The Game

We had baseball practice last night.

Now summer baseball is a different animal.  Local seasons usually run through April and May, finishing in early June. This keeps summer for vacations and whatever else families have on their plate.  In our area of Pennsylvania, a variety of summer sports kick in from basketball to soccer and swimming. Summer, for all these kids, is a busy time.

Add in the heat and things really get fun.

We finished practice last night with running the bases.  By the last lap around, the boys were huffing and puffing.  One kid stood off to the side and one of our assistant coaches told him to get back in there because, “it won’t get easier if you are sitting out.”

How many of us get trapped in catching our breath and, before we know it, the sideline is a comfortable place to be.

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We throw around the idea of courage way too loosely.

We hide it in buzzwords like hustle. The Bible tells us more than once to not fear. We who claim to follow Jesus are told to be salt and light in the world.  That implies interaction, for salt is only tasted in contact with something.  Light shines in contrast to the darkness.  Neither can stand alone.

I used to have a repeated dream.  I was back in school looking for the classroom for my final exam and couldn’t find it.  The last test I needed to take to move on was delayed and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete it.

I turned thirty-six last week.  Today at work someone said “You’re still in your prime.”

God, I hope not.

There’s fear and excitement in the unfinished story. Anxiety waits on the horizon like a crashing wave when our faith waivers. When we start to wonder if this is it, if we are in our prime, if our life can’t get any better.

If we are stuck.

We are not designed to be stuck. We are designed to change the future.

I believe the future can change. Hard times will come. Disasters will happen and we’ll emerge stronger.  The trick is to stay off the sidelines and keep running.

Because quitting makes nothing easier.

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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.

Allow me to Reintroduce Myself

It has been a while.

I left off here in a dark place. In the few months since, things have changed. I’d looked in the mirror, stared into the abyss as it looked back at me.

I realized a few things.

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Ironically, it took watching Tony Robbins on his Netflix documentary to help see the truth. To look at some limiting beliefs, to realize what I’d cost Val and the boys over the last ten years.

Things have changed.

I’ve given myself permission to be the best father and husband I can be, to be my own man and stand on that foundation.  We cleaned out our house taking almost twenty bags of various things to be donated/trashed. My book collection is down to a few volumes of importance (everything from here out will be digital).

Some weight has lifted.

I started a new job, taken far too long to settle back into writing. I’ll start my first season as head coach for Carter’s baseball team this spring with opening day on April 1st. We are making steps towards a more purposeful life.

The boys are still crazy and active. They still surprise us with what they do and say on a daily basis.

So this blog will be a return to the words, the calling to put things down on paper, to stay honest, to honor the permission to write.

That’s the biggest thing that’s hit me in the past few months.

I’m allowed to learn and grow, to not have all the answers. To be a father and figure it out on a daily basis.  To be a husband and do the best I can. To be a writer no matter where the words end up.

To reach an audience because I know you are still out there. You’ve been there like me and you’ve grown.

To know that it’s okay as we go forward.

I hope you’ll join me on this new start.  Through a crazy baseball season and busy summer of sports for Aiden and Carter, trips to the pool and our first family vacation. Many stories wait to be told and I’m excited to see how they end up.

And I’m okay.

It’s taken a long time to get there, but I think I’ve finally found the starting point, the foundation to look towards the future and I’ll take that for 10:09 PM on a Tuesday night.

 

Half Full

Recently I’ve had the chance to transition my day job.  I’ll always call it a day job, in that it supports the writing dream.

We all need to have the deeper current running under our souls pulling us forward.

Today I was trained by a guy named Ben. Ben was an interesting guy, gun fanatic, video game fan and comic reader. We were making small talk when he said something that stuck with me. He said:

“I’m a pessimistic guy. I feel like you find the level of crap (he used a different word) you like in your life and get comfortable.”

Know anyone like this?

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I recently listened to a podcast from Pastor Erwin McManus, one of my favorite inspirational church leaders.  He spoke about faith being a nonsense, in that it exists outside our run of taste, smell, touch, hearing, and vision. It is our connection with the divine.

We often confuse faith as a noun when it is really a verb.

There’s a moment in life, a balancing on the edge of time. Athletes know it in the release of the pitch, the height of the serve, the Hail Mary pass in the final seconds. Teachers feel it in the silence of an answered question.

Expectant mothers in the pause between birth and first breath.

You have a choice. The moment bends both ways. See it in darkness or light. Moving forward or back. Success or failure. Goal or denial. Run or stumble.

Then grasp your next moment and do it again.

I can’t give up. There’s too many dreams to fulfill, too much good to create, too tight of a community to join. Our story isn’t over. I refuse to believe that.

I refuse to go down without a fight.

I let Ben’s comment drift past on the afternoon breeze and looked out the window dreaming of the future, excited at the changes that are coming and where we are called to go.

Never give up.  As long as you are still breathing, your story isn’t over. Balance on the moment and look forward.  See faith as a verb and not a noun and see what God is waiting to pour into your life.

10 Lies We Tell Ourselves as Fathers

1/I am ready. You are never ready.  From the moment I held Carter for the first time, I knew my life had changed. No amount of guidebooks, movies, or internet research can prepare you for having a kid.

2/My kid will be a copy of me. Some of you may luck out on this.  I did not.  I have dark hair and brown eyes.  My boys are a blonde and a red-head and their personalities are polar opposites of my own in many ways.  Some nights I shake my head and wonder where they came from.

3/My marriage will stay the same. Kids start you on a process of discovery.  Your time is now split and your love has grown deeper and wider than you could ever imagine.  Now, what to do with it?  You were a team and now you are a unit. Days are blank slates and you must rewrite the script every morning.

4/My wife can take care of it. I’m guilty of this.  When you add kids in the mix of work, money, family, faith, and health things can fall to the side. When you have a wife who takes care of things, it can be tempting to let it go.  Be sure to step up and do your part.

5/My wife can take care of it (part 2). There is a phrase thrown around in faith circles of being a servant-leader. In the midst of the noise, it can easy to forget to take the time.  We should be talking about life, faith, disappointment, hope, love, joy, and salvation whenever we can to our kids. We should start them on the right waters and help guide their spiritual journey into the future.

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6/The sun will always shine. There will be fights.  The first time your kid looks at you in anger, you will never forget it.  You may think you’re a great dad but all it takes is a wrong answer to a question and it will set things off.  Disappointment is okay. Your kids need to experience negative emotions and learn how to process them. This is the hard part; give them permission to ride out the storm.  It will be valuable in the end.

7/Stuff is enough. A pile of toys only leads to more piles of toys. Eventually the interest fades and the gap must be filled with something. You can’t buy them off because the void will continue to grow. It is at the point where Val and I seriously limit gifts.  Experiences are more important.  Objects pass but memories will live on.

8/No second chance. Your kids are not your chance to “make things right.”  Too many people maneuver their children to sports or other endeavors to live out everything that did not happen in their own lives.  We hold up the past against our kids and vow to not make the same mistakes again.  This is fine as long as we understand they are their own person and a new story waiting to be written, even with influences from the past.

9/No measuring stick. Get a group of dads together and what happens? The talk will move from marriages to jobs and eventually kids. Achievements will come up, sports, talents, schoolwork, whatever it may be.  Don’t fall into the trap. Let your kids stand for themselves and let their accomplishments come up in conversation from other sources. Don’t be that guy, that trophy parent.

10/Never break the mold. You are allowed to cry, to laugh, to be embarrassed in public and play on the playground.  You are allowed to hug your kids, pick them up and spin them around before throwing them on your shoulders. Maybe your dad never did this with you but, in the end, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it with your kids.  Start a new family tradition and have the courage to see it through.

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

Choose Against Yourself

A friend of mine, Dan Clouser, is founder and president of the Big Vision Foundation. Big Vision started as Berkshire Baseball by Dan and his friends from high school.  They were a bunch of guys, he says, trying to figure out how to keep living their glory days on the baseball diamond.

Now, years later, the Big Vision Foundation holds a number of seasonal tournaments in various sports. It is centered on a sports complex currently undergoing a multi-million dollar upgrade.   It generates more than $7 million dollars a year in tourism and income for Berks County.

Dan and his friends could have sat around telling stories but they decided to do something different. He chose against himself.

In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he writes about choosing against yourself.

It is the difference between the status quot and radical change, sameness and resistance, putting in the work when everyone else has gone home for the night.  It is what shifts us from regrets to dreams and visions.

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We all face inborn narratives. We inherit the stories that become our identities before we ever arrive on this planet, shaped by past generations. Every day is a choice. Every moment the scale swings between past and future, what we know and what our faith says about us.

So why break routine and choose against yourself?

It is the key to destroying the bonds that hold us down. Whether addiction or poverty, anger or sorrow.  It is recognizing that the old ways no longer work and the new has come. Because Jesus tells us in Matthew 16:

I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

This is a proactive statement. This is not playing it safe, settling into a routine that keeps us out of what God has planned.  This is not sitting on the bench.  It is stepping up and doing something about it.

It is making a difference, finding a cause, pulling closer to the divine purpose placed in your heart.  It is victory because the darkness shall not prevail, there is no condemnation for those in Christ, and if God is for us, who can be against us?

Today make a choice, just one, against yourself.  Take a step forward. Break routine. Your old stories may not turn into a Foundation changing the lives of thousands of children and athletes like Dan’s, but it will be something even more, a move of eternal impact and significance unique specifically to you.

Your story is waiting. Choose against yourself and let’s get started.

~Matt

The Gift of Changing Your Mindset

We started basketball last week.  In the gym of the local YMCA, Carter and eight other boys run around, dribble, pass and shoot. A good number of the kids on the team were in the spring’s baseball league, so we aren’t too far outside our comfort zone.  Carter loves the game.  Anything that allows a constant flow of movement is paradise.

Tonight, near the end of practice, Carter slipped and lost the ball to another player.  He fell and, as he stood up, started crying and saying he hurt his arm.  I walked him over to the side where he got a drink and rested for a minute.  The coach (a friend of mine) came over to try to get him back into things.

It took some convincing.

I sent the coach a text message afterwards to get his opinion on practice in general.  He said that Carter is great, if he could only figure out a way to change his mindset.

My son, blessed with coordination and athletic ability at age seven, can’t take conflict and failure.

As I typed that sentence, I realize he sounds a lot like his old man.

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As writers, failure and rejection is a part of life. Google famous authors and you’ll find their rejection stories, grand novels passing through a hundred publishers before finding the right one. Writers in second and third careers before their break and release onto the market.

Failure and rejection has meaning.

The story of Peter is one in the Bible that always fascinated me.  He was told, by Jesus, that he’d deny him three times.  Imagine the one you would die for telling you that you’ll turn your back in a time of trouble. The accusations fly and Peter, as predicted, makes his denials.

In the midst of pressure, he walks away. He takes the route of believed safety.  When he life goes sideways, he chooses to walk away rather than stand firm. We know it doesn’t end there, though, as he is reinstated by Jesus and lives out his life to face a martyr’s death like each of the other apostles.

The tipping point is the choice to get back in the game. When Carter cries, he’s reacting to failure, to the fear of not meeting expectations or making someone happy.  When he wants to walk away from the game, the shame (and shame must be strong at seven) wins.

I know that feeling, every time I put off editing another chapter, writing another post, or crafting another email.

There is nothing as exhilarating as living in your flow, playing the game, moving towards the end goal. This week, consider your mindset and make a change.  List out those things you are putting off, whether in business or personal life. Start getting them done one task at a time.

It is a gift that can change your 2016 for the better.

~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

For the Love of the Game

A light rain fell under swirling clouds as I stood next to Dan Clouser, founder of the Big Vision Foundation.  We looked across the Charlie Wagner Field, a replica of Fenway Park including its own Green Monster wall.

In this sanctuary, as the wind pushed against us, always blowing at home plate, there is peace.  Kids from across the country, some as far away as Canada, will travel to play here in a varied offering of tournaments. They will even set up an inflatable movie screen on summer nights for the showing of family movies, though not without a screening of Field of Dreams to start the season.

Clouser’s efforts have proved the mantra of the novel and film.

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What started with a group of friends has blossomed to an organization changing lives in Berks County on multiple levels.  On the practical level, they generate needed income from tourism.  Local hotels, gas stations, and restaurants all benefit from Clouser’s patrons.

On a deeper level, they are building bonds that will change the shape of this area. Kids from different sides of society join in unity behind a set of uniforms. Teams from the city get a taste of baseball in an idyllic setting. They are together for one goal.

“Teamwork in baseball is different,” Clouser tells me, “Take basketball.  If you are down to the last few seconds, you can design something for your most talented player to get the ball.  Baseball doesn’t have that option.  If you are on your ninth hitter, then he needs to hit or you can go to a pinch hitter without a ton of game time. Every member of the team must be ready to contribute.”

We forget this in the mix of everyday life as our culture is set up to celebrate the star. We look to individuals as teamwork fades in the background.

When we struggle, it is too easy to get caught in the comparison trap.  We aim our frustrations on one target ranging from our spouse to our children or coworkers. We forget that we do not live outside community as that small voice yells inside, kicking and screaming against a heavy silence that can wash over us.

This week, as baseball season has started on every level, learn the lessons of the game.  Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere. Celebrate unity and carry it through into your own life.  Find a team or create your own. Be a part of a greater cause.

One idea, shared between friends, can change lives.  It can shape the world.  You can, and will, be a part of it.

Play ball.

~Matt