Gibson: Preach God’s Word in Season and Out

Gibson_review_08232016Scott M. Gibson. 2001. Preaching for Special Services. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the more perplexing challenges that pastors face is always being on call. Recently, the pastor on duty at a luncheon I attend got caught up in traffic; I found myself presented with an unexpected mic. For a plodder, someone who always works from a 5-year plan, these special occasions can be especially challenging.

In his book, Preaching for Special Services, Scott Gibson writes:

“A pastor must be able to step with ease into a number of different speaking venues. In addition to a regular preaching schedule, you as a pastor face an endless parade of special occasions at which you are asked to speak.” (Back cover)

He goes on to cite the Apostle Paul’s admonition: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2 ESV) The purpose of such preaching, he says, “is to give a clear, listener-sensitive, biblically based word to men and women who are sometimes eager and often desperate to hear it.” (18)

In this short book, Gibson focuses on 4 special occasions that make up the core of his  6 chapters:

  1. Preaching for Special Services
  2. Wedding Services
  3. Funeral Services
  4. Baptism and Infant Presentation Sermons
  5. Preaching at the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
  6. Speaking on Other Occasions

The foreword was written by Haddon W. Robinson who taught preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for many years and is famous for “big idea” preaching.

The idea in “big idea” preaching is to identify the subject of a particular passage of scripture, usually a pericope,[1] and its complement. The subject is what the author is talking about and the complement is what is said about the subject (19). In special occasion preaching, Gibson emphasizes the need for brevity and clarity where the preacher must be clear about the biblical text, clear about the audience, clear about the occasion, and clear in what they say (21). Tall order on occasions where the circumstances may limit the time available for preparation.

Why preach on special occasions? Outside of the obvious response—because you are asked—Gibson offers this response:

“Preaching at these times allows the preacher to speak the word of God to those gathered, to round out the worship, to bring focus to the occasion.” (17)

When I am asked, I refer to these special occasions as difficult transitions in life where God is especially present to those who call on him. Of course, preaching helps us reflect on God’s presence and his special presence.

If you are like me, this is the sort of book that gets bought and remains on the bookshelf until a special occasion arises when a good reference comes in handy. In my case, I am working on a wedding so let me review Gibson’s comments about weddings.

In each of his presentations on special occasions, he reviews the history of the church’s customs with respect the particular occasion. Gibson notes that in pre-Christian Rome and Greece, weddings were celebrated with an epithalamium, which is a poem celebrating the wedding—kind of like Song of Songs in the Old Testament. Gibson’s comments about weddings in medieval Europe are interesting:

“Preaching took place at the synagogue or at the wedding feast.  The preacher was the groom, the father of the groom, or the father of the bride.” (27)

In my case, I am both a volunteer pastor and father of the bride.

Gibson sees the wedding sermon as: “a window to understanding God’s design for marriage.” (30). In particular, the marriage is not simply a covenant,[2] but a covenant before God, having both his oversight and blessing. Gibson furthermore sees the wedding service having both theological and practical objectives, celebrating the mystery of marriage (32). The wedding sermon should use concrete language, be brief, clear, personal, and have central idea (35-37).

Scott M. Gibson’s Preaching for Special Services is a helpful reference for pastors and aspiring pastors. Others who speak occasionally may also find it interesting. Although I had a wedding in mind in reading, other chapters helped me prepare sermon notes in advance of writing.


Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

[1] A periscope is a unit of scripture with one unified thought, usually a story or parable, which is often no more than 10-20 verses.

[2] Here a covenant is more than a business partnership, but, taking the business analogy, it is more of a merger where compatible corporate cultures often determine the long-term viability of the merger.

43. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webHeavenly Father,
We praise you for your gift of salvation available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is our great high priest that transcends our weakness having also been tempted yet without sin (Heb 4:15) For out of Him, by means of Him, and into Him are all things created, sustained, and restored (Rom 11:36). And we are grateful. In the power of your Holy Spirit, work in us to complete our journey from isolation in ourselves to the person that we were created to be, from isolation from others to full persons able to offer hospitality to others, and from isolation from God to people of faith able in your power to cast off sin and idolatry. In the power of your Holy Spirit, enable us to follow the example of Jesus Christ who in life, in death, and in resurrection was merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6). Especially in teachable moments, like persecution. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

T2Pneuma Releases “Life in Tension” in Paperback and Kindle

Life_in_Tension_webT2Pneuma Releases “Life in Tension” in Paperback and Kindle.

CONTACT: Stephen W. Hiemstra, author, T2Pneuma Publishers LLC (, Centreville, VA 703-973-8898 (M),

CENTREVILLE, VA, 8/27/2016: Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes by Stephen W. Hiemstra is now available in both paperback (978–1942199045) and Kindle (978-1942199052; ASIN: B01KW0ICY8) on according to T2Pneuma Publishers LLC of Centreville, Virginia. Details available at


When God comes into our lives, we change.

Our new identity is in Christ comes into tension with our old identity in ourselves as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds. This tension arises between who we were and who God created us to be, between us and God, and between us and those around us. The Apostle Paul calls the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives sanctification.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Life in Tension reflects on Jesus’ Beatitudes in the context of scripture.  The Beatitudes serve as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and lay out Jesus’ priorities in teaching his disciples. Because the sermon serves as a kind of ordination service for the Apostles, the importance of the Beatitudes for the early church, Christian spirituality, and discipleship today cannot be overstated.

Author Stephen W. Hiemstra (MDiv, PhD) is a slave of Christ, husband, father, tentmaker, writer, and speaker. He lives with Maryam, his wife of 30+ years, in Centreville, VA and they have three grown children.

Key word for this book include: Christianity, spirituality, Beatitudes, Jesus, Bible, devotion, and theology.


What people are saying …

 We live in a fallen world. It leads to life in tension, and sometimes a life full of stress. Stephen Hiemstra takes us on a needed tour of the kind of character it takes to face such a life.                                              –  Darrell L. Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary

We don’t often think of our life as one lived in tension, but as believers that’s exactly how we live. Stephen Hiemstra’s Life in Tension takes us through the Beatitudes and provides a blueprint for Christians to navigate this tension with ourselves, with the world, and with Christ.                                                                 – Sarah Hamaker, Author

The Christian life is filled with tension, paradox, and upside down requisites for obedience to the biblical text and the clarion call of God.

– Stephen Macchia, Pierce Center for Disciple-Building

Stephen Hiemstra’s Life in Tension reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s   Cost of Discipleship, because it is an earnest, personal effort to hear and follow the voice of Jesus here and now.                                                                                    – Jonathan Jenkins, Pastor

Please mention on social media.


Trust, but Verify

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16)

Trust, but Verify [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My experience as an intern in Western Europe Branch in 1979 led me to aspire to a career as a European analyst. During my graduate school years, this aspiration gave me a reason to invest more in language study than my peers because I saw an immediate application as a Western European analyst, even if it was not my primary motivation for the study. So along the way, Cornell University sent me to study both in Puerto Rico (before my federal experience) and in Germany, and Michigan State University aided me with six weeks of intensive French, courtesy of the U.S. State Department, presumably so that I could begin work also in West Africa. By the time I joined Western Europe Branch as a full-time analyst in 1985, I could read and converse at various levels of proficiency in Spanish, German, and French, which was, in part, why I was recruited to join the Western Europe Branch after about a year with World Trade Branch.

In discussions over my transfer, my focus was to be researching feed manufacturing in Spain as lead investigator for a joint research project between USDA and an experiment station in Zaragoza, Spain. The project with Spain focused on improving our understanding of the prospective entry of Spain into the European Community (EC), which occurred the following year (1986). The project also had a tricky administrative goal of converting the project budget of several hundred thousand dollars from an administrative travel fund into a fund earmarked for research, as promised in the project proposal. As lead investigator, I would have a budget greater than most managers in the building which offered research flexibility, but it also would make the project a prospective “takeover” target for jealous competitors. To prevent any such tampering with the project, I asked to report directly to the branch chief, which would cut out a layer of management, and my request was granted.

Broadly speaking, it was expected that corn import demand in Spain would decline as import levies helped French corn to compete better with U.S. imports—the reasoning was simple, the levies would prevent U.S. corn from being imported until the French corn supplies were exhausted. Domestic barley would also substitute for U.S. imports, but primarily in swine rations, not broiler rations where corn was preferred. Spanish consumers, much like their U.S. counterparts, preferred a yellow chicken—the yellow color came either from corn consumption or from introduction of marigold flower pedals into the rations; chickens fed barley, which offered similar nutrients, turned the chicken meat a sickly bluish-white color. Unfortunately, we had no studies of the Spanish broiler industry from which to assess possible impacts of EC ascension. This deficiency motivated a trip to Spain to confer with my counterpart, Luis, and to see if a broiler study might be undertaken by the Spanish team.[2]

While the Spanish project got started, I continued to publish trade papers based on my statistical work in World Trade Branch. While I was proud to publish a study of EC trade, my methods study attracted more attention, in particular, because the chief economist of a large rice corporation enjoyed the case study of the Thai rice trade that I had used to illustrate my points.[3] That study and my outlook report on the rice trade were apparently unique in giving attention to the rice trade. While other minor crop reports could easily have been written, interest dropped off after the corn, soybean, and wheat markets were reported.

The Spanish project generated an interesting six-week trip in 1985 in which I traveled to Malaga on the Mediterranean coast to attend a conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists.[4] During this ten-day conference I spent time with many classmates from Göttingen Universität in Germany and made contacts with agricultural economists from all over the world. I mostly remember the awkwardness of seeing former professors eying the topless women on the beach and being targeted by foreign intelligence officers via other women—I never realized how political agricultural trade could be. During the rest of my time in Spain, I needed to check into the embassy—a required courtesy call which mostly annoyed the attaches who were already busy—and to spend time in Zaragoza with my counterpart.

The most productive part of the trip was visiting different feed manufacturing plants to hear first-hand about their procedures and concerns. Their procedures included sample rations, which showed substituting energy (corn, barley, tapioca, etc) and protein (soy meal, sunflower meal, etc) components and proved helpful in a later study of Spanish import demand for corn (1987). Their primary concern back then was the low quality of U.S. corn exports, a problem that was later corrected.[5]

After five weeks in Spain, I traveled to Germany for a week to visit old friends and to confer with them about what I had learned in Spain. Although Germany was also part of my responsibility as a country analyst, the interest in trade with Germany was much less than Spain, in part, because trade with northern Europe and the policy environment were well-established.

Although I expected to return to Spain for a follow up visit, it never happened. My branch chief was diagnosed with lymphoma in the winter of 1986/87 and was quickly unable to function, even though he continued to come into the office.[6] In his absence and after his death, my role as chief investigator came under fire and I suffered fairly arbitrary criticism until I gave up the project. At that point, I requested reassignment to the European situation and outlook unit, but my research responsibilities—just not the project leadership responsibilities—followed me into my new job making the whole arrangement rather stressful.

As a country analysts working in situation and outlook, I had both country (Spain, Germany, and other EC countries) and commodity (cotton and oilseeds) responsibilities. I really enjoyed the outlook work, which included making a quarterly export forecast for roughly 40 commodities, and I began developing a quantitative procedure for estimating exports. I did these estimates with a Lotus spreadsheet macro program which took 40 quarters of export, price, and export sales data and computed three estimates of exports (an elasticity estimate, a linear projection, and a percent change over the previous year) and a graph depicting the forecasts and historical data. I worked with another analyst to write a report outlining the procedure so that the procedure could be used by other country analysts.

Resistance to this export model arose from two quarters. The first point of resistance came from the other country analysts who were primarily former state department analysts with master’s level training, but no quantitative training—at the time, spreadsheets, like Lotus, were new and scary to many people. Most analysts estimated quarterly exports as simply the previous year’s number; only one other colleague routinely used the export sales figures to compute a percent change of the previous year.  Furthermore, employing this model would require that historical data be accumulated and analyzed, which would require time and effort even beyond learning to use the spreadsheets.

The second point of resistance came from policy analysts who had trouble accepting the results from back-testing which showed that the elasticity estimates were the most reliable.  EC imports were not believed to be price sensitive because of the EC variable levies. In fact, the back-testing suggested that a two-step decision process was involved. In the first step, imports were totally restricted until domestic EC production was sold. Then, in the step, imports were purchased from the lowest cost supplier. Hence, price sensitivity in the second step essentially explained the results from the elasticity estimates.

As far as I know, follow up studies of price sensitivity were never completed because later in 1987 senior agency management  announced a reorganization with the stated objective of eliminating the country analyst program. The world of trade was changing as improvements in transportation and communication reduced the need and the growth of large international trading firms reduced the desire for specialized country analysts in the public sector—why listen to a country analyst when you can pick up the telephone or hop on a plane to speak directly with your counterpart elsewhere in the world?

During the reorganization, positions throughout the Economic Research Service were opened up for competitive bidding so I applied for and was granted a transfer out of the International Economics Division and into the Rural Economy Division where I began a new career in finance in Finance and Tax Branch. Finance was entirely new for me so this was a huge move at the time—both professionally and emotionally—because I had spent years preparing for work in European affairs and had almost no training in finance.  Yet, the move into finance proved to be one of the most important career decisions that I ever made. The move led to a series of promotions which made it possible to buy a house and to afford to have my wife, Maryam, stay home to raise our kids.


Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of World Rice Market Declines,” Rice: Outlook and Situation. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Economic Research Service (ERS). March.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1986. “U.S. Farm Exports to EC Continue Falling,” Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States. USDA. ERS. November/December.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. and Arthur B. Mackie. 1986. Methods of Reconciling World Trade Statistics. USDA. ERS. Foreign Agricultural Economics Report No. 217. May.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1987. The Effect of Spain’s Entry into the EC on the Demand for Imported Corn. USDA. ERS. Staff paper No. AGES870916. October.
Hiemstra, Stephen W., and Stephen MacDonald. 1987. Forecasting U.S. Agricultural Exports Using the Trade Estimates System. USDA. ERS. Manuscript. May.

[1] “Trust but verify” is an expression made famous by President Ronald Reagan who used it to characterize his negotiation strategy with the USSR.

[2] This proved to be an elusive goal because the researchers in Spain were dedicated livestock researchers.

[3] Over the years, the United States and Thailand have competed for the honor of being the world’s largest rice exporters, but rice exports are small compared with corn, soybean, and wheat exports here in the United States.

[4] August 26-September 4, 1985.

[5] Export corn was sold by grade. If the Spanish purchased number 2 corn, then the exporter would purchase U.S. corn (which was typically number 1 quality) and add foreign matter to lower the quality to number 2 grade. This addition of dust and water to the corn lowered the quality and rendered the corn a mess by the time it was imported in Spain. Complaints about such practices to Congress eventually forced changes to the grading standards to remove the incentive to add foreign matter.

[6] When he heard his diagnosis, he knew that he would soon die. During his career in the Air Force, he worked in a nuclear storage facility and was exposed to excessive radiation. All of his colleagues in the facility suffered the same fate. He was close to being eligible to retire and preferred to retire rather than leave government on disability, but he did not live that long.


Covey Teaches Good Habits

Covey_review_08152016Stephen R. Covey.[1] 1989. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster; Fireside Book.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

So much of the time, we want God to solve our problems and to clean up our messes that we should be working on ourselves. Working as a chaplain intern in the emergency department, I started to notice that about half the patients that I saw daily came in complaining of medical problems arising from poor lifestyle choices—addictions, risky sexual practices, obesity related illnesses, and stress related illnesses. When I mentioned my observation to the head surgeon, he corrected me—it was not half the patients, it was three-quarters of them. If we perform so poorly in taking care of our physical bodies, what does that say about our performance in our relationships and careers?  (And our need for God…)

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents: “a holistic, integrated approach to personal and interpersonal effectiveness.” (9) Effectiveness here means that the biblical teaching is boiled down into principles for living and working effectively, without necessarily understanding how those principles came to be. Since God is sovereign over the whole universe, the principles of the universe are, of course, also his.  In this case, Covey is a Harvard MBA with a doctorate from Brigham Young University (a Mormon school) where, at the time of publication, was also a faculty member in the Marriott School of Management.

Covey starts with a lengthy introduction where he distinguishes personality from character, writing:

“In stark contrast, almost all of the literature [on how to be successful in life and career] in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success—things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule….

But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes, and behaviors, skills, and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” (18-19)

Covey then goes on to say that the elements of the Personality Ethic are certainly important, they are also second traits; the elements of the Character Ethic, by contrast, are primary traits (21-23). Being primary means that they not only affect our habits profoundly, they also affect our very perception of the world—our worldview or, more importantly, the lens that we use to interpret the things we see and experience (24-31). “Being is seeing” he says (32) His seven habits therefore focus on these primary traits.  Covey summarizes saying:

“The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness—natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical world.” (32)

To make his point, Covey tells the story of a confrontation on a foggy day between an arrogant battleship captain and a lighthouse attendant over who would change course. Who do you suppose ended up changing course? Sometimes, knowing the difference between objective and subjective reality is a matter of life and death, and arrogance is not an option—to be effective we must be willing to start by reforming ourselves and listening to those around us. (33, 37, 42)

Covey defines:

“a habit as the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge is a theoretical paradigm, the what to do and the why. Skill is the how to do. And desire is the motivation, the want to do. In order to make something a habit in our lives, we have to have all three.” (47)

Covey drives his point home with a Venn diagram showing the intersection of three circles (knowledge, skill, and desire) with habits occupying the intersection of the three circles (48).

Covey does not see effective people working alone; rather, effective people involve the people around them in what he refers to as the maturity continuum, writing:

“On the maturity continuum, dependence is the paradigm of you—you take care of me; you come through for me; you didn’t come through; I blame you for the results.

Independence is the paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose.

Interdependence is the paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.” (49)

While it is obvious that team-work is required in any large scale project, Covey makes an observation that is less obvious:

“Interdependence is choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.” (51)

Unable to control themselves, dependent people cannot perform well in teams; only independent people are free to join teams, not threatened by working harmoniously with others. Consequently, Covey sees the 7 habits of highly effective people including both individual character traits (independent people) and relational characteristics (teamly attitudes). Covey’s seven habits therefore are:

  1. “Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win/win.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. Synergize.
  7. Sharpen the saw.” (53)

Covey lays out his approach in part one of this book, which includes two sections. He then writes the heart of his books in chapters for each of the seven habits.  These chapters are preceded by acknowledgements and followed by several appendices and indices.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has educated a generation of business and church leaders on how to be effective in working within organizations. Early in my government career, I read this book and I spent much of the rest of my career reaping the benefits. It is hard to accurately access the fruit of Covey’s insights and his habits have each spawned books elaborating his habits, even if unknowingly. Read and study the book—both you and your colleagues will be glad that you did.


42. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webLord Most High,
Forgive us for sins known and unknown, transgressions flaunted, and iniquities seen and unseen. Give us penitent hearts that repent and make amends seeking justice, not just quiet absolution. Transform our lives, Oh Lord, that we might become fit stewards of grace. Let us put on the full righteousness of Christ as knights suiting up for battle that we might extend your kingdom into hearts yet unrepentant and minds shielded from grace. May our lives always speak louder than our words and our words speak only of you. Not squelching your Holy Spirit, but giving your spirit full reign, centered on you and you alone. In Jesus’ name, Amen.