The Lake

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Do you have a sense of purpose in life?

Have you come to terms with life and death in a way you resonate with?

How much power do you have in designing your future?

Death, it turns out, is not your greatest fear. Actually, your greatest fear is reaching death and having never truly lived.

When you organize your spiritual life, you become clear on what your life is about. You become clear on what you stand for, and how you want to spend each day. You develop conviction for what really matters to you, and what is a “distraction.”

No matter how well defined, everyone has a moral system governing their behavior. Most people believe in being honest and good people.But until you organize your spiritual life, you’ll experience internal conflict when acting contrary to your values and vision.

-Benjamin Hardy

 

I shut my eyes to sleep and open them to the lake.

Waves lap against the boat. The metal reflects the heat of the morning. Mist rises from the water. Dragonflies land and take off.  To my left, a fish blasts through the surface and the dragonfly, a living flash of emerald, buzzes past my head with too much peace for having faced death.

I am young. I turn in my seat and see no one.  I am alone and fear grips me like ice.

Do not be afraid. The voice sounds from all sides, from the water and sky, the trees and forest, the earth and air. The boat dips as a weight settles behind me.  I turn to see a man.

He wears a suit the color of fall Pennsylvania sky.

Who are you? I ask.

I was wondering the same, he says.  His voice is a mix of many. I hear my father, my grandfather, years of blood running through the past.

He tents his hands on his lap.

Ask.

I feel a drop of rain, hear thunder in the distance. Rain destroys the calm surface. My shirt sticks to my chest.  I shut my eyes as memories roll like waves. Every moment, conversation, up and down. Joy, sorrow, embarrassment. Frustration.

First hand held, first kiss, slow dancing at the prom, proposing marriage. Moving out. Plans, dreams, visions, struggle.

Loss.

Wind rips through the trees, pulling the breath from my lungs. I force out a word.

Why.

He laughs.

Because I formed the first star and set its place in the sky and, in that moment, I knew you. I knew your purpose. I shaped the wind and every single drop of rain.

He raises his hands. The storm dies.

The story is unfinished. The ending is written and your role is of vital importance. I need you in the place that can only come from hurt, from loss and suffering.

I need you to walk through the fires and come out refined.  The fires will only get hotter, the journey longer, the force harder.

I need you because you need me.

I’m scared, I say. An eagle soars from a distant tree top.

I’ll be with you.

Stand.

When you fear          When you cry

When you can’t take another moment

When you lose

When you feel like you have nothing left

Stand.

More storms are coming, he says.  Know I will pull you through.

Thunder crashes and he is gone.

 

 

My eyes open to a storm outside. Aiden climbing into our bed. Red numbers on the clock.

And the sound of rain tapping against the glass, peaceful in the night.  

 

 

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Dark Times

I’ve been working on some long form texts recently.  Here is an excerpt from an upcoming book on faith. 

Dark Times

 As a kid in high school in the late 1990’s, the band Linkin Park was huge.  I wore out their Hybrid Theory album in my first car. The writing captured something our generation was feeling at the time.  In the song “Numb” Bennington’s lyrics were about, as you can guess, not feeling or connecting with those he loved. I probably listened to that song a thousand times.  Deep down, I understood.

Chester Bennington himself, as the years passed, married and had a family.  Recently he took his own life in a successful suicide attempt. That happened not long after his friend and fellow musician Chris Cornell did the same.

At West Chester University, as an undergrad, I had a class called Literature and Psychology.  We were a group of mixed majors from the two fields of study.  The professor was my favorite there and ran an enthralling class.  We spent many days discussing the connection between creativity and mental illness.  Was there something about writing that opened the door to deeper issues?  Were the creative out there vulnerable to feeling their anger and depression at such great depth that they could not get out?  We talked about the prevalence of suicide in writers from Hemmingway to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf. Bennington and Cornell seemed to follow suit.

When I was in my late 20’s, I went to my family doctor one night.  I hadn’t been feeling right and I remember her standing across from me.  She asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your life right now?”  I replied, a 4.  She left the room and returned with a prescription for Effexor 150 mg. I took the drug for years.

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Depression was not what the movies portrayed, the feeling more disconnection than anything.  I’d floated above those I loved and valued.  Words seemed to come from a distance.  Thinking itself was a burden.  I remember driving to work, almost an hour each way at that time, pulling in and realizing I just couldn’t do it that day.  I’d call out from the parking lot and drive home.

It took time and effort to get out of the well that took the shape of depression.  The interesting part of the experience came from those in my faith community.  I’d spoken to some about what I was dealing with and it was pushed to the side.  Faith and Depression didn’t mix, in their minds.  It was something else.  It was a mistake.  If you believed, you had no room to feel bad for yourself.

Even later in life, in larger churches, there’d be a message about a mental health support group but it would quickly be glossed over.  We don’t like admitting weakness, even if it is reality.  It is long past time the stigma against mental suffering within churches is removed.

Our son Carter deals with anxiety.  I’ve seen him worry about things large and small.  Part of raising children is not only validating their emotions but helping them through it.  That is not an easy process and I’ve been frustrated more than once.  The same conversations night after night get old.  After the tenth time, logic gives way to yelling and that doesn’t help anything.

Part of an authentic faith life is dealing with the dark and ugly sides. When Val and I experienced the miscarriage we didn’t have a single set of friends from our church that we felt comfortable speaking with.  We had ones outside of church.  That contrast says something.

There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and the fact that you’ll deal with bad things. Even if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you will not be immune. If anything, the target on your back will be greater.  People watch when you speak of faith.  They watch you directly and indirectly.  People, in this case, can be friends, family, and coworkers.  They look for moments of hypocrisy.  They want to see where you fall short of “being a good person,” as if faith could be boiled down to that equation.

We need to redefine the term itself.

Faith is not being a good person.  Faith is conviction.  It is knowing you are a work in progress, understanding that suffering is coming, and shaping a response that will help move past the conflict. Faith is showing yourself in good and bad times, in the light and the darkness.  It is knowing that things do not change in an instant, they are works in progress. Your desired future is out there.  It will take a journey of massive effort to make it.

Faith is dangerous.

It calls you to levels you’ve never considered. It makes you face your fears.  You step into conversations you never thought you’d have.  Faith shines a light in the darkness and those things in the shadows are shown in their full radiance.

Faith calls you to enter in hostile places and make a difference.  Innovate.  Come up with something never imagined before and see it to creation. Faith is a catalyst for ideal futures that connect to the dreams of God.  It is a way in to the most dangerous path in the universe with the greatest reward at the end.

Faith redefines the idea of community.  Service. Giving. Support. It transforms spaces into authentic areas of worship. It redefines cities, faces down poverty and hatred, offers hope to those who have forgotten what it looks like.  Faith is love across lines, boundaries, belief and act.  It is a challenge.

Faith is not ignorance.  It is reaching out.

Faith is not silence. It is voice.

Faith is not acceptance. It is transformation.

Faith is not the safe path.  It is a journey into the wild.

Faith is an inferno and a whisper, power and prayer, storm and silence.  It is change and it is here.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

The Race

The permission slip was waiting for me when I got home from work last night. Carter said he was involved in a race in gym class.  This race was, from what I found out, part of a series to choose a team of relay racers for an event in April.  The elementary schools in the district all send a team from each grade to race on the big track at the high school.  He will be one of four boys representing the entire third grade for his specific school on their relay team.

I’m not surprised.

If he needs to get from point A to point B, he’ll run. It is easier to go fast than go with the flow. Running is in his blood.

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Paul writes the following in his letter to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

We all run in our own ways.  Our minds and our emotions set up internal pathways to prevent trauma and pain.  We navigate these like walking through dark alleys in the rain. When we get too close, to run to something that can dull the pain.  This can take the form of positive things like sports, prayer, study, friends or loved ones.  This can go the other direction into addiction or running away altogether.

Part of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is the path into the unknown, the question out and far away that the heroes must answer.  They must face their demons and, no matter how far they go, they will fight to the end.

The Race will take us where we do not want to go.

Val and I have a friend right now battling cancer.  Her race is to fight, to live and see the sun rise again tomorrow.

My race has taken me on a journey to find what it means to be a father and husband, writer and man of faith.  To discover what the term “faith” even means and find the shape of authentic spiritual experience. To reach out and touch the divine and know, no matter what happens, we are not alone.

I race against being alone.

Val runs with a huge heart, one that allows her to reach out and absorb pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  She runs as a mother, finding strength to feel and love so much and still spend time with our boys and me, to take the extra time to be in the moment and stay there in the midst of being exhausted.  Her race will unleash the beauty of her spirit that flutters there underneath the weight of life.

Carter runs against his worries, against the shadows that seem to take shape.  Against the voice that tells him things are not safe and he needs to find some level of control.

Aiden runs with his mother’s heart, open and loving. He’s a forever friend and I pray he never loses that characteristic as he grows.

As a family, our race has taken us through heights and depths, victory and tragedy.

Paul advocates running as to get the medal.  What does this mean?

Note he doesn’t mention a participation trophy.

Running to get the medal is an image of the process of faith.  Salvation may arrive in an instant but the race is a process.  Faith is refinement that happens over the years. Our pain is shared with those who need to know they are no alone.  Our struggles build trust. Our suffering builds perseverance. Our exhaustion builds hope and we lean on the arms that can hold us up.

Getting the medal is the will to keep going. To believe when everyone else has stopped. To put one foot down when the pressure on your shoulders.

 

A few years ago, I walked Cliff Walk in Rhode Island.  The trail runs next to a set of mansions from the golden age of industry titans in this country.  As you walk, signs appear on the way warning of rough terrain.  The coast line bobs and weaves around rock formations and outcroppings.

The day I walked was hot, the sun blasting off the water’s reflection. I felt my legs tiring and, realizing the old issue that I’d have to go back as far as I’d walked, I finally decided to stop at a sign warning me that rough terrain was ahead.

On the way home, a side street offered a view of the trail. I found myself near the same spot I’d stopped, facing the rough terrain. From there I could see the other side, a point looking out to the ocean with blue waters across the horizon.

Paradise was there.

Just past the point of giving up.

A Song Outside a Hospital Room

I ran into a friend today.  We’d met at church a few times and our families had crossed paths once at the local Dunkin Donuts.  He’d been dealing with some health issues.  I asked him how he was feeling and he said:

God is good.

This friend works in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania running a halfway house for men dealing with a variety of addiction and legal issues.  We’d talked before about the book I was writing dealing with poverty in Reading. (You can find it on Amazon here and the kindle download is only $1.00)

As he walked away, my mind went back to when we’d first met.  Just after our pastor was involved in the motorcycle accident that would take his right leg and kill his wife, getting plowed into by a driver under the influence on a warm night last June.

I remember his tears.  He said to me that, just maybe, a group of us could visit and sing to Pastor Bryan from outside his hospital room.

Something in the sincerity of his voice from that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

And it shows the hardest part of faith.

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All of creation, from day one, points us towards God.  We matter.  We believe we matter and this places meaning on our lives.

We sing songs outside hospital rooms because our voice matters and we want to show love. We run halfway houses in the midst of one of the poorest cities in the country and work with men we may never see again, because we can make a difference.

We get up in the morning because we know something better is coming.

This positive result only happens if we matter.

The knife-edge falls with suffering.  If we matter, then why do bad things happen?  Why car accidents that kill spouses? Why child abuse? Why war, famine, and desolation?

Humans hurt each other on a daily basis. This world groans with imperfections, longing for the day the universe is back in alignment with the Creator.

Suffering is a mirror.  Our weakness is our target.  Our pain is a sign that we mean something. We hurt when we break because we are designed to be whole.

The fulfilled promise, the tight rope, the parted Sea is the glorious power of the love of God.

I believe God is for us.  I believe this world needs more love and less condemnation. I believe these words matter because someone out there will bring up WordPress on their phone or computer and come across this post and understand.  They’ll identify with it, at the end of their rope, and know things will be okay.

I believe I’m not perfect, that I’ve screwed up more times as a husband and father than I can count but I know I’m surrounded with a loving (and patient!!) family.

I know I’ll get it right someday.

Broken Pieces

On Sunday, our church started a series on what happens when your life is shattered.  Pastor Bryan talked about the motorcycle accident that took the life of his wife back in June.

At the end of the message, a handful of people came to the stage and mentioned their own traumatic events.  They included a woman whose sister was killed in an act of domestic violence just three months before, a man fighting addiction,  a woman whose daughter had cancer at age 6, was cured by a blood transfusion only to contract HIV/AIDS and die from it years later, and Pastor Bryan’s sons talking about the loss of their mother.

We are sums of our experiences and nothing shapes us more than tragedy. Our reaction to grief may be the solution to change our future.

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Let’s take it a step deeper.  We are defined by our reaction to grief.

Train, research, workout, study, podcast, take notes, write books, do all you can to prepare and nothing matches the moment things all apart, that point you look in the mirror and realize something is wrong.

That diagnosis. That phone call. That argument.

The lines of demarcation that create our New Normal, the places that only exists as memories and warm summer afternoons, the ones we can’t go back to.

The starting point is knowing it is okay to grieve, to feel, to have the courage to face down what’s coming.

One of Val’s old coworkers is our age, married with two children, and starting chemotherapy this week for an aggressive form of cancer.

Her Normal has changed.

I wish I had a three-point summation, a quote, infographic, something to put a nice bow on this short run of thoughts, then I imagine her in a hospital bed tonight and I know that sometimes silence is the answer.

Presence is the answer.

Just being there, crying, holding hands and staying close.  Sometimes that’s all we have.

~Matt

 

The Forgotten Morning

I woke up today and just wasn’t feeling it.  The sky was cloudy, work would be busy.  The boys were their crazy selves. I drove in and sat at my desk and it just hit me.

The weight of everything fell on my shoulders. I was on the ropes, taking shots and trying to hang on. Strength faded.

Ever feel like this?

The Psalms were one of the first places I found and rested in the Bible. David is honest. Yes, he writes about all kinds of praise and picturesque images.  He also lays out his heart over suffering and sorrow. He flows through the heights and depths of all human existence.

In the 56th Psalm he writes that God knows his tears and that they are written down and accounted for.  God remembers. As I read over that line I suddenly understood.

I felt forgotten.

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It is the nightmare for any writer.  In Dante’s Inferno, the souls in hell can see the future and past, but not the present.  Their punishment is living as personifications of the forgotten, never knowing where they stand at that moment. Imagine a life where the present is a void of empty space.

Most of us live it every day.

We regret and mourn the past while we fear the future. We look back and ahead with such an intensity that it blanks out the present.  We miss the moments that matter. Dante wrote this as a punishment in hell.  Why settle for it as reality?

The night ended better than the day.

I spent time with Carter, helped him with his homework and watched him make an art project. We talked about his emotions and what it feels like to get angry. I looked in his eyes and there was a genuine connection.

Grab the connections.  Hold them in your heart. For they are divine instances of God reminding you things will be okay. You are not forgotten. Your sorrows are numbered and, because God knows, he will intervene.

God knows. Even in the silence, the sadness, the illness, the conflict, struggle and strife.

He will make something beautiful from our stories. Every page and moment counts.

~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