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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Four principles for a healthier short-term mission experience

I am writing this while “on mission with Jesus in Ecuador,”* serving together with seventeen genuinely kind and faithful people from two churches in Georgia and the Wesleyan seminary of Venezuela. We are being hosted by Sharon and Graham Nichols, who serve Christ through The Mission Society.

Back in the day, church folk took suitcases of shoes, toys or food when we traveled to remote places. We planned big projects for communities that didn’t ask for them. We came home and showed pictures of children we held and houses we built. We felt great about ourselves. Well intentioned as we were, we were clueless about the long-term damage of this approach to short-term missions.

Americans have learned a lot in the last thirty years about what it means to be on mission with Jesus, how short-term experiences can help and hinder, and what is actually useful for building the Kingdom of God on earth. Churches genuinely driven to be both faithful and effective are changing the ways they do short-term international and even long-term local missions.

For those having that conversation, here are four things I believe any short-term mission team should consider:

1. Get a Kingdom perspective on poverty. One of the hardest things to learn for an American traveling in a third-world country (or among those who live in poverty in our own country) is that our stuff will not get anyone into the Kingdom. To the contrary, often the giving away of stuff or money fundamentally disrespects the person on the receiving end and changes the nature of a relationship. In the end, it may well stifle the message of the gospel.

To gain a more mature posture toward poverty, I highly recommend reading at least one of these books: When Helping Hurts, or Toxic Charity. The message of both books is the same: By giving to appease our own consciences we completely miss the chance to give something of infinitely more worth: genuine relationship, the kind that isn’t built overnight.

2. Get the posture of a learner. The most valuable gift of a mission experience is exposure to God’s heart. If we allow ourselves to travel under the illusion that we “know” and that in any equation we are the teachers (or saviors, or givers, or …) then we’ll completely miss God’s heart. What most respects the country to which we travel and the hosts who have us is to learn how God is working among them.

To get a better sense of what it means to “go as a learner,” I recommend these two books: Thriving in Cross-Cultural Missions, by Carissa Alma, and Journey to A Better Way, by John Bailey. The last chapter of “Thriving” is an excellent assessment of the current short-term missions culture written from the perspective of one who has been on the receiving end of teams for nearly two decades.

3. Think of it as discipleship.  Invest time in the team before going, while you’re there and after you return. Require every team member to write a testimony in 500 words. Study the great commission together. The team that invests time in meeting, praying, sharing testimonies and preparing to go as learners will receive so much more than the team that simply gathers supplies and heads off to complete a task. And they’ll do less damage.

4. Make sure it translates into action at home. The point of a mission experience is to gain God’s heart for the world and get our hearts broken for the things that break his heart. That shouldn’t leave us pining for the next “trip fix” when we return home (side note: to use mission trips to get one’s own emotional needs met is an abuse of the system. Don’t let yourself be guilty). A successful trip should create more effective disciples, more active leaders, more passionate servants … either in the field or in the community in which they live and worship.

What makes an effective short-term missionary? It is someone who goes as a learner  to discover God’s heart for the whole world and to encourage those who serve full-time in the field. It is one who is challenged to go deeper in devotion to God and to look for where she can more intentionally serve upon return. It is one who comes home and starts praying with a stronger understanding and passion for the Harvest.

 

*This is how our hosts, Sharon and Graham Nichols, prefer to describe short-term experiences. It emphasizes the leadership of Jesus and our partnership in the process. Short-term missions isn’t about what we do, but who we are. And even more importantly, who God is.

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