The _nd.

On Friday night we met with another couple, dear friends of ours, to start our small group centered around Mark Batterson’s book, If. We talked about our goals in life, our current spots, and what we see for the future.

How can we shift If Only regrets to What If possibilities?

The idea of shifting regret to possibility is one of changing stories. As a writer, I’ve always seen the catalyst for changing a story as finding a more complete ending.  Some writers know the ending before it starts.  I’m not one of them.

In my formative years, I read Stephen King’s On Writing where he mentions stories as fossils to be unearthed and his aversion to outlining. I know this spurs hours of conversation between creative types but, I believe, there’s a divine mystery to writing without an ending in mind. You may find yourself in a corner but, at the same time, mysteries and wonders will be revealed that enrich a story far beyond any outline.

The flow of shifting regret to possibility starts when we realize our ending is not complete.

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I think of Saul riding his horse down the Damascus road.  You think we have violence today?  This guy had raided homes, pulled Christians out and stoned them.  He was an enforcer, the best of the best, a Roman citizen working for the government doing his job.

He had blood on his hands.

Maybe that day was hot and dry as he rode forward with his companions.  Maybe he replayed the latest raid and killing in his mind.  Maybe he thought about a cushy government pension and villa somewhere that he would spend his days in after retirement.

The next moment, in a flash of light, his If Only had shifted to What If.

In his transformation days, blinded by the Redeemer he had chased so virulently, his regrets were fuel for his What If’s. He would now walk into cities and tell a new story.

He, the worst of the worst, was saved by grace coming from the greatest sacrifice in history.

When his eyes opened, he was now Paul, and would go on to write more than half of the New Testament. His ending, at the time, was not written.  Even in later years, when he understood he would face death at the hands of the same government he had served, he kept writing.  He kept pushing for expansion of the church.  He kept reaching out, burning away the regrets with new fire and new dreams.

He changed the world.

No matter where you sit tonight as you read this, your story is not over. The end is not complete. Time is not a conviction, it is the conviction to get moving. We must, as Einstein put it:

Try not to become a person of success, but rather a person of value.

Where can you make a difference? Contribute to a story? Add value? I know the arguments, believe me.  It is so much easier to curl up with some popcorn and Netflix.  Let this year be your year.  Let it be OUR year.

Look forward and see your What If as it emerges from the blinding light of contact with your Creator. As your eyes open, you will never be the same.

~Matt

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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

 

 

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

Winning Over the Other

For the last few years, I’ve spent time in the medical field working with patient registration and insurances.  This experience spanned an emergency room, a rehabilitation hospital, and a doctor’s office. The last two weeks, while checking in patients, I’ve heard this statement or a variance on it more than once:

“I’m not used to seeing a guy here.”

“This is a woman’s job, I can’t believe you’re doing it.”

“I’ve never seen a guy working in this spot.”

“Wow, you don’t see guys doing receptionist work.”

For in those moments of awkwardness, I’ve experienced a taste of the Other.

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You can write off antiquated opinions all you want but, in the end, the Other remains the same.  It is every person standing out in the crowd, breaking the mold, crushing through the glass ceiling. The Other isn’t often spoken of in positive tones, though. It is the immigrant, the refugee crossing boarders. It is the small business owner starting a family restaurant on the wrong side of town.  It is the family moving in down the street looking, talking, or worshiping differently.

It is difference in living form and we don’t like difference.

2015 is the year of the Other.

And oh how we fight it. We, as ones who claim to follow Jesus, call ourselves victims. We point fingers. We are not like them. We demand to be heard, picking the parts of the Bible useful to the cause while ignoring the command to Love our Neighbors.

Still, there are those finding victory over the Other. People serve; hands reaching across the aisles, street corners, and school yards. Children play with other children of all colors, ages, and backgrounds because it is fun and fun is a universal language.

If there is to be true change, terms must be rewritten.  For victory is not claiming power or privilege, not for those following Jesus. Victory is service. Victory is sacrifice. Victory is selfless love and honor.

Because the last will be first. Because we store up treasures in Heaven, not on earth. Because it is our job to give, not receive. To love and not hate. To not let the sun go down on our anger and never ignore the plank in our own eye when we call out the speck in the eye of someone else.

Not everyone can ignore comments like the ones above (and I know some of you hear much worse on a daily basis from coworkers, family, and even friends) but, if one person reads this and decides to make a change tomorrow, it will start a ripple effect.

Victory comes with compassion, the choice to care about the Other, to shift perspective and find unity.

I look in the eyes of my sons and know they will face negativity one day, probably without cause.  I want them to know their identities as men, as believers, and treasures to Val and I. I want them to rewrite the books, stand up for those in need, and change the world.

Nothing is impossible.  For them and for you. Never forget it.

~Matt

Is It Too Hard to Serve?

I sat in the cafe at church this morning drinking my coffee.  Four people were at a table to my left, two interviewing the other two about serving in the church.  The questions flowed on a predetermined path from jobs to hobbies and interests.

I know this because, a year ago, I sat through the same interview.

The guy I spoke with gave me a questionnaire that I completed and handed back.  I was going to school for my English teaching certification at the time and though I’d help out with the youth program. I met the head youth pastor and was given a binder of information including a link to a pair of videos I was supposed to watch as a form of training.  The following week I visited the youth service and shadowed a small group leader.

He was a nice guy and led a group of, if I remember correctly, ninth grade boys.  After the service we sat there and talked about the message.  The guy leading told me he usually brings some kind of snacks for the boys and plans activities during the week.  As he spoke, I was still okay with it.  Then I asked:

“So how often do you do this?  I mean, is it a rotation or something?”

“Every Sunday,” he said.

Every week. No break. Our church has two morning services.  This guy and his family would attend one while he served at the other, every week.  I get the concept, to have consistency, but it still made me reconsider.

I mean, how hard should it be to serve?

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The early church was instructed to care for the poor, orphaned, and widowed. Jesus preached love and acceptance, stating “what you do to the least of these, you do to me.” The direction is clear and, in Acts, we read of believers selling belongings and giving to those in need.

So what have we done?

We’ve complicated simple instructions.  We’ve turned love and provide into analyze and assess. There are numerous organizations out there asking for monetary help.  Wait for a natural disaster and you’ll see the donation jars arrive at supermarkets and other public places. Needs aren’t always dictated clearly and, when they are, we don’t always listen.

At one church we attended, a small start-up, the pastor announced to the crowd that my wife would be working in the nursery before he asked her.

Serving has moved from a command to a corporation.

Let’s make it easy.  If you want to serve, church is a great place to start, even if not for the church at all. It should be a gateway, a door to direct the curious and interested towards families and charities in need. What if it didn’t take an interview and a weekly commitment?  What if it took one conversation for one need met?

No more pressure. No more quizzes or personality tests. No more barriers, political or personal.

The message today was on Jonah, a guy God called to serve and deliver his Word.  Jonah ran the other direction. It took a trip to the depths to get the point. It shouldn’t be that way for everyone.

The church and those who claim to follow Jesus are standing at the ledge of a movement, a chance to unleash radical love and service in a world existing in desperation. Jumping off can only happen if we get out of our own way.

~Matt

The End of Boring

This afternoon I had to go and pick up a refill of Val’s medicine at the local Target pharmacy.  I left work and drove over with thirty minutes to spare before I needed to get Carter from after school childcare. The pharmacy, as per the usual practice, did not have the refill ready so I ambled around the store to kill time.

I stopped at the magazines and, in the current Men’s Health edition, they surveyed a large segment of women and found that they were bored in their marriages. The writer offered a number of suggestions to spice up the situation, but the underlying issue remains.

How many of us are bored with our marriages, our jobs, our lives, or our walks with God?

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We are beings hard-wired to chase satisfaction.  Addicts find it many different ways, from money to fitness and drugs. We demand value and will sacrifice whatever it takes. Talk to the bully or the one throwing themselves at others for acceptance. We want to be wanted and in control.

At the same time, we want to consume.  Our drive to gratification demands one more minute on the phone, one more text message, one more status update or photo upload. And don’t wait because, in the minute you put your phone down, you could miss a friend’s baby picture or workout status and clean meal of the morning.

Maybe we’re missing the point.

Bored is focused inwards.

Passion is focused on them.

Passion is about what we give to a situation, whether a job, family, marriage, or faith walk.  Want to light up your days? Think about what you can do for someone else.  Tip the scales the other direction.  Sacrifice your time for a greater goal.

Donate. Create. Shape your contribution and release it into the world.

So tonight, if you are living in a stagnant situation, there is time for change.  There is time to step out of your comfort zone. Time to give, to enter a new situation and make it better.

Anyone can sit back and consume.

The time for waiting is over.  Take a small step and do something for a friend or family member or, even better, someone you don’t know. See what happens.

A life of epic faith, love, family, and passion is possible.  It takes one day of change at a time.  Let tomorrow be your Day One and see what happens.

~Matt

The Compass

I was sitting in an office at Hope Rescue Mission interviewing a resident.  He had lived years of his young life dealing with addiction and crime, illness and death. After listening to his story, he mentioned that he was enrolled in the local community college.

I asked what he was taking.

“Addiction counseling and social work” he said, “I just thought I could give back, you know?”

His life had shifted.

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In the midst of suffering, we feel thrown off the path. The way becomes blurry. Questions that were easy now present problems. Cooking dinner, at the end of the day, looks like a doctoral thesis.

Our pain points are our compass. They are construction signs better than any orange cones on the highway.

They are God’s arrows showing us the way to go.

The trick is to keep moving. How could you give back? What fires have you braved that you could help others put out? How can you turn the emotions into life for someone else who may be in the midst of the same?

We have a choice.  No matter how deep in the darkness, we always have a choice.

Your first step towards reclaiming faith and life in action is seeing a new target and new purpose. It can be the light you need for the next chapter of the journey.

~Matt

Here I Am, Send Me

This season, in our lives, is one of shifting times on multiple fronts. We’re facing developments professionally and personally.  The boys are changing and growing. Aiden has fully embraced the terrible 2’s.

We are riding the waves of life. In these moments it can be a challenge to keep focused and not get frustrated.

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Every moment I first sit at the keyboard, I send up a silent prayer.

Please let the words make a difference and let me never forget to tell my story.

I was seated in the office of County Commissioner Christian Leinbach the other morning.  I asked him about his motivations and background as a government official who is also a believer.  He quoted a pair of verses from Proverbs 31:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Everyone deserves a voice at the table, even if they can’t speak.  Our job as writers is to give them voice and let their words take flight.  We are tasked with making words that change things, whether it is inspiring our spouse, children, coworkers, or the public.

Those of us who are genuine do it to make a difference, they do it in the dark nights before selling a single copy or putting a single page in front of a reader and waiting for their response.

We also must remember that our story is our own. The gut instinct is to find value in comparisons. The secret is, they don’t matter.  You were given a story to tell. It is different from every other one on the planet.  When you try to change your story to fit a different one, you lose authenticity.

In the uncertain and tumultuous times, you press on.  Raise your hand in the static. Answer the calling.

Go forward.

Pressure is progress. Change is good. The future will be here before we open our eyes to recognize it.

Don’t miss your chance.

~Matt

The Intersection of Faith and Action

I remember the night like it was yesterday.  Val and I had just started dating.  We were both in high school.  I drove her around in my mother’s green Mazda.  It was winter, bitterly cold, and we were stuck.

The area around our home town consisted of a railroad track that twisted and turned through the suburbs.  An urban legend existed of a park by the tracks that you did not want to visit at night.  Of course, I took us right through it. The road was snow-covered, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and a small creek.  The exit was a choice between a flat road and a steep incline. I took the incline as the car slid to the shoulder and stopped.

I tried spinning the tires, steering back and forth, anything I could do.  It wouldn’t move.  I called my dad and he said he would make his way over with a shovel to dig us out.  I rolled down the window and a dog started barking hysterically from somewhere in the distance.

Val and I looked at each other and prayed.

A minute later, headlights approached. A group of snowmobiles parked behind us.  I exited the car and one of the guys asked me if we were stuck.  I said yes. Three of them pushed the car back to the road.  They never removed their helmets or visors, returned to their snowmobiles, and drove away.

I turned the car around and started back the way we came. We stopped to get our bearings and I stepped out of the car again. There were no tracks on the ground, no sign of a snowmobile.  Two minutes before, I had watched them take that road to leave us.

The snow was fresh and untouched.

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Photo Credit: hodge via Compfight cc

I’ve spent the last eight months interviewing local charities, businesses, and community members, gathering story after story of God’s involvement in the lives around us.

When we seek, we will find.

In the whir of our lives, it is too easy to get caught up in the process. Kids, bills, jobs, starting a business, writing a book, keeping up a website, getting in shape. We tend to miss chances to make a difference.

I prayed, eight months ago, that my words would make a difference. I’d give the writing to God and tell the story that needed to be told.  I’d give voice to those on the front lines of the battle against poverty.  I’d work with faith-based businesses and charities.

My next e-book, coming out in April, will be about reclaiming Christian Arts and producing creations that have deep impact in the world. I have an article upcoming in RELEVANT magazine and will be starting work as a volunteer journalist for BCTV, a local nonprofit covering the Reading and Berks County area. We’re preparing a powerful series of stories on poverty and the efforts happening to reclaim the soul of the city.

Things happen when we decide to serve, when we give our talents back to the God, the Creator who gifted them in the first place. Now is the time to make your move, consider what you can give and ask how you can serve.

The intersection between faith and action is waiting for your arrival.

~Matt