I Wasn’t Going There

I promised myself I wouldn’t get any deeper into politics. We live just about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia and, this week, the news was filled with coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Philly.  I love the history, the environment, the passion.  This Sunday I’ll be going down to Lincoln Financial Field to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and their first of two camps they hold at the stadium that are open to the public.

The news played all kinds of clips of speeches and analysis from the DNC.  When I got home from work, thumbing through my Facebook feed, I came across an article that is the catalyst for this post.  It was titled Why You Can’t be a Christian and a Democrat, written by a popular conservative blogger.

In it, he laid out a response to one of his critics where he swore his argument citing multiple Bible verses.

I can’t take it anymore.

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There’s a place in the gospels where Jesus is asked about paying taxes.  For a nation being occupied by Rome at the time, this was a question meant to trap him.  Answer the wrong way and the religious leaders could run to the local government officials and have Jesus arrested.

He replies asking about whose face is on the currency of the day.  Someone responds that it is Caesar’s. Jesus states, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

He makes a response, more than once, to criticize the leaders of the day for exploiting the people. He calls for unity and, despite the frustration of the crowd, does not lead a political revolution.

Jesus transforms every breath of the universe.

We’ve missed the point. Those of us who claim to follow Jesus grasp so hard on what is “ours.” We hold the church close and circle our wagons pointing fingers out at the crowds that drive by.

We forget the final instruction Jesus gave before he returned to heaven.

Go.

What does this mean?

Jesus followers are not a political party. They are not Republicans or Democrats. They are not Libertarians. They are not represented by anyone standing in front of a pulpit giving an acceptance speech this November at the White House. They are not exclusive to a country or economic systems.

Those who claim to follow Jesus are defined by love. They move in acceptance. They love their neighbors and drop the first stone they are ready to cast in anger. They serve. They live and push for unity.

They stand against hate.

For I believe every soul has a fragment of Heaven inside, a radar beacon calling them towards home. I believe God longs for unity, for one person to go in step with another and make their lives better by sharing their joy.

There is a reason Jesus advocated good citizenship.

Because this is not our home.  This is a temporary address change. Time will pass.  Here’s what you must understand:

Your vote at the box in November will not make a difference.

What makes a difference is the choice, on a daily basis, to do better. To open your heart further and deeper. To work on your marriage and your family. To show love and embrace someone on the outside. To know that we are called to direct people towards Jesus.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia so long ago, it had to be distributed throughout the colonies. The authors hit post on the historical version of WordPress, people absorbed the message, and the flames of rebellion were born.

It is time to do the same with our faith and in our communities across the nation, to not be pulled into the noise and posturing of the upcoming election. To move away from media and towards the cross.

So maybe the author of that click-bait article was right.  Maybe those of us not voting for Trump are using watered-down versions of the Bible.

Or maybe we are looking towards the one force strong enough to make true change in this world. It will not come through building a wall, defunding controversial agencies, legalizing millions of immigrants, higher taxes, lower taxes, socialism, or fascism.

It will come through faith. Through understanding that God longs for a relationship with me and you. He pulls us closer with every headline and story. He tugs at our hearts with the echoes of home captured in the fading glory of sunsets or the laughter of a child.

When the noise gets too much, remember where you are from and where you are called to go.  Remember this is only temporary, that the space in your heart can be filled with Jesus, that the longing for completion can be answered at the foot of the cross.

Know that you can, finally, be free.

~Matt

 

 

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The First Stone

I am in the midst of reading Malcom Gladwell’s, David and Goliath.  The book, as you can imagine, is an examination of the perception of the underdog. Gladwell takes readers on a journey through places where disadvantages can become assets and strength can be found in weakness.

In one section, he writes about the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, in Alabama, needed the notorious sheriff Bull Connor to show his hand and reveal his racist intentions.  The act of aggression would be enough to start a movement. It happened more than once, with Connor’s forces turning fire hoses and police dogs on protestors.

My friends, the enemy has shown its hand in one horrific moment inside a Orlando nightclub.

The question remains, how do we respond?

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There’s a scene in the Bible where a woman caught in adultery is taken in front of Jesus.  When you read the text, it seems like she was literally caught in the midst of it and dragged to a public street.

Jesus looks up to see an angry crowd.

They explain what happened and pick up stones to kill her, as with the legal penalty of the time.

Jesus states, “those without sin cast the first stone.”

There’s way too many stones getting tossed around. My social media feeds were political jabs all day from both the left and right sides; terrorism, gun control, mental illness, ISIS, LGBT hate and anger, etc.

This is the time for a response, as King had the right strategy.  The church needs to stand up in love and protect those targeted by terrorist forces. Doors, and arms, must open.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough.  Enough of the hate, anger, bickering and politicizing. Enough of both sides picking through the bones of victims to prop up their arguments.

I was listening to the end of Pastor Stephen Furtick’s podcast this week where he spoke about the book of Revelation. He stated that a seminary professor summed it up this way:

Evil is real. God is greater. We win in the end.

The Orlando community will recover. Families will ban together and churches, if they are truly standing on the words of Jesus, will step in and do their part. Conversations will happen about how to prevent another shooting and they must be led by love.

I believe the world can change, that we should not be surprised at the depth of evil and never forget the strength of good. We must grasp even harder to our calling, keep our eyes forward, and see hope in the faces of the generations to come.

~Matt

 

13 Crosses

On Friday, Sue Klebold gave her first television interview since the events of Columbine High School.  Her son Dylan was one of the shooters who rampaged through the school taking the lives of thirteen of their classmates.

Columbine was a turning point.  I remember being in high school at the time, watching news coverage that seemed surreal.  It was the first of the major school shootings and it prompted many copies.  People pointed fingers at the parents of the shooters, mental health issues, even violent music.

Large wounds create a search for answers.

I’m not a Michael Moore fan but, in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, he asks musician Marilyn Manson if he’d have any advice for parents out there. (Manson was a favorite of the shooters).  He replied that he’d tell parents to listen to their kids.  It was a profound response from one of the main targets of society’s disapproval.

That summer I attended the Creation Festival held in Mt. Union, Pennsylvania.  It is the largest christian music festival in the country meeting in two forums, one on the east coast and one on the west. On a hillside during the festival stood thirteen crosses, the original thirteen taken from Columbine to memorialize the victims.

In the seventeen years since, we still look for answers.  We debate issues of gun control and mental health. We digest the concept of forgiveness. We think about the value of listening and wonder if the world will ever get back the innocence lost that morning in Colorado.

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Childhood is not what is used to be.  I spent a few months working in alternative education (part of the school system for students who cannot exist in the regular population). The stories broke my heart more than once.  Each moment I’d think that could never happen, then I’d talk to a fellow employee and find out that it did and a certain kid had survived horrific abuse or worse.

Klebold is writing a book about her experience and donating all profits to mental health research.  I look at my boys and could not imagine.  Where does the scale tip? The questionable new friends? “Aggressive music”? Wanting to be alone? In all the months of planning and acquiring weapons and resources, where do you miss the chance to stop it?

How do you live without massive guilt?

Or do you?

We are called to forgive.  In many ways, it is the door to second chances. We must be attentive. We must build bridges, especially as fathers with young boys. We must listen to our kids.

Small actions have huge consequences. One conversation can inspire your child to help another. One outstretched hand can create a second thought that stops violence. One embrace, a bridge built, can inspire hope.

In the years since Columbine, when reality has shattered childhood as we attempt to rebuild it, hope is needed. I pray that Klebold’s interview and book might get out there and help a parent prevent an act of violence, that it will create conversation as parents and kids figure out this thing called life.

~Matt

Know How to Lose

Last night the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers.  In the midst of the hype and headlines, a large amount of analysis has focused on Cam Newton’s post game press conference. Newton, the quarterback of the Panthers, seemed distant and moody  Eventually, he walked away from the crowd.

In sports, from an early age, players are taught to lose with dignity. There is a way to face a loss.  Some never get over it.  Others admit defeat, put it behind them, and move on to play another day. Newton had lost the biggest game of his career and, as a young man, may not have reacted the right way.  Next year, he’ll have a chance to show he can recover and maybe get back again.

I’m reading Louis Giglio’s book, The Comeback. In a chapter about grace he analyzes Peter’s breakfast on the beach with Jesus.  This was after the multiple denials, running back to the water and the only life he had known.  This was the disciple who would be the foundation of the church, beaten down after the loss of his mentor and savior.

A swim from the fishing boat, stumbling out of the water and landing at the feet of the risen Jesus.

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Our lives are as much about handling victory as transitioning through defeat. We are never too far away or too far gone.  Peter, though promising Jesus he would never deny him, turned away when the pressure was on.  He had to have the image of the cross in his mind.  Death was too close for comfort.

Yet this morning, on the beach, Jesus waited with breakfast. He told the guys where to catch fish after they had tried all night and found nothing. Experienced fishermen at the end of their effort and all they had to do was listen to Jesus.

They could have ignored him, called it a morning, and went on with their day.  That wasn’t the end of the story. The nets were destined to be full, bursting with life as soon as they chose to listen. All Jesus did was point and show them the way.

The good news is, grace is new each morning. Jesus waits on that beach as we sail on our own chasing the wind. He waits as we pull up the empty nets of our own efforts.  He waits as we are refined down to dependence on him as not the last resort but the only resort.

Knowing how to lose creates our comeback. It sends us on a new journey to dreams we could only imagine, the embrace of returning home and blazing fire of fresh inspiration that can truly change the world.

~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

Never Gonna Stop

A life is a story.

We move through phases as we grow.  At the moment Aiden, our youngest son, is obsessed with touching his nose with his tongue.  He calls it his talent and shows as may people as possible.  Carter had some dental work done on Wednesday and, while his mouth was numb, bit his cheek.  He spent all day in pain and refusing to take medicine.

Today ranks up there as one of those Saturdays, as parents, you wish would end. Even when a season of your life is challenging, it will keep moving.

We spend our time shooting for moving targets, yearning for peace. We grasp at fleeting glimpses of paradise and when we feel secure we can be at our most vulnerable.

I had dinner with a friend of mine on Thursday, a man at the head of a local outreach organization for almost thirty years.  Two years ago the county government cut their funding abruptly.  I asked him if he ever doubted his purpose.  He said, only since the funding was cut. For decades he had security. Now he’s decided to dig in and fight to exist, to keep the dream alive.

He has a reason to hope.

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I’m in the midst of reading The Comeback by Louis Giglio.  Giglio is the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and the founder of the Passion conferences that draw thousands of college students internationally. In a chapter I read this week he says:

But no matter the pain we’re going through or the distance we’ve traveled away from God, Jesus is always there for us. He doesn’t stop healing us. He never stops forgiving us. He won’t stop restoring us. He refuses to stop loving us.

Those five sentences are life changing. No matter what is happening, God is still working in your life, still healing, still forgiving.  You are still being restored and loved.

No.

Matter.

What.

Every struggle. Every failure.  Every time I’ve taken three steps back after two forward.  Jesus is there.  The process is never-ending. Even in the darkest pit, we are being restored and healed.  Even in our hottest desert, we are loved.

Tomorrow, if you need a reason to worship and turn your heart to God, remember this.  You are a work in progress and, no matter where you are or how you feel, the work never stops and the greatest craftsman in the universe will never walk away.

~Matt

Unforgivable

“How many of you can say you would never kill someone?”

The question floated over us.  We were undergraduates in a Literature and Psychology class, an experience that goes down as one of my favorite semesters of my life.  The students were a mix of majors and the professor, Dr. Browne, had experience in both fields. We analyzed characters and ourselves as the months flew by.

As a young believer, I raised my hand. I thought, hey, followers of Jesus are all about peace and I would never take a life.

“You’re lying,” Dr. Browne said as he laughed. “You mean to tell me, if you walked into your house and found a guy attacking your family, you wouldn’t defend them? Even to the death?”

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As a family of believers, we are known more for what we don’t forgive than what we do. 2015 has become the year of exclusive faith, from bakeries to court clerks.

In the Bible, Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness.  The custom, at the time, was to forgive seven times.  Jesus replies not seven but seventy times seven. He forgives sins often, to the frustration and anger of the high priests. Only God, they believe, can forgive sins.

They’re right.

We’ve strayed from the path to the point of walking backwards. We focus on what we can’t do rather than the courage to take on new challenges and adventures. We ask for wisdom to avoid danger and ignore the strength needed to push forward. We react rather than act.

We’ve been pushed into a corner by our unwillingness to love our neighbors if they don’t behave the way we want.

The concept of forgiveness comes with implied empowerment. I forgive you is often heard, and said, with condescension and not humility. We need to redefine the term for what it really is:

Release

-from pain, anger, heartbreak and offense.

For the scars do not vanish. They get molded into a figure of beauty and grace blazing with the touch of the Almighty.

If you have a few minutes, watch this video posted by Bleacher Report.  It is the profile of Darnel Dockett, defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers.  Dockett’s mother was murdered when he was a young teenager.  Catch the last two minutes and pay attention.

How many of us would say the same to our mother’s killer?  I pray that, one day, Dockett gets his chance.

~Matt

Swallowed Up

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

Jonah is one of my favorite stories.

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

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

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

He had told them he was running from God.

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

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

Friends and family may be confronting you about your intentions.

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

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

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

Why the forgiveness?

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

Grace, grace, and grace again.

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

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

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

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

Your answer is coming.

~Matt

The Anchor of Forgiveness

This morning I checked the headlines for the day before work.  I flipped around until I found the impetus for this post.  The shooting in Charleston has caused the usual debates and discussion to rage around the country. Political and special interest groups grab for meaning and headlines. We start looking at gun control, mental health, racism, hate groups, crime and violence.

One part of this terrorist act makes it stand out.  Read the transcripts from the families of the victims and you’ll find it clear as day.

Forgiveness.

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The concept of forgiveness can be viewed through different lenses and it always carries weight. It walks hand in hand with guilt poured on from actions that may or may not be your own. If you are someone who follows Jesus, as the families of the victims, you see forgiveness as the cornerstone.

It anchors your faith.

It erases conditions. It reclaims power for those who stop being victims. It is a release.

Now those who enjoy philosophical debates like to throw around the question of volume.  Is there anything unforgivable? Does a mass murder carried out by a racist young white man qualify? How about the massacre of millions of people by political figures throughout history? How about those who killed in the name of their warped view of faith?

This conversation could be a book but I’ll leave off here:

I pray we never have to know a situation similar to the families of the victims. They have all right to forgive, even if some in society question or refuse to understand it. Jesus called for love to break down walls, for faith to move mountains and for sacrifice. These principals cross societal lines, gender, status, orientation, and location.

As humans, we can’t possibly get it right.  What those families did by facing down evil and responding with unfathomable grace, that reflected Jesus. That is the anchor of a church founded on a slave rebellion. It is the force that can, and should, bring down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capital building.  It is the force that can bring peace in the wake of violence and change after years of hatred.

The gunshots fired in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church echo well beyond the walls.

We have a choice: Let them fall silent or make sure they are always in our faith, hearts, and minds the next time we face the depth of darkness.

~Matt

 

White Out

I originally meant for this post to be about the Duggar kid and the admission that he molested the young girls in his family.  As a father with two young sons, I understand and appreciate the outrage related to anyone who dares harm a child, especially one in their own family.

A few years back I worked at the Children’s Home of Reading, a day school for youth with behavioral and emotional issues. I helped with their summer school for the residential population.  These were young men with issues, many victims of molestation themselves.  It broke my heart to see the products of innocence shattered by hands outside their control.

That is the issue.  It takes a monster to force their will sexually on a child. When that monster is a member of a family paraded on television trumpeting their “Christian” values, the anger is taken to another level. When you continue to read and discover how the family concealed and ignored the problem, you hit critical mass.

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So what have we learned?

Grace does not exclude consequences.  I believe in grace.  I also believe that we have a conceptualized image of grace that has damaged the church over the years.  When the Duggar parents refused to go to the police, they were wrong.  They sent a message to the victims that their son’s life mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Josh Duggar freely admits his actions and claims his forgiveness by his faith.  It is easy to do when you’re not sitting in jail for victimizing four little girls. Grace is a spiritual transaction not an excuse.

It is not a “get out of jail free” card.

Grace does exclude reality. The Duggar’s have been published making derogatory comments towards communities of different sexual orientations.  They had a chance to show both their son and his victims that they were taking this seriously. They could live in the real world and not hide their fear and hatred behind the wall of “faith,” yet they choose not to.

They claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, but their actions have little to do with Loving Your Neighbor (Mark 12:31). They are more than comfortable condemning perceived sin and yet Ignore the Plank in Their Own Eye (Matthew 7:5).

And this is the problem.

As the public pulls away in disgust, the Duggar’s keep saying “No, don’t worry. He’s forgiven. It’s all okay.”

Let me apologize.

As someone who claims to follow Jesus, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry that we’ve taken faith, married it to conservatism, and tried to sell it as THE WAY. I’m sorry that so many with a public forum represent Jesus so poorly. When people associate the term Christian with the family on 19 Kids and Counting, we’ve screwed up more than we know.

As a father, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry that men lack the backbone to protect their family when it is needed.  I’m sorry that they do not fight for their marriages and lead their children.  They care more about image than truth. We follow a God that led his own son to the cross and did not protect him from what needed to be done to change the world.

We love our kids, but not at the level of sacrificing and teaching what is right. Our love for our kids will never end, even if it means calling the police when the problem is out of your control.

Our forgiveness does not mean forgetting.  Our grace is not God’s grace, for that would put us on the level of the divine and we are not close. Our slates are never clean, they are gradually washed through years of faith, study, friendship, prayer, worship, laughter, conversation and change.

Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  After the resurrection, Jesus asks him three separate times if he loved him, following Peter’s answers with commands to “Feed my sheep.”  We read that Peter is hurt after the third question.  The parallel is complete.  Jesus made him face his denials. He didn’t say, “Peter, don’t worry about it, it’s all good.”

We must all face our actions.  Jesus is waiting on the other side ready to send us out as soon as we answer.  If we keep silent, hiding behind our politics, constructs, “faith” or fear, we will never hear his words.

Silence is much worse than any painful conversation waiting in our future.

~Matt