Chosen: Matthew’s Story

This is the fifth in a series of posts about people in our community who have experienced the gift of chosenness. This one is offered by Randy Henning, father of Matthew, who I consider to be a spiritual leader among us. Read on:

My wife Laura and I have two children, Ashlyn and Matthew. Our oldest, Ashlyn, lives in Waco, Texas. Matthew lives with us. Both our children are gifts from God. This story is about Matthew’s life and our church.

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. Raising a child with Down Syndrome has its challenges, but I can tell you without question that the good far outweighs the bad.

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 cannot comprehend. His faith and how he uses it is obviously something pretty special between him and God. Matthew knows himself to be chosen, and it shows.

Before we started attending Mosaic, we didn’t attend church. What led us to start looking? I remember it like it was yesterday. One Sunday morning, my daughter Ashlyn (ten years old at the time) came up to me and asked, “Daddy, why don’t we go to church?” Wham! That question coming from a ten-year-old hit me like a two-by-four.

So we started looking.

For families of individuals with special needs, finding a church can be complicated. Studies say that about 90% of families like ours don’t attend church. Why? Some of us don’t want to burden a system that isn’t prepared for us. Sometimes we feel unwelcome. Many of us have been told that a church can’t serve us or meet the needs of our child. As a result, the special needs population is the most unreached, unevangelized people group in this country.

For us, it was easy to find a church that would let Matt sit in a pew or chair. But to find one that would let Matt participate? Not as easy as you might think. Then a reading tutor shared with us that her church had a desire to serve all individuals, including those with special needs. One Sunday, we visited. Thirteen years later, we’re still there.

I can honestly say that both our kids would not be who they are today without the people of Mosaic. You don’t know what it means to us that they let Matt be Matt. They let him worship how he feels led, even if that means taking a lap around the church or standing up front during worship. Matt has built relationships within the church. He feels welcomed to join in prayer with leaders (often, they ask him to lead those prayers). He finds his pastor every Sunday morning for a hug, and he always asks her to mark his Bible with the verse for the day’s message. Matthew has even been invited to serve communion. Matt has grown in his faith his way, and I’ll be honest … I wish my faith and relationship with the Lord was as strong as his.

Matt’s faith bears fruit. One of Matt’s teachers shared with us that on a day when her son was scheduled for a driving test, she was anxious and Matt responded not only with concern but with faith. He gave her a note that said, “Be happy. God loves you, and I love you, too.” He then proceeded to lay hands on her and prayed over her right in the middle of class! If he’d not had an accepting church family that let him grow in his faith, that may not have ever happened.

Another time, a student at Matt’s school shared with my wife that she was in the lunch room one day when some friends started to make fun of Matt. She spoke up to her friends and said, “You know, I go to church with Matthew and he’s a pretty cool kid. You should get to know him better.” That’s the fruit of authentic community. Made me proud of my church. If it takes a village to raise a child, our church has been our village.

As parents of a special needs child we want the same thing for our kids as other parents do. We want a place where they are welcome, safe, and accepted for who they are. The difference is, its a lot harder to find for us and you can’t imagine what a great gift it is when we do find that place. This month, our church will open its doors to a new ministry that offers therapy sessions for kids with special needs during the week. In August, we’re adding a once-a-month family night out for families with exceptional kids. We’re calling it Exceptional Circles.

One night a month for two or three hours might not sound like much to a typical family, but to a parent of a special needs child that can almost feel like a miracle. I’ll be honest: Matt is easy. We could leave him with just about anybody and he’s fine (most of the time he’d rather us not be there anyway!). But there are parents out there who never get a break. You can’t imagine what a gift a couple of hours a month can be. I know some parents that have taken advantage of something like this and you know what they did? They went home and slept.

Having a place like Mosaic, and ministry like Exceptional Circles could be a real blessing to a family with children with special needs. A place where they are not only welcome but accepted for who they are. We want everyone to have the blessing of a community like ours to share the load and offer Christ. For us, it has made all the difference.

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Chosen: Pati’s story

This week, we are hearing stories of how our chosenness leads to transformation. Pati’s story is a powerful example of someone who discovered her own identity as she embraced her chosenness in Christ. Pati is part of our Mosaic community and works in a local business. If we can help you find healing through recovery, call us.

My name is Pati. I’m excited to tell you how God transformed me into the person I am today.

My father was a holy roller and my mother was sexually abused as a child and emotionally abused as a wife. That was the world I was born into. I was four months old when my mom walked out on us. After a lifetime of abuse, she’d had all she could take and she left.

It wasn’t easy not having my mom around. My dad did the best he could raising my big brother and me. He was bi-polar so he’d have rages but I don’t remember much. I mostly remember he was a workaholic. When he wasn’t at work, we were at church. I remember a lot of babysitters. I was seven when my dad heard about Hephzibah Children’s Home. He decided to put us there for stability. I remember the director of the home coming to our house and telling my father we needed stability and I’d need a woman in my life. It was a private school with a scholarship promise at graduation, and that was enough. My brother Chip and I moved to Hephzibah.

I was eleven when we saw my mom again. We didn’t stay that year, but eventually I could stay the summer with her. It was there that my eighteen year old step cousin raped me. With that event, everything changed in my life. I hated everything and everyone. I no longer knew where I belonged. I started drinking at age 12, started smoking pot at 14, and was looking for love in all the wrong places. My father’s rages turned toward me. My dad was a workaholic and a manic depressive. My mom didn’t want me. My brother was getting married soon. I was lost. I tried to commit suicide at age 14.

Then I met my husband. I thought he was my saving grace. We married when I was 16 and had our first born Zackary. Nineteen months later we had our daughter Sarah. Everything seemed great. Believe it or not, through all this I’d stayed in church. Every Sunday morning, every Wednesday night, every Sunday night. But after the birth of my daughter, I quit going to church because I could choose to go or not.

Between getting a family and giving up on God, drugs were introduced into my life. Cocaine numbed the feelings I hadn’t dealt with — abandonment, rape, neglect, empty religion. Even my dad would tell you that he knew it in his head, but didn’t have it in his heart. I was the same. I was getting further and further from God. I was invisible. No thing or person could stop me from wrecking my life. Ray and I were using and using at this point. Money started to run out, and I had to find a way to get more money to get more drugs. So I stole my best friends check book. Well, that landed me in jail. I got bonded out two weeks later, but didn’t learn my lesson. Of course, I promised my kids and my dad I was changed, but that was a lie.

I started using a few months later. That year things were worse than ever. I went on the Walk to Emmaus, and found God again but it didn’t last. When I came home from Emmaus, I found out my 15 year old daughter was pregnant. To be honest I was happy because I just knew her being pregnant would make me stop using. I was wrong. I started using again about a month after Emmaus. Again money was tight so I had to find ways to get quick easy money. I committed credit card fraud. It worked …. for six months. Then it caught up with me. When my daughter was 8 months pregnant and we were a week away from her baby shower, I got arrested again.

That one hurt. The horror on my 15-year old’s face broke me. She was going to have to do this without her mom. My granddaughter was 10 days old when I was sentenced to 2 years in prison. This was my turning point. I fell to my knees and begged God to change me. I found myself reading my Bible again. The whole time I was in prison I was in His word. I found this verse that got me through my darkest hours while I was in prison. 1 Peter 1:6 says, “So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while.”

What I didn’t realize was what my trials were going to be when I got home from prison. My son was using, my husband was using, my daughter and her little family moved to Minnesota, and I lost all hope. I hated God and hated my life. But I was still good, I told myself, because I had my sobriety. But I wasn’t good. I didn’t have God in my life. I blamed him for all the wrong in my life. Or I blamed my husband. I wasn’t the problem, I reasoned, because I wasn’t using drugs anymore.

I was wondering why I felt so empty. Again I attempted suicide. I never felt so alone as I did that night. In my childlike brain I thought that if I did this, my husband and son would quit drugs. I was wrong.

You know what did happen? Years later, I was listening to Christian radio and heard a song called Even If, by Mercy Me. I hated that song but that day, God used it to speak to me. Ray was in jail, we were bumping up against walls figuring his situation out, and this is what God said through that song: “Even if he doesn’t get into drug court, how will you feel about me?” And that’s when I realized that God had my back. That was a beginning … a turning point in my life of trusting God.

Within a month or so, I stumbled across Mosaic and went one Sunday morning by myself and loved it instantly. God started working on my heart to show me I was the problem with a lot of the wrong in my life.

Let me say that again: I was the problem! I am not blaming myself for what other people did, but taking responsibility for my actions. I started to trust God more and read his word again. Today, I am a recovered addict. Eight years! Those may not be the words you choose, but they are the words I choose. I am recovered and I am now in recovery for codependency. I’ve learned with the help of God and my Pastor Carolyn (my spiritual best friend!) that I can only fix me. So I am now on the journey of finding me and fixing me. I just started college, majoring in addiction counseling and human services. God is working in my life and the lives of the people around me. I am still learning how to surrender all to Him but I am in a better place than I ever have been.

When Paul encountered Jesus, he says he heard Jesus give him this call to the Gentiles: “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:18)

And that is God’s call on all of us who encounter Christ. He sends us out to help others just like us, so that others can have their eyes opened and their lives turned from darkness to light. Today, I can say that this is my call. And it isn’t sobriety that gives my life hope and meaning. It is Jesus.

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The resurrection is reason enough (or, why ministry is still worth it).

A friend of mine who edits a website wrote this post some time ago and it still resonates. On this Monday after Easter, I appreciate being reminded that we all need to learn how to sit with one another in our graves — not because death is good, but because resurrection is possible.

I also appreciate being reminded of the grace I’ve received on this journey. I am not among those good and faithful pastors who somewhere along the way had the honesty to acknowledge that vocational ministry wasn’t for them (since my teenage years I’ve believed this is where I belong), but I definitely respect their journey. I get it. I’ve been in far too many dark, dark places in these nineteen years of full-time church life to pretend that I might not have ended up in their company.

Maybe I just don’t know how to quit. Maybe it is the mercy of being married to a man who won’t let me quit.

In any case, I can say after nineteen Easters as a pastor that as I look at the big picture of it, the staying has been a mercy. I am grateful I’m still serving the Church of Jesus Christ — still broken for his people, still passionate about preaching the Word. While a lot of vocational ministry isn’t what you’d call “fun,” I have found the grand sweep of it to be so very rewarding.

Not always easy, but always rewarding … always worth it.

There is a depth and beauty to honest, authentic ministry. It isn’t “gungho cheerleading,” as Jennifer says in her post. As she rightly notes, that kind of thing will stifle a spirit pretty quickly. What seems to work best is clinging to the cross … finding a personal resolve to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. It is rooting one’s faith in truth, not emotion, because emotions will kill a calling faster than just about anything.

But clinging to the cross? That is worth spending a lifetime on. Knowing Christ and him crucified is worth every drop of us, even as he expressed on the cross that we are worth every drop of him.

The story is true: Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance. The resurrection is proof.

Blessings on you, my pastor friends, as you live into the resurrection on this glorious Monday, having spent yourself all weekend for the cause of Christ.

(Jennifer Woodruff’s beautifully expressed post on the vocation of serving Christ is here.)

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Habit #3: Joyful people know how to wait.

Our church has been in a season of remarkable transition in the last year or so — a season of trusting and waiting and listening and deepening. Change is not usually easy and this is no exception; but I have noticed a sweetness to this season.  God has worked in such gentle and unmistakable ways.  Every need provided for, every shift purpose-filled. Watching God’s hand move over our community of faith has been an amazing, faith-building experience. It causes us to suspect we are on the cusp of something pretty powerful.

God’s theme through this season is an old one:  wait. It has not been lost on us that the word “wait” is such a primal theme in the texts we call “wisdom literature.”  Evidently, wise people know how to wait.  Waiting on the Lord is a popular theme for the psalmist and a proverbial one for Solomon. Mary waited and pondered and she, too, was a wise woman.

Wait, God says. And the more I do it, the more I realize it isn’t what I thought it was. In moments of spiritual clarity, I see that waiting is not a gap of emptiness between two events. It isn’t a staring contest with God; we’re not toe-to-toe waiting to see who blinks first.

I’m struck by the connection between the term “waiting” and another biblical phrase, “the fullness of time.”  While the waiting may seem to stretch on as empty space from my perspective, I am beginning to reckon that from God’s vantage point, this isn’t space at all but a full, rich basin of intangibles all designed to prepare me for the next thing.  While I’m drumming my fingers or begging and pleading for movement, God is no-holds-barred working out his will.

Who knew the time was so full?  Shaping, preparing, stripping, educating, awakening.  All that must happen before we can move on wisely.

Think “desert travel.” After experiencing their complete lack of faith in their own future, God told Moses that not one person of the original generation of exodus travelers would make it across the line into the promised land. Everything and everyone that smacked of faithlessness and fear would be eradicated, because he simply wouldn’t allow those traits to seep into the DNA of his people. Those forty years they were marching in circles, God was busy sloughing off the old, birthing the new.

In the same way, our desert travels are not empty time but the very fullness of it, as God sheds from us everything that isn’t fit for the promised future he has appointed for us.  He strengthens us with layers of spiritual sinew designed to help us stand (“mount up on wings like eagles; run and not grow weary; walk and not faint”) when this new thing happens.  We get impatient and beg for movement while God works, knowing that a move in one moment less than the fullness of time will crush us.

Wait, he says.  Not because he is finishing a crossword, or because he hasn’t yet figured out which direction the map is taking us.  Wait, he says, because we are in the middle of something important now.   Foundational work is being laid here, work that will help us hold the next thing.

Wait.

Wait actively — patiently (which is to say, lovingly), prayerfully, expectantly.  Wait like the father who stands at the window, watching for his long-lost son to return.  Wait like Mary, who knew from the moment of conception that she and her son were headed toward greatness.  Wait like the angel assigned to a slab in an empty cave, sitting for who knows how long so he would be there when someone stopped by, to tell them of an unprecedented power and presence unleashed into the world.  Wait like Paul, who sat in blind silence for three days while God completely rewired and wound him up for a new thing.  Wait like John, who steeped in desert-island darkness long enough for his eyes to adjust, revealing the unhindered, unfurled Kingdom of God in three-D splendor.

Wait.

In our own season of waiting at Mosaic, we’re leaning heavily on God’s promises as we build our faith muscles.  We’re learning to fast, something our circumstances didn’t require from us nearly so much in past days.  We’re learning the kind of worship that looks like quiet trust (“Though he slay me, yet shall I praise him”).  And we’re developing a more holy hunger.

In days past, we might have gorged on the first available opportunity to come our way.  These days, we are allowing the wait to purify our motives.  We aren’t on our own time any more; we are yearning toward the fullness of time.  The work of waiting is creating in us a deeper hunger for the Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Right now, we can almost taste it.  Maybe God will move the day we can actually taste it — taste and see that the Lord’s timing is delicious.

What if that is what all spiritual waiting is really about?  What if our waiting is answering Jesus’ own prayer?  What if our waiting is actually more important than the thing we’re waiting for? Wouldn’t that be just like God?

“I came that my joy might be in you,” Jesus said. As it turns out, joy is not a moment (like an emotion) but a process of being at peace with God’s pace and time.

Joy is embedded in the waiting.

A few questions for those challenged to wait: Do you have a knack for focusing on what you haven’t done instead of on how far you’ve come? Do you ever spend energy worrying about how slowly things change? Does your life move so fast that often you don’t have time to stop and notice the progress? Do others ever get frustrated with you because you are so hard on yourself?

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