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.

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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.

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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

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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.


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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.


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

Cover for Prayers of a Life in Tension42. Prayers of a Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Lord 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.


Also see:

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

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Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And you shall not go up by steps to my altar,
that your nakedness be not exposed on it.”
(Exod 20:26 ESV)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Early in January 1983, I finished the last interviews that I had planned for my dissertation project, which had kept me busy for the previous six months. My dissertation eventually was entitled—Labor Relations, Technological and Structural Changes in U.S. Beef Packing and Retailing (1985)—but at that point I just returned from driving all over the mid-west and as far west as Colorado visiting companies and their union representatives.


At the time, cattle slaughtering plants all over the Eastern Corn Belt were being shut down, usually after a lengthy strike, due to competition from integrated cattle slaughtering and beef processing plants on the high plains, especially Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. Managers and union officials were eager to tell the story of their plant; how they had worked there for their entire career; and how the plants were now being shut down and being sold for scrap. The integrated plants kept humming along, located next to enormous cattle feedlots with tens of thousands of head of cattle and employing immigrant workers from far away places, who lived in trailer parks, spoke no English, and were members of union from outside the meat packing industry.


My interviews were both fascinating and deeply disturbing, as I had a front row seat observing the merger of two industries—cattle slaughter and beef processing—creating enormous, new efficiencies in production and eliminating large numbers of highly paid, blue-collar union jobs. And having returned from my adventure in technological change, I found my own funding cut off before I was able to even write down my experiences.

World Changing under My Feet

Classmates a year or two ahead of me interviewed for teaching positions, started work, and finished their dissertation projects while working on their new jobs. In my case, I interviewed successfully with the University of Hawaii, who found my master’s research on Puerto Rican agriculture directly pertinent to their own agricultural research. When push came to shove, however, a friend of mine with no such experience was offered the position because he was presumably closer to finishing his dissertation.[1] Worse, a year later when I reached the same point, cutbacks in funding announced by the Reagan Administration led the land grant universities to curtail their hiring altogether. Much of the research previously done in the universities was federally funded through cooperative agreements that were cut and never again funded, leading the field of agricultural economics into a long term decline.

Going Home

With my grant money cut, I had to leave Michigan State University without finishing my dissertation. Normally, doctoral students who leave campus never return and the rule of thumb is that about two-thirds of the doctoral candidates never complete the dissertation. Some of these students actually list their degree as ABD, “all but dissertation”; others simply quietly suffer ridicule the rest of their careers. No one expected me to return from Northern Virginia where I moved back in with my parents for the first time in about a decade.

The hard times continued at home. The Reagan Administration announced arbitrary, back-to-back hiring freezes on federal agencies, including the USDA office that wanted to hire me. Without a job or any prospect of a job, I lived in my parent’s basement and worked days to type my dissertation on my father’s manual typewriter. I ventured outside the house once a week to have lunch with our associate pastor, who considered me a good prospect for his counseling business, and occasionally to interview for different USDA offices hoping to be able to hire at some point.

Starting Work

The last pay period of 1983, I finally was able to start work in USDA—the timing was a godsend because the Reagan Administration introduced a much less generous retirement system on January 1, 1984. In USDA, I was encouraged to join the World Trade Branch (WTB) in International Economics Division where my old supervisor was the new branch chief. WTB focused on developing and maintaining international agricultural trade statistics. My new supervisor offered me several projects to choose from, but I chose to work with an old friend, who had been a branch chief but was pushed out with the change of administrations. I owed him a favor and hoped that I could help him improve his standing within the group.

Reconciling Bilateral Trade Statistics

The project involved reconciling bilateral trade statistics (country to country trade figures published by the United Nations) with the Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO) summary statistics on trade with the world (total exports and total imports), which were considered the more reliable numbers. An export table, for example, would list the country in focus, total exports reported by the FAO, and all the destinations where a particular commodity, like wheat, corn, or soybeans, would be exported. My friend spent the previous year reconciling all the countries of the world for only one commodity, wheat, because he needed to hunt up these export destinations manually in each country’s trade statistics books. He had lots of trade statistics books in his office.

Idea for Automated Project

I spent about a month reconciling trade statistics by hand before I began having second thoughts about my choice of projects. As my mind wandered one morning, I realized that these tables that I was filling in with country yearbook statistics were all computer printouts. If the figures were all in computer files, then the numbers could be reprogrammed to reduce the amount of manual labor required to complete the tables because we had two estimates for most trades: the export reported by one country and the import reported by their trading partner.

Comparing those two estimates, we would be able to identify both trans-shipments and missing data, which would be a really big deal because during the Cold War many countries tried to hide their trade, particularly with Communist countries. The United States, for example, embargoed trade with Cuba back then, but making such comparisons would allow us to identify cheaters among our trading partners. I checked with our computer staff, verified the existence of these data, and, then, approached management with a proposal to automate the construction of review tables. Management was intrigued and I was given a few weeks to see what could be done.

New Computer Language

I was encouraged to learn a new computer language called SAS and spent a month deciphering the SAS documentation. Everything was done on an IBM 370 computer which meant that I also had to learn to program in Job Control Language (JCL) and, later, to manage a series of SAS programs with a CLIST script. In the end, I had a menu driven system for managing trade statistics that USDA continued to use for more than a decade. The analytical side of the project was published as a Foreign Agricultural Economics Report—Methods of Reconciling World Trade Statistics—from which we garnered an invitation for our team to travel to Rome, Italy to brief the FAO, which we had to turn down, and a briefing later for the Central Intelligence Agency, who was interested in using our procedures for tracking contraband trade more generally.

Administrative Efficiency

This automation of manual processes was an important theme during the Reagan Administration, which was especially interested in administrative efficiency. Information technology groups maintained large databases throughout the government. Often times there were poorly understood by other staff tasked with research and administration. In order for technology to improve productivity, data systems need to be understood well enough by other staff that procedures can be integrated with the data.[2]

In order to take full advantage of the automation, regulations and procedures may need to be updated and staff retrained, a process that could take years even if it were a priority. Because such changes are not usually a priority, professional groups that may be disadvantaged by the change have enormous incentive to resist the change. Secretaries may not want to learn to use a word processing program; analysts may not want to learn a new spreadsheet program; programmers may not want other staff learning to program. Nevertheless, success in this project required transgressing administrative and professional boundaries, which was not always appreciated or tolerated.

Fruit of My Labor

In my case, the data system that I developed yielded about half a dozen publications (see reference citations). The invitations cited above led to promotion and I was offered a very interesting job in Western European Branch.  Having already established a career, my doctorate had no tangible effect on salary or my government career until much later.


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. 1985. “U.S. Share of the World Wheat Market Declines,” Wheat: Outlook and Situation. USDA. ERS. May.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of World Wheat Flour Market Declines,” Wheat: Outlook and Situation. USDA. ERS. September.
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.


[1] As it turned out, he never finished his degree. He did not possess the “killer instinct”.

[2] The Kennedy Administration developed many new administrative procedures in the 1960s. This came well before automated systems were widely available.

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Hickman Explains God’s Presence

Hickman, Closer than Close

Hickman Explains God’s Presence

Dave Hickman. 2016. Closer than Close: Awakening to the Freedom of Your Union with Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Since I graduated from seminary in October 2013, I have spent increasing time working as an author alone. In my early seminary years, I was working as an economist full-time and traveling to classes once a month; later when I retired from government, I traveled to classes twice a month. Before and during seminary, I was a perpetual motion machine; now, I am still busy, but now I am busy alone. What’s different? I now longer feel a need to have music playing—I am content to work and live in silence. I share my day with God and am mostly at peace, even in the midst of daily chaos.


David Hickman, in his book, Closer than Close, writes:

“After years of striving to be close to Jesus, I stumbled upon the shocking reality that Jesus was already as close to me as he could possibly get. It was then that I discovered, in the words of Philip Yancey, ‘Jesus I never knew.’ Striving was replaced with abiding.” (xv)

When Jesus talks in the seventh Beatitude—Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God (Matt 5:9), he refers to the Jewish concept of shalom, where shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002) and not the more limited idea of reconciliation, which remains more familiar. Hence, Hickman can say: “union with Christ has long been considered to be the central message of the Gospel” (xxvi) embodied in the word abiding and in the idea of being children of God—we are all brothers and sisters of our father in heaven.


Stilling, abiding is more than being members of God’s family. Hickman writes:

“What if the union I longed to have with my son was but a pale reflection of a ‘oneness’ I always longed to have with Jesus? What if Jesus never wanted to have a ‘close relationship’ with me? What if he always wanted to be ‘one’ with me instead?” (18)

This abiding is not a new idea, it is a very old idea that has its roots in the unity of God in the Shema (25-26):

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

In some sense, the unity modeled by the Trinity abides most clearly in the Gospel of John.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:4-7)

Being Close

Obviously, Hickman wanders into the deep end of the pool here—I know that in my own experience, this sort of relationship with God “just is” and is hard to talk about it when people ask. How do you talk about the most intimate relationships with anyone else? It feels like something between bragging and betraying a confidence.

Hickman’s discourse on the union with God organizes around the meta-narrative of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. However, he recasts the biblical narrative in terms of union, disunion, reunion, and promise of perfect union (48). Stated in this way, our union with God models after the Trinity and models into our faith journey.

While many aspects of theology can come up, I found Hickman’s implication for the spiritual disciplines the most interesting. He summarizes his comments under four topics:  doing nothing, praying simply, staying attentive, and being led (104).  Let me focus on each in turn.

Doing Nothing.

Hickman writes: “it takes more faith to believe we are loved and accepted by God when we are doing nothing than when we are doing as much as we can for God.” (105) Repeat that ten times. Our salvation depends wholly on the work of Christ and does not depend on anything that we have done. Hickman uses the example of a child in the womb—the body of the child matures naturally as the child abides in the mother’s womb and has nothing to prove or do (107). This concept of abiding in Christ immediately affects our attitude about prayer.

Praying Simply.

Hickman makes a profound statement: “prayer is more about who we are praying to than what we are saying.” (109) Again, he draws on an analogy to one of his children.  Before he could speak; he asked for a bagel by pointing to the bagel and then pointing to his mouth (113). Prayer reminds us of a child pointing at things needed throughout the day.

Staying Attentive.

Hickman notes that “the question is not whether God is fully present in our lives, but if we are living fully aware of God’s presence.” (115) Of course, sometimes God needs to draw our attention a bit more dramatically than usual, because of our inattention.  Hickman refers to these as “love letters” from God (115).[1]

Being Led.

Hickman describes spiritual direction as: “The discipline of being led [which] involves the willingness to entrust yourself to someone else’s care.” (124) Spiritual direction is not counseling; it is not teaching; it involves having someone point to God’s work in your life and helping you find your true self in Christ.

David Hickman’s book, Closer than Close, is a fascinating exposition of the nature of God’s union with us. The New Testament discusses this relationship but details seldom appear elsewhere. In my case, Closer than Close gave me a framework for discussing my own faith journey. Words matter. If you are serious about your faith, then this book is for you.


Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

[1] I have sometimes talked about God’s little Easter Eggs in reference to scientific discoveries that God has placed in our path so that we would find them.  Hickman’s love letters focus on God’s revealing of himself.

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