How You Leave

Last night I took Carter to restart some baseball lessons in preparation for the season.  Basketball ended in February and this is the downtime between the two, not that Carter knows anything about downtime.  If there is a ball and a sport available, he will play it.

My dad had come up to visit and we watched him hit in the cage, ball after ball cracking off his wooden bat.

By the end of the session, he was getting tired.  His technique slipped.  His arms were dropping.  I could see it in his face  His coach, my friend Dan Clouser, told him he had ten baseballs left.

He went through the first five and slowly set up for the end.  A word came to me that was meant, I believe, for me as well as him.  God will often interject these moments of learning in our lives if we are open to listen. I said:

It’s not about what you do when you arrive. It’s about how you leave.

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We can’t measure ourselves in the easy times.  When we are humming on all cylinders, experiencing success at work and life, finances and relationships it is way too easy to get complacent.  When every day feels like a vacation, we can settle and get trapped.

The key is the point of pain. The moment when we are too tired to go on. When physically and spiritually, we are ready to quit and we feel like our time is up.

Those moments are the learning points. They are where we expand and grow.  They lead our faith to greater heights and depths.

Carter looked at me, set himself up, and hit the last few baseballs.  I prayed the lesson took root and he would remember it the next time he was tired or a conflict emerged. That night, as I was in bed reading, God told me the same thing.

Remember it is not about the easy times, no matter how far away they feel.

Worship and prayer in a crowd at church is easier than when you are alone on your knees fighting a sickness or addiction. Prayer is different walking the streets of a city shining light in the midst of drugs and violence.

Scripture comes easy from a pastor with three points and some cool slides or media presentations.  It is different in the middle of the night when your teen hasn’t come home yet and your heart is frozen with worry.

Faith is easy in times of provision.  It is different when you’ve thrown your last $10.00 in the offering basket.

Let us make the most of our opportunities, appreciate the hard times and understand that with each victory we will get stronger.  Every struggle is strength, every heartache increases our capacity for empathy, every fear makes us conquerors and every anxiety can lead new hearts to Jesus and impact eternity.

It is not about how we arrive, it is about how we leave and what we do when we are stretched to the limit.  If that is you tonight, know that God is close and you will come out of this better than you’ve ever imagined.

~Matt

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One Word

In the wake of the blizzard that hit the east coast this weekend, Carter had off school today and will be off tomorrow. Streets are clear but narrow, with mounds of snow taller than the average person. Val took Carter and Aiden down to see her sister during the day.  They played and went sledding.

They came home in time for dinner, just after I arrived home from work, and the boys were bouncing off the walls. The mixture of a snow day and the excitement of the winter overflowed into flips on the couch and wrestling.

I asked Carter if he could sit down for a minute and relax. He said to me:

Sometimes I feel like sitting. Sometimes I don’t.

The formula, in his mind, was simple.

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We humans complicate things.  As a writer, I would be out of a job if we didn’t complicate things. This week, I read through a devotional on the YouVersion Bible app by the authors of One Word that Will Change Your Life.

The premise is to find a single word to build your 2016 around. They present a selection of verses and material to support their idea and I love it. Why not a single word, a clear idea and a straight forward target?

I’ve been praying about my word for 2016.

What waited at the end of the road by the time 2016 is over? One gradually emerged.

Brave.

2016 will be a year to be brave, to stand up and push boundaries.  It will be entering new territory as a father, husband, writer, and follower of Jesus. It will be a filter to hold up moving forward, a catalyst for the times when the gas tank is running low, and the image of a new creation waiting to be realized.

What will be your One Word for 2016?

~Matt

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

 

 

It is Okay to Believe

This post was building the last few weeks.  It took a video circulated by the Huffington Post to finally make it happen.  They took verses from the Bible, most out of context, and quizzed people on the street to see if they thought the verses came from it or the Quran. This was supposed to make some grand point and found its way passed around social media fairly quickly.

We are in the age of attack on faith.

Belief systems have faltered at times throughout history.  When governments or people grab hold of the divine and use it towards their own ends, darkness and persecution results. From the first nomadic tribes to the Romans, Crusades, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others. When a charismatic leader rises up, they will gather the uninformed and insecure to form followers.  You get things like the Holocaust, Jonestown, and David Koresh. You get individuals willing to strap bombs to their chests and push the ignition switch.

You get a major New York tabloid publishing a headline saying God Will Not Fix This.

In times of chaos and tragedy, the tide and pointing fingers go against God.

Yet there are still reasons to believe.

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Faith provides a moral compass, it sends the line between dark and light, good and evil.  It provides meaning in tragedy, for if you remove God from the equation than it nullifies all the feelings of our righteous indignation. What value are we to this world in our eighty or so years of existence if there is nothing on the flipside? We place ourselves on a plane of morality because we understand the larger picture.  We feel we are right because divinity drew the map at creation.

Hear me out.

In the midst of this, there are good things emerging.  In a news release last week, more than 70,000 Muslim clerics banded together to denounce ISIS. There are still churches working to make change in their communities.  I think of the heroes of faith, back to Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi and others that set their feet in a belief system working to change the world for the better.

I can tell you what Jesus did say in the Bible.

He said to love your neighbor. He said the meek were blessed. He called to those in pain and suffering to come and find rest. He turned the establishment of the day on its head by showing the true meaning of faith.

Tonight I want you to know it is okay to believe.  It is okay to pray before your meals and pass your faith onto your kids.  It is okay to attend a community of faith, be socially active, support those in need and love your neighbors.  Pray in your dorm room, read your Bible, download You Version’s Bible app on your phone and start a reading plan. If you are single, pray about the ideal person for you. Know that there is a plan for your life, meaning in your struggle, hope in your suffering, peace in the chaos, and hope for tomorrow.

If you don’t believe, that is okay too. The Jesus I follow tells me to love as he first loved me.  Know that a genuine community of faith in your area is always open to you, whether or not you ever walk through the doors. Know that you matter. Your words, feelings, and opinions count.  Your questions deserve to be answered and the answers are out there.

Pastor Erwin McManus, head of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, said in one of his books that “Today’s atheists were yesterday’s children of the church.” I believe he’s right and I know the doors are still open.  The hurt, scars, and pain may be deep, but scars become maps to newer and greater stories.

We all need newer and greater stories.

~Matt

The Hardest Lesson

We are both human and works in progress.

Yesterday the horrific terror attacks in Paris have opened up old wounds for many in this country.  We watch in sadness and shock.  We understand, not so far removed from 9/11. We pray and we offer support in any way possible.

Thinking about these things led me to the most challenging instruction Jesus ever delivered in the Bible.

One day, as he gathered on a mountainside, a crowd formed.  He delivered the greatest sermon ever recorded and systematically tore down every societal construct of the day.  He spoke of the meek, the hated, hungry and thirsty being blessed.  He warned of false prophets gaining money and following by corrupting the Word.

He then said this:

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The exact lines read (Luke 6:27-36):

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

These paragraphs fly in the face of everything we stand for, every human emotion, all the rage and tears.  The concept exists in stark contrast to how we act and feel as believers, a government and society.

We scream for justice, for bloodshed and retaliation. Our guts want those guilty to get everything they deserve.

We want war.

And the cycle keeps spinning.

Today I’m praying for those involved in this tragedy and for wisdom and security. Something needs to change at the heart of this world.  There is a void and only one way to fill it.

The cross still stands, in the moments we choose to heed the message and the moments we ignore in our humanity, fueled by rage in the face of unquestionable evil. The cross stands to tell us there is justice, victory, sacrificial love that heals all wounds.

The cross stands to tell us it will be there in the wake of every terrorist bomb and bullet, every life taken.

It is a challenge to this world ready for the day we are prepared to answer the call.

~Matt

 

Weekend Inspiration 8/15/2015

Never Stop Looking for HeavenAnd you will

Yesterday I started reading a tattered version of The Screwtape Letters that had sat on my bookshelf for a few years.  C.S. Lewis is worth a large number of posts himself but, in the spirit of my weekend inspiration entries, I’ll keep this short.

For anyone not knowing the book, it is a series of letters between two demons, one more experienced than the other, on the nature of humanity with the more experienced offering advice to the younger. The chapter I read last night included this direction about humans:

Keep them focused on real life.

How many of us are buried in real life?

This weekend, turn your eyes towards the divine and you will find it:

In family and friends. On a sunny trail running through the woods. Sitting by the ocean. Watching the fireflies at night.

When you find it, give thanks and know you are not alone.

~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

 

Special Victims Unit

After a few heavier posts, I wanted to change it up a bit for tonight:

Ever since dropping cable, Val and I have used Netflix and Amazon Streaming for our television.  Our current binge watching show is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  Law & Order is a classic television show franchise and we are loving this version.  Producer Dick Wolf has led some of the best work on television over the past few decades and this is no different.

My favorite character is ADA Rafael Barba, played by actor Raul Esparza. Barba is quick, dramatic, and to the point.  He’s the lawyer I’d imagine myself as if I’d gone to law school back in the day.

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We read, in Scripture, references to an advocate.  We read of an accuser, the battle of good and evil played out in the cosmic courtroom that stretches across Heaven. Jesus tells us to ask and seek and know that you will find.

So are you asking God?

I don’t mean our spit ball prayers that we ask at the drop of a hat.  I mean, are you on your knees lifting up a need and, on the other side, letting it go? How often do we hold on? How often do we ask and grasp and say “yeah we trust just let it happen our way?”

Last night I met with my friend Gwen Didden, head of Family Promise in Berks County and founder of the Palace Project.  We had this exact conversation and it led to some powerful revelations. There are good things in the works personally, spiritually, and professionally that I will share more details about as they unfold.

For tonight, think about your petitions, your desires, about what could change  your life forever. Picture it now and know it is possible.  Whatever it may be.  We are all Special Victims. We’ve suffered and struggled. We’ve felt the sting of pain and discomfort, the weight of fear on many fronts. If you are in that dark place, know that the story isn’t over.

We are at the start, in the first days, and I can’t wait to see what will happen.

Until then, keep the faith.  Take it a step at a time.  The end is worth it, I promise.

~Matt