Chosen: Julian’s Story

Julian Hutcheson shares the treasure of his salvation after living most of his life as a functional agnostic. For spouses praying for spouses, let this story be a word of hope.

I had some connection with Christ in my early teen years, but drifted away – for about 35 years. I could describe myself as being a semi-believer in God, but mostly was tangled up in objections to faith, on the sidelines with a very weak and strained experience of spirituality of any kind. Then I experienced a transforming time of reawakening, renewal, and regaining a connection with God.

For a couple of years I had been attending Mosaic occasionally just to pacify my wife and “support” her attendance. I attended the day she joined the church and I found that to be unexpectedly moving for me. Somewhere around that time I began to feel some deep emotional stirrings during the services. There were several times I thought I would cry during the singing. I clearly felt that my soul was kind of reaching up and pushing aside the entanglements, so I could connect with worship. I realized I needed to worship my God. It became clear to me that praising God is affirming the connection, just like saying “I love you” to another person. A powerful experience also came when one of my sons was baptized. I went out to our van afterwards and wept.

I met with Carolyn and told her what I had been experiencing, and she helped me understand this was the Holy Spirit working, kind of opening the “pores” of my spiritual membrane. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow where God was leading me, and I said I was, not really knowing what that might mean. I was feeling more connected to God, but not yet a follower of Christ. That came a few months later.

Again taking the cue from my deeper self, I realized one day that my rational hesitations about being a Christian had essentially disappeared. I felt free to move toward Jesus, to include him. The transformation then went to another level as I opened up my heart to Christ. I had several more moving experiences that made it clear to me that I was a believer in Christ.

I met again with Carolyn, and after that joined the church and was baptized. I have increased my involvement in Mosaic, joining the worship team and attending the Men’s accountability group. I now see the fruit of many seeds planted from Sunday messages. One of the strongest themes that helped me was that God knows my real self, loves me for who I really am and is willing to meet me where I am. The worship music also played a strong role, almost as if the worship leader was reaching a hand out, pulling me up spiritually from the hole I was trapped in.

My wife Judy is continually doing a double-take. To hear me talk about my Bible readings or to see me moved to tears in worship and to proclaim my Christianity, this is all coming from a context of 29 years of marriage in which I have been a non-believer. My transformation is of course a great answer to her prayers. I am also comprehending, in stages, how much of a burden I was on Judy in pursuing her faith. I have had several powerful moments of repenting and asking her forgiveness and God’s, for so many years of turning away from Him, and so many years of being an obstacle for Judy’s relationship with God and in recent years, with Mosaic. I was lost for so many years! I now know what cleansing repentance is.

As for the worship team, it is an honor to be a part of it — learning these powerful songs and helping with the guitar playing. I sang the song “What can I do” for a Christmas eve service and was moved to tears several times when rehearsing it at home. “What can I do but give my life to you – Hallelujah!” Connecting with worship and helping others to connect with worship is a privilege. I have a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do. I’m laying down my life for God’s service. What that means is not entirely clear but I will take it one step at a time.

I’ve reached a comfort level at Mosaic – comfortable being vulnerable in spiritual growth, knowing I’m surrounded by people who are striving for their own unique relationships with Christ. I’m continuing on the journey and I when I have challenges that pull me off track, I take them one at a time. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward with Christ.

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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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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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If your heart is as my heart … (my video message at WCA)

The inaugural event of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was thick with the Spirit, by all accounts. I was there by video only, due to speaking commitments made long before the Chicago event was scheduled. I kept up throughout the day via Facebook and Twitter. It was stunning to see the crowd, feel the buzz and hear some of the speakers. A beautiful start to something we may not yet have vocabulary to define.

It was a pleasure to share a slice of our story as part of this event. The church I lead is not large or well-resourced by most standards, but we are doing our very best to be faithful to God’s call on our community. We are committed to keeping Jesus at the center, valuing all people and making community an essential part of the process of sanctification. These values have led us down eventful paths and into powerful stories of transformation. I share one such story here.

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What grace feels like (or, what I learned from a roomful of missionaries)

I spent seven days in Costa Rica with about 95 missionaries and assorted others who support them through The Mission Society. I had the great pleasure of teaching daily on themes from the book of Ephesians. Anyone could have done what I did so I recognize and deeply appreciate the grace that placed me in that room with such a Spirit-filled community. I’ve rarely felt so undeservedly blessed.

The missionaries came mostly from countries in the southern hemisphere but there were also missionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, China, India, the Philippines and a few other places. This was a global snapshot of God’s work in the world.

Here are a few things I learned from my time with these folks:

costa-rica-4The Kingdom of God comes through obedience. What I found most refreshing about this group was their quiet yet firm obedience to God’s call on their lives. These aren’t rock stars; they are ordinary men and women with a rare sense of what it means to obey God. Some of the folks I met have moved thousands of miles away from children and grandchildren, sometimes over their families’ strenuous objections. Others have taken small children into dangerous areas to live and serve. They do so not because they are naive or foolish but because they have sensed the strong call of God into this work. Their children, I might add, are some of the most remarkably flexible, faithful and fun of any kids I’ve been around.

Humility is cultivated through challenge. The most striking difference in my opinion between acosta-rica-3 roomful of missionaries and a roomful of preachers is ego. I don’t want to throw my own tribe under the bus, but the fact is that a roomful of American preachers will spend a lot of time measuring and posturing. A roomful of missionaries — that roomful, anyway — will spend time in more transparent conversation. My sense is that there is something uniquely humbling about being in another culture, mostly alone, having to figure out language, strategy and friendships on the fly.

costa-rica-1Missionaries know how to have fun. In the week I was with them, I laughed more than I have in a long time. We played simple games, watched silly skits, danced with silly cartoon figures, and told great stories. We also shared deeply, worshipped richly, and learned attentively. These guys were just plain easy to be with. I appreciated the spirit cultivated by our hosts, the staff team of The Mission Society. It was most definitely a spirit of joy, simplicity and rest.

The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. I loved the structure of this gathering. There were Bible teachers, counselors, strategic thinkers, musicians, creative minds, organizers, story-tellers, culture watchers, innovation managers and prayer warriors all gathered together and all encouraged to share their gifts. Each was able to contribute or receive as they were led. The result was a gloriously restful time of sharing, learning and growing.

I spent the first half of my life exploring different organizations and offering my support where I was able. In this season, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on three: Asbury Theological Seminary (and its publishing house, Seedbed), The Mission Society and Mosaic Church. Seeing the heart and soul of The Mission Society as I met and mingled with its missionaries, I am left with a deeper commitment to this fine organization. Since many of those missionaries spent time at Asbury, I’m all the more impressed with the kind of servant heart incubated at that school. And the trip itself was possible only because the gracious community of Mosaic has so generously embraced my speaking ministry as part of their contribution to the Body of Christ.

I am blessed indeed to be associated with such greatness. This must be what grace feels like.

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