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.

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Know How to Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Matt

The School of Tragedy

Stephen Colbert recently started his run in late night television with a captivating interview.  He had Vice President Joe Biden on as a guest and, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend looking up the video.  Biden and Colbert had both gone through traumatic losses in their lives, each man losing loved ones and family members in accidents.  Biden’s in a car accident and Colbert’s in a plane crash.

They discussed the recent passing of Biden’s son Beau, in May.  Both men being practicing Catholics, Colbert asked how Biden’s faith helped him in grief. Joe quoted Kierkegaard in response with:

“Faith sees best in the dark.”

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Yesterday we paused, as a nation, to remember the years since 9/11.  I believe tragedy and loss teach us more than the good times. Our struggles make us see God more clearly.  Our pain draws our eyes upward. Our emotions seed our souls for the divine.

Every generation has their traumatic moment.  My grandparents had WW2.  My parents had the assassination of President Kennedy. We had September 11th.  Our children will certainly have their own.

We can only hope and pray the scars do not run too deep.

For tragedy breeds hope. Hope, unity. Over a few days, back in 2001, we forgot about politics and dividing lines. Everyone just wanted to help.

In the Biden interview he also stated that America could be great if we could just get out of our own way. Maybe that’s the point.  The losses, death, struggle and despair helps us get out of our own way. It strips us from all pretense.

I pray, if you are in the midst of tragedy in this season in life, you find yourself closer to the divine.  I pray you see more clearly in the dark, for your time is not over.  Your story hasn’t ended.  You carry on, hold memories close, and step forward with those losses living right by your heart.

For hope is real and strength will come from above to carry you through.

~Matt

Birthday Favorites for 7/3/2015

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate another year of life. I remember when turning thirty freaked me out.  Now, making my way through my thirties, it has truly been a refining few years.  I’ve felt like I was nearing the end of one season in life and starting a new one. The plot of my family had taken plenty of turns and things are starting to, slowly but surely, clear.

The clouds are lifting.  The journey isn’t over and we are finally seeing progress.

There are still things on the horizon and, I pray, our paths will be straight. I’m thankful for a time of professional, personal, and spiritual development.

Here’s a quick review of the last year and some of my favorites:

Favorite Post:

Why I Believe

Favorite Worship Song(s):

I have a few to pick from so here’s a pair of them:

Promises I lean on:

Jeremiah 29:11-“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Proverbs 3:5-6-“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Family Loss:

Hazel Shaner, “Princess,” my grandmother.  She was the matriarch of our family and lived a full 98 years of life.  She was a great woman and embodied the love of God.  Princess, you will be missed and I know I’ll see you again one day.

Church Tragedy:

The motorcycle accident that took the life of our pastor’s wife Lynn Koch and landed our pastor Bryan Koch in ICU.  This occurred just last month and has caused numerous deep conversations within our family and friends about struggle, suffering, and grace.  You can see one of my posts about it by clicking here.

Looking Forward:

My current book project about poverty and activism in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania (Poorest city in the US in 2011) is in the draft editing phase. I’m excited to lay it out, tighten it up, and get it in front of publishers! It is a non-profit project and I can’t wait to see what God will do with it! There are other developments shaping up to make this next year a big one for us.

I’ve decided to dedicate my writing to God, to give it back to the cause of changing our community, society, and the world.

I dedicate this year to:

~My wife and sons.  Thank you for putting up with a dreamer, father, and husband working to be the best man he can be.  I am nothing without you.

~My audience.  The writing, all of this, is for you to celebrate faith and life in action.  I pray you find hope here, that the words resonate with you and you know, deep in your heart, that you are not alone.

~The dreamers.  The ones looking to do worship, church, creativity, and community differently.  Now is the time for a shift, for open doors and changed lives. Now is a time for authentic service, for unity and hands raised in triumph over hate, discrimination, and violence.

~The writers. If you are making this writing journey with me, I dedicate this next year to you.  We are a community, drawn in by the pen/pencil/keyboard and we do this together.  Never stop writing.

~The soldiers. To everyone I’ve met compiling this book on Reading, this next year is for you.  For the men and women on the front lines of the fight against poverty, this is for you.  For the ones who wake up every morning to serve those in need, this year is for you.  My prayer is that this book shines light on your actions and inspires support through increased volunteers, funding, and effort from an audience around the world.

For everyone that’s taken the time to read my thoughts, thank you for being a part of this community and spending time with me every week.  I’m honored that you stop in and I promise you more content, stories, actions and real connection.

Tomorrow is a new year for me, this blog, and my writing. Come with me and we’ll make the journey together.

~Matt