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.

 

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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

What I Learned from Straight Outta Compton

On Friday night, after Val and the boys went to bed, I rented Straight Outta Compton, the biopic of the rap group N.W.A.

There’s a scene where Ice Cube’s character, played by his son in real life, is doing an interview for a television show.  He looks at the guy and says, “I’m a journalist, just like you.” The line itself captures the spirit of the movie and what it can teach us as writers.

Honesty

As the group starts in the music scene, critics emerge.  They tell them they will never get radio play, that music isn’t about anger and all people want to do is dance and feel good.  The guys stick to their roots and write what they live.  There’s power in honesty.  I know I struggle at times with editing my thoughts or scenes.  Honesty comes down to a choice of what voices you hear.  Will it be the critics or your own?

Do you believe enough in your story to say it no matter what the cost?

History

A dynamic shifts around the idea of Compton itself.  It was home, the reason to get out and find success.  Later in the film, as Dr. Dre’s character is in a new recording studio trying to work, he hears noises in the next room and opens the door to find a party.  In his anger, he tells the crowd that this isn’t Compton, this is the fight to survive and succeed.  The path of the story takes the characters away from their discontent and, when it comes back in the drugs and crime Dre finds at the studio, it is a stark reminder that the shadows of the past will always be there.

We must know our history and decide how we’ll use it.  It can be a platform, a gas pedal, or an anchor.

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In the movie, Dre’s younger brother dies.  Reading some behind-the-scenes facts, I found that the real Dr. Dre was watching filming when they shot the scene where his character discovers his brother had died. He lasted through two takes of the scene before having to leave the set overwhelmed with emotion.

N.W.A. itself split and dealt with some questionable financial moves by their manager, played by Paul Giamatti in the movie. Each member found themselves down their own path of success or destruction, from Eazy-E dying of AIDS to Ice Cube acting in movies and television. Dr. Dre continued in music as an artist and producer, developing Beats headphones (eventually selling to Apple for $3.2 billion in their largest acquisition ever).

As the credits rolled, they played interviews with rap artists impacted by the group. One of the clips was from Tupac Shakur, himself sadly losing his life to violence, saying that he would never have succeeded without the encouragement of Dr. Dre on the other side of the glass in the recording studio.

We have responsibilities to share our craft with others and spread our wings of influence.  Who, from your life, could be interviewed and say the same about you?

Final Thoughts

The movie isn’t for everyone.  These guys partied and lived the excess of music stars. There’s a ton of language and that reflects the environment of the time.  If you can watch it for story and meaning, it is a great experience.

For what is rap, but poetry? What is writing, but honesty and reflecting what we see and know?

It takes courage to overcome the past and keep moving forward, to know our voices matter.

We must speak up.

For there is always power in voices rising at the right time. If you are hearing the call, stay strong.  Your time may be now.

~Matt

 

Suspension of Disbelief

Edgar Allen Poe created fiction that defined a genre. He made the literary rounds of his time, eventually dying mysteriously in the city of Baltimore  and starting a tradition where followers would leave a black rose on his grave for the anniversary of his death. I have a Collected Works of Poe on my bookshelf.

When he ventured into writing about writing itself, he gave us the idea of suspension of disbelief.  It was the dividing line when a reader gives in to a story no matter the content.  The lovers cause your heart to race, the stormy night makes the corners a little darker, and the fanciful world seems like it is just outside your door.

Think of your favorite book or movie.

Odds are it is a story with a quick suspension of disbelief.  Whether a space opera, teen post apocalyptic fantasy, or guy building a baseball field to connect with his dead father. The themes of great stories cross over into our lives and provide an escape that keep us coming back to turn the page or see the movie just one more time.

mirror-light-black-glassToday didn’t feel like one of those days.

Maybe you went to a job you don’t like, clocked in and out, and drove home to go through the motions.  Maybe your spouse or loved one didn’t acknowledge you when you walked through the door, the house is a mess, the cushions are off the couch for the 1000th time as portable gym mats while your kids do flips from the couch (not that I speak from experience, or anything).

Maybe the paycheck arrived and it is already spent. The student loans pile up. The lenders are calling and the car is two months behind an oil change, but getting one means taking time you don’t have and money you don’t have.

So something has to suffer.

How do we learn to love our own stories?

Embrace the characters- Your circle will expand and contract as the years pass. People come and go but some will stay forever. Find those who make your life full; the dreamers and visionaries, the creatives and the ones that make you laugh.  Find joy and the hearts it inhabits.  Bring these people close and, when you do, look out for others who could use some joy in their own lives.  Expand your circle and make a difference.

Embrace the conflict- It will not always be clear or easy. Some of the most powerful conflict has shifting lines of allegiance.  In one of my favorite novels, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, the conflict is between the author, his lover, and her husband. All sides falter and the humanity of the characters draws you in. When conflict comes, you have two choices.  You can run or fight. There is no other option. I tend to procrastinate and, really, it is only another form of running. As the saying goes, if you aren’t moving forward you are falling behind.  Always keep moving forward.

Embrace the crescendo– The hero is down on the mat and the ref is counting to ten. The bases are loaded with two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. The big presentation is due and the PowerPoint file is corrupted.

Thunder sounds over a trio of crosses on a hill so many years ago.

You’ll know when it happens.  We are all called to a crescendo, to a taste of the edge, to the point where all seems lost. We are called to suffering.

That may make some uncomfortable.  It is not a popular message in a world of quick fixes, success strategies, coaching courses and prosperity ministries. You won’t find too many graphics at the local Christian book store with the phrase behind an artistic sunrise print.

We suffer because we are being refined as part of the Greatest Story Ever Told. We suffer because we follow the one who went before us.

We suffer because we are called to do great things, to change lives and spark a movement that will electrify the world.

You may be facing a crescendo right now as you read this.

If you are, I pray you find courage to stand and be in the moment. I pray you love your story and walk forward with suspension of disbelief. As you wake tomorrow, look with new eyes and know you are a part of something so much bigger. Embrace the flow of the story, the characters and the conflict and start writing your own fresh pages.

~Matt

 

One Word

In the wake of the blizzard that hit the east coast this weekend, Carter had off school today and will be off tomorrow. Streets are clear but narrow, with mounds of snow taller than the average person. Val took Carter and Aiden down to see her sister during the day.  They played and went sledding.

They came home in time for dinner, just after I arrived home from work, and the boys were bouncing off the walls. The mixture of a snow day and the excitement of the winter overflowed into flips on the couch and wrestling.

I asked Carter if he could sit down for a minute and relax. He said to me:

Sometimes I feel like sitting. Sometimes I don’t.

The formula, in his mind, was simple.

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We humans complicate things.  As a writer, I would be out of a job if we didn’t complicate things. This week, I read through a devotional on the YouVersion Bible app by the authors of One Word that Will Change Your Life.

The premise is to find a single word to build your 2016 around. They present a selection of verses and material to support their idea and I love it. Why not a single word, a clear idea and a straight forward target?

I’ve been praying about my word for 2016.

What waited at the end of the road by the time 2016 is over? One gradually emerged.

Brave.

2016 will be a year to be brave, to stand up and push boundaries.  It will be entering new territory as a father, husband, writer, and follower of Jesus. It will be a filter to hold up moving forward, a catalyst for the times when the gas tank is running low, and the image of a new creation waiting to be realized.

What will be your One Word for 2016?

~Matt

Chasing the New

There are seven basic stories.

Every writing class I had, from college to grad school, I found at least one professor stating that old line. Seven stories told over and over. Our only hope, as writers, was to put our own spin on them. In On Writing, Stephen King says we develop a style as we read.  The end result is a mashup of our favorite authors combining to a unique voice.

This may be true in writing but it is not true in life.

We must never lose sight of the New.

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In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he recounts a moment that set his foundation for ministry in the years to come.  At a conference he had attended, the speaker said:

There are ways of doing church that has not been thought of yet.

The New is the line between fear and faith, sorrow and hope, doubt and assurance. It is the difference between the end and the _nd.

The New is the mystery.

I believe there are stories yet to be written, worship songs that will ignite a fire all across the world, ministries and charities that will change lives and provide for families. I believe there are ways of church waiting to be discovered, ways of worship only found in our dreams.

Zoom in.

Your story is not over. The _nd is not complete. Change is one choice at a time. One shift from if only to what if. One phone call, cup of coffee, meeting with a friend and plan with a spouse. One jog around the block, lifting of the dusty weight set, breaking out the easel and paints from college and opening your creative eye. It is the first choice against the addiction, depression, stress and sorrow.

There is another side, roads not taken, opportunities that will emerge as 2016 unfolds.

The New is chasing the calling, stepping towards discomfort as God stretches us into new territories of faith and guarding ourselves with the essential promise:

If God is for us, who can be against us?

~Matt