of lifting.  I’ll be honest, I’ve spent too much time on the sidelines.  I was Zacchaeus climbing the tree.  I’d get myself closer, higher up above the noise of life, yet wouldn’t push though the crowd to get my hands on Jesus.

I know now he has come to me and told me to climb down.

I’m praying that 2015 is the year your writing, your faith, and your dreams are realized. Give yourself permission to climb down or, at this point, just jump for it. The hands of grace are ready and waiting to catch you.

~Matt

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Martyrs

In church today we has a message delivered by a missionary living in Africa. Our church supports over eighty missionaries in various spots around the world.  They are often asked back to discuss their ministries and each month we have a mission’s offering. The stories are always powerful and they are thankful for the support.  Living in this country, I know my viewpoint is skewed. I have trouble wrapping my mind around life in the world of the persecuted church. We can’t connect with the reality that there are believers facing death every day to live a life of faith.

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One of the television shows I loved to watch was True Life on MTV.  MTV hasn’t been responsible for great programming recently and forget about music, but True Life had some amazing episodes.  For those not familiar, it was a documentary following around multiple subjects based on a sentence description. Topics ranged from addiction to social issues, with characters tragic and funny. One show was based around three kids living as teenagers in Israel.  I remember one girl talking about the fear of violence every day on her walk to school. I couldn’t get my head around the image of being scared of walking in your neighborhood.  I grew up in a relatively small town and spent years walking home from school with the girl who I would marry years after our time in high school.

I remember buying one of the publications of Voices of the Martyrs. I devoured the book, filled with historical and current accounts of people dying for their faith.  Jesus consistently draws images from death.  We are told to pick up our crosses and follow him. We are told to lay down our lives. We are meant to live dead, spending each day in the knowledge that we are not home yet.

After each one of the messages on Sundays focused on missions, each person would ask if we felt the call of God to serve in a foreign country.  I never felt the pull to uproot my family and move across the world.  I feel like God has called me to serve here, now, in this community. That is the point behind this business and the Overcome book. You can serve where you live and, as you do, never forget those lose their lives for Christ. We are family, one body living for one cause. The stories of our brothers and sisters should serve to inspire us in our daily walks to know we will all worship one day, every tribe and tongue, surrounding the throne in Heaven.

~Matt

Life in Motion

 

 

My son Carter loves the television show American Ninja Warrior.  We stumbled on it one night and he was enthralled with the action and the suspense of whether or not the people would complete the course.  Every competitor is in great shape and from all walks of life. Some succeed, some make it to the end and fail.  Others barely get past the first challenge. Carter, as we watch, lives and dies with those on the screen.  He cheers and gets upset. He creates courses in our house for his own challenges.

He lives to move.

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I wish I could borrow some of his energy.  As adults, it is easy to ware down and forget the passion we had for play and excitement as children. Our days pass like gears in a car, some neutral, some low, and some in overdrive. I spent years after losing my job in a funk, adrift and wondering when God would intervene. I learned, looking back now, that he uses all of our experiences for a purpose. He is always there. He sees us through the lens of grace as works of art waiting to be chiseled from blocks of stone.

These last two weeks have flown by. This writing business has taken up my spare time and I’m blessed to be busy. It feels good to be in motion. Maybe I’ll even catch up to Carter one day.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” –Romans 8:28

~Matt

 

Raising Hope

Yesterday I had the honor of spending two hours at the Hope Rescue Mission in the city of Reading.  Hope was the first organization to respond to my emails about interviews for Overcome. I drove through the city running a few minutes behind schedule, my mind scattered from the jumble of things we were attempting to do to get reorganized after returning from vacation. It was a beautiful afternoon. Val was at home with the kids and I was a mix of excitement and nerves. I had a pad and pen next to me and the intent to just go in and ask questions as they came.  Planning, as you can tell, is not my strong suit.

There are moments in life where we feel disconnected.  It doesn’t take much for the impulse to kick in. It can arrive in the voice of shame and doubt, internally or externally from friends or family members.  It can be a whisper or scream. It will tell you everything you need to hear to distract you from your goal. There are ways to silence this impulse and they are valuable to remember.

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I entered the Mission, a large building over a century old, and met with the director and associate director.  Frank Grill, the associate director, took me on a tour of the place.  Frank is a worship leader, man of God, and runs weekly discipleship classes for the men who live there. He is quick to smile and I can hear a taste of his Philadelphia roots as we speak.

He tells me story after story of community organizations who answered God’s calling to donate needed items.  They receive food daily from area restaurants. A local McDonald’s donated enough tiles to redo the kitchen.  Frank managed the expansion of the housing unit and was puzzled as to where they would get the furniture.  He told me that a manager from the Comfort Inn called and asked him if they could use any furniture as the Inn was refurnishing all of their rooms.  He sent over the donation trucks and they were able to outfit thirty rooms, all for free.

“We figure that God will provide what we need when we are meant to have it,” he said.  I met men from all walks of live who had fallen on hard times. They were learning valuable skills and ways to get on their feet.  A key focus of the Mission is a hand UP not a hand OUT. Frank told me that they are guided through prayer and the Holy Spirit. As the tour finished I could feel God in the building.  The work they do is sacred and powerful and I am so blessed that they will be a part of the book.

When you are feeling disconnected, remember three things we can learn from Frank and the Hope Rescue Mission:

1/Meet with God Daily: The men are mentored by pastors and community volunteers. They are focused on prayer, chapel services, and the Bible. One man in the kitchen told Frank that his mother called him yesterday for the first time in four years.  His voice shook with emotion. “See what prayer can do?” Frank said.

2/Know that God will Provide: The Mission houses more than sixty men. It provides a gym, computer lab, library, and career training services.  All of these resources are possible through donations. God will provide in time. If he can furnish thirty rooms at a Mission for free, imagine what he can do with your daily needs.

3/Use the Past as Fuel: The Mission was once a corporate building for the Reading Railroad. The CEO held offices in the room behind the chapel. They had elaborate parties and social events.  The lower floor was a bowling alley. The railroad eventually ended. The money flowed out of the city. Now new social events are happening. Men are finding God on a daily basis. They are gaining new purpose in life, overcoming addiction, and climbing their way towards stability. What would the railroad CEO say if he saw the building today?  God can use the past, all of your ups and downs, to do something great in the present and the future.

I left the Mission inspired and refreshed.  These stories are dying to be told. There is light in the darkness. These are the front lines of the battle against poverty and my goal is to capture as much as possible and put it in print.  This journey is only beginning. Overcome is happening and I can’t wait to see how far it reaches and how many people are inspired.

Have a blessed night,

~Matt

 

 

 

Back to Life

Change, for me, has always carried a mix of emotions.  I miss the things I leave behind and look forward to the things I am chasing down. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked, “So, what will you do with your degree?”  I wouldn’t have to worry about it! I don’t blame the ones asking the question.  Times are different.  Since 2008, the economy has changed and the demands of education has increased.  A Master’s degree is the new Bachelor’s. You can’t just send out ten applications and get ten interview requests. Merck, one of the largest employers in suburban Philadelphia, laid off over 600 people this week. I’ve been there and I feel for every one of those people going home and filing their unemployment papers and wondering how they pay the bills next week.

 

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I did my graduate presentation on writing a good antagonist.  One of the new students in the program asked my opinion on the current trend of popularity of anti-heroes, why movies and books are embracing the rebels and those acting outside of the classic “hero” pattern.  I mentioned that I had read an article about the popularity of The Walking Dead and that the writer mentioned that audiences were fed up with society. They were tired of the norm and celebrated a country ripped down by zombies.  Not many people are optimistic.

When you find yourself in the dark, keep your eyes on the light.  Remember:

“But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” ~Psalm 39:7

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” ~Romans 15:4

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” ~Hebrews 11:1

I believe we are all called to a purpose, to a passion that will lead us to happiness. We have that underlying drive to gain what we seek. We have a calling to do something to change the world. All of this starts one step at a time, at home with those we love. As we go forward it will not always be easy but the prize is worth it. We know where to find our hope and our peace and where our light comes from when the darkness threatens. Failure may happen, but it is just a new chance to succeed.

So tonight, back from vacation, I’m looking forward at the journey. I’m so thankful for all I have and so excited for all that is coming, for the road that is rolling out ahead of my steps, for the chance to be a better father, husband, writer, and entrepreneur. As I take my journey, I wish you luck on yours and know that you never travel alone.

~Matt

 

Graduation

Tomorrow morning we leave for Connecticut. I spent the last two years attending Fairfield University’s MFA program.  We meet twice a year in Mystic, Connecticut at St. Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island for ten days. I’ve met some amazing people and had the chance to work with great writers and academics. The island is a world of difference between the summer and winter residencies. I’ve spent mornings at 15 and 75 degrees, seen the place swept in snow and sunlight. There is a mystical (fitting) beauty to the island and it provides moments of exquisite solitude. On Friday, I’ll graduate and tonight I’m thinking about the future.

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Graduation is a time for transition, whether it is kindergarten, high school, or college.  When I was a freshman, I went to my adviser and said I wanted to be a writer. He was about 107 years old and laughed over his rumpled suit and tie.  He said, “You probably won’t be successful, so you should consider an alternative.”  I knew, in that moment, I would write. It was a seed planted in my soul. I’m one of those people who don’t respond well to being told that I can’t do something.  One thing he did not know, or see, was my passion.

I finished my first novel roughly five years after that conversation.

Carter told Val today that, when he grows up, he “wants to be a writer like daddy and write about Jesus.” That is priceless.  That is the point of being a father. He doesn’t even need to end up writing. If he uses his passion to serve and live a satisfied life, I’ll be happy. Time goes so fast. Both of my boys get bigger each day. They are like living mirrors, reminders of the future that is to come.

Today I landed my first interview with a local business owner for Overcome (Rescuing the City of Reading). I am excited to talk with him and get rolling on this project.  I feel like so many forces have converged to this week and that good things are coming.  It is a mix of excitement, nerves, and happiness.  I am truly blessed and thankful.  Always remember, no matter what anyone says, never stop fighting. Never stop chasing your dreams. Never stop following your passion and serving others.  The trick is to be, like the shark, always moving.

On Friday we will celebrate on the island, laugh and trade stories. I’ll forget about stresses for a few hours and allow myself a moment of peace.

That is worth the cost of any degree and the launch for the next step of this journey.

~Matt

You are Not Alone

Over the summer, our church does a sermon series titled Things We Need to Talk About. It is always a popular series and, each year, attempts to tackle some of the more pressing issues of the time.  We’ve covered marriage, family, dating, friendships, cults, other belief systems, even pornography. The series splits messages between the different pastors on staff and today we had the privilege of listening to Greg Hubbard talk about Overcoming Loneliness. Greg is our staff evangelist.  He and his wife go to destinations around the world and hold church meetings, help church plants, and minister to those in need.  He mentioned that loneliness is one of the largest problems we deal with today. Statistically, 20% of people in this country had dinner alone last night.  It is an issue that spans location, financial class, and even those in the seats around you every Sunday.

Initially, my thoughts went back to my time working in the emergency room. As patients arrived by ambulance, we would have to go to their rooms to complete registration paperwork.  This was not always possible as the more critical arrivals would need to be stabilized and, even then, were mentally out of it.  One night, the EMT came into the back room and signed in his patient. He said, “Whoever goes to that room, wear a mask or put some alcohol on your nose or something.  Just a warning.” The three of us in registration exchanged glances.  After a moment of silence, I said I would take it.  I put together the paperwork, took out an alcohol swab, cleaned my nose to block the smell, and went to the room.

It was like something from a movie.  It was summer.  They had found the patient in a hoarders’ residence with no air conditioning, uncared for and alone. The patient hadn’t cleaned their body in weeks. I had trouble getting the signatures I needed. I’ll save you the more direct details.

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There are things that create loneliness. We can create our own loneliness.  Growing up as an only child, the stereotype was always that we were loners. I know people who had second and third kids to purposefully not have only children. Now, with two boys of my own, the sibling dynamic is fascinating. I’m learning with each game, fight, dinner, and outing how the relationship of brothers grows and changes. I’ll admit, I do take comfort knowing they will go through life together.

There are ways to beat loneliness.  I’ll elaborate on three that Greg mentioned this morning.

1/Do Something– movement is the quickest way to beat getting stuck in loneliness. Start a journal, draw pictures, write music, write poetry. It can be as simple as taking a walk or going to the local book store and grabbing a coffee.  Meet a friend. Chances are, you know someone who could use a phone call or text message right now. Reach out and make a person’s day better.

2/Know God is Near– As the picture above says, mountains were made to be moved. Whatever circumstance you face, nothing is insurmountable. You are never out of the game.  One of the ambulance arrival registrations that stuck with me was getting information from the police on a successful hanging. They had found the body and cut it down.  Know this, there is always help. Call someone. Reach out. Go to an emergency room. They have counselors on staff to help.  Know that God is near you and ready to pull you out of your struggles, lift the burden, and free you to know life more fully.

3/Empathize with Others- There are people who need you, people going through the same stuff you have faced or may be facing. Locate a support group. Volunteer at a ministry opportunity. Find your passion.  It can be with kids, senior citizens, even your peers. Find a passion and reach out. We are all searching for something and fighting our darkness.  Help out in the battle and you’ll find your own weight lifted.

The most powerful thing you can do is serve somebody. If you are feeling lonely know that there is help and there is hope. You can break free, move forward, and start your life in a fresh direction. You can use your brokenness to help others and provide light into their lives.

You can make a difference.

~Matt

Fear

I love the fall.  I know it is an odd thing to post in the midst of summer, but I love the change in seasons.  It is one of the perks of living in the northeast. We get the leaves changing, the crisp air, and the Starbucks Carmel Apple Spice. I love the high school football games on Fridays, going to the playground in a sweatshirt, and the smell of the first fire in the fireplace.  I also love Halloween.

I’ll admit, I can carve a pumpkin with the best of them. As kids we would go on hayrides every year.  The farm that hosted the hayride also had a “haunted house.” I would always stay as far away from the thing as possible as I never liked being scared.  Fear, even so young, is a primal and powerful force.

It is something we battle daily, some more than others, and it can paralyze our personal and professional lives.

In Scriptures we constantly have angels telling people, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus gives the same advice.  He tells us he will be with us until the end of the age. That statement hits home to a major point.  For many people, fear equals being alone. It can be the first date that never calls back, the friend who drifts away, or the family member that suddenly stops sending text messages.  Fear is rejection, it is confrontation, it is stepping out of your box to see what you are capable of. Fear is the voice of doubt telling you to forget about it, that you can’t do it anyway.

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Fear is a liar.

In high school I took a public speaking class.  I have no idea what caused me to take it. I hated speaking in front of people, as do the majority of people in this country.  As I went through the weeks, I found it getting easier. As I spoke, the nerves would gradually fade.  I progressed on from that class, years later doing a semester of student teaching and speaking in front of a hundred tenth graders five days a week.  I would have never found that point without taking that first step.

Here are three things that have helped me whenever I faced my own fear:

1/Compartmentalize: Break down the obstacle into smaller parts and a smooth process.  Mountains can seem much smaller with a clear trail up the side.

2/Conceptualize: Look at the situation. Really look at it and define what you are facing. We add our own emphasis to many of the things that end up in our path. If we take a step back, it can be beneficial as we finally make a move forward.

3/Catalyze: There’s a point where you just have to do it, where all thinking stops and motion begins.  When you start something, the nerves will flare and the voices will creep but, gradually, they fade away.

Here’s a fact that I’ve repeated to myself daily over the past two weeks: when you start with just you, you can only go up. There is no loss. I started this writing business with a kitchen table and a computer. I’ve heard the voices and had my mind wander over all the possible futures.  In the end I lean on what I know:

Faith conquers Fear.

Have a great weekend,

~Matt

The Power of Story

In the years before I had my first job, I used to spend summers with my grandparents. My mother would drop me off in the morning and pick me up after work.  These days created many memories that I can still recall as if they were yesterday. I remember playing cards and betting with nickles. I watched my grandmother make apple pie by hand. She always had a pitcher of iced tea ready and waiting in the fridge. One of my favorite things from those years was listening to my grandfather’s stories.

We would eat our lunch and go out to the porch, glasses of iced tea still in hand, and watch the cars go by. Poppy was a veteran of World War Two.  In those moments, with the heat of summer pressing like a blanket, he would tell me tales of the Italian campaign, of sailing across the ocean and landing on foreign shores.  He told me about battles, fighting on the front line, and seeing casualties all around him.  He spent Christmas Eve in a bombed out church sleeping on his live grenade belt. He marched in all kinds of weather, took cover from machine gun fire, and made it back home.  I was always told that he was a different person after the war, more quiet and reserved.  He had to leave a wife and two daughters behind and now, as a parent, I can’t imagine that feeling.  Twenty years after hearing his stories, I still remember them.

Stories are powerful.

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Jesus taught in stories. He created illustrations meant to enlighten, anger, scare, and inspire. He used images from around him: mountains, fig trees, birds, and flowers. He knew his audience and exactly what was needed to make his point.

Stories are just as powerful today.

I have written before about spending time in a classroom.  One of the more unique teaching experiences was working in alternative education.  These kids were the ones expelled from their home schools. They were the ones, in the words my special education professor, “that nobody wanted.” I worked in a Day Academy where kids were bussed in from the surrounding areas, taught for the day, and bussed home. I had time in that building that I will never forget.

Officially, I was an instructional aide.  My job was to go around and help the teachers with their lessons, work with kids individually, and try to maintain some sense of order.  Certain moments that place had an energy that just hummed.  You could feel the tension in the classrooms, the feelings that boiled over from kids living stormy lives uncertain of their future. We all did what we could to make connections and build relationships. When you showed interest, asked them to tell you a story, the defenses fell and they opened like flowers.

Words are currency. Just ask the spouse who is insulted by their partner, the employee praised by their boss, the child embarrassed in front of their friends.

As you go forward in your walk, your business, or your life consider your stories. Watch your words. Know your audience. Think of your purpose. If you invest in your story, personally and professionally, you will see results. Think of your end goal and peel back your layers of intention. Keep asking yourself why.  Keep digging. Find value.

At the core you will see what makes you complete. You will find your Savior waiting with open arms.

These days I still think about the summer afternoons on my grandparents’ porch, before the stresses of life, before bills and jobs, kids and obligations. Poppy passed away almost two years ago. I can still hear his voice and see the sparkle in his eyes as he told me his stories. I can taste the iced tea and feel the warm air. I am thankful for the time he invested in me and I hope, one day, to live up to his example as a man and husband.

Stories bring security. They give you a beginning, middle, and end. They plant hope for the future with illustrations of the past. I know that Poppy wanted to teach me and now, years later, I’m learning the lessons.

And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” ~Mark 4:9

~Matt

Perfect Love

My wife and I met in high school.  We were both working at the same grocery store.  She was behind the register as a cashier and I bagged the groceries.  One day I had come in after getting a haircut.  She looked at me and said, “Nice haircut.”  Original, I know.  She was seventeen and I was sixteen. I called her a day or two later and we met up for lunch with her friends.  One night, leaning against the side of my 1984 Oldsmobile, she asked me why I hadn’t asked her out yet. I replied that I was waiting. She said, “What for?” I said I didn’t know and asked her out.  Yes friends, the making of a Hollywood movie.

Love is an interesting topic.  I know people who are single, attractive, and have great personalities.  They also chase love as fast as they can, trading off partners for newer models and trying to find the companion that will stick.  I know people who have had children out of these failed relationships and I feel for them having to grow up without a steady mother or father figure. We need a partner. We fear being alone. We strive to find that missing piece in our lives.

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The underlying issue is commitment. It takes trust to give yourselves to another person. People have asked me more than once when I knew Val was the right one for me.  I always tell them the same story.  The summer before I graduated West Chester University with my undergrad degree, we were at the gym.  She stood up from a machine, took two steps, and passed out.  I went to her side and she started having a seizure.  As you can imagine, a crowd gathered and an ambulance was called.

She ended up spending a week in the hospital and they never found a cause.  One night I sat by her hospital bed.  The lights were low as I held her hand and we made small talk. The woman sharing the room with her shifted behind the thin curtain that separated us.  The announcement came over the speakers that visiting time was over.  I stood, gave her a hug and kiss, and left the room.

I went to the parking lot, sat in my car, and cried my eyes out.  My soul hurt.  Sorrow wracked me from deep inside. I sobbed imagining her having to sleep in that bed, in that hospital by herself. As I drove home I knew that I would marry her.  I knew I would do anything for her, would give my life for her and gladly trade myself to be in her position.

Sound familiar?

The video above is one of my new favorite songs by Chris Tomlin, At the Cross (Love Ran Red). There are times we can forget what perfect love looks like and how it feels. In those moments all we need is to glance at the cross and we know where we stand. We know the true depths of sacrifice, that our debts were paid and our place was taken by the only real royalty to ever walk the earth.

Val and I have been a couple for almost fifteen years. I am blessed to have a partner who loves me in spite of my faults and, in our struggles, we stand together.  If you are reading this tonight and searching for your match, know that you are never alone. Know that perfect love exists and the answer you seek is not far away.  Just look to the cross and you’ll find the connection, commitment, love and grace you seek.

~Matt