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

 

 

 

Define Your Regrets

Last week we went to visit friends.  Both our families have kids the same age and they love to play together.  As the kids watched a movie, I sat at the kitchen table with my friend Matt (besides sharing the same name, an awesome guy).  Conversation moved to the past.  We talked about growing up.

I mentioned my grandfather taking me fishing on Saturday mornings.  No cell phones. No deadlines or dilemmas.  He drove his old pickup truck to the pond, parked next to it, and gradually walked around throwing his line in at various spots.  I talked about learning how to play cards and feeling like I was an adult as I sat in on rounds of family pinochle. Matt said his grandfather was a farmer and they would go on long walks at the farm, just talking and throwing rocks into the fields.

I regret the past my boys won’t get to have.

Regret, you see, is a tricky thing. In Mark Batterson’s book, If, he writes about regret.  As people age, they long for the missed opportunities.  In the short-term it is more regret of things done. Time draws your attention to the probabilities. If only I had started that business, chased that dream, asked out that guy or girl.  If only I took that vacation, adventure, mission trip.

We must reframe the concept.

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If there is anything I regret, it is not changing the narrative of my life. I told myself a story shaped by my experiences.  This kept me out of leadership opportunities, creative endeavors, ministry to friends and family  It told me I wasn’t good enough, said I was the sum of my past and not a new creation.

It was condemnation, pure and simple.

And we know that, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans, There is no condemnation for those in Jesus.

It is so addicting.  In this country, we love throwing condemnation around and drawing our lines in the sand. We are fine with grace as it extends to us, just don’t ask us to push the boundaries.

We are called into the void, past the battle lines.

The cross allows us to live without condemnation, destroying the influence of the past and old narratives on our lives. The voices that trap and snare from the dark now fall on deaf ears. We are new creations, made to chase down callings that shine light on the world.  We are meant to create, to sing, dance, write, act, draw, sculpt, design, build, and plan.

We are here to destroy old ideas and break new ground.

We are called out of the safety of our regrets (for excuses are always safe) and made dangerous.  Dangerous to the ways of the enemy, the one seeking to destroy lives.  Dangerous to the ones saying this kind of radical love is impossible.  You want to donate, serve, open your home, give your time?

You want to be selfless?

This year redefine regret and let it move you forward.  Take nothing for granted.  Dive in and know that you are called to so much more.

~Matt

If

I hope you enjoyed your past five days.

For us it was a time of running around, visiting family, opening presents and thinking about the past year. We attended a Christmas Eve service on a warm night and rejoiced as our pastor walked out on stage with his new prosthetic left leg. Carter and Aiden loved every gift they received. We somehow managed to make it relatively smooth and are still in the process of getting the house in order.

The insurance money for home repairs will be available to us on 12/30, starting the ball rolling towards repairs and the house returning to form.  On Christmas I experienced my own little miracle, something I will post about this week, as this was the first year without both of my grandparents.

I am excited for what is coming.  The final few days of 2015 will put a cap on a stressful time in our lives.  We are finally moving towards some good news on multiple fronts.  I know that everyone believes 2016 will be their year. It is a common refrain for the end of December.

We have a concrete reason why.

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Last night I started reading Pastor Mark Batterson’s new book.  The title is If and it is based on Romans 8:31.

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

I’ll be writing two posts for our church’s official blog about this book and I’m excited to dive into it. He makes a point in the first chapter that will change lives:

If we really believed that verse, an alternative reality awaits.

If God is for us, who can be against us? It removes any space for doubts or fears.  How different would our year look if we walked forward believing that God is for us?

There are times I fight hard against cynicism. I mean, okay I get it. Faith is faith. Yet, when I read those sentences I felt a spark of something inside. Facing this book launch in 2016, the official initiation of P356 to the publishing world and fully giving my writing over to God’s purpose, I still get pangs of fear.

I look in the mirror and can hear the voices.

Why me? I was never anybody special.

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

What happens if I fail?

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

Do you know the odds against success? How many people actually launch their business online and survive?

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

The bottom line is faith. Silence the voices.  Grab hold of the promise, the importance of If, and use it to change your life.  Looking forward to what is coming, to building this book and making real change in our lives.

It all starts with one concept-

If.

~Matt

The New Deal

Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors. His novel, The End of the Affair, was the first to introduce me to the power of writing.  I read it in college, as Val and I were in the younger stages of our relationship, and Greene’s depiction of love spoke to my feelings.

The main character in the novel is novelist Maurice Bendrix.  He carries on an affair in the midst of WW2 that is ended when he survives a bombing in London.  He finds out that his married lover, Sarah Miles, had made a deal with God.  If Bendrix survived his injuries, she would break off the relationship.

The novel ends with Bendrix stating he has had enough of God.

Sitting in my dining room on this night hinting of winter to come, my thoughts drift over the shooting in California. We, as a country, are on the backs of our own deal with God. We’ve co-opted sorrow and grief, victim and violence. We are in the dark determined to find evil and destroy it.

We point fingers.

The religious establishment grasps hold of antiquated practices and wonders why it finds itself at the end of accusations and irrelevancy. Law enforcement officers are just as likely to be assaulted or killed as they are to be praised for their efforts.

Good people are lost in the noise.

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In the Bible, while Jesus hangs on the cross, he sees Roman soldiers dividing up his clothes.  He makes this statement:

Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

The soldiers didn’t know.

The government of the time didn’t know.

The disciples didn’t know.

The world didn’t know.

We’d taken perfect, selfless love and grace and punished it with death. The Truth had fallen against the weight of everyone too scared to listen. Those oppressed turned their back on freedom.

There are arguments to be made and conversations to be had. Violence is too easy. Guns are too easy. The intensity of faith and cause drives the lost to extreme measures to satisfy a far-off radical religious and political system destroying innocent lives in Syria and beyond.

The answer is not with Bendrix, turning away from our creator. The answer is changing the deal.

No more trading the world for authenticity.  No more chasing after things of impermanence.

The American Way has failed.

Generations are adrift in a sea of debt, anger, frustration, doubt, and sorrow for the past they never had and the future that seems to be no more than a figment of their imagination. This is solved by shorting vision to a microscopic level (If I get the next new thing, I’m good).

The new deal is hope. It is grace and service.  It is taking responsibility as parents to redefine value, to show our kids the meaning of friendship, love, choice and respect. It is understanding the power of a gun and the greater power of faith.

The new deal is peace. Taking time in silence and stillness. Turning off the screen and stopping the hustle for a moment.  It is getting back to nature and standing in the midst of a quiet forest while snow falls.

The new deal is life. It is embracing the small moments, holding doors and shoveling sidewalks. It is giving when we are spent. It is reaching out and inspiring someone lost in the depths. It is change found by a new fire deep inside.

The mass shootings can stop. Society can change. Hope is not lost and the journey has just started.

I believe.  As a writer, husband, father and follower of Jesus.  I believe.

~Matt

Three Ways to End Your Fear

Don’t be afraid.

The statement is repeated numerous times in the Bible. We are told, despite our natural instinct, not to fear. Fear, to me, was never paralyzing.  It is more a cold, blank sensation.

When Aiden was born, I stood in the delivery room and watched the nurses clean him off (a scheduled c-section). They hooked him to an oxygen monitor and I watched as his numbers started at 96 and gradually fell to 80. In this span of minutes, a NICU doctor was called in and they decided to give him a bed in the NICU.

He stayed almost a week before the fluid was clear from his lungs and stomach.

I’ll never forget watching those numbers fall and the glances the nurses exchanged with each other as he struggled to breathe. The fear in my heart implanted the images in my soul.

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Fear can be a catalyst.  When you stand at the Red Sea watching it part, you have two choices.  You can stay in danger or walk forward, facing the perceived greater danger, and see what happens. The unknown, even between walls of water, can unleash greatness on the other side.

Fear can be a dream. I remember having nightmares growing up.  One night a pair of cats were fighting outside my window.  The growls, scratches, and screams were surreal and seemed to be getting closer and closer. The darkness itself can bring condemnation and anxiety.  For some, dark nights carried the promise of no heat or electricity, hunger, or an abusive spouse or parent. In dreams, remember you will wake up. The sun will split the night and rise in the morning.

Fear can be control. This is the most dangerous. You are called.  Maybe it is a mission trip. Maybe a friend whose marriage is failing, maybe a family member mired in addiction. Maybe it is the business you are meant to start, the product that will change the world, the idea that can make a difference.  God puts this on your heart and you look in the mirror.

The small voice tells you that you can’t do it.  Not you. Not now.

What if you fail? Think of the laughter, the condemnation, the wasted time, money, and effort.

What if it all falls apart?

This fear is vanquished through community.  Find friends and colleagues making the same journey.  Look for resources in person and in the digital universe.  Find hope in a mentor who has been there already.  Find power in the permission to let yourself chase your dream.

Break the control of fear. The failure of not trying is always greater than giving it a shot. Step in the ring. You’ll be surprised at what can happen when fear is beaten down and destroyed. Even if you need to do it every day, it is worth the fight.

~Matt

Throw Away Old Stories

I’ve mentioned Donald Miller’s Storyline blog on here more than once and for good reason as I almost always get some selection of inspirational material.  If you haven’t followed them yet, I recommend it.

This past week, there was a post about changing the narrative you are living.  The writer told a story about a friend’s mother and this woman’s visit to her friend’s house. The friend complained that, when her mother was over, she “turned into a twelve-year-old again.” The writer continued to talk about growing up as an outsider and how she needed to overcome that to succeed in her creative efforts.

The post was up on Saturday and it has bounced around in my head since then.

How many of us are living old stories?

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I feel like this past year has been a journey to break the hold of old stories on my life.  I was not what you’d call an outsider as I had friends from different social groups.  I was not, though, the popular kid.  I didn’t jump at opportunities to show off.  I wasn’t a sports star or an actor with the drama club.

Oral presentations scared me until I took a public speaking class in high school.

These stories carried over into my early 30’s and I feel the fight rising. It is only a conflict because the old stories still exist.  Because the old part of my soul still stands on the sidelines content to be okay.

The time to be okay is over.

Change is possible if we allow ourselves to do it.  How many of us avoid the difficult conversation about Jesus at the water cooler because we were rejected in the past? Because someone made fun of us for being different? How many let those with stronger wills influence our lives and the lives of our children? How many refuse to stand because we’ve been knocked down too much that it is just easier to stay there?

Do we avoid risk because we fear failure or success? Breaking apart or breaking the bonds that hold us down?

I pray this week is one of change for you.  That you step out of your comfort zone and throw away the old stories impacting your life.  Starting writing new ones and see what happens.

~Matt