A Sum of Years

Can’t you just act ten years old?

i project as much as i can, a hurricane of noise.  He lowers his head.

i’m on my bike, a red Diamondback, riding across town with the sun on my face and all the time in the world. i take a dollar to Allen’s Variety Store and stock on up baseball cards and candy.

Go to my dad’s on the weekends and watch the Phillies on television while he mows the yard. 

Getting hooked on Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

The bullies. Eat lunch out of a brown paper bag and search for who looks at me and says something. 

Shoot pool on the weekends and smoke a cigar like i know what to do with it, smell of Cool Water cologne. 

Drive around for hours with Val in my first car, an 84 Oldsmobile with tan seats like couches. 

Walk King of Prussia Mall like it is a foreign country and window shop. 

Work in a factory during summers in college and come home covered in oil and dust. 

Graduate and wonder what the hell to do next. 

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Hired. Fired. Hired again. 

Move out. Marriage. 

Find out i’d be a father. 

Lay off. 

Struggle. Every. Day. 

i walked down the stairs as he stayed in his room. i sat on the couch.

Disappointment. Failure. Not living up to the ideal of what i could be and feeling never enough. 

The alarm sounds at 6:30.  Shower. Dress.  Put the coffee on. Make a thermos.  He comes down the stairs and lies on the couch.

Dad can you put on the PlayStation Vue for me?

Sure.  Why are you up so early?

I didn’t sleep well last night.

i tousled his blonde hair. He pulls the blanket over his shoulders.

i’m going to work, i say. Be good.

I will.

Back on my bike crossing town, winter jacket zipped tight.  Inhale and feel like i’m flying and still, deep down, know the pain is coming. 

One Day.

Father’s Day

I’ve started to see the advertisements/memes show up online and, every year, it makes me think about the day itself.  I still remember when I found out we’d be having a son.  The thought was so intimidating.  I talk to guys with daughters and, yes, they have their own set of stuff to deal with.  Having a son, though, that was big.

That was an existential crisis.

Not just carrying on the family line, but having a copy of you, a young man to try to mold into the man you want him to be.  Carter came along on a warm night in August 2008 and our lives changed forever.

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He turns ten in August and there’s a few things a decade of fatherhood has revealed.

  • Dad is not perfect.  For every Hallmark moment there are a dozen that you go to bed praying you don’t repeat the following day.
  • Dad takes work. If you slack, it impacts the entire family.  You need to be a mix of servant and leader, and if that seems scary you are right, it is.
  • Dad means learning to improvise. Maybe work was hard, the project wasn’t finished and you are on your 50th hour of the week by Thursday afternoon. Still you have kids waiting for your attention when you get home.  Maybe it means a playground trip or getting a pizza. Be creative, it will take the edge off.

The hardest lesson, and the thing I feel like God has been working through recently, is that we learn in loss.

We learn in dealing with our kids and their emotions in the hard stuff of life.  We face down the bullies, the mean kids, the ones who find a need to break hearts.

Carter’s passion is baseball (he plays on a tournament and a travel team).  This had led to valuable lessons on adversity, victory, and defeat. Kids need to learn how to lose, that it is not all about them and they are a part of a team.  They need to learn empathy and, as they do, we do as well.

There are moments when you’re tired.  The last button is pushed, you’ve separated the last fight between siblings. You are face to face, loud, emotional and tears are shed. You walk away.  All the old ghosts appear and you question your competency in the first place.  Shouldn’t they have a license or something for this?

Then before bed they walk over to you and say “I’m sorry daddy. I love you.” And they hug you and your heart breaks and mends in one moment.

That’s the lesson of Father’s Day.  It isn’t the picture perfect dads that have it all together. It is making magic out of the mess, it is forgiveness and love and grace when you feel like you don’t deserve it.

It is when they teach you about yourself and you grow.

Together.

Impulse

Peter is one of my favorite dudes in the Bible. He’s all of us getting the chance to hang out with the one that changes the entire universe.  He jumps to the front of the line, speaks before he thinks, and tries way too hard.

He wasn’t always on the good side of Jesus.

The night of the arrest in the Garden, Peter cuts the ear off a Roman soldier. Later, faced with the thought of his own arrest and punishment, he issues his denials. Those moments stand out in the midst of faith stories.  We tend to gloss over them and rush to his reinstatement.  We don’t want to think about denying faith, about what we would do when pressed with a death or decision moment.

Peter, in his fear, acts on impulse and I get it.  I’d bet you get it too. Imagine, all the things he’s seen, all the miracles, the rising tide of crowds and revolution.

The betrayal.

The one who would finally give freedom is now in shackles. All the evidence goes out the window of short-term memory because, if you say yes, you’ll be there too. Suddenly going back to the lake seems like a good alternative.

The familiar provides a warm bed to distract us from a life of electric possibility.

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Last night, Carter was angry.  He was tired and angry, not an easy combination for a kid with anxiety. After talking for a few minutes, he calmed.

I had read something earlier in the day online that reaction for kids dealing with hyperactivity and anxiety are emotion-based.  This means they don’t try to purposefully make their parents angry.  As I spoke to him, the thought bounced around in my head.

It is not an issue of impulse, it is a matter of emotion.

I knelt across from him and took his hand in my own. I looked in his eyes, red and laced with tears, and asked him a question.

“Do you really want to feel like this?”

He took a breath and said no.

For the first time, in the moment, I saw things for how they were.  His issues were something concrete outside himself.  They didn’t own him. They weren’t his identity. They were something we could help with, work with, and teach him how to cope with and forge himself into the person he wants to be.

We stood and I hugged him, pulled him close and shut my eyes. I told him I loved him.

For a second, I understood.  That actions don’t make the person, that impulses are what they are. That Carter’s feelings ran as deep as his soul and that we had hope.  We would walk forward together.  No matter how many bumps in the road, we’d come back to a moment as father and son.

As I was going to bed last night, I stepped into his room and looked at him sleeping.  I thought, for the first time in a while, that we could do this.  It would take effort, time, honesty, and work but we could do this.  We could do this.

We could do this.

Radioactive

My mother worked in a nuclear medicine department at a hospital for forty years.  She’s still there, inching her way towards retirement.  My father was an operator at a nuclear power plant before he retired.

I used to tell people that I glowed in the dark.

I remember visiting the hospital or the power plant (pre 9/11 years) and being amazed at the concept of radioactivity. Somehow this substance could kill you if you were around it too long.

I called my dad after 9/11 and would hear the stories of increased security, guards with automatic weapons and armored vehicles. Every year the township distributed iodine tablets to help against the possibility of exposure from a fallout event.

We all have our fallout events.

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This week, we took Carter in for some testing.  He’s been complaining of a rapid heart beat and some chest pain here and there. His emotions are erratic and we decided to talk to his doctor.  For two days we’ve wondered about results and the call came in today.

Everything normal.

So I look at him and wonder why?  What changed and what can we do to help?

The other night, after he had flown off in a rage and finally calmed down, he hugged me.  I told him I was sorry, that I wanted to make him feel better.

“Daddy, you don’t hug me enough anymore. You give me more high fives than hugs,” he said.

Feelings came crashing through. I’d seen him from my lens and not his. I’d assumed he would be mild mannered, like me, and not this vibrant, active, and emotional kid. I had parented him by attempting to attach the influence of my past to a person who had not known what it was like, one who never glowed in the dark.

It was an amateur parent thought:

He’ll be cool and low key, just like me.

I was wrong.

He has parts of me, yes, but he is his own person.  One who needs more hugs than high fives, freedom and the chance to grow. He’s Carter, not me.  One day he’ll be a father and I want him to know I’ll be there, with love and support at whatever level he needs.

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This is Carter from last Sunday.  My reason to keep fighting to get this fatherhood thing right.

~Matt

Fire Words Week: The Way

I’m back from a weekend at the beach and ready to start with some fresh and exciting material. This is the first night in a series about the words we use that start fires in our lives; personally, professionally, or spiritually.  They are the expressions that polarize the world. Each post will be mixed with some great music so check it out and enjoy!

Carter and I just spent two days in Millsboro, Delaware visiting my dad. The town is near the bottom of the state and we survived a pair of long car rides.

We were in the yard throwing Carter a wiffle ball to hit with one of the old-school yellow bats.  He loves baseball and dad and I were both working with him on his batting stance.  At one point he said, “Just let me do it my way.”

In six words he inspired and captured so much of the dynamic between fathers and sons.

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We are not living in a world that enjoys singular answers.  We want our paths multiple and divided. We want independence.

Later on Saturday night we were fishing off the dock behind my dad’s house, three generations together throwing fishing lures into a lake as the night breeze pushed the smell of blossoms across our faces.  As writers do, I started thinking.

Our paths are connected, three men born across generations with different memories and experiences. We pass down a part of our souls.  There are things I say that sound exactly like my dad and Carter will come out with phrases from both of us.

He may want his own way and he will find it one day.  Until then, he will discover himself and negotiate the connection between his past and the future.

Jesus says, straight out, I am the way.

So, how do we handle it when asked about our faith?

I take a clue from Carter.  Sometimes, the clearest thing to do is say “this is my way.” Words carry weight and power. Own your faith.  Step out and you’ll see the connections and lives change in the process.

~Matt

Worship Song Inspiration: I am a huge fan of this song and the work of Worship Central.  Listen once and you’ll be hooked!

A Post for My Son’s Bully

Carter is doing kindergarten this year for a second time.  He’s a mid-August birthday and we started him too young last year for his first shot at elementary school.  He’s asked us, more than once, why he isn’t in first grade with his friends.  This morning he was really upset when Val dropped him off at school.  I called and talked to his guidance counselor.  She talked to him and he seemed to feel better.

Then we had baseball practice.

A kid he was in class with last year is on the team and this kid does not let up with the questions as to why Carter isn’t in first grade.  Today it escalated to insults. “Carter can’t hit. Carter can’t throw.  Carter’s a failure (yes, he actually said it.) He’s a big crybaby, etc.”

I was pitching when this was going on and I can’t tell you what it was like throwing to Carter while he was standing there trying his hardest not to cry. As a dad, saying it breaks your heart is an understatement and this is why:

I was picked on in school and, to this day, I can remember every moment of it.

Carter and I stopped and got dinner after practice.  I asked Carter if he likes this kid and he said yes, they are friends, but he doesn’t like when he is mean.

He has his mother’s heart and a soul that cares about the world, even one who hurts him.

So, for this kid, this bully, I have a message.

You will not win.

You will be overcome by the gracious heart of a child willing to look past your antics and be your friend.

You will plant a seed in Carter that grows his heart even wider and deeper, allowing him to love others and stand up when he sees someone being bullied because of empathy, because he was there once when you put him there.

You will be a catalyst that makes my son a better man, father, and husband.

You will not break his soul, deaden his passion, or make him feel like lesser of a person.

You will be a teaching point, a moment in his past that he can learn from and use to build himself into a stronger person.

The hardest thing, as a parent, is to find a balance.  My gut is to grab control and stamp it out immediately. I also know I can’t always be with him, that he’s on his own at school five days a week and will need to navigate his social situation.  This is new territory.

Before bed, I knelt before him and promised him that I would always be there. I told him I would look out for him and that he was the more important than he would ever know.  He hugged me and said, “I love you daddy” and that is all the fuel I need to wake up in the morning and do it all again tomorrow.

~Matt

Soundtrack inspiration:

 

Ray Rice and T Ball Practice

I picked up Carter from school, drove through Burger King to get him a quick dinner, and went to the practice field.  We were running a skills clinic with another team. Twenty-five kids, a handful of coaches, a bunch of baseballs, gloves and bats, and the end of a day in the fall.

I love baseball.

Carter and I share these nights together. I pitched to him, watched him hit, throw, and catch.  After practice he ran and played with his friends.  We went to Wawa, got a pair of sandwiches, and came back to the house.  He sat next to me at the table and we ate together.

My mind flashed back to nights with my dad, eating dinner next to him and feeling proud of where I was and still trying to work out the mystery of the father-son dynamic.

We watched some television, read a pair of books, and I put him to bed.

He looked at me with his hazel eyes, golden blonde hair, and smile just like his mother’s and said, “I love you.”

I sit here and wonder what he will become:

A gentleman? One who opens doors and pulls out chairs? Who picks up checks and helps elderly women with their shopping bags in a parking lot? Who donates to charities, his church, and his kids’ elementary school?

A husband who loves his wife and never raises a hand to her.

A man of faith, of belief in the good in people and a backbone to face struggle and suffering. An activist working to make things right in his own corner of the universe.

A man who reads books before he sees the movie.

A man who reads poetry for the beauty of language and music of the soul.

A father who takes the time to take his son to baseball practice, get sandwiches, and eat dinner together.

A father who doesn’t get lost in his cell phone, or job, or social life.

A servant of his wife and children and a leader of his household.

These things swirl in my mind as he sleeps on his Spongebob pillow and I realize the depth of grace and blessing that comes with being a parent, being a father, being a man with the chance to pass on values to his son.

Carter, I’ll do my best.  Forgive me when I fail, stick with me when I slip up, and know I’d do anything for you and that every time you tell me you love me I steal the moment and lock it deep inside my soul as it is a passing glimpse of Heaven.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: One of Val’s favorites

The Importance of Fatherhood

This post in our marriage and family series is focused on the male half of the equation and inspired by the current message series at our home church.  You can find videos of the messages here.

The other night we were watching the Philadelphia Eagles preseason football game.  I cover the Eagles for the website Philly Sports Space. It is something I love to do as I’m a huge fan of the team and analyzing the game.  Carter was laying on the couch watching it with us as Aiden was already in bed.  The broadcast cut back from a commercial to show a group of Eagles’ cheerleaders dancing.  The image then cut to the players.

“Dad can you put them back on?”

The question came from the couch. Val and I looked at each other.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“The cheerleaders.  Can you put them back on the t.v.?” Carter asked.  Then he laughed.   I’m not ready for that conversation, not at six years old!

At church we are going through a short series on Marriage, Love, Sex, and Dating.  The message today, delivered by Pastor Scott Kramer, talked about some responsibilities of men in our marriages and relationships.  He mentioned how society does not help us in the fight to make women equals and not commodities. He talked about how the early church was revolutionary in seeing women as people and not slaves or items to be sold. Turn on the news, check your smart phone, it would not be long until you find an article from the sports, music, or entertainment world written to objectify women. And wow, men, do we eat it up.

Scott mentioned starving your eyes and how these images hurt our marriages and relationships.  They create unrealistic expectations of significant others. They sell the fantasy and, in times of struggle, fantasy can be very addictive.

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I just started reading Manhood by Terry Crews. Crews is an actor and a former NFL player and a man of faith. He’s the star of Old Spice commercials, over forty films, and hundreds of television episodes. He is married to his wife of twenty-five years and they have five children. He also battled a strong addiction to pornography that almost cost him his marriage. (check out his commercial below and you’ll be singing the song all week)

In the beginning of the book, he talks about growing up with parents who battled nightly and a father who was an alcoholic. He and his siblings were abused. They relied on each other to survive.  He mentions going to church and just wanting to be good enough for God, to avoid sin at all costs, to be a handler (as many children of alcoholics are) and make everyone happy. He realizes how this isn’t possible.

I love his honesty and his profession of grace.

As men we have important jobs. We stand in the gaze of our children.  Our sons and daughters learn from our examples. They see what it means to be a support for a family. If we want things to change, society to be different, women to be respected, the work force to even out, and the future to brighten, then it starts with us. Want to change poverty and stall crime? Be there as fathers.  Want to start chipping away at racism? Be there as fathers. Want to stop the violence? Be there as fathers. Engage. Support. Listen. Respect. Serve.

I don’t know about you but I want my boys to be the difference and live the change.

I want them to have hope, to reach out hands in support, respect and value women, hold doors, say please, say thank you, tip well, and pray with their own families. I want them to see Val and I as inspiration.  It is a big job but, with God, anything is possible.

~Matt

Guardians of the Galaxy

I’m a fan of the current push to make movies based on comic book characters. I loved every effort at X Men that has been attempted. I grew up watching the cartoons on Saturday mornings. As a society we treasure the idea of being different, of having powers that help to overcome our challenges. As kids we pretend to fly and fight the bad guys.  One of the most recent movies released is Guardians of the Galaxy starring Chris Pratt. Pratt is married to actress Anna Ferris. The couple had a baby boy born nine weeks premature.  He spent a month in the NICU and Pratt recently talked about how this reinforced his faith in God.  You can read the article here: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2014/07/chris-pratt-says-premature-son-restored-my-faith-in-god/

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I can identify with his feelings.  Both of our sons were in the NICU.  Carter had an infection and Aiden had fluid in his lungs. When the nurses tell you they have your child in an Intensive Care bed your heart sinks. You go and visit, washing your hands and disinfecting. You look down at the small body and tell yourself that other parents don’t have to go through it. You spent months picturing the delivery and having your baby in the room with you and now it isn’t happening that way.  Both our boys recovered and are as healthy and crazy as they should be.

Suffering can either draw us towards or pull us away from God. In Scripture, Paul asks God to remove his suffering but realizes he must persist.  In the Garden, Jesus asks if his suffering can be taken from him but, he states, that his Father’s will be done.  We can learn from their examples. Keep moving. Keep living and know that you will be pulled out stronger and better than before.

~Matt