Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Questions about "Stumbling Blocks"

A question for Christians: 

Since you've been a fully cognizant Christ-follower, has someone ever "tripped you up" with their words? Has someone ever said a thing that caused you to "stumble" in your walk? What thing was that? What did that look like?

Let's say your life was progressing happily, your faith had an upward trajectory, your hope was being strengthened, you were trusting God more and more each day with your life, worrying less and giving more of yourself to those around you… then, somebody says something and it throws you off. Maybe it sends you on a downward path, sets you back a few paces.

Has that happened? I want to know about it. I want to know who it was in relation to you, what they said and how you responded. It would be helpful to me.

Please leave your story (keeping people anonymous would be reasonable) in the comments section.

A question for non-Christians:

Since you've been a fully cognizant person, has something a Christian said ever caused you to doubt their faith? Has some comment or explanation turned you off to Christianity? 

Let's say at one point in your life you were open to believing in some sort of God, but somebody came along and said something and you became more closed-off than open. 

Who left that bad taste in your mouth? What did they say, and how did you respond? Have those words shaped your life and what you believe? If so, in what ways?

Please leave your story in the comment section. I think your story would be really helpful to me and a lot of people.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Quick question:

If sometimes you write a song and realize it is "pretty okay" but you know from experience that a lot of people will absolutely love it except the people like you who will agree it is "pretty okay" so you don't record or release it, you just shelve it, then the years go by and you get older and one day you pick that song off the shelf and start strumming the chords and you realize that nostalgia has added several-years-worth of value to it and it transports you back to who you were when you wrote it and a lump forms in your throat and you can barely sing it and your immediate thought is, "Damn, this is good." Is it?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Four H's To Help Christians

I'm at a crossroads.

What I do next will define a good portion of my life for the next year or so. I have a choice to make, and deciding what to do is never easy.

As Christians, we're told that God has a plan for our lives. Sometimes the idea of this is comforting, and sometimes it's stressful. What's the plan? We know some basic instructions, like, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but who is my neighbor, and how do I do that? Unless you're an ancient Bible hero, you usually aren't told what the plan is, at least not specifically in plain speech.

When it comes to big decisions, deciding what direction to go from faith perspective can be difficult. Do I seek out that new job? Do I move to that new house? Do I go on that trip or reconnect with that person or go off birth control? What's the best plan, here?

I tend to live my life one project at a time, and when a project is done I often find myself in a state of limbo between what I've done and what I'm going to do next. Personality tests tell me I love change, so it's easy for me to keep my options open. I find myself open to new career paths and willing to see where any new rabbit trails lead. This can make the decision even harder.

Over the years I've made some good decisions and some bad ones, and I've always felt like there were certain characteristics that were common across all the good decisions I've made. Last night my owl brain was awake, and I thought of a clever name for these characteristics, as it all suddenly became crystal clear to me in the wee hours of the morning.

There are four principles that are true of every good path I've chosen to go down. I think these principles are also true of every good decision those ancient Bible heroes made thousands of years ago. 

When making decisions I've started to ask myself four questions, which I'll call for clever-catch-phrase sake, the Four H's:

Hard, Humble, Hungry and Human.

When faced with deciding what direction to go in, I ask myself if the direction is Hard, whether or not it requires me to be Humble, whether or not it requires me to be spiritually Hungry (to rely on God more than I usually do), and whether or not it's Human-oriented, as in humanitarian, i.e. will people benefit from it?

Let's break down the "Hard" principle, the one that says that God's calling is always challenging. 

God has never called me to do something easy, something that came naturally. Why? Because I already do those things. I don't need to be called to do them, because I already do them without thinking. I'm a natural at those things, therefore, no calling needed.

God likes to challenge and stretch me because He knows it's imperative to my growth. So I ask myself, Is it hard? Does it force me out of my comfort zone? Is it a difficult task? 

Generally speaking, the things that I've felt called to do contain a level of inconvenient difficulty that has stressed me out. This is true of every Bible character who encounters God;

God says to Moses, "Even though you have a speech impediment and are wanted for murder, go back to Egypt, speak to Pharoah, and free my people."

God says to Esther through Mordecai, "Even though you're came from rags to become the Queen living in a palace, risk your 'good' life to save my people."

God says to Abraham, "Leave everything you have and go to this foreign land and I will make your offspring my people and they will be blessed."

God always says, "Do something hard, take a risk, trust me, it'll be worth it."

This might be hard to hear, but chances are if it's easy and comes naturally, God is not calling you to do it.

The second "H" is Humble. A truth of every action God calls me to is that it takes a level of humility to complete. This means not puffing myself up, bragging about my own abilities and my own talents. It means humbling myself to the task before me. My natural proclivity is to do the thing that boosts my ego, that makes me proud of myself in relation to others. My default-mode is to viciously defend my self-worth and importance. So I ask, Will this humble me?

God has never called me to elevate myself over others because it's something I already naturally do, and I already know He calls me to do Hard things. The Hard thing is putting similar value on others as I do myself. Oh man, it's a really Hard thing to be Humble.

The best results have always occurred when I've lowered myself. It's in these times I realize that by putting others ahead of me, by excusing myself from the competition of life, God is pleased. Good things happen when God is pleased.

You need only to look at the life and death of Jesus to see how much God values humility. Everything He calls us to do contains some level of Humble.

The third "H" is Hungry. 

Will this decision make me more Hungry for spiritual connectedness to God and the people around me? Will it cause me to rely on my faith more? To be more prayerful? 

Hungry is connected to both Hard and Humble, because Hungry recognizes that hard things can't get done without God's blessing. Hungry causes us to want more of God in our lives. Every good thing I've ever done has caused me to pray a whole lot more than I usually do. The situation made me rely on God more. The Hardness of it made me more Humble, and both of those aspects made me more Hungry.

The fourth "H" is an important one, one that stands alone as a key principle to any choice God is calling you to make:

Does it help other Humans? 

Flash back to those paraphrases from the Hard category, where God is calling those ancient Bible heroes to do hard things. At the end of each statement, you'll see that it's always for the sake of people. God always says, "Do this hard thing to help people." God never calls you to do a hard thing that helps only yourself. Other lives are affected by our decisions.

Our spiritual lives are intended to be lived from the inside out, we are supposed to work on ourselves for the sole sake of, sorry for the cliche, "shining a light" to others. We are made to bless others. All throughout the Bible, God calls people to do Hard things so that other Humans can benefit.

So I ask myself, Does this allow God to use me to influence others for good? Could doing this help people? Or am I focusing inwardly because of fear? 

Basically, I need to know that my motivations for making a decision aren't selfish. I know that God cares for others, and anything He has ever called me to do has been to impact others through my work, presence and abilities. Humans are the most important thing to God, as displayed by the life and death of Jesus, and God will always call you to helping people.

I'm not saying that if you employ the tactic of the Four H's your decisions will be instantly easier to make. I'm not trying to cheapen something as nuanced and intricate as those big Pro-vs-Con life decisions, and I definitely don't want to simplify what is supposed to be difficult. Good decisions are hard to make. Life is complex and hard and it matters very much how you choose to live it. 

I simply wanted to share with you a tool that helps me sift through my options, and I wanted to encourage you that although the choice that requires more prayer, more humility, and more service to others is ridiculously Hard, I believe that you will live a better life by choosing it.

The Four H's have been on my mind a lot lately as I try to find my way through the murky limbo I'm in. I think it's good practice in these times to do an inventory on what I believe in, why I believe it, and why it matters.

This is not by any means a complete thought as I've only just fleshed it out in the last few hours. I don't mean to present it as an all-encompassing doctrine for choice-making, because I'm sure there are variables based on different situations, but I wanted to share my opinion in the hopes that it could help you guys make some decisions you are being faced with. 

The practice of writing it down really helps me to figure it out, and the knowledge that you might be reading along really helps me clarify what I believe, so thank you for that.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Labeling is for Losers

The things I'm the most proud of doing didn't get done without conflict. I wasn't following a specific recipe. The ingredients weren't all in front of me, neatly labeled to ease my mind.

You can't start anything good by labeling, but I find that I like to label myself when start feeling insecure. I say, "I'm just a singer," when I feel like an inadequate guitar player, or "I'm just a songwriter," when I feel like I don't have good enough control over my voice. I say things like, "I'm more of a poet than a musician," when I feel like my arrangements start to bore me, or "I'm more artist than engineer," when I can't get the software to work for me.

These little labels are deadly. They can stop me before I even start.

But it's not just internal, I find a lot of conversations I have with people contain a subtext of labeling. With friends I often converse about likes and dislikes, determining why we are different from each other. I've had this discussion with my moderate friends, I say, "You're okay with a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but I want excitement, I want to push the limits and see where it all goes." There, I've just labeled us: You're moderate, I'm extreme. 

Nobody is one thing all the time, but for some reason we want those absolute, sweeping statements to be true. We like everyone neatly packaged and labeled so we can chuckle at those predefined characteristics as they manifest themselves:  

"Oh, that's just Matt, always so extreme."

We love to know what to expect. Our humanity doesn't like surprises.  Maybe this is because there's enough of the unknown out there to worry us. Perhaps that's why we're motivated to move things into the "known" category. 

Either way, it seems to me we tend compartmentalize and cram people into boxes, and if they don't fit, we discard them. We do the same with God (I can't believe in a God who would...). The problem with labels is they're usually either wrong or not all right, and they can damage progress. They can kill change before it starts.

The way I like to process things is to first take a close look, then to take a giant step back to get a view of the big picture (I may be labeling myself here). The "macro" view can be damaging when you don't see the details, it's like critiquing a painting without first pressing your nose to the canvas to see  the brushstrokes, the blending of the colors.

The broad sweeping statements, the labeling and self-critique do very little (if nothing) to inspire us to paint. Those actions don't appreciate the work. They don't require the work (the micro) to function. They can simply stand back and very neatly and quickly stifle our creativity.

I've learned this: I can't sit around wondering whether I'm the "Talent" or the guy who works with the "Talent." Or whether or not I ever really had the guitar chops I needed. Or if I work better alone or with people, or whether I'm prolific by nature or not. Or whether or not I've made a huge mistake and I should have finished that real estate course.

I can't sit around LABELING myself, because when I do that I end up LIMITING myself.The good things happen when I simply DO something. Anything. Especially the things that scare me. 

When I stop sitting around defining myself as incapable and start actively pursuing something I start achieving more. I suddenly start feeling more capable.

I'm probably not crazy. I'm guessing some of you do the, "I'm not really good at _______," thing. You should know that no matter how good you get at something (or how good other people think you are at something), doubt will always meet you there. 

Just don't shoot yourself in the foot before you start. Don't put boundaries on your talents, don't label and limit and box yourself up. Stretch out and start pretending you're capable of great things, and you'll be surprised how many great things you can accomplish.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sometimes I Feel Like God

Sometimes I picture myself in twenty years, describing to my daughter her life before she was cognizant of it.

When you were very little, you would chase me around the kitchen, squealing with joy. You could barely walk, but you would stagger after me. You couldn't talk, either, but gibberish flowed from your little voice in a steady stream. I was aware of everything. I was who I am now, but you were different. You don't remember, but I do.

One day Praise will know things about life. She will have seen the good and the bad, and she will form opinions about how to live and what matters. One day, the veil will be lifted, the intellectual playing field will be leveled, and we'll be able to laugh together at the things she used to do before she "knew better." Before she grew up. Before she became mentally and physically mature.
What if physically growing up is a metaphorical microcosm for spiritually growing up

Right now, Praise isn't fully aware of life. She doesn't recognize danger, doesn't understand generosity, doesn't know how clean up after herself. Yet. She'll learn in time, and it may take twenty years to teach her... but one day the veil will be lifted, and she'll understand reality (if we do our jobs right). 

I think our souls take a long time to mature. They're hidden, so they take awhile for us to discover them. Even as adults we find ourselves searching for the answers to the questions our souls are asking. We stumble along, reacting, planning, hoping, dreaming and often, failing. But we don't really know. Yet. We won't fully be aware of eternity until our souls are finally free of the mental and physical world we live in.
 Maybe one day the veil will be lifted on our souls.  

What if when we die, we get to take a look back and have a laugh, like me and Praisie in twenty years. Except this time it's our heavenly Father and us. What if one day He shows us the things we did, and we laugh together because we both know better. We both understand the weight of eternity. 

When you were very little, in your thirties, your mind would run around in circles. You were anxious because you didn't trust me. You were selfish because you thought it would make you happy. You didn't know the right way to live, or love. I was there. I was aware of everything. I was who I am now, but you were different. You don't remember, but I do.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dreams Can Come True

Back in 2009, Kristie had a dream. She was finding small amounts of money everywhere, in different denominations and currencies. At first the amount seemed small, but as she gathered it together she realized it was significant.

Around that same time, I had a dream. In it I was pulling coins out of an old couch. I was finding them everywhere. Fifty-cent pieces, quarters, even Canadian Loonies and Toonies (those are $1 and $2 coins, for my non-Canadian friends). I started by finding a little, and as I gathered them together I remember feeling like the amount was becoming something substantial, something that we could really use.

Three years later in 2012, Kristie quit her job to focus on being a full-time mother. Her income was the only steady source of funds we'd earned as a couple, and it was with a certain amount of both fear and faith that we decided to press on, passing the full responsibility of income-earning to me.

The thing is, we were broke. We'd always been broke. We'd relied heavily on credit cards to help us in between dry spells where I didn't make anything, and we'd never developed a plan to pay them off. We'd never had anything happen to encourage the idea that we would someday be free of that particular financial burden.

Feeling the pressure of being a "provider," I started taking real estate courses. I also started a musical side-project called "Vocal Few" with Kristie, in order to help alleviate some of the expenses of having a child.

Kristie and I were no strangers to financial "hardship." We were married without much more than a few hundred bucks to our name. With Kristie's citizenship status in limbo early on she couldn't legally work, so she came on tour and sold our merchandise. It wasn't glamorous. 

We lived in a van on the road with The Classic Crime together, the six of us sleeping in truck stops and Wal Mart parking lots. In between tours we were often homeless, so we slept on a mattress topper on the floors of some of our generous friends and family. We were perfectly trained in the ways of "making-do," so as we prepared to have a baby, we prepared to experience more hardship.

I studied real estate, met with brokers, and planned my entry into the workforce. I was prepared to give up music as a source of income. It simply wasn't enough to sustain myself, let alone a family. I was going to get a real job. Something seemed appealing about that. I took shifts at a catering company, washed dishes, and set up buffets for weddings, parties, and corporate events. I liked getting my hands dirty and working behind the scenes. It was gratifying. It felt like I was doing something that directly helped my family. Music isn't like that. It sells or it doesn't, and often the hours spent on it don't pay off like you need them to. I was used to the disappointment of the music business, so I was happy to take a paycheck in relation to the exact hours I spent working.

Meanwhile, Vocal Few started to sell. We were floored by the response. It was my first independent release in 7 years, and I was shocked to discover the percentage of money that actually came back to us. Small opportunities for licensing came in, they started to add up to some real "bill paying money." Because of the writing and recording of "She'll Be Right," I was offered some contracts to write music for commercials. The income I earned from that really helped us pay down our debt.

Inspired by Vocal Few's independent release, we decided that The Classic Crime should attempt it. We ended up raising almost 300% of our goal on our Kickstarter campaign, and subsequently I became extremely busy producing, mixing, marketing, and performing publicist and A&R duties for the release. It was a six month job, but it was some of the most gratifying work I've ever done in music.

Money started coming in from so many different places, and most of it wasn't a lot on it's own, but when you added it up we were able to pay our bills. Not only that, we were able to completely pay off all the debt we'd accrued over our seven years of marriage.

I ended up not being able to complete the real estate course. I was 80 hours into a 90 hour course, and I kept pushing it back until I couldn't push it back anymore. Eventually, my time to complete it had expired.

Somehow, after being on the verge of giving up music completely, I was swamped with music projects. Paying projects... the rare kind. We went from having two incomes (one being very steady), a load of debt, and no kids, to one income, a child, and no debt. 

What was seemingly impossible back in 2009 had come true, and it was around mid-2012 that we remembered our dreams from three years prior. We were filled with gratitude to God for His faithfulness. We apologized for our lack of faith, our questioning and fear and doubt. We didn't know why it happened, or how exactly, but we knew who orchestrated it.

Let me start by saying that I know we didn't deserve this blessing. However, I'd be careless not to say that I strongly believe that when we give our money in faith, when we tithe or give it towards a charitable cause, especially when it hurts, that it pleases God to take care of us

The times when we've been the most worried about money have been the times where we've been the most selfish with it. It just so happens that when we give more, it seems like we're taken care of more, not only financially but it feels like our souls are more at peace. And the funny thing is, we're still just living month to month. We're not guaranteed that it will work out. That's the fun part of faith.

I also learned that I am not the Provider. I do the work He gives me to do. I am comforted by the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:26...

"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"

Kristie and I feel a little like these birds.

As I write this I'm facing what looks to be an inability to pay the rent next month. Something happened where some money that I was relying on fell through, and now God only knows what the future holds. We're hoping that Vocal Few's new Tall Trees EP sells well, but the truth is there is no guarantee that it will pay our bills for the next few months. Somehow, we're still at peace. After these last couple years, we're starting to feel foolish when the fear and doubt creep in. We know better.

Our lifestyle has caused us to pray a lot more, be more generous and walk by faith, not by sight. For that, we are grateful. We've also been given incredible perspective for the things that matter in life. We've been investing more in our community and in our family, but don't think for a second we have it all figured out. We're still making plenty of mistakes. We're still deeply flawed people, regardless of our attempts to try to find the right way to do things. It is often that I fail to do what I should.

It's funny how when things are going good we can easily ignore the words of Jesus, and when things are going poorly we desperately seek the comfort of those same words. I hope that someday we can find comfort in those words no matter what our situation is, and that in all things we can have gratitude for what God has done and how he continues to care for us.

I read the other day that if you have $10 in your pocket and no debt, you're already wealthier than 25% of Americans. What an incredible perspective-enhancer that stat is! 

We are not desperate by any means, but we also cannot place our faith in anything other than God to help us. The projects can present themselves, or they wont, the random paychecks might show up, or they wont. We've done the work, and will continue to do it as it presents itself, but ultimately we are not in control of the money that comes in.

I shamefully admit that sometimes, when it gets scary, I ask God if I'm really supposed to do music in this capacity, but as soon as the words form on my tongue I hear the answer. I tried to do the "provider" thing. I tried to give music up, and He opened so many doors to so many opportunities that I couldn't. He buried me in more opportunities in one year than the seven years prior to it. My answer was given in the work that was placed before me. Maybe that answer will change in time, and maybe someday I'll have to do the "responsible" thing and secure a stable income. For now, I try to be as diligent as I can on this music path I've been led down, even though I have no idea where my next paycheck is coming from. The truth is, I cannot rely on myself to pay the bills.

And as scary as that may sound, it's actually quite nice.