Identity

Yesterday was not easy.  A few different things in life have crept up on us.  Money is tight. The kids are crazy. The temps have risen and the weeks are busy, even without school. Carter has a camp in the morning Monday through Friday.  They usually spend the afternoon at the pool and, when they get home, they fight like cats and dogs.

I’ve found out that, at these points, God is trying to tell me something. Yesterday I went to the pool after work to check in with Val and the kids, then drove home.  I walked inside overwhelmed, hot, and tired. Scrolling through Facebook I found a preview of a message from Pastor Erwin McManus, my favorite speaker. I knew, after watching the minute clip, I had to see the entire thing.

The theme of the word was Unchained, a message about where and how we find our identities, about our mentality moving forward.  I was challenged and convicted in many ways.  Today, this morning, it still has me thinking.

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The hardest part of your 30’s is that the foundation of your past is tested.  You spend your teens forming adult you will become, your 20s finding out more about that person and grasping the freedoms (and responsibilities) that find you.  In your 30’s you find out if your foundation was true or needed some adjustment.  It seems to be the testing period more than any other.

In your 20’s you have hope and time to catch up.  In your 30’s, your spot in the game of life has cleared slightly. You start to understand.

One thing Pastor Erwin said in his message is that we often tell a dangerous lie, that once you come to faith things will get easier. Often, it does not. God will tear you down to build you into the person you are designed to be.  I’ve come to understand this is a pillar of faith.  It took time to get there, but I got it.  We are called to refinement through our struggles.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of surviving.  I want to live.  I want to dream big, to write words that impact the world.  I want to step out into the universe and play a part in changing lives. That person, that idealized self, may seem a million miles away right now, but he does exist.

I believe we are called to more.

We try to find our identities so many places.  We grasp onto groups and things, we try to find the mystery of who we are and, in doing so, we push away and pull in those swirling in our orbit. We take out our frustrations, get jaded, and suddenly a year becomes ten.

Faith is so hard.

Ever notice that theme in the Bible? The one the prosperity guys try to ignore?  Paul is blinded.  Peter denies Jesus. John is jailed in exile. One by one the disciples are martyred for their faith. Those meeting Jesus are taken to their breaking points, or are there already.

The hard part is claiming who you are and what comes with it.  The responsibilities of faith, to impact the world and change lives.  To reach out to those in pain and offer solace, to express your feelings when they’ve been hidden away for years.  To open yourself up to pain, to trust, to love from someone when everyone else has broken your heart.

So the journey may not get easier right now.  The choice, though, that is step one. Make the choice.  As I tell my kids all the time,  nothing changes if nothing changes.

If I could tell you the mountain I’m staring up at right now, truly capture it in words, you would understand how hard it is to write this.  Maybe you are staring at your own mountain to climb, chasm to cross, river to swim.  The life God wants for you waits at the other side. It may be easier to turn around but, every time that clock ticks part of your soul will pull you back to the decision point.

One day you take step one.  Until then, be strong and know you will make it.

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Impulse

Peter is one of my favorite dudes in the Bible. He’s all of us getting the chance to hang out with the one that changes the entire universe.  He jumps to the front of the line, speaks before he thinks, and tries way too hard.

He wasn’t always on the good side of Jesus.

The night of the arrest in the Garden, Peter cuts the ear off a Roman soldier. Later, faced with the thought of his own arrest and punishment, he issues his denials. Those moments stand out in the midst of faith stories.  We tend to gloss over them and rush to his reinstatement.  We don’t want to think about denying faith, about what we would do when pressed with a death or decision moment.

Peter, in his fear, acts on impulse and I get it.  I’d bet you get it too. Imagine, all the things he’s seen, all the miracles, the rising tide of crowds and revolution.

The betrayal.

The one who would finally give freedom is now in shackles. All the evidence goes out the window of short-term memory because, if you say yes, you’ll be there too. Suddenly going back to the lake seems like a good alternative.

The familiar provides a warm bed to distract us from a life of electric possibility.

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Last night, Carter was angry.  He was tired and angry, not an easy combination for a kid with anxiety. After talking for a few minutes, he calmed.

I had read something earlier in the day online that reaction for kids dealing with hyperactivity and anxiety are emotion-based.  This means they don’t try to purposefully make their parents angry.  As I spoke to him, the thought bounced around in my head.

It is not an issue of impulse, it is a matter of emotion.

I knelt across from him and took his hand in my own. I looked in his eyes, red and laced with tears, and asked him a question.

“Do you really want to feel like this?”

He took a breath and said no.

For the first time, in the moment, I saw things for how they were.  His issues were something concrete outside himself.  They didn’t own him. They weren’t his identity. They were something we could help with, work with, and teach him how to cope with and forge himself into the person he wants to be.

We stood and I hugged him, pulled him close and shut my eyes. I told him I loved him.

For a second, I understood.  That actions don’t make the person, that impulses are what they are. That Carter’s feelings ran as deep as his soul and that we had hope.  We would walk forward together.  No matter how many bumps in the road, we’d come back to a moment as father and son.

As I was going to bed last night, I stepped into his room and looked at him sleeping.  I thought, for the first time in a while, that we could do this.  It would take effort, time, honesty, and work but we could do this.  We could do this.

We could do this.

The Floor

I hit bottom last night.

I’d woken up not feeling well from the night before, went to work and had a stressful twelve hours, had to stay late for reasons outside my control and, by the time I sat in the car, I was finished.

Everything just piled on. Every area of our lives felt like it is malfunctioning. We’re getting attacked on all fronts.

At these points you stop expecting something good to happen and worry about when the next bad news will hit.

I called Val as I drove home, my voice breaking with emotion. I felt like a boxer in the final round, the punches starting to hit home, and legs starting to give out.

After we ended our call I turned down the radio and prayed.

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God can handle honesty, so I let it fly with every single What is Happening and Why Us question I could find, the pain, hurt and frustration flowing until tears blurred the tail lights of the cars in front of me.

There’s a point where you let go of every cultural reference, movie, book, conversation, influence, or resource that you know. You stop trying to find solutions, give up on logic and sit in silence.

Your heart and God. Creation and Creator.

I wish I could say I heard an answer and found a direction, that a sign fell from the sky and landed in the back seat of the car but it didn’t. The rest of the ride was silence.

And that’s okay.

Because it needed to come out and maybe that’s the point in silence. For God to pull down through the walls we build up as men, husbands, and fathers and draw out the emotions we work so hard to hide.

The truth will set you free.  Even if its standing at the foot of the cross and pointing a finger to the sky in frustration.

At least you’re standing there.

As I type this, gratefully off from work for the day, Aiden is sleeping on the couch to my left. The house is quiet. The day is sunny and warm for November.

The breakdown of last night is still in my mind and I wonder what will happen today.  How will things be different? There’s a cliché that the only constant force is change.

I’m praying that’s true because we can’t live in the brokenness.  The wounds from ten years of struggling are too deep for too long and it is time to start moving again.

One step at a time.

 

 

 

 

Is This It?

I recently watched the movie Risen.  Originally meant as a sequel to Passion of the Christ, it took on a life of its own without Mel Gibson’s involvement.  The film tells the story of a Roman tribune Clavius, played masterfully by Joseph Fiennes.

Clavius is present at the crucifixion and is ordered by Pilate to go find the body of Jesus to stop any kind of rebellion that may happen if followers steal the body and claim him risen. He goes searching and, spoiler alert, finds the resurrected Jesus meeting with the disciples in the upper room.

Clavius follows the disciples to Galilee and, in one of the most powerful scenes, wakes in the middle of the night to see Jesus sitting away from him on a rock.  He joins him and they have a unique conversation.

Jesus asks what frightens him and he replies, “Being wrong.” They keep speaking and Clavius breaks down, telling Jesus that the only thing he wants “is a day without death.”

Two powerful statements that hit home with many of us.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt unmoored at the moment. God has shown up in our lives in many ways and we still seem to fight the same battles.  Val and I often talk of where we should be, ten years more stable than now, and wonder when we’ll arrive.  When will our dreams and visions come to pass? Why do we look in the mirror and feel like we’ve lived ten lifetimes?

We are all moving towards the same point.

I picked up Carter from school today (a recent job change has me working three 12 hour shifts with four days off a week) and took him and Aiden to the playground. Things are different from when I was growing up but, in the end, the same.  I watched the kids chase each other, boys play a basketball game, and the crowd climb all over the monkey bars.

The sound of laughter drifted away on this unseasonably summer breeze.

My mind went to the election.  Is this really it? We grow and we chase money. We chase power and influence. We base our comfort on the balance of our bank accounts and, as long as the commas are in there, we’re good. We are living in a country teetering on the brink of a fracture.

I watched my boys and wondered what they’ll learn from it.

As I type, a line from Pastor Erwin McManus comes to my head.  He spoke about faith and feeling like we can’t ask and dream big because we’re afraid we’ll prove God doesn’t exist.

We are scared, like Clavius, to be wrong.

I also want the second part of his admission to Jesus. How about one day without the shadow of death?

One day to live like a million others follow.  One day to give and serve and love without feeling the weight of the future. One day with the courage to retake the first step (God I’ve taken ten thousand first steps chasing a dream) and keep walking.

One day to not feel like a failing father and a lacking husband. To not hold us up against everything around us and look in the mirror and feel the weight of it all.

One day to be free. To tap into the dream God has waiting, the life that will impact the world and change others. The stories that will be told for generations to come. The words that someone will read and know and understand.

One day without death.  Just one Jesus.

I’ll take one.

 

A New Heart

I am an only child.

Usually, when I impart that bit of information on someone, they come up with a variety of conclusions.  Only children are spoiled. They never had to share anything. They grew up lonely.

I don’t know how many of these are true, at least not for me.  The internal life I may have gained from being an only child most certainly helped me on the path to being a writer.  It made me an observer, someone willing to sit outside the crowd and watch what happens.

I have a few cousins, though, and one is my closest older relative in age.  Her and I were always close.  We mourned together when our grandparents passed away a few years ago. She is someone I can not see for months and automatically restart a conversation when we meet like it was yesterday.

As of this week, she is now on the transplant list waiting for a new heart.

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Heart is a weighted term. We talk about people “having no heart.” The world is filled with broken hearts, mended hearts, new hearts and old hearts. We know some walking through life as “cold-hearted.”

A few things have happened over the last two weeks that have tested my faith.  I prayed, as I’m still doing, for God to be present in a way that it is only possible and clear to be him.  I prayed for a life where faith is no longer confused with a noun, but only a verb.

These longings have shut doors and opened new ones.

Why is it so hard? We latch our hands so far in this world that we ignore the cry of our heart and soul for adventure, passion, engagement and creativity. We are content to hold in a survival pattern and just make it through.

We are waiting on the transplant list, staring at our cell phone willing it to ring.

Then God answers. Things fall apart.  The Creator tells us to step out and risk, leave the details to the one skilled in painting the art of our daily lives, setting up the camera shots of the epic movie of faith.

Tonight isn’t easy. This week isn’t easy. This month may not end easy, but the fight continues.  I’ll still pray, still look forward, still strive to live faith as a verb and not a noun, still want a life that can only be accomplished by the interjection of God.

I want the answer to be clear; that it wasn’t me.  That, in the midst of suffering, we leaned on God and he carried us through. The transplant will happen. The phone will ring if we are willing to be embraced by the vastness of God’s love and grace.

A new heart will happen.  It will happen for her and for us, for my family and yours. Never give up. Never stop fighting. Never lay down after you stumble in fear of rising again.

New life is coming. Stand strong. Keep moving. Walk forward and see what tomorrow brings.

 

 

What Should Life Be?

It rained yesterday.  The sky was the slate blanket that comes every now and then in the Pennsylvania transition between seasons. It was one of those days you dreaded as a kid, sitting in school with no way to mark the passing of time.

Morning was afternoon.  Dawn was dusk.

I got home from work, we ate dinner, then dressed the boys to go run some errands.  Aiden put on his rain boots and ran outside.  I followed and attempted to get him and Carter in the car.  He found his way to a puddle and started jumping.

Peppa Pig style (for you parents out there) jumping in puddles with his rain boots.

At the end of a dreary day, he’d found his own slice of adventure.

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Kids are easy for this.  They are our stereotypical adventurers.  We watch them play with nostalgia.  If only, we think and sigh, those were the days.

We are meant for more.

We are meant for a faith that calls us out of the darkness.

We are meant for a radical community of faith, hope, and love, to embrace others and show them the grace that allows us to live day by day.

So many dream of Heaven.  We think, then we can finally live, finally see the beauty of sun rays, crystal waters, perfect love and joy.

So we go on auto pilot and try to survive.  All the while, God calls us to the deep.

How will it look for you? How will it look for me and my family?  I don’t know.  I feel like I’m learning more each day.

Learning that the story isn’t over.  That there is still room for adventure, for a life of passion and change, hope and impact. There is room for hope in a better world, that the poor can find help, the hungry can be fed, the cold can find warmth, and the burdened will find rest.

I wish I could explain it to you. I wish I had the poetry that some of my friends and fellow writers have.  I wish I had the copywriting spin to sell you on the key points of the Gospel. I wish I had ten million copies sold to hold up and show you why you should believe me.

The only thing I can give you is honesty.

Faith isn’t easy.  I’ve looked in the mirror many moments and wondered why and where? I’ve held my hands to the sky and asked God to show up. I’ve wanted the concrete conversation, for Gabriel to show up in my Scion one day and, after miraculously healing the brakes, tell me the depths and heights of faith and the song of the Universe.

Hope isn’t easy.

Love isn’t easy.

For in the moment when the voice, the one that sounds so familiar for Adam and Eve so long ago, when it whispers “this is it, just give up,” something tells me No.

This isn’t it. The fight isn’t over. Bigger things are coming. It is a gut response, a fight that rises up from the place that can only be occupied by the fire of the love of Jesus.

What is life about?  It is the fight for Passion, to never give up, to never back down. To taste every sip of the majesty of God’s creation, to work to change lives, to shine the light of grace and love.

To wake up in the morning and do it all over again.

 

A Song Outside a Hospital Room

I ran into a friend today.  We’d met at church a few times and our families had crossed paths once at the local Dunkin Donuts.  He’d been dealing with some health issues.  I asked him how he was feeling and he said:

God is good.

This friend works in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania running a halfway house for men dealing with a variety of addiction and legal issues.  We’d talked before about the book I was writing dealing with poverty in Reading. (You can find it on Amazon here and the kindle download is only $1.00)

As he walked away, my mind went back to when we’d first met.  Just after our pastor was involved in the motorcycle accident that would take his right leg and kill his wife, getting plowed into by a driver under the influence on a warm night last June.

I remember his tears.  He said to me that, just maybe, a group of us could visit and sing to Pastor Bryan from outside his hospital room.

Something in the sincerity of his voice from that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

And it shows the hardest part of faith.

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All of creation, from day one, points us towards God.  We matter.  We believe we matter and this places meaning on our lives.

We sing songs outside hospital rooms because our voice matters and we want to show love. We run halfway houses in the midst of one of the poorest cities in the country and work with men we may never see again, because we can make a difference.

We get up in the morning because we know something better is coming.

This positive result only happens if we matter.

The knife-edge falls with suffering.  If we matter, then why do bad things happen?  Why car accidents that kill spouses? Why child abuse? Why war, famine, and desolation?

Humans hurt each other on a daily basis. This world groans with imperfections, longing for the day the universe is back in alignment with the Creator.

Suffering is a mirror.  Our weakness is our target.  Our pain is a sign that we mean something. We hurt when we break because we are designed to be whole.

The fulfilled promise, the tight rope, the parted Sea is the glorious power of the love of God.

I believe God is for us.  I believe this world needs more love and less condemnation. I believe these words matter because someone out there will bring up WordPress on their phone or computer and come across this post and understand.  They’ll identify with it, at the end of their rope, and know things will be okay.

I believe I’m not perfect, that I’ve screwed up more times as a husband and father than I can count but I know I’m surrounded with a loving (and patient!!) family.

I know I’ll get it right someday.

When God Moves

Tonight I took our youngest son to the grounds of a local museum.  They have a walking path that runs next to a small creek.  The water usual contains a variety of ducks and, as the boys grew up, we would take them over to watch wildlife in action.

The sun was making its way down the sky, the walkway shaded and groups of people rode bikes past us or walked their dogs.  At the end of one side is a garden, flowers intermingling with statues and benches. The garden breaks through a path shaped like a heart.

It was a peaceful moment and, as we walked the path, the benches were filled with people.  Every single person had their head down and their hands on a cell phone.

God still paints pictures if we take the time to see them.

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This month has been one of change for our family.  I’m starting a new chapter in my career life, some new work on writing projects, and a new front in my personal growth through education.

We started looking at larger goals and bigger targets.  Over the last 8 years of struggle, it is nice to feel God moving again.  Even though the movement never stopped.

Our heads were down, weighed under pressure and stress, money and time. We stood in beauty and failed to see it for the structures of this world.  Our five-inch screens weren’t playing Pokemon Go, they were playing a loop of guilt.

Why keep trying? What if you fail? Isn’t is just easier to do nothing?

We get captured by the words and they lull us to a sense of comfort in the darkness.

There is power in movement, in discomfort, in shifting spaces and setting yourself out towards a target no matter what the voices say inside and outside.

My faith hangs on the belief that God has planted big dreams on my heart and on the lives of my family.  I believe love wins. One person can make a difference if they keep fighting.  I believe that, as long as we are breathing, there’s still a job to be done.

It may not be easy, but God has immense visions and purpose waiting.  I believe we are called to make a dent in the universe.  We are called to keep moving.  One step at a time.

 

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