A Currency of Dreams

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Ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get two different answers. Aiden, our youngest, loves dogs.  He’s gone from a K9 police officer, to a veterinarian, to a dog trainer, and even a monster truck driver (he’s a big fan of cars and trucks too).  Carter tends to be more contemplative.  He wants to do something active.  He dreams of his future as an athlete and leans towards science and math pursuits.  Maybe one day he’ll be able to combine the two.

At some point our dreams start to fade.

I remember as a senior in college sitting in the lounge of Main Hall at West Chester University talking to a few other Lit majors. We were throwing around what we’d try to do with our futures.  One guy mentioned that Comcast would need to hire people to write their television program descriptions right? So why not him? He had a valid point.

You have a purpose.  Search your social media feeds and you’ll find numerous people selling you online courses and coaching to reveal just what that purpose is.

You’ll find your purpose in struggle and suffering. In the courage to put yourself out there.

I still battle with the courage part.  The strength to speak and write without the fear of not being heard or connecting.  The strength to open up the wounds so others can open theirs as well. The strength to reach out a hand in comfort and stability.

The strength to try. 

That word is loaded with meaning.

Ever fiber of our being pushes against change.  We want the old, we crave routine and strive for sameness.  We want comfort.  The same instinct kept us alive when the dinosaurs roamed.

It also kept us out of new lands.  Until resources dried up and we had to move, to step into the darkness.

It takes courage to try. It takes courage to get up in the morning and face the day.  Reach deep and feel the newness inside straining for life.  Some moments it is clear.

Life is a battle between both sides and every day is a choice.  Choose wisely.

 

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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.

Stop, Go, Hear, See

It was like meeting an old friend.

I fired up my laptop computer, waited for it to charge, and started a search that ended about five minutes later.  A novel, one I’d poured myself into about 5 years ago, waited to be finished.  It was time to crack open the pages again and get moving.

I emailed it to myself and, over the past two weeks, have started the process to get back with the story.

The changeover in a year is a traditional time for analysis and examination.  Most people take stock and think about the coming 365 days. There’s a point where you run into a wall and realize it is time to turn around. So, Val and I started the usual efforts.

Going to the gym, clean eating, living with a purpose.

I’ve decided to live with momentum this year. Move forward with purpose.  Pivot around any attempts to disrupt path and progress. It won’t be easy.

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I just finished reading Josh Malerman’s novel Birdbox, the source for the popular Netflix movie with Sandra Bullock.  Honestly, if you’ve seen the movie take the time to read the book.  He’s a skilled writer and the story is that rare combination of pace and depth.  He knows when to ratchet up the tension and carry a balance between exposition and action.

There’s a scene with a dog going crazy that still chills me today and I finished reading it this weekend.

One of the themes of the book,  examined deeper than in the movie, is childhood and how “parenting” is now teaching children to hear and not look, wake up without opening their eyes, and prepare them to hear deeply. Malerman makes the point often that hearing, in this new world, is salvation.  Characters die in their inability to hear, sometimes the lies in conversation and sometimes the monsters at the door.

Vision, in Malerman’s world is dangerous.  What we see is now our death.

How we see can harm us. How we react can harm us.

We make choices daily. Be paralyzed or move forward. Listen to your body now or listen to your future body where you look the way you want.  Listen to your finances now or your future finances with stability and growth.  Choose for now or choose for later.

I’m tired of things I can’t control.  2019 can be a new start.  At 36 I’m ready for new.  This can truly be our best year, for me and for you.

It is time to live without the option of going back.

Want to know why something like Birdbox is so popular? Because it is emblematic of an American feeling.  Burn down the present and restart. Even with a struggle, fight through it and find hope.

Keep moving, listening, and surviving.  One day at a time.

 

Haunted

How many people from your wedding party do you still talk to?

This was a question floated to me the other day.  At the moment, the answer is one and that’s because he’s my brother-in-law. There’s a phenomenon out there known as ghosting and we, as a society, are particularly good at it.

ghost·ing

noun: ghosting

1.the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen.

2.the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.

Val and I were friends with another couple for a year or two.  Our kids played together.  We had dinners, trips to the playground, they even watched our kids once which is not something we normally ask of anyone outside of family.  One day, out of the blue, the calls and texts stopped.

I realized, after a while, we were ghosted.

Relevant magazine did an entire article on this, about how people in the church are skilled at ghosting. The entire concept of friendship has shifted over the years.

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Digital communication has increased availability but decreased depth. Those we care about can be reached with a few taps of a phone screen.  This has made our walls and armor quicker to deploy.

I worked for a financial company right out of college.  One team had me on a 5 am to 1 pm schedule.  It wasn’t horrible once I’d gotten used to it.  I liked the people, thought I had fit in well, and it wasn’t too hard of a job.  One day, HR called me into a meeting.  The rep slid a printout of an email across the table.  It was from the supervisor of the group saying about how I was a liability, didn’t fit in, and it wasn’t working out.  He advised an internal move that I eventually completed. This was in 2008 and, eventually, I was laid off with a few million other people across the country.

I still have trouble trusting people.  This creates an issue because we need people.

Writing is a solitary effort at heart.  I loved the process of getting my MFA and working in writing groups but, in the end, it was always me and the story.  It was my wall to climb. Depending on someone else requires trust and accessibility.

For Val, her background lends her to a different path.  She handles things on her own.  It is easier to just do it than to rely on someone else who could let you down.

Community is never easy.  Humanity is not pretty or nice or politically correct.  People let us down, they walk away for no reason.  They leave us behind.

The trick is to not let your ghosts haunt you.

Because someone out there needs to hear from you today, a text or a phone call, a note of encouragement or just to know that you are there. Someone needs to be lifted up.  Take a second a give it a try.  You may find that, when you lift someone else up, you get lifted yourself.

We can climb out of the wreckage of ourselves and rebuild.  We can rise above the mess. We can restart one day at a time and rewrite our stories.  We can do it together.

zero k

I’m currently reading the book Zero K by Don DeLillo.  A lit professor back at West Chester University introduced me to DeLillo’s work.  It was a semester where I’d discover him, Paul Auster and Martin Amis, a trilogy of authors I still read whenever the inspiration tank is running low.

Zero K is the story of a family led by a wealthy patriarch. He develops the technology to make cryogenic resurrection a possibility. The patriarch calls his son to his compound, the base of the cryogenic facility, for the day his stepmother will be frozen.

The father tells his son that he’s decided to be frozen himself, to kill himself the day she goes in.  After a heated conversation, the son walks out of his office.  The next morning he finds his father a mess and in mourning.

He asks him why he didn’t go through with it.  The father replies:

“It was our conversation yesterday.  You said, if I do it, I reduce you.”

In one sentence, DeLillo captures the essence of being a parent and traveling a spiritual journey.

A photo by Maarten van den Heuvel. unsplash.com/photos/MM5rpMpC9k4

When children come, we find ourselves balancing their needs with our own. I posted last time about my cousin, still waiting a heart transplant at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital down in Philly.  My aunt is staying there, living at the hospital in daily anticipation.

My aunt has spent her career as a nurse still, years after retirement, substituting in local school districts.  She put in her time enough to have a place at the Delaware beaches and, yet, she’s here keeping vigil in my cousin’s room.

So many years had passed in both of their lives, good times and turbulent times, and tonight they sit together one strengthened by the other. The parent refusing to reduce the child by walking away.

Some of us, looking back, see walking away as a necessary part of growing up.

The house of our families had broken down enough to destroy any chance that we’d trust again. We keep everyone at a distance. We live in our stress, sitting in quiet times with racing minds and pounding pulses.

As men, we internalize.

I was taking Alka-Seltzer at fifteen.

Even with our preconceptions, God tells us the same message.  We are meant for greater things. We are meant for a life of adventure, danger, creation, thrills, victory, and stories grand enough to glorify the one that spoke the Universe into being.

God tells us the same thing.

Even when everyone else has walked away, turned their back, stopped calling and blanked us in silence. Even when darkness seems liquid and thick enough to fill a room.  Even when hope is four letters without meaning.

God will not walk away.

Without God, we are reduced to the fumes of our humanity.  With God, we burn in the flame of perfect love.

Whether in a hospital room, putting our kids to sleep, holding hands on the couch, or walking down a fall forest trail, we are never alone.

Tonight, I pray you find peace. Find faith as a verb and not a noun and hear your calling to so much more.

 

Intersection

Val often tells me a story about how brother attending church.  Her brother is an extremely talented guy.  I knew him before I met her and we had some good times growing up.  Over the years, he had visited a church or two but never really found one he’d liked.

The story goes that he was visiting a church where the youth pastor happened to do the message that Sunday.  He did the sermon barefoot first off (something that would weird me out also) then started talking about how great his life was.

The moment you hear a supposed man or woman of God talk about how great their life is and how you never suffer as one who follows Jesus, feel free to get up and head towards the door.  You’d learn more about Jesus at the Dunkin Donuts down the road.

The church stigmatized anxiety in a world full of it.

There’s a line in one of my favorite Bret Easton Ellis novels, Lunar Park, that I loveThe gist of the book is Ellis writing himself as the main character with his creations coming to life, including killer Patrick Bateman from his most famous work, American Psycho.

His character states that, as he drove down the road, every intersection was one turn away from a car accident waiting to happen.

The thought has stuck with me for years as a dad and husband.  Many days the car accidents feel one intersection away.

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We are allowed to be anxious.  Yes, friends can rattle off verse after verse about faith and hope, where our help comes from and casting our cares on Jesus. These are all good things.

They can coexist with anxiety.

I heard a pastor once say that faith and fear can’t coexist.

He’s wrong.

I have days of both.  Some weeks Faith is called Monday and Fear is called Tuesday.

As men we often try to pad things.  If you are reading this and married to one of us, know that the waters run deeper than we show. For me it is a constant feeling of electric tension, like a power line running through my chest.  I check my phone more often, waiting for that text message or voicemail of bad news.

Even if none seems on the horizon.

Anxiety opens the door to voices that can try to sell you wrong messages. You start talking circles around the tension in an attempt to beat it down. The words build on the feeling and you end up back where you started, looking at the ceiling as the night drifts past.

If this is you tonight, know that the sun still comes up tomorrow.  The story isn’t over.  Your worries carry an important lesson.  They can be a compass towards a better future.

It takes one step to move forward.  I know it isn’t easy, but movement is the key.

Thomas, the one stating he would only believe Jesus had risen if he appeared in the Upper Room, he personified anxiety and was, by far, one of the most human disciples. He is us.

“Yeah I get it, he’s alive and all, when I see it, I’ll believe. When I touch his wounds, I’ll believe.”

Jesus appears and holds out his hand offering Thomas a chance to do what he asked.  Thomas had to reach out to make it happen.  He could have stayed in his feelings, even staring face to face with Jesus.

He chose to move and see his faith complete.

~Matt

Chapter 2

Here is Chapter 2 of a rough draft in progress.  You can find Chapter 1 by clicking here.  Enjoy!

NORTH

 

The white building stood out in contrast against the Manhattan skyline.  Not that it functioned as Manhattan anymore. The towers once built to prosperity and ambition had fallen, only to rise again as centers of study and contemplation.

The city had improved.  Crime vanished.  All the perversions once considered art were confiscated and burned on barges that circled the land in constant reminder.

It took some time, yes, but the populace came around.

This morning an aria echoed from deep inside the bedroom broadcast on speakers to reach the limits of the porch.  The porch was that in term only.  It consisted of Italian marble, a grand fountain, luxury furniture and a media center covering all areas of the territory.

Even with the spread of options, Father Paul Kramer sat with his journal on his knees and a pencil in hand.  The wind rising up the building shifted what was left of his hair. He was writing notes on the cross and the idea of self-sacrifice for a greater good.

The flow of logic gave much-needed comfort.

For what were they without logic?

They were the bastard children of Rome.

When word came that all funding and support would be cut, they had to get creative. It was not time to panic.  It was time to gather and set plans in motion.

He stopped writing and looked to the horizon.  Far below the workforce would be starting their morning commute. The war had ended.  Things looked different now. This was a second chance.

This was the new center of faith without corruption, Rome without the scourge of revisionist history.

“He requests your presence.”

The statement came from his left. Kramer checked his watch.  The bastard was always on time.

“I’m on the way.”

The attendant scurried back inside.

 

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The elevator to the Holy Residence rose in blinding speed.  They had adapted it from the tech firm that owned in building in the time before.  It was accessible only by retina scan and monitored by three levels of security.  Kramer watched the floors blink by until the numbers vanished.

No one really knew how high they were headed.

In a moment, the doors opened.

He always thought of the temple, of their Lord and Savior clearing out the tables of the money changers.  The scriptures had said he fashioned a whip and drove out all those seeking to business in the house of the God.

What would Jesus say about this?

A vault of gold and currency, guarded by soldiers. A communications center four times the size of his own. A media studio broadcasting the morning news. Conference rooms with men in suits talking seriously over cups of coffee.

Kramer walked past all of this ignoring their fleeting glances.

Finally, when it seemed he would stride off the edge of the floor and fall into nothingness, a set of doors stood in his path.  These guards, four altogether, moved to the side.  One keyed in a code that changed daily.   The doors retracted and he walked through as they closed behind him with the hiss of pressurized air.

The far wall was glass from east to west. The bed had been constructed here, overlooking the city but not close enough to the edge that a stray member of the media could take a picture. A body laid on the bed, deep under a mound of covers.

Two doctors passed a tablet back and forth looking at images. A nurse replaced an IV bag.

“How is he?” Kramer asked.  One of the doctors turned to him.

“Good morning Father.” The man went to bow and Kramer waved him off.

“Tell me.”

“Two weeks, maybe six.  The cancer is spreading.”

Laughter came from the bed.  Kramer walked to the edge and touched the skeletal hand that rested on the blankets.

“You still use that thing?”

He looked at the pocket of his coat and the edge of the journal sneaking out. Even with a tumor in his brain, his vision was still sharp.

“How are you doing Vinny?”

The nurse cringed.  When Kramer made eye contact with her, she smoothed out her scrubs and left the room.

“Fine brother. Just fine.”

Vincenzo had risen through the parishes in the midst of the war. He was young, a star of the faith.  He delivered fiery messages that grew the church.  He was the architect of this new world.

He was still the kid from the Bronx that would play pickup basketball after school.

“Soon this will be yours.”

“No, sir.  Not me. No one knows you’re sick.  We can milk this as long as we need. Set up a stable transition.”

“There’s nothing stable anymore.”

“When’s the last time you heard of any conflict?”

Vinny laughed again.  The laughter turned to a deep cough that rattled his lungs.

“You remember Sister Margaret?”

Margaret was a nun of the old order, ancient when they were kids.  She ran her classroom like a dictatorship and they’d gone home with many years of scarred knuckles.

“Of course.”

“She always said silence was deadly. Idle hands are the devil’s playground and all that.”

They stopped talking.  Machines beeped in the background.

“Get Father Paul a chair.”

One of the doctors looked over for a second and went back to his reports. The movement happened in a blink. The arm that had rested on the blanket now gripped the doctor’s hand.  The guy dropped his tablet as it skittered across the floor.

“Now.”

The doctor left the bedroom and returned with one of the chairs from outside.

“Leave us.”

They left together. Kramer settled in the seat.

“You didn’t have to do that Vinny, scaring the kid.”

“I still got it, don’t I? Now get that journal out.  We have some business to discuss.”

 

 

What is Sacred?

There is a strong connection between our whys and our whats. Cause and effect, action and reaction.  As writers, we love to play with it.

Every character has a goal. Every conversation points towards a desired result. Every move has meaning.

When we lose touch of the sacred we can feel a profound sense of disconnect. Joy is a struggle. The sunsets look dimmer, the nights darker. We give until the tank is empty.

If we’re not careful, we can take down the loved ones in our orbit.

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I read a blog post last week from Michael Hyatt, written by his daughter Megan Hyatt Miller, who is also an executive in his company.  She wrote this:

The Goal is sacred, the Path is not.

It was a line burned into my head.  Permission to find new paths, to keep the target in mind and do what is necessary to get there. My dream is to write.  I write.

I will always write. (You can find my most recent book here.)

When you find yourself forgetting the sacred or in the midst of the struggle, allow a pivot. Stick and move. Look for a new way to chase your dream.

Let yourself go.  The joy will come.

~Matt

Setting Goals and Pushback

A few weeks ago I made the choice to support The Freedom Journal by entrepreneur John Lee Dumas, host of one of the most influential podcasts on the business market.  Saturday morning, my copy of the journal arrived in the mail.  I went through the first few pages and set goals for the initial ten-day sprint.

The theme of the journal is accomplishing a larger goal through measured effort spread over 100 days.

This morning I wrote out three daily goals (this was the last day of four days in a hotel for us as a family.  Our floors were getting refinished after water damage.  You can find past posts about the experience around Thanksgiving 2015).  The first two were related to this business and my upcoming book.  The third was something I hadn’t considered before and, honestly had me the most nervous.

Spend devotional time with Carter.

We went to church and I had it planned out in my head.  It would be the start of something big and valuable for us as father and son.

Then we got home and everything fell apart.

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The water to the house had been turned off.  I turned it back on. The flow valve behind one of the toilets in the house broke and flooded the ceiling again.  Water dripped through a brand new ceiling onto our refinished floor. We scrambled for towels, calling the Restoration company we’d used for the original claim.

They came over and dried things out.  Now, three months after the initial incident, we have a pair of holes in our ceiling again and a new ding on our homeowner’s insurance. I put Aiden to bed and, by the time he fell asleep, Carter was in bed himself.

The devotional time did not happen.

Someone said once that resistance is a sign of moving in the right direction. I don’t doubt, for a second, that this was connected to my goal of spending time with Carter and teaching him about Jesus.

The process is about refinement.  Nothing worth it is ever easy and, to think about this drastic of a distraction, there must be a large calling on Carter’s life. The spark is there and it will take more than another leak to prevent me from making the connection.

Tomorrow, we will try again.

As for now, I type this in our bedroom as three blowers dry the dining room for the next three days. The process will continue. I’ve decided to live the next hundred days with fresh intention, fresh faith, new effort and push to get closer to God. I plan on living out the idea of truly giving back my writing as a gift to be used to change lives for the better.

If you are struggling tonight and stumble on this post, I pray you know there is hope. Don’t let what you see interrupt the work God has in your life for your life.

We were blessed to be able to reach out to friends and go to their house for dinner tonight.  If you are struggling, know you are not alone. If it seems that way, know I’m there for you.  Beyond this block of type, know you are being prayed for and feel free to reach out to me.  I will respond.

Have a great night.  This is just the beginning.

~Matt

Recharge

In two days, Val and I will be out of the house again.  The day before Thanksgiving, we had about $10,000 worth of damage from the valve in a toilet tank breaking overnight.  The flooding took out a few walls, sections of ceiling, and damaged some floors. In the past three months the restoration company completed their work and the flooring is the final step.

We can’t be in the house, as the work will be on the entry level, so we’ll be spending about four days in a hotel. Last time we were able to go home and check in.  This time, we will be stuck out, as a family.

I’m looking at the days with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.

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The boys have had extra energy lately and, to go from a lot of room to a space smaller than Val and I’s first apartment, it will certainly be stressful.  I took time off to be there and handle the nights as Carter will still have school during the week.

I also get nervous to have people in the house when we can’t really check in.  Throughout the past three months we were home during all the work. This is a different crew of people and I’m sure they’ll do good work.

These few days will also be an opportunity.  I plan on digging in the Word, working on some side projects, and moving even closer to the launch of my new book.

We need to make the most of our time and, when God allows a few days to step outside the usual week, it is a rare opportunity.  When God leads us to the mountain, we must be thankful as we measure our steps.

It is time for fresh movement, faith, direction and progress and I pray this for anyone out there in need.

If there’s anything I know, God will answer.

~Matt