Are We Allowed to Believe?

My car battery died today.

The thing is, I knew it was coming. The car isn’t old, just a 2016, but it was taking two tries to get it started. We’d looked up the make and model online and found that battery issues were common.

Still, I kept driving. I hoped the spot it died in would not be too inconvenient. Leaving a surgeon’s office on a visit, it finally refused to start.

Val picked me up and, a few hours later, AAA sent out a service guy and he replaced the battery. The procedure was simple enough. It could only happen after death, though. And it could only happen with a cost.

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

I grew up with a system of belief. It took a few decades of life to knock that down and rebuild it into something more genuine, a faith more connected to the reality of struggle and suffering.

These past few weeks we’ve seen the country torn apart. All sides of the issue are still fighting. We’ve dug in, more divided than before. Our labels carry so much weight. Our political leanings drive nails of darkness into our identity.

One cannot be seen as simply one thing. Conservatives become fascists. Liberals become socialists. Support the police, support movements for social change. Support the misrepresented and underrepresented.

Do these things and you will be hated.

So, why believe?

Why pick a side?

Why stand up for anything when it will cost you friendships, relationships, maybe even employment?

If there is anything to believe in, it is this:

Believe in change.

Believe in grace.

Believe in large holiday dinners again, the smell of cooking ham and potato filling, deserts and coffee.

Believe in the human spirit.

Image from USA Today

Look in the eyes of our children and believe that love can be taught, tolerance can be learned, courage can be embraced and the foundation laid deep in their hearts because, one day, they’ll run the world.

Believe in freedom. Believe that struggles will pass, that poverty and sickness can be overcome. Believe that your story is not over.

Believe that the sun will rise on endless dark nights. Believe that raging fires can be walked through, that heat is only temporary.

Believe that generations of hate can be overcome. Believe that systems can change, that nothing is forever and new ideas can heal old wounds.

Someone may not have told you this is a long time, but:

You can dream.

It may not feel right, but you can dream. You can look forward to a different future.

You can hope.

You can live with a renewed strength.

2020 so far, has been a year of dealing with our illnesses. From the physical side to societal pains. Exposure of deep wounds, of those struggling and left in the wake of rampant self-centered drive. As much as companies are racing for treatments and vaccines, as much as a slow roll of political change is sounding, we must be willing to continue the work. Not just on ourselves and our families, but our jobs and our community.

All of creation demands a response.

But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” “I tell you,” He answered, “if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.” 

Luke 19: 40

The stones are crying out.

What if everything so far has led to 2020?

And now the time is yours.

Stand Up

Make no mistake, forces want to keep you here.

Big stuff. Politics. Media spreading fear like wildfire. Fake friends. Enemies.

People you don’t even know.

Small stuff. Fear. Doubt. Questions. The Lure of Passivity. The Lore of Passivity. It’s just easier to be lazy. Recline. Relax. Check out that app. Scroll through social media. Do anything but this.

Then one day you make a move and you realize these forces won’t just sit back and take it. No, they’ll organize. They’ll start an offensive. Small things pop up. Debt, accidents, things to be fixed and adjusted. Illness.

Pandemics.

What these forces don’t realize is that they are priming you for greatness.

Nothing valuable comes easy. Change is not overnight. Change is one small victory, one choice at a time.

People need to hear you.

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Because hate is real. Fear is real. Adversity gives power to some and tries hard to take power from others.

Until you stand up.

For those who can’t. For those who are beaten down and living in fear. For those who are suffering and struggling.

Courage pulls you out of comfort. Courage brings challenge. Challenge makes comfort sound so nice. Then you find yourself at a crossroads. Keep the circle going or break it.

Break it.

Because someone is watching you. A child, a spouse, a coworker.

You choose how you respond.

Here’s a secret: Life is demanding your choice.

Poverty, racism, struggle, pandemic, fear. Forces waiting to play off what they create. If we don’t be careful we’ll respond without thinking, act without consideration, speak without hesitation and we’ll lose.

Choose your response. Choose how you see your moments. Choose the meaning inside them.

And when you do, choose compassion. Choose Love. Serve. Give.

Create.

Create community. Create family. Break chains. Show the world things can be different and you will not stand for the old way any longer.

From now on.

You stand up.

What if we got it wrong?

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Faith is a loaded term.

Brands demand faith. Politicians demand faith. Schools, teams, clubs.  Watch a college football game with 100,000 kids in the stands all wearing the same color and you’ll see faith in action.

The broad idea is commitment and conviction.  The broad idea is expectation that something will happen even without evidence (“blind faith”). Look through history and you’ll find moments of faith for good and evil, movements that changed lives and eliminated lives.  Faith is power.

And we’ve screwed it up.

Faith is hard.  Faith is not the belief that something will happen even without evidence. Faith is not pulling the lever of the slot machine in the sky. It is not the stoplight we made in Sunday School about How Prayer is Answered with stop, wait, and go.

Faith is not a request. Faith is not a transaction.  Faith is not conditional.

The night of the storm, Jesus calls Peter out onto the water. There’s wind and rain, waves and noise.  There’s a boat full of his peers and a man that looks like a ghost standing off in the distance.  Peter slings his leg over the side of the boat and takes a step.  We read he takes more than one before literally taking his eyes off Jesus.  At that point, he sinks.

Let’s dig deeper.

1-Faith requires the storm. Jesus tells us we will have trouble. Go through history, page through the Bible and do a quick Google search on martyrs.  No one who follows Jesus is immune.  There’s a reason for communities of faith.  They exist as support systems.  Life is ugly. More hands help to provide strength and comfort in the dark nights.

2-Faith is daily action. You can, and you will, have moments of distance. Jonah found himself in the depths, David in the desert. There is nothing about faith that is once and done. It takes effort and time, a choice every day to hear the still, small voice of the divine.

3-Faith is loss. Imagine the early church, the ones who had seen Jesus had to face his death.  The ones later had to go off of writing and witness accounts.  Faith is how we deal with the hole in our heart waiting to be filled with something. We will all become orphans one day. We will face the passing of time.  Faith is the intersection between loss, grief, and the sun rising. Baptism symbolizes death for this reason, it is a concept not far from the minds of every believer and a reminder of so much more.

So, if we’ve watered it down and compressed it, what actually is faith?  Beyond the car magnates, bumper stickers, conferences and political movements.  What does it mean to believe?

What if it has nothing to do with belief?

There is a divine story. There is meaning and purpose, influence and grace.  There is hope in helping and healing in sacrifice. Faith is tapping into the undercurrent.

Faith is a willingness to let go.

Faith is the point where you break through the weight of this world and feel the supernatural.  It is the moment of intoxicating joy and unending grace.

It is the laughter of your child, the sunset over the ocean, the red hue of a rose. Faith is the beauty of creation.

Faith is an invitation to be a part of something more. Faith is a journey. Faith is humility. Faith is knowing that you are meant for something more.

Faith is a state of cognitive readiness, of acting and living the circumstances you are called to embrace.

This has existed from the moment the universe breathed into existence.  Faith kept the stars in the sky, filled the oceans and pushed the winds across the desert.

It has nothing to do with right and wrong, with division and “teams”.  Faith does not place you against someone else. It hopes in bigger, better, and greater things. Faith is not a place of privilege or superiority.

Faith does not make you better than anyone else.

As Paul said, faith shows you your failings, holding up a mirror to the past to help you be thankful for the present and inspired for the future.

This faith can change the world.  This faith opens blind eyes.  This faith feeds the hungry, provides for those in need, and opens hearts.  This faith reflects Jesus and our calling to follow.

This faith gets us off the boat and, when we sink, it picks us up again to keep walking in the storm.

 

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

 

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

What I Learned From Captain America: Civil War

On Friday night I took Carter to see the new Captain America: Civil War movie. He loves his superheroes and we hadn’t gone in a while.  It had rained early and I didn’t anticipate the crowd we faced so we ended up in the front row.

Not fun with a seven-year old!

He loved the movie.  I won’t hit too many specific plot details and I thought it did a good job making a relevant political and life statement.  Hear me out.

The point of the original comic story, and the movie, is the registration of the super humans (something the X Men franchise had tackled already) involved with Captain America and his fellow Avenger crew.

Due to the death of innocent people surrounding their battles with the bad guys, the government decides to step in and demand they act only under control of the United Nations. This splits the team and starts the “Civil War” between those who agree with the plan and those who want the freedom to act on their own will.

The story is one of consequences, brokenness, and revenge.

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The power structures in our society play off a love of consequences.  Check the current political landscape for a minute, if you can do it without vomiting. The two parties in power bicker and threaten to get what they want without any thought to the end results.

As parents, we see our kids act out and we try to steer them in the right direction even as we know that falling down is sometimes a better teacher than avoiding the risk altogether.

In our marriages we can settle, stop putting in the effort and thinking that things are okay until the laziness finally cracks the facade and we face an emotional and hurting spouse.

Jesus didn’t play with consequences.

His view on them made him dangerous.  He faced down the religious establishment of the day and said, to their faces, that they were wrong. He said to love, not hate. Find peace, not violence. Serve, don’t rule.

Reach out with an open hand, don’t strike with a closed fist.

He said he was the way, the truth, and the life. The sides were clear and the gray area vanished.

Oh how we muddied the waters.

There’s a scene where Robert Downey Jr. is getting onto an elevator with Alfre Woodard.  Woodard hands him a picture of her character’s son and tells him that he had died an innocent bystander during the battle scene earlier in the movie.

She asks the question, “Who will avenge him?”

The movie holds up a valuable mirror to our relationship with those in power and, for someone attempting to follow Jesus, asks a valuable question of faith:

Are we able to trust without seeing the end result? Can we relinquish control? Can we keep believing when things get ugly?

If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out and let me know what you think!

~Matt

What You Will Find Here

Inspired by a video on Donald Miller’s blog, I decided to write a mission statement and clarify what you will find when you visit here.  A speaker on his blog stated that churches need to remember every Sunday is someone’s first Sunday. This post is inspired by that idea and comes in preparation for the launch of my new book and author website coming soon.

Who I Am:

A husband and father of two amazing boys.  I am making my way on this journey of life riding the ups and downs while figuring out what it all means and finding joy in the process. I obtained a certification to teach English and, in 2014, completed my MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in Connecticut. I’m learning to be a better husband and father every week and, I hope, take some steps forward as much as I stumble.

What I Do:

My writing covers a range of topics, from inspirational to parenting, sports, creativity, culture and media. I’ve written everything from screenplays to novellas, novels and devotionals.

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What I Believe:

I try my best to follow Jesus.  I believe that we are not perfect. We will all struggle in life and we will learn from our struggles.  I believe everyone deserves a second chance and that forgiveness can change the world.  I believe the church gets it wrong just as much as it gets it right.  I believe we are all searching to complete the sentences of our lives. We do this in different ways, from addictions to spending and chasing fleeting value.

I believe in the mystery of faith, that we may not ever have all the answers. I believe we all have the power to love and to hurt, even those behind the pulpit on Sundays. Our goals should be to make a difference, to know that Jesus sought out people like us and that the Holy Spirit gives us courage and power to face every new morning.

Mission Statement:

Proverbs 3:5-6

“Trust in the Lord with All your Heart and lean not on your own understanding.  Acknowledge him in all things and he will make your paths straight.”

In the summer of 2014, I was struck with a choice: chase a traditional career in writing or give back this gift to God and see how he unleashes it in my life.  In chose the second option and that led to my current project, an account of fighting poverty in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania.

I want all of you to be inspired, to find hope, to know they are not alone and that their voice matters. Everyone counts.  Jesus showed us that and, even though we bury it under politics and religion, the truth remains.  Everyone counts. Every life has the potential to make a difference.

Every story matters to God.

Where to Start:

To get a good sense of my writing, start with here with a digital copy of my book on writing called Lazarus Art. Starting March 5th it will be free on Amazon.  You’ll find additional work there also including a new devotional coming by the end of the month.  If you enjoy what you find here, feel free to share with friends and loved ones needing hope.

What is Coming:

A new author website and devotional.  The launch of Glass Jar City, a Year in the Fight to Save Reading, Pennsylvania, a nonprofit publication and a special chance to raise money for those in the daily battle to defeat poverty and start those struggling on a path of new life.  Personalized ministry materials for individual and group study.

More work, new worship, deep conversation and a dive into the search for truth.

Thank you for spending some time here and I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Worship Song Inspiration:

~Matt

The Sound of Worship

The past few weeks we’ve found ourselves in the midst of deep conversation about the intersection between faith and society.  Voices call for more and less.  Political factions take sides. Lines are being drawn.

There seems to be a race to the bottom, to be the most offended by people of faith. Personally, it has reminded me of the response of Jesus when asked about the greatest commandment. He replies to love God and love your neighbor, hardly the musings of a political leader.

For we know Jesus did not come for any earthly power.  More than once the crowds and leaders of the day tried to bait him with questions and conflicts. Every time he made his way around it, destroying the conventions, structures, forces and “common sense.”

Eternity was at hand.

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So what if we’ve gotten it wrong?  What if the church stands at an important intersection, at the crossroads of potential? What if it is primed for a shift, for a new way of community, service, prayer and worship?

In a post last week, I added a song by Isla Vista Worship.  Watching more of their stuff on Youtube, I found this video:

The narrative in the clip makes a statement that struck a chord with me.  It says that worship music should be done with skill and artistry, that is should shape the sound of secular music.

Think about that. We’ve reacted for so long.  What if it was time for Christian writers and artists to shape the narrative?  To reflect the love of Jesus into society with such power and impact that it changes things, that it removes the debate.

It is time for change, for real and actual change.  It is time to build fresh and living faith, to show real moves of the Spirit, to reach into communities and fight for those in need.

Are you ready?

~Matt