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Somone You Should Know: Jonathan Ziman

Jonathan’s story can be divided into several distinct chapters: Jonathan Comes to America, Jonathan Goes to Grad School, Jonathan Finds Jesus—and a chapter that’s still being written—Jonathan Serves at Wheaton Bible Church. Read on for the full story as he told it in a recent conversation with LIFE.

Jonathan, tell us about growing up.
When I was born, my family lived right in the middle of London, England, but my earliest memories are of growing up in Wimbledon and goofing off around the Wimbledon tennis courts with my friends. My dad worked in the city, so we would go up to London all the time, and even now I have a connection with the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel, the rush, of that city.

My parents are both British, as were their parents. They went to British schools—through the whole English education system. My dad’s a lawyer, a corporate attorney, as you would say over here. Retired now. I also have one brother, who is one year, one month, one day younger than me, so we’re very close.

When and why did you come to America?
I didn’t come over to America until I was seventeen, and the main reason I’m here is because of education. My parents really wanted me to have a broader education than what they thought I could have in England. At that time, the English education system was set up to really channel you, at a young age, into a specific area of study. American students can just drift and take as many different kinds of classes as they like, but in England it’s very focused, and my parents had this idea of wanting their son to be exposed to more things.

For that reason, I actually left the British system and went to an international school­­—an American school—in England, to be part of a program called the International Baccalaureate. At that time it was a new program, but now it is offered at schools over here as well. So I ended up at an American high school in England, going to classes with kids whose parents were working for companies like Pepsi, Coke, Goldman Sachs, or one of the oil companies.

When it came time for college, we looked at some schools in England and some universities in Europe, but also in America. My dad had done a postgraduate program at the University of Michigan when he was younger, and he really liked American colleges. My parents encouraged me to apply over here, and I ended up going to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

How was that experience?

Moving from England to Georgia in the southern United States was a huge culture shock for me.

In my head, America is America—and how different can it really be from England? But it was just very different. My roommate freshman year was from New Orleans, Louisiana, and was very openly racist. He would sit and watch the news and mouth off at the minorities and how they were the root of all problems. And being in Atlanta and being exposed to all the history of the South—with a big dose of racism thrown in—was distracting.

Another thing that was really different for me, coming to the United States, was how open and public everything was. British people are very private. Life is all about walls and fences, boundaries, borders, quietness, keeping things to yourself. We don’t share things with other people. It’s just a whole way of life. Over here everything seems to be out in the open.

At home, we had twenty-foot hedges around our house—but yards here are a big, open mess! They all just run together. And the kids run through everywhere. That was really weird to me.

But as distracting as all that was, my biggest distraction was my own personal failures. Growing up, I knew about the “right way” to do things. If you’re born in England, you’re kind of born into the Church of England; it doesn’t matter if you go to church or not. You might even sing a hymn at school in the morning, and a couple of times a year our teachers even marched us down the street to church services.

I didn’t really understand any of it, but I did pick up the idea—from school and from my family—that I should try to be good and avoid things that are bad, because if I did good things, I was going to be all right with God. If I did bad things, I was going to get punished.

But then I got to college, leaving all that behind in England, and it just was a time to go crazy. I’m in another country, by myself, with complete control over what I do and whether or not I go to class. So after about six weeks, I didn’t want to go to chemistry class, so I stopped going. And I ended up with an F—an actual F. That was a brand-new experience.

In much the same way, I was making my own choices about alcohol. In high school I had never gone to parties, and then here I was in college, and everyone was drinking. Life came to be all about how we could get alcohol—even though we were not twenty-one—and how we could make fake IDs and who we could pay to buy us a bottle of Jim Beam. My freshman year was all about doing whatever I wanted. I had no focus. No academic interest. No anything. Didn’t try in any of my classes. Didn’t want to try.

Did something happen to change that?
Yes, starting with “the talk” with my parents about my grades. Not a pleasant experience. They were paying all this money for me to have this amazing opportunity to go to school in America, and here I was squandering it completely. So things improved a little bit my sophomore year.

I also saw what had happened with my roommate. Although I had no interest in the fraternities, it was a big part of Emory life, and to my roommate—the racist guy—it was a huge deal. He was so destroyed when he didn’t get into the fraternity of his choice that I came back to the room one day and found him curled up in his bed with the blankets over his head, crying. From that point he descended into alcoholism and addiction to pot. His whole life went downhill. This highly motivated, driven, pre-med student just disintegrated, and I realized that I might not have known what I wanted, but I knew that I didn’t want to be like that.

So my second year I worked a little bit harder, but I still had no clue what I was going to do. It made sense to probably major in English, and somewhere in there I ended up in a class on Dostoyevsky, taught by a Russian professor. In one semester we read all of his major novels, often an entire novel in a week. It was intense. But here was this guy who “knew” Dostoyevsky and was passionate about what he was teaching, he knew it inside and out.

In the middle of all that, I realized, I want to do this. And I began to really apply myself to it. Then I took a class on Renaissance drama, again with a professor who was super passionate, engaged in the material, and incredibly knowledgeable. He inspired me.

Those two classes were the turning point for me academically. Soon I had more than enough credits for the English major, so I started taking some French classes because I had taken French in school since I was eight. I declared a second major in French literature.

Where were you at spiritually in college?
Both my majors—English and French—included a lot of exposure to philosophy, which is all wrapped up in my spiritual story. In the English classes we talked about how “we create meaning for ourselves out of the world” and how “we’re the authors of our own lives.” And the French classes were even more heavily influenced by an existential philosophy: This is all there is to life: you’re born, you live, you experience the visceral, the physical, and the material. And then you die.

Were there any positive spiritual influences in your life over those years?
Yes. God placed Christians in my life throughout college—and I hated them. I pretty much verbally abused them. I had a roommate my sophomore, junior, and senior years who was a Christian, and he kept trying to talk to me, but I just mocked Christians as being pathetic, stupid, and weak. I would tell him that faith was a crutch Christians needed to make it through life because they weren’t strong enough to face up to the reality that this life is all there is.

I was really caught in a very selfish, incredibly self-centered way of looking at life, because at that time I believed that the self is all you have, which isn’t the best way to approach relationships with other people.

So you came to the end of your undergraduate career.
Yes, I actually ended up taking five years of college because I had basically wasted my first year and because I had declared a second major. Amazingly, my parents were okay with that. And I was convinced I was going to get a PhD in English and then teach. Teaching was something I’d always wanted to do. Thanks to slacking off my freshman year, I didn’t get into most of the top programs I applied to, but although the University of Chicago declined my application to their PhD program, they invited me to be part of their brand-new, one-year, master of arts program in the humanities.

I thought, Hey, University of Chicago? Why not? So I came up here, still convinced I was going to get a PhD in English and that this program, a one-year master of arts program in humanities, would be a stepping stone to that.

I entered the program as an angry atheist, and I left as a confessing Christian.

Tell us about that!
It was a year of intense academic activity. We would study like crazy and then go to a dingy little bar down in Hyde Park and drink pitchers of beer and then go back to reading massive amounts and writing these huge, long papers.

Somewhere in there I met Kari, another student in the program, who would later become my wife. She was the first Christian I met whom I didn’t just dismiss right off the bat. She was a Christian, but she was intelligent. She could hold her own in the class. She could write well. But I couldn’t connect the dots on that. Of course, she was beautiful and engaging and everything else. But an intelligent Christian didn’t compute.

Kari and I would get into these long conversations, and she started asking me, “What do you think about life? About God? About the meaning of it all?” And I realized, as I was trying to explain myself, that no one had ever really challenged me on these things—and my answers were coming up a little short.

Meanwhile Kari is talking to me about the God who could love me unconditionally—and I just couldn’t fathom that. Everything in my life, all my experiences, pointed toward love being something you had to earn. You earn respect. You earn your grades. You do good things, and then God will like you.

So this idea that God could love me unconditionally, just love me—and love me more than I could imagine—that blew me away.

Then Kari started to give me C. S. Lewis books to read, and I said, “I’ll read your stupid Christian books. Bring it on. Lewis is no match for my genius!” And then I was reading The Great Divorce, and my arguments against God slowly started breaking down.

That Christmas I went back to Atlanta, where my parents were living at the time. While I was there, Kari sent me a Bible. She said, “I don’t know if you’ve ever read this before, but if you don’t know where to start, why don’t you read the Gospel of John.” She had marked it.

As I thought about it, I realized that I had been railing against Christians and Christianity for years but had never actually read the Bible and I should probably give it a shot. So I started reading in John, and I was reading along, turning the pages, and saying to myself, Are you kidding me? This can’t be right. This isn’t the Jesus I’ve been told about. This isn’t the God I thought I knew and hated and thought was foolish.

I got all the way to John 15, where Jesus says, “Abide in me.” And he says, “If the branches don’t abide in me, they’ll get cut off, put in a pile and burned.” I didn’t fully understand this “abiding” thing, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t doing it. Pretty sure that puts me in this pile of branches that’s getting burned up. And I don’t think I want to be in that pile. But I didn’t know what to do about it.

Did someone lead you to Christ?
When I came back after Christmas, Kari and I were talking, and I was sharing some things that were bothering me. She said, “Why don’t you pray about it.”

I said, “Well, I’m not going to pray. I don’t even believe in God.” And she said, “Well, just give it a shot.” So as we left, I was praying, Okay, God, you know what the situation is. I don’t know what else to do. So I guess if You have any ideas, help me with this.

It was a couple of hours later that I was in the library at the University of Chicago—probably the most unspiritual place in this entire state—and God gave me a very clear answer to that prayer. It was so shocking and so unexpected and so not of myself.

I realized, all in a moment, Wow, this must be God answering my prayer. And if God is answering my prayer, then it means He’s real, and real for everyone, and not just for Christians specifically but for all people everywhere. And if that’s the case, then I’m really in trouble, and I need to solve this problem.

I thought, I need to find a church, so I ran out of the library and into the building right next door, which looked like a church. I found out later it was a Unitarian Universalist Church, but it looked like a traditional church, with a steeple and wooden pews. So I went in. I’m thankful there was nobody there. My life could have taken a completely different trajectory if someone from that church had been there to talk to me.

But I went in, and in that place, I gave my life to Christ.

I got down on my knees in one of these pews and just started pouring out my life to God. Forgive me for this, for this, for this. . . I don’t want to live my life by myself anymore. I want You to take control. I want You to take charge. I’m just going and going and going and going, and just sobbing. At that moment, it was like God put his arms around me and said, “I love you. I love you.” It was an incredible thing.

The next morning—this is January in Chicago, so not super surprising—when I woke up in my sixth-floor apartment, I opened the windows and saw that it had snowed overnight. There was this fresh blanket of snow covering everything, and that was so symbolic for me, that the night I gave my life to Christ, there was this blanket of snow, and it was like what God had done in my life as far as giving me this clean slate and a fresh start.

A fresh start.
Yes. And that changed my course academically and every which way. Shortly after that, I had to write a thesis for the program I was in, and as I thought through what subject I would choose, I was reading all these C. S. Lewis books. I couldn’t get enough of them. And suddenly I thought, Why don’t I write my thesis on C. S. Lewis?

I wasn’t sure what my thesis advisor, kind of a lapsed Mormon and a long-time member of the faculty there, would think about that, but he turned out to be very open to it and really encouraged me and helped me. My master’s thesis was on The Screwtape Letters: “Unveiling Irony: Screwtape the Demon as a Successful Christian Apologist.”

After I graduated, I needed a job so I could stay in the country, because I was still on a student visa. I ended up being hired by University of Chicago Press in their Journals division. This was in 1997, when the whole electronic publishing thing was really taking off, and they were just beginning to build websites to publish their journals online.

At that time I was living in downtown Chicago and working in Hyde Park, and Kari and I were sort of dating. She was living with her family in Wheaton, and I would come out here and go to church with her at Bethany Chapel (just off Wheaton College campus). Through that church, I met Chris Mitchell (now a member of Wheaton Bible Church). He was working at the Wade Center at the college, which was going to be hosting a C. S. Lewis conference the following year. He knew about my thesis and suggested that I apply to present it at the conference.

I applied and they accepted me as a speaker! I was the only person there who had never attended a Christian college, didn’t have a masters of divinity, or a degree in anything Christian, didn’t know Greek or Hebrew! I was an anomaly. The speaker before me was a world-renowned expert from an impressive university. And then there’s me—who’s been a Christian for a year.

It was an amazing experience! I got to meet J. I. Packer, the famous theologian. And at that time I remember thinking Wow, I really want to go to seminary, because this is what I want to do with my life. I was so new to being a Christian, though, that I talked with Kari’s dad, who is now my father-in-law. He had been part of Youth for Christ for years and years, and he said, “Well, ministry is incredibly challenging. It’s something you really should pray about and something God really needs to call you to do.”

I questioned why I needed to pray about it, but when I did, I realized God was saying no to seminary.

Kari and I got married in August of 1998, and in February ‘99 we drove cross-country to California. I started work at Stanford University doing more electronic publishing, which was totally just a job. It didn’t fit my gifts or interests. But at the same time, we were involved in our church out there, and I was a Bible Study Fellowship leader and was doing a lot of freelance writing for different Christian publishers—study Bibles and devotionals and other things—thanks to contacts through my father-in-law, who ran a Christian publishing company.

But every year I kept praying, “God, what’s the next step? What’s the next step? I don’t want to be here. California is nice, but this work that I’m doing, I hate it. I don’t want to be doing this. Where would you call me?” And every year the answer was wait. It was very clear. I hated how clear it was, but it was very clear: Wait. Stay where you are.

Looking back now, I realize it was a huge growing and maturing time for me. And eventually, in 2004, all of a sudden it was like God was giving me a different leading and gave me a vision for coming alongside other people—supporting, encouraging, equipping other Christians in their gifts and abilities, and helping them grow and mature in their faith.

I had a lot of questions, but what soon became clear was that I was being called into fulltime ministry and that I would be going to seminary.

As soon as I explained it to Kari, she said, “Let’s do it. If this is what God wants us to do, then I’m all in.” For so long, God had been saying, Wait, wait, wait. Now, all of a sudden, it was, Go, go, go.

Because Kari’s family lived in Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield was the logical choice. I went into that experience expecting to learn a lot about Greek and Hebrew and church history and theology, but for me, even more than all those things, seminary was a very transformative experience. I would drive the hour home in prayer, confessing sin, repenting, looking for God’s healing and growth in my life because many of my professors were teaching some powerful sermons in their classes!

Had you and Kari started your family at this point?
Yes. We drove here from California in 2005 with two young daughters, and we had our third a year later. We now have four girls, ages ten, eight, six, and two.

I might add that while we were confident that God was leading us, that didn’t mean there weren’t some difficulties. A big part of our parenting journey has been working through the pain and heartbreak of five miscarriages.

We had a number of financial hurdles as well. Our family and others were helping us to pay bills, and people would randomly bring food to our house. One Thanksgiving somebody rang the doorbell at midnight, and we found a basket of food on our doorstep. It was really humbling to go from having a high-paying, full-benefits job with a 401k and buying whatever you need, to basically going and waiting in line for hours to see if you’re eligible for food stamps. One of my first conversations at Wheaton Bible Church, with John White, whom I now serve with on the Community Life Team, was asking for rental assistance from the Caring Fund!

That brings up the question of how you first came to Wheaton Bible Church.
Well, it was really by accident. Our plan was to visit several churches in the area, and we were on our way to College Church that day, but we were running late. We were driving right down Main Street, saw the service times at Wheaton Bible Church, and realized we could be on time if we were going there! We went in, and we never went anywhere else after that. Best of all, we put our youngest child in Children’s Ministry, and they didn’t call us and she didn’t cry. It was amazing.

Then we came back the second week, hearing what Pastor Rob was preaching from the pulpit and enjoying the worship. And because I was in seminary, I wanted to meet some of the pastors, so I reached out to Chris McElwee, and we met for lunch. He shared his heart for ministry, where he saw Wheaton Bible Church going, and I was like, I’m all in. Pretty soon after that, I was volunteering in the college-age ministry. They had just started with a class of about five students on Sunday mornings, and Chris invited me to help lead that.

It wasn’t too much later that the Communication team was hiring a part-time writer, and not too long after that they needed someone to write the daily devotionals, so I was able to add more hours.

By the time I was done with seminary, I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing, but just when I needed it, there was a job at Wheaton Bible Church, serving as an associate pastor, working with the Alpha Course and the singles ministry and other assignments that matched what I was able to do. I started working at WBC fulltime on July 1, 2009, right after my graduation in June.

What is your role at Wheaton Bible Church today?
I’m now the Community Life Pastor for Mid Adults, which involves pastoral responsibility for five of our Adult Communities—Providence, Connections, Pathways, Koinonia, and Foundation Builders—working with the leaders in those classes, doing exactly what I had felt called to do nine years ago, which was coming alongside these leaders and supporting them, encouraging them, equipping them, helping them to grow in the gifts and abilities God’s given them, and helping them to be effective in the ministry that God’s called them to do.

I absolutely love being able to do all that. The people I am working with are amazing, and it’s just so cool to see God working in their lives and then working through them in these communities that we have. It’s incredible.

Beyond that, I am pastor for our singles ministry called Single Purpose, connecting our singles into community here and then equipping them for ministry. A big part of that is a monthly gathering, on the fourth Friday of every month, when seventy to eighty men and women get together for a meal and for worship, teaching, and discussion. And we’re trying to build in more opportunities for people to connect with other singles.

My heart is to encourage singles to see that they can play a significant and important role in our church. And I want them to see that and believe it and be equipped to do it.

And you are the one writing our Daily Devotions.
Yes! Every week, month in, month out, I am writing these devotionals that go out to our congregation, trying to encourage people and grow and challenge them in their faith. That’s my prayer. I pray during the week, Lord, give me the words to say so that people would draw closer to You. And that’s what I want for the devotionals.

When I first started, it was more like an assignment, a task I did. But God has really grown me enormously through this experience. What I hope I’m communicating is that God is challenging me as I read and interact with those texts, and maybe what He’s teaching me touches other people too.

Even beyond the content of the passage, the process of writing itself can bring me to a position of helplessness before God. Sometimes I’m thinking, I have no idea what I’m going to write this week. At times I’ve gone to the page and realized I have no more words! The creative switch is off. I have no more insight to offer anybody. I’m dry. And I have to pray and pray and rely on God and wait on Him, and then He starts speaking to me and changing me, and then I start writing—and all of a sudden there are five devotionals for the week, and I have to say, “God did it.” So for me, the process of writing has been a spiritual-growth component, a weekly practice of dependence on God, because I can’t do it on my own.

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2013 by in Summer 2013.

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