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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Are you going on to perfection? (and other strange questions I said yes to)

Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered nineteen historic questions as a way of agreeing to how we will live into this ministry life. I looked at these questions for the first time since ordination about this time last year and was deeply helped and encouraged by seeing them in light of nearly twenty years of ministry.

Maybe an annual evaluation of ministry in light of the questions I agreed to on day one is a good idea. Here is my take on what these questions mean for service in the Kingdom of God through the United Methodist Church:

1. Have you faith in Christ?

Faith in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option.

Methodists are not universalists. No one answering this question in the affirmative has a right to soften its meaning for convenience’ or conscience’ sake. Which is not to say a person doesn’t have a right to believe a universalist theology; they just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Methodist.

2. Are you going on to perfection?

Only inasmuch as Jesus has asked it of all of who follow him on the narrow road. This call to Christian perfection is a cry to be something more — more love, more joy, more peace, more Presence, more perfect. Not in the sense of gaining perfection on our own strength, but in the sense that in the fullness of the Holy Spirit we can find abundant life.

C. S. Lewis wrote,

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. … He meant what he said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.”

3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

Methodists believe entire sanctification is the trajectory of authentic discipleship. The question is not whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is, are our lives pointed in that direction? Sanctification is costly; it is, simply put, a call to die to self. But this question is also an invitation to freedom — freedom from mediocrity and the tyranny of tolerable. It is an invitation into the good life in its most vivid and faithful form.

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The repetition of this theme makes it all the more meaningful for Methodists, whose contribution to the Body of Christ is their commitment to sanctification. When you say you are going on to perfection, is this your intention? Will you be ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in your life with Christ, in your ministry, in your care of the Church?

This commitment to sanctification is ultimately a call to defeat the spirit of fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

There is no such thing as “part-time” in church work (can I get an “amen”?). The work of Jesus isn’t meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money. Jesus never gave us that option. He calls those who follow earnestly to take up crosses, to die to self.

6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This question is particularly meaningful for this season in the UMC. It is good to be reminded that we follow a Book of Discipline, a set of standards that guide our life together. When we enter into connectional ministry, we stand before our peers and make a commitment to living by those standards. We need to be reminded that we were adults when we answered these questions. Living them out is a holy responsibility. Otherwise, what connects us?

7. Will you keep them?

Connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC. If, at our ordination, we answer this question in the affirmative, then are we not accountable for that? If not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way (and we ought to drop the question from the list). If we are, then whether we agree with every point or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside an agreed-upon set of expectations. And when we can’t, we have an obligation to find another tribe that more closely aligns with our values.

8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

It has been erroneously said that the UMC is not a “creedal church.” How one could reach that conclusion after reading the Articles of Religion that introduce our Book of Discipline is beyond me. Here is our doctrine, clearly spelled out in twenty-five statements. Combined with our social principles, Wesley’s sermons and notes, and a denominational commitment to both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we are far more doctrinal than not. Our uniqueness is in our emphasis on social holiness; doctrine without community and compassion is dead.

9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

A world of people disagree with our Wesleyan theology on issues like predestination, the exclusive nature of Christ, the authority of the scripture, the leadership of women — just to name a few. Within our own tribe, there is quite the controversy over the interpretation of scripture where human sexuality is concerned. This question calls us to transparently examine our own minds and consciences and ask ourselves what we most deeply hold true before we commit to this tribe. Otherwise, we find ourselves too quickly frustrated with every disagreement on lesser things. The product of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is an anxious spirit. That doesn’t have to be.

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

Wesley called the church not merely to the letter of the law but to the spirit of it. “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? he wrote. “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?

They don’t call us Methodist for nothin’. Our structure is designed to create community and it has done a remarkable job for 244 years. Bearing the weight of the world’s second largest mainline denomination proves its brilliance. This structure stood our church well from its fiery days of revival in early America to its current global membership of 12.5 million. I am not at all convinced, however, that our historic structure is designed to withstand our current diversity. It may well be that the lack of understanding of this structure has only exacerbated the strain. What we are sure of is that is was not built to withstand the pressure of pluralism.

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house?

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?

This is a commitment to the next generation. In every decision, in every investment of time and resources, is the spiritual care of the next generation being considered? Or merely the comfort of the present one?

15. Will you visit from house to house?

Will you know people personally? Will you do more than use them as volunteers? Will you die to self as you care for the souls of your people, counting them as precious (not just as “present”)? Will you set your phone down and sit and listen? Will you hear their failures through the filter of their stories? If you love Jesus, will you feed his sheep?

16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

If you at any point in your life solemnly and publicly agreed to these nineteen questions and the principles beneath them, I challenge you to stop here and deeply consider whether or not you have kept faith with question #16. Have you? And if not, why?

Maybe Wesley chose to single out this spiritual discipline because it represents the deep end of a healthy list of practices he firmly believed would draw down the grace of God. Those who know how to fast will find the rest of our recommended works of piety and works of mercy much more do-able.

17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?

Wesley said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”

18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

When these questions are asked of ordinands in the opening pastor’s session of Annual Conference, this one always evokes a wave of titters throughout the audience. I suspect that is because many of us, years into ministry, continue to carry stressful debt in the form of student loans. We feel the tension between our tithes and our desires for comfort. We are all too aware that financial stress depletes us and keeps us from wholeheartedly going where Jesus sends. Those who fit that description would do well to heed Dave Ramsey’s challenge to go after a debt-free life with gazelle-like intensity. Nothing purifies motives like a life free from care for money.

19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

These are weighty commitments. They remind us that we are no longer our own. Our responsibility is to a community and our personal discipline breeds trust in that community.

Discipline breeds results. It is the foundation of effective ministry which is what we who serve this Church must hunger after.

In the most freeing of ways, Jesus knows us. He hears our hearts. We are passionate about the work of ministry, but our fierce loves and anxious thoughts and wounded hearts are only useful for the Kingdom as they are bridled and broken. Running rampant — no discipline, no boundaries, no direction, no limit, no guiding edges — we only hurt ourselves and others and lose all effectiveness as followers of Jesus.

So Lord, bridle us. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, bridle these servant-leaders in the UMC who long to lead the Body of Christ into the unhindered presence of Christ.

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