Twin Cities pastor loses ability to speak, but not his voice

- He led some of the largest evangelical Lutheran congregations in the country, ministering to thousands of Twin Cities parishioners every week, then, unexpectedly, Pastor John Hogenson was silenced.

John literally lost his ability to speak, but he knew he had a lot more to say and was determined to find his voice.

In 2015, John, a well-known evangelical Lutheran pastor was thriving in his ministry at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis when out of nowhere he started experiencing headaches and slurred speech.

“He said ‘I think whatever it is going to move fast,’ and that's the day the world changed,” John’s wife, Ruth, said.

John was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Doctors gave him a few months to live. His family brought him home, to live out the rest of his life in his 'peaceful place’ – a room in his house he connected with the day they moved in.

"We just watched him. Things got really hard for him. A man who had spent his life talking and giving back to the world that way, [he] couldn't talk, couldn't eat [and] couldn't move except for his right thumb,” Kate, John’s daughter, said.

Not willing to accept limitations, John was motivated by what little he had left. And he put that thumb to work.

Ruth: "I just said ‘Ok what are we doing?’ and he looked at me, unable to speak. I said ‘Are we living or dying?’ and he was just like… (thumbs up) living."

With the help of family and friends, John shared his journey on a CaringBridge page. Within weeks, nearly 300,000 people were tuning in each Sunday night for one of John's 'sermons'.

“He was able to give that same emotion and that same affirmation of his belief and trust and hope and faith in God,” Steve, one of John’s friends, said. “He was able to do that in a different way. But, it was just as powerful."

“It gave him a voice when he literally had no voice,” Nicole, another one of John’s friends, said.

With only brief mentions of his illness, John focused instead on lifting others up.

Kurt kalland: "That guy continued to have a story of hope and love and grace for others,” Kurt Kalland, another pastor at Mount Olivet, said. “I mean, it's like wow."

John was now living well beyond the handful of months doctors gave him and he'd made the most of that time. He'd breathed new life into his ministry online. And then, against all odds, his speaking voice came back.

John's friends seized the opportunity and began documenting his journey.

“He sees people as individuals, treats them that way,” a friend said in the video. “He meets people where they're at. Not where he'd like them to be."

"Look upwards not downwards…press on...don't give up,” John says in the video. 

In another scene in the video, John tells the viewers, “Sorry I’m a big baby. When the end of my life comes, I want to be able to look back and say I did everything I possibly could to live life as fully as I could. I'm much more interested in the life process than I am in the dying process."

Weeks later, the life process would gently give way to the dying process. John knew it was his time to go home. It just felt right.

“When he declared he was ready for hospice, none of us argued,” Ruth said. “We knew that his body was making that declaration and that we were so lucky to have had that time."

In his final hours, he gave one final sermon.

"He was still aware that morning and I played it for him. He got tears in his eyes and we talked about it,” Ruth said. “I wanted him to hear it and I think it meant a lot to him that that message would get out there about growing in faith and making a difference."

Now, 20 months after cancer tried to silence him, Pastor John Hogenson has the last word. A legacy of faith and hope and a life lived to the fullest.

"John always said life is about finishing well,” Ruth said. “For us we don't know if it's tomorrow or if it's when we're 80. And John certainly didn't know it was going to be at 58. But he always lived well and he absolutely finished well."

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