Sermon

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Blessed are the poor in spirit. The beaten down.  The ones working three jobs and the fridge is still empty. The kids’ shoes are falling apart because they share them and there’s no way to get a new pair because the thrift store is ten blocks away and it is the middle of winter. The ones trying to fill the void of vacant spouses, angry kids, and disappointed family.

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn. Those losing loved ones to cancer, addiction, disease and suffering.  Those who’ve searched for jobs for years and the phone stays silent.  Those who look in the mirror and see a ghost of who they used to be. Those facing a tragedy without the energy to take another breath.  The ones whose friends have gone away and comfort seems like a dream.

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek. Those that do their jobs and slave to put food on the table.  The ones taking extra seconds to fold, shine, polish, prepare and present.  The ones unheard and unseen.  The ones that stand to the side while the blur of the city passes next to them. The ones we judge before we can stop ourselves.

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The ones serving when no one else will. The ones opening their doors, arms, and hands to others in need.  The ones that do it for no other glory than the peace they feel inside.

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful. The ones unwilling to judge or condemn. Those that see opportunity in despair, hope in heartbreak, love in silence and peace in acceptance.

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart. The ones with the courage to say no, to stand up for the ones that cannot stand on their own. To have the strength to do what is right in a world that tells them otherwise.

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The ones that hold hands on the front lines. The ones that refuse to step down or step aside in the face of violence.  Those speaking in love, stepping into darkness and shining light.  Those putting themselves in the crossfire with a blanket of hope and courage beyond measure.

for they will be called Children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Every look, every whisper, every point and laugh.  Every comment.  Every downturned glare.  The ones who will do what is right when everything is against them.  The ones who are allies, supporters, friends and neighbors.  The ones that do it all without recognition and suffer without end.

for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

 

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Rough Draft

I had a post written.

It was a nice fluff piece meant to grab some likes positive comments. It was ready to go.  Then things changed.  That voice that drives my writing shifted and I realized it was time to get real.

There’s a certain point where you have enough.

Now, you can read your Bible and find stories of the men and women in the early church dealing with their own issues.  Some ended up martyred for their faith. Paul prays to have “a thorn” removed and remarks that he was denied multiple times.  He just had to keep going.

What if you can’t?

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Our lives haven’t been easy, how about yours?

Debt. Struggle. Fear. Anxiety. Hard kids. Hard jobs.

Just

Not

Having

Enough

Do a quick google search and you’ll find plenty of people willing to sell you ways out.  They’ve made careers from it. Books, meetings, podcasts, seminars. Take all you want, read all you want, listen to everything.  Sometimes, at night, the ghosts don’t go away.

People act like it’s easy.  It isn’t.

We are the suffering.  The struggling. The ones trying every day to make it work.

We are not far from all we can take.

There’s power there.

And if there’s anything I’ve found it is that all arrows point to faith. Getting up. Taking a breath.  Getting dressed and doing it all over again. You may not realize it, but all of those things are acts of faith.

Not everything will be a success story.

It is about the small victories.  One day clean. One day happy.  One day knowing what joy feels like.  One day feeling understood by those around us.  One day holding hands with a loved one and feeling secure.

The anger and resentment are almost like a fully formed person.  The thing in the dark that knows you’ll come back because no matter how far you make it on a first step, you’ll always stumble and the darkness will be waiting.

I don’t know where you are right now.  Or what you are doing. Or how you’ll get a chance to see this.  Maybe a friend will read it in WordPress and text you a link. Maybe you’ll nod your head the whole way and realize we are in the same boat.

Here’s where I’d flip it and wrap things into a nice little bow.  There’s no neat ending this time.

Take a step.

Even when it hurts. Even when you’ve been knocked down for the 1000th time.  Get up one more. Make today better than yesterday.

Then repeat.

Because the darkness will swallow you if you let it.

It is time to fight.

Keep moving.

 

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.

It is Okay to Ask Why

It is okay to ask why.

Today was the scheduled delivery date for the baby we miscarried.

It is okay to ask why.

When the bank account dips into the negative numbers and the cabinets are empty.

It is okay to ask why.

When you fight with your children and get the first “I hate you.”

It is okay to ask why.

When the roof leaks.  When the pipe clogs. When the car dies.

It is okay to ask why.

When your kid gets bullied, gets sick, struggles or suffers.

It is okay to ask why.

When it seems like God is so far away.

It is okay to ask why.

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Because God can handle our questions.

Can handle our honesty.

Can handle our anger and frustration.

Because faith is all those things.

Honesty. Anger. Frustration.

Because Jesus prayed to have this cup taken from him in a moment fully God and fully man.

Because the Bible says Do Not Be Afraid enough to make the point.

You will be afraid.

And that is fine.

Because faith grows through fear, strength through suffering, hope through doubt.

Because there are still empty tombs. Still dawn and dusk. Still a breath of summer wind and the crash and roar of ocean waves. Still a heart beating.

Still grace.

And one day grace will make you free.

Until then, keep fighting. Keep asking why.  Dig deep. Wrestle with a God.  Be a voice in the wilderness. Make an impact. Be a quiet influence.  Stand up for what is right.

Keep fighting.

Because one day the tide will turn and you’ll stand on the shores of Heaven.  You’ll see those who went before you.  You’ll experience pure and perfect joy.

One day.

We will meet our baby again.

One day we will come out of this. One day we will have peace.

Until then.

It is okay to ask why.

 

Identity

Yesterday was not easy.  A few different things in life have crept up on us.  Money is tight. The kids are crazy. The temps have risen and the weeks are busy, even without school. Carter has a camp in the morning Monday through Friday.  They usually spend the afternoon at the pool and, when they get home, they fight like cats and dogs.

I’ve found out that, at these points, God is trying to tell me something. Yesterday I went to the pool after work to check in with Val and the kids, then drove home.  I walked inside overwhelmed, hot, and tired. Scrolling through Facebook I found a preview of a message from Pastor Erwin McManus, my favorite speaker. I knew, after watching the minute clip, I had to see the entire thing.

The theme of the word was Unchained, a message about where and how we find our identities, about our mentality moving forward.  I was challenged and convicted in many ways.  Today, this morning, it still has me thinking.

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The hardest part of your 30’s is that the foundation of your past is tested.  You spend your teens forming adult you will become, your 20s finding out more about that person and grasping the freedoms (and responsibilities) that find you.  In your 30’s you find out if your foundation was true or needed some adjustment.  It seems to be the testing period more than any other.

In your 20’s you have hope and time to catch up.  In your 30’s, your spot in the game of life has cleared slightly. You start to understand.

One thing Pastor Erwin said in his message is that we often tell a dangerous lie, that once you come to faith things will get easier. Often, it does not. God will tear you down to build you into the person you are designed to be.  I’ve come to understand this is a pillar of faith.  It took time to get there, but I got it.  We are called to refinement through our struggles.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of surviving.  I want to live.  I want to dream big, to write words that impact the world.  I want to step out into the universe and play a part in changing lives. That person, that idealized self, may seem a million miles away right now, but he does exist.

I believe we are called to more.

We try to find our identities so many places.  We grasp onto groups and things, we try to find the mystery of who we are and, in doing so, we push away and pull in those swirling in our orbit. We take out our frustrations, get jaded, and suddenly a year becomes ten.

Faith is so hard.

Ever notice that theme in the Bible? The one the prosperity guys try to ignore?  Paul is blinded.  Peter denies Jesus. John is jailed in exile. One by one the disciples are martyred for their faith. Those meeting Jesus are taken to their breaking points, or are there already.

The hard part is claiming who you are and what comes with it.  The responsibilities of faith, to impact the world and change lives.  To reach out to those in pain and offer solace, to express your feelings when they’ve been hidden away for years.  To open yourself up to pain, to trust, to love from someone when everyone else has broken your heart.

So the journey may not get easier right now.  The choice, though, that is step one. Make the choice.  As I tell my kids all the time,  nothing changes if nothing changes.

If I could tell you the mountain I’m staring up at right now, truly capture it in words, you would understand how hard it is to write this.  Maybe you are staring at your own mountain to climb, chasm to cross, river to swim.  The life God wants for you waits at the other side. It may be easier to turn around but, every time that clock ticks part of your soul will pull you back to the decision point.

One day you take step one.  Until then, be strong and know you will make it.

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.

Time

Last night both of my boys were at the baseball fields.  Carter had a practice with his team and Aiden had his first t-ball practice.  The fields were actually next to each other so I was able to bounce between the two.  The entire time I stood there, my mind kept going over how fast things have progressed.  The little boy from four years ago was now down with his friends.

His brother now stood at first base spinning in circles and playing in the dirt.

I took a walk to the fence between the fields to find a friend of mine, a guy I had coached t-ball with back when Carter had started.  I asked him, “Do you remember those days?”  We had a good conversation and part of my heart ached for the time before.

It seems unfair that our lives are packaged with an expiration date, that we only have set years to experience things on this planet before we transition away.  We have limited time to make an impact on our family and our loved ones.

Time scares me.

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C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote about the concept of time.  He wrote that God experiences time in ways we do not.  That moments don’t flow like a river, but exist all in connected point.  God has the ability to see the entirety of the past, present, and future as if looking at one painting on a wall.  Eternity is captured well in this image.

In Dante’s Inferno, his sinners can see the past and future, but have no knowledge of the present. They know what they did, they know what will happen to those they loved and the world, but they have no idea what is happening now.  Imagine living a life without being in the present.

Sound familiar?  We spend most of our lives this way.

The hardest part of time is that we marry it to emotions and regret. We set internal goals.  By 21 we will….by 30 we will….by 50 we will…. and soon enough those years arrive and the imbalance plays itself out in many ways.  We find ourselves happy and fulfilled, driven and making it happen, or upset at what we’ve lost and failed to gain.

Because some day you’ll get to completing the sentence. “One day I will” and that day will arrive. Some of the most over quoted verses in scripture come in the form of peace admonitions.  We are often told to have peace and not be afraid, usually in the midst of the scariest moments. As people of faith, we enjoy throwing these verses at friends in the midst of struggle, sometimes without thinking about why or what we are saying.

The key to conquering time comes at night.  In the still moments, when we rest and wonder about the coming dawn, take inventory. Break it into manageable content. Win a small victory.

Get one thing done.

Maybe that is the secret of peace, to know that you’ve done something with your time before it gets away.

Carter, our son dealing with anxiety, is currently obsessed with time.  We were at the playground the other day and he kept asking me how much time was left.  Finally, I told him to just go play and not worry about it.

Maybe that’s God’s point.

Don’t forget to go play. Get off the sidelines and out of the paralyzing grip of fear. Because one day it will be time.  I’d rather be on the playground than on the side wondering what could have been and what games I’d missed.

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

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.

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.