Tides

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In the moment before a tidal wave, waters on the surface recede.  Witness accounts have placed this happening sometimes hundreds of yards out, a once calm process broken up and disturbed.  Life on the ocean floor suddenly exposed to air.  Moments of routine destroyed.

One second you can breathe, the next you cannot.

And in that pause, the rumble of miles of water, pure tons of force.  A flow moving at speeds beyond understanding, plowing through borders and boundaries.  Everything held dear is swept away.

I’d like to write about some cinematic moment, some vast realization played out against the backdrop of soaring violins, fall sunsets, and family embraces.  I’d like to write that an angel appeared, told Carter to not be afraid, and peace settled. None of these things happened.

We’ve explored options and have found some that seem to work.  Carter is progressing.  Formally large worries are not as large anymore.  He’s faced some fears and walked through them. We are on the dawn of tween years.

This past weekend he played baseball in a tournament just outside the city where I’d attended college.  I took Carter to dinner after the games in a restaurant that Val and I often frequented.  The night was cool with families milling around outside.  We walked through the restaurant and shopping area around it while my mind was in a different time.  We went into the Barnes and Noble where I’d stood almost twenty years ago waiting for an engagement ring to be finished in the mall down the road, one I’d give to Val later that night.

So many hopes and expectations, excitement looking forward.

At some point, life teaches you that expectations will fail. The path will not come easy.  Fear and worry will hound you, large black dogs of acceptance whose red eyes shine when you look at the window of a sleepless night. The things you believed as a child will be shed and the nuclear explosion impact will hit that nobody is perfect and you’ll spend decades processing that fall out.

Slowly you’ll emerge and realize:

Optimism is a choice. Hope is earned. Dreams can change.

Fear can hold you back or push you forward.

Nothing breaks your heart like the pain of a child.

Love is not the passion in the early years of marriage.

Love is the overdue bill, the unnecessary credit card, the change in body type, long hours, cold dinners, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, text messages about nothing, arguing and still, after the kids are in bed, sitting on the couch with each other and watching a movie.

Love is seeing a broken heart and standing next to it. Love is knowing every pain and scar and still holding hands.

Friendship is golden, community is scary but both are necessary.

You will get angry and yell at your kids and you will sound exactly like your parents and your child will look at you. You’ll see yourself and in that moment the entire universe stops spinning.

 

Then the waves settle. The sun sets. Night falls.  You climb in bed next to your spouse and say I love you and realize there is nowhere else you’d rather be.

 

Dear God….

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It’s me.  We met back when I was a teenager in a moment of grace. I felt it and I knew something had changed.  Not that I was healthy then.  No, there was still work to be done.  You had bigger plans, more to do and more preparation.

The years haven’t been easy.  We’ve had ups and downs, miracles and nightmares. We’ve survived hard times and created more hard times.  We’ve started this family, the four of us, and we’re trying to make it and not let things slip away.

This morning, we need something from you. It’s about Carter.

You know him, our oldest.  Our sensitive one, the early riser, the one who never really quite fit in.

The worries started a few years ago. We tried to shrug it off, to chalk it up as “just his personality.”  We hoped he would grow out of it. We assumed it would fade as he grew into years of security and personal identity.

It did not.

Right now, today, he’s in the middle of a relapse of his anxiety and worry, in a hole deeper than he’s faced before. His mind churns like storm water. His heart is heavy. His eyes are longing.  He’s in the middle of changes that seem so big they cannot be overcome.

We need your help.

Friday night, after a few long hours, I was putting him to sleep.  Through tears he yelled and pleaded,

I pray all the time about this stuff that God would take it away and nothing happens.  If he’s really out there, why doesn’t he do anything?

The cries of a child, an innocent soul.  So I ask you, not for me.  I’m almost forty years into this and you know I’ve got enough scars.  I ask you for him.

Where are you?

For this child.  For this boy whose life is still so far ahead of him.  For this child with so many gifts and such potential.  For the moment his heart is so heavy that he cries out to you.

And nothing changes.

Here’s a great opportunity.  We don’t need a Lazarus moment.  We don’t need water into wine or feeding five thousand people.  We don’t even need you to walk on water.

I need you to help my son’s heart, to quiet his mind. To calm his soul and let him know everything will be okay.

I’m typing this through my own tears.  Whatever it takes, please help him. He deserves it, he needs it. He’s done nothing wrong.

I ask for your grace.  I’ve screwed up as a dad more than once. I’ve not given him what he’s needed.  I’ve been emotionally absent more than I should and for that I’m sorry.

All time exists for you in a moment.  You know the plans you have for him and for us.

Please, today, right now, please give him peace. Let him know you are there and things will work out.  Let him know he doesn’t have to be owned by his fear.

Let him know he is stronger than he thinks. Help him to be excited by  life again.

Please.

 

A Currency of Dreams

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Ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get two different answers. Aiden, our youngest, loves dogs.  He’s gone from a K9 police officer, to a veterinarian, to a dog trainer, and even a monster truck driver (he’s a big fan of cars and trucks too).  Carter tends to be more contemplative.  He wants to do something active.  He dreams of his future as an athlete and leans towards science and math pursuits.  Maybe one day he’ll be able to combine the two.

At some point our dreams start to fade.

I remember as a senior in college sitting in the lounge of Main Hall at West Chester University talking to a few other Lit majors. We were throwing around what we’d try to do with our futures.  One guy mentioned that Comcast would need to hire people to write their television program descriptions right? So why not him? He had a valid point.

You have a purpose.  Search your social media feeds and you’ll find numerous people selling you online courses and coaching to reveal just what that purpose is.

You’ll find your purpose in struggle and suffering. In the courage to put yourself out there.

I still battle with the courage part.  The strength to speak and write without the fear of not being heard or connecting.  The strength to open up the wounds so others can open theirs as well. The strength to reach out a hand in comfort and stability.

The strength to try. 

That word is loaded with meaning.

Ever fiber of our being pushes against change.  We want the old, we crave routine and strive for sameness.  We want comfort.  The same instinct kept us alive when the dinosaurs roamed.

It also kept us out of new lands.  Until resources dried up and we had to move, to step into the darkness.

It takes courage to try. It takes courage to get up in the morning and face the day.  Reach deep and feel the newness inside straining for life.  Some moments it is clear.

Life is a battle between both sides and every day is a choice.  Choose wisely.

 

Smoke

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I recently finished the book Vicious by V.E. Schwab. She has a razor’s touch and style that carries you into a world of heroes, villains, shifting allegiances and every role in between. There are great lines in the book itself but one, an aside of descriptive observation, lives in my head.

A character is waiting for his girlfriend on their college campus.  She writes,

“Eli was waiting on the building steps in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee in each hand. The dusk smelled like dead leaves and far-off fires; his breath escaped in small clouds as he held one of the coffees out to her, and she took it and slipped her arm through his again.”

Writing is powerful and these few sentences put me right there on the steps.  The time, smell, breath and taste pulled me into the past.  How many of you read that paragraph and were immersed in sensory feedback?  I could smell the smoke and taste the coffee.

Fall puts me in the past, in the midst of slate skies and Friday Night Lights. The sound of the school band echoing down the streets of our home town, the nights where pumpkins and candles just start to wink through the darkness.

Time is a double-edged sword. It is that fire that never stops consuming our memories and expectations.  It has a unique talent to absorb the past and future. I look at my sons and realize they’ll be looking back at me one day as teenagers, men, husbands and fathers. I look at Val and realize one day we’ll be holding hands as our grandchildren play in the yard.  I look in the mirror and wonder what happened to that kid staring back.  No debt, no regrets, no missed opportunities.  Just chance and an open road of time.

And almost four decades later, here I am. God, that sentence scares me.

The smoke from far-off fires reminds us. Everything changes.  Everything will burn and emerge a new creation. We will raise our boys until one day they’ll step out into this world on their own.  We will keep on our path as it grows and changes.

In a way, things are the same. Yeah the weight of life is heavy.  The choices we’ve made, good and bad, have shaped our story. Our love and mistakes as parents have helped to shape two boys into growing kids.

We are still that couple walking home from high school holding hands. We still stand at the edge of opportunity.  Some days dusk seems closer than others.

And the sun still rises.

Every day is a chance for something more.

Let’s Talk- Identity Part 2

My son has a conversation problem.

Aiden is 5, Carter is 9.  Aiden can, and will, talk your ear off.  Carter didn’t happen to inherit his brother’s social abilities.  He likes to talk, don’t get me wrong, it can just be painful at times.  He tries, hard, to get approval from the ones around him.  We started enjoying some of the “older” Disney Channel shows that feature kids in school and, as we were watching yesterday, I was wondering about his future since he starts fourth grade and will be making his way to middle school soon enough.

Navigating social waters isn’t easy.

Some of my best memories were family dinners at my grandmother’s house.  We would eat the meal and desert, tables cleared, and cardtable top applied.  The games would commence.  I remember it took time before I had a seat at the table but, eventually, I was dealt in to some intense hands of Pinochle.

My grandfather and my dad were involved, my uncles and sometimes other family members.  I think it was there where I learned to talk.  My uncles, Lonnie and John, always had stories.  They always had a way to make you laugh and draw you into the conversation. It was these nights where I picked up the ebb and flow of what it meant to build social interaction.

Underlying anxiety speaks to a larger issue.

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Carter hasn’t had things easy the past few years.  He’s a great kid, athletic and active.  He’s also sensitive. We’ve dealt with bullying and that hasn’t helped anything. He wants to be liked. We all do.

We stand on the bridge of life pulled in two opposing directions:  I want others to like me.-I want to like myself.

For someone like Carter, those sides are often out of balance.

I believe it is that way for a lot of us.

Scroll through Facebook and you’ll find plenty of inspirational images about Capturing the Day! Hustling!  and You Be You! Even with these messages (and the people behind them making millions from seminars, books and podcasts) the drive is still there.  We still want to be liked, to be loved, to be accepted.

My goal for Carter this summer is to start helping navigate the social waters, to think about his attitude and mindset and be aware of what he’s doing when he’s doing it. To find security in himself.  For a kid that has dealt with anxiety, that is a steep mountain to climb.

Let’s take it down a deeper level and get real.  As parents, we want our kid to be liked.  I wasn’t the prom king or anything near that, but I had friends in a few different circles.  I didn’t have any deep friends and I dealt with bullying myself. I remember that feeling, like one of those cartoon black holes that opened under Wiley Coyote when he was chasing the Roadrunner, that space that felt like it would swallow me up.  Time slowed to a stop. It felt like being pinned against a wall by stares and comments, laughter and pointing. It felt like it would never end.

I don’t want that for Carter.

I don’t believe there is any surprise to the rise in teenage suicide rates.  The humiliation is easier to see and spread.  What was once material in the cafeteria or playground is shared to thousands on social media at the touch of a button. Kids don’t see a way out.

The company line, for those of us who profess a life of faith in following Jesus, is that we find our identity with him as a new creation. I believe this. I also know the hurt is real.  I’ve seen it in Carter’s eyes.

Security comes in impermanence, in knowing that it too shall pass.  In knowing that those hurting others were probably hurt themselves and only doing what they know.

Parenting is not easy.  Each day they get older.  Each day brings new highs and lows, challenges and success. The trick is to not miss a moment, to grasp and use it, to know that the moments will fade, the scars will heal. Life goes on.

I remember, as a kid, standing next to my dad at the beach.  We’d stand where the waves were just ending and watch as the sand was pulled back away and our feet were buried with the current.  Maybe that’s the point.

We are either moving towards the glorious turbulence of a fulfilled life or away from it, back on to the sand.  We must keep moving because, if we stand still, we’ll sink.

The Race

The permission slip was waiting for me when I got home from work last night. Carter said he was involved in a race in gym class.  This race was, from what I found out, part of a series to choose a team of relay racers for an event in April.  The elementary schools in the district all send a team from each grade to race on the big track at the high school.  He will be one of four boys representing the entire third grade for his specific school on their relay team.

I’m not surprised.

If he needs to get from point A to point B, he’ll run. It is easier to go fast than go with the flow. Running is in his blood.

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Paul writes the following in his letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

We all run in our own ways.  Our minds and our emotions set up internal pathways to prevent trauma and pain.  We navigate these like walking through dark alleys in the rain. When we get too close, to run to something that can dull the pain.  This can take the form of positive things like sports, prayer, study, friends or loved ones.  This can go the other direction into addiction or running away altogether.

Part of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is the path into the unknown, the question out and far away that the heroes must answer.  They must face their demons and, no matter how far they go, they will fight to the end.

The Race will take us where we do not want to go.

Val and I have a friend right now battling cancer.  Her race is to fight, to live and see the sun rise again tomorrow.

My race has taken me on a journey to find what it means to be a father and husband, writer and man of faith.  To discover what the term “faith” even means and find the shape of authentic spiritual experience. To reach out and touch the divine and know, no matter what happens, we are not alone.

I race against being alone.

Val runs with a huge heart, one that allows her to reach out and absorb pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  She runs as a mother, finding strength to feel and love so much and still spend time with our boys and me, to take the extra time to be in the moment and stay there in the midst of being exhausted.  Her race will unleash the beauty of her spirit that flutters there underneath the weight of life.

Carter runs against his worries, against the shadows that seem to take shape.  Against the voice that tells him things are not safe and he needs to find some level of control.

Aiden runs with his mother’s heart, open and loving. He’s a forever friend and I pray he never loses that characteristic as he grows.

As a family, our race has taken us through heights and depths, victory and tragedy.

Paul advocates running as to get the medal.  What does this mean?

Note he doesn’t mention a participation trophy.

Running to get the medal is an image of the process of faith.  Salvation may arrive in an instant but the race is a process.  Faith is refinement that happens over the years. Our pain is shared with those who need to know they are no alone.  Our struggles build trust. Our suffering builds perseverance. Our exhaustion builds hope and we lean on the arms that can hold us up.

Getting the medal is the will to keep going. To believe when everyone else has stopped. To put one foot down when the pressure on your shoulders.

 

A few years ago, I walked Cliff Walk in Rhode Island.  The trail runs next to a set of mansions from the golden age of industry titans in this country.  As you walk, signs appear on the way warning of rough terrain.  The coast line bobs and weaves around rock formations and outcroppings.

The day I walked was hot, the sun blasting off the water’s reflection. I felt my legs tiring and, realizing the old issue that I’d have to go back as far as I’d walked, I finally decided to stop at a sign warning me that rough terrain was ahead.

On the way home, a side street offered a view of the trail. I found myself near the same spot I’d stopped, facing the rough terrain. From there I could see the other side, a point looking out to the ocean with blue waters across the horizon.

Paradise was there.

Just past the point of giving up.

What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

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Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.

Sanctuary

On Friday, after a long week of work, Val and I took the boys up to Connecticut to visit friends. We left Pennsylvania around four and arrived at the hotel near midnight. The boys survived the ride and we were able to enjoy a weekend in the fall of New England.

Traveling with kids is never easy. We’ve attempted a few long drives with Carter and Aiden and there’s always some level of stress.  Val picked up a DVD player for the car and that helped, but the arguments over snacks, what movies to watch, and general annoyances continued.

I took Carter and my wife’s friend’s husband Bobby up to Salem, Massachusetts on Saturday to check out the city and attempt to visit some of the Halloween activities. We spent almost an hour looking for a parking spot before stopping for dinner and driving back to the hotel.

The best part of the trip happened on Sunday afternoon.

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We stopped at Enders Island, the location of my graduate school residencies at Fairfield University.  I sat at the table pictured above and thought about those years as Carter and Aiden played in the gardens. Boats crossed the point in the distance and a fall breeze carried into my face. I shut my eyes and inhaled deeply. Two things inhabited that moment:

Peace and Power.

For we all need a sanctuary.  We need a holy place where we can sit with the creator of the universe.  It does not need to be stationary.  You can find your sanctuary pounding the pavement at sunrise during a morning jog.  You can find it on the playground chasing your kids. These tastes of joy bring peace from the stress of life.

The moment above, though, was a commissioning. It was filling the tank, touching the purpose given to every letter typed over the years. It was as if God needed to bring me back to that table for a reminder of the good to come, the life on the flip side where purpose, service, love, and grace collide.

“Daddy, look what I found.”

Carter had picked up a handful of shells from the rocks on the shore of the island, ran over, and gave them to me.  I lined them on the table and, as I went to pick one up, found it sticking.  I twisted until it gave way and saw a small snail ducking back into the center of the shell.

That snail was a long way from home.  It thought it was back on the rocks, though, and held on for dear life.

We all make the same mistake.  Tables can feel like wave-washed stones. The trick is to let God pick us up every once in a while and put us back where we belong. My visit to Enders served this purpose. For an hour on an afternoon in Connecticut, I got the message.

It was time to get back in the water and grab hold, never moving out of the flow.

If you are reading this and feel like you’re lost tonight, consider the surface you are grabbing onto. Maybe it is not what you’ve expected.  Maybe it is time for a change, to find the peace and power that only comes from knowing your divine purpose, connecting with others, and unleashing it to the world.

~Matt

 

3 Ways to Take Back Your Time as Parents

I’m excited to be adding a new addition to this site.  Val and I will be posting together and covering some topics related to marriage and families. We’ve been married for seven years and in a relationship for sixteen years as we met in high school.  She is a hair stylist and a Thirty-One consultant.  You can find her website here. Now for the first post of the series:

Friday morning I asked a coworker how her kids were doing.  We each have two boys, roughly the same age.  Val and I had met her and her husband for once for a play date with all our kids.  She proceeded to tell me a story about the day before and  struggles to get the kids in the car, dropped off at their daycare, picked up, and dealing with them destroying the house at home.  I could identify with every issue.  Her husband works later hours and drives a good distance to get to his job.  She finished her story with this important question that she asked her husband:

“When do I get a break?”

Val and I work opposite hours.  She has the boys during the day and they often find ways to drive her crazy. She needs a break. I know she needs a break and yet the hardest thing is to engineer ways to get it done.  Carter and Aiden love her and want to be around her so any suggestion I have to take the boys on my own is often met with resistance from their end. We talked last night and realized that we needed a strategy, a plan to take back some time as parents.  Kids can rule your world but, only if you let them. Here are three tips to take back your time:

1/Meet at the table: Unity is powerful. Your children need to see you together and a meal is the perfect place.  If you are in a marriage where you work different hours, then pick one of the meals of the day and have it together.  If this needs to be on the weekend, make it happen. When the family shares a meal as a unit, great things can happen. You parent as a team, talk about the day, plan for the future, and touch base on any issues.  Being together as spouses creates valuable time when one party usually has the kids for the majority.

2/Open Communication: American Beauty is one of my favorite movies.  It is a tragic story that hits home on many levels.  In this clip you’ll see an interaction between Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening (husband and wife).

How many of us have had talks like this with our spouses? On the surface, we see the conflicts.  Spacey has traded in their family car for his dream car. He asks Bening why she has no joy in her life.  In the movie Bening is having an affair, thus her response to his question. They are living on two different levels, just look at their outfits.   To combat this in the real world, make sure you have open communication.  Use social media, phone calls, text messages, whatever you can find.  Leave notes around the house of instruction and encouragement. Stay unified as parents and you’ll be able to meet conflicts and solve problems as they arise.

3/ Rewards: We all want rewards. We want acknowledgement of our efforts at work and at home.  Schedule a personal reward each week, even daily if you want.  Make it a hot bath, watching the football game, getting that one ____ that you’ve been walking by on your trips to Target. We need to pay ourselves every now and then.  If you structure in a personal reward, stick to it. Create a goal and your days will have direction and momentum. Create a goal as a couple and you have unity. Create goals as a family and bring everyone on board. Achieve these goals and let the rewards flow.

I’m excited to keep this series going as we head into fall.  Keep your eye out for more posts from Val and I together as we move into that magical time of year, Back to School. Let us know what you think and we look forward to your responses.!

~Matt and Val