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: Shannon’s Story

This week, I’m posting some stories of people whose lives have been transformed as they’ve embraced the ways they’ve been chosen by God. This one is the story of Shannon Conforti, Executive Director of Christian Flights International, a mission in partnership with the people of Ranquitte, Haiti. CFI is a mission partner of Mosaic.

I almost lost everything to anxiety, so let me start there.

More than two years ago, anxiety unexpectedly entered my life. I had always lived with various degrees of stress, but this was altogether different. The therapists and doctors never gave me a satisfactory explanation for what happened. One day my brain just broke. Obviously that’s not the technical physiological answer, but it’s the best way I can summarize it. I suppose years of drama and stress finally took their toll, and my physiological systems simply stopped working properly. I was a highly functioning mom, wife, business owner, volunteer, church member. I traveled and participated in missions to Haiti. I was on church leadership committees. From the outside, I was proving that I could have it all. All the accolades. All the acclaim. All the success. I’ve heard from several women that my life at that time intimidated them, as it appeared I was running full steam on all cylinders.

Then one night, my body simply stopped. I had a severe migraine and anxiety attack that all mimicked a stroke. I ended up in the ER, somehow understanding that life as I knew it was coming to a stark and abrupt halt.

The days that followed were the beginning of my torment. I was unable to care for myself or my children, let alone get to work. Friends and family came in and cared for me, day and night, while I struggled to regain normalcy. My sleep was plagued with nightmares of the gates of hell and my days were spent praying for rescue from the torment raging through my body. Then came a barrage of doctors’ appointments, therapists’ appointments, meditation, oils, prayers, Bible memorization, this medication and then that medication followed by more medication. It was exhausting. And much to my protests, it became an integral part of my story.

In no way do I think God caused any of this. But I am absolutely convinced He used this circumstance to change me and the people in my life. Not the way I would have hoped. Not the way I would have planned.  Certainly not the way I wanted. He took the opportunity to lead me through the desert, the wilderness, and the broken mountain path, all to lead me to a greater redemption.

In the midst of this, I came to Mosaic to speak when the Executive Director of Christian Flights International was unable to attend. Friendships emerged from that visit and our relationships grew fast and deep. They nourished me with prayers while I was in the valley and provided me spiritual support to keep going. My anxiety morphed from a catastrophic plague to a daily annoyance. I assumed it was something I would just have to live with. Bothersome, but manageable.

Early on in my journey with anxiety, I was prophesied over. The message was clear: God would bring me to complete victory. Complete. Victory. Yet in the daily battle with anxiety this promise had taken a back seat. When I heard folks at Mosaic were praying for their mission partners, I reached out to ask for prayer for an almost forgotten promise. At the same time, God was stirring in my heart to apply for a staff position with the Haitian mission organization that connects Mosaic and me. At first I didn’t share this with anyone. Then I talked with my prayer partner, then my husband. From a practical standpoint I couldn’t figure out how a position with CFI could work. Between my qualifications and my anxiety and so many commitments, I just couldn’t figure it out. But the prayers continued. And the prompting in my heart was persistent.

I finally pulled a resume together and sent it to my friends on the CFI Board. My prayers for certainty went unanswered, and I waited to see the outcome of this trusted group. One Saturday night they called for a phone conference to discuss the possibility of hiring me. Concerns were raised. Questions were asked. Prayers were offered, and by the end of the call I had accepted the job. I hung up the phone. And without any warning I began to weep. Deep waves of tears that seemed to come from my very soul. My husband came into the room and I saw him register what he saw. “Oh no! What’s this? What’s happening? What’s going on?” His confusion was thick. I had just accepted a job and I was sobbing.

All I could say was, “It’s over. It’s over. I can feel God telling me it’s over. All of it.” And just like that. My anxiety was gone. Gone. We held each other and thanked God for walking us through an earthly hell.

And as sure as I’m standing here today, I have been completely anxiety-free since that instant. The chains that imprisoned me are just…gone.

I don’t know exactly how this will all play out over the long run. What I am sure of is that God gave me this beautiful gift to share, both here and in Haiti. My prayers for the weary are stronger today because I know what devastation feels like, and I know that God is mighty to save.

Maybe my story will remind you if you’re in a valley right not that God does hear our prayers and he still works in miraculous ways. For me, the real miracle in my story is the connections that happen in the Body of Christ. Somehow all the seemingly inconsequential details of our lives get woven together — our histories, our stories, our random lives — and they lead us to each other and bind us to a cause. Missions matter. Relationships matter. The Body of Christ matters. Surrender to a greater thing matters.

Even when anxiety threatened to sabotage the good plans God had for my life, praying people invested in me first through partnership with a Haitian mission, then through personal relationships. Because of our history, our relationships, and our shared knowledge that the miraculous is possible, lives are being saved and then transformed, both here and abroad.

Truly, a miracle.

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Baptism and the Holy Spirit

One summer, the women of our church hosted an in-town mission trip. Every day, we visited a different mission location and served in whatever way we could. The last day, we worked in the home of an elderly woman who lives in some of the worst oppression I’ve experienced. She lives alone. It was evident that she was dealing with some mental illness, but she had a beautiful, sweet spirit and a great strength that allowed her to keep pressing on. She didn’t walk, so spent most of her time in a wheelchair. That understandably limited what she could do around the house.

The house was condemnable. It needed more work than we could possibly have offered in a day. Piles and piles of clothes and junk. Piles and piles of trash. Roaches everywhere  … even inside the refrigerator. We went there, we thought, to wash her dishes and clean her stove and do what we could to fix up her kitchen. But by the end of the day, it was clear to all of us that we weren’t really there to clean a kitchen.

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

One of our team members, a nurse, decided to clean the bathtub and offer this woman a bath. The woman said it had been a long time since she’d had one, so she was thrilled by the offer. We lowered her gently down into the tub and gave her time for a long soak.

Clearly, it was medicine for her soul. I’ve never heard such beautiful singing as I did from that bathroom while she was in there. It had to be one of the most stunning images of the Kingdom of God: Here was a group of women in the kitchen, wiping dead bugs out of the stove while this woman in a bath sang, “Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever …”

And while we dragged trash out of the home of this forgotten woman we heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know …”

When the team helped her out of the tub and back into her chair, I have never heard such great laughter. It came from deep within her; it was glorious. It had been so long since she’d had a bath that she forgot how good it could be. She reveled in this experience. At the end of the day, we prayed together and when she prayed, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. We were bathed in it.

This is what Jesus does. He takes ordinary things and he makes them holy.

And this thing that Jesus does in the course of a day, he does with the waters of baptism. He makes it more than just water and words. Baptism is a clothing, an identity. We who are baptized — whether as infants or adults — are to live it, walk in it, claim it, wear it.

Here that again: We who are baptized are to live out our baptism, to walk in it, to wear it.

Kris Vallotton says, “Baptism isn’t done as a symbolic act of obedience to scripture. It’s a prophetic declaration of your death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.”

And baptism in the Holy Spirit is about everything that baptism with water is about. It is about cleansing and restoring and getting our lives in line with our created purpose. It is about walking in the blessing of God who says to us when he redeems us, “You are my son, my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to swim in the blessing of God, the Father. It is to claim our place in God’s Kingdom and to let the Holy Spirit make our ordinary lives holy.

Being baptized – immersed, washed, clothed – in the Holy Spirit is a glorious gift. Jesus himself said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom” (John 3:5-6, The Message)

I wonder: how long has it been, spiritually speaking, since you’ve had the kind of bath that declares your death and resurrection? How long has it been since you’ve been bathed in God’s blessing?

Maybe you’ve never let yourself go there. Maybe, like Adam and Eve, you’ve spent all your energy trying to cover for yourself instead of letting the Father cover for you. Maybe you’ve been sitting alone in your own shame for so long that you’ve forgotten there are options. Have you forgotten that the same Holy Spirit who poured out rivers of blessing over Jesus as he bathed in the Jordan stands ready to pour out rivers of blessing over you?

Be baptized in the Holy Spirit — bathed, clothed, marked, resurrected — and then walk in the Spirit so you can live your salvation story with power and authority … which is the only way it ought ever to be lived.

 

(the story of the in-town mission trip is excerpted from Encounter the Spirit, a video-based Bible study and workbook found at Seedbed.com)

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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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Grace is not for wimps.

C. S. Lewis said you’ll either love Jesus or you’ll hate him. There is no in-between. “… Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”

That choice creates a tension that causes some to build crosses and draw swords and fire guns at people who fall at his feet in worship.

Christianity claims more followers — and more martyrs — than any other religion.  Consider these stats*:

  • More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.
  • Currently over 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
  • North Korea continues to be the worst country in the world for persecution.
  • Open Doors (a watchdog and advocacy organization for persecuted Christians) estimates that more than 12,500 Christians have been killed in religion related violence in northern Nigeria between 2006 and 2014, including one whole village that was massacred. Boko Haram violence has claimed most of those lives.
  • It is also estimated that Boko Haram related violence has displaced more than 500,000 Christians in northern Nigeria.
  • In 2015, Islamic State released a video showing what is believed to be the execution of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Subtitles refer to the men as “worshippers of the cross belonging to the hostile Ethiopian church.”
  • Iran’s parliament believes Muslims who change their faith should be put to death.
  • In India, up to 70,000 Christians in Orissa have been forced to flee their homes in riots.
  • In Indonesia, in the two years between 2000-2002, Muslims slaughtered 10,000 Christians.
  • In Vietnam a new law restricts the growth of Christian churches and violence is on the rise.
  • Nepal has laws in place to restrict religion; a constitutional change last year bans all religious conversions.
  • Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka all have laws restricting religion.
  • Half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • Under Islamist pressure, Coptic Christians in Egypt are being forced from their homes.
  • A February video showed Islamic State killing 20 Coptic Christians from Egypt and one Ghanaian.
  • By 2012, most of the 80,000 Christians in Homs, Syria had been ‘cleansed’ from their homes.
  • In Europe, persecution is becoming a reality through “equality directives.” In 2011, France passed a law banning prayer in public streets — a reaction against the growing Muslim population.
  • Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously intolerant environment.
  • Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. An average of at least 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith.
  • Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ.
  • In 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists.

The moral of all these stories is simple: Grace is not for wimps. Grace forces us to choose. It isn’t weak or soft. It comes in truth, in power, in supernatural connections. It creates wonders and signs and it offends people who have no room for the supernatural in their lives.

You can’t kill it, though it is intent on destroying everything in you that won’t fit in the Kingdom of God. Be clear on that when you sign up, because grace has no intention of leaving you as you are. Grace is God giving us every option, opening every door, showing us every gate of Heaven. Grace is “God For Us” so completely that there is no room or tolerance for even a shred of our sin, unholy comforts or complacencies.

The goal of grace is the realized Kingdom of Heaven. It is bent completely toward seeing the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Whatever the cost.

Grace is not for wimps but worth the risk. To live a life so anchored in truth and power and prayer, so anchored in the truth that there is more to this life than simply staying alive at any cost, so anchored in grace that nothing rocks the boat — that is worth living for.

And worth dying for.

 

*Facts documented either by the U.S. Department of State, a reputable news organization or Open Doors, a watch-dog and support group for persecuted Christians.

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