Chasing the New

There are seven basic stories.

Every writing class I had, from college to grad school, I found at least one professor stating that old line. Seven stories told over and over. Our only hope, as writers, was to put our own spin on them. In On Writing, Stephen King says we develop a style as we read.  The end result is a mashup of our favorite authors combining to a unique voice.

This may be true in writing but it is not true in life.

We must never lose sight of the New.

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In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he recounts a moment that set his foundation for ministry in the years to come.  At a conference he had attended, the speaker said:

There are ways of doing church that has not been thought of yet.

The New is the line between fear and faith, sorrow and hope, doubt and assurance. It is the difference between the end and the _nd.

The New is the mystery.

I believe there are stories yet to be written, worship songs that will ignite a fire all across the world, ministries and charities that will change lives and provide for families. I believe there are ways of church waiting to be discovered, ways of worship only found in our dreams.

Zoom in.

Your story is not over. The _nd is not complete. Change is one choice at a time. One shift from if only to what if. One phone call, cup of coffee, meeting with a friend and plan with a spouse. One jog around the block, lifting of the dusty weight set, breaking out the easel and paints from college and opening your creative eye. It is the first choice against the addiction, depression, stress and sorrow.

There is another side, roads not taken, opportunities that will emerge as 2016 unfolds.

The New is chasing the calling, stepping towards discomfort as God stretches us into new territories of faith and guarding ourselves with the essential promise:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

~Matt

 

 

 

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Friday Hit List

A quick hit list of thoughts to start your weekend.

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Victory- Just before Thanksgiving, I went and saw Creed with a good friend.  The movie, besides being a quality addition to the franchise, examines the theme of time.  In the end, time always wins. Decide what you’ll do with what you have.  Fight for what is important and keep moving forward.

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Verse- The largest challenge of faith.  We are called to walk towards what we do not see in a world that demands proof.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believed.” We are the generation separated by thousands of years and still believing. Do good. Serve. Love. Parent your kids to be contributors to society. Give someone hope. Do it all for faith and the assurance of the unseen.

Christmas song- Val loves Christmas music.  I can take or leave it.  In the realm of holiday songs, this is the classic and one that stands above the rest. I rank Chris Tomlin’s version of Joy to the World (Unending Joy)” as a close second.

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Final Thought- Break Free.

Ever find yourself speaking with someone who has an agenda?  How about every day of the week?  The world is filled with it.  Work in any business and you’ll be dealing with customers, suppliers, vendors, and an army of people with agendas.  This afternoon I had a conversation with a friend who is transactional by nature. I’ve known him for a year now and he lives his life around the principal of what can you do for me?

Writers are often told to not write for the market, as, by the time your novel is ready, the current trend has moved on.

Too many communities of faith build themselves around service veiled in transactional pitches (you need a small group, to give, to join up, to get community, to go on the missions trip).

Jesus offered the ultimate alternative: grace. The cross as the final transaction, erasing the need for all others.

We need to shift our view, to understand that service and contribution grows from the hope of faith, that salvation is not a bargain purchased online, at the store, or at the polls in November. The world will change through selfless love, not agenda.

This month, know you can break free.  Stuff is not the point. The point is unending hope born so long ago. The moment the universe broke apart on a quiet night for the birth of a baby who changed everything.

We all believe something. We define ourselves by it.  Time will win in the end, so keep chasing your calling in confidence. Even if you can’t fully see the end result. Break the dynamics of transactions. Stand on grace.

Have a cup of hot chocolate and grab hold of a moment of peace in the chaos.

Then do it all again tomorrow.

~Matt

The Peace Illusion

Last night I picked Carter up from school and took him to Wayback Burger for dinner (a Wednesday night tradition). We ran a few more errands and when we got home he told me he wanted to read me a book.  I thought he was joking.  He’s a kid that would rather toss a football than read a book any day of the week.

We sat on the couch and he grabbed the book, opened it up, and read through without getting frustrated. When he finished he looked at me and smiled.  It was one of those moments I wish I could keep forever.  My oldest boy, 7 going on 17, growing and changing so fast.

As a father, husband, and man who follows Jesus, change can be a challenge.

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I remember spending summer weeks with my grandparents.  Poppy would take me fishing. We’d play cards and eat lunch together (I would take a nap! Imagine that. I have no idea what that means now). Suddenly, one summer, it was time to get a job.

Then it was time to graduate and apply to college.  The day came to move into the dorms (complete with me sitting in my car, in tears, with Val next to me). Then graduation, job and job and job.

Marriage in 2007. Home. Carter. Aiden. Turning 30. Back to school. Publishing short stories and finally a novel. Work in the medical field.

Change.

In John 16:33, Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

This is one of those verses we remember and lean on in the rough times.  If you look closer, there’s an interesting dynamic.  He says we may have peace and that we will have trouble. Peace comes in hope, in faith knowing that one has taken our place and died to give us life again.

So many live on the Peace Illusion.

The idea that it will all calm down as long as we have _____.  Fill in the blank: money, time, a beautiful spouse, amazing kids, a vacation home, etc.

Churches live in the Peace Illusion: the deceptive draw of routine, of stubborn unwillingness to have a dialogue, of fear in stepping out to help those on the fringe, the very ones Jesus associated with on a daily basis. Churches seem to forget that Jesus constantly condemned religious leaders of the day. He scolded the pious and the wealthy.

He called those ready to live a life of change, outside the Peace Illusion.

Tonight, as you finish your day, think about what you accomplished and what will be different tomorrow.  Embrace change. Carter’s book will become a novel soon enough. He’ll be asking me for car keys and we’ll be loading his boxes for college.

The story isn’t over.  It is never too late to start fresh. Because tomorrow is a mystery that can change in an instant.

And I’m okay with that.

~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 Arrival

My family and I live about an hour northeast of Philadelphia.  In case you’ve been under a rock recently, the Pope is coming to the city for the World Meeting of Families next week.  The news is filled with all things Pope Francis.

In preparation for this visit, they are:

-Closing major highways.

-Closing businesses.

-Selling tickets.

-Stationing EMS and portable toilets next to the roads leading to Philly in anticipation of the gridlock.

-Declaring states of emergency.

-Anticipating cell phone service disruptions.

Local leaders and believers are jumping at the chance to see this man in action.

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There is another arrival coming, one from a leader with a larger following.  We’ve closed things for him too.  We’ve closed:

Our schools. Our jobs.  Our friends. Our families. Our past. Our heart.

Some churches have closed him out a long time ago.

Yet, he is coming. He is coming to shine light to the dark places, to unleash a movement of inspired creativity. He’s coming to show the real meaning of truth, love, compassion and grace. He’s coming to destroy pretenses and demolish every box we’ve attempted to build around him.

He is changing lives, breaking chains, setting captives free and spreading hope in sacrifice. His message is clear for those ready to listen. His words will never pass away. His grace is new each morning. He works for the good of those called according to his purposes and he will make your paths straight.

You don’t even need to buy a ticket, sit in traffic, or fight the crowd. You don’t need to attend a conference.

All you need is a space to drop to your knees and listen to that voice calling inside. Take the moment and open your heart.

Someone out there is waiting for these words.  I pray they find their way home.

~Matt

 

Street Corner Faith

Val and I attend a large church.  This allows for some variety with worship music and, though there is an official worship leader, a group tends to rotate through  as the months pass. We’ve had everything from gospel to youth, men, women, national artists guest leading for a week, and a choir. There is one young woman who stands out every time she’s up there.

You know the one.

She hits the high notes extra high and runs Mariah Carey-esque trills up and down through Chris Tomlin’s latest hit, eyes closed, hands gesturing and face scrunched up to show just how hard she is leading worship as she orders the audience to join in, pray, let go and take part.

In case you haven’t experienced this yet, remember that worship directing us to the stage and not to God is not worship.

This morning, the writer and speaker Donald Miller posted on his blog about living a private versus public faith and why he has leaned more towards private recently. He cited the passages in the Bible where Jesus tells us not to be like those on the corner, making their good needs known to all, but to go to God in secret.

This stands, like Jesus always did, against all of society today.

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What if we changed things?

Imagine an end to the social media debate, to politicians claiming Jesus on their side in an effort to win votes. Imagine Hollywood actors and actresses not thanking God at the Academy Awards. Imagine pastors not telling the media that they will light themselves on fire because of the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Let’s break it down a little further.

Jesus didn’t say he’d make us millionaires, famous, beautiful, or influential.  He said he’d make us free.

Free from the race, the hustle of humanity, the ever-expanding yard stick that we’ll never reach because it will never stop.  Free from the lens of this world, the gaze that will keep criticizing from the grasp of moral relativism.

Free to say, we don’t have every answer and to love those different from us, the ones on the fringes that need a face-to-face encounter with the love of Jesus before they’d ever enter a church.

Free to pray, on our own, and spend quiet time with God, to help a neighbor and not email our small group about it.

When I was an undergrad in college, Val and I attended a church near the school and the pastor asked one night, “If this all burnt down and we had nothing, no building, no stage, no candles or instruments, how many of you would come back and worship your God on a pile of ashes?

This week, try some private time with God. Burn off the distractions. Kneel on your own pile of ashes and be thankful because you are still breathing and your work isn’t finished yet, because even in the darkness, you are never alone.

~Matt

If you or are friend are looking for some new reading material this week, two of my books are free on Amazon for the next four days. You can download my novel, The City, or my book on writing titled, Lazarus Art by clicking the link here.

 

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

The Sound of Worship

The past few weeks we’ve found ourselves in the midst of deep conversation about the intersection between faith and society.  Voices call for more and less.  Political factions take sides. Lines are being drawn.

There seems to be a race to the bottom, to be the most offended by people of faith. Personally, it has reminded me of the response of Jesus when asked about the greatest commandment. He replies to love God and love your neighbor, hardly the musings of a political leader.

For we know Jesus did not come for any earthly power.  More than once the crowds and leaders of the day tried to bait him with questions and conflicts. Every time he made his way around it, destroying the conventions, structures, forces and “common sense.”

Eternity was at hand.

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So what if we’ve gotten it wrong?  What if the church stands at an important intersection, at the crossroads of potential? What if it is primed for a shift, for a new way of community, service, prayer and worship?

In a post last week, I added a song by Isla Vista Worship.  Watching more of their stuff on Youtube, I found this video:

The narrative in the clip makes a statement that struck a chord with me.  It says that worship music should be done with skill and artistry, that is should shape the sound of secular music.

Think about that. We’ve reacted for so long.  What if it was time for Christian writers and artists to shape the narrative?  To reflect the love of Jesus into society with such power and impact that it changes things, that it removes the debate.

It is time for change, for real and actual change.  It is time to build fresh and living faith, to show real moves of the Spirit, to reach into communities and fight for those in need.

Are you ready?

~Matt

Take Flight

I stood at first base watching my son Carter crouched at second, waiting for a ground ball.

We are a few weeks into baseball lessons at the Big Vision Foundation from Dan Clouser, founder and president, and a good friend of mine. Clouser is a long time coach.  He threw ball after ball as Carter fielded, pivoted, and threw across to me.

Later he hit and I chased his line drives all over the field.  My boy, the one I held for the first time almost seven years ago, is growing into a young man.  It was a transcendent moment.  The sun-drenched afternoon, sprinklers watering the fields around us, music playing from the loudspeaker above the concession stand, and the crack of Carter’s bat as he hit ball after ball.  It was perfection.

I inhaled and held my breath, willing it to stay in as long as possible.  Our souls were joined; father and son, young and old, across a game and a field, years and time, words and thoughts.

I saw the intersection of past, present, and future.

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This week our church holds Vacation Bible School.  Over 1,000 kids will participate over four nights of activities, songs, dancing, playing, and worship. I picked Carter up tonight and the excitement in the church was palpable.

This month has been brutal for our church and this country, with the horrific accident that took the life of our pastor’s wife and almost his own. He is still in ICU with additional surgeries coming.  Then the atrocity in Charleston has left so many questions, pointed fingers, and broken hearts.

I believe real change is possible and, as I walked through the church tonight to pick up Carter, the answer was there.

We must invest in the next generation.

There are children who don’t know racism, who don’t see skin tone or orientations. There are children untainted by hatred and anger.

Just today a group of students met on Penn Street in Reading to pray for the city and anyone in need.

We talk about lifting up the lives of our peers, family, spouses, and friends. It is time to lift up the lives of the children around us. We must lay the foundation while we still have the chance.

Racism, anger, hatred, and violence exist now but they all have a shelf life.  You may have laughed when you read that but I believe it is true. I have hope, faith in radical love that crosses boundaries and burns down borders. I believe there will be a day of equality.  I believe my boys will be a part of it and it is my goal as a father.

They will dream big, love well, and make peace.

All we can do as parents is to provide the means to make the world a better place, equip them, and let them take flight.

~Matt

#FaithResponders

This evening we went to a prayer service at church for Pastor Bryan Koch and his family.  The building was full, all the seats taken and overflow seating filled in the older sanctuary of the building. We listened to friends and colleagues of Bryan offer up stories and prayers.  Scott Kramer told us that he grabbed Bryan’s left hand, the throwing arm of the former major league catcher, and squeezed it hard. When he did this, Bryan opened his eyes.

Praise God.

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Greg Hubbard, evangelist at GT, delivered a word about being a faith responder, one who talks differently, sees things differently, and reflects the presence of God. The room was emotional, more than a thousand people in a family gathering of prayer and worship. As a church, we will keep moving forward.

As a writer, I’ve changed. The filters are gone. This is about you and me, about words and life and faith.

I thought I had the story figured out. I was wrong.  This is a story about unity, about faith in times of darkness.  This is about a community overcoming tragedy and having hope.  This is thanking God in all things, keeping focused on Jesus when everything else tells you to look away.

When I interviewed Bryan for the book he was warm, gracious, attentive and caring.  He gave me more time than I asked for. He was forthcoming in his words and genuine in his spirit. He hugged me after our interview and offered to check in with me in the future.

I’m taking him up on it.

The day he walks across the stage at church to preach again is one I will not miss.

In the end, this is about victory. It is about family and using darkness to show the million-watt brightness of God’s love. So tonight I’m praying, carrying home the closeness of the Spirit, for anyone reading this.  If you are in a dark place, know you are not alone.  If you are suffering, it is not wasted.

Know I’m here for you. My family, brothers and sisters in Christ, are here for you. God is here for you. Things can and will change. The future is coming and we must respond.

There is no choice. Join me and be a #faithresponder

~Matt

You can see news coverage of Pastor Bryan’s story by clicking here.