Guinness Enthralls the Called

guinness_review_02102017Os Guinness. 2003. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A friend who knows me well, once remarked that my reviews are not so much reviews as commentaries. True enough—I do not fashion myself as a critic so much as a student of the authors that I read. Too many critics that I have known cannot write which, Kant aside, gives them little to work with as critics other than a haughty disposition. But because one must invariably read beyond one’s own talents as a writer, humility is a much more honest starting point. Such is the case for anyone reading Os Guinness’ book, The Call.

Guinness states his purpose in writing with these words:

“This book is for all who long to find and fulfill the purpose of their lives.” (4)

Interestingly, even before setting out this mission statement, Guinness argues that life’s purposes are summarized in three perspectives: (1) the Eastern answer—forget it and forget yourself; (2) the secular answer—life has no meaning so invent one yourself; and (3) the biblical answer—we are created in the image of God and he calls us to himself. (viii-ix). While Guinness displays an encyclopedic understanding of all three of these perspectives,[1] the center of the onion that he peels in this book is God’s call.

Guinness’ encyclopedic understanding is possibly an inherited trait. Guinness recounts the story of one eighteen year-old Jane Lucretia D’Esterre, Guinness’ great-great-grandmother, who distraught over the death of her husband in 1815 in a duel, gave up the thought of suicide through drowning as she stood on a riverbank because she noticed the son of a neighbor plowing a field. “Meticulous, absorbed, skilled, he displayed such as pride in his work that the newly turned furrows looked as finely execute as the paint strokes on an artist’s canvas.” (184) Mind you, this young man plowed with a team of horses that have a mind of their own!

While I might attribute this distraction as a divine intervention, Guinness describes the incident as demonstrating how: “calling transforms life so that even the commonplace and menial are invested with the splendor of the ordinary.” (185) Soon after this incident, his eagle-eyed, great-great-grandmother came to faith, suggesting that she also saw God’s in this incident. Much like God drew the Prophet Jeremiah to the work of a potter (Jer 18:1-6), this young woman saw God’s hand in a plowman’s furrows.

The onion peeling characteristic of Guinness’ prose arises because he examines aspects of God’s call through narratives of famous people. One example that, as a recovering economist, I will not soon forget begins with story of Arthur Burns, a former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Burns began attending an informal White House prayer group, where he was routinely passed over in leading prayer because he had a Jewish background. When finally asked to pray, he prayed:

“Lord, I pray that you would bring Jews to know Jesus Christ. I pray that you would bring Muslims to know Jesus Christ. Finally, Lord, I pray that you would bring Christians to know Jesus Christ, Amen.” (101)

Guinness sees at least three lessons to be learned from this incident:

  1. “…calling by its very nature reminds us that we are only followers of Christ when in fact we follow Jesus…
  2. calling reminds us that to be ‘a follower of the Way’ is to see life as a journey, which, while we are still alive on the earth, is an incomplete journey that cannot be finally assessed…
  3. calling reminds us that, recognizing all the different stages people are at, there are many more who are followers of Jesus and on the Way than we realize.” (105-108)

These are, in fact, tough lessons that, in my experience, need to be learned over and over again, and that, reflecting back on Guinness, bear the markings of both patient scholarship and personal travel.

As someone working on the third edit of a memoir devoted that task, I found myself spending more time in refreshing my memory of this book than I would spend reading other texts. For me, Guinness’ tying of the call to finishing well was especially meaningful.(227) He makes three points:

  1. “…calling is the spur that keeps us journeying purposefully…
  2. calling helps us to finish well because it prevents us from confusing the termination of our occupations with the termination of our vocation…
  3. calling helps us finish well because it encourages us to leave the entire outcome of our lives to God.” (228-231)

Os Guinness’ book, The Call, is a fine read for any Christian, but especially those struggling with the meaning of their own call. Be prepared to be enthralled.

[1] If you do not believe me, read his account of spending six months traveling the “hippy trail” visiting “Kabul, Goa, Benares, Rishikesh, Katmado, and Thailand” (146). One would need to be rather dense not to learn something in such as trip about Eastern philosophy.

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Prayer for the Memory Impaired

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty father,

We praise you for the company that you bring—

make your presence especially obvious in lonely evenings and busy mornings,

in hymns of praise and silent moments,

in the dark recesses of our minds and in light moments of joy.

We confess that we do not always remember; be our memory.

We confess that we are not always happy; be our joy.

We thank you for the hedge of protection that you offer us—

keep us safe from simple falls,

keep us safe from those that prey on older people,

surround us with people that care.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, be our light and our song and our joy—

be our salvation when days draw short.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

 

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A Roadmap of Simple Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament pictures Jesus as someone who enters our life, calls us into discipleship, and gives us kingdom work to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus finds Peter and Andrew at work fishing and calls them with these words: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19) As a rabbi, Jesus offers his lifestyle and teaching as a model to follow, but, unlike other rabbis, Jesus seeks out his students and redirects their life in terms of what they are already doing. Their response is remarkable—they drop their nets and follow Jesus (Matt 4:20)—because their simple faith in Jesus amounts to only two things: obedience (responding to Jesus’ invitation) and action (following Jesus). Other than obedience and action, they only know that he is a rabbi (Matt 4:17). Their roadmap was the person of Jesus.

What is Faith?

Knowing only that Jesus was a rabbi and that he invited them to follow him suggests that their faith consisted of taking the risk of enrolling in a class of religious instruction. The content of Jesus’ instruction was not necessarily obvious nor was it obvious that this instruction would provide gainful employment, because Jesus not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Furthermore, Peter and Andrew were already Jews so their faith in Jesus did not constitute an obvious conversion experience. Jesus offered them a study opportunity and they accepted. No strings were attached; no tuition was required; Peter and Andrew just had to accept Jesus’ instruction. The fuller meaning of this instruction only comes later as Jesus’ full identity is revealed because knowing who Jesus is raises the stakes in accepting his instruction.

Why Epistemology?

This model of simple faith—obedience and action—extends also to us, but how do we know? In this age of suspicion and doubt, this question has particular significance because Jesus’ call—“follow me”—comes to us at least second hand. We read an English text translated from Greek which was itself copied by hand for almost two thousand years after the Apostle Matthew wrote it based on the testimony of others, having himself been called later (Matt 9:9), and, then, only after the resurrection made it obvious that these events had eternal significance. The epistemological question—how do we know?—is therefore a reasonable and interesting question worthy of study even in the absence of doubt.

The Four Philosophical Questions

The epistemological question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. Those questions are:

  • Metaphysics—who is God?
  • Anthropology—who are we?
  • Epistemology—how do we know?
  • Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. In this book, I explore the epistemological question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy (I have a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in economics) but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we know?

Simplicity

In approaching the epistemological question, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But the young seeker curious about God and a hardened old atheist should take note. It is interesting that Copernicus’ observation that the planets revolved around the sun simplified the mathematics of planetary motion, because the earth was not the true center of the solar system.[1] In the same manner, our lives are simplified when we acknowledge that we are God’s creation, not the creators of our own universe. Simple is good; weeds are bad. As life is short, the need for a proper focus is instrumental to coping with life’s many adversities.[2]

What Does Holy Mean?

The act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[3] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

Roadmap

In this writing project I propose to look at the epistemological question analytically by breaking it down into a series of questions, including:

  • How do we approach thinking?
  • What does the Bible Say About God?
  • How do we argue God’s existence?
  • What can we say about the criticisms of faith?
  • Why do we care?

This last question may seem out of place in this discussion, but it is, in fact, a critical to our evaluation of faith arguments. Faith is a life and death matter because, as human beings, we strive for meaning and cannot face life without it. When the Apostle Paul repeats an early Christian confession—

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

—he starts by describing it as being “of first importance”. Paul is not writing about a philosophical hobby-horse. He is talking about faith as something worth dying for, which he later did. Faith is both our compass and our anchor. And anything worth dying for, is worth living for.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Lotz, Anne Graham. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing.

Polanyi, Michael. 1962. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernican_Revolution. Polanyi (1962, 3-5) argues somewhat differently: “This would imply that, of two forms of knowledge, we should consider as more objective that which relies to a greater measure on theory [Copernican theory] rather than on more immediate sensory experience [Ptolemaic system].”

[2] Some stories bear repeating. One story concerned a dinner party where Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills. “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lotz 2000, 3) The punch line here is that the best apologetic for the Gospel is Jesus himself.

[3] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

Also see: Incentive to Examine Faith

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Kress Writes Fiction with Logic and Flair

kress_review_02092017Nancy Kress. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.  Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the dividing lines between fiction and nonfiction writing shows itself in the indirect way that fiction writers express themselves, “showing” rather than “telling” the reader. Showing a characteristic or emotion subtly transforms the reader from an observer into a participant in the story. Depending on whose head the reader occupies, we arrive at the “point of view” (POV) that the author wants to use, something that nonfiction writers may treat casually or simply ignore. In her book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress offers us a guide to this subtly in three parts—character, emotion, and point of view.

Character. Kress sees character defining fiction because character differences shape plots, settings, and writing styles, even if the influence cuts both ways (2-3). These subtle influences require that the writer adopt different perspectives, that of the writer, the character, the reader, and the critic, but at different times (3-4, 221). She sees four sources for interesting characters: “yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about, and pure imagination.” (5)

An important aspect of character is whether they are “stayers” or “changers”. Kress writes: “Changers are characters who alter in significant ways as a result of the events of your story.” By contrast, stayers may be heroes, like James Bond, who remain remarkably unflappable over time and always get the villain or may be tragically flawed and “come to grief because of their blindness.” (10) Likewise, motivations that characters exhibit may either be unchanging or change over the course of the story. Thus, four basic character/plot patterns emerge from the interaction of personality and motivation:

  1. Personality stable, motivation stable;
  2. Personality stable, motivation changes;
  3. Personality changes, motivation stable; and
  4. Personality changes, motivation changes (67).

The key to any change in personality or motivation is to make it believable.

Emotion. Kress sees emotion derived “from two other critical concepts: motivation and backstory” where “motivation means that someone wants something” (35-36) and backstory explains why. The backstory can be given in: brief detail, an inserted paragraph, a flashback or an expository dump (39). Motivation gets interesting when a character has conflicting or mixed motivations that help define character (52-54).

Expressing emotion is tricky because characters differ in ethnicity, family background, region, gender, education, and circumstances (106-108). In view of these differences, writing dialogue is tricky—we do not speak the same and we reveal emotions to just anyone. Because many people are uptight about expressing emotion, Kress cites several occasions that might allow emotional dialogue to proceed, like keeping a journal, writing a letter, talking to a pet, therapist, or priest (114-115).  Another way to open up emotions is to infer them through the use of metaphors and symbols (120-121, 124).

In her inventory of emotions, Kress highlight frustration as important in plot development and authenticity in character development. Kress writes:

“Because frustration is such an important emotion in fiction, how well you portray it can make the difference between characters that seem real and those that seem cardboard.” (150)

Kress sees: “four modes of conveying emotion: action, dialogue, bodily sensations, and character’s thoughts” (46) which implies that frustration must too be displayed in various modes.

Point of View. Because we are only really privy to our own emotions, fiction fascinates us because we get to experience someone else’s (158) and writers get to choose both which character’s POV is highlighted and how much story time it gets. Kress suggests these criteria in choosing a POV character:

  • “Who will be hurt by the action? . . .
  • Who can be present at the climax? . . .
  • Who gets most of the good scenes? . . .
  • What will provide an interesting outlook on the story? . . .
  • Whose head are you most interested in inhabiting during this story?” (160-161)

After choosing a POV character, the next step is to decide how the author will appear in the narration—“first person, third person, omniscient, or (rarely) the ‘novelty’ points of view: second, plural first, plural third, and epistolary.” (163)

While most of these POVs are well known, in the case of the third person, which is most common, Kress further delves into the question of distance—close third, medium-distance third, and distant third—which deals with the level of intimacy that the author presumes. (185) Close third allows the author to read the character’s thoughts, almost like first person, while distant third views the character as external and more formal. (188) Middle-distance third remains somewhere inbetween. The clincher is that the author can move between these three categories, although too much jumping around is confusing. (190) Kress suggests sticking with one perspective per scene. (194-195)

Nancy Kress is a writing instructor with several writing books[1] and a novelist, specializing in science fiction and fantasy. Awards that her books have won include:

“six Nebulas (for ‘Out of All Them Bright Stars,’ ‘Beggars in Spain,’ ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison,’ ‘Fountain of Age,’ ‘After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,’ and ‘Yesterday’s Kin’), two Hugos (for ‘Beggars in Spain’ and ‘The Erdmann Nexus’), a Sturgeon (for ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE).” [2]

Her most recent degrees are from the State University of New York at Brockport, where she had earned an M.S. in education (1977) and an M.A. in English (1979).

Nancy Kress’ book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, is a how-to-book for fiction writers. Nonfiction writers, like myself, can also benefit both from becoming better informed about descriptive writing and from learning to write tighter stories, which appear in most nonfiction writing. Kress’ writing is accessible, a joy to read, and displays a wonderful knowledge of classical fiction writing.

References

Kress, Nancy. 2004. Dynamic Characters. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Kress, Nancy. 2011. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

[1] Other than this book, she has written Dynamic Characters (2004) and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (2011).

[2] http://NancyKress.com.

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Prayer in the Stillness of Winter

Winter Trees by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)
Winter Trees by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)

Resurrection Lord,

Thank you for the stillness of night and quiet of winter,.

when we can rest alone and yet not fear.

Fear is too often an unwelcome companion in our lives,

when things do not go as planned and our lack of control terrorizes us.

Death looms too near; friends seem distant; sunshine seems rare.

In the midst of our loneliness, you offer Sabbath.

Rest from the busyness; rest from illness; rest from our imagined demons.

In the midst of our insecurities, you offer resurrection.

New life; new hope; new purpose.

And we give thanks.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?

The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

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Stanley: Sex is Easy—Not Easy are Relationships; Be the Right Person

Stanley_LSD_03032015Andy Stanley. 2014. The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Life has become increasingly complicated in the new millennium, in part, because American culture has thrown out “the rule book”. Some blame the pill; some blame the feminists; some blame the media.  Whoever you blame, the irony is that the emotional and financial costs of broken relationships have never been higher.

In his new book, The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating, Andy Stanley writes:

“I’m not all that interested in why things are the way they are.  I’m more interested in helping you navigate the way things are. My purpose in writing is to increase your relational satisfaction” (14).

Fair enough. But then Stanley then offers a rather rare insight:

“I’ve met with many struggling married couples who would describe themselves as having ‘marriage problems.’ But in all my years I’ve never talked to a married couple that actually had a marriage problem. What I have discovered is that people with problems get married and their problems collide. What was manageable as a single person eventually becomes unmanageable within the context of marriage” (20).

Wow.  Instead of looking for that perfect person to solve all your problems, Stanley says—hey, look in the mirror![1]

Andy Stanley is a pastor who does not sound or write like a pastor. He describes himself as a communicator, author, and pastor and founder of North Point Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. His book is written in 10 chapters, including:

  1. The Right Person Myth;
  2. Commitment is Overrated;
  3. Becoming the Right Person;
  4. So Becoming;
  5. Love Is;
  6. Gentleman’s Club;
  7. The Way Forward;
  8. The Talk;
  9. Designer Sex; and
  10. If I were You (7-8).

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction.  They are followed by conclusions, notes, and a small group discussion guide.  A DVD video study is also available.

This is a book filled with a lot of wisdom.  For example, Stanley’s discussion of 1 Corinthians 13 in chapter 5 is priceless—he describes it as your list of suggestions on becoming the person that you would want to meet (76).  One item on this list is patience:  Love is patient (1 Cor 13:4). Stanley notes that impatience is an emotion, not a decision, and patience does not come naturally.  We all have a natural pace and get angry when others don’t go along.  Stanley explains that love means deferring to someone else’s pace—in time, space, and margin—just as much as they need (79).

Summarizing all the wisdom would be hard. The cliff notes version of Stanley’s advice is found in chapter 10 which he describes as the “hard sell”.

Stanley knows his audience.  He starts this chapter by repeating a challenge that he made earlier: “Beginning today, take a year off from all romantic and sexual pursuits” (170). This is the hard sell part. Bad habits take two weeks to break;  psychiatrists tell us that addictions are forever—abstinence is the only prescription that truly works.  Bad sexual habits fall somewhere in-between a bad habit and an addiction.  While this might sound like a high price to pay for moral clarity, but the life you save may be your own[2].

Stanley suggests that you spend this year off doing some important things…working to become yourself the kind of person that you would want to meet.  He suggests 5 things:

  1. Address your past—face up to your issues;
  2. Break some bad habits (substance abuse, bad attitudes, poor fashion choices…);
  3. Set some standards—how far is too far?
  4. Get out of Debt—don’t expect to dump debt on a potential spouse; and
  5. Go (back) to church—hang out in the right place (172).

Remember the mirror mentioned earlier?  You cannot change someone else but you can change yourself and become someone that your Mr/Ms perfect might actually want to meet.

This is not a preachy book, but it is an in-your-face book.  Although my wife, Maryam, and I have been married for 30 years, I was already 30 when I got married.  In other words, I was single for a long time—it seemed like forever at the time.  Reading Stanley’s book back then would have saved me a lot of pain.  In today’s social context where learning how to engage in healthy relationships can no longer be learned by osmosis and errors are costly, how does one intentionally learn the lessons needed?

Buy and read this book. Single or not, you will be glad you did.

 

[1] Stanley writes:  “ever purchase something from a big box retailer and open the box to find a card that reads something along these lines?  If this product is defective or a piece is missing, do not return to the place of purchase.  Instead, contact us at 1-800-ITS-YOUR-FAULT.” (59)

[2] The leading cause of suicide among young people is a broken relationship.

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Love Prayer

New Life
New Life

Heavenly father,

We praise you for the mercy that you showed us in sending Jesus Christ to die on a cross for us and our salvation.

For in your mercy, we have seen your love—

sacrificial love that carried a price; covenantal love that kept a promise;

divine love that bridged the gaps between the eternal and mortal and between the holy and the unclean.

Have pity on us, a pitiable people—

people who wink at eternity for a night on the town;

people who spurn holiness for a penny’s entertainment.

Thank you for the love of Christ.

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

help us to grow into it and share it with those around us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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Congressional Detail

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

“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching . . .
My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”
(Prov 1:8-10)

Congressional Detail

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the spring of 1984 I took a one-month detail with the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)[1] which was interested in my dissertation research on technological and structural changes in beef packing and retailing (Hiemstra 1985a). OTA’s offices were located in rented space in Adam’s Morgan, a popular but sketchy neighborhood in Southeast Washington where walking even during the day required a touch of courage. But it did not matter—I loved the recognition that this assignment entailed for my dissertation[2] and I hoped that a permanent position would quickly follow my detail.

In discussions with my new supervisor, we decided that I would spend the first two weeks of my assignment catching up on interviews around Washington with industry and union leaders that I missed during my field work on the dissertation. The second two weeks of my assignment would then focus on writing a short report to be published by OTA (Hiemstra 1984). Because of the short turnaround time of this work, a key contact for me was the staff of the Joint Labor-Management Committee (JLMC) in Washington who knew all the players in the meat industry.

A particularly acute shortcoming of my field work came in trying to understand the dynamics of union contracts outside of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who represented most of the workers in the beef pack and retailing industries. New, highly efficient boxed beef processing plants constructed on the high plains in those days were opening with contracts with other unions, like the Teamsters or the National Maritime Union. These new contracts offered fewer restrictions on management discretion and lower wages, which caused a lot of heartburn for the UFCW, and helped make boxed beef highly competitive with traditional carcass beef.[3] Older plants specialized in carcass beef were shuttering their doors all over the Eastern corn-belt, which is why Congress and the OTA were interested in my research.

In visiting with the JLMC, I learned that the Teamsters Union[4] employed an economist; I was given his contact information; and he agreed to meet with me.

The Teamsters, who normally represent truckers, were important players in the boxed beef story.[5] In conversations with the UFCW, the Teamsters continued to play an important role in representing workers in boxed beef plants both directly through organizing construction workers before the plants opened and indirectly by providing sample contracts for other non-UFCW unions to organize plants not represented by the Teamsters. What I hoped to accomplish by visiting with the Teamster’s economist was to hear the Teamster’s version of these stories.

In the interview, I spoke for about 15 minutes before I perceived that the economist was stonewalling me. I tested the stonewalling for another 15 minutes before I started to gather my things to leave. At this point, the economist waved me back over to my seat and proceeded to offer me a job with about a third increase in salary. The offer got my attention because it would have meant that Maryam and I could afford finally to buy a house of our own, but he cautioned me that I would not be able to ask for a further increase in pay—the Teamsters did not offer step-increases like the government. After treating me to a steak dinner in the executive dinning room, I asked if I might think it over and get back to him. He said okay, but he again cautioned me that I would need to get back to him promptly because the Teamsters would soon be going into contract negotiations and he needed the help.

Wow. How could I turn down a big pay increase at a time when I really needed the money? My conscience bothered me about working for the Teamsters, but my usual mentors simply congratulated me on the raise. The exception was Grandpa Frank who asked: “Why do you want to work for them bosses?” Frank was right; I knew in my heart that I could not accept this job, but how could I turn down “an offer you cannot refuse?” I resolved to ask for even more money, figuring that greed would induce them to withdraw the offer.

The economist took my salary request seriously, because he had cautioned me not to ask for a raise once I accepted the position. However, my proposal shocked the Teamster president, who turned me down much to my relief.[5]

References

Chandler, Jr. Alfred D. 1977. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Belknap Press.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Technology_Assessment.

[2] A reporter for the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about my dissertation research but to my knowledge never published the interview.

[3] The food demands after the Civil War led to cattle being slaughtered in places like Chicago and shipped as a side of beef by refrigerated rail (and later trucks) to East Coast markets where retail butchers completed the processing (Chandler 1977, 300). Boxed beef further broke down these sides of beef into sub-prime units which were vacuum packed in plants closer to cattle lots. The additional processing lowered the cost of transportation, improved shelf-life, and allowed unusuable byproducts (like bone and fat) to be processed and sold more profitability.

[4] https://teamster.org.

[5] Boxed beef was reportedly introduced into Michigan years before after a trucker’s strike cut off shipments of locally slaughtered, carcass beef while boxed beef was trucked in from out-of-state packing plants on the Great Plains, which constituted a breech of the National Labor Relations Act (1935). I say reportedly in this case because business history is often hard to document and stories like this one are normally passed around by word-of-mouth, which is, of course, totally deniable should someone uncharacteristically decide to enforce the law.

[6] About a year later this president was indicted by a federal grand jury in an effort to clean up the union, but he was never convicted (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Presser).

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Stephen King Lives and Writes Through Situations

stephen_king_review_01112017Stephen King. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My primary writing project during the past year has been to write a memoir. Being new to the genre, I started by publishing my father’s memoir, enrolled in an online writing course, read numerous writing books, and reviewed a few good memoirs. Stephen King’s[1] book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, touches on each of these activities.

The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:

  • C.V. (17-101).
  • What Writing Is (103-137).
  • On Writing (141-249).
  • On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
  • And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
  • And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
  • Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).

 His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.

King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.[2]

Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:

“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, … I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)

But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.

This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language.[3] King explains:

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)

King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).

Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.[4]

Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.

[1] http://StephenKing.com.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_(1976_film).

[3] My wife teaches mathematics and chemistry, seldom reading anything outside her field so my Ideal Reader is probably my mom who has trouble explaining her likes and dislikes.

[4] If it had been me, the improbability might have instigated a new interest in inspirational fiction, rather than memoir, in part, because it is more of a baby step away from other fiction and towards an explanation for why God was not through with me yet.

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