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Better Stories Episode 1 :: Mike Masterman

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When You’re Just OK at Texting

I sat on a plane recently and once it landed the beeps and clicks of cell phones and seat belts began to fill the space as passengers reconnected to the busyness of their lives.  Just in front of me, I watched as a man began to frantically respond to a text message.  I could see his screen and the feverish nature of his fingers typing away.  I couldn’t read the words (and as you’re thinking, shouldn’t have creepily spied out his conversation), but I could tell he was struggling to get the message out.

He would type a few words, notice an error, delete words, and then try again.  This went on for several minutes until finally I watched him grew frustrated, erase the entire (multiple paragraphs-long) message, and simply type two letter as a response.

“Ok.”

Here’s the point.

There are times where an explanation may help, but simplicity is better.

In every organization I’ve ever been a part of I’ve found myself and others at times bringing unnecessary complexity to situations that were much more simple than we wanted to let them be.  There were debates that didn’t need to happen.  E-mails that could have been skipped.  We all felt these things were entirely necessary at the time, but the truth is simplicity would have been much better.

I’m not saying there isn’t a need for complexity at times; there is.  But what I am asking you right now is what are you doing as leaders with complexity that would be much more effective with simplicity?

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When a Nightmare Takes 7 and Turns it Into 2

I have a 7-year old daughter who is fearless.  Fearless.  She’s already asked me if she can skydive with me.  Seriously.  She kills spiders when her mommy is too afraid.

Last week, we headed to bed and just before we laid down we heard her crying.  We walked in the room and quickly found her in that half-asleep, half-awake stupor of bad dreams.  I asked what was wrong and all she could say through her tears was, “I had a bad dream…”  We stayed for a few minutes and my wife asked her if she’d like to come sleep with us for a little while.

She did.  And she calmed down.  Complete and utter peace.

Now, it’s been probably three to four years since we’ve ended up with one of our children in our bed.  Our girls all share a room, so they are rarely afraid before falling asleep because they basically talk each other to death until they fall asleep.  But on this night, my seven-year old’s nightmare turned her back into a two or three-year old.

There’s this statement the writer of Psalm 4 makes that I’ve thought about, but never really experienced until this night with our youngest daughter.  It says this:

“In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.”  (Psalm 4:8)

I think if I’m honest I know exactly what it means to have so much fear that my heart goes backward in age.  I know, and I bet you do too, how invasive and pervasive fear can be in my life.  I know the nightmares that become realities and the tendency my body and mind have to shut down and leave me living life half awake.

And that’s where I think this Psalm starts to make sense.

For my seven-year old, the fear in her nightmare was only consolable by the presence of her parents.  And for us, in our fear, at times the only answer for our fear is the presence of our Heavenly Father.

That night, I held my daughter and whispered that she was okay until her heart grew quiet and she was able to rest.  And perhaps, in our fear at this very moment, our perfect Father is whispering the same thing to us.

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My Day was Better Because of Boba Tea

 

Before last Friday I had no idea what boba tea was.  Turns out, it’s a thing.  Like, a big thing.

Last week my wife and I celebrated our 15-year anniversary (a couple months late) by taking a cruise out of California and then spending an extra two days in Los Angeles.  On Friday we found one of the coolest little farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen.

This market was an experience in sensory overload.  The smells, the colors, and the diversity of languages and cultures happening all around us were an overwhelmingly rich way to spend an hour.  From crepes made by a French family to authentic Italian pizza to fresh seafood hauled out of the Pacific that day, I was mesmerized by this place.

Then there was the tea shop.

It was a chilly morning, so I went looking for hot tea and found a sweet little Asian woman with over a hundred different types of tea.  I did the best I could to order two cups of what sounded good and this lady simply asked me the following question…

“Do you want boba?”

As with any legitimate Star Wars fan my mind immediately conjured images of a bounty hunter with a sweet mask and awesome gun, but that wasn’t who she meant.

Turns out, boba tea (or bubble tea) is a concoction of tea with “chewy tapioca balls and fruit jelly”.  At the point she asked if I preferred the boba(s)(?) in my tea, I didn’t know this.  All I knew was I was in the middle of one of the most diverse and eclectic places I’d ever seen and I wanted to show just how cultured I really was.

“Absolutely,” I said.

Boba tastes like I imagine fish eyeballs to taste.

I spent the remainder of my drink doing my best to siphon the liquid off the gelled tapioca and not let any of it touch my mouth.  The tea was good.  The other stuff, not so much.

About the time I finished my tea, I felt a tiny hand tap my shoulder.  I turned to see a boy of no more than 9 or 10 years old with skin a bit darker than my own looking in my eyes.  He asked simply…

“Excuse me sir, where did you find your boba tea?”

I pointed him in the right direction and watched as he was so excited to find the treat that I had been repulsed by.

This was just a moment.  A simple, nondescript instant in my day that really shouldn’t have stood out.  But for whatever reason, it did.  In fact, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  That brief minute where I drank a tea I didn’t like and a little boy from a different culture than my own searched for a tea he loved keeps coming back.

It is next to impossible in recent days to access news of any sort without someone trying to convince us of which “side” is right, or more loving, or more just.  But, this constant cycle of shouting and persuasion is doing little except dividing and frustrating us as a humanity.

All that to say, this post has nothing to do with politics.  But it does have something to do with an understanding of God’s kingdom that, in the end part of Scriptures paints a picture of a land with open borders where the people of that land offer praise to Jesus the Lamb:

And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll

    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

    and they will reign on the earth.”  (Revelation 5:9-10)

So here’s the simple conclusions this moment in a farmer’s market in California revealed to me:

My day was better because that little boy tugged on my arm.  And I didn’t agree with his opinion.
My day was better because of listening to the diversity of languages swirling in that place.
My week was better better because of the several staff I met on our cruise ship who had come from the Philippines, parts of Africa, Mexico, and Europe.
My week was better because I walked a street in Ensenada, Mexico and felt completely out of place.

And yes, my week was better because I even tried boba tea.

I guess I wonder what “better’s” we miss because we don’t feel comfortable with what’s around us.

 

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The Tension of these Times

I will never forget a flight back to the DC from Nairobi, Kenya. As we boarded the plane one of the flight attendants told me and the two pastors I was traveling with that there were a group of Somalian refugees on this plane. She was preparing us, because these refugees had never flown and did not understand the etiquette of planes, etc. She wanted us to be aware.
 
We boarded the plane and my heart broke as I walked down the aisle and saw about 10-15 Somalian CHILDREN. None of them were more than 12 years old. They looked frightened, unsure, and yet also perhaps a little hopeful.
 
I don’t know what their stories were. I don’t know what their religious beliefs were. I don’t know where they are now. I don’t know if any of those children pose a threat to my safety or the safety of this country.
 
But I know I was proud to be on that plane with those children. And on that day, I was really proud to be an American.
 
I read this article this morning about Evangelical responses to the issues of refugees being discussed by the Trump administration in the past few days.  I’d encourage you to take some time to read it.
 
Christians… the climate of our country today–at least the climate we see on the surface of social and news media–is fragile. We stand as followers of Christ, with an opportunity to perhaps demonstrate our love and presence of the Spirit in more tangible ways than ever before.
 
The old quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” is perhaps more relevant than ever before. Maybe we should be a little quieter in these months and these moments. Perhaps we should spend less time skimming the media streams and more time doing what my good friends are doing this weekend, simply hosting a dinner with friends and strangers to have conversations in love. Perhaps now, more than ever, we could become people who throw really good parties and bring joy to a stressed-out world.
 
And as we do that, we can never lose sight of the biblical commands to care for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner.
 
Scott Arbeiter, President of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelical’s compassionate arm ministering to refugees says this in the article above:
 
“The question for the American Christian is: Will we speak out on behalf of those who are running from the very terror that we are rightly trying to put an end to?” he asked. “People who are running from Mosul and Aleppo and a thousand other places on fire?
 
“Would we be willing to accept giving up a 1 in 3 billion chance of our safety in order to make room for them?” he continued. “Or would we say, ‘I am not willing to give up even the smallest fraction of my safety to welcome people who have been vetted very carefully, who have been proven as a remarkable population of people. Will I not make room for them?’”
 
“We have never had an opportunity like we have right now to reach people who are coming to our shores, in many cases from places we have no access to,” said Arbeiter. “The risk that we have right now is that we are closing the doors to the very people that we say we want to share the gospel with.”
 
The church needs voices more than ever. Prophetic voices. Shepherding voices. Truth and love voices. But perhaps the greatest voice we can offer is one that has been coated in the presence and tangible demonstration of God’s love.
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WE the People

“’The other’ need not be negatively different from us but could be a friend, one who shares our views, our life, but who is an “other” nonetheless. The other does not exist only in the opposite camp but is found within any given group be it religious (Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist) or political (conservatives, liberals, independent). THE OTHER IS AN INESCAPABLE REALITY OF LIFE.” –Theresa Okure

 
I’ve been thinking… listening this week. Clearly many are hurt, angry, fearful. Others are joyful and celebratory. Some are lashing out. Others are arrogantly reacting. It has reminded me in many ways of what I see on my children’s playground at recess. Emotions and energy run high because it is a time of day when freedom is exercised.
 
And yet these words… “We the people…”
“WE the people…”
“WE…”
 
WE are this country.
 
Some don’t feel as though they are right now. And to my friends experiencing that deep sorrow and fear right now… to the Muslim, the immigrant, the transgender, the African-American… please know that you are still WE.
 
And WE need you.
 
WE need YOU to be America.
 
To those who feel safer because Trump was elected… who feel like we will regain the glory that once was our country… who feel like things will finally be okay…
 
Please be cautious, because no man is a Savior save the One Man who defeated more than a political opponent but rather the hands of hell and death itself. Please be cautious because hope deserves to be pointed to the right things.
 
But WE need YOU too.
 
All of us experiences “the Other” every single day. We drive on our roads with people who are different than us. People who think differently, vote differently, pray differently, and even love differently. We all have “the Other”. And to others, we are “the Other.”
 
Some need to become a voice of humility in these next four years, quietly listening and learning.
 
Some need to become a voice of prophecy in these next four years, speaking out against injustice and calling the body of Christ to be hope rather than false governments.
 
But WE have to continue to be a WE.
 
Please rest.
 
To someone who is fearful, angry, or hurting… don’t explain why you’re right. Explain why you will continue to love them and why they are still part of WE.
 
To someone who is celebrating and feeling better about the direction of this country, please don’t label them as ignorant or filled with the -ism’s that divide. Instead, love them. Love them deeply and unhinge what feels like “the Other” to them.
 
Grow quiet, grow still. Give your power away. Become a hand and voice of healing.
 
And may WE become a better, more beautiful WE together.
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I Assume You’re Brilliant

You don’t know me.  So why should you trust me?  Some church planter guy in West Virginia talking about leadership.  What do I know about you and your situation?

Of course, on the other hand, your cynicism might keep you from something that could create a breakthrough in your situation.  And what if you miss out on that?

This is the tension of insight.

And it has nothing to do with me.
(And everything to do with you.)

There’s this approach we often have to the world around us.  It’s the approach of cynical skeptics who for better or worse seem to believe that their own, localized situation buried in their context and assumptions and problems and opportunities has nothing to do with anyone or anything from the broader world outside their context.

And you know what?  They might very well be right.

But sometimes they’re not.

Sometimes a voice, a story, a spark of insight… Sometimes someone far removed from our life–a business owner in Germany or a Kindergartener in Iowa–sometimes these people learn something or see something or say something that sends lightning down our spine and speaks directly to our hearts as the Truth we needed to hear.

I know this because I’ve had it happen to me.  I’ve written people, things, and places off in a flash.  I’ve assumed they have nothing to do with me or my life.  I’ve brushed them away like the dust on an old book.

And I’ve missed out because of my approach.

The tension here is that maybe, just maybe, we should always be awake.  Maybe we should always have our radars turned on and our ears tuned in.  Maybe it’s better to assume greatness and wisdom in everyone and everything around us rather than idiocy.  Maybe the arrogant boss still has something to offer.  Maybe the annoying student has brilliance inside.  Maybe the broken single mother will paint beauty all over this world.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ve got something amazing too.

 

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Parenting Your Kids Through the 2016 Election

So there was this day, back in August, when I dropped my 11-year old daughter off at the local Middle School for the first day of 6th grade.  It was like that first day of kindergarten, but with a whole new set of emotions.  On Kindergarten day, I found myself sad because of her rapid growth and how quickly time was going and what it meant that she wasn’t at home all day everyday anymore.  But on Middle School day, sadness was replaced by nerves and fear.  I was watching her grow up too quickly again, but this time I knew she was entering a world of peer pressure and boys and mean girls and boys.  It was a hard day.

Until she came home.

She was so excited she couldn’t contain it.  She’s always been a lover of school, but on this her first afternoon in Junior High she came home talking all about every class, and especially Social Studies.

Now, as an aside you need to know that this summer my family grew (a bit too) obsessed with the soundtrack from Hamilton, the Broadway show that seems to be taking over a large portion of our musical preferences in America.

When I say obsessed, I’m talking about three little rural West Virginia white girls and their gorgeous mama rapping like MC Hammer circa 1992 to the lyrics of this show.  Not to mention, in this process, we learned a great deal about American history and this ten-dollar founding father.

Back to Middle School day one.

My girl came home pumped about the fact that her class was talking all about this portion of American history and she was sure that meant Alexander Hamilton and she couldn’t wait and by the way daddy, did you know there’s a presidential election this year???

Yes, honey, I had heard that.

Since that time, we as a country have observed three national debates, countless controversial conspiracies or conspiratorial controversies, the trashing and defending of the would-be contenders, and a news cycle that drips like Starbuck’s Americano.

And like most of you, I am incredibly tired of it all.

This is my fifth presidential election.  I’ve seen Bush part 2 for two terms, and Barack Obama for two terms.  I’ve also watched three complete rounds of The West Wing in the process.

So I consider myself fairly educated when it comes to presidential moments (read more sarcasm than arrogance in that statement).  But, this year, something’s different.  As I’ve watched the debates (or what I could stand of them) and read the news, my thoughts are a bit transformed.  You see, it’s no longer about my opinion alone because after every debate, my daughter has woken up and gone to school the next day only to come home and say daddy, did you know there was a debate last night?

And then we spend a few minutes talking about the debate and what the candidates did or said, because that’s what she’s been talking about in her current events time in Social Studies.

The earliest presidential election I remember was 1988.  I don’t remember much about it other than Michael Dukakis riding in a tank.

But I do know there were conversations being had around me.  I remember asking a few questions and hearing the familiar statements of parents and grandparents, neighbors and friends speaking into the heart and mind of a young boy curious about these two men so boring and yet so prevalent on television.  Statements like this:

“It’s our privilege to vote.”
“When it comes time to vote, it’s what you do as a duty of an American.”
“People fought so we have the right to vote.”
“It’s what makes our nation great–our freedom to vote.”

I don’t remember those statements meaning much to me until about six years later.  I remember seeing clips of this place they called South Africa–I truly believed it was the southern half of the continent; I didn’t know it was its own country.  I remember hearing this word Apartheid and seeing African men and women rejoicing as they stood in line to vote for the first time in the rural parts of this country.

As I started, in my adolescent mind, to understand the great racial brokenness in this country and what it meant to truly have a free election, I started to believe those statements I’d been raised under and the true greatness of freedom in my own country.

I have always looked forward to voting.  I love the presidential run-up.  I enjoy the debates and the strategy and the ongoing conversation with friends and family about who I should vote for and why they’re the best option.

But then this campaign happened.
And my daughter going to Middle School happened. 

Suddenly, I found myself entirely confused about this political season and specifically, how to raise my daughter in this conversation.  Now, as much as I love her passion for learning and her engagement of this Social Studies class and desire to learn about the election, I’m also wrestling against what to teach her.  In my mind, I should be saying the things I grew up hearing about the duty to vote and the obligation to honor the past  and the fight for freedom.  Honestly, I believe those things.  I do.  I love this country in so many ways.  But I also have this great struggle right now as I look at these candidates and this campaign…

This campaign and these candidates do not represent the America I believe in.

Again, I don’t want to incite a political commentary firestorm here.  I have many great friends who are soldiers and I know their sense of duty and passion for freedom and I am not dishonoring them. I have shared this conversation with them and they get it.  They are frustrated as well.

This pride and arrogance, and the driving attempts to destroy not only someone’s political aspirations but also their personal reputation and character fueled by the reality that these candidates have little to no personal character offers a portrait of a country that is not the ideal that we have for so long stood upon.

So, after this very, very long preface, how do we parent our children as they grow through these difficult conversations?  I’d like to make 5 suggestions.

1 – Teach them about integrity, honestly.

I think the very best thing we can do in helping our children and teens understand the political climate right now is to first teach them honestly about integrity.  I’m not talking about the stories of Honest Abe or the original George W.’s cherry tree.  I’m talking about the great difficulty that lies in attempting grow our daughters and sons as future men and women who live lives of character and truth.  Our kiddos need to know that integrity is a battle, and the political realm is a perfect example of what the Scriptures teach about fighting for the approval of humanity or the approval of God:

“Fear of man will prove to be a snare,
    but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  (Proverbs 29:25)

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ…” (Galatians 1:10) 

What this means is that we ask them what they think of these political candidates along the way.  Let them think for themselves and engage in these conversations with you.  Ask them what questions they have and then allow your conversation to move primarily to the issues of integrity and character, not who you’re voting for or why.

2 – Teach them about dignity and worth.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of this entire campaign has been the disregard for the value and worth of common people given by both sides.  From Trump’s unacceptable defamation of women, immigrants, and anyone else he considers “the Other,” to Clinton’s uber-wealthy disconnect from real America, it is painful to know that one of these two future leaders will soon sit in an office at least philosophically built to guard and protect the people of this country.

The tension of this election with my oldest daughter has been the gift of opportunities to talk with her about her own dignity and value as a young woman and the importance of considering every other person around her with the same dignity and value.  No fear grips me more than the fear that my daughters will grow with a pervasive preconceived idea of what it means to look like the “perfect” woman.  So, I will fight tooth and nail with every conversation I’m given to allow them to hear of what true beauty and worth mean in the eyes of God.

3 – Teach them about the sovereignty of God and not a false hope in man.

Okay, so this isn’t a lesson simply for our children.  Maybe we all need this lesson.  A recent video of Andy Stanley shows him speaking to those over the age of 45 about the political climate and simply saying, “Calm down, you’re scaring the kids.”  How true is that?  If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the endless news cycle and rhetoric so permeated with fear we will do nothing but pass our fear to our children.

What this season offers to us as parents is the chance to demonstrate tangibly what faith in a God who sits over this creation, not in fear of it:

“That power [that raised Christ from the dead] is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Ephesians 1:19-21)

So, we have the chance to live at peace in the coming days because we serve a God who is good and a God who is sovereign, and when you as parents demonstrate that peace and faith in the midst of your own fear and discontent, your children will see what trust in God truly looks like.

4 – Teach them history–good, bad, and ugly.

It never ceases to amaze me that as I travel and engage more friends in more places, I recognize the great diversity in worldviews in our country.  What I realize is that all of this ties directly to individual histories and the history of our country as a whole.  My friend whose grandfather died serving in World War 2 so that his family in rural West Virginia could remain safe has a very different understanding of America than my African-American brother who grew up a victim of systemic poverty in an urban ghetto.  The thing is, both of these experiences are American and both of these experiences are deeply rooted in the history of this country.

We are all products of the past, but we are not destined by the past.

It is essential that as parents we become (hi)story tellers.  We often do this in our own families, telling the favorite stories of the past around our holiday tables.  But the problem is, these stories are told through rose-colored lenses when we’re little and all we ever get is the shiniest version of our past.  As our children grow, as parents we must unveil not only the good but also the evil and disfigured parts of our stories.  We are shaped not only by the good, but by the evil as well.

The story of our country is much the same.  It is a land born through bloodshed and sacrifice but also tainted with a disregard for Native Americans and the enslavement of African-Americans.  The great men and women who built this country also had great blindspots.  America is not Fox News.  It is not CNN.  It is individuals like you and me, broken and messy and yet full of potential.

5 – Teach them civility and citizenship.

Finally, I’ve settled on a great passion to teach my kids about civility and citizenship.  It is more important in our family that we listen and listen well, that we seek to understand before being understood, and that we care deeply about the value of a person even with whom we disagree.  The great gift we have in relationships is that we can dialogue over the power of words, that we can see the world differently, and that we can still love the Other well.

In this campaign, civility seems to be the Great White Unicorn that all have forgotten.  Even children recognize that at the base level, these candidates are mean.  Civility recognizes that even in the midst of passion and purpose and defensive stances, we can be kind.

But not only civility.  Citizenship matters as well.  And citizenship is more than a patriotic duty to vote.  It is more than five minutes in a booth on one day every four years.  Citizenship is an ongoing care and love for place–our place–that says courageously, “This is not the America that I love, not the way these candidates are presenting it.  But I will work everyday to make it more that way.”  And then and only then, citizenship is waking up and loving our place by loving the people around us, caring for the communities where we reside and those who suffer because of broken systems and failing leadership.  Citizenship is recognizing that America is our responsibility; beyond the act of voting and flooding out in our everyday lives.

And by the way, citizenship, at least for those who call themselves Christ-followers, must always come down to something higher than America, or West Virginia, or Detroit.  Citizenship, for us, lies in what Paul says:

“But our citizenship is in heaven.And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 3:20)

I love this country; but I love the Kingdom of God more.  I am a citizen of the U.S.  I am a West Virginian.  But I am a citizen of the Kingdom that Jesus told us was near first.  And, on November 9th I will speak to my children of the great purpose of God’s mission that hasn’t changed no matter who takes office.

How are you using this mess to teach your kids?