There are those …

There are those people in your life…

– who love you unconditionally

– who know better than that

– who will not forgive you

– who ignore you

– who forget you

– who say they forgive you but act otherwise

– who speak lies about you, even though you seek to make amends

– who want nothing to do you with you because you will hurt their reputation

– who are hurtful because they enjoy it

– who are hurtful and they don’t know it

For us addicts, we need to focus on those who love us unconditionally. Yet, the others get in the way. It seems unfair that we are ignored and forgotten in spite of our hard work of sobriety and getting our life together. We cry out, “Look what we are now! We have a good job! Our families are strong! Our lives are getting better!” only to be met with deafening silence.

We admit our faults and own up to our actions. We do not expect special treatment and continually remind ourselves that we have hurt others and the only remedy is to keep our own side of the street clean. We plead and yearn for nothing more than Grace.

We do find Grace and we find it Jesus Christ. It is he who was with us in our dark moments of pain and mental anguish. He was there as we numbed our pain and walked around in a fog knowing deep down there is a better way. He continued to whisper lovingly to us that he is our peace, our lover, our savior, our redeemer and our God. He was also with those we held captive by our actions. Our spouses, our children, our friends and our loved ones. He also whispered to them that he will take care of them.

We hide in the shadows because we know that we are considered bad people. The words loser, druggie, drunk, worthless and pathetic are just some of the labels used to describe us. It is rare to find the person who will call us beloved, worthy and valuable.

So each morning we awake and ask God to help us through this one day. This one day only and knowing that if we can make it through this one day, we have the pleasure to ask him tomorrow for the same thing.

The Prayer of St. Patrick:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun, Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning, Swiftness of the wind,

Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth,

Firmness of the rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me;

God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me,

God’s hosts to save me Afar and near,

Alone or in a mulitude.

Christ shield me today

Against wounding

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through the mighty strength

Of the Lord of creation.

 

23:1

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

This simple phrase, a basic verse from the Bible that is introduced to the youngest of children has been memorized and trivialized for as long as it has been taught from the pulpit, in the classroom and around dinner tables. We see it on trinkets, wall hangings, bookmarks and bumper stickers. This is a simple, seemingly harmless phrase of scripture that conjures up images of the shepherd boy David holding a young lamb in his lap. Harmless and sterile, we brush it off as if we are above such simple imagery and theology.

Or, maybe it is just us arrogant and selfish brutes who feel that way. Maybe it is just us who feel that such simplicity is beneath our overinflated egos. Surely we are too spiritually developed and mature to waste our time on childish memorization and imagery. How can God be our shepherd when we are in control of our lives? Sure, God is in control in a cosmic and big picture way. But he has gifted us arrogant and wise souls with maturity and grace to govern and guide our own lives and those who have the pleasure of being in our presence. It is our arrogance and pride that leads us to utter the simple phrase, “I got this.”

Our pride and our ego slowly wrap us up into a web of lies and half-truths. We believe that we know what is best for us, we believe that God is behind us and we believe that we know what is best for everyone else. Judgement becomes our next duty. If not for us, how would others know that they are wrong? If not for us, how would others know what is right and acceptable?

Our pride, our arrogance and our selfishness leads to death. We are sick as we become addicted to ourselves and to other things. This sickness causes us to become weak, brittle and gasping for air. When we begin to complain and scream to God about how unfair he has been to us we realize that we left God behind us a long time ago. We never asked him to come with us. We never said that we needed him. We didn’t want him so we kept him away. Arrogance, pride, ego and selfishness are all symptoms of a slow death.

But from that deathbed we give up. We surrender and we find breath. We can do nothing but gasp for the shepherd to come and we beg for him to help us. In that moment of surrender the love of the shepherd is poured out. He gives us what we need and we want for nothing else. We only want him. We are humbled as we move along the path of recovery and are asked, by our shepherd, to begin making amends. This is what we need. We need the shepherd and we need to proclaim that the Lord is our shepherd and we will never be in want.

Ash Wednesday: All In

Joel 2:12-13 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.

All in. God wants us to go all in and return to Him. He wants our hearts. Why our hearts? Is it because vulnerability resides in our hearts? Is this the most vulnerable part of us? He asks us to return to Him because he is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love, but do we trust him? Can we trust our hearts, our source of vulnerability to him? We have been betrayed in the past and our hearts have been broken and abused. Our vulnerability has been manipulated and exploited and so we react by hiding and covering our hearts. Trust, deep trust, seems impossible.

What if these words from the Lord are not a command, but an invitation? What if this is not a command from an angry, fear mongering God but rather a gentle invitation from a loving God who is wooing us into an intimate relationship of love and rest and redemption? This is an invitation from a Father who loves us, forgives us and wants to make us whole. As we begin this journey through lent we ask ourselves if we can we trust Him? Do we dare go all in and trust our vulnerable hearts to him?

Chasing After the Wind: No More Average Joe

“And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” – Ecclesiastes 4:4

The writer of Ecclesiastes is searching for meaning in his life. The writer was probably King Solomon, the wisest and richest man in the world. Solomon had wealth beyond imagination and had access to every material possession he dreamed of, yet was still looking for meaning. To Solomon, wealth and riches and power did not bring meaning, joy or peace to his life. He was still searching. He came to the conclusion that all labor and achievement came from men and women who were envious of what their neighbors had. They did not work or strive for achievement because it was beautiful or meaningful but out of a destructive pattern of jealousy and greed. Their neighbors had more livestock, a better house, better clothes and higher social status and people vainly found meaning in those tangible and material possessions. Life became a struggle to be better than those around you. Life was a chasing after the wind.

Hard work and achievement are not bad things and we should strive to help make the world a better place. But the trouble comes when we find our worth and value in those accomplishments and we lose our focus of living a meaningful life. We strive for more trophies to put on our shelf, more plaques on our walls and better seats at social events. We want people to see us as successful and important, but this does not lead to a life of meaning and real influence. Social acceptance and recognition only feeds our egos, not our souls.

This is a truth that I am learning and will continue to learn my entire life. I fell into that trap of putting my work and need for acceptance and upward mobility before the important things in my life. Eventually I found no real meaning in my work or my life. I was chasing after the wind and the longer I chased the further I was moving from what was important and where I could find real meaning.

When Kris and I were dating, I went on vacation with her family to the beach. It was the first time I was at the ocean and it was great. We had one of those small boogie boards on which to float and ride the waves back onto the beach. We did this for an hour or so and when it was time to go back on the beach I noticed that we had drifted away from where our beach towels and umbrella were located – markers of where we belong. It was a long walk back. I think this is how my life drifted away from center. It was not a quick dash away, but over the time period of a few years I drifted. I chased after the wind and drifted away from what was important and what gave me meaning.

As I think back and take inventory of my life, I realize now that I bought into the lie that what was important in life was just average. I thought my life should be important to other people – to the kids I pastored, the people who listened to me preach and the wider ministry world who “really needed” me and my wisdom. I would find meaning in “being somebody special” to the outside world. It was a chasing after the wind. What I found was that being a good youth pastor wasn’t enough; I needed to be a good associate pastor. Then I needed to move beyond the walls of influence of my church and be somebody to the broader denomination. But then that wasn’t enough as I thought I could really be important and somebody if I could get on the youth ministry speaking circuit – a chasing after the wind.

It’s my experience that one can only chase after the wind for so long before you drift so far away from your home base that you crash and need help to find your way back home. It is there where I found meaning – or at least the path to meaning. I am not doing this perfectly, but I have found some markers or stakes that keep me close to home. It’s natural for all of us to not want to be average, to become bored with life and walk around in a comatose. Life is to be lived and enjoyed. What I am finding out is that the idea of being an average Joe has a new meaning.

I used to think that an average Joe was someone who had a boring job, was tied down to family and domestic responsibilities and moved through life unknown and anonymous to the world outside of their family. Maybe a guy who spent Saturdays mowing the yard and raking leaves. The woman who made dinner and made sure the kids were presentable each day. The above average Joe was the man or woman who worked 50 hours a week, brought in a large income, was someone who had a lot of people under them and drove nice cars. The movers and shakers of the world, this is who I wanted to be.

But now I think that is backwards. Anyone can chase the wind. Anyone can ignore their family and friends. An average Joe is not based on income or social status (I know plenty of driven and successful people who are amazing individuals, both rich and poor) or job title. An average Joe can be a couch potato as well as a wealthy business woman or professional. An average Joe is someone who chases after the wind in their own way to find meaning and purpose in the wrong things. I have found in my own life that there are three stakes or markers that have the potential to help me find meaning in my life.

These markers are my faith, family and friends. I have found meaning in relationships, not status or possessions. It took a long drift for me to see this and it may take you a long drift as well to find true meaning. Over the next few posts, I want to unpack these markers and spend some time on finding meaning in relationships. It is in these relationships that I have found love, grace, forgiveness and joy. It takes effort and work to develop and maintain relationships, something that the average Joe is not willing to do. I hope you join me in walking through these truths.

Dear Martins Creek

To Martins Creek,

I’m doing okay and it’s wonderful. I would be lying to you all if I said that I was stress free and blissful. That doesn’t exist on this side of Heaven. I am doing okay. That means, “I am doing well. I am not covered up in my bed crying all day.” I am clean and sober and have been since April of 2014. Life is great! Sure, I experience the stress of being unemployed but please know that I am trying. There are a good number of Holmes County businesses that know I am looking for work. I have had lots of coffee with old friends and new acquaintances talking about life and making connections for employment. Friends, I am doing well. I have not felt this good emotionally and mentally in a few years. I am okay. We as a family are okay.

I also want to take this opportunity to say a few words about my time at Martins Creek. First, I miss you. I mostly miss your kids, but I miss you. I miss seeing your faces, hearing you laugh, hearing your stories and talking to you. I miss being with you the most. I miss our time together on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. I miss being a part of your lives and I miss you being a part of mine.

I also want to say “thank you.” Thank you for walking with me for almost 20 years. You welcomed me when I was a punk college kid who started dating one of your daughters. You welcomed me when I was a Baptist kid who did not know that a church could have more than one hymnal and that they could be different colors. You welcomed me when I had no idea what 606 meant or that harmony had four parts. You. Welcomed. Me. You took my bad and made me better. Then you did the unthinkable: you turned me into a Mennonite pastor. Crazy. A man by the name of Carl (remember him? I miss him too) convinced you that I was worth the risk. You led me and challenged me and opened up a new world of calling and passion that I had never known before. You loved me. You took a risk on me. You have shown me Grace.

Let’s talk about Grace. For 13 years, you called me your Associate pastor or Youth pastor depending on your experience. For 13 years you let me pour into the lives of your children. You gave me permission to show them the Grace and Love and Glory of Jesus Christ. I will never forget that and can never express my love and gratitude for you. For 13 years I had front row seats to your lives and got to see your kids grow up and take off. It was 13 amazing years.

Then on Sunday, October 12, 2014 you blew me away. Remember that morning? It was the morning when I resigned from my position as Associate pastor. It was the morning when I confessed to my sins and failures. The morning when I came clean about my behavior and accepted responsibility for my actions that brought hurt and pain to some people. It was my lowest morning. But then you did it. You took your faith seriously and put into action what you believed. You forgave me. You touched me. Like Jesus placing his hands on the lepers, you placed your hands on me. You came to me and you meant it. In the sanctuary, in that room designated for worship, we not only embraced each other but we embraced Christ.

Grace became tangible for me at that time. Grace became more than some theological idea and became real. Did you know that you can smell Grace? It smells like the perfume of old ladies, the cologne of men, the different laundry detergents we use and the smell of cough drops and gum. You can’t smell it unless you are in the midst of a Grace moment. It overwhelmed me from all of the hugs and tears and handshakes that you gave me in that moment. Thank you. Thank you for risking. Thank you for forgiving. Thank you for touching. Thank you, Bob, for taking that long and lonely walk up the aisle to stand by my side.

My heart is heavy because of how I wronged myself, my family and you. My heart is heavy because that is not how I wanted my time with you to end. My heart is heavy because we never got to celebrate the years we had together. My heart is heavy because I still feel like I let all of you down. My heart is heavy because I never got to tell your kids how sorry I am, never got to tell them that I love them, never got to tell them to not fall into the trap that I did and never got to tell them one last time that they are loved, beautiful, the Beloved of God and that they have unsurpassable worth.

Yet, my life is good. I know that you love me and have forgiven me. I also know that there are some of you who are glad that I am gone and that there are some of you who have not forgiven me. And that is alright. Not everyone can. I find peace in knowing that God, Kris, my kids, my family and my friends love me, have forgiven me and want me to move on. That is enough. I consider that to be a really good life.

Oh Martins Creek, I love you. I miss you. I thank you. May you find the same Grace extended to you that you have extended to me.

On Turning 40

A few days ago I turned 40. This one scared me. There is something about this number that brings fear into my life. 40 just seems old. I remember when I was a kid and I thought 40 year olds were ancient. Life had passed them by and pretty soon they would have grey hair, smell bad and be forced to eat soft foods.

For the past year or so, I dreaded 40. It was this line in the sand where most people have achieved something in their lives. They have a solid career, family and social network. Most people at that age have mastered their craft and begin to make good money and look forward to the age of 50. I was not going to be making a ton of money by the time I turned 40. I was still in youth ministry and spending most of my time with teenagers. I loved that part of my job and that is what I miss most about leaving the ministry.

The three months leading up to turning 40 were some of the most difficult times of my life. I was unemployed, had no real job leads and for the past two years had battled personal demons and issues in my life. The prospect of turning 40 looked really bad. I was a failure in my job. I had hurt other people. I had nothing to show for my 15 years of youth ministry. Or at least that is what I thought.

My wife, kids, family and a few friends helped me through that dark time. They showed me love and grace and stood by us when it felt like others were rejecting us. It was a beautiful moment when I realized these four truths: God loves me, forgave me and wants me to move forward; Kris and the kids love me, forgave me and want me to move forward; my family loves me, forgave me and wants me to move forward; my true friends love me, forgave me and want me to move forward. This is the beginning of a really good life. Faith, family and friends are what make for a wonderful life (more about these four truths in a later post).

The day of my 40th birthday I woke up early and lay in bed pondering what just happened. I was amazed that turning 40 didn’t hurt or that arthritis and the gout had not invaded my ancient body. I started singing (in my head) “40” by U2. It’s a lovely tune based on Psalm 40 and that is when it hit me; 40 is awesome. Psalm 40 is an incredible Psalm of gratitude and praise and, like a light going on in a dark room, I became aware of how that Psalm connected with my journey over the past few years.

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet upon a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

Those words echoed the cry of my soul and I was at peace on my 40th birthday. 40 turned into a life giving event and has helped me to sing a new song of love, forgiveness and grace. The old song of bitterness, shame and embarrassment is gone. I’m sure it will pop up like an annoying commercial jingle from time to time, but I do not have to own it or sing it. The new song is much better and I can’t believe I found it when I turned 40.

Bring on 50.

Forgiveness

TG1By now, most of you who know me are aware of my love for the prison ministry Timothy’s Gift. While there are many other wonderful prison ministries out there, this happens to be the only one that I am familiar with and have participated in. I love these people, these servants with a Kingdom heart. I love the motivation behind this group which is bring hope, love and redemption in the name of Jesus to a population of scoundrels, murderers, thieves and cheats of all sorts. Timothy’s Gift does not brow beat or remind them of their sins. These inmates are aware of what they have done every moment of every day. What they do bring to the prison system is forgiveness. Not that Timothy’s Gift is forgiving them, but the message of hope in forgiveness, the love of forgiveness and the redemption of forgiveness. Inmates are reminded of their intrinsic value because they are made in the image of God and that they are loved by God and have the capacity to receive and be forgiven by God.

As I reflect on my own life, I see large stains of sin looking back at me. Sure I have never murdered anyone, but my sin, MY SIN still stings and hurls a painful dart into the lives of those I have hurt and love. It is MY SIN that, at times, keeps me locked up in a spiritual jail cell. No, I am not comparing my life to those of inmates but there are times that MY SIN keeps me from experiencing all that God has for me. Do you know what I mean? We in the church speak business talk about the “bondage” and “enslavement” of sin. What we really mean is that our actions and our guilt keep us from believing that we could possibly be loved by others and by God. Surely the great God of the universe and life has only a limited amount of grace on reserve for me and, without too much time having gone by, I have dried up that tank of grace. How is it possible that a perfect God could look down on me, a scoundrel in my own way, and say that “yes, he is one of mine” and keep a strait face? Surely this is some cosmic joke and God does not love me or call me his own. But it is no joke.

Why do I love Timothy’s Gift? Because they let me be a part of experiencing grace and forgiveness and mercy. And to be honest, those three theological words need to be experienced before they are truly understood and even then, they are complicated to comprehend. I need grace. I need redemption. I need forgiveness. My soul needs it. My very life needs it. We compare and contrast and label our sins: murder is worse than lying; armed robbery is worse than adultery. My sins are not as bad as the guy behind bars. It doesn’t matter. MY SINS can hurt people. MY SINS have hurt people. MY SINS need forgiven. I need forgiven. I need to remember the faces of the inmates, the smell of the prison and overwhelming sense of joy mixed with confinement. I can’t tell you enough about how great my soul was filled with joy that one week. I want that joy all the time. It is the joy of one scoundrel realizing that his perfect Father from above does not cut off the allowance of grace. That my Father in Heaven still rejoices over me with singing. This is the joy that comes from a Father who, with I’m sure tear stained cheeks, looks me in the eyes and says “Oh Matthew, why do you torture yourself? Do you not know that I love you and that my grace, MY GRACE is sufficient for you? Why do you try to carry so many burdens? Rest in my love. Trust my love. You are forgiven. You are loved.”

That is why I love Timothy’s Gift. That is why I love the message of hope and forgiveness. I have messed up a lot in my life, and you have too. But, we are forgiven and we are loved. May that be enough for our souls.