Sedler: Wisdom With or Without Words

Sedler_review_03152016Michael D. Sedler. 2003. When to Speak Up & When to Shut Up: Principles for Conversations You Won’t Regret. Minneapolis: Baker Publishing Company (Chosen).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Years ago I made a promise to myself not to give up on life for lack of courage. Courage involves things like trying something different to keep growing; being available to my family (and to others) even when it hurt; finishing the race one step at a time—even if the race is a marathon. Courage—often it has meant being fully present in my own life when important words are spoken. So when I ran across Michael D. Sedler’s book, When to Speak Up & When to Shut Up, I knew that I needed to order a copy.

What does it mean to be fully present in our own lives?

After recounting a marriage counseling session where he [as the counselor] let himself down for not speaking up and defending his own values, Sedler writes:

“This truly is a book about love . . . loving one another enough to understand when we should remain silent and when we should speak…” (16)[1]

He further observes that:

“Our very lives, both physical and spiritual, depend upon our ability and willingness to speak out at the proper moment. And by the same token, silence can bring pain, destruction, and the inevitable onslaught of sin.” (16)

This onslaught of sin is not a throwaway comment; Sedler asks: “Was the ‘original sin’ Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit or was it Adam’s silence while his wife was deceived?” (21) Phrased in this way, Eve can be seen transgressing (doing bad) the law of God while Adam committed iniquity (failure to do good)—technically, both are sins.

An important lesson that Sedler offers comes from the story of David and Goliath found in the first book of Samuel, chapter 17.  In the ancient world where battles were crudely fought and carried a horrible penalty for all involved, it was common to delegate the battle to a champion who fought on behalf of the entire nation. The Philistine champion was a giant named Goliath and he made this proposal:

“He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” (1 Sam 17:8-9 ESV)

No one in the army of Israel dared to fight him, except for a young shepherd boy named David (1 Sam 17:32).

Sedler sees 4 principles for speaking up or remaining silent in David’s response to Goliath that enabled him to gain the confidence of King Saul who allowed him to become Israel’s champion. These principles are:

  1. David was prepared (30). As a shepherd, David had battled with bears and lions in protecting his father’s sheep (1 San 17:34-36)
  2. David had a servant heart (33). Today we would say that he had a great attitude—he wanted to encourage his brothers, serve King Saul, and honor God.
  3. David asked questions (34). In preparing to battle Goliath, he asked others about the situation and checked out the reason for their fears.
  4. David concentrated on the problem (Goliath’s challenge), not on criticizing his brothers who appeared to lack courage (37). David was not trying to show off and worked to encourage his brothers (1 Sam 17:45, 47).

What Sedler sees in this account of David and Goliath is that David was a problem-solver and a team player. He was also courageous—he spoke up and stood his ground.

Standing up to giants is one thing, but silence can also be golden. Sedler suggests asking a few questions in contemplating silence:

  1. Why am I silent?
  2. What is my motivation—is it of God?
  3. Will silence further God’s kingdom, clarify the issue, or allow me or others to grow?
  4. Am I second-guessing myself?
  5. Did I suppress the urge to speak? If so, why? (92)

Here again we see Sedler engaging in problem solving and reflection in his decision process rather than reacting hastily.

Sedler describes himself as an ordained pastor, consultant, and adjunct professor at several universities. His degrees are in political science (BA), social work (MS), and ministry (DMin).  He has also taught public school and has a Jewish background.[2]  He lives and works in Spokane, Washington.  Sedler writes in 10 chapters:

  1. Never Again,
  2. When Silence Isn’t Golden,
  3. A Kingly Voice,
  4. Communication Breakdown,
  5. A Question of Authority,
  6. The Code of Silence,
  7. The Purpose of Silence,
  8. Walking in Peace,
  9. Taking a Stand,
  10. Winning the Race (7).

The appendix recounts the story of Sedler’s conversion to Christianity at age 22.

Michael D. Sedler’s When to Speak Up & When to Shut Up is a short (156 pages with appendix), accessible, and an interesting read. He targets a Christian audience. Small groups might find this book a helpful resource in discussion.


[1]Later, he  cites the wisdom of Solomon:  [there is] “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7; 17)


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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty Father,

You are the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end, the one outside of time that created all things. We praise you for providing the bread of life and well-spring of everlasting life which is your son, Jesus Christ—our redeemer, the author of our faith, and our only true friend. We thank you for simple things, like family, bread to eat, clean water to drink, work to do, and friends in Christ. Through the power of your Holy Spirit who makes all things clear, help us to share our physical and spiritual gifts with those around us—first our family, then our friends, and even those we do not know well so that your name would be praised among the nations. Forgive us when we play the fool out of pride, not for you, but out of our own ignorance. Humble us that we might become worthy servants of your church and not ourselves. Help us to find our identity in you—not in our accomplishments, nor our friends, nor our wealth, but in you—
so that if we play the fool, it is for you and you alone. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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The Detour

The DetourShipOfFools_web_10042015

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When the pickup slowed and the driver looked over at me, I saw only the gun rack. He pulled over ahead of me, got out, and waved me over. I slowed my bicycle and stopped behind the pickup, leaning on one foot—300 hundred miles from home, off my route, and all alone, I felt vulnerable—scared that I might end up like the two bikers in Easy Rider—shotgunned to death.[1] Only in August 1972, I was not motorcycling drugs from California to Florida; I was cycling from Washington DC to start college in Indiana.

“Why did you leave route 50?” His question stoked my anxiety: this guy had obviously followed me for at least the hour trip down route 19 from Clarksburg.

“Route 50 forbids bicycles west of Bridgeport.” I answered. Actually, where route 50 divided into a four-lane highway, the big, green sign had written in white letters: pedestrians, bicycles, motor-driven cycles—prohibited. Elaborating, I continued: “I was detouring south to route 119 where I could continue west.” 

He laughed: “We had 10 bicyclists ride through here last week. Nobody cares about that sign…”

“Really? Thanks for the tip.” I responded as the driver returned to his truck.

This gun-rack angel just saved me from a difficult detour and perhaps an extra day’s travel, I figured as he drove off. Still, I was more than an hour’s ride south of Clarksburg, unfamiliar with the area west of route 19, and without a topographical map in the mountains of West Virginia. Studying the traffic map that I had, I could see that local roads could be used to jog over to route 50 at Salem, about 18 miles off—as the crow flies. Just the sort of challenge that Eagle Scouts enjoy, I thought to myself.

With an official BSA[2] yucca backpack slung over the handlebars, I cycled up route 33 that cuts off route 19, Milfort Street, along Sycamore Creek. As the road ascended uphill into the woods, the grading became progressively rougher. Pavement gave way to gravel, which gave way to dirt which gave way to stones, which gave way to transmission-eating boulders. Walking my bike through shaded, old-growth oaks among the boulders at least gave relief from the morning heat.

As the grading improved and I found myself passing tin-roofed shacks—not abandoned, not maintained, just depressing to look at—I found myself in the Appalachia mentioned on television only during election years and then only in passing. Curious locals asked only—”where y’a headed?” —but must have questioned my sanity as I panted up the hill that morning on a 3-speed bike built mostly for city streets.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the war—far off in Southeast Asia, yet ever-present in political rallies, school discussions, and family feuds.

My thoughts wandered, focused partly on the endless hillside that I walked more than peddled. By my fourth day on the road I was used to the sunburn, but relieving my hunger would have to wait until I returned to a more populated area. And I hoped that my canteen water would last until I got there.

My thoughts wandered, focused mainly on a friend I desperately wanted to see and foolishly visited my first night out at a camp west of Winchester, Virginia…Now that my foolishness had legs, the remainder of the trip—like life itself—seemed pointless and cruel. Late in the morning and graciously before I lost my mind, the hillside peaked at the ridge and the grading upgraded to macadam[3] for the first time since leaving route 19.

With the ridge, my thoughts quickened. Gone were the oak trees, the dirt road, and Appalachian poverty—they seemed to melt away like the morning mist in afternoon sun. Present now were bluegrass fields neatly grazed, white boarded fences, and country homes with expansive porches—the only thing missing was an icy cold, root beer. As my bike picked up speed gliding down the hill, a black lab on one porch began to take interest and sounded off as he ran down the yard. I paid little attention, continuing to accelerate. What dog can run 40 miles an hour? I thought, more focused on enjoying the breeze as I picked up speed.

Suddenly, I heard growls as the dog snapped at my left foot—this stupid dog was giving serious chase! Still accelerating, I moved my left foot over to stand with both feet on the right peddle. The dog had seen that trick before and moved to snap at me on the right side. Still accelerating, I moved both feet back over to the left peddle. Before the dog could respond, the road veered sharply to the left. Being on the left peddle, I could not lean into it—I was going too fast, could not break, and ran off the right side of the road into the ditch.

My front wheel slid into a roadside sewer and pitched me over the handlebars. I hit the ground on the other side of the ditch hard—sliding and rolling another 20-30 feet.  I came to a stop face down:  Stunned…Sweating…Speechless…I did not look up; I did not get up; I just lay there barely conscious. No one came running; no one noticed my accident at all.

Finally, I turned my head to see where I was. The dog stood on the road just looking at me. When he saw me look up, he wagged his tail, and wandered off. At that point, I smelled the sewage and sat up not understanding my situation.

I got up and examined my bike. I was sure that it had been ruined, but the front wheel was hardly bent at all. I pulled up a few weeds to clean off the sewage, but I could do nothing about the smell.

I don’t remember much about the trip down route 31 to route 28 and up to Patterson Fork Road that took me into Salem. I remember the heat, the exhaustion, and the hunger; I also remember the anxious desire to call my parents—my emergency dime was ready for action. As I drew closer to Salem, however, I resolved to find a restaurant, to get cleaned up, and to eat lunch before deciding what to do next.

I was feeling sorry for myself as I washed up and got rid of the smell. But my other senses returned as I enjoyed a home-cooked hamburger with fries and that slice of apple pie a la mode. With every bite, I forgot more—more about the dog, more about the foolishness, and more about that irritating smell. Soon, I reflected on the unlikely intervention of that gun-rack angel and I remembered my mileage goal for the day. After lunch, I reported home on my progress, got back on my bike, and cycled on to Ohio.


[2] BSA is short for Boy Scouts of America.


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Wilbers Outlines the Keys to Great Writing and Then Some

Keys_review_02292016Stephen Wilbers. 2000. Keys To Great Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Seminary taught me many lessons, many of which took the form of words. Of course, many words in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were entirely new to me. But even in English seminary gave me new words to express ideas which were previously unformed and unattended. Writers may find themselves similarly challenged in Stephen Wilbers[1] book: Keys to Great Writing.

What are the keys here? Wilbers lists five keys: economy, precision, action, music, and personality. Let me say a few words about each.

Economy. “Make every word count.” Wilber illustrates his point by chunking up a poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem”, and asking the reader to edit it by bracketing out unnecessary verbiage. Then, he brackets the verbiage himself. The word count falls from 112 to 54, but the power in the poem rises as the word count falls (11-13). He then moves on to offer fourteen techniques for eliminating wordiness.

My favorite technique was number 5: “Delete ‘hollow’ hedges and meaningless intensifiers” A hollow hedge is an unnecessary qualifier. For example, in the expression, “rather surprised”, the word, surprised, is sufficient which makes the word, rather, a hollow hedge. Likewise, an intensifier normally adds emphasis, but not all emphasis is necessary. For example, the word, very, is everyone’s favorite unnecessary intensifier. Wilber recommends that if the meaning of the expression is unchanged when omitting hedges and intensifiers, then leave them out (21).

Precision. “Use the right word.” Prefer action verbs and concrete nouns; appeal to the five senses; be careful with modifiers; avoid sexist language; speak plainly and directly. (37-47).

Action. “Use action and movement to engage your reader.” Wilbers reinforces his earlier comments here about action verbs and cautions about pompous nouns—nominalizations. What makes this presentation differ from a typical treatment is that Wilber includes punctuation in this discussion and outlines rules for using both nominalizations and the passive voice. For example, he offers five reasons to use passive voice:

  1. To emphasize the receiver of the action.
  2. To de-emphasize the performer of the action.
  3. To avoid responsibility.
  4. To create smooth connections between sentences.
  5. To maintain a consistent point of view or sequence of subjects (56-57).

His treatment here stresses the principle that a skilled writer uses language forms appropriately rather than blindly following rules.

Music. Wilbers advises the reader to “listen to your voice”. Language is simply a representation of the spoken word (67-68).

In representing the spoken word, Wilbers classifies punctuate marks into three categories: marks of clarification (hyphens, quotation marks, and parentheses), marks of inflection (question marks and exclamation marks) and marks of separation (periods, commas, semicolons, and dashes) (72). He then offers a rhythmic interpretation of separation marks. Think of a period as a whole note rest; a colon as a three-quarter note rest; a semicolon as a half-note rest; and a comma as a quarter-note rest (73-75).

Another important way to represent the spoken word is through using different sentence structures. Wilber classifies twelve sentence types in three broad categories: functional (declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory) sentences, grammatical (simple, compound, complex, and compound complex) sentences, and rhetorical (periodic, loose, balanced, and antithetical) sentences (89). Some of these sentence types are familiar; others require definition. A sentence type new to me, for example, was a periodic sentence which is defined as a compound sentence where the subordinate clauses precede the main clause creating a sense of expectation.  A loose sentence does exactly the opposite having the main clause precede the subordinate clauses (89).

Personality. Wilbers advises writers to “be lively, unpredictable, playful, and genuine” (107). For example, Wilbers writes: “A good metaphor has three qualities: aptness, novelty, and simplicity” which might satisfy each of these conditions. (114) More generally, this chapter pulls together elements from the previous chapters and talks about how to use them.

The five keys are discussed in the first five of Wilbers’ eleven chapters. The complete list of chapters are:

Part One: Keys to Great Writing
1. Economy.
2. Precision.
3. Action.
4. Music.
5. Personality.

Part Two: Elements of Composition
6. Purpose.
7. Point of View.
8. Organization.
9. Support.
10. Coherence.

Part Three: Drafting and Revising
11. The Writing Process.

Part one described above accounts for 126 of 262 pages, or about half of the book.

Part two is perhaps of the most interest to experienced writers. For example, Wilbers reviews six purposes for writing:

1. To inform the reader.
2. To entertain the reader.
3. To persuade the reader.
4. To transact business (or accomplish a task).
5. To express oneself.
6. To create a literary work (131).

Note that the first three purposes focus on the reader and the last three focus on the writers—the more that you know about why you write, the more precise the writing will be. Clearly, how you write informs what gets written.

Having offered a flavor of Wilbers’ writing, let me sum up.

Stephen Wilbers book, Keys to Great Writing, outlines the major themes of writing without narrowing the focus to a particular genre. While this makes his book suitable as a composition textbook for college students, it has an engaging style which does not feel like a textbook. Authors serious about moving their writing style to a higher level will want to take notice.

[1] In another review (posting March 8, 2016), I give some back ground on Stephen Wilbers (Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember;

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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webGood Shepherd,

We praise you for the gifts of Eden—fertile land, food and water, and the security of your presence. Keep our hands busy; guard our minds; and give us hearts that yearn only for you. Forgive us that we are not fit for Eden—that we are not satisfied with your gifts; that we have not valued your presence; that our hands have been idle, our minds set on physical things, and our hearts easily tempted by crass things. Restore us—make us fit custodians of your garden. Set in our hearts a yearning for your presence and in our minds a hunger and thirst for your righteousness that our hands may praise you with good works all the days of our lives. Through the power of your Holy Spirit and in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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The Gauntlet

ShipOfFools_web_10042015How do you get through your day?

Too often we want to hide from our mornings seeing them as simply another challenge of running the gauntlet—running between lines of vicious people anxious to strike us with whips or sticks as we run, walk, or crawl between them.[1]

Too often we want to pull the covers over our heads and reach out only to grab the television remote or another handful of bonbons.

Too often we simply lack the energy or desire just to be.

How do you get through your day?

I posed this question to people that I run into every day. Maria, an aquatics director at the pool where I swim opined: “When I hit a rough patch, I look to what comes next. I am always looking ahead to the next item in my schedule.” David, a chaplain who works with emergency responders, sees prayer, family support, and being mindful of the presence and contribution of others as important in getting through the day. Suzanne, an hospice nurse and American Buddhist, meditates throughout the day and keeps moving with a diet rich in fruit. Amy and Edwin look beyond circumstances—the call—to find strength to meet the day’s challenges. Edwin, a pastor, asks: “can I offer witness even when I mess up?”

Let me turn to each of these perspectives as they each provide insight into getting through the day.

Maria’s Perspective. One way we get through the day is to rely on habits to structure our time and keep us focused on positive activities. Habits like getting up, taking a shower, having daily devotions, exercising, going to work, eating meals, and going to bed at the same time each day are routine. Things that, for most of us, our mothers encouraged us to do and we accepted them without question.

It is no accident that boarding schools, military organizations, and religious orders all prescribe disciplined daily routines. These routines give meaning to life, promote healthy lifestyles, and build esprit de corps—feelings of pride, community, and group loyalty. Good habits can be reinforced by positive choices in clothing, grooming, and musical affinities.

The classic example of a meaningful life through structure is the monastic life. In the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia (2009) wrote a book outlining rules to govern the disciplined life of monks in his order. Benedict’s rule specified all aspects of monastic life—meals, work, living space, worship, but the focus of his rule was on daily prayer (the breviary) which was held every 3 hours day and night.[2] Interestingly, the discipline established in Europe’s monasteries in the Middle Ages led to the later development of universities and modern institutions, such as the corporation, military organizations, and hospitals.

David and Suzanne’s Perspective. In working as a chaplain, I practiced self-care through constant prayer and things like eating properly and regular exercise. Religious music and faith symbols also provided comfort while walking with people in pain. For many people, the music of our youth—most often religious music—reminds us of a time in life when we enjoyed the uncomplicated warmth and security of family.

Musical reminders—not just religious music—can bring real healing. For example, when working as a chaplain in an Alzheimer’s unit, I met an older man, James, who used to wander up and down the halls all day muttering to himself—he spoke nothing but gibberish. One day I invited James to hear a jazz saxophonist play—he was delighted. While the nurses resisted my taking him, when the music started he stood up, began dancing to the music, and invited several women to join him. More importantly, he began speaking in complete sentences and offered real conversation: the music helped him center and he remained cogent for several weeks.

Amy and Edwin’s Perspective. For many of us, getting through the day means accepting the morning gauntlet as part of our calling and identity.

A gauntlet story figured prominently in the Battle of Balaclava, fought on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. British cavalry were mistakenly sent to attack a heavily defended Russian gun position at the east end of North valley. Both sides of the valley, the Causeway Heights to the south and the Fedioukine Heights to the north, were well defended. As the attack unfolded, senior officers realized the orders were mistaken and, believing the attack would fail, they withheld reinforcements. The advance cavalry unit, known as the Light Brigade, galloped down the valley alone prosecuting the attack in spite of cannon fire from three sides, punishing losses, and no support from the remainder of their division. Overtaking the Russian position at the end of the valley to everyone’s surprise, the Light Brigade had to turn and fight their way back out, as other Russian units worked to surround them. Of the 666 taking part in the charge, 110 were killed, 129 wounded, and 32 taken prisoner.[3]

A poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called—The Charge of the Light Brigade—recorded the battle with these words:[4]


Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.[5]


The Charge of the Light Brigade was a military disaster, but it became a symbol of gallantry for generations of young men.

In closing, the next time you lack energy in the morning and want to pull the covers over your head, remember the charge of the Light Brigade and the day that the gauntlet gave up the glory.



Benedict of Nursia (Saint). 2009. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict (Orig pub 547). Translated by Boniface Verheyen (1949), OSB of St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas (Kindle Edition).

Wynne, John J. 2013. The Jesuit Martyrs of North America (Orig Pub 1925 by Universal Knowledge Foundation). Literary Licensing, LLC


[1] Self-pity is a horrible thing. Running the gauntlet was the fate of an early Jesuit missionary, Isaac Jogues, in 1641 to the Mohawk, Heron, and Iroquois peoples of New York and Canada who was later canonized as one of the first saints in North America (Wynne 2013, 163).

[2] Matins (12 midnight), Lauds (3 a.m.), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (12 noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (6 p.m.), and Compline (9 p.m.).


[4] The Charge of the Light Brigade is also the subject of a 1936 Warner Brothers film starring Erol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland directed by Michael Curtiz.

[5] Some hear echoes of Psalm 23 in stanza five.

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Iwanicki Visits Baghdad and Survives to Tell the Tale

Iwanicki_review_02192016Hugh Iwanicki and Dave Bailey. 2012. Shock and Alarm: What It Was Really Like at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. North Charleston: CreateSpace.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Initiated in deception, executed with precision, mortgaged on our grandchildren’s future, terminated in quiet shame, the second gulf war symbolizes a divorce of secular America from engagement in the world and with its own Christian heritage.[1] The legacy of this war that began in March 2003 lives on today in the drone war on terrorists, the growing sophistication of ISIS militants, and the flood of refugees into Europe. When the second gulf war ended in December 2011, no commentators argued that U.S. political objectives had been met in Iraq…or anywhere else in the region.

In the middle of this muddle, Hugh Iwanicki and Dave Bailey’s book, Shock and Alarm, chronicles Hugh’s experience as a contract certified public accountant (CPA) working as an auditor in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad over the period from October 2008 through September 2009. This corresponds to the late Bush Administration and early Obama Administration when U.S. policy was clearly in motion from a focus on fighting terrorism to a focus on other—primarily domestic—concerns. This backdrop is important both in understanding the remoteness that Iwanicki felt living in the Embassy and the lack of official U.S. interest in the plight of Iraqis in general and Iraqi Christians in particular.

Iwanicki and Bailey have essentially written two books. The first book is a travel journal that describes Hugh’s experience of life and death in a war-weary U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The second book is an interpretation of Islam from the perspective of an American Christian. Let me turn to each topic in turn.

Travel Journal. The purpose of a travel journal to give the reader a fly-on-wall view of life in a different time and place. In this parallel universe within the walls of the Green Zone, office training included defensive driving, how to avoid kidnapping, learning to duck and cover, and basic firearms competency (3-6). Hugh’s raw materials for this portion of the book come from a logbook that he kept and dispatches that he wrote home during his assignment (i).

For the uninitiated, a log book is a notebook with dates, times, who is in the room, and what gets said. For auditors, a logbook is an absolute necessity—the stakes are high; careers are on the line; details matter. A logbook may be the only record of important decisions when policies change, mistakes are made, and blame is being assigned. In this case, Hugh’s logbook offered details for composing some interesting dispatches; lonely nights trapped in the embassy-cum-bunker with nothing better to do than compose these accounts.

But this is not a book for fellow CPAs to cherish and analyze. Hugh likes to travel, to have a good time, and to obsess over details—like any good CPA. Hugh’s trip to the Dead Sea is a case in point. He writes:

“The Dead Sea is famous for being one of the saltiest lakes on the planet. What makes it so salty is the fact that it lies at the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, 1,388 below sea level. Water flows in through the Jordan River and other tributaries, but it doesn’t flow out. All it can do is evaporate, leaving its dissolved salt and other minerals behind. Water from the Dead Sea has a salinity of 33%, about 8.6 times the saltiness of ocean water.” (59)

He advises visitors not to shave because the salt gets into your pours and creates the pain of “a swarm of angry bees.” (59) Ouch!  With that happy thought, let’s turn to Hugh’s experience of Islam.

Interpretation of Islam. Hugh’s experience in Baghdad could not have come at a lower point in U.S. relations with Iraq. While he was there, the U.S. presidency was in transition, America was tired of war, and the Embassy in Baghdad was being hit daily with insurgent mortar fire. Think you have had a bad day at the office? If he had then reported a warm and fussy experience with dealing with Iraqi Muslims, his credibility would be non-existent.

Against this backdrop, Hugh’s experience as a Christian working in a Muslim country highlights some daunting fault lines in Christian-Muslim relations.

One of these fault lines has an ancient source: the holy book of Islam, the Quran.  The Quran is confusing and its interpretation is often controversial—especially in verses where the Prophet Mohammed reverses (abrogates) himself.[2] Abrogation itself is a sensitive topic because in Jewish tradition (an influence on Islam) a prophet whose prophecy proves false is to be ignored.[3] Confusion about what the Quran says leads some to see Islam as a religion of peace and others to see Islam as inspiring terrorism—both interpretations that can be made from the Quran itself (156-161).

Another fault line arises because increasing secularization of western nations has led to a secular/religious divide that has no counterpart in Islam.

One example is that Western ideals of freedom of religion allow Muslims to practice their faith without interference in Western counties. Meanwhile, Muslim counties adhere formerly (or informally) to Sharia law which does not allow Christians living in Islamic nations that same level of freedom.  Christian evangelism, for example,  is often a capital offense in Islamic counties. These differences in legal treatment often enjoy widespread and emotional support among individual Muslims (135-136). Secular leaders in the West eager to court Muslim favor and to gain access to resources, particularly oil, downplay these differences and work hard to keep such issues out of the media limelight.

Another example is that secular incursions into the Middle East, such as the Iraq War, often translate directly into religious persecution of Christian minorities. In a worldview not distinguishing secular and religious realms, military defeat is felt as religious defeat. Not surprisingly, reactions often include shame and defensiveness so drawing attention to Christian persecution only intensifies the emotional response and the incentive to persecute further (167-171). Knowing the highly emotive character of this persecution, again, secular leaders in the West work hard to keep this issue out of mainstream media and often cloak it as “ethnic violence” when it does bubble up. Interestingly, these same leaders are quick to criticize Muslims openly when political correctness issues arise.

Clearly, many fault lines arise in Christian-Muslim relations—too many to address in a short review.

Hugh Iwanicki[4] and Dave Bailey’s book, Shock and Alarm, reads well.  As a former federal worker who had also worked abroad and contemplated joining the team in Baghdad during this period, I could feel my feet in his shoes as he recounted his work, daily activities, and social interactions. Other prospective contractors considering a Middle Eastern assignment and tourists contemplating a visit will find this book an interesting and helpful guide.


[1] The United States fought two wars with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The first war was named Operation Desert Storm (January 17 through February 28, 1991; where coalition forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation but stopped short of removing Saddam from power. The second war (March 20 through May 1, 2003; known mostly as the Iraq involved an invasion of Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power. While these objectives were quickly met, little or no preparation for the post-invasion administration was done and, while the U.S. was setting up a de-facto government, political chaos and an insurgency war developed. A formal military withdrawal took place on December 18, 2011.

[2]Recall the saga of Indian born novelist (Ahmad) Salman Rushdie (himself a Muslim) who wrote a book in 1988 called The Satanic Verses. His novel highlights verses appear in the Quran which the Prophet Mohammed later abrogated (reversed). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā (death warrant) calling for Rushdie’s assassination in 1989 and Rushdie went into hiding for a number of years (

[3] “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken? When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:21-22 ESV)  While this verse may seem to speak clearly to abrogation, a biblical example of abrogation is found in 2 Samuel 7 when the Prophet Nathan reverses himself in giving guidance to King David about construction of the first temple in Jerusalem.



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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webPrecious Lord,
In our finitude, our sin, our brokenness, we yearn for your righteousness, oh God. As the hungry grasp for bread, as the thirsty cry for water, we search for your justice where no other will do or no other can be found. Through your Holy scriptures, remind us that you are ever-near, always vigilant, and forever compassionate. Through the desert of our emotions and in the wilderness of our minds, bind our wounds and forgive our sins—that our pains would be relieved and our search would not be in vain. Through the power of your Holy Spirit grow our faith even as our strength fails us. Through the blood of the lamb, restore us to your presence. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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Joy Riding

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!”
 (Ps 25:7 ESV)

My scoutmaster used to say that God has a special place in his heart for drunks and foolish kids. Usually, he accompanied this expression with a story of mindless driving from his youth, but perhaps the adults present heard the expression a bit differently—our camping trips often included dragging along a case of Jack Daniels which mysteriously disappeared by weekend’s end. One way or the other, it was when I learned to drive that I started to appreciate the wisdom in his words.

A case in point was my friend, Bob, who I knew my senior year at Parkdale Senior High School. Bob used to invite me after school to go joy driving with a friend of his who owned a old Plymouth Valiant hand-painted in battlefield camouflage colors—dark green, brown, and gray. This friend loved to drive around curvy county roads as fast as he could. And while we were zipping around the back roads of Prince George’s County he regaled us with stories about police chases and other teenage folly. Never mind that a credibility gap existed between the stories that he told and the horsepower of the old Valiant—they were good stories and we enjoyed our time together.

Up to a point, I was the ideal driving student. I read the textbook cover to cover and scored grades high enough that my instructor used my test scores to curve class grades. However, I did less well once we started driving—the mechanics of driving required other, more mechanical skills which were new to me. Still, when I took the Maryland driver’s test, unlike many of my peers I passed the test on the first attempt.

My experience joy riding and my driving class results never seemed to intersect. Oh, I watched the gory videos of highway accidents produced by the Ohio State Police, but a driver’s license symbolized adulthood and freedom—why were nasty accidents in Ohio even relevant? After all, this was the 1970s—we now had cars newly equipped with seat beats and being a smart guy I always bucked up.

Because I was a serious student and generally responsible young person, my parents generously allowed me to drive more than many of my friends. I seldom abused their trust.

But, at one point a friend set me up with a date one evening and the four of us went together to see a movie. On the way, I entertained my guests by taking them joy riding through Greenbelt Park. Back then, the park was still open at night and the road was unlit; it curved up and down the many hills through the woods providing a perfect night-time roller coaster. So I turned off the car lights and drove in the dark through the park  to the screams of my companions.

The movie was okay, but before it was over it became obvious that my role that evening was more as chauffeur and less as eligible bachelor—I was hurt and offended. To express my pain, on the way home I took off my seat belt which proceeded to buzz—it buzzed and buzzed and buzzed to the distress of my companions and my own delight…

I almost always buckle up my seat belt.

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Wilbers Offers Writing Tips to Remember

Wilbers_review_02152016Stephen Wilbers. 2014. Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarity, Emphasis, and Style. Blue Ash: F&W Media.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gutsy. Stephen Wilbers begins Mastering the Craft of Writing with a challenge—read this book twice. In a world where few people read, even fewer read with any depth, and most treat writing books as a sleep aid, any author encouraging a second read might appear delusional. But, on finishing a first read, perhaps gutsy fits.

Wilbers describes himself as a “writing consultant, award-winning author, and columnist”.[1] He has taught at a number of universities[2] and written a number of books on writing—the other one on my desk is Keys to Great Writing (Cincinnati: F&W Publications, 2000).[3]

Mastering the Craft of Writing focuses on 52 writing tips for weekly study complete with exercises and, frequently, a reflection illustrating the tip of the week. Many of Wilbers’ tips proved helpful in drawing attention to fine points in language usage that I was not—as a writer—sensitive to.  Early in his book he focuses on tips relating to clarity; in the middle of the book he focuses on tips about emphasis; and late in the book he focuses on stylistic writing tips.  Let me structure my comments accordingly.

Clarity. For example, the tip for week 1 advises the writer reading to: “Listen to Your Language” (5). Picking a few well-known, book titles, like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, he teases us with alternative word choices (e.g. “The Elderly Man and the Ocean”) to make the point that word choice matters.

Another example of a clarity tip is found in week 19 where Wilbers lists 5 type of mid-sentence shifts to avoid—

  • Shifts in verb tense,
  • Shifts in person,
  • Shifts in subjects,
  • Shifts in voice, and
  • Shifts in modified subject (103-104).

—and cites examples of sentences both with the error and with the error corrected. While I was sensitive to the first two shifts (verb tense and person), the others were new to me. Oftentimes in speaking and writing we make these shifts without giving them much thought even though they muddle our message unnecessarily.

Emphasis. Wilbers’ tips on sentence construction and emphasis were interesting, such as in week 27, where he writes:

 “In the left part of your sentence, concentrate on topic. In the right part of your sentence, manage your emphasis.” (147)

Building on this discussion, he observes in week 29 that subordinate clauses can be used to put a positive spin on bad news—a talent helpful for writers who have daily interactions with the public (157).  This tip makes clear that Wilbers is sensitive to a wider range of writing styles and contexts than most writers, who tend to write for a particular audience and within a particular professional context.

Style. Wilbers offers a number of tips that can add polish to your writing—who can’t use more polish?  For someone, like myself, coming out of a technical writing background, these tips are perhaps the least familiar.

For example, in week 40 Wilbers outlines 4 types of compound sentences:

  • Balanced (or parallel) sentences have a list of similar elements,
  • Antithetical sentences are balanced sentences with a contrary element,
  • Loose sentences begin with a main clause and are followed by parallel elements, and
  • Periodic sentences have the main clause following the parallel elements (223).

What kind of sentence is this line—

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” (222)

—spoken by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the 1942 movie Casablanca? (Periodic) By placing the parallel elements in the sentence first, a periodic sentence offers a drama introduction to the main clause according to Wilbers (223).

Stephen Wilbers’ Mastering the Craft of Writing is an interesting and accessible read. Even experienced writers are likely to find his advice useful. Wilbers’ challenge to read the book more than once is warranted, if you are like me, because—for the absent minded—practice still makes perfect.

[1] Backcover.  Also see:

[2] For example, he teaches at the University of Minnesota.

[3] My current writing instructor recommended both books—Keys to Great Writing and Mastering the Craft of Writing.

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