The Gift of Not Having to Say Thank You

I’ve written before about my love for the television show Supernatural. On Friday night, as I watched one of the episodes from the tenth season, an exchange of dialogue hit me.

Sam and Dean, brothers played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padlecki, are riding in a car going to hunt down the latest monster of the week.  In the midst of a rainy drive they are discussing the events of the past few episodes, moments where Sam had gone to great lengths to save Dean.

Ackles, perfectly in character, mentions that he never said thanks for being saved.

Padelecki looks at him, pauses for a moment, and replies:

“You never have to say that.  Not to me.”

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The moment works on many levels.  From brother to brother, it says that one will always be there.  Family stands high enough to mean there isn’t a need to say thank you.  You’ll always be there, regardless.

It also means that gratitude is understood and that things will be okay.

The idea of not having to say thank you works against everything we’ve put front and center in society. We demand recognition for our efforts and our input. The ones spending their lives in service to others know and understand that this dynamic fails.

This Tuesday, in Reading, a team of volunteers will gather to serve meals to those in need in an event called Cups of Compassion. The individuals I met during this past year of book research will fill some of the spots on this team.  They spend often more than forty hours a week in the world of the poor, ill, beaten down, and distressed.

They go to work every week, go home at night, and go back to do it again in the morning.  They see their clients often fall off the wagon of sobriety and end up incarcerated, in the hospital, or in the graveyard.

These warriors, ones like Sherry Camelleri, Rob Turchi, Frank Grill, Steve Olivo, Sharon Parker, Dan Clouser and Craig Poole and the staff at United Community Services, Berks County Prison, Berks Women in Crisis, Service Access Management, Opportunity House and other shelters in the city all do what they do without the expectation of thanks.

They do it because they care.  They will always be there.  They understand the need to save and their abilities to make it reality. They change lives with selfless love that embodies this time of year.

We can follow their lead and give back, all without expectation or condition.

For the need will never go away. We must rise to fight, step to the line, and give the gift of living to serve without having to hear “thank you.”

~Matt

 

 

The Gift of Showing Up

This week I’ve been praying for God to show up.  Not in a Christmas story, angels in the sky kind of way.  Just in a moment or two where the divine breaks through the atmosphere and you can feel it.

This time of year it is way too easy to phone it in. We pack our weeks with activities, shopping, preparation, and stress.  The push is on to get that last gift, stock up on the required groceries, and finish remaining deadlines before the new year.

As a writer, and a dad, I tend to live in my head.  The internal conversation started when I was young, growing up an only child, and helped me tap into the words that became short stories, novellas, and finally novels.  Stephen Gaghan, writer of the movie Traffic, said that everyone who wants to write has a desire to explain themselves to the world.  I rehearsed this inside my head for decades.

Because the truth can be scary. Emotions can scar. Fear can paralyze. Moments of genuine experience hit like hammers and leave us euphoric or reeling in the aftermath.

They light the fire of our souls.

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God has shown up this week and answered my prayers in multiple ways. Yesterday, I met more than one person struggling to make it this month, but held up and hanging on by their faith. Last night and today Carter had the chance to play with good friends and practice the sports he loves.

I was honored to have someone witness to me today. We talked about faith and they told me to lean on Jesus every day because we need it, every day, to survive.

The Gift of Showing Up works on two levels.  First, make the effort to slow down and be present these next two weeks. Enjoy the quiet moments. Reflect on what has happened, the fact that you’ve survived, and the hope of the future. Play with your kids. Talk to your spouse. Make it count.

Second, you’ll be surprised where and when God will arrive.  Tonight I met with my friend Sherry, director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center.  I updated her on the progress of my current book project.  We talked about family and friends, the daily process of an outreach organization, and the courage to keep coming back.

She shared stories of clients surviving in the journey of parenting, education, and escaping the web of poverty. She is a woman of hope, one that has shown me God every time we’ve met.

Find people like this and be sure to spend time with them.  They will equip you to go out and shine the light of hope to others.

You’ll truly understand the power and gift of showing up.

~Matt

 

Seeing the Future

Today was one of the longer days I’ve had in a while.  Both of the boys were up for hours last night, finally falling asleep around 5-6 in the morning.  I had to start work at 6 and, originally, was going to end at 2:30 in the afternoon. We happened to be short-staffed and, when I arrived, they asked me to do a full day.

So here I am, after ten hours of work and a hundred patients handled on my own, ready for some quality writing.

Two headlines captured my attention today.  The first was the recent passing of Back to the Future day, the date that Michael J. Fox actually visits during his trip to the future.  In the same spirit, I read about a unique image found in a music video from 1999.

In the video for “Sleep Now in the Fire” by Rage Against the Machine, a man is seen at the 1:04 mark holding up a sign stating “Donald Trump for President, 2000.”

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Michael Moore directed the video that featured members of the band performing on Wall Street directly in front of the NY Stock Exchange. The clip also features various news images and a faux game show knock-off of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The questions to the contestants are easy and powerful.  One asks how many Americans did not have healthcare at the time.  The other asks how many people in the world live on less than 1.00$ a day. A third asks what percentage of wealth does the top ten percent of the USA own.

It is a visual and sonic judgement against a government driven by money, power and control.

Fifteen years later, now with Mr. Trump actually running for president, how far have we come?

Have we lost our cause?

People who claim to follow Jesus have recently been pushed to the margins by various groups standing up against discrimination. The faith started by the man who changed the world so long ago is no longer seen as an answer.

Many churches sit on the brink, unable or unwilling to respond to pressure.

I don’t think our cause has changed.  Jesus told us to go forth and make disciples of all the nations. He said to love our neighbors. He told us to stand up for the least of these and that every time we did, it would be known.

We must pick the right battle and the right weapons.

For our fight is love, not money. Grace, not hatred. Open arms, not closed fists. Forgiveness. Self worth. A focus on charity and helping those in need.

The message of the song is evident.  If we keep going, the end result of the status quot is getting burned.  In a time when so many go with the flow and trap themselves in the race for possessions and status, we must be different. Because you can’t take it with you. Because a love of stuff prevents anything else from getting in, including family and friends.

Because it is time for the American Way to be reconsidered and rewritten.

Now who will pick up the pen?

I’ll give you a clue, it won’t be Donald Trump. It will be the author of all things and the Giver of Life, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Let’s get started.

~Matt

 

 

 

 

Finding Freedom from Timing

Ever feel like you’ve missed the party?

As writers, we get this more often than we’d like to admit.  We kick around a novel idea in our heads until the next big hit sounds too close for comfort. Our friends nail their first big publication when we’re still chasing ours. A family member lands a promotion.

We send out thirty submissions and, even with an acceptance, wonder about the twenty-nine others that rejected us. We look in the mirror and question if we’re doing the right thing. Life seems to flow past in rapids as we stand in the midst of the stream watching the reflection of the sun on the water.

The impact can range from annoying to paralyzing, yet there is a way out.

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I met with a friend of mine this week, Brian Kelly, one of the minds working to make Reading a better place.  He spoke about bringing people together to the table to have conversations that may be awkward. He said how everyone deserves a voice, even if they aren’t comfortable in the environment.  Put the businessmen on the streets and let those on the streets spend some time in the boardrooms.

Let those supporting the gentrification of cities (get the poor out) meet with advocates for the homeless and start the dialogue.

It is an important lesson to carry over.

Every voice matters.  Your voice matters.

When it seems like all the others are at the table already, there is a space for you. When it seems like the power and influence lies with everyone else, it is even more a reason to tell your story. When the weight of the past presses down and threatens you, put the words together and release them to the world.

Forget about timing.

There’s a saying in writing that, the moment you write for the current market, you’ll miss it. The moment you edit yourself in fear of outside opinions, scrap the paragraph and start again.

It also applies in life.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your story. Believe in your worth and know that you matter.

Forget about “timing” and focus on moving, doing, serving, loving, and giving. You be amazed at the results.

~Matt

When it is Not Fun Anymore

The clouds drifted in over the baseball field, pushed by a fall wind and bringing an early end to the night.  We had arrived late to the practice as I was at a meeting at City Hall.  Carter had a chance to hit twice, field a few grounders, and practice was over.  We went to the playground as the light finally died and, when I convinced him to go, walked to the car together.

He wasn’t himself.

I asked what was happening and the conversation moved to baseball.

“I’m not having fun anymore, dad.”

He looked at me from the backseat as we drove home.

This evening I met a young man shooting a documentary about the city of Reading.  He filmed me in the cafe of our church as I talked about the book and the fight against poverty.  He asked how the average person can get involved and what would be the biggest help.  I looked at the cameras in my face, took a deep breath, and answered.

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We all struggle on two fronts; connection and consistency.  We believe we are different, that the poor are “out there” and we are “in here.” Conversations must happen to change any societal system. Service must be redefined. Help must be given on a consistent basis.

It is one thing to give on the holidays, serve a meal or lead a community group.  It is another thing to do it monthly.

To serve when it is not fun anymore.

There’s a song by Cold War Kids that I’ve been hooked on for the last few days called, First. The lyrics talk about life when you get trapped in a destructive cycle of disappointment, breaking of trust and going back to the start.  A verse reads:

There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite
Call it a dark, night of the soul
Ticking of clocks, gravity’s pull
First you get close, then you get worried

Flying like a cannonball, falling to the earth
Heavy as a feather when, you hit the dirt
How am I the lucky one?, I do not deserve
To wait around forever when, you were there first.

Cold War Kids have a fascinating story themselves as a band (check Relevant Magazine here) that includes faith, brokenness, trials and redemption. The connections are the same.  Father to son. Producer to consumer. Community member to community member.  Believer to believer.

We’ve all hurt.  We’ve all struggled.  We need to face down this life together and do it for the long haul.

That is when walls come down and grace, hope, and mercy rise up.

~Matt

The Difficult Conversation

Today was Carter’s first day of school.  To celebrate, I picked him up and told him we’d go out to dinner and to The Works (a restaurant/arcade/play area near us).  I said we’d go anywhere he wanted for dinner and he picked Subway.

As we sat eating our sandwiches, a television in the dining area played CNN’s coverage of the horrific shooting in Virginia.  Carter watched this with me and asked me what happened.

I told him that two people were hurt bad on television. A few hours before I had watched the Youtube clip of the shooting footage and it gave me chills. We redirected conversation to his day and he was content finishing his meal and playing with my cell phone.

It is time for the difficult conversation.

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I’ve been honored to spend the last year researching and compiling a book about the fight against poverty here in Reading, Pennsylvania. We have people in many different industries coming together to bring new life to this city. New ideas flow on a weekly basis. Change is necessary and, with it, throwing out old ideas and ushering in new ones.

We must do the same with gun control.

Now, I have friends and family who are avid hunters. I support the Second Amendment as, at the time it was written, the Colonists were dealing with a distant government confiscating their weapons to prevent the Revolution. Yes, you have a right to protect your property and family.

That doesn’t change the fact that gun violence is out of control.

One of the vast differences between the Old Testament and New Testament sections of the Bible is the processing of law.  Old Testament law gave us the phrase “an eye for an eye.”

Then Jesus arrived.

He told us to turn the other cheek. To live in peace and love. When soldiers came to arrest him in the Garden, Peter cut off a man’s ear and Jesus promptly healed it. He died at the hands of an oppressive government to give those who follow him freedom.

He preached sacrifice. Picking up a cross and laying down your life for another.  He preached love and grace, treating others as you wish to be treated. His arms were open to all.

He stands in opposition to the World.

So how do we bridge the gap?

It is time to have the hard conversations, to discuss new methods of curbing crime and incarceration. To attack poverty and homeless with community improvement and involvement. To encourage neighborhood revitalization through new businesses, education, and entrepreneurship. To spread the availability of social services, mental and physical assistance to those in need before they reach extremes of behavior.

It is time to bring all sides to the table.

Our world can be different. My boys can work jobs they love one day without fear of violence. It will take a massive and necessary effort.

Let the conversation begin.

~Matt

Breaking the Pattern

It was a white board, one of those you’ll find in corporate meeting rooms all across the world.  We had one in Carter’s room.  I went upstairs, grabbed it, and came back down to sit next to him.  We were in the midst of a rough few weeks.  I remember hearing once that a sure way to break addictive behavior is to stop the pattern when it starts.

I told Carter, whenever he feels himself getting mad or sad to stop and write on the board and that Val promised to read it and address his feelings.  The deal was, she could do the same with him.  Now, instead of the conflict, they would communicate.

I had a fun time reading it after work and, overall, today was better.

We needed to break the pattern.

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I just got home from a conversation with Dr. Kay Bower, founder of Many Rivers Learning Center. The faith-based non-profit provides after school and GED classes for children and adults.  They have programs in art, computers, technology, homework help, and sports.  Dr. Bower and her work is impacting and changing the families of north-western Reading with a new and passionate view of education. I am blessed and honored to be a part of it and donate my time and writing services.

My friend Pastor Fred Liggin, head of 3e Restoration Inc. posted a great discussion on Facebook today about Jesus standing with us in the stoning circle as our advocate. What if we viewed our role as Jesus followers to jump into the circle with him?  How quick we pick up our stones (and our social media) and how slow we are to defend those in need. We demand to be heard before we protect and show love.

One of the most uncomfortable passages in the Bible: Those without sin cast the first stone. Don’t see that on too many motivational posters.

We need to break the pattern.

It is time for a shift, a change in the way we interact with the world around us, a change in education, missions, creativity and worship.  It is time for a shift in, dare I say it, church.

From a weekly service to constant serving.

From mission trips to missions living.

From “worship” to high quality explosions of music, drama, lights, sounds, images and action all pointing to the most Divine Creator.

From a Pastor to Leaders equipping others to Go and Make Disciples of all the Nations.

From dropping our kids off to hear about God once a week to parenting with God leading us every minute.

From small groups to small actions of mobile and engaged faith.

From talking about it all to making it real.

~Matt

Systems Change: Family Promise

I passed the office twice before I could find it, finally pulling over and firing up the GPS on my phone. It took circling the block past Hope Rescue Mission and down the historic section of 5th street.  I parked between a pile of black trash bags waiting for pickup and a section of road construction, jogged across the street, and entered the lobby for Family Promise of Berks County.

Family Promise started almost thirty years ago in New York in an effort to help a growing crowd of elderly homeless individuals. It spread to other states and territories, offering services for the elderly, families, and individuals.  The office in Reading handles around two hundred applications a year for their intensive 90 day program.

I followed a family through the entrance and up the winding staircase, meeting Gwendolyn Didden, director of the Reading office.  Didden has worked in the non-profit world for twenty-five years.  She brings a unique mix of social science, experience, and faith into the mix.

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We spoke for almost two hours about poverty, homelessness, healing, and spiritual sickness.  Many of Didden’s statements stuck with me. She said:

“World systems are flawed, but God’s systems are flawless.”

We often view those that suffer as outliers. The homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and poor fall outside the lines. Suffering equals personal failure. If you are going through something bad, it reflects your faults.  What if our systems are flawed? What if we can only survive through the selfless love and support of others? What if we put our faith in a government that can’t get it right?

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

What if the problem is one of the soul?

I believe in change.  Cities can change. Families can change. Marriages can change. Souls can change. There is hope. The shackles of poverty, homelessness, conflict, and strife can end. The process isn’t easy or quick.  It isn’t immediate.

It is real, when we believe.

~Matt

As a reminder, you can get my e-book: Your First Step for FREE at the following link:

Just Click Here

Check it out and share with anyone needing some hope in their life.

Faith and Life in Action: Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center

I met Sherry Camelleri, Executive Director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center, one afternoon and we had a deep conversation about faith, poverty, family, and life.  Sherry has been with the Center since 1996.  In our interaction together, her passion to help the families in the city of Reading was clear. I was honored to visit a few more times since then to interview staff, drop off donations, and witness the Christmas program. We must be concerned about the national plight of children in poverty.  Mercy fights this battle one day at a time. Here’s Sherry:

 

It was Monday morning. He was overwhelmed. Three little girls to care for and their mom was now doing time in Berks County Prison. No family to help. So, he came to Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center. The volunteer introduced him to Jesus Christ. Supplies, parenting education, referral to a good local church, but Jesus Christ changed his heart and life, and the lives of his children.

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That day, and every day the doors of Mercy CCPC are open and volunteers serve, they do so as an act of FAITH – not faith in what we can do, but FAITH in WHO God is, FAITH in the heart and life changing power of Jesus Christ.

Scripture provides examples of heroes of faith, Hebrews 11:

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Ordinary individuals who faced obstacles unfamiliar to us today– we have not been asked to build an ark or hide spies. However, we face situations that look impossible for us to solve.

The commonality among the heroes of faith and us – we are called to live out our faith. Serving at Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center IS an act of FAITH – knowing WHO we serve and that HE IS faithful to use our simple acts of service to bring a harvest for His glory.

You can find Mercy’s website here, including information on available programs and donations.  They can always use volunteers so, if you have the time, please pray and consider it today.

Faith and Life in Action: 3e Restoration Inc.

I connected with Pastor Fred Liggin after publishing this article in RELEVANT Magazine. We exchanged emails and I learned of 3e Restoration Inc., a program revolutionizing the fight against poverty in Williamsburg, Virginia. Liggin is the Founder and President of 3e and pastor on staff at Williamsburg Christian Church. He’s a man of God, husband, father, and passionate activist. I’m proud to call him a friend and publish this post with the story of 3e and Faith and Life in Action. Without any further hesitation, here’s Fred:

 

I’ve been walking with folks from homelessness to holistic sufficiency now for just over twelve years. Four years ago when I came to WCC, I began walking with a family living through homelessness. This evolved into calling members of our church to serve as what we called “All In Friends.” From there I began to build a network of relationships within the city—professionals willing to donate services (mental health, job-training professionals, occupational therapists, financial advisers, dentists, etc.) to help with wrap around services.

As other local faith groups caught word of what we were doing I was asked by an inter-faith collaborative to teach other churches how to do it. We began piloting a city-wide effort together. Upon the completion of this pilot we launched a non-profit to keep up with equipping other local churches to do the work.

We now have three local churches that have embraced the process and have trained twelve leaders from seven different local congregations to move toward implementing the process in their congregations. We also have three more local churches discerning how to embrace the 3e Restoration process and engage those living through homelessness through gracious hospitality and meaningful relationships. 

A beautiful movement has begun here in greater Williamsburg, Virginia.

I strongly believe that just as the gospel was born on the margins in the narrative of Scripture, missional renewal is born on the margins for the local Church.

This is why I deeply believe in the Church despite her brokenness.

Williamsburg Christian Church found Jesus on the margins four years ago as they were a church in decline. It was there we found renewal and that has given birth to a whole host of beautiful stories to include those living through poverty, those experiencing wealth; those wrestling with addiction, those enjoying sobriety; those moving upward in their career, those working multiple jobs to make ends meet; those living with intellectual disabilities and mental illness (we have an entire assisted living home gathering and sharing in life with us now), those with PhD’s.

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3e Restoration was birthed out of this context and from 12 years of personal experience. So this isn’t a story about me. It is a story about our missionary God inviting His people to rediscover their identity as a missionary people who genuinely seek to be present with their neighbors—even the one’s no one claims–and make His kingdom known in tangible ways.

I find that when a church, or even a Christian, embraces gracious hospitality as a posture and way of being in society, surprising friendships are formed and healing can begin for all, even the discouraged. Sometimes when I am burdened by the frustration of the Church, I go away and be with the “least of these.” I believe that we can catch glimpses of Him in them.

Honestly some times I see more of Jesus in the downtrodden, the last, least, lonely and left out than I do myself or other Christians.

I have to just go and serve and get away from the trappings of institutionalized Christianity and its way of life. I learn from them. I see Jesus in them. I walk away encouraged.

Then I return to the institutionalized Christianity. That is important. I must come back to put my hands and feet to work among God’s people, remind as many as I can of the way we should see the world, ourselves and others, and call us back out into the margins and away from the center of society.

I think another thing is that I must believe that my life is not happenstance and neither are my encounters with others. People are too precious to God for this to not be true.

So I must be attentive.

As every day people living in everyday places we must choose to learn how to be open to the possibility that nothing or no one is irredeemable–a resurrected King Jesus makes us prisoners of hope. His kingdom is breaking-in, my job is to bear witness in word and deed, tangible expressions of grace, hope and love. And this best happens in community.

Now my resurrectional identity is more than a theological platitude. It becomes what it means to be a child of God and citizen of His kingdom. And it inevitably moves us closer to others where surprising friendships are formed and healing begins–healing for us all.

You can connect with Pastor Fred in multiple ways:  His blogWilliamsburg Christian Church and 3e Restoration. He’s on twitter @liggin and on Facebook. Be sure to follow his posts and the efforts of 3e. Their work is valuable to the national conversation about poverty.  He is an inspiration.  If you are struggling this week, consider his story of stepping out and making a difference. We are called to the margins and, when we return, we are never the same again.