Thoughts on the way to Annual Conference

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.

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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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Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

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.

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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: Mike’s story

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.

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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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Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb but cut out the resurrection. What was left, mostly the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a penknife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century here, a logic that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

Liberalism also minimizes (or squelches) any evangelistic urgency. This shows up in our current UMC conversations as American UM Christians debate the importance of an African connection. Some would say that unless he is Christ for the whole world, he is Christ for none of it. Others would say that African theology is as “local” as African culture.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant. The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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How to live like Jesus is Lord

So much of what we teach is all the don’t’s of Christianity. You know, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t dance with the girls who do.” But Jesus didn’t come for the don’t’s. Christ isn’t just a fast from sin; he is a feast of truth and grace.

The Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This longing we have for something more is a longing for a wedding feast, for new wine, for a new beginning. It is a longing for what we’re made for. It is a longing for truth … for life.

The story is true, my friends! Jesus is worthy! The cross is glorious! The good news is worth believing! The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof. Are you living as if all this is true? Are you living as if Jesus really is Lord?

How to live like Jesus is Lord:

Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable religion. Some of us actually crave dead religion. We want to be okay with sitting in a church building once a week and calling that Christian. But folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! He is moving in power all over the world right now. He is revealing himself to non-believers, and creating miracles in spiritually dry places. It is time to join him. It is time to toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never coming back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die so you can begin to live like Jesus is Lord.

Learn to feast. Psalm 22 and 23 are some of my favorite places in scripture. These two psalms contain the essence of the Good News of the New Testament. Psalm 22 contains the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. This is the scene of Jesus taking on our sin and dying our death. This is Good Friday.

Then Psalm 23 takes us through Saturday, that dark time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It walks us through the valley of shadows, the valley of death. But it points us toward a rise on the other side of that valley where there is a table set by God himself: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality. This is a song of death and resurrection.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago. It happened while I was sitting in the chapel of our church. Every Wednesday we offered communion there. I was the pastor who served communion for those services. Steve usually came and I specifically remember one week when he came to take communion. It had been a hard week for him. He is a teacher, and it seemed like that week he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough time.

So as he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing our table in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. I thought to myself, “Here it is, being lived out right in front of me!” God had invited Steve to a feast. In the face of so many enemies, he was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side, and on yours and mine.

This is the feast being set before us. It is a feast of truth and grace. And this is what it means to get a feast mentality: It is to set your face toward that table while you’re still in the valley and trust that the story is true even when life is hard.

Get a resurrection mindset. Resurrection is the center of the good news about Jesus Christ. And now, with that power firmly established in the Kingdom of God and with Jesus as our bridge God is able to confidently say to all humanity, “It is finished! He has done it! You now have the power I have to break through barriers and begin again.” And that message is not exclusively for Easter. That message is for us. This is our story now. Because the resurrection is true, we now have access to this same infinite power that is stronger than even death itself. When we talk about “begin again” religion, which is what Jesus preached, we’re talking about the kind of life that goes through death. We’re talking about transformation. We now have the power to bring everything out into the light and then put everything that isn’t eternal to death … so we can really live.

This is the good news! Those who are in Jesus never die. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It is to proclaim with Peter: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And to believe that by claiming that, I am tethering myself to a power greater than sin, greater than death, greater than darkness.

A resurrection mindset can change the world, and can certainly change your world. I’m praying for you as you enter this season beyond Easter Sunday, that you will embrace the resurrection of Jesus Christ as your permission to live wholeheartedly into the life he has designed just for you.

Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Hallelujah!

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