Just As He Is (In Honor of World Down Syndrome Day)

Don’t tell the others, but maybe my favorite person at Mosaic is a young man named Matthew. He is this nineteen-year-old guy with the most beautiful spirit, deep faith and amazing sense of self-forgetfulness. Most Sunday mornings, Matthew finds me with his Bible and asks me to show him what passage we’ll be in during worship. We talk briefly about his day and he always hugs me before he goes to sit down. When worship starts, Matthew is all in. Sometimes he takes a couple of laps around the worship space, running with a huge grin on his face. During worship. While everyone is watching. He just runs. The energy that follows him is pure joy. It would be impossible to take offense; he has that way about him that disarms you. Sometimes we will pray over someone in worship — someone leaving or starting a ministry — and when I call for the congregation to join me in prayer, Matthew always comes down and lays hands on the person and prays over them. Long ago, he distinguished himself as a person of prayer. He regularly prays with folks at the end of the service. I love that guy. I love his faith. I love his passion for life. I love all the things that make him … Matthew.

And Matthew happens to have Down Syndrome. I know that makes his life a challenge, both for his parents and sometimes for him (though I’m not sure he really cares). He has physical issues connected with his condition, and he sometimes doesn’t understand why things have to be as they are. That can be frustrating. But on balance, Matthew’s life is way more positive than challenge. His parents and sister know Matthew is a blessing they’ve been given in this life, just as he is. 

Matthew’s father, Randy, shared the following testimony a couple of years ago. I’m posting it today in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, and in honor of Matthew whose faith inspires me. In the end, Mattie, I’ll be honored to be able to say I was your pastor and you were one of us. 

Randy writes:

I want to talk to you about the value of life. Our work here is not to judge another person’s life or choices. It is not to make anyone feel shame or guilt. I am too aware of my own short-comings to do anything other than share my own experience.

I do hope to affirm that there is no shame in Christ. There is only grace and love, and that holds true for all of us.

I want to talk about abortion — specifically the selective abortion of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. This is a fact: There is an epidemic among Down Syndrome children. I want to share some statistics about that but to do so, I have to begin with our family story.

We have a son with Down Syndrome. His name is Matthew and he is a gift from God. Laura and I did not know Matthew would be born with Down Syndrome before his birth. We weren’t one of those couples who wrestled with that decision of what to do with a prenatal diagnosis because Matthew wasn’t tested for Down Syndrome. That said, I am confident we would not have chosen to abort our child.

And that is what Matthew has always been for Randy3us. Our child.

Not a fetus. Not a specimen or a nondescript “unborn life.”

From the day we knew we were pregnant he has always been our child. Whatever else Matthew’s status was, he was and is first and foremost our child. Our son. Our gift from God.

Matthew has Down Syndrome. The clinical name for it is Trisomy 21. Simply put, that means that instead of having two “number twenty-one” chromosomes, Matthew has three. I think it is amazing that the thing that makes Matthew different is so small you have to use a microscope to see it. But that tiny difference is profound and for some families, it is devastating.

I understand. When we were first told Matthew’s situation, all we could see was the bad. We had the shock of the doctor telling us Matt had Down Syndrome as well as some other serious medical issues. We were also given some misinformation — for instance, that Matthew wouldn’t live past his twenties, and wouldn’t have sense enough to get out of a burning building.

Yes, a doctor actually told us that.

In fact, Matthew was nine days old before anyone even told us congratulations.

Matthew was born four weeks early with two heart defects, an enlarged spleen, and was jaundiced. When he was three days old, he went into congestive heart failure and had to be placed on a ventilator. It was touch-and-go for several days but he came through. At the time we were not active in our faith but we can look back and see God’s hand at work.

We came home on Matthew’s original due date.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking of all the normal things he wouldn’t be able to do. It felt like a black wall. What I didn’t know then was just how many normal things he would be able to do, and that the things he couldn’t do didn’t really matter.

What I can share all these years later is the story of a strong, loving family that has experienced more than its share of goodness, joy and love. We’ve had birthday parties and we celebrated the first day of school. We played at the park and went trick-or-treating. We opened presents at Christmas and hunted eggs at Easter. Matthew helped me in the yard and played sports.

In fact, Matthew has a gold medal in softball skills at the state Special Olympics, along with two golds in track and a silver in basketball. Dads, I promise you couldn’t be more proud than I am of my son’s accomplishments.

This is what the Bible teaches me about our son — and about both our children, in fact:

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
— Psalm 139:13-16

Do we believe this scripture? As Christians, we must. Without this truth, what gives value to life? Does life only have the value or lack of value we place on it? If so, then choosing abortion becomes an easier decision. If the quality of my life has more value than the life of a child, then I will make my choices based on that belief. If I make my decisions based on pure emotion — on how this life will affect me or on what loss I’ll feel when I’m told my child might have Down Syndrome or some other health issue — then a dark wall goes up and it is very hard to see through that wall.

The only thing I will see or feel is loss and hurt.Randy2

But if I believe all life has value and that value is given — thankfully! — by God and that we are all beautiful in his eyes and that every life is a precious gift from God, that changes everything.

Laura and I thank God for good medical care. We’ve all needed it over the years. But medical care can’t define for me what makes a life. And prenatal testing that is presented as medical care is creating an epidemic. The dictionary meaning of “epidemic” is “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time.”

A recent study by Gert Gegraff, Frank Bucklya nd Brian Skotco, published in the Journal of Modern Genetics, contains some startling facts from Europe. Between 2008 – 2012 (taking into account the 35% diagnosed after birth) there were 4288 live births, 231 natural fetal deaths, and 5215 terminations of children with Down Syndrome.

That means more than 65% of children with Down Syndrome in Europe were killed in a four-year stretch because of a chromosome disorder.

In the United States, abortion after prenatal testing has reduced the Down Syndrome population by 30%. That means there are at least 30% fewer children like Matthew in our country, just because they are like Matthew. And that number only reflects the population of living children. The abortion rate is likely higher than 30%. One study puts it closer to 67%.

Does this seem like an epidemic to you? If there were any other group of people who were being — quite frankly — killed off at that rate it would be called genocide. Countries have gone to war to stop genocide.

In a 2011 article by Brian Skotco, entitled, “Will America Cull People with Down Syndrome?” the author cites a study concluding that 99% of parents say they truly love their son or daughter with Down Syndrome. 88% of brothers and sisters say they are better people because of a sibling with Down Syndrome. People with Down Syndrome also spoke up, with 99% saying they are happy with their lives and 97% saying they like who they are.

How many of the rest of us can say that?

I have wanted to share our experience of raising a child with Down Syndrome, being open and honest and sharing the good along with the bad — although the good far outweighs the bad. But the most important thing to us is watching Matthew grow up in a church family. Watching his faith grow, hearing people say how much he has helped them … that has been priceless.

I do not know the extent to which Matthew understands his faith, but what I do know is that he has faith and that God uses him in ways I can not comprehend. His faith and how he uses it is obviously something pretty special between him and God.

Dr. Adrienne Asche, a disabilities rights activist who was herself blind from birth, once wrote, “The only thing prenatal diagnosis can provide is a first impression of who a child will be. Making such a radical decision as to end the life of a child based upon a first impression is a most horrible and violent form of discrimination. It has no place in an American society that is committed to ending discrimination in any form.”

When I think of MRandy1atthew’s life, the lives he has touched and how the world is a far better place with him in it, I can only imagine how much better the world would be if all the lives lost due to abortion were given the chance at life

— Randy Henning, Evans, GA.

Read More

Abortion, choice and what makes a life

(This post first ran a little more than a year ago. I am reposting these blogs in recognition of   the 100th anniversary of the founding of Planned Parenthood in October.)

“As of today, I am responsible for 18,617 abortions.”

Those were the words on a note handed me by a young woman who walked into our church desperate for counsel. For three years, she said, she’d been working in an abortion clinic, rising in the ranks to the place of managing several clinics in Georgia for an owner in Tennessee.  The day she came to see me, she’d decided she was done and wanted help getting out. What she knew put her in a dangerous place; walking out wasn’t as easy as just walking out.

I’m remembering that conversation and all we did to help (we put her in touch with folks who helped her begin a new life) as I note the 100th birthday of Planned Parenthood earlier this year.

In light of that, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs discussing what I know about abortion and believe the Bible teaches.

For those who may not have a good sense of the history of abortion in America, let’s look at the highlights:

The early church – Some of the earliest writings of the Church fathers deal with the issue of abortion. They debated the question of when life begins, but never the question of the morality of abortion. It has always been considered morally wrong by the Church.

1869 – Pope Pius IX announced that abortion at any point in pregnancy was cause for excommunication. That’s when the Church began to say with authority that life begins at conception.

Around 1900 — Laws against abortion in the United States first appeared.

1916 — Margaret Sanger and her sister opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood.

1927 — Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

1942 — Planned Parenthood Federation became an official organization.

January 22, 1973 –– the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, recognizing the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Planned Parenthood is by far the most influential voice in the pro-choice movement. While most people today associate Planned Parenthood with women’s rights, most are not aware that Margaret Sanger, the founder, was actually a student of eugenics. That was a sort of popular movement back the 1920s. Eugenics is about breeding. It is the idea of controlling population by breeding out ( I’m actually quoting from someone Sanger followed) “the physically unfit, the materially poor, the spiritually diseased, the racially inferior and the mentally incompetent.” People involved in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, when Sanger was involved, believed these groups of “inferior” people should be controlled through segregation, sterilization, birth control and abortion. And that was at least partly Sanger’s motivation for supporting contraception and eventually abortion.

Today, Planned Parenthood clinics still reflect that bias. You will almost always find them (76% of all clinics) located in economically depressed areas of a community and particularly in areas where minorities live. The second largest abortion clinic in the world (like an abortion super center) is in Houston, Texas, in a neighborhood that is 85% Hispanic and African-American.  That should be a concern, especially given the soil in which this organization is rooted.

How do we understand these things in light of the Bible?  Let me give you a few starting points:

God creates life. God has allowed the killing of animals since the fall, but we’re not animals. We have God’s spiritual DNA. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Life is sacred because we bear a spiritual likeness to our Daddy. Every human being has life because God chose to give it.  Surely that’s worth more than $335 a person, or $20 for a part.

Human life is under God’s care and control. Psalm 139:13-16 says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God is involved in our lives from the moment he calls us into being, and is making plans for us even before we’re born. We are under his care.

Jesus came to give abundant life. God is always on the side of life. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Choose life. In Moses’ final instructions words to the Israelites, he pleaded with them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Surely this word was more deeply prophetic and more deeply eternal than the man who first uttered it could have imagined.

The woman who walked into my office looking for help and a way out discovered that as she participated in sucking the life out of thousands of children, the industry in which she was taking part was sucking the life out of her. When we take life, we lose our own.

Read More

Abortion, Ethics and the Church

(This post was first published on this site a little more than a year ago. I am reposting today in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary earlier this month, and in recognition that many are weighing the ethics of abortion as they make voting choices on November 8th.)

I once listened and prayed as a woman whose father was pressuring her to have an abortion weighed her options. She was young, unmarried and dating a man of another race. I encouraged her to choose life. She went on, despite her father’s protests, to give birth to a child with severe deformities. That child died within months of birth. Was my opinion justified?

In other conversations, I have listened as women who have had abortions suffer, years later, with guilt and shame. I’ve listened as couples talk about how spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted by a past abortion affect every aspect of marriage. I’ve never been asked to counsel the women who had no post-traumatic stress from the effects of an abortion but I’ve counseled plenty who did.

Getting beyond the emotions beneath the issue of abortion is a challenge. But beyond the stories and beyond biblical arguments, what are the issues beneath the abortion debate?

Morality and the sanctity of human life: The fundamental issue has to do with the nature of life itself. Pro-life supporters believe life begins at conception, in which case abortion is murder. Pro-choice supporters see abortion as basically the same as any other form of birth control, with an emphasis on the right of women to make their own choices. While the core issue is often framed in the form of the question, “When does life begin?” those who support the right of a woman to choose don’t count that unborn life as having a vote while it is still part of a woman’s body.

Separation of Church and State:  Is abortion a religious issue or a legal issue?  The answer to this question determines whether or not the State can be involved in its legalization and funding.  The question has resurfaced in recent years as companies like Hobby Lobby and The Little Sisters of the Poor protest the federal mandate requiring that they provide birth control, abortion and sterilization services as part of their insurance packages.

Dangers of illegal abortions: Before abortion was made legal, there were countless stories of women who suffered and died from illegal abortions. That’s no longer the case, at least in the United States. Ironically, in countries like India where abortion is not only available but encouraged as a gender selection tool (this is the case in many countries that favor boys over girls), countless women are physically damaged by legal abortion procedures.

Effectiveness of restrictions: Because abortions have always happened whether they were legal or not, many acknowledge that even if it were made illegal, people will still do what people will do. That argument, however, largely rides on a culture of shame. For instance, being single and pregnant in America in 1950 is wildly different from being single and pregnant in 2016.

Tactics: This part of the debate has to do with how the two sides — especially the radical activists on each end of the spectrum — seek to make their points. When clinics are bombed and doctors are killed or when the rhetoric becomes hateful, threatening or bullying, no one is helped.

Women’s Rights: For pro-choice activists, this is about women having the right to do with their bodies as they see fit. For pro-lifers, the issue is about making the kinds of choices that are just and that help to build a stronger, more loving society.

What does the Church say about abortion?
Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists may well be the most outspoken opponents of abortion. Both groups believe and teach that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that a human being has all the rights of a person even before birth, whatever the circumstances of conception.

The United Methodist statement on abortion reads:  “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers … a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

I strongly disagree with the United Methodist statement on abortion. Abortion is not an ethical choice and I cannot conceive of a “tragic conflict of life with life” that would justify it. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose which children come into the world. That was never our charge.

The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens. It means throwing baby showers for single women far more often than I’d like, and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships.  It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams.

Moses had a habit of railing against God when he got frustrated with the children of Israel.  Once or twice, God offered to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over. Those offers always brought Moses back to hopefulness.  “Aren’t these your children?” he would plead with God. At the end of the day, no matter how much suffering was involved, Moses settled on the side of life. And maybe that’s why, in his final days, he pleaded with God’s children to weigh blessings against curses, death against life. Moses cry is surely from the heart of God: “Oh, that you would choose life!”

Oh, that those who support and even profit from the abortion industry would hear Moses’ cry to choose life and in so doing, recover their own.

Read More