The Bird

I parked my car outside of work this morning with about five minutes to spare. I opened the car windows to let in a breeze and checked the headlines for the day on my phone.  Movement, just on the other side of the hood, caught my eye.

I had parked across from a shrub, about knee-high, and trimmed in the shape of a U.  It was a bright green and, just in the midst of the branches, flashed a streak of yellow.  As I watched, it flashed again and the movement took shape.

A smear of black sat above the yellow wings and body. Deep inside this shrub, a bird had settled in the morning sun.

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This was no forest, no sanctuary. This was no mountain or stream running close by.

This was a parking lot.

The bird could have flown to a much nicer environment.  An elementary school sits just past the parking lot surrounded by trees. In a minute, it could have found an entire group of trees, real trees, and set up shop. It could have lived a fairly solid bird life.

But it was nestled in this shrub, in this parking lot, not seeing the horizon beyond the branches.

This is one of those weeks, one of times of spiritual surgery. You feel like you are on the operating table and someone forgot the anesthesia. Doors close while others open. Prayers are answered as quick as needs arise. Through it all, God offers assurance.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Faith is the search. The fight. The effort to keep moving even if you can’t see the end.  It is one more word, one last phone call, one hug that helps a person fight their depression one more night. It is picking up when you don’t have the energy to move and pushing through.

For our walls can be climbed. Our cage can be opened. Our future is planned and known.  Our dreams are a guide. Great things are coming. I don’t mean some corny prosperity gospel thing.

I mean victories. Creation. Love. Peace. Movement. Building bridges. Helping someone know and understand that they matter, that their fight is important to you.

For are known by the fight, not the end result.  We are called to radical love that destroys the precepts of this world. Jesus told us to Go. Follow. Pray. Sacrifice. Make Disciples.

The day to rest is the day we find ourselves called home once again.

The day to move is now.

~Matt

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Finding Home

“That was a tent city over there.” I look towards a small park tucked in the midst of a block across from where we were standing. “They cleared it out, called in buses and moved the people to housing.”

Randy Simmons had just parked his white van at the entrance to the Senior Center. It was a clear morning, the sun cutting shafts through the trees and a wind blowing crisp enough to remind you that spring was not here, not in this city, not yet.

We unloaded food, selections ranging from vegetables and fruit to sandwiches, meat, and snacks. They would go to help feed more than eighty residents of the facility. The food was spread on tables and separated by employees. Residents gather and wait as a young man traveling with us, one of the success stories, offers a prayer.

It is a run Simmons does on a weekly basis.

We cross the city, stopping outside City Lights shelter. Today’s construction project is assisting with the clean up on six floors of a building that had just suffered fire damage.  A crowd gathers on the sidewalk. Simmons explains the job and the location.  It will bring some activity, a little money, and lunch.

It will provide a sense of purpose.

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Our last stop is the building itself.  I watch the workers go inside. A Jeep pulls into the parking area.  George and Nancy Lennert, a husband and wife team of real estate person/writer, and entrepreneurs , exit the van. We shake hands and talk about the story of Reading.

Simmons hurries from the lot, driving to Lowe’s to buy twenty brooms so his guys can work.  Standing around does nothing.  The work will always be there and the ones willing to step up and take the job can make a difference.  Some will get hired and maybe grab the foundation they need.

We join hands in a circle, feet standing on muddied ground and heads bowed. Nancy (you can find her book here) offers a prayer, a genuine cry to see change in the city, for our words and actions to make a difference in the lives around us. The building behind us will become apartments, homes for those who need them.

The symbolism cuts in many ways.  We are all burned buildings, our past behind us and a massive cleaning effort working in our hearts. We are projects and it takes the work of many dedicated men and women to finish the job.

I realized, as I drove away, that I had found a home.  I found the men and women I needed to work with, to be around.  I had found the ones I could help with these words, with this book.  I had seen and felt God’s hand moving, the power of his love flowing in the streets.

This was purpose, the reason behind the story.  This was power.

This is faith.

~Matt

 

The Page that Changed My Writing Life

As writers, we all have that book, play, screenplay, short story, etc. that made us want to write.  You read it and your soul connects.  The words call you out of darkness and on the path to living a creative life.  For some, it may be all the works of a single author.  For me, it was a single page.

Yes, I can tell you the moment I knew that Val and I would be together forever and I can tell you the moment I knew that writing was the endeavor that completed my sentence, literally and spiritually.

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Here it is, from Graham Greene’s, The Heart of the Matter, 1948:

Mrs. Bowles said, “Don’t be absurd. Are you qualified to dispense? I’ll only be away a few minutes. If the child shows signs of going, call me.”

If she had given him time, he would have thought of some excuse, but she was already out of the room and he sat heavily down in the only chair. When he looked at the child, he saw a white communion veil over her head: it was a trick of the light on the pillow and a trick of his own mind. He put his head in his hands and wouldn’t look. He had been in Africa when his own child died. He had always thanked God that he had missed that. It seemed after all that one never really missed a thing. To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion.

He prayed silently into his hands, “O God, don’t let anything happen before Mrs. Bowles comes back.”

He could hear the breathing of the child. It was as if she were carrying a weight with great effort up a long hill: it was an inhuman situation not to be able to carry it for her. He thought: This is what parents feel year in and year out, and I am shrinking from a few minutes of it. They see their children dying slowly every hour they live.  

He prayed again, “Father, look after her. Give her peace.”  The breathing broke, choked, began again with terrible effort. Looking between his fingers he could see the six-year-old face convulsed like a navvy’s with labor.  “Father,” he prayed, “give her peace. Take away my peace forever, but give her peace.” The sweat broke out on his hands. “Father . . .”

 He heard a small scraping voice repeat, “Father,” and looking up he saw the blue and bloodshot eyes watching him. He thought with horror: this is what I thought I’d missed. He would have called Mrs. Bowles, only he hadn’t the voice to call with.

He could see the breast of the child struggling for breath to repeat the heavy word; he came over to the bed and said, “Yes, dear. Don’t speak, I’m here.”

The nightlight cast the shadow of his clenched fist on the sheet and it caught the child’s eye. An effort to laugh convulsed her, and he moved his hand away. “Sleep, dear,” he said, “you are sleepy. Sleep.”A memory that he had carefully buried returned, and taking out his handkerchief he made the shadow of a rabbit’s head fall on the pillow beside her. “There’s your rabbit,” he said, “to go to sleep with. It will stay until you sleep. Sleep.”

The sweat poured down his face and tasted in his mouth as salt as tears.

“Sleep.”

He moved the rabbit’s ears up and down, up and down. Then he heard Mrs. Bowles’ voice, speaking low just behind him. “Stop that,” she said harshly, “the child’s dead.”

 

The main character, Major Scobie, is stationed in colonial Africa during WWII.  The girl he’s with washed up outside his settlement, part of a group of shipwreck survivors.  He visits the medical ward and Mrs. Bowles tells him she must go get medicine.  He begs her not to leave and she says, basically, to man up and sit with the girl.

Greene accomplishes so much in these lines that you could teach an entire writing class about them.  Scobie’s character mentions the death of his own child.  He’s praying, bargaining with God as to not have to witness the death of the girl while thinking about the nature of suffering.  His nerves kick in.  The girl starts to repeat his prayer and Greene hits you with the image of the “blue and bloodshot eyes.”

Poetic and powerful

He makes the rabbit shadow and we can feel his heart breaking as he tries to provide some level of comfort. The end, where Bowles returns, slams the door on the moment.  Death, at this settlement, was a facet of everyday life. You could argue that Scobie does, and does not get his wish.  Bowles returns too late for the death that Scobie does not recognize.

The first time I read those lines, I had to put the book down and absorb it.  Greene became my literary destination and guide.  If only I could capture a fraction of that ability, I thought, I could make this journey work.

So what was your moment of epiphany, where you knew you were a slave to the story?  It is a point you never forget.

 

Soundtrack inspiration:

Discovered the worship band Waken and fell in love with their music.  Check it out:

Lessons Learned

Next time you’re in a social gathering and the conversation lulls, start talking about school.  Just the word carries an interesting association for us.  Some people have good memories of school, others not so good with things like bullying or struggle.  School meant proving yourself against the standards of your friends, parents, and society.

It was a metaphor for life.

A story stuck with me this week out of Pakistan. A terrorist group had broken into a military school and killed more than 150 people including more than 100 children. This was done in retaliation to military activities in the region.  A hundred children lost their lives in a war they had nothing to do with.

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I was a student in high school myself when Columbine happened and I remember our teachers turning it on to watch on televisions in the classrooms.  This kind of thing was so foreign at the time.  Schools were safe, our 9-5 jobs while the real world happened outside the walls.  Suddenly, when kids could get guns and bring them into a school building to kill people, life was not the same.

Last week, I wrote about why we write. There is something else to add.

As writers we have a responsibility to the world. We are called to be voices in the darkness, to stand up for those who cannot speak, to let our words capture outrage against violence, fury for those who suffer, and hope against discrimination.

Our pages should be fiery sermons delivered digitally and in print calling the world to attention.   We should be Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, lone figures shining bright for peace and refusing to go quietly into the night.

We should be matches that light the fires of change.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend from Reading, Pennsylvania, the city that is the topic of my next book-in-progress.  She has resided there twenty years now and seen the true depths of poverty and redemption.  We were talking about what it meant for her to call the poorest city in the country home.

She looked at me and said:

“You need to tell the story, to tell what’s happening in this city with these people who are struggling.”

She’s my inspiration and her advice applies to you too.

You need to tell your story, so what are you waiting for?

~Matt

The Closed Doors

There was no room at the inn.

The expression, from the Christmas Story as recorded in scriptures, has come to mean many different things.  Mary and Joseph needed a place to stay.  She was pregnant. They checked around and found no inn with a spare room, ending up in a stable.  They faced many closed doors.

We all face our closed doors.

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You can be moving along and gradually, or suddenly, things fall apart.  Your path shifts. The climb is now up hill. The promises you know as truth seem so far away and you look to God and wonder where the target on your back came from.

Closed doors are a necessary part of life.

On Thanksgiving, I spoke to a friend at Hope Rescue Mission.  He was having a rough few weeks.  His children and wife were dealing with medical issues.  An extended family member was seriously sick.  He felt beaten down.  He sighed and looked at me.

“You know you’re moving in the right direction when the Devil tries to hit back,” he said.

Where are you taking your hits this week?  Looking for a new job? Kids creating stress with the holidays? Finances getting thin while your waist line may be moving the other direction?

When we follow our calling, we will face closed doors.  God’s answers will come in their time, not ours.  We can’t lose hope and I write this sentence for you as much as for me. We will get pressed, and pressure is a good sign to keep fighting.  Use it as a barometer to know you are making a difference.

Even if  you end up in your version of a stable, shake off the cold, ignore the animals, and know that the universe was changed in such a place so many years before. That night it was the perfect, and only, option.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration:

“When I am weak, you’re strong.  Your grace is all I’ve got.  What love is this that loves no matter what?” ~Strong by The City Harmonic

Why We Write: To Answer a Calling

Great writers are born, not made. This cliché is all over the world of writing, as if it is some exclusive club.  I’m here to tell you this is not true.

If you’re like me, you probably have looked in the mirror once or twice and asked what you were meant to do. In my application essay for Fairfield University, I wrote that we are all incomplete sentences. We spend our lives looking for the ending.  We try relationships, work, substances both good and bad.  We throw ourselves into things to find meaning.

I am a writer. There was never a different option.

The trick is giving yourself permission to claim your ending.

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The trick is understanding why.

There are a handful of “overnight” success stories. Stroll through your local bookstore and you’ll see shelves full of people who have gained contracts and released something for the world to consume. The mistake is measuring yourself against these other writers.  They have their stories.

You have yours.

We aren’t called to write for the shelves or Kindles. We write to make a difference.  You are called to make a difference.  The payoff is when one person, someone you’ve never met, posts a comment, sends an email, or tells you they were impacted by your work.  When they tell you that you’ve changed their life, gave them hope, and let them know it will be okay.

We write to serve, not to sell.  When you answer the call and put your thoughts on paper, you’ll be amazed at what can happen.

~Matt

Why We Write: To Heal Old Wounds

I had worked my way through writing a novel about a dysfunctional family and pair of brothers in a complex relationship.  Their lives were filled with jealousy, betrayal, and power struggles. After my climactic scene of Part 2, I had one brother call the other on the phone, only to get his voice mail and leave a message in anger and frustration.

My mentor read the section and called me on the phone.

“They need to have that conversation,” she said. “He can’t avoid the fight.”

Just the thought made me uncomfortable. I’m not a guy who likes conflict.

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Every story contains a part of the author.  Writers are born haunted people. We work to chronicle life and human emotion.  We push our hurt and pain into our words. The old saying is that there’s only seven original stories to tell.  The great ones, from the Bible to Shakespeare and Steinbeck, contain deep and powerful conflict.

They also have hope.

Stories allow us to live vicariously through our characters, to test drive solutions, to have arguments we wanted to have with people we may never see again. They allow us to get the last word and, when we empty out our emotions it creates a cathartic moment. We see different angles and empathize in places we may not have before.

Writing allows us to face our demons.  Words can heal. They deepen our understanding of life and teach our audience how to be more authentically human. They are a psychic connection of thoughts and images, flow and feelings.

We write to heal ourselves and, by extension, those who honor us by reading our stories. It is not easy but, in the end, it is the most rewarding part of the job.

~Matt

Choose Life

This morning, in church, we had our service remembering veterans and their sacrifices to our country.  The service is traditional and powerful, always including a time to invite veterans in the service to the stage to be recognized.  Every year the stage is full of men and women, young and old, from all branches of the military. I’m always touched by this display and thankful to my friends and their loved ones who have served.

Two young men split the message today, both wounded in action in the Middle East, and both representatives of Operation Warrior Reconnect. They were poised, eloquent, funny, and emotional. The first spoke about being talking to his wife on the cell phone, in his bunk in Afghanistan, and having the building hit by a rocket attack.  He spoke about the desire to keep fighting, even with deep injuries to his leg, back, and head.  He talked about coming home and the struggle of his wife and family, about the challenges of adapting to normal life.

This soldier, and his wife, had both attempted suicide more than once.

A line from his story stuck with me.  He said:

You don’t have to be in combat to get wounded.  The key is to choose life.

Every day is a choice. You can live or stay on the sidelines. I’m tired of the sidelines. There’s too many goals I’ve put off for tomorrow, too many missed opportunities.  What if we lived every moment as a chance to be at our best? What if every situation was there for the taking? How would your life look if you grasped all the promises of the next sunrise?

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National Geographic made this their most recent coverage image.  Photographer Martin Schoeller snapped this shot of Layka, a Belgian Malinois, who lost a leg from three AK-47 rounds in Afghanistan. Layka took this fire protecting a squad of troops.  You can see her medal in the picture. There is something of beauty and power there.

I’d take a thousand magazine covers like this over the usual crap at the grocery store.

So this month, don’t forget to say thank you and welcome home to a veteran you know and love.  We are free because some chose to stand and fight, to protect the innocent and right the wrongs of the world.  Use their sacrifice and service as inspiration to fight your own battle.  Find your day one.  Turn away from the addiction. Call that person you’re avoiding. Write the first sentence.

Write the first word. Take the first step.

Seize the day.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: This music video made national headlines as the David Crowder Band actually used Lite Brites in the filming.  The story of the song will touch your heart.

Feel Good Friday 10/3/2014

Robin Macmillan is a photographer in Canada and a cancer survivor.  It took a brush with the disease to inspire her to follow her dreams and create stunning photography. There is power is creation and finding your passion.  Macmillan used her camera to tell her story.  If you are in the midst of suffering, document your feelings in words or pictures. Capture the storm inside. Use it for motivation to find victory.  Don’t ever give up.

You can find Macmillan’s story and her photographs here.

 

Berks Coalition to End Homelessness

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Like the volunteer pictured above, the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness is a cooperation of individuals and businesses directly making an impact on the city in the effort to combat homelessness. It includes over sixty agencies and businesses. The Coalition takes the lead in HUD grant application for the county and is an important contact point for other service agencies in the city.  I met with Sharon Parker, the Executive Director, one afternoon at Barnes and Noble.  She told me about the numerous projects they have on the table including an effort to obtain housing for homeless families in Berks County. You can find their website here with a wealth of information and links.  You can find donation information here.

Soundtrack Inspiration: