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.

The Sound of Worship

I logged into Spotify the other night to view an advertisement for Hillsong United’s newest album titled, Empires.  There is no denying the reach of the Hillsong church, founded in Australia and now located in branches across the world. As with any mega-church, you can find positive and negative stories online from current and former members.

The music of Hillsong has shaped modern worship.

I went to Amazon to check reviews on the album and saw the lowest reviewer making this statement, “is it just me or have their last few albums gotten slower? I miss their up tempo music.” This statement shines light on an important part of faith and life.

What is the sound of your worship_

Oceans is one of Val’s favorite songs. I have no issue with slower worship anthems. They can certainly bring us close to God and carry us into the spirit of worship. My problem is when we turn our back from the joy of praise to sell more units and move more downloads. I tried to get through every song on Empires and couldn’t do it.

It was too slow.

Now before we get technical about shaping worship experiences and flow, let’s consider something.

What will Heaven sound like?

How about an eternity of joy, perfect love, praise and the presence of the Creator? No more fear. No more suffering. No more illness. No more tears. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take an eternity of an explosion of praise, to let go and let loose and finally see salvation in the purest and complete form.

I’ll leave you with my current favorite worship song from Tim Hughes and Worship Central and a great example of a declaration of praise:

~Matt

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

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

Love Like I’m Not Scared

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

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

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

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

Give When it’s Not Fair

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

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

Sell everything.

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

He says, sell it all.

Not an easy statement.

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

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

~Matt

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

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

Faith and Life in Action: 3e Restoration Inc.

I connected with Pastor Fred Liggin after publishing this article in RELEVANT Magazine. We exchanged emails and I learned of 3e Restoration Inc., a program revolutionizing the fight against poverty in Williamsburg, Virginia. Liggin is the Founder and President of 3e and pastor on staff at Williamsburg Christian Church. He’s a man of God, husband, father, and passionate activist. I’m proud to call him a friend and publish this post with the story of 3e and Faith and Life in Action. Without any further hesitation, here’s Fred:

 

I’ve been walking with folks from homelessness to holistic sufficiency now for just over twelve years. Four years ago when I came to WCC, I began walking with a family living through homelessness. This evolved into calling members of our church to serve as what we called “All In Friends.” From there I began to build a network of relationships within the city—professionals willing to donate services (mental health, job-training professionals, occupational therapists, financial advisers, dentists, etc.) to help with wrap around services.

As other local faith groups caught word of what we were doing I was asked by an inter-faith collaborative to teach other churches how to do it. We began piloting a city-wide effort together. Upon the completion of this pilot we launched a non-profit to keep up with equipping other local churches to do the work.

We now have three local churches that have embraced the process and have trained twelve leaders from seven different local congregations to move toward implementing the process in their congregations. We also have three more local churches discerning how to embrace the 3e Restoration process and engage those living through homelessness through gracious hospitality and meaningful relationships. 

A beautiful movement has begun here in greater Williamsburg, Virginia.

I strongly believe that just as the gospel was born on the margins in the narrative of Scripture, missional renewal is born on the margins for the local Church.

This is why I deeply believe in the Church despite her brokenness.

Williamsburg Christian Church found Jesus on the margins four years ago as they were a church in decline. It was there we found renewal and that has given birth to a whole host of beautiful stories to include those living through poverty, those experiencing wealth; those wrestling with addiction, those enjoying sobriety; those moving upward in their career, those working multiple jobs to make ends meet; those living with intellectual disabilities and mental illness (we have an entire assisted living home gathering and sharing in life with us now), those with PhD’s.

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3e Restoration was birthed out of this context and from 12 years of personal experience. So this isn’t a story about me. It is a story about our missionary God inviting His people to rediscover their identity as a missionary people who genuinely seek to be present with their neighbors—even the one’s no one claims–and make His kingdom known in tangible ways.

I find that when a church, or even a Christian, embraces gracious hospitality as a posture and way of being in society, surprising friendships are formed and healing can begin for all, even the discouraged. Sometimes when I am burdened by the frustration of the Church, I go away and be with the “least of these.” I believe that we can catch glimpses of Him in them.

Honestly some times I see more of Jesus in the downtrodden, the last, least, lonely and left out than I do myself or other Christians.

I have to just go and serve and get away from the trappings of institutionalized Christianity and its way of life. I learn from them. I see Jesus in them. I walk away encouraged.

Then I return to the institutionalized Christianity. That is important. I must come back to put my hands and feet to work among God’s people, remind as many as I can of the way we should see the world, ourselves and others, and call us back out into the margins and away from the center of society.

I think another thing is that I must believe that my life is not happenstance and neither are my encounters with others. People are too precious to God for this to not be true.

So I must be attentive.

As every day people living in everyday places we must choose to learn how to be open to the possibility that nothing or no one is irredeemable–a resurrected King Jesus makes us prisoners of hope. His kingdom is breaking-in, my job is to bear witness in word and deed, tangible expressions of grace, hope and love. And this best happens in community.

Now my resurrectional identity is more than a theological platitude. It becomes what it means to be a child of God and citizen of His kingdom. And it inevitably moves us closer to others where surprising friendships are formed and healing begins–healing for us all.

You can connect with Pastor Fred in multiple ways:  His blogWilliamsburg Christian Church and 3e Restoration. He’s on twitter @liggin and on Facebook. Be sure to follow his posts and the efforts of 3e. Their work is valuable to the national conversation about poverty.  He is an inspiration.  If you are struggling this week, consider his story of stepping out and making a difference. We are called to the margins and, when we return, we are never the same again.

What is Radical Change?

“Radical change is achievable and, at times, done with small moves.”

I was in mid conversation with Craig Poole, businessman and general manager of a Hilton Hotel under construction in the city, as “Gimme Shelter” played over the Peanut Bar’s sound system.  We were talking about how changes are made. Mr. Poole walks Penn Street and visits local businesses.  He meets with owners about the future.

He finds a bench in the rough part of town and stops to talk with people, much like he does with me.

“People will ask me about what I do and how they can do it.  I say it is nothing crazy.  The seat I sit in will be empty tomorrow.”

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What does radical change look like for you?

At my lowest points, it was simply holding hands with Val.  The motion pushed me back to living and chipped away at the emotional walls I had built. If it feels like you are looking up from the bottom of a well, start small.

Find the first stone that provides a foothold.

If your faith has become routine, look for the next empty seat.  Go to an outreach program. Volunteer an hour on a Saturday to serve. Assess your community and support the good things that are happening.

Radical change happens with a shift in:

  • Thoughts
  • Behaviors
  • Speech

Think of a better future. Act on the thoughts to make it a reality.

Speak positivity.

Tell your children that they are “bad” and they will grow up to believe it.  Talk to a child of an abuser or addict and you’ll hear the same story.

Our actions speak into our families, our churches, and our cities. Our compassion changes reality.  Our love completes the picture.

To start your own radical change, consider the empty seats in your life and take the first step to get them filled.

~Matt

 

 

 

The Kindness Challenge

Tell me if this has ever happened to you.  You have a family member, client, friend, business partner, boss, perspective client, etc who has asked you to do something.  It may be part of your normal routine or maybe an effort above and beyond.

If you are like me, you like to see problems through until the end, even if it means going the extra mile.  So, you work.  When it is all said and done, you go back to this person with the results and you hear….

Nothing.

Just

We found ourselves in the midst of a consumer culture. Every conversation is an exchange, a presentation of need and delivery.  Our boys do this all the time and, as kids, it is natural behavior.  It’s why we drill into them, “say please and thank you.”

Did you ever look around your office or your church and wonder what happened?

This weekend, take a day and make a point of saying thank you.  Do it often.  If you go out to breakfast, thank the waiter or waitress.  If you are in the grocery store, thank the cashier. Tell your spouse that you appreciate them.

Thank your kids for listening.

Send a family member, friend, or client an email thanking them for being a part of your life.

We talk often of sacrificial love, of social change and a revolution of faith. The mountains can only be climbed with a first step.

Kindness is where we start.

~Matt

Broke: Moving Past Money

The front of City Hall in Reading reflects the architecture of a city founded in the 1700’s.  It takes me two passes to find a close parking garage.  The interior of the building is all lacquered wood, high ceilings, and glass doors. I find an index hanging on the wall and make my way to the second floor.

The city council chambers are empty.  I pass a snack bar where a police officer eyes me as he picks out his candy. As much as I search, I can’t find Brian Kelly’s office.  Kelly is the only official employee of ReDesign Reading, an organization devoted to promoting social change and combating poverty. Finally I stop at the Mayor’s office.  A receptionist smiles at me as I enter.  I ask her where I could find this mystery individual.  She tells me to wait a second and walks around the corner next to her desk, returning to tell me he will be with me in a moment.

Minutes later, Kelly turns the same corner.  He is taller than I expected, with long hair and the start of a beard.  We shake hands and he tells me he hasn’t eaten yet, despite it being almost four in the afternoon. He asks if I’d join him for some food and I agree.

We walk out of City Hall and end up at an El Salvadorian restaurant where he orders in Spanish. Kelly is my age, a graduate of the Wharton Business School at Penn, and had spent a year working in Guatemala to facilitate social change.  He tells me his Spanish is a little rusty, so he likes to practice whenever possible.  In this small corner of the city, looking across a plate of pupusas with soccer playing on television and Spanish music flowing from the kitchen, we start to talk about poverty.

Kelly tells me the current system is broken, set up to keep the poor in poverty. Benefits are based on income so, in the end, where’s the motivation? Without jobs, why get married when claiming a second income eliminates housing, food, and cash benefits? Real change is based on social connection, on volunteer equity not done with currency rewards in mind.

Kelly envisions a system of bartering hours for needs, of housing co-ops where work equals room and board and fresh vegetables from sustainable gardens. He sees value in every person and knows they are filled with untapped energy.  His passion is matching untapped energy with needs.  He is a catalyst.

Our talk has floated in my head since then and it will be included in more detail in my book about the fight against poverty in the city of Reading, PA.

So could the church exist beyond currency?

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Digest that for a second.

No more budgets, no more offerings.  Volunteer hours are exchanged for food from pantries, gardens and farms grown by members. Outreach programs happen on a weekly basis. Staff members have needs met by a community of believers waiting to come beside them and lift them up.

We call for volunteers all the time, floating out versus where Jesus tells us to serve.  We say, do it, it will be good for you. What if we added a tangible result? What if a childcare volunteer could have his or her children in the church daycare for free during the week? What if a person mowing the church lawn can have their lawn tended in return?

What if we redefined economy for the church?  Why not us? Why not now? Jesus told us how hard it is for a rich man to enter Heaven.

We intellectualized his statement: he didn’t have a mortgage, taxes, kids to go to college and neighbors driving a new Lexus with a greener lawn and personal trainers. 

What if he meant what he said? What if we started taking him seriously? We can break and reset the system.  The church can be a radical change agent. It can start now.

The fuse is waiting to be lit.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: Take a few minutes and listen to the words.  A great song.

Broke: The Church and Money Matters

I grew up in a traditional Methodist church.  One thing we did every year was put on a Walk Through Holy Week with church members acting out parts of the life of Jesus.  They had segments taken from the Gospels, spanning birth to the crucifixion and resurrection. I had the chance to play Jesus more than once in, what I think, is one of the great scenes in the New Testament:

 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” John 2:13-17

It is the one time we read of a Jesus acting aggressively, clearing tables and physically driving the merchants from the temple. He entered the temple and the sights there drove him, the Prince of Peace, mad enough to make a whip and clear the room with it.

In my version, we had fake tables set up on saw horses and I went around the Sunday school room flipping the tables and sending the fake coins flying while yelling, “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves.” It was a good time.

This morning, in church, we started a series about Generosity.  I don’t know about you, but I have an inherent physical aversion that creeps up whenever clergy members start talking about money. Val and I tithe what we can on a weekly basis and I still get this bad taste in my mouth.

We attended a start-up church once where the pastor’s wife stood in front of the congregation, probably forty people at the time, with her and her husband’s itemized monthly bills.  She read them off as inspiration for the goal of him being able to pastor full-time and not work a side job.  I had wondered what Jesus would have thought of that experience

In today’s world any church must have a solid budget to fall back on. They need the Holy Spirit to be successful and financial backing to keep moving forward. If it is not there, they must pray for some talented volunteers. Things like media, communication, worship and print materials are easier to produce and acquire than ever before and, sadly, even more expensive.

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The topic of money is a double-edged sword. Check out the contrasts:

Believe and you’ll be blessed –  Oh you will be blessed, just not in the way you imagined.  God doesn’t operate in a box. He made the box.  Faith does not equal riches, prosperity, or seeing your dream come true. Faith is seeing God’s dream come true and doing your part. Faith is dangerous. Faith operates to get you off the sidelines and into the game where you may get hit, hurt, bruised, and battered.  It is the knowledge that He will never leave your side and how this idea impacts your life on a daily basis.

God will provide – He will provide what you need when you need it. Too many churches turn this into justification. They make it the arm on the great slot machine in the sky.  The same God that tells us he will never leave or forsake us, also states to sell our possessions and give to the poor.  He calls us to faith action and he works on his time. The journey is a process. Know that you will never be alone.

Test me in this – The only time we are allowed to test God is with our giving, according to the Bible.  He dares us to give and see what happens. You want his blessing? Give and he will provide.

Condition, condition, condition.

We need less conditions and more grace.  We need less pastors taking in six-figure salaries and more homeless shelters with beds and hot meals. We need less castles that hold thousands of people on Sunday mornings and more feet on the sidewalks, meeting people where they are.

We need to tell the stories, shake hands, open hearts, and reflect the love we’ve found in Jesus.

It is here, when we drop the emotional connection to money, we find the ease in giving. When we remove expectations, we give God room to work. When we serve, we live and are led by his direction into the future.

Money can be redeemed and the church needs to get this message before it is too late.

~Matt

Soundtrack inspiration: