The Antihero

I read a statistic once saying that the popularity of a show like The Walking Dead could be correlated to economic dissatisfaction across society.  People like to see a representation of darkness and characters finding a way to survive. They love an escape and an outside enemy that will not stay dead is a perfect example of anxiety personified.

I went to see Suicide Squad the weekend it opened in theaters. The movie, one of the many made from the DC Comics universe, is based on a gang of villains recruited to stop an evil entity attacking the city.

The movie wasn’t the best.  If you are able to not think enough to ignore some horrible writing and acting, settling for action and special effects, you’d be happy. There’s a scene in a bar where the gang is debating whether to keep going with their mission.  One of the characters, with the ability to start fires, talks about burning his house down and killing his wife and children in the process.

Margo Robbie, playing Harley Quinn, tells him to own it.  She states that “normal is only a setting on the dryer.” Jared Leto, in the best performance of the movie, puts his spin on the Joker.

He asks Robbie’s character if she will die for him.  She says yes.  He thinks for a moment and tells her that is too easy.  He then asks if she will live for him.

The time frame for life is much longer than stepping into the void by following a cause.

This is the appeal of the antihero and we love our antiheroes.

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A trending Facebook headline tonight read that Amazon is releasing a documentary on Hugh Heffner. I scrolled through some responses and enjoyed the critics. You’d think Heff destroyed generations of the American family (maybe he did).

A rally for Donald Trump today, in Fairfield, Connecticut, drew almost 5,000 people. Just to let you in on the significance of that, Connecticut isn’t exactly a traditional bastion of Republican ideals.

We love our antiheroes. They give voice to things we don’t feel like we can access.  The bar of morality has vanished. Racism, sexism, violence, hatred, exploitation, whatever flavor you’d like.

They get ugly as we stand to the side and watch.

Suicide Squad is next in line chronologically from Batman vs. Superman.  Besides being another epic of horrible writing, the movie examines the relationship between power and responsibility.

Superman may save the world, but his collateral damage doesn’t just go away. Batman, honestly played well by a brooding Ben Affleck, dreams of the death of his parents and his inability to protect Gotham from Superman.

Regardless of our stance, we can’t stay neutral.  There is no still. We are riding our bikes up hill, either moving forward or drifting back.

As parents, we must take an accurate compass of society and be sure to communicate with our kids. We can help them know that everyone has a responsibility. They have a responsibility to you and their friends to be there and make a positive difference.

As those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we must never forget the message of love and peace. We know that God never gives up on us, never stops caring. We may feel the guilt of being unable to protect those we love from the dark side of life.  We may feel weak in the storm of audio and visual noise.

Antiheroes are flawed, even if they do not know it.

Being flawed is a constant reminder of grace.  If you are reading this and taking a breath, grace is alive and present in your life. Be thankful as you start a new week for the good thing to come and the positive changes in your future.

 

 

Intersection

Val often tells me a story about how brother attending church.  Her brother is an extremely talented guy.  I knew him before I met her and we had some good times growing up.  Over the years, he had visited a church or two but never really found one he’d liked.

The story goes that he was visiting a church where the youth pastor happened to do the message that Sunday.  He did the sermon barefoot first off (something that would weird me out also) then started talking about how great his life was.

The moment you hear a supposed man or woman of God talk about how great their life is and how you never suffer as one who follows Jesus, feel free to get up and head towards the door.  You’d learn more about Jesus at the Dunkin Donuts down the road.

The church stigmatized anxiety in a world full of it.

There’s a line in one of my favorite Bret Easton Ellis novels, Lunar Park, that I loveThe gist of the book is Ellis writing himself as the main character with his creations coming to life, including killer Patrick Bateman from his most famous work, American Psycho.

His character states that, as he drove down the road, every intersection was one turn away from a car accident waiting to happen.

The thought has stuck with me for years as a dad and husband.  Many days the car accidents feel one intersection away.

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We are allowed to be anxious.  Yes, friends can rattle off verse after verse about faith and hope, where our help comes from and casting our cares on Jesus. These are all good things.

They can coexist with anxiety.

I heard a pastor once say that faith and fear can’t coexist.

He’s wrong.

I have days of both.  Some weeks Faith is called Monday and Fear is called Tuesday.

As men we often try to pad things.  If you are reading this and married to one of us, know that the waters run deeper than we show. For me it is a constant feeling of electric tension, like a power line running through my chest.  I check my phone more often, waiting for that text message or voicemail of bad news.

Even if none seems on the horizon.

Anxiety opens the door to voices that can try to sell you wrong messages. You start talking circles around the tension in an attempt to beat it down. The words build on the feeling and you end up back where you started, looking at the ceiling as the night drifts past.

If this is you tonight, know that the sun still comes up tomorrow.  The story isn’t over.  Your worries carry an important lesson.  They can be a compass towards a better future.

It takes one step to move forward.  I know it isn’t easy, but movement is the key.

Thomas, the one stating he would only believe Jesus had risen if he appeared in the Upper Room, he personified anxiety and was, by far, one of the most human disciples. He is us.

“Yeah I get it, he’s alive and all, when I see it, I’ll believe. When I touch his wounds, I’ll believe.”

Jesus appears and holds out his hand offering Thomas a chance to do what he asked.  Thomas had to reach out to make it happen.  He could have stayed in his feelings, even staring face to face with Jesus.

He chose to move and see his faith complete.

~Matt

To My Son on Turning 8

Dear Carter,

Your labor wasn’t easy for mom.  Thirty-seven hours. Three visits to the hospital over the weekend before she was admitted. You tried for a regular birth but just couldn’t make it out.  The doctor had to go get you.

I remember, before he did, standing in the room with mom and the doctor watching the screen showing your pulse as it climbed and fell.   The air was thick, the lights unforgiving.

He stood and said they were doing a C Section and, in the middle of August, you arrived.

I was the first one to hold you.  Mom was in recovery and they wheeled you out to me.  We sat on a chair in the room with the television playing in the background just after midnight.  You didn’t cry.  We had peace.

You ended up in the NICU with an infection and, a few days later, we took you home.

I still look at that picture of the day you got home and wonder where the years have gone.

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You ran before you walked.  You woke at the first hint of a ray of sunshine and we spent many mornings on the couch at 6 am watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

I remember you starting preschool and, eventually, elementary school.  I remember dropping you off that day and crying at how much you’d grown and how, for the first time, you were in other hands.

I’ve watched you grow into a blonde ball of energy. Strong and strong-willed. You are my athlete, sensitive and caring. You have your mother’s big heart, even if you don’t know it yet.

Great things are coming for you. New experiences and learning, new friends and activities. I wish you joy as you learn more about who you are.

I’m sorry for not being the perfect dad, for the days where my energy doesn’t match your own and my patient is spent. I’m trying my best and will keep working to do better. I want you to be as proud of me as I am of you.

Your world will only get bigger and wider. You will keep learning.  You will inherit the good and bad from my generation and you’ll need to handle it with strength that will come from these years.

You will know the love of Jesus, of community and service.  You’ll meet an amazing woman and find yourself with a family one day.  You’ll call mom and I when your son has jumped off the couch for the 1000th time after you said not to do it and you’ll ask us how we managed.

I’ll hand her the phone and laugh.

Happy Birthday son,

Matt

 

 

Turn

I’ve spent all of last week and will spend all of this week working in an area with a television.  That allows me to watch the news and the morning talk shows. In the midst of this election season, it is not always a good thing.

I’m tired of the bickering, the scandals, the email leaks and name calling. I’m tired of listening to both parties fighting like school kids on a playground.

As annoying as it gets, conflict has defined this world recently more than ever before. We have terrorist violence in Europe, opposing groups here ready to step up in an instant.  Even when we know there are good and honorable police officers, the headlines seem filled with ones that cannot do their job without issues.

In one of the more challenging passages in the Bible (Matt 5:39), Jesus gives us a valuable statement on violence.

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

This doesn’t fly with America.  We’re fighters! We stand up to evil and sniff it out wherever we find it. We’re the big dogs ready to police the world.

Yet, Jesus tells us differently.

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In that sentence, he’s speaking on the street to an oppressed people. Violence was a fact of life. The Roman Empire ruled over Jerusalem. They could take, and do, what they wanted.

Jesus tells the crowd not to resist.

See, violence gives us a few choices: Counter punch.  Bob and weave.  Hit them first before they can hit us. All of these are responses in fear.

Jesus tells us to not be afraid.

Stand firm. Turn the other cheek.

It takes more strength to stand your ground.  Jesus knew this.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. Anyone who has faced down opposition and held to what they believed, they’ve known this.

Every martyr living in the midst of a hostile country and serving in love. Every mother sitting up late for her son when she has to work in the morning because she refuses to give up on him.

Every teacher reaching out to the kid sitting alone at the lunch table.  Every coworker speaking out against harassment.

Every hero in the midst of the city understanding that the norm is not acceptable.

All of these know about turning the other cheek.

The key isn’t fighting back.

It is rising above.

~Matt

 

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

 

 

Never Give Up

I remember, almost twenty years ago, going on the first date with my wife.  I remember our first movie together. I remember holding hands and driving around for hours as we soaked up every single second of new love.

We would walk around the mall and window shop furnishings for our future home. We’d stop and get frozen yogurt parfait cups at this little stand inside the mall and sit on a bench watching people walk by.

We had hope for the future.

Future that included picking out a wedding ring and the thrill of a proposal, the excitement of being new parents, and discovering who we were as we grew up from teenagers to adults.

Today the most dangerous thing we can do, as people and as a country, is lose hope.

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I believe in the power of change. I believe something better is on the horizon.

Somewhere in a room, in a city, a young man or woman is deciding to grow up and run for political office.  They will revolutionize the country with a platform of unity, peace and love.

Somewhere in a patrol car a police officer is making the choice to go out for another shift and do what is right even with a target on their back and today, in this moment, they will save a life that will start a movement and turn the tide against hate and division.

Somewhere on a playground a kid will look up from a text message to see bullying and put down their phone to stop it, changing the life of the victim and giving them hope that there is still good in the world and people do care.

Somewhere a shopper in a grocery store will buy some extra items of food and drive it to a friend or coworker in need.

Someone will find the courage to leave their apartment after months alone.

A terminal diagnosis will be reversed with healing that cannot be explained.

A father will come home.

A mother will find strength she didn’t know she had and stand up to lead her family.

A son will put down the needle and call for help.

A young couple will lock eyes across a bookstore and start a conversation that leads to laughter and a spark of connection.

I believe in hope for now. In powerful, positive change. There is always a reason to fight, to stand up against darkness and show it we will not sit quietly, to break the cycle of anger and make a difference.

I believe the time has come.

~Matt

 

The Night Of

If you are looking for a new television show, head to HBO or download their app and check out The Night Of. Penned by outstanding crime author Richard Price, and based off a series in the UK, it is a classic murder mystery set in the tensions of today’s society.

I’ll spare more important plot details and just tell you to watch it.  Seriously, you’ll be hooked.

There’s a scene where John Turturro, playing the veteran defense lawyer, is counseling his client, played on point by actor Riz Ahmed. Turturro tells Ahmed not to speak to anyone.  It doesn’t matter who comes into his cell and asks questions, just say “I don’t know,” and “Talk to my lawyer.”

Ahmed states he just wants to tell the truth, asking “don’t you want to know the truth?”

Turturro says no, that the truth doesn’t matter.

It is only their story versus the prosecution and which one will stand up in the eyes of the jury.

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Story has the power to move.

Write a sentence that plays the right chord and you’ll have an audience in the palm of your hand. I once had a professor tell me that no story is unbiased.  Watch the news and you are seeing an interpretation of events. There is nothing that scrolls across the screen of our smart phones without being filtered through an agenda.

One of the most interesting statements in the Bible comes from Pilate at the trial of Jesus. We read in the Gospel of John that Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate replies:

“What is truth?”

You could take this multiple ways and write multiple books on the subject. Pilate certainly wanted to move on from the trial.  He ends it after his rhetorical question and tells the audience of religious leaders that he has no basis to charge Jesus of any crime.

He could have assessed Jesus to see if there was any claim to royalty, any threat to Roman rule.  Or, as one experienced in litigation, maybe he followed the rule Turturro stated a few thousand years later.

What is truth?

The story matters, for in the story hides the truth.

There’s a reason Jesus preached in parables. There’s a reason a movement started inside an empty tomb a few days after that trial as the story spread mouth to mouth. There’s a reason the movement caught fire when people realized the potential of true, selfless love.

We stand at a crossroads, a country facing a change in leadership that could drastically shift the future. It is time for those who claim to follow Jesus to stand on the power of the story and know the bottom line.

The line that ends, and starts, at the cross.

~Matt

Love, Water, Death, Peace

“What’s baptism?”

The question came from Carter in the back seat. We had just driven by the front of our church where a pool was set up for the annual outdoor summer baptism service.

I thought about the handful of linguistic avenues to answer the question and which ones could be handled at his age, staring off into the setting sun.

The world is moving towards death.

We have individuals sold out on belief systems that allow them to drive a truck through a crowd of people in France and kill almost a hundred men, women, and children. The tensions of difference are felt more now than ever.

People are angry.

There are voices for peace and yet, as this nation looks towards an election, the loudest voice cries and prods our implicit fears of the other, that somehow we are losing a war to get back what was never ours in the first place.

There’s a Flannery O’Connor short story called The River. Her main character is a little boy who is taken to see a pastor baptize people in their local river one day.  The boy, in the midst of a chaotic  and horrid existence, returns to the river and ends up drowning in his attempt to get to heaven.

Philip, we read in the book of Acts, meets an Ethiopian eunuch on the side of the road attempting to read the scriptures.  He explains what he can about Jesus and the eunuch, the classic “outsider,” states that he must be baptized right away as they are seated next to a body of water.  Philip complies and his action leads to Ethiopia being the first Christianized country in the ancient world

Baptism is about death. It is about being the outsider.

It is about love.

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In Pastor Erwin McManus’s recent podcast about the Last Supper, he mentions the point  in the Upper Room where we are told that “all power returns to Jesus.”

All power.

Snap your fingers and form a universe.

And what does Jesus do with it?  He grabs a bowl of water and washes the feet of the disciples.

He could have, in a moment, taken apart that room atom by atom and rearranged it anywhere in the entirety of space and time.  He could have vanished Judas on the spot, sending him to hell in punishment of the betrayal that hadn’t happened yet.

Yet Jesus, God and man, serves in love.

Imagine if our leaders followed the same example?

In Malcom Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, he mentions a study of crime and policing in major cities.  Know what made a difference?  Not the might of authority.  Not the threat of a bigger punishment.

Cities and towns turned around when they realized that the police department cared. When officers went the extra mile and reached out to provide for basic needs, when they showed that they were invested in their territories beyond their badges. When they talked to parents and friends of teens and made a point to tell them they were worth it.

Service in love.

We kept driving to our destination as Carter waited for my answer.  Just what was baptism about?  I swallowed.

Well, I said, let me tell you a story…

 

Matt

 

 

Lingering

First, I want to apologize for a delay in posting.  The last two weeks have been busy, more than usual. Inspired by a few points I’ve written about recently, I decided to go back to school and make some concrete moves to follow a dream and gain some stability in life.

My heart breaks for all involved in the shootings across the country this past week. This country is sitting on a crisis point, one that arrived on the waves of two hundred years of history.

Then I find out a few days ago that my cousin, my closest female relative in age who was always like a sister to me, is in ICU dealing with a cardiac issue. She’s too young to have these problems and we are all concerned, as a family, praying and pushing hard for her recovery.

She had done something we all do, wait for what seems like an innocent illness to pass and, when it doesn’t, finally go to the doctors. It was almost too late.

Lingering pain can destroy our lives.

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We get comfortable in our narratives.

This morning I took Carter to a pediatric sleep specialist at Penn State Health.  He hasn’t slept a full night in close to five years. We just keep sleeping with him to maintain some level of peace and get him back down as quick as possible.

It was time for a change and, thankfully, he will have a sleep study.

It was too easy to let it go and tell ourselves things will change at some point.

We get this way with our faith, our physical health, our families and our marriages.  Change takes effort on both sides, bringing whatever we have and meeting God in a divine collision.

For there is no such thing as stasis.  If we aren’t moving forward, we are falling back.

I’m in the midst of reading Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog about the founding of Nike. He mentioned something the other night that stuck with me.

He said that the essence of competition is forgetting, forgetting the past and ignoring the voice that tries to convince you to stop. It is facing each challenge with a fresh template.

As impossible as it seems, the power of the past can be broken.  From a macro level with policy reforms and new leaders to the micro level of taking a step of faith. It may sound cliché at this point, but I believe that God has a purpose for all of us.

We have a difference to make and, if you are reading this tonight, your difference is still waiting.  Your job isn’t over.

Your divine collision is on the horizon.

~Matt

 

Labels

My birthday was two days ago and, as a gift, my mother gave me a Barnes and Noble gift card. This is my standard answer whenever anyone asks me what I want for a holiday or occasion.

Let me pick up a book and I’ll be happy.

I took it over to our local store and got Shoe Dog, a memoir by Phil Knight. Knight founded Nike and turned his idea of importing cheap shoes into a sports empire. I just started the book and Knight talks about his dream of entrepreneurship.

He mentions speaking with his father about needing money to travel the world and chase down the passion that inflamed him existence.  He was worried, he writes, because people weren’t stepping out in the late 1960’s. At least his family was not.

They were trapped in the appearance of respectability, surviving, and making enough for the nice house in the quiet neighborhood. To his surprise, Knight’s father gave him the money for the trip.

He was willing to break the power of the label.

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One of my strongest influences, Pastor Erwin McManus from Mosaic in Los Angeles, spoke about this is a recent podcast.  He stated that we were originally all created on an even playing field. It took the understanding of self to break the equality.

He mentioned the theory that, when babies first notice their reflection, their sense of self is forever altered.  They cannot go back. The first mirror humanity ever looked into was the eyes of a snake in the Garden of Eden, he stated. He went on to say:

Every label we make; white, black, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, every single one builds a wall.

These walls push us far away from the original design for creation and lead us ever closer into the arms of grace and love.

We love our labels, though.  They are so addicting.

We wear them as badges of honor. They are our possessions. They are our children we push vicariously into territories they never wanted and tell ourselves that we are expanding their horizons. They are our jobs.

They become our paths.

It takes power to break labels and find the depth of what God wants to pour out in our lives. It takes an effort to see people for their souls and not their surface. It takes the touch of God to turn our focus from ourselves and what we can get to others and what we can give.

On that July 4th so long ago, people came together to say they’d had enough.  They were ready to do something drastic and find their freedom.  This year (I always think of my birthday as the start of a new year) my goal is to do the same, to make big moves and take steps for real and valuable change.

It is time to make a difference, for this world needs difference makers that can help us see past labels, destroy walls, and make things better for all.

~Matt