This message, preached at Mosaic a couple of weeks ago, is one I’d love for you to listen to. I love the Church, and I love talking about it, and I’m particularly grateful to serve where we practice being the Church every day, for the sake of sharing the gospel with a lost and hurting world. When you get time, listen:
Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”
A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.”
As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.”
This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?
Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote. Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?
After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar.
(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life.
What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.
So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:
Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.
Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life.
Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us.
By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.
I’m thinking about a dog we used to have. Opie had a serious vet phobia. Consequently, when it dawned on him that this “awesome trip in the car” was actually a “catastrophic trip to the vet,” his world collapsed. He always made it worse than it had to be. He’d have panic attacks and become hostile. Frankly, he made the experience a little embarrassing for the rest of us.
One time, the vet told me that my dog’s dramatics were likely for my benefit, to get my sympathy and convince me to flee the wrath to come. She suggested that maybe if I wasn’t with him he might not act like that. So the next time we went to the vet I handed him over as soon as we walked in the door. They took him back to some room where he was to be examined alone, without his mama.
Here’s what happened. I sat in the waiting room with half a dozen strangers and their pets, listening to the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a scream coming out of a dog’s mouth. Over and over. Screaming. It sounded like something out of an African jungle or a horror movie. Because I knew that voice, had heard it on the way to lots of things Opie was averse to, I knew he wasn’t being tortured but the others didn’t know. I felt especially sad for the animals in the room who surely wondered what this meant for them when it was their turn. Everyone listened anxiously while I flipped through magazines pretending I had no clue whose poor animal it was.
Then the vet came out and said, “Mrs. Moore, here’s the thing. We haven’t actually been able to touch your dog yet.” All that screaming, and he hadn’t yet even been examined. Bless him.
My friends, can I say with all gentleness and respect that some of us have an inner Opie who is so sensitive, so overcome by the spirit of fear, that offense is the only operating principle inside of us? We feel attacked ten minutes before anything actually happens. We feel attacked even when we’re not being attacked.
The spirit of offense is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and will then convince us we are justified when we insist on climbing the mountain we’ve made. There is a shopping term for this: “post-purchase rationalization.” It is what happens when we buy things impulsively (think “Black Friday”) and then for the rest of the day justify the purchase to friends and family. “This case of 100 flyswatters at 75% off was the best deal ever!” We justify even when it is irrational. Or maybe particularly then. Which is why the very act of justification around issues of anger or offense ought to be a trigger for us to go looking for our truest motives.
Maybe its not them. Or not all them. Maybe it is us.
On this point, I am a chiefest of sinners. I justify my behavior even as I storm around, deeply offended by every sleight and even every rumor of a sleight. So I’m not alone in my offended state, I will even stir others up. I’m the master at spreading my anxiety around. I consistently neglect my own counsel: in the absence of information, assume others’ good intentions.
I don’t want to imply that nothing is ever what it seems. Some people have genuinely done us wrong. Some people have messed with us beyond good sense. Some people in our lives require good boundaries, not just for our sake but for theirs.
But sometimes we allow that spirit of offense to rally our inner Opie — this thing in us that is wounded and scared and believing the worst and who wants to convince us of lies that will keep us mired in offense. Meanwhile, the clear slant of scripture is always toward forgiveness, always toward grace. Walking in forgiveness by obedience over feeling will require us to silence the voice of our inner Opie. It will require a sober submission to Paul’s advice. “Inasmuch as it is up to you, live in peace.”
And sometimes, restoration begins not with two or three external witnesses but with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In his presence, we are invited to call out the spirit of offense and mute it so it no longer has power to speak its lie and spread its anxiety. In prayer, it is just that straightforward: “Jesus, please call out the spirit of offense that is wreaking havoc on my soul. Remove it from my life and take away all its power. Deal with me on this issue and help me place this moment into a Kingdom frame so that in my heart and behavior, I’m not jerked around by the enemy of my soul who is whispering in my ear what he’d rather me believe. Amen.”
If you’re anxious or dealing with anger today, make this prayer your first priority. Chances are, things are not what they seem. You will not die, even if there is pain involved in what’s ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will be far less pain than the negative voices predict.
Listen: No one is helped by an Opie attitude that generates fear and dread when its only a trip to the vet.
Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.
I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.
Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.
A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?
In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:
Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.
David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.
Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.
Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.
Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).
Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.
Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.
Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.
Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.
Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.
N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.
Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.
Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.
Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.
I practice ministry as a theologically conservative and socially engaged Methodist. I preach that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe — the way, the truth and the life, the exclusive path to God our Father. I believe these are the headwaters of orthodoxy and that unless we Methodists agree on that bedrock truth, subsequent conversations about the nature of salvation or holiness — or denominational unity, for that matter — are pointless. To proclaim the Kingdom is to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Wesleyan theology gave me a framework for loving God and others that is life-giving. Being settled in that theology has allowed me to practice this faith joyfully among the people God has sent into my spiritual care. Denominationally, however, holding a socially engaged, theologically conservative line inside the UMC has been a strain. Even if I am committed to grace-infused, love-filled ministry alongside the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, my position still seems intolerant or unkind to some. To maintain these doctrines in the face of others’ suffering draws up arguments about what love is and what justice means. I sense the tension. No genuinely loving person could avoid it. But I have settled in my own heart how loving God and loving others fits together in a theologically orthodox construct.
I remember talking years ago to someone who was once married to a rather grating celebrity, a person who created a lot of controversy. Over the years she’d heard all the disparaging comments and had become used to the kind of response I gave when she told me who she’d once been married to. I flinched. She’d obviously seen that flinch before because she was ready for it. She said, “I am not asking you to understand why I married him … but he was my husband, and I loved him.”
I was humbled by that. You don’t know another person’s story. You never know why people dedicate themselves as they do to their positions, long past what others would tolerate. In the case of conflicts within the UMC, we don’t know all there is to know about how any of us comes at social issues and Wesleyan theology. While we are called to listen and respect one another, we are not required to be without our own deeply held convictions.
This much I know: I (like all my United Methodist colleagues) have publicly and formally committed to preach and maintain a specific set of stated doctrines. Methodism is not an institutional brand, like McDonald’s (no offense to McDonald’s, which actually does a much better job of providing a consistent product). We are not defined by a logo or tagline. We are defined by our theological task. In other words, I don’t get to decide what it means to be Methodist. That has already been decided, and my part as an ordained clergy person is to embrace and live it out. Some have decided that for them, this isn’t possible any more; yet, they remain in our covenantal tribe. This is the rub.
Early on in this denominational debate, it was considered treasonous to express a hope for creative separation along theological lines. Some of us have privately expressed that hope for years. We believe that given our circumstances, it holds integrity to set folks free to explore their beliefs without angrily imposing undue financial burdens on those who simply cannot in good conscience remain in the UMC as it stands — conflicted, chaotic, theologically disconnected.
Today, we not only must take that hope seriously but must actively work toward it. At this point, to angrily persist in a “one church” spirit that is in no way loving or respectful of irreconcilable beliefs seems the least loving option of all. It is certainly the least faithful posture toward a free-will theology that is invitational at its core.
That said, these facts ought to guide every influential conversation between now and General Conference 2020:
- Some believe deeply and unshakably in an orthodox interpretation of the Bible that encompasses both a high Christology and a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for people —ALL people — or a desire (and ability) to serve people where they are.
- Some believe LGBTQ+ persons — even those actively engaged in same-sex relationships — are called by God to both marriage and ordained leadership and that the Church should be affirming of their position. Some in this camp (not all) also espouse a more progressive approach to salvation and holiness. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for the Bible or Jesus.
- Some can sit in the tension between progressive, affirming-but-evangelical, and orthodox theologies and be completely at peace with asking even those who disagree to live under one banner. Doing so does not necessarily imply deafness toward the depth of conviction possessed by those on various sides.
I want to suggest that respecting these distinct positions as both realities (these camps exist) and radically distinct ecclesiologies (these camps are not compatible) is the only position that holds integrity at this point. Allowing these three positions space and definition to be lived out fully — with an open hand, under the gaze of God, without punitive punishment — is our only way beyond this impasse. It means separation, or division, or multiplication; call it what you will. But when all is said and done it means grieving the loss of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. It means holding people with an open hand, which means trusting God more than ever before.
Ultimately, it means freeing the adherents of these radically different, theologically irreconcilable camps of Methodism to turn their backs on the denominational battlefield, to beat their verbal swords into ploughshares, TO GO THEIR SEPARATE WAYS IN PEACE, to return to the harvest fields of local and global ministry –and as the Spirit leads — to form new combinations and connections with theologically compatible partners.
Friends, as you pray toward, vote toward and live toward General Conference 2020, please give these opposing positions respect enough to set them free to prove themselves.
Allow me to return to my own confession as an encouragement to you: I am committed to preaching and maintaining a socially engaged, theologically conservative, spiritually vibrant Methodism. This is where my heart is. When I stand in this place — compassionate toward people and committed to orthodoxy — my internals match my externals. I wouldn’t want anything less for anyone, whether they agree or disagree with me. Any other option smacks of the politics of control. Surely we can do better than that.
My friends, I encourage you to find that place for yourself where your internals match your externals so you can preach the Word with passion and maintain the doctrines you’ve promised before God to maintain. It is time to put an end to these many years of painful strife within the UMC. It is time to part. Let’s bless each other to do so.
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.
When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.
We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.
Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.
You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.
So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).
It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.
The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).
Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.
“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”
That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.
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.
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.
This week, we’re hearing stories of redemption rooted in the chosenness of God. Mike Barr’s story is a strong example of just how far God will go to prove his love for us. Mike is part of the Mosaic community and serves as chaplain of Augusta Rescue Mission.
As a man, the book of Esther fascinates me. The Father’s plan to find a bride for His Son is brilliantly unfolded for all us to see. In her story, King Xerxes’ only desire is to display his bride’s beauty before his entire kingdom.
Esther, being of poor descent and of an unlikely heritage, had no idea how much her life was about to change. She was completely unaware that a “no one” like herself would ever find her way to becoming the bride of the king.
But the king knew what he was doing. His search for his bride was diligent. His search for his bride was perfect.
And once Esther was chosen, the king’s very best attendant led her by the hand through a “Process of Beautification.” No expense was spared and the process wasn’t rushed. However, the end result was nothing short of stunning to the king.
It sometimes seems strange to me just how much I understand this story. But the revelation of what it truly means to be the Bride of Christ is in my heart. I live out the beauty of His plan every day.
However, looking back, it wasn’t always this way.
I wasn’t raised in church or with any type of belief in God. As a matter of fact, I spent most of my youth and adulthood in a very destructive lifestyle due to alcohol and drugs.
I have two very loving parents who are still in my life today. But alcohol was always a part of my formative years and watching everyone drink was a normal part of life.
So, as I started to grow up, a willingness to explore new things just seemed natural. I guess you could say high school was just…high school. Once I started down that road of addiction, everything was on the menu. Cocaine, meth, pills, LSD, even steroids were all for the taking.
After graduating from school, I very quickly found myself in a career and the money just seemed to come in. Life was really good. Or so I thought.
Through all of my dysfunction though, I was a very disciplined business man. I was good at what I did.
Which of course, didn’t actually help me. Money just fed my party lifestyle. Work hard, play hard, those were the rules. Vacations, clothes, cars…all it came so easy.
But brokenness was continually increasing inside of me. The more broken I felt, the more I tried to hide it. The more pain I was in, the more substances I took to mask it. A crazy snowball effect was happening and I had no idea how to stop it. Addiction was beginning to rule my life and at some point, it began to make all my decisions for me.
By now, I was married with two young children and I had no idea how to stop it. If I came clean to my wife and employer, I could lose everything. If I stayed on my path of destruction, I could still lose everything.
But addiction doesn’t care. Addiction doesn’t stop.
Eventually, my whole world came crashing down. And at the age of 39, it was either get sober or die. No other options.
It was at that moment that my heart finally cried out to God: “Please, if you’re real, save me and I’ll do whatever you want.”
What came next was far more surprising to me than I ever could have imagined. Almost immediately, His Presence (which was something I had no idea even existed) was inside of me guiding every step of my life. Several months later, a life-changing deliverance moment took place in my living room, leaving me no doubt it was truly Jesus who saved me. I began to see the hand of God restore my broken marriage piece by piece and from almost the first day I gave my heart to the Lord, I knew I was called to preach.
Since then, I’ve become a credentialed Reverend with the Assemblies of God and I serve as the Chaplain of Augusta Rescue Mission.
Eleven years later, I can say without hesitation that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and the only Savior of the world.
And like Esther, I’m a person who never could have dreamed of going from orphan to bride living. But that’s what God does…He makes all things beautiful.