“Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God Who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthian 1:9)
I am an unexceptional product of the last 50 years of American Christianity. I am the eldest son of an orthodox Lutheran pastor. I committed my life to Jesus in response to an evangelist with Campus Crusade for Christ. I was nurtured by a handful of Jesus-freaks in a Pentecostal house-group, received an undergraduate degree from a small, Christian, liberal arts College, served on a missions team with Youth With a Mission, before earning a Master’s degree from one of the largest interdenominational Seminaries in the world. I worked with trailblazing teachers, writers and pastors from every flavor of evangelicalism while serving with Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program.
During those years, I studied and promoted the strategies of Church Growth from the inside out. I had numerous offers to work with successful church leaders, and in 1990 I accepted a pastoral position with an aggressively growth-minded church in the Southwest.
There, I teamed with talented ministers for 20 years. I was a tireless propagandist of new programs, and invested myself in populating these groups and activities. I was fretful when members disappeared and Sunday morning attendance dipped, and lived with an unstable sense of temporary success when numbers increased. I was an impassioned advocate for unity as a leader of our local network of churches, and ardently encouraged fellow pastors in the throes of their own ministry enterprises. As the lead pastor of our vivacious congregation, I was also “the keeper of community”; attending birthday parties, pot lucks, anniversaries, visiting the sick, officiating at weddings, baptismal celebrations and funerals… My whole life was zealously immersed in the American, Evangelical Culture. I loved it. I found satisfaction and significance as a champion in it’s ranks. I unabashedly gloried in it’s ways and was intemperately bound to it’s pace.
I had no idea a confluence was forming that would profoundly redirect my life-style and substantially reshape my view of God Himself.
The first tributary burst into my life in August of 2006. While returning from a four-day conference, on a half-full flight into Phoenix, Arizona, a voice that was audible to my ears, spoke my name three times. “Jon. Jon. Jon.” I turned in my seat wondering, “Who else on the flight knows my name?” The seats beside me and for two rows behind me were empty. Facing forward again, I surmised, “someone’s conversation must have carried from the back of the cabin, or perhaps it was a sputtering air-vent.” Then, just above my left ear, in the same way that I heard my name, I heard the word: “Breathless”! This time, the voice was unmistakable.
The message however, was not immediately clear. As we descended into the airport, I sat astonished, waiting for more. “What was I experiencing – and what did the word ‘breathless’ mean?” I silently gathered my belongings and exited the plane. As I walked through the bustling concourse a wave of deep sorrow came over me and, in my spirit, I could sense Jesus weeping: “My Bride. My Bride.” The grief was pervasive, and I began to weep with Him. I turned away from the crowds into a remote section of the terminal, and with tears running down my face, was overcome by His beautiful heart. “My bride, My bride is breathless!” In that moment of mourning I understood the content and the compassion of His message: Jesus was telling me that His heart was breaking for the condition of His Church – and it was breaking for me.
I have no apology for this experience. In the space of 15 minutes Jesus leveled my enterprising image to dust and scored me as “a breathless man living in a breathless culture.” He had branded me with a tangible manifestation of His materiality and I was reeling to know how to regain His honor.
When I returned home, I abruptly implemented a list of corrections within our congregation; scheduling more corporate prayer times and creating increased space in our Sunday morning program to “wait on the Lord”. These adjustments were largely received in the spirit in which I had conceived them: as organizational modifications. The truth was, I had no idea how to address my own breathlessness, much less the breathlessness of hundreds of others. Furthermore, I had no vision for how breathless we really were; how deeply it mattered to God, and how intent He was to address it. In the months that followed, the grave truth of my own breathlessness would become quite evident.
On the morning of February 14, 2007, my wife of 23 years, was diagnosed with a rare strain of untreatable stomach cancer; “linitus plastica”. The surgeons took me into a small room and soberly informed me that there was no record of anyone surviving this type of cancer. Their words shook me like a sonic boom. Barb, now in recovery, had 9 to 12 months to live and was unconscious to the diagnosis. At the same time, our twleve-year-old daughters were with my parents 200 miles away, waiting for results of the tests. I trust I will never know an anguish more grim than breaking that news to the three people I loved the most. The weight of those moments still burns like hot coals in my stomach.
Within hours of the diagnosis, the four of us were immersed in the goodness of the body as friends and ministry associates extended their affirmations of love and commitment to pray. Our church valiantly interceded for God’s intervention – even initiating a 24/7 prayer team in a camper trailer outside our home. My compatriots in the local network of pastors bound themselves to us with prayer vigils, meals and massive emotional support.
Because of her prognosis, Barb was given only palliative care: medication to reduce the pain. With the approval of our oncologist and with the help of several extraordinary nurses in our fellowship, we turned our living room into a make-shift convalescent center. There, Barb was able to receive treatment in a familiar atmosphere, filled with sounds and the people she loved most.
Two months after her diagnosis, surrounded by family, care-providers, intercessors and worshippers, Barb died of respiratory failure.
In the weeks before her death, I had privately ventured a query with a dozen fervent believers and pastors: “We serve a God Who not only heals, but Who also raises the dead, do we not?” Within an hour of Barb’s passing all twelve of these dear friends were in our house, praying, loving us & worshipping God. They prayed all night and into the next morning. By noon the following day these lion-hearted saints embraced me with the tears of shared grief.
Abruptly, I was a 48 year old, emotionally razed widower, and a single-father of two preteen girls. After Barb’s memorial my congregation graciously gave me an indefinite leave of absence. I took three months to travel, visit family and friends and in the billows of pain began to assess the breadth and width of my emptiness.
GASPING FOR BREATH
When we returned home, the body wonderfully came to our side again; working around the house, bringing us meals, taking the girls on outings and tending to our smallest needs.
As I resumed my pastoral responsibilities, my desolate heart was buffeted with a typhoon of questions that submerged every theological point I had held as a “matter of fact”. I had believed in God’s omni-presence all of my life. Now I could only confirm His omni-absence. My church friends were tremendously understanding as their pastor stood before them Sunday after Sunday: weeping, praying and speculating. They could see their friend was gasping in a fathomless ocean.
Unfortunately, I was not alone in this ponderous sea. In less than two years, our small church buried 6 dear mothers, grandmothers, wives and sisters – all highly involved in our congregation and deeply loved. The hole these women left was enormous.
I was ripped between offering substantive hope to my grieving friends and being honest about God’s vacuous absence in my own mouth and soul. I yearned to boldly assert God’s perspective; praying and encouraging with quiet certitude. Instead, I felt only a dearth of God’s breath; nothing that invigorated the desolation of our very mortal congregation, or quelled my own tumultuous heart. I winced at the sound of my own vapid words and grimaced at the thought of our powerlessness. For weeks at a time I found myself crying with Job: “O that I may know where to find Him, that I might even come to His dwelling.” (Job 23:3)
Had I have been expected to dispense humanistic sophistry, I could have disbursed it with some wistful abstraction. However, the Kingdom that we’d been baptized into was linked to more than profundities and philosophical “words of human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:5). Faced with the daily task of ministering “de facto assurance” to a community that was rooted in New Testament realities I agonized, “Am I really giving people the substance of the God of 300 billion galaxies, or sentimental, “party-line” verbiage? What if my “theology” is no more effectual than my prayers?” God had deemed me “breathless” months before Barb’s death. How breathless was I now? How much breath did any of us have?
It was becoming increasingly discordant that I could recite a creed and preach from a book that was filled with the phenomenal, and experience so little of it’s materialization within my life. At the same time it was becoming increasingly abhorrent that I might let a business-as-usual approach to the pastoral ministry rob me from pursuing what I knew I needed, what my daughters needed, and what I suspected the breathless church needed. It sounds brusque and uncompromising, but the prospect of strapping myself back into a status-quo, Christian apparatus that was not prioritized to daily and prayerfully pursuing God felt like an invitation to a long, forced march with no legs.
Emotionally dismantled, hounded by my own quest for answers, professionally vexed and desperate for God’s authentication I brought down my organizational-charts, boxed up my books and resigned from 25 years of professional ministry.
I had no alternative prospect for employment; no vast wealth in reserve. I told friends “I need to meet with God in His tent of meeting”. I told God, “If You want me to serve You then You need to show me how to have Your Breath.”
The simple testimony of these past several years is that in spite of my tangled prayers, dull spirit and incessant impulse to “fake it”, YHWH God has faithfully met me in His tent of meeting. In His mercy He has brought me face to face with my own breathlessness, pierced my soul with questions that much of Evangelicalism seems too preoccupied to engage, and relentlessly tethered me to the truth that “it is His breath alone that gives life.” (Job 33:4)
Far from a peaceful place where I’ve blissfully encountered the refreshing breeze of His Spirit, meeting with Him has been, most often, like surviving a tornado. Henri Nouwen writes: “It is in solitude that I lose my scaffolding.” Rather than benignly putting my life back together, and quite apart from my design, (or vote) it seems to have pleased the Holy Spirit to dismantle my theology and my ambitions in exchange for the all-consuming whirlwind of His presence.
Through the last several years of deconstruction, He has marvelously provided for my family: bringing me into a new, soul-enriching marriage with a beautiful companion, Kathy, who through her own extraordinary humility, teaches me daily what it means to walk with His breath of life.
In the Spring of 2011, He led my family to the House of Prayer in Kansas City, MO where He has grafted us into a new community of believers who are radically prioritized to “inquiring in the place where His glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8). While exacting, I am convinced this vanguard lifestyle is essential if we are to lose our breathless scaffolding and become living witnesses to His reality in this age.
JSB • September, 2014