Tides

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In the moment before a tidal wave, waters on the surface recede.  Witness accounts have placed this happening sometimes hundreds of yards out, a once calm process broken up and disturbed.  Life on the ocean floor suddenly exposed to air.  Moments of routine destroyed.

One second you can breathe, the next you cannot.

And in that pause, the rumble of miles of water, pure tons of force.  A flow moving at speeds beyond understanding, plowing through borders and boundaries.  Everything held dear is swept away.

I’d like to write about some cinematic moment, some vast realization played out against the backdrop of soaring violins, fall sunsets, and family embraces.  I’d like to write that an angel appeared, told Carter to not be afraid, and peace settled. None of these things happened.

We’ve explored options and have found some that seem to work.  Carter is progressing.  Formally large worries are not as large anymore.  He’s faced some fears and walked through them. We are on the dawn of tween years.

This past weekend he played baseball in a tournament just outside the city where I’d attended college.  I took Carter to dinner after the games in a restaurant that Val and I often frequented.  The night was cool with families milling around outside.  We walked through the restaurant and shopping area around it while my mind was in a different time.  We went into the Barnes and Noble where I’d stood almost twenty years ago waiting for an engagement ring to be finished in the mall down the road, one I’d give to Val later that night.

So many hopes and expectations, excitement looking forward.

At some point, life teaches you that expectations will fail. The path will not come easy.  Fear and worry will hound you, large black dogs of acceptance whose red eyes shine when you look at the window of a sleepless night. The things you believed as a child will be shed and the nuclear explosion impact will hit that nobody is perfect and you’ll spend decades processing that fall out.

Slowly you’ll emerge and realize:

Optimism is a choice. Hope is earned. Dreams can change.

Fear can hold you back or push you forward.

Nothing breaks your heart like the pain of a child.

Love is not the passion in the early years of marriage.

Love is the overdue bill, the unnecessary credit card, the change in body type, long hours, cold dinners, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, text messages about nothing, arguing and still, after the kids are in bed, sitting on the couch with each other and watching a movie.

Love is seeing a broken heart and standing next to it. Love is knowing every pain and scar and still holding hands.

Friendship is golden, community is scary but both are necessary.

You will get angry and yell at your kids and you will sound exactly like your parents and your child will look at you. You’ll see yourself and in that moment the entire universe stops spinning.

 

Then the waves settle. The sun sets. Night falls.  You climb in bed next to your spouse and say I love you and realize there is nowhere else you’d rather be.

 

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Night Swim

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This past weekend, Val headed to the beach with her sister and mother while I was home handling some errands and spending time with the boys.  On Friday, the pool we joined had a movie night/night swim. I took Carter over as Aiden was sleeping at my mother’s house.

We sat in the parking lot as the pool had closed their gate for thirty minutes to get the lights up and pool ready.  They were also showing a movie and had to get the large screen set on the lawn next to the pool.  As we waited in the car, the parking lot filled with families.  Other cars arrived and started dropping off teens for the swim.  When the time came, the gate opened and we made our way inside.

I took position on a bench while Carter played with his friends.  In about twenty seconds I realized how much time had passed.

Things I wish I’d known twenty years ago:

1/  Everyone is insecure- The crowd was a mix of the “popular kids” and the outsiders.  One girl ran past me telling her friends “People want me in the pool and you are all up here hanging out.  I don’t know what to do!” Some guys swam in full t shirts, others without. The posturing was interesting to say the least.  If there’s anything I’d tell myself at 17 is that all people are insecure, not just you.

2/ These years aren’t forever I thought everything was huge.  All the conversations, interactions, days in school and days in summer.  I thought it all mattered for the rest of time. It does not. Time is fleeting (in the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the sun will rise tomorrow.  Eventually, it fades to memories.

3/ Have fun– A group of kids stood off in the corner hanging out and watching the others swimming, laughing and joking around. I know, from my own insecurities, that I missed out often on experiences and taking chances.  Courage is not an easy thing, often it may seem  cool to stay off to the side, but you must take advantage of the moments and grasp them tightly.

Because soon you’ll be a dad, watching your son swim, and wondering where all the time has gone.  You’ll know, soon enough, he’ll want to be dropped off and ask you to wait in the parking lot.

The fear of a parent is not missing out.  It is not how our kids will survive and will they make it though to adults. The fear is not having enough time.  It is knowing that one day they’ll leave the house and start their own families.  One day they’ll have their own lives and your conversations will change.

You’ll watch them graduate, meet significant others, stand in front of you and exchange vows. You’ll see them in their own house and get the call one day that you’ll be a grandparent.

One day there will be no 10 year old to take to the pool. No player to drive to baseball practice. No head resting in your lap as you watch a movie on Friday nights. No one strolling into the kitchen to give you a hug just because.

One day they’ll be out there, on their own.

And you’ll think of the day you sat at the pool and watched him swim and you’ll wish, just for a moment, that you could go back there and do it all one more time.  Have one more summer night as the sun set, listen to the laughing and splashing, and maybe you’ll get up and join him.  Maybe you’ll tell him how proud you are. Maybe you’ll stop checking email and just be there in the moment.

Because one day he won’t. He’ll be the sum of his childhood out there in the world and, God willing, be a better man than you.

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.

Crowds

I’m not a fan of crowds.

Give me a beach by myself and I’ll be happy.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I can attend things like church or concerts.  Put me in the midst of a crowded event where things aren’t moving and I’ll start to get uncomfortable. Crowds, besides being oppressive, can hurt us in other ways.

Our older son has had some issues in school the past two days.  As I read over the email from his teacher, I found myself getting frustrated. He hangs out with two kids in his class and, for some reason, they seem to be the center of trouble. And I know Carter is a follower.  He’s not the type to create issues.

So, he’s in the wrong crowd and we’ve found ourselves at one of those parenting crossroads.

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I’ve written before how I’m a fan of Pastor Erwin McManus out at Mosaic Church in LA. I remember, in one of his books, reading about how we are a society based on collective worship.  Youtube a popular artist playing live and you’ll find evidence in a second.  There’s an old clip of U2 playing Where the Streets Have No Name at a castle in Ireland and the sea of people is mesmerizing. It is, in condensed form, worship.

We are also wired to find community. As an introvert, this had made me uncomfortable more than once. I do believe that God places people in our lives to help us through the dark times and celebrate in the light.

I sat down with Carter yesterday and asked him about his friends.  I told him he needs to look at the choices he makes, that his friends will show him where he’s going.

We often stress about our own stories but, when your child is involved, their narrative sticks in your mind. More than once today I’ve thought about what he was doing in school and prayed he would have a good day.

I’ve had friends from when I was Carter’s age who’ve gone and had great success personally and professionally.  I’ve had others who’ve ended up in prison. At the time, these people were just my classmates, kids I’d see a few days a week for a few months of the year.

One guy I knew passed away from cancer the summer we graduated high school.

It can’t be easy being a kid today. Their processing demand is much more than anything we had to deal with. There are moments I sit across from him and wonder about the universe inside his mind.

This week has not been once of peace but I hope, as we go, we can find some. Carter will continue to find his own crowds.  We can only hope his internal radar gets tuned towards those that enhance who he is as a person, those he can laugh and grow with, the ones whose friendship will extended into decades.

The ones who will make him happy and challenge him to be a better person. The journey will not be easy, but worth it in the end.

Noise

I just went home for lunch.

Now where I work, I’m afforded the opportunity to do this as it is about five minutes from our house.  We’re in the midst of a winter revival in the northeast so it was nice to get into the warmth of the house for a quick lunch.  As I walked in, Aiden was sitting on the couch.

The living room was dark and he had a movie on Netflix (a total Matt Shaner move). I went to say hello and he shushed me.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

I said, why?

“If you talk, Happy won’t sit with me.”  Happy is our cat.  Aiden loves the cat and the cat doesn’t like him.  Yesterday, for the first time, Happy sat on his lap.  This afternoon, he’s angling for a round 2.  He was watching the movie and keeping an eye on the cat, waiting for Happy to make his move.

Noise often disrupts our best intentions.

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We live in a world where we are afraid of the quiet. We’re hammered with images, sensory input from many screens. This normally splits people into two camps.

The first are like Aiden and myself.  There’s a home in the darkness and peace in the stillness. We can stand on a beach at night, breathe in the surroundings and get lost in the waves.

The others are like Carter and my wife.  Get lights on, go towards the lights, thrive in the sensory input. Stand in the midst of Times Square and feel hearts beat in time with the city.

The trouble comes in losing ourselves to both extremes as they can build walls. We defend ourselves with these walls and prevent others from seeing the genuine humanity inside.

I believe there is value in changing dynamics.

This week I had an email conversation with a friend of mine about church.  I told him I’d had this crazy idea. What if church could exist without a building? Without a paid staff? What if it was just random meetings to discuss life, spirituality, the Bible, and build community?  What if it meant random Saturdays doing work on the home of a disabled veteran? Or running a pop up soup kitchen in the middle of a city?

What if speakers were anyone who had something to say? What if worship came from a guitar or piano in the dark corner of a club?  Or a DJ set on the stage?

What if we haven’t scratched the surface of what God wants to do in our lives and in this world? What if a thousand years of history is no more than a heartbeat of practice?

We are standing on the edge of great things and the dreamers and visionaries, regular people with God-sized seeds planted in their souls, will carry us forward. The question is, are we ready to make the journey?

~Matt

Missing Out

I had the same dream last night.

It is a dream I’ve had probably fifty times over the past few years.  I’m at college, back at West Chester University.  I’m a senior and it is the end of the semester.  I have one class I need to graduate, literally one class to attend and I can’t find it.  I walk around campus and can almost feel the sun on my face.  The whole time, the location of the class does not reveal itself.

I search and search, never finding it. The day goes on and I start an internal debate.  Do I really need it to graduate?  What if I miss it?  Can I graduate and somehow take it in the summer?  What happens if I can’t graduate? The questions keep coming. The anxiety builds and, every time

I wake up.

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Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real thing that has grown from the social media boom.  People spend their days looking at Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat stories and compare their lives to others.  If they don’t stack up, it creates worry and anxiety.

Everything is comparison. Every picture, every filter, every vacation and creatively-shot dinner. We look at our plate and wonder why the salad isn’t as green, the steak isn’t as marbled, the wine isn’t as red and why our kids are running laps in the living room while theirs sit and eat.

Missing out translates, at the bottom line, into regret.

I’ve written before about being on the Mock Trial team in high school.  After our last case, the attorney advisor told me I should consider law school.  I said to Val the other night, what if I’d gone to law school?  Where would we be today??

Our stories are formed in intersection and opportunity.

My cousin’s husband is a financial advisor.  He told a story once that a friend in the business had called him to say, “hey man, I have this small iced tea company in upstate New York about to go public, you want in?”  He passed on it.  It was Snapple. Now, not every chance is that clear or easy.

Our lives are built on the foundations of our yes and our no.

Did you ever find yourself in a job you knew, without hesitation, wasn’t for you?  I did direct sales in the city of Philadelphia for two weeks, in mid summer, walking around in a shirt and tie. It was not for me.  I actually don’t regret taking the job as it was a learning experience but, in the end, I could have turned it down.

I believe, in the depths of my soul, that we are all called to make a difference. Someone you know, someone you talk to or email today, they need you.  They need to hear your voice and they will find security in it. They need you to push, or pull, them forward towards a greater calling.

I don’t know if regret every truly goes away.

The Apostle Paul wrote often about changing his message to suit his audience.  If you page through his books you’ll notice tone changes and logic progressions. Paul’s fear was not missing out, it was missing in. It was presenting what was on his heart in a way that would connect with everyone from new believers to Roman citizens and politicians.

“What if I strike out?” my son asked the other day riding home from baseball practice.

One of Val’s favorite movies is A Cinderella Story. In the movie, Hillary Duff plays the main character and, on the wall of her father’s diner is the quote, “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game,” paraphrasing Babe Ruth. Ruth may not be the greatest role model, but he has a point.

We must do our best to be present, to be in the moment with those we love. To be in the moment of our choices and to have peace with the directions our lives take.  We must sit in our emotions, to hurt with those in pain, to laugh until we cry, to hold a hand and stand with someone in their moment of weakness.  We must know our own value and live life with an understanding that we are worth it.  We are worth treating ourselves better, worth surpassing prior generations, worth stitching up our wounds and going back on the battlefield again.

It is worth striking out because adversity brings growth, because nothing changes if nothing changes.

It is worth it because someone is always watching, may it be your kids or your inner child, someone you love or someone you admire.  They are watching and waiting for you to tell your story.

So step up to the plate without fear. Without regret. Take a moment and breathe.

Open your eyes and swing.

What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

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Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.

Silence

It hasn’t been an easy two weeks.

I watched the turmoil of this election as it played out across the world. We’ve had our struggles in various parts of life. I’ve taken a job that has me working long shifts a few days a week and our family time has suffered.

Carter looked at me the other morning and said that he missed me and he wished I was home at night. As a father, hearing that breaks my heart.

You want to provide and make a difference but you don’t want to lose your son as a trade-off.

These weeks have seemed like a holding pattern.

I haven’t felt this much stress in a long time. And when I’d try to type I’d find nothing.

Silence.

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One of my goals recently is to be more honest. I’ve starting thinking about a project based on fatherhood, a book to reach out to other guys going through the same things as me.

Something for the rest of us that don’t have our lives lined up in a neat row.  The ones not in the holiday movies wearing sweaters as a fire roars in the background.  The dads staring down bills, stressed out spouses, crazy kids, and demands demands demands.

I’ve taken to listening to podcasts on the way home from work.  Something about the miles of dark highway makes it easy to listen. I had on my guy, Pastor Erwin McManus, and he said this last night.

He said his wife asked him why he always speaks about courage and living an adventurous life.  He replied:

It is my greatest fear to miss the opportunities God gives me and not live out the life he has planned for me.

His fear is missing the boat, the side street, the fork in the road that leads to God’s Grand Design.

I’ll admit, there are days where that design seems so far off in the distance that I’m not even standing at the starting line.

My fear, the thing that haunts me, is the same.  It is missing the opportunities that are coming, the open doors, the connections, the chance to live a full life and do something to put a dent in the universe.

We find what we look for; a sliver of daylight in the night, a crack in the wall, a whisper in the silence. Sometimes we only have the strength to turn our heads in the right direction and, just barely, open our eyes.

It’s a start.

 

The Small Moments

I laid in bed next to Aiden, handed him his stuffed animal dog, and turned off the light.  Through the faint glow of the nightlight I watched him pick up the dog and turn it to look at me.

“Daddy, what are you doing?”

Putting Aiden to bed, I replied.

“What did we do today?”

I went over a few things.

“What is the roof doing?”

Keeping us warm.

“What is mommy doing?”

Hanging out with Carter.

This went on for ten more questions from the dog interrogating me about various parts of the day. Then I had to ask Aiden questions from the dog in return.  I was amazed at the creativity he’d developed in three years of life. As he drifted off to sleep, I thought of the rest of the day.

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Our time with Carter wasn’t as peaceful. Val and I both think we’ve turned a possible corner with some of his temper issues. Tonight he decided to take a shower and, by the time we made it up to the bathroom, he had soaked the floor. With our recent floor damage problems, Val and I were both upset.

I watched his face twist into sorrow and anger at why we were mad.  He said it was my fault he got in trouble as the first parent on scene. Voices increased in volume and we found ourselves in the classic parent/child standoff.

Life is made of small moments.  They tell you to grasp them and not waste any. They tell you to track what you do with them and journal your progress. You are supposed to “make the most of it.”

What if the moments are painful? They pile up like cards houses into a sum that can be beautiful or blown over with a slight wind.  You tell yourself that you are strong and ready.  You map out a strategy and believe it will work.

Then you’re back at square one.

The pile rebuilds. Beauty emerges as you wait for the wind to blow and cringe the moment it dances across the back of your neck. You rebuild and rebuild and rebuild until one day the pile isn’t yours to claim anymore and you pray you’ve done your best. Until then it is one small moment at a time.

~Matt

The Job Effect

It is ironic that the name of the one man from the Bible associated with suffering is spelled exactly the same as “job”, the one thing that can cause a large amount of suffering from Monday to Friday, but I digress.

In case you’ve forgotten your Sunday School, Job was a guy seen in high regard by God. One day, the devil makes an appearance in heaven challenges God. He makes a bet, that if Job is shaken he will renounce his faith.  God believes so much in his servant that he allows it to happen.

The losses move fast.  Money, provision, the death of family and the scorn of friends.  Job persists in faith until the devil asks God to touch his health. God allows it and suffering rains down.  Finally, Job looks to the sky with open hands and asks:

WHY?

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God replies in a perfect defense, asking where Job was at the creation of the universe and, on what grounds does he question his situation.  We read that Job repents and is restored more than what he had lost in the beginning.

If it was only that easy.

There are times when it feels like every fiber of your life is under attack.  Nothing is safe.  From faith to family and finances, health to stability.  You get hammered from all sides.  Friends show up, as they did with Job, and question the causes.  They look down on you and wonder what you did to deserve it.

The days feel like a cosmic game, like you are moving around a board waiting for the next strike.

Two things we can learn from Job.  First, God defended him before any loss and suffering.  He was highly regarded, in the same position we are as followers of Jesus seen through the grace of his sacrifice. Secondly, Job was allowed to question.  God could have ended the story in a moment.  Job was still breathing for a reason.  He needed to step into his restoration found only through repentance.

The attacks will come. Cars break down, health fails, stress and conflict build.  You look at the one you love and you are arguing for no reason.  Your kids are wild and suddenly you don’t have the energy to fight.

God’s answer to Job is our own.  Take a minute and read the list he lays out in Job 38-42. All things are possible.  Our restoration is not a challenge for the one holding the universe in his hands.

The sun comes up tomorrow. When you look in the mirror, you have a choice.  Climb back in bed or keep going. Run or fight. Fear or faith. Be scared or be strong. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon that starts in one step.  Make it count.

~Matt