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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webBeloved Good Shepherd,

We praise you for your teaching heart and gentle spirit.  We thank you for modeling meekness in leadership and for your patience with us as we learn. Heal our hearts, humble our spirits, open our hands that we might lead with gentleness and hospitality. Grant us open minds and a teachable spirit that we might lead those around us only to you. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.

Continue Reading

Personal Fitness Merit Badge

ShipOfFools_web_10042015do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.
So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19-20)

Personal Fitness Merit Badge

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a young adult I was prouder of becoming an Eagle Scout than of earning a doctorate. An important reason was that I succeeded in completing personal fitness merit badge.

I did not consider myself athletic in seventh grade. Although in grade school I played on a baseball team and had lots of natural talent, that talent mostly went to waste. By seventh grade, I felt dumpy, was no good at dancing, and mostly felt picked on by bullies.

In my troop, I earned more badges than anyone, but I kept putting off personal fitness merit badge—it was a chore; it did not fit my self image; I had no clue how to become fit. Besides, I reasoned, no one expected me to become an Eagle Scout—no one in Troop 1022 had ever done it.

At some point, I discovered Dr. Cooper’s book:  Aerobics.[1] He was cool—he was an Air Force doctor and was on television. He said that you could become fit by doing any exercise that you wanted; all you had to do was earn enough points every week doing different exercises. So I started jogging because jogging earned more points than other exercises.

One day during gym class I started running around the goal posts. I ran about 6 or 7 times around the goal posts before my physical education teacher stopped me and asked me if something was wrong. The same thing happened the first time I jogged down Good Luck Road: a driver pulled over and asked if I needed a ride. No one had a clue what I was doing—the idea of  running for  exercise in 1967 was novel and it sounded crazy to most people.

Crazy or not, I earned personal fitness merit badge.  The other badges came easy.


Cooper, Kenneth H. 1977. The Aerobics Way. New York: Bantam Books.

[1] This edition of The Aerobics Way was my second copy. I read the first one in 1966 or 1967.

Continue Reading

Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen

Henry Nouwen Polarities

Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen

Wil Hernandez. 2012. Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was a scout, I loved working with map and compass. Out in the wilderness armed with map and compass, how do you find your location and plot progress towards your destination? Stories of survivors of plane crashes in remote places often have the theme that those who survived plotted a course out to the horizon while those that died walked around in circles following their own instincts. Because our spiritual journey often bears a resemblance to these survival stories, how do we  interpret the tensions and polarities that we encounter along the way? Wil Hernandez in his book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, takes up this challenge.[1]


Hernandez describes himself as “a retreat leader, counselor, and spiritual director” who also teaches at various colleges and seminaries[2]. He finished his doctoral degree in practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California) in with a special concentration in spirituality/spiritual formation.

Hernandez states his purpose as:

“This book is about the tension-filled journey of Henri Nouwen and centered around his inward, outward, and upward (or Godward) resolve to live out the dialectical tensions that characterize much of spiritual life.” (xxi)

Three key points arise in this statement.  First, the journey is Nouwen’s journey. Second, Hernandez sees Nouwen at work to resolve the tension in the journey. Three, the tension itself further divides into three dimensions—inward, outward, and upward—which Hernandez describes as a trilogy—psychological, ministerial, and theological (xxiv).  He sees Nouwen adopting a “both/and modality, moving closer to the center, and working towards integration” (116-117).

For Hernandez tension arises: “when we face various elements of irony, anomaly, absurdity, opposition, or contradiction in our experience” (2).  He asks how come:

“God is portrayed in Scripture as both transcendent and immanent, hidden and revealed, unknowable and knowable, unreachable and accessible, universal and local?” (1)


While he acknowledges that this is the nature of the mystery of God, Hernandez is careful in his introduction to define three concepts of opposition:

Paradox“a paradox is characterized by a self-contradictory proposition that can appear absurd or nonsensical.” (2)

Antinomy: “As in paradox, the same element of contradiction is present, except that the appearance of contradiction does not reside in the clever phrasing of the language, but rather is constituted in the very nature of the proposition being articulated.” (3)

Polarity: “Polarity, at its simplest, refers to the presence of two opposites.  When two contrasting principles are placed side-by-side or invoked simultaneously, tension predictably rises.” (4)

Following Preston Busch, Hernandez distinguishes two types of spiritual polarities:  conversional and cooperative. In the first, natural movement is from one pole to the other, while, in the second, movement between poles is back and forth (4-5). While he sees Nouwen’s work in Reaching Out as an illustration of a conversional polarity (from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer), the emphasis in this book is on cooperative polarities—such as breathing in and breathing out (5). The reason being that Hernandez sees Nouwen having a proclivity towards integration (6), as mentioned previously.

Hernandez’s focus on this proclivity is highly ironic because, having focused on cooperative polarities, he organizes his chapters around the same trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—articulated in Reaching Out, which he describes as conversional.

Because Hernandez uses this trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—to organize the chapters in his book, let me focus on each in turn.


Nouwen (1975, 23) sees the inward journey as a movement from loneliness to solitude. Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the Christian walk as a journey from the false self in ourselves to true self in Christ. Here Hernandez writes:

“Integral to the notion of loving ourselves is the capacity to accept and embrace the totality of who we are—good and bad, true and false. Lodged into our very depths is an ongoing interplay of light and darkness.” (16)

Hernandez interprets Nouwen as seeing the opportunity to re-channel negative energies into “more positive forces” (19).  This re-channeling of the negative is possible because “In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted, but all is redeemable.” (20) He sees self-knowledge, especially knowledge of our own sin and brokenness, helping us reframe our fallen condition under the curse to become a blessing (24, 41).


Nouwen’s outward movement journeys from hostility to hospitality (Nouwen 1975, 63). Nouwen hospitality uniquely describes hospitality as offering “a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found” (Nouwen 1975, 65). Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the inward and outward movements closely bound, perhaps even in tension, for example, when he cites Bonhoeffer:

“Let him [sic] who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. But the reverse is also true:  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.” (48)

Closer to earth, opposite to a ministry of presence is Hernandez outlines a ministry of intentional absence or, what Nouwen refers to as, “creative withdrawal”. He writes:

“The rational for such withdrawal is to pave the way for the Spirit of God to work freely in a person or situation without us potentially getting in the way.” (75)

Perhaps the way to think of it is as an outward counterpart of solitude.


Hernandez sees our tension with God caught between Christ’s suffering and his glory which we, in turn, mirror (83). He cites a verse dear to my heart:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10)” (83)

Nouwen (1975, 111) starts in a slightly different place talking about a movement from illusion to prayer.[3] Nevertheless, I prefer Hernandez’s perspective because of the temporal component that he takes from John Dunn’s “already” and “not yet” (93)—while we suffer with Christ today, we also look forward to sharing in his future glory.

Wil Herandez’s book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, provides a helpful and accessible commentary on the breadth of Nouwen’s writing, with special emphasis on Nouwen’s treatment of polarities. Nouwen is an important influence on my own spirituality and writing, yet on first reading I have not understood very well what he actually said. Hernandez’s writing has helped me move beyond that point.  Seminary students and pastors reading Nouwen will want to take  a look at this book.


Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M.   2010.  Wounded Healer:  Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York:  Image Doubleday.

[1] This book is the third in a trilogy focused on Henri Nouwen. The other two are: Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (2006) and Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration (2008). For a review the first, see: Hernandez:  A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1ey), Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eJ), and Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eN).

[2] Back cover of his book. Also see:  http://www.NouwenLegacy.com/author.php.

[3] I might have expected Nouwen to offer a detailed theology of prayer with transcendence embedded in it.  Otherwise, I might be concerned that Nouwen’s view of prayer is another aspect of his inward journey, an example of psychology overwhelming theology.


Also see: Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1 

Continue Reading

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

Cover for Prayers of a Life in Tension

16. Prayers of a Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Amazing Lord,

Teach me to be like you—to love your grace like Christ and to love your laws like Moses and to have confidence in your compassion, meekness, and strength. For there is none like you: glorious and loving and yet truly humble. For you and you alone are Holy—creator of all that is, that was, and that will ever be; creator of heart and mind.  Help me to build on the work of Christ—to comfort the afflicted, to aid the poor, and to offer gentleness and hospitality in place of worldly crudeness and war. Grant me the strength to learn and to apply what I learn; grant me eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that is open to prayer. In the power of your Holy Spirit, teach me to be like you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Also see:

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

Continue Reading

Shaken and Stirred

ShipOfFools_web_10042015Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law 
he meditates day and night. (Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Shaken and Stirred

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Seventh grade was different.

Instead of having a teacher, a classroom, and a desk, you had a bell and a locker. When the bell rang, you moved from one class to another. Because of the constant motion, you couldn’t leave your books and stuff in your desk so books, notes, and personal items were stored in the locker.

School started with a bell.

Before the bell, we lined up outside the doors and just waited. At one point, friends and I went in early to drop off and pick up things in our locker but the vice principal (VP) caught us. He slammed one of our lockers shut and we took off running—no body wanted to be caught by the VP.

All day screams could be heard coming out of the VP’s office. He spent the day wandering the halls, catching rule breakers, and reminding them of the rules with a paddle that hung on his wall.

I never visited the VP’s office, but in fourth grade I visited the principal’s office.

My trip to the principal’s office started when Michael and his gang grabbed my kickball at recess. A bloody fight broke out between me, Michael, and his gang over the ball. It was unfortunate because Michael, who used to be a friend and a good student in third grade, gave up on his studies when he started hanging with this gang. Later in middle school, he carved wooden knives in shop and threatened everyone, even the teacher. In high school, he entered juvenil detention never to return. But, that day in fourth grade—when Michael and his gang grabbed my kickball—we were sent us to the principal’s office together a bloody mess. After the nurse cleaned us up, we were all sent home.

No, I never visited the VP’s office. I learned to keep the rules, not the VP, but from Mr. B.

I remember Mr. B’s civics class, in part, because he wore a crew cut and told great stories—but that is not the main reason why I remember Mr. B’s civics class.

One day while Mr. B was writing on the board I shot a spit ball at a guy and it landed at Mr. B’s feet. Now, Mr. B must have been having a bad day because he went nuts. He turned around, grabbed the student in front of me, picked him up by the shoulders, and shook him like a rag doll. For the rest of the period, nothing more was said; the class was silent.

Now silence can be golden. At a time when so much hung in the balance, I gave up on spit balls and didn’t need any longer to be reminded of the rules.

Continue Reading

Turkle Analyzes Tech Impacts on Connected Self

Alone_together_review_02042016Sherry Turkle. 2011. Alone Together:  Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  New York: Basic Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Immediacy versus immensity. What does it mean to be only a couple of key strokes away from speaking to anyone on the planet? We still struggle to find an adequate metaphor for the impact of technology on daily life today.

I am reminded of when I arrived in Germany as a foreign exchange student in 1978,  Before I left, I could not find my destination, Göttingen, on any map that I owned or could find in the local library. Furthermore, my correspondence with the university was entirely in German, a language that I had studied but not yet mastered. When my flight arrived in Frankfurt, I was entirely at the mercy of the stationmaster to get on the right train to reach my destination. Today, answers to all such travel questions can be found on any smart phone; one need not be fluent in German to understand them fully; and, anywhere along the way, you can call your parents (or kids) to help sort everything out. Talk about a reduction in uncertainty!

The effect of changes in technology on us as individuals and on today’s culture is the subject of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together. Turkle explores the immediacy of technology in part one—The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies—and the immensity of technology in part two—Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes (vii). While these parts could easily have been themes in separate books, Turkle’s interest in the changing perceptions of intimacy and solitude clearly binds them together. Alone Together is part of a trilogy (The Second Self, Alone Together, and Life on the Screen; 4) focused on the cultural effect of technology.

Turkle’s 14 chapters are equally divided between analysis of the individual response to robots—

  1. Nearest Neighbors
  2. Alive Enough
  3. True Companions
  4. Enchantment
  5. Complexities
  6. Love’s Labor Lost
  7. Communion

—and the response to life tethered to cell and computer networks—

  1. Always On
  2. Growing Up Tethered
  3.  No Need to Call
  4.  Reduction and Betrayal
  5.  True Confessions
  6.  Anxiety
  7.  The Nostalgia of the Young (vii-viii).

Throughout the book, Turkle anticipated my anxieties about technology and offering a balanced assessment. She writes:

“we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place” (295)

In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for either good or evil.

Turkle’s focus on the individual response to technology is no accident. Turkle describes herself as: “the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.”[1] Her background as a psychologist shows through clearly in her choice of topics to discuss and in her extensive use of case studies to authenticate her points. An economist or sociologist might easily have focused more on questions of productivity and institutional change, but Turkle never goes there. Here the focus is on responses by individuals to technology—no military drones, no self-driving cars, no targeted advertising, no robotic assembly lines, no wiz bang. Turkle’s perspective is reflective, fresh. Her special concern is for children.

Let me focus a minute on Turkle’s two parts: robotics and networking.

Robotics. As a member of the MIT faculty, Turkle has special access to the MIT robotics lab where her work focuses on social robots, especially robotic toys like Tamagotchi, Furbi, Merlin, My Real Baby, Cog, Kismit, and so on. Turkle writes:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” (1)

Unlike Barbie, who invites you to project your issues and emotions on the doll in a kind of Rorshach test, these toys interact, talk, and appear to learn with you—what Turkle describes as a “new psychology of engagement” (38). In other words, the relationship possible with these robots is much more complex than that with traditional toys. For example, citing Baird, she asks:

“How long can you hold the object [a toy, an animal, or a robot] upside down before your emotions make you turn it back?” (45)

With a toy, no one cares if you abuse it; with a gerbil, abuse is seen as cruel and is discouraged by most adults; but with a robot, like Furby, that complains, how do you respond—do you feel an ethical dilemma? Why? Turkle observes:  “We are at the point of seeing digital objects as both creatures and machines.” (46)

As part of her research, Turkle lent these robotic toys to children and adults and then return after two weeks to interview them about their experiences and to retrieve the toys. Frequently, the interviews would be postponed as the recipients—even the adults—did not want to give up the toys. Occasionally, this issue posed an embarrassment, such as when a grandmother obviously preferred a robot, My Real Baby, to spending time with their own grandchildren (118). This happened so often that Turkle stopped trying to retrieve the robots after the interviews.

Networking. The immensity of telephone and computer networks can be intimating. Not only do we have the ability to contact anyone, anywhere on earth; we never really leave home. Turkle writes:

“When I grew up the idea of ‘global village’ was an abstraction. My daughter lives something concrete. Emotionally, socially, wherever she goes, she never leaves home.” (156)

This level of connectedness poses a challenge for adolescents who have a developmental need to separate themselves from their parents (174).

Especially in American culture, individual autonomy is a cultural icon. In my own experience as a foreign student, the current level of connection made possible through cell phones and the internet was unthinkable. During my year in Germany, for example, my primary way of communicating with my parents was to write letters. Telephone calls were so expensive that my gift for Christmas from my host family was a call home. My remoteness during the year disrupted a number of relationships, particularly with my parents[2], but I was well-prepared for this separation having worked summers as a camp counselor in high school and attended college out of state.  By contrast, my own kids have had cell phones since high school and are seldom out of touch with their mother for more than a few days; they are more normally in touch several times a day.

Turkle talks about kids using texting to validate emotions even before they are fully aware of them.  In effect, they poll their friends on how they should feel about things or test out emotions before fully investing in them (175-177).  To my ears, this sounds like co-dependency. She writes:

“in the psychoanalytical tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use.” (177)

So here we have a niche for technology—to insulate people from the push and pull of normal, complex human interaction. What is perhaps surprising is that kids that text constantly are often texting their own parents (178)—which suggests a heightened need for a mature and informed parenting style precisely when mature adults are becoming scarcer than exits in a movie fire!

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is hugely interesting, informative, and accessible read. College professors looking for insight in discussing the role of technology should consider this book. I would certainly consider reading the other books in this trilogy.

[1] http://www.mit.edu/~sturkle.

[2] At one point the year after I returned home I visited relatives and attended a dinner party. No one felt comfortable talking with me.  Finally, I learned why—my farm relatives could not imagine that a world traveler, such as myself, would find talking to them interesting to speak with. Once we got over that point, things picked up and returned to a more normal interaction.

Continue Reading

Chapman: Knowing Love’s Expression Can Heal

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gary Chapman.  2010.  The 5 Love Languages:  The Secret to Love that Lasts.  Chicago:  Northfield Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

According to the U.S. Census, the share of children born to unwed mothers rose from 27 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2007, with the rate more than doubling among white women over this period [1]. This one statistic implies that in our generation the prospects for children in the U.S. have plummeted. Think more poverty. Think more drug use. Think more suicides. Marriage is not just a romantic idea. Broken marriages are probably the most important social problem of our time.

Gary Chapman gets it.  In his book, The 5 Love Languages, he writes:  Keeping love alive in our marriages is serious business (13).  Relational and emotional sophistication is especially important in a society where

  1. Time is measured in milliseconds;
  2. Families are mobile and both spouses work; and
  3. Community ties are weak

because little or no backup exists.  In this context, if husband and wife fail to commute their love concretely and in a way that meet each other’s needs (fills their “love tank”; 20), then the marriage comes under stress.

Chapman observes that the period of “falling in love” lasts about 2 years (30). This implies a learning period that permits couples to learn about each other and sort out their relationship.  In Chapman’s experience as a marriage counselor, he observed that in healthy marriages couples expressed love in 5 distinct languages:

  • Words of Affirmation;
  • Quality Time;
  • Receiving Gifts;
  • Acts of Service; and
  • Physical Touch (18).

This observation is complicated by two further observations:

  1. We are all by nature egocentric and
  2. Couples seldom communicate love in the same language (15; 32).

When couples fail to learn to communicate love in their partner’s love language, both partners begin to feel that their emotional needs are not being met (the love tank empties) and they feel neglected.

A key challenge in many troubled marriages is learning to identify your partner’s primary love language and communicate love in that language (124).  Chapman sees 3 clues in discovering your primary love language:

  1. What actions or inactions of your spouse are most hurtful?
  2. What things do you most often request of your spouse?
  3. How do you try to express your love to your spouse? (128)

Areas of sensitivity, requests, and expressions of love all point to your primary love language.  Because we are not all alike, expressing love the way we hope to receive it may come across to your spouse like speaking Chinese to an English speaker (15).

How can we love someone that we hate? (151)  At this point, Chapman turns to his faith citing Jesus:  But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (Luke 6:27-28 ESV). While quoting scripture is fairly common, Chapman builds on it. He suggests:  try a little experiment—identify your spouse’s top 2 love languages and work for 6 months to offer them love through them without reacting to their comments or offering criticism.  Then, see what happens (153-162).  What do you have to loose?

Chapman is an interesting read. He peppers his advice with stories of couples experiencing the problem under discussion.  He also talks about his own challenges in marriage. Throughout this book I found myself applying his advice as I read along. Perhaps, you will too.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau. Economics and Statistics Administration. U.S. Department of Commerce. Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011.

Continue Reading


ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Exod 20:8 ESV)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

More than a snack, coffee time was once an institution where some of my fondest memories of family life took place.

On weekdays, at 9 a.m., at 3 p.m., and around 8 p.m., grandma prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.

Whether you were knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone stopped what they were doing, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked.  No one was excluded; everyone was invited; conversation was required.

Coffee time on Sundays was always more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school in Grandma Gertrude’s house (or leave before lunch). So we were in church at 9:15 a.m. and Sunday school included a break for snacks. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. One thing would lead to another. Being kids, by the time we were called, we were off hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch would not be on our minds—the adults would bribe us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.

These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at 4 p.m. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks, fold up trays being brought out, and breaking out the card tables—who knows, we might even move on to board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand—“kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream”, we were told.

A more formal coffee time on Sundays occurred when birthdays were celebrated. These get togethers were common because both grandpa and grandma came from Dutch families with eight siblings, all of whom lived in or around Pella, Iowa.[1] Oskaloosa, where my grandparents lived, was more of a family outpost, but remained within driving distance of the “Pella crowd”. Formalities took the form of a distinctive routine, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and game boards, and then to goodbyes. This would involve a leisurely three or four hours—no one was in a hurry. And everyone kept on their Sunday best.

The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out the signature dishes, such as grandma’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes, as might be suggested now and then.

Eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. If my uncle John were present, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, Grandpa Frank simply gave thanks.

Having blessed the food, we would grab a plate and snake around the kitchen helping themselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. A lime or strawberry punch was normally iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adult assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. Coffee was served later with the dessert.

The end of dessert marked the beginning of discussions. These could get pointed. My great uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I would get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my dad. The room went silent. After a couple of embarrassing seconds someone inquired: “What is comparative literature?” With questions like that, it did not take me long—before my next visit—to figure out what I really wanted to study.

Discussions were not always in earnest. “You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills”…ah-huh.

Discussion was mandatory; board games were not. When discussion began to wind down, those not interested in playing hearts, dominos, or, some other such thing, headed for the door. It was as regular as grandpa’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting, the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.

As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.

My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents would visit, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever easier downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.

Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned 90, he lost his driver’s license. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, who was the family historian and a live wire—it was always Nelly who said what was on everyone else’s mind. A quick call and Nelly would invite some of the Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.

Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, the chore of travel has become unbearable and the memory of coffee time much more elusive.

Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under an open shelter are cool and inviting, as are the relatives that I still know and cherish. The coffee and the snacks are the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time together, and my grandparents are no longer with us.

More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks would say) was a palace in time[2] that lives on in the memory of my youth.


Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.


[1] Pella was settled in 1847 by Dutch immigrants (http://www.CityOfPella.com).

[2] Cite from Heschel (1951, 12). Heschel (1951, 6) writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography.”


Continue Reading

Barthel and Edling Troubleshoot and Teach Peacemaking

Redeeming_conflict_01182016Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling [1]. 2012. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the heart of the Gospel message is conflict between who we are in ourselves and who we become in Christ. In my forthcoming book, Life in Tension, I explore this theme in great depth, in part, because both conversion and sanctification involve what can be painful transitions. The transformation of souls often requires giving up cherished sins, dysfunctional relationships, and fears. This is why redemption in Christ requires active participation of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

In their book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara Barthel and David Edling—both attorney’s by training—focus on the Jerusalem council controversy summarized in Acts 15 and discuss it in the context of  troubleshooting church conflicts with Peacemaking Ministries. By conflict, they mean: “a difference of opinion or purposes that frustrates someone’s goals or desires” (16). They present a number of case studies of churches in conflict, but return to one conflict with particular frequency: Lakeview Community Church (a pseudonym; LCC; 13).

In Acts 15, the authors see four core principles—perspective, discernment, leadership, and biblical response—and structure their book around these four principles (15-19). Let me follow their lead.

Perspective. A starting point in church conflicts is that a healthy perspective is lost and things often get personal (15).  In Acts 15, we read:

“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (Acts 15:2 ESV)

People get into conflict when they begin to pick nits, let worldly views dominate, and demonstrate a lack of trust in God and one another (27-33).  Groups within the church also start picking sides and things may get emotional (37). Still, the authors admonish us that:  “No matter the level of conflict in our church, God is still at work.” (35) Centering on God is an important first step both in prayer and in moving towards a resolution of conflict (50-58).

Discernment. Citing Ken Sande, the authors see 6 types of conflicts: Internal conflicts, material conflicts, value and belief conflicts, relationship conflicts, information conflicts, and system conflicts (61). Classifying conflicts is helpful in diagnosing what to do about them.  For example, personal conflicts are typically resolved not through negotiation but through repentance, confession, and forgiveness (62).

Like Jesus, the authors focus on motivations and the heart. They define: “A heart motivation (or interest) [as] the primary reason a person favors one position over another.” (63) This is an important observation because many conflicts begin over rather trivial disagreements among individuals that spin out of control. Learning to deal with such spiraling conflicts in a church context has the benefit of teaching conflict resolution skills that can be applied at home and in the workplace.

In Acts 15, we read:

“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said…” (Acts 15:6-7)

The authors underscore this point:

 “We are unaware of any church that has successfully resolved its churchwide conflicts without first going back to the basics of what the gospel message is, its implications for faith, and life, and God’s statement of purpose and mission for his church…” (78-79)

At the heart of this point is the need for serious discussion and dialogue: “much debate”. This point is particularly important today as our society has increasingly tried to sweep important controversies under the rug, arguing that they are not politically correct.  Because discussion is required for resolution, political correctness stagnates the democratic process and, in doing so,  ultimately leads to further conflict.

Citing Ephesians 4:29-31, the authors observe these standards for biblical discussion:

  • It starts with prayer.
  • Perfection is not the objective.
  • Communication requires listening.
  • Emphasize agreement, not disagreement.
  • Be flexible and charitable (79-80).

Humility, hard work, and a willingness to admit contribution to the problem all help to resolve church conflict (86).

Leadership. The authors observe that “many church conflicts center around church leaders” (135). Common issues include:

  • Moral failure.
  • Failure to meet expectations.
  • Failure to implement change appropriately.
  • Personality differences.
  • Conflict with lay people with informal influence and power.
  • Selfish misuse of church leadership positions.
  • Idolatry (135-137).

In particular, they highlight 4 characteristics of failed church leadership:

  • A lack of biblically balanced shepherd-leadership or even the expectation of it.
  • The pastor develops a “hired hand” mentality.
  • The pastor refuses to set by example.
  • The lack of a long-term vision (138).

In view here is the image of a shepherd-leader (the good shepherd) found in John 10 and also in 1 Peter 5:1-3. As lay leaders and pastors, we are truly under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd and accountable ultimately to Him.

Biblical response. The idea that church conflict, much like other forms of individual adversity, can be redemptive or formative is a uniquely Christian idea, one that is frequently rejected out of hand in our society. The authors return at this point to the LCC and ask these questions, based on the core principles articulated earlier:

  • How can we glorify God at LCC?
  • How have I [personally] contributed to the conflicts at LCC?
  • How are we called to speak the truth to one another?
  • What does it look like for us to forgive one another just as in Christ we have been forgiven? (167-168)

These questions are, in fact, a restatement of the 4 Gs of the Peacemaking Ministry:[2]

  • Glorify God.
  • Get the log out of your eye.
  • Gently restore.
  • Go and be reconciled (171).

Each of these admonishments are taken from scripture.

Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling’s book—Redeeming Church Conflicts—is filled with helpful advice about conflict resolution, especially in a church setting. I was frankly surprised at the number of scriptural situations that are directly related to this ministry of peacemaking. This is the kind of book that church leaders should study seriously and apply. Seminarians and young pastors should take special note.

[1] https://redeemingchurchconflicts.wordpress.com.

[2] Ken Sande. 2005. Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. Page 11. Also see review: Sande Resolves Conflicts; Makes Peace (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-eV). Also: http://PeaceMaker.net.

Continue Reading

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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webHumble Lord,
Help us to rest in you—to bear the burdens that you bore, to exhibit the grace that you exhibited, And to extend the peace that you extended. Clear our cluttered minds, still our restless hearts that we might—refuse to be victims, refuse to point the finger, and resolve to roll up our sleeves.  Heal us of our anxieties, restore us to the person you would have us be that our identity would reside in you alone—through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Continue Reading