“OUT OF BREATH”
October 10, 2008
“Tell me again, why are we doing this?” I gasped straining hard to suck in enough oxygen to power up my voice.
“I guess it’s so we can say we did it,” came the reply from my equally out of breath hiking companion.
“Perhaps after the pain goes away we’ll look back on this experience and say it was worth it,” I added, stopping between every three or four words to suck in more air. “But right now I just hurt!”
My nephew, Rich, and I were crawling up the last few hundred feet toward the summit of Mount Audubon in the Colorado Rockies. With an altitude of 13,223 feet above sea level, this peak is an imposing pile of rocks located northwest of Denver. An early autumn vacation had afforded the two of us an opportunity to enjoy the rugged beauty of this alpine wonderland. The trail to Mount Audubon is an eight-mile, round trip hike with a 3,000 foot elevation gain. There were plenty of less strenuous hikes available in the area but we had chosen one of the more difficult. Why? I suppose the lure of adventure and the thrill of attempting to conquer the near-impossible proved to be too much to resist. In other words, we were idiots!
There’s nothing technical about this particular climb; it’s just a long hike. But any strenuous activity at such an extreme altitude can leave even veteran mountain climbers gasping for breath. For me, an overweight, middle-aged, chronically out-of-shape, pretend explorer, it was proving to be a daunting challenge. Adding to my misery was the fact that my home in California sits around 100 feet in elevation. Needless to say, my body was under extreme duress from not being acclimatized to the lack of oxygen at this height. For every seven or eight steps I took I would spend one or two minutes standing still in the trail sucking air. It’s difficult to describe how laborious it is trying to do anything under such circumstances, let alone climb a mountain. Altitude sickness can be very serious, potentially life threatening.
After struggling for over five hours we finally stood on the summit thoroughly drained of energy and dreading the fact that we were still four miles and 3,000 feet away from our ride home. We took the obligatory pictures to prove our victory over the elements although the smiles in those photographs belie the pain we were feeling in our cramping muscles and the wooziness from a lack of oxygen. The view was incredible! We could actually see downtown Denver, the mile-high city. Of course we were actually looking down on the city from two and a half miles high. We could only spend about ten minutes enjoying the summit since we had only a little over two hours to make it back to our car before nightfall. After hiking the last mile in near darkness we managed to make it back to the car exhausted, in pain, yet proud of what we were able to accomplish. It wasn’t until several hours later, back down at the 5,000 foot level, that my lips and fingernails lost their purple hue (a symptom of oxygen deprivation) and returned to their normal pink. And it wasn’t until a week later that I was able to walk without pain.
In the days since our lung-bursting adventure in high-altitude climbing, I have been replaying in my mind our conversation near the summit of Mount Audubon. “Tell me again, why are we doing this?” That question can be asked of many endeavors, including the manner in which we do church in this country, and how we persist in living out our Christian lives. We have a tendency to follow our own path, to find the more difficult trail, to conquer the mountain in our own limited strength rather than relying on the limitless power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and we need to let Him lead the expedition. The Spirit is our oxygen and we need to continually inhale His wisdom, guidance, energy, and strength.
Why do we consistently fail to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and all too often refuse to breathe-in His Spirit? As Rich commented on the mountain, “I guess it’s so we can say we did it.” Then we collapse in complete exhaustion and look with pride at what we were able to accomplish. In the process we burn ourselves out, cause the entire body of Christ to suffer, and steal His glory. Warning—the body of Christ is suffering from Spirit deprivation! As followers of Christ we should know that the easiest trail to follow is always the one blazed by Him, and that it’s far easier to inhale the atmosphere of the Spirit rather than the rarefied air of our own ambitions. Why do we ignore such obvious wisdom and persist in going our own way? It’s simple; we’re idiots! Before you write me off as an oxygen-starved lunatic allow me to point out some symptoms of spiritual altitude sickness.
For the first three centuries of its existence the church never thought about acquiring a building to house its gatherings. There were no building campaigns, no capital fund drives, no finance committees, and no yearly budgets. Yet the body of Christ grew at a faster pace than any time since; that is, until recent years in places like communist China where church buildings have once again proven to be superfluous in promoting growth. In the words of Frank Viola and George Barna, “In the United States alone, real estate owned by institutional churches today is worth over $230 billion. Church building debt, service, and maintenance consumes about 18 percent of the $50 to $60 billion tithed to churches annually.” – Pagan Christianity?
I ask you, is there a better way to spend the Lord’s resources? Why would we labor so hard, spend so much time and energy, and consume so many resources on constructing and maintaining buildings which aren’t even necessary for the advancement of the kingdom (In fact, such expenditures are likely working against it)? “…the Most High does not live in houses made by men.” – Acts 7:48.
Want another example of our idiocy? Look no further than our professional clergy. The role of the modern day pastor in this country would have been completely foreign to the church we read about in the New Testament. The clergy-laity division didn’t appear until the third century and the title “Pastor” did not come into use until the eighteenth century. Perpetuating this division flies in the face of the “priesthood of all believers” advocated in Scripture. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” – 1Peter 2:5. “And God placed all things under his [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” – Ephesians 1:22-23.
Instead of listening to our “Head” we have created a modern day, CEO-type position in the church which is impossible to fulfill, and which detracts from the headship of Christ. By forcing these gifted individuals to climb up a mountain which neither our Lord nor His Spirit directed us to explore, we are burning them out in record numbers. In addition we are also turning the laity into passive consumers rather than partners in ministry. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows ands builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” – Ephesians 4:15-16.
According to Viola and Barna, of the 500,000 paid pastors serving churches in this country:
*90 percent work more than 46 hours a week.
*80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.
*70 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend.
*70 percent have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.
*50 percent feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
*More than 40 percent report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations.
*33 percent consider pastoral ministry an outright hazard to the family.
*33 percent have seriously considered leaving their position in the past year.
*1,400 ministers in all denominations across the United States are fired or forced to resign each month.
Clearly, something has gone tragically wrong. Yet still we persist in burning out these gifted individuals by placing them in impossible positions which have no Biblical precedent, tear apart their family life, destroy their self-esteem and physical health, and arguably fail to contribute in any substantial way to the advancement of the kingdom. But wait; here’s another symptom of our spiritual altitude sickness.
Our Lord’s last request for the church was that we would maintain our unity. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” – John 17:20-21. Unfortunately, the body of Christ has splintered into tens of thousands of different denominations. There’s no point in asking which group is the right one. The truth is they’re all wrong because denominationalism is, in itself, a sin and runs contrary to the desire of the Head of the church. Yet still we persist in scaling this false peak believing that when we reach the top we will find the perfect church. Only later do we realize that all we have found are broken relationships and heartaches.
I could go on and on about how the church has abandoned the principles and simple structure which produced such an explosive beginning in favor of finding her own way up the mountain, but I didn’t intend this piece to be a slam on all the ills of the wayward bride of Christ. In truth, the church’s Spirit deprivation is born out of a lack of oxygen in our personal lives. That is, we all persist in following our own route up the mountain struggling for breath and quickly growing weary with the hike. Each one of us suffers from time to time with Spiritual altitude sickness. If you are like me, you will often feel burned out in your Christian service. Perhaps that describes your present condition. Tell me again, why are we doing this?
I would like to request that we all stand still in the trail for a moment and take a deep breath. How’s the air where you are? Are you inhaling the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the Holy Spirit or are you gasping for breath? Are you following after Christ or are you attempting to find your own way up the mountain? Do you find yourself struggling just to take another step or do you have energy to spare? If you have found yourself a little short of breath lately allow God’s Word to pump some oxygen into your spiritual life.
“…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:31. “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” – Zechariah 4:6. “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” – John 20:21-22.
Okay, let’s do this breathing exercise together. Everybody, exhale and expel all your personal dreams and ambitions along with everything you think you know about the church. Now, inhale deeply and take in the full measure of the Holy Spirit. There, feel better?
Bill, a child of God, catching His breath