The Hardest Lesson

We are both human and works in progress.

Yesterday the horrific terror attacks in Paris have opened up old wounds for many in this country.  We watch in sadness and shock.  We understand, not so far removed from 9/11. We pray and we offer support in any way possible.

Thinking about these things led me to the most challenging instruction Jesus ever delivered in the Bible.

One day, as he gathered on a mountainside, a crowd formed.  He delivered the greatest sermon ever recorded and systematically tore down every societal construct of the day.  He spoke of the meek, the hated, hungry and thirsty being blessed.  He warned of false prophets gaining money and following by corrupting the Word.

He then said this:

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The exact lines read (Luke 6:27-36):

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

These paragraphs fly in the face of everything we stand for, every human emotion, all the rage and tears.  The concept exists in stark contrast to how we act and feel as believers, a government and society.

We scream for justice, for bloodshed and retaliation. Our guts want those guilty to get everything they deserve.

We want war.

And the cycle keeps spinning.

Today I’m praying for those involved in this tragedy and for wisdom and security. Something needs to change at the heart of this world.  There is a void and only one way to fill it.

The cross still stands, in the moments we choose to heed the message and the moments we ignore in our humanity, fueled by rage in the face of unquestionable evil. The cross stands to tell us there is justice, victory, sacrificial love that heals all wounds.

The cross stands to tell us it will be there in the wake of every terrorist bomb and bullet, every life taken.

It is a challenge to this world ready for the day we are prepared to answer the call.

~Matt

 

Filling the Hole in Your Heart

I usually spend time on Yahoo’s main page during the week to check out news items.  The internet if full of time-killers and this provides more than enough material for a lunch break.  Today, I came across a story that I had to share.

Here’s the headline from the Good Morning America article (a little wordy for my taste):

Meet the Men Having Sex With Strangers to Help Them Have Babies

Take a second and wrap your mind around it.  Meet the men, having sex with strangers, to help them have babies.

The story gives two examples of men advertising free sex to women for the sole purpose of procreation.  The first guy profiled chose to use an alias as he is married with two children and didn’t want his wife knowing.  That should be enough of a red flag right there.  He claimed to have more than a hundred sexual partners.

The other guy was a young adult, a college student who believed he had great foundational material to give a woman quality offspring.  The article even profiles a woman, in her mid 40’s, who sought out this one-time encounter because she had “waited too long” to find a husband and get pregnant.

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What have we done with sex?

I can see both sides of the debate.  Women have the right to do what they want with their bodies.  If they want to find a guy for a purely physical experience, then so be it.  “Guys do it all the time.”

We’ve taken this act and debased it down to a transaction.

Everyone has a void in their life.  We are created with a space in our hearts that draws us towards our Creator.  This void can also take you in different directions.  We, as humans, do whatever we can to fill the hole. We drink, smoke, do drugs, buy things, write, paint, draw, and find whatever is possible to fill it.

We lean on love and physical connections to feel like we are not alone.

It is time to reclaim the value of sex.

Any man willing to create a child should be willing to father that child. Women need to know they are worth it to find partners who love and respect them. Teens must understand that the babies don’t go away when they get that text message that says, guess what? I’m pregnant.

I read articles all over the place from blogs to churches and marriage coaches. They say to have sex with your spouse on a daily basis.  It will do wonders for your marriage. It will cure everything.

Your husband will love you again.

Your wife will be happy

Sex can cure it all.

They are wrong.

Remember having homework? How did it feel to have something required every night after you got home from school?  Did you appreciate the value of what you were doing? Did it get tiring? Did life get in the way?

How about a shift in focus? What if sex, even if it is one night a week, was an amazing experience of focus and effort from two people dealing with the stresses of everyday jobs and kids? It can be a divine escape. Escapes, when they are daily, become routines.

Routines create men who sleep with women to “help them get pregnant.” Routine sex is devalued sex.

We need intimacy.

There is no more intimate relationship than one with God, no more holy transaction than death on the Cross.

I believe that marriages can be fixed.  Kids can have their innocence again. Love, effort, and faith can exist together and energize relationships. A guy like the one in the article above can find the connection he wants with his wife and children, not the women he finds for hook-ups. Sex can be returned to its rightful place and the holes in our hearts can be filled.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: Kristian Stanfill covered this in concert last night.  Powerful song!

This is Grace

It was a dark and stormy night. Thunder exploded. Wind ripped across the hillside. The lights from torches danced and struggled to survive. Flashes of lightning provided glimpses of suffering on the three faces suspended above the crowd.

The crosses were six beams of wood, bonded together two by two with the strength of the Roman Empire. Soldiers stood watch and others divided up clothes from the prisoners. You are on the right, arms and legs stretching, chest constricting, and your attention focused on the man in the center. The crowd circles around him.

When he speaks, his words carry on the breeze. The ground shakes. A small sign hangs above his head reading King of the Jews.

You can only see the side of his face, blood dripping from his brow in lines of crimson so bright it glows.

You’ve heard his story. They’ve all heard his story. Something in your heart cries out.

The air is electric. The crux of history, past, present, and future hangs in this moment.

You inhale, lunges fighting for air, and speak:

“Jesus, remember me…”

 

This man was not a:

republican.

He did not:

tithe 10% of his income.

He did not:

support the right to carry a gun.

He was not:

religious.

He never:

sat through a life group.

His Facebook page did not have 1000 friends.

His blog posts were never featured.

His tweets never trended.

His novel wasn’t in the top ten list.

His house didn’t have two floors, a large yard, a yellow lab and a white picket fence.

Sound like anyone you know?

“Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  ~Luke 23:43

This is freedom from religion. This is an encounter with the one true God, the hand of the divine ripping away the barrier to dip into our reality. This is life with the power to transform, to break chains, to destroy addictions, to save families, to change the world.

This is Grace.

~Matt

Soundtrack inspiration: A song that says it all.

 

 

Not Ashamed

Today is my wife Valerie’s birthday. I am so blessed to have her in my life. She’s an amazing wife and mother. This morning, I took the boys to church so she could have a break and unpack as we returned from Connecticut yesterday. It was a powerful service with a message I needed to hear about overcoming shame. Pastor Eran Holt, one of our youth pastors, delivered the message and, as he spoke, every word connected with my personal experience.  He mentioned struggling with shame connected to his temper.  The minute he told us how shame sounds, the voice was amazingly familiar. Shame says:

“You didn’t just fail, YOU ARE A FAILURE.”

“You don’t just have a problem, YOU ARE A PROBLEM.”

“You didn’t make a mistake, YOU ARE A MISTAKE.”

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Pastor Eran used one of the most powerful moments in the Bible to illustrate his point and it is one of those moments that always gives me chills.  He read the account of Peter’s three denials of Christ and the crowing of the rooster after the third.  I always imagined Peter getting confronted about his faith and his hurried denials. We read this and think, no, not us, we wouldn’t deny him.

Yet, there are those comfortable following Christ at a distance.

Shame creates this distance.  It keeps our eyes focused on the ground as we carry our baggage. Shame tells us we are not worthy of God’s love, even though he loved us before we knew him, before we were formed in the womb. Shame weighs us down. Some find identity in their pain.  As a writer, I’ve felt the sting of failure. I spent every year after losing my job in 2008 telling myself I was a failure. I looked at Val and the boys and the voice of shame shot to my ears.  It told me I wasn’t a good father and I failed as a provider and a protector. I wasn’t emotionally connected. Every bill that we struggled to pay was like another chain of shame hung around my neck.

Pastor Eran provided two ways to overcome shame:

1/ Look Up: The direct answer to our shame is the cross.  It was the ultimate sacrifice to free us from conviction. The Holy Spirit is our defender, our advocate, and he steps to our side and frees us with grace. The sacrifice was made years before we were created and it is new each morning. Raising our eyes to the cross is not always easy as the weight of addiction, failure, struggle, and pain can be unrelenting.  As Jesus said, his burden is light.  Look to the cross and be reminded of his unfailing love.

2/Let Go: Drop the bags. Lay your shame at the foot of the cross. Know that God has plans for you, that your mess can be your ministry, that you can be used to change the lives of others. Know that you are not defined by your struggles. The hardest part of this is when we take our pain as our identity. We see ourselves as failures, addicts, and mistakes, not as free and beautiful children of God.

One mantra I’ve always held as a writer is to just keep writing. Failure and rejection provides a chance to create a newer and better story, find a better idea, and make a better product. Life is full of learning opportunities. Our mess can be our ministry. God can recharge our lives and give us a fresh start. He will provide and his grace is new each morning. We can be free of shame, drop the chains, and keep our eyes on the cross.

So, as you go into this week, recognize the voices you hear. Identify shame and block it out. Remember to look up and let go and experience the grace that is waiting to transform your existence.

~Matt

Perfect Love

My wife and I met in high school.  We were both working at the same grocery store.  She was behind the register as a cashier and I bagged the groceries.  One day I had come in after getting a haircut.  She looked at me and said, “Nice haircut.”  Original, I know.  She was seventeen and I was sixteen. I called her a day or two later and we met up for lunch with her friends.  One night, leaning against the side of my 1984 Oldsmobile, she asked me why I hadn’t asked her out yet. I replied that I was waiting. She said, “What for?” I said I didn’t know and asked her out.  Yes friends, the making of a Hollywood movie.

Love is an interesting topic.  I know people who are single, attractive, and have great personalities.  They also chase love as fast as they can, trading off partners for newer models and trying to find the companion that will stick.  I know people who have had children out of these failed relationships and I feel for them having to grow up without a steady mother or father figure. We need a partner. We fear being alone. We strive to find that missing piece in our lives.

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The underlying issue is commitment. It takes trust to give yourselves to another person. People have asked me more than once when I knew Val was the right one for me.  I always tell them the same story.  The summer before I graduated West Chester University with my undergrad degree, we were at the gym.  She stood up from a machine, took two steps, and passed out.  I went to her side and she started having a seizure.  As you can imagine, a crowd gathered and an ambulance was called.

She ended up spending a week in the hospital and they never found a cause.  One night I sat by her hospital bed.  The lights were low as I held her hand and we made small talk. The woman sharing the room with her shifted behind the thin curtain that separated us.  The announcement came over the speakers that visiting time was over.  I stood, gave her a hug and kiss, and left the room.

I went to the parking lot, sat in my car, and cried my eyes out.  My soul hurt.  Sorrow wracked me from deep inside. I sobbed imagining her having to sleep in that bed, in that hospital by herself. As I drove home I knew that I would marry her.  I knew I would do anything for her, would give my life for her and gladly trade myself to be in her position.

Sound familiar?

The video above is one of my new favorite songs by Chris Tomlin, At the Cross (Love Ran Red). There are times we can forget what perfect love looks like and how it feels. In those moments all we need is to glance at the cross and we know where we stand. We know the true depths of sacrifice, that our debts were paid and our place was taken by the only real royalty to ever walk the earth.

Val and I have been a couple for almost fifteen years. I am blessed to have a partner who loves me in spite of my faults and, in our struggles, we stand together.  If you are reading this tonight and searching for your match, know that you are never alone. Know that perfect love exists and the answer you seek is not far away.  Just look to the cross and you’ll find the connection, commitment, love and grace you seek.

~Matt