The Savannah House- A Missional Experiment in Plano, TX

Today marks the beginning of a grand experiment–an experiment for the Kingdom of God, an experiment in doing ministry in the 21stcentury.
Far too many churches suffer from an addiction to outside-in thinking.  They look at what other churches have found successful and they try to mirror those same practices in their own context.  Often, when the practices fail, they are left scratching their heads, asking, “Why did it work for them, but not for us?”

Outside-in thinking leads to burnout.  Rarely will your church live up to the success that another church had with its own program.

Inside-out thinking, however, asks, “How is God calling us to uniquely live out the gospel in our particular context?”  Like missionaries in foreign cultures, each ministry approach is most effective when it is organically shaped by the context in which it exists.

Our grand experiment at Christ United Methodist Church here in Plano, TX is asking the question, “What does it mean to live missionally in our backyard?”  How might we take our particular context seriously?  In a day when fewer and fewer people are choosing to make church attendance a regular part of their lives, how might we reach our neighbors on their turf (instead of waiting for them to come onto ours)?

The Savannah House has emerged as a result of these questions. 
With a grant from the Young Clergy Initiative of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, we are moving three residents into an upscale, 3-bedroom apartment here in Plano.  We recognize that, as Christians, we are called to address issues of brokenness and injustice in the world.  Sometimes that brokenness and injustice gets overlooked in upscale settings because we are quick to assume that “they’ve got it all together.”

The Savannah House residents have three goals:

1) To live in covenant community with one another, following a Rule of Life together, as they encourage each other in their ministry discernment processes. 
2) To seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they engage in creative opportunities to live hospitably as “urban missionaries” in the context of their apartment community. 
3) To gain local church experience by interning in a variety of capacities at Christ United Methodist Church (determined by their passions and interests).

The Savannah House gains its name from the “failed” missionary exploits of John Wesley to Savannah, Georgia.  Two observations that Wesley noted in his journal as he left Savannah helped shape the vision of the Savannah House: 1) He admitted that his preconceived evangelistic strategies were deemed ineffective by such a radical change in context (outside-in versus inside-out thinking) and 2) As Wesley reflected on his time in Georgia he wrote: “I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted.” As a part of the Young Clergy Initiative, one of the goals for the residents is to experience the life-transforming power of God as they discern where God is leading them.

Christ UMC has partnered with the Epworth Project of the Missional Wisdom Foundation in an effort to glean as much wisdom as possible from their vast experience of intentional living communities.  The Missional Wisdom Foundation also has an excellent, established system of spiritual guidance that includes a community Abbott, Prior, Spiritual Directors and Coaches, and a host of team members to assist the residents of the Savannah House as they grow deeper in their faith.

Do we know exactly what this will look like one-year from now?  No.

Do we have specific ministry strategies in place?  No.

Do we know that this will even work?  No.

But today, as we move our residents into the Savannah House, we’re choosing to trust that it is God who has stirred this vision within us.

And God usually has pretty good ideas. 
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Dresses and Air-Balls: Logical Humility in a Black-and-White World


Two weeks ago it was a dress.  Some people claimed it was blue and black; others claimed it was white and gold.  So, who was right?

This afternoon it was a basketball shot.  Some people claimed it was goal-tending and celebrated the victory; others claimed it was an air-ball and mourned the loss.  So, who was right?
In both cases, the arguments played out all over the internet, on television, around water coolers and in living rooms.  Like most debates in contemporary society, everyone becomes an instant expert, offering their opinions verbally and digitally through such logically-persuasive means as the ever-conclusive “meme.” 
 
So, was the dress blue and black or was it white and gold?  And what about that shot?  Did the referee make the correct call by calling it goal-tending or was it clearly going to be an air-ball had it not been touched?
Yes.
Yes?
Yes.
But what do we do with “yes?”  We don’t like “yes.”  We want an answer.  Either it’s true or it’s false, right?  Not always.
Without going too deep into a conversation about Aristotelian logic, the fallacy of the excluded middle, or what “fuzzy logic” is, I simply want to point out that there are times in life when “truth” is not as black and white as we would like it be (or as black and white as those guys who wear the black and white stripes would like it to be!).  Often, we find ourselves in situations that are messier than the categories that we’ve set up to understand our experience.  When we can’t fit the grey experiences of life into our black and white boxes, it leads to frustration and anxiety.
What if we learned to become comfortable with the fact that sometimes life offers two (or more) equally valid experiences or options?  Imagine the potential for political progress if politicians would legitimately acknowledge the valid aspects of opposing perspectives!  Unfortunately, the alternative with which we currently live is a system of black-and-white in which a politician is either completely in favor or vehemently opposed, forced by the dominance of the two-party system that predetermines an individual’s platform as soon as they declare themselves a member of this party or that.
Is it easy to consider a reality in which multiple truths may be simultaneously offered? No, because it requires humility.  How can I admit that someone else is right when I know that I am right?
Does this mean that there are not times in life when things are black and white?  Of course not.  In fact, the “greyness” of life may even constitute a minority of our experiences.  The danger of viewing the majority of life through a filter of grey is that it leads to a path of relativism, losing any notion of right and wrong all together.  
In most cases, people can generally agree on the colors of dresses.  In most cases, it’s generally clear whether a basketball goes through a hoop or not.  But we do damage to ourselves and to each other when we view all cases like “most cases” rather than viewing all cases as unique.  
Opening myself to the possibility that the person with whom I disagree may be equally right in their opinion fosters a healthy relationship of respect and vulnerability.  Imagine the impact that this type of logical humility could have in a family, in a workplace, in a neighborhood, in a church, or in a society.
Now, if only I could convince the NCAA to recognize the validity of my opinion that the UCLA shot was clearly an air-ball, maybe they could at least create a rematch…  #PonyUp

Lessons From a Warthog: What a Zoo Taught Me About Judgment


This past week we celebrated Emily’s 2ndbirthday.  It’s been a great week with family in town, and cake and ice cream and presents.  Emily has been beside herself with excitement all week—it really has been the cutest thing.

She was particularly cute on Thursday when we visited the Dallas Zoo.  She had been to the zoo once before, but it was when her older cousin was visiting, when she was only a few months old.  So this was the first time that she had been to the zoo while she was really old enough to name all the animals and make their sounds and really know what was going on.

And she absolutely loved it.  
Each animal we saw brought a big smile to her face.  That sense of fascination and child-like wonder was in full display, and it was quite incredible.  
The cool part was, it really didn’t matter what the animal was; she loved it.  Granted, she had her favorites, but mainly because those were the ones that she was most familiar with from books and stuff.
For the most part, though, every animal she saw was as fascinating as the last.
She even liked the animals that weren’t officially part of the zoo!  Like when we were all standing at the flamingo display, trying to get her to look at the bright pink flamingos that were standing 30 feet away from us, she was fascinated by the little ordinary, brown duck that just happened to be sitting five feet in front of us.
Or when we were watching the gorillas in their habitat—which is one of my favorites—she saw a squirrel running around and was immediately glued to every move that the squirrel made.
In my experience as an adult at the zoo, I’ve already set up categories in my mind: which animals I want to see, which animals I don’t care about, which animals are beautiful and fascinating, and which animals are not.
For example, have you seen the Red River Warthog at the Dallas Zoo?  This thing was crazy looking.  I looked at the thing and and found myself thinking, “Wow, what was God thinking when he designed that guy??”
And just when I thought it couldn’t get worse than the warthog we came across the giant anteater.  I mean, really.  Look at it.
But did Emily care?  Of course not.  The only thing she would have cared about was whether it was awake or asleep, whether it was putting on a show by simply moving, or it was sitting still.
Did she know these animals were ugly?  Not unless I told her they were.  To a child, they we were just as fascinating as the last.  But to me, they were definitely placed in the category of ugly and crazy.
Unfortunately, it’s not much different than what we do with each other, is it?  We have this natural tendency to create categories.  We place each other in boxes of predetermined categories that limit the opportunities we give to one another based on preconceived judgments.  Even before meeting a someone and learning their story, we’ve judged them into a box.  
The real danger emerges when we pass on those prejudices to our children.  Emily doesn’t know that the Red River Warthog is “ugly” because I never told her it was.  To her, it’s a fascinating animal.  In the same way, the categories our children begin to form for other human beings are shaped the influence of the adults in their lives.  
Who are the people we deem “ugly” or “less-than” or “unlovable” or “crazy?”  And how are we passing on our own prejudices to the next generation?  
Instead, what would it look like if we learned from our children–if we looked at all of God’s creatures with the same benefit of a doubt with which Emily looked at all of the animals at the zoo?

Unboxing Worship


At Table of Grace we are currently in a sermon series called “Unboxed” where we are identifying the various ways we place limits on God.  This past Sunday we discussed some of the boxes of worship that have the tendency to form.

The Box of Style:Some of us grew up in traditional worship services, some of grew up in charismatic worship services, some of us grew up in contemporary worship services, and some of us didn’t grow up in church at all.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that we all have different perspectives and preferences based on our own traditions and backgrounds.
Sometimes we get in “worship wars” because we think that one style of worship must be superior or more effective than another.  But really all we’ve done is formed a box.
The Box of Time: Some of us have preferences about when worship should occur.  Should it happen on Saturdays?  Should it happen on Sundays? Should it happen at 11:00 AM or maybe at 6:00 PM?
And we begin to form another box.
The Box of Quality:Sometimes the box we form has to do with the quality of worship.  We set benchmarks and expectations, and if a certain worship experience doesn’t meet that bar, then it’s worthless because we check out.  We’ve formed another box.
Style. Time. Quality.
Do you see what each of these boxes has in common? Each of these boxes is formed when we become the center of worship, and not God.
When we’re the center of worship, the style of worship has to meet my needs.
When we’re the center of worship, the time of worship has to meet my needs.
When we’re the center of worship, the quality of worship has to meet my needs.
But what about God?  Where is God in all of this?
When God is the center of the worship, the style doesn’t matter.  If it’s honoring God, and engaging God’s people in community, then it’s working.
When God is the center of worship, the time doesn’t matter.  In fact, when worship is honoring God, then it’s not confined to just one hour every Sunday.  Worship becomes a lifestyle in which we offer our bodies as living sacrifices that are pleasing to our Creator, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
When God is the center of worship, the quality doesn’t matter.  Hear me out on this.  There’s a fine line between the pursuit of excellence—giving God the best we have to offer with the gifts that God has given to us—and the vain judgment that occurs when we say, “This isn’t good enough for me to truly worship.”  
We get so into habit of comparison that we’ve lost sight of a theology of enough.  When we compare ourselves to what other churches are doing, or we compare ourselves to what has happened in our churches in the past, we blind ourselves to the new things that God is doing right here, right now.
Am I saying we should stop striving to improve and become more and more excellent in our worship?  No, not at all.  Think of it like a human being who is trying to become more and more mature, and is trying to become the best person he/she can be.  Just because you are trying to become better doesn’t mean that you aren’t currently   We can always get better.  But we’re also always good enough today.

perfect, just the way you are.

What would happen if we truly made God the center of our worship?  It might not always be comfortable and familiar, because it might mean having to experience a new kind of worship that is outside our preferred box.  

But it’s often in the moments when we aren’t as comfortable as we’d like to be that God surprises us and moves us in new ways.

 

What Your Eating Style May Reveal about Your Faith

I’ve found that most people I know fall into one of three categories when it comes to their style of eating.

  1. The Smorgasborder: This person has and will eat anything.  And anything they’ve ever tried is immediately declared as “the BEST thing I have EVER tasted!”
  2. The Sensible One: This person will try almost anything once, but they have the sense to admit when they don’t enjoy a particular taste. 
  3. The Predetermined Palate: This person knows exactly what they like to eat.  They will never try anything new because they’ve already decided that they won’t like it.

I’m sure there are sub-categories between these, but you get the idea.  And I bet you can probably identify your own eating style quite easily (as well as the eating style of your friends and family).
Interestingly, these same categories are quite effective in describing different styles of faith.  Think about it:

  1. The Smorgasborder: This person has and will try any belief.  And anything they’ve ever heard or experienced is immediately declared as “the BEST thing I have EVER heard/experienced!”
  2. The Sensible One: This person will expose themselves to many different beliefs, but they have the sense to admit when they don’t agree with a particular idea.
  3. The Predetermined Palate: This person knows exactly what they believe.  They will never entertain any new idea because they’ve already decided that they won’t agree with it.

Now, I can’t really claim that there is any direct correlation between a person’s eating style and a person’s style of faith, but I sure wouldn’t be surprised if there were.
As easy as it is to identify ourselves on the scale of eating styles, it might be more difficult to admit where we fall in the categories of faith.
Throughout Scripture we see God acting in ways that constantly surprise people and open people’s eyes to new ways of life.  More often than not, those who felt they had God figured out were the ones who were humbled by God.
While smorgasbording and having a predetermined palate might be okay when it comes to eating, both extremes become dangerous when it comes to faith.  My prayer is that God would continually convict me toward the middle, toward that place of tension that exists between blindly accepting every idea I ever encounter and stubbornly holding on to those in which I find familiarity and comfort.
This is what it means to live intensionally.

The Two Most Powerful Words in the World

In seminary I took a class on theology and film.  It was one my favorite classes because it brought the academic rigor of theology down to the real life issues portrayed in films.  Films today have the power to communicate like nothing else we have.  They are arguably our most prominent form of storytelling.

Some of us like movies that remove us from our own experience—movies where we can pretend to be the main character, even though the storyline is so far from real life.  Those movies usually end up leaving us with a feeling of happiness, or heroism, or with the idea that all of sudden we now have the ability to jump our cars over drawbridges or something else crazy like that!
Those movies suspend reality—they draw us out of our own experiences.
But then there are the films that drive us straight into the experiences of our life. These films are usually a bit more artistically directed, and don’t necessarily require a huge budget for special effects or high paid actors and actresses.  But we love them because we connect to them.  They don’t necessarily make us feel happy, or heroic, but by portraying part of our story, they have this way of letting us know that we’re not alone in our pain.
Oftentimes, movies like this don’t even try to answer the “why” question.  In fact, if there were a nice, neat reason for whatever tragedy occurred in the movie, it would make the entire film seem that much less believable.  But becauseof the tragedy, and because of the raw emotion, and because of the messiness, we are drawn into this type of movie because it connects with our own experience.  
It doesn’t have to answer the question, “Why?” and yet it still make us feel better because we know what we aren’t alone.
In one of the most viewed TED talks online, researcher Brene Brown says that the two most powerful words in the world are, “Me too.”  
Me too.  When someone tells us the words, “Me too,” we are immediately drawn out of our loneliness and connected to someone by a mutual experience.  
And I think, in a way, we connect to these tragic films because they artistically portray those two words: “Me too.”
Sometimes, the most powerful words you can say to a friend in the midst of a tragic experience are not those that try to answer the question, “Why?” but are simply those two words that provide the profound gift of empathy: “Me too.”

My Storyless Story

I was almost literally born and raised in the church.  I was born around 9:00 am on a Sunday morning and my mother brought me to the 6:00 pm service that same day because my sister was receiving an award at church.  The same day!  
As I grew up in that church for the next 18 years of my life, I was surrounded by a community of believers, who raised me in the faith.
But one of the things that always bugged me as I got into high school and college was that I could never point to the moment that I became a Christian.  I was actually kind of secretly ashamed that I didn’t have a really cool story.  I had some friends who knew the exact day and time that they had decided to follow Jesus, and some even had a plaque on their wall commemorating what they called their second birthday.  
I would get really nervous that one day someone was going to ask me point blank when I had been saved and I wouldn’t be able to answer!
This really bothered me.  
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was a huge proponent of the idea called assurance of faith.  This is simply the feeling that the Holy Spirit gives you to assure you of your salvation.  Wesley talked about his heart feeling “strangely warmed” the day he knew he would spend eternity in heaven.  
I had that.  In my heart of hearts, I knew that I knew Jesus.  I knew that I had a relationship with my Creator, but I could not tell you when I had crossed that line between not being a Christian and being a Christian.  
I heard stories like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, of lives being instantaneously transformed, and I felt my like my storyless story just didn’t measure up.
Until… I got to seminary, and I took a class on evangelism.  The professor talked about the difference between the conversion experience of Paul and the experience of Jesus’ own disciples.
Whereas Paul’s experience was sudden and drastic, the disciples’ experience was gradual and messy.  This professor used the Gospel of Mark to show how Jesus’ disciples slowly came to the realization that he was the Messiah.  They didn’t start off knowing that.  They simply recognized him as a Rabbi and decided to follow him.  But the longer they followed him, the closer they grew to him, and the more they realized that this Jesus guy was waymore than they had initially thought.
And I bet, that if you were to interview the disciples at the moment that Jesus spoke his last words to them on earth and ask them, “So, when did you officiallybecome a follower of Christ?  When did you make that transition between your former life and your new life in Christ?” they probably would have looked at you and said, “I don’t know… I knew he was important when I started following him, but I didn’t know howimportant he was.  I can’t point to a specific day and time—I’ve just been following him and slowly realizing more and more that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world!”  
And at that moment in that class in seminary, I finally had language to describe my experience.  I didn’t have a story like Paul’s.  I had a story like Jesus’ disciples! I had been following Jesus my whole life.  And sure, there were times when I was following more closely than other times, but I couldn’t tell you the specific day and time that I made that transition from my former life to my new life in Christ because it had been slow and gradual.
Some of us have stories like Paul.  And that’s awesome!  

But some of us have stories like the disciples, and that’s okay too.