Books, Films, and Ministry

Books reviewed

Books, Films, and Ministry

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For years, I divided the world into three kinds of people:  those who never learn, those who learn from their mistakes, and those who learn from other people’s mistakes. Book ministry helps move people into this latter category by connecting them with books they can use through reviews.

Book Ministry and Reviews

One way is to give away good books.  Years ago in my office, a colleague started a book drive where he encouraged employees to bring in old, unwanted books.  These books would be set out for display.  People could choose any book, pay what they thought it was worth, and the money raised was donated to charity.  Most of the books donated were steamy romance and murder novels.  Why not throw in a few good Christian titles?

Another way is to connect people with books that deal with the issues they are struggling with.  For example, my favorite wedding gift for many years has been Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries. Another example targets older friends and family that tend to be less active, Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge’s Younger Next Year.  Normally, when I give someone a book, I check up later to see what they thought of it.

A variation on this theme is to give different relatives the same book as a Christmas gift.  The idea is to generate buzz in the family about a helpful topic and to move conversation away from the weather, sports highlights, and the latest tragedy on television.  While this may be akin to mission impossible, inspirational DVDs may be an easier sell.  A modestly priced example is:  The Star of Bethlehem (2009) by Frederick A. Larson and Stephen Vidano.

Speaking of Christmas, why not wrap up your favorite inspirational titles and DVDs and bring them as gifts when you go caroling at the local retirement center, jail, or psyche ward?  People in these places have a lot of time on their hands and the cable channels are unfortunately a major part of their entertainment.  DVDs are especially useful in reaching young people.

Summary

For me, book reviews are a ministry.  While I have reviewed a few newly published books, most books that I review are more than a couple years old.  The reason is simple: I am trying to introduce readers to books that have changed my life in some way.  Hopefully, my reviews will help readers learn from other people’s mistakes, including my own.

References

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992.  Boundaries:  When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Crowley, Chris and Henry S. Lodge. 2007. Younger Next Year:  Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy Until You’re 80 and Beyond. New York:  Workman Publishing.

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Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.


[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Gagarin).  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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Head and Heart

Head_and_heart_11132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early 2008, the French investment bank, Société Générale, announced that a single trader fraudulently lost over $7 billion making it the world’s largest rogue trader incident. The loss led France into recession.  Later that spring at a risk managers’ conference in Chicago, I overheard chief risk officers in the halls quietly shaking their heads and saying that rogue traders simply could not exist because of standard corporate checks and balances.  Basically, the trader had made so much money prior to the losses that other staff simply looked the other way when the imprudent risks were being taken.

Working as a chaplain intern in an emergency room (ER) in a Washington hospital in 2011, I noticed a disturbing link among the patients.  More than half of all patients admitted to the ER had problems stemming from relational problems and poor life-style choices.  Overweight patients came in with diabetes, asthma, joint problems, and cardiac problems.  Men passed out on the street from excessive drinking or other drug abuses.  Elderly patients were dropped off by relatives late on Saturday afternoon—too late to find a ride home over the weekend.  Young men and women fearful of contracting AIDS came in to be tested.  Among psyche patients the link was even more pronounced.  For the most part, the doctors treated the presenting diagnosis and released them.

The common denominator in each of these examples is that the bankers and the patients did what felt good at the time, as psychologists would predict.  Behavioral psychology teaches that even an amoeba will response to a positive stimulus by repeating the behavior that evoked the positive stimulus and doing less of the behavior associated with a negative stimulus.   This is the standard behavioral learning model.  In this respect, the Apostle Paul lamented:  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18 ESV).

Matthew Elliott[1] (141) asks an interesting question:  how can Jesus command us to love one another (Mark 12:30-31) if love is simply an emotion found in the heart?  How can I obey this commandment if my emotions are just a product of who I am?  Elliott’s answer:  If emotions are merely physiological impulses, they can be ignored, controlled or trivialized, while, if they have as their essential element thinking and judgment, they are an essential part of almost everything that we think and do (31).  In other words, what we think affects how we feel—especially over time.  We get emotional about the things that are important to us[2].

If we accept Elliott’s cognitive thesis of how emotions work, then emotions are a poor guide for behavior when our theology is wrong or weakly held.  If my life centers on the great ME instead of the great I AM, then my emotions will naturally reinforce my theology.  In other words, bad theology leads to bad emotions, which, in turn, leads to bad behavior.  Jesus said:  the tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).

Sadly, inattention to theology leads to the same result.  The story of Hannah Arendt’s coverage for the New Yorker of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 is instructive[3].  Arendt was a German Jew, student of philosopher Martin Heidegger who wrote her dissertation on Augustine, and a holocaust survivor who escaped from the death camps.  Arendt went to the Eichmann trial thinking that, because he was the architect of Hitler’s final solution, she would meet a hate-mongering, fire breathing Nazi.  Instead, what she found was a petty bureaucrat who was unable to think for himself.  She was dumbfounded and devoted the rest of her life to a study of evil.  What was the conclusion of her study?  Wickedness may be caused by an absence of thought[4].  When we refuse to think for ourselves, we find ourselves doing things we are later not proud of and hanging with the wrong people[5]The tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).

At one point, a colleague that I had counseled thanked me for saving his marriage.  What had I done?  Very little–we talked for only 5 minutes.  We prayed together and I asked him to pray for his wife.  He did.  He later reported that he could not remain angry with his wife after praying for her.  In other words, feelings of love followed actions of love.  So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbors he is talking about actions—practiced theology.  Hopefully, the feelings will follow.


[1]Matthew A. Elliott.  Faithful Feelings:  Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Kregel Publications, 2006.

[2]Andrew D. Lester.  Anger:  Discovering Your Spiritual Ally.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, page 29.

[3]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Eichmann. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt.

[4]Hannah Arendt.  The Life of the Mind. New York:  Harcount, Inc, 1977, page 13.

[5]Eichmann was sentenced to death by a civilian court in Israel and was hung for crimes against humanity in May 31, 1962.

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Social Media Enhances Ministry

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Sharron Beg
Art by Sharron Beg

The Capital Christian Writers club (www.CapitalChristianWriters.org) meets bi-monthly in Fairfax, VA.  The September meeting focused on creating a blog.  While I came to the meeting to network, I left the meeting convinced that blogging would simplify online ministry.

I also left experiencing a bit of fear.

Yes. I have had a website forever.  Yes. I have different accounts—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—but I was clueless about how to use these accounts in ministry.  I opened a Facebook account when I started seminary and was invited to join a group online.  I opened a Twitter account just before the PCUSA’s General Assembly last year.  I have no clue how or when I opened the LinkedIn account.  The fear arose because I did not want to become famous online for reasons that only my kids would understand!

So I bought some books and started reading.  First, I set up a free blog on WordPress.com.  Second, I registered a web address to look a bit more sophisticated:  T2Pneuma.net.  This acronym is short for To Deuteron Pneuma or The Second Wind in English.  Third, I matched my Twitter account address to the blog (@T2Pneuma).  And, fourth, I also opened a matching Gmail email account:  T2Pneuma@gmail.com.  The basic idea is to create a simple online identity that can serve as a personal, brand image in cyberspace.

A blog offers several advantages over a website.  The first advantage is that it is requires no programming and automates most features.   My website (www.StephenWHiemstra.net) is built from scratch in Microsoft Word and offers no bells and whistles.  A second advantage is that a blog displays recent articles up front and that allows you to time when articles are posted.  A third advantage is that the blog allows readers to subscribe (or following) to the blog and receive an automatic email when you update the blog.  A final advantage  is that  blog keeps basic statistics on how many people visit the blog and which articles they read.  (My website service also keeps such statistics, but they are kept on a separate website).  Having traffic statistics is a big selling point with publishers.

WordPress.com also makes it easy to link with other social media.  When I post an article to the blog, the blog can automatically generate a small blurb with a link and post it in my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts.  Facebook speaks primarily to your family and close friends; Twitter speaks directly to the under thirty crowd on the cell-phone; LinkedIn speaks into your office crowd presenting an evangelism opportunity not usually open during business hours.

All these features offer hope that I can migrate my email mailing lists to the blog over the coming weeks.

So what is my writing project?  My book is entitled:  A Christian Guide to Spirituality.  It consists of 50 apologetic devotionals focused on the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed.  Learn more by visiting–T2Pneuma.net—and clicking on the menu title called:  Guide.  The book is currently under review and I am looking for a publisher.

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To subscribe to my blog (www.T2Pneuma.net), pull it up in your browser.  At the bottom right corner, you will see a button entitled:  FOLLOW.  Click it and enter your email address in the box.  My blog will send an email to you at that address.  Be sure to confirm that email when it arrives.

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A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

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Unity in Christ’s Mission

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This past summer at General Assembly (GA) in Pittsburgh, I served as a Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD) representing Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in Charlotte, NC.  One of the highlights of GA for me was getting to meet both outgoing moderator, Cindy Bolbach, and incoming moderator, Neal D. Presa.  Neal later contacted me about serving on GA committee looking at the Belhar Confession (Belhar)[1] which I was unfortunately unable to follow up on because of my commitment to finish seminary.

Belhar arose as the South African Churches began to reflect on their role during the apartheid years (1948 to 1994).  The confession remarkably anticipated the abolishment of apartheid rather than simply ratified it. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church formally adopted Belhar in 1986[2].  By contrast, the secular response to Jim Crow legislation (the U.S. template for apartheid) was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which the PCUSA ratified in the Confession of 1967.

Reflecting on Belhar, the question arose.  What are the core principles of the PCUSA and how would Belhar enhance them?  Core principles normally reflect one’s deepest, jointly-held convictions. The Confession of 1967 guides our reflections on questions similar to Belhar. Does putting forward Belhar again suggest that we should amend the Confession of 1967?

The real story in South Africa is not that white churches adopted a confession; the real story is that they threw their doors open to all of God’s children.  What led these churches into revival?

Part of the South African revival story is a mission story.  A recent book by Rollin Grams, Stewards of Grace:  A Reflective, Mission Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962[3] documents part of this story.  Rollin is an NT scholar at GCTS and the son of Pentecostal missionaries, Eugene and Phyllis Grams, who labored most of their careers in South Africa among the black townships before it was politically safe to do so. Rollin writes their story in their own words. The book is, however, more than an oral history or a travel diary. Salted throughout the book are asides (he calls them capsules) to explain to a non-Pentecostal audience what is going on.  Far from dry, Rollin poses a sense of humor that makes the stories come alive.

An absence of priorities, not confession refinement, remains the PCUSA’s biggest challenge. Our membership is growing older and our young people are not joining the church.  Furthermore, our members are mostly Caucasian and wealthy while the young people in our communities are increasingly multi-ethnic and poor.  In this sense, the journey of the white churches in South Africa is also our journey—even my own personal journey during seminary.  How do we move from ratification to reformation?  What will lead our churches into revival?

This month Centreville Presbyterian Church welcomed its new associate pastor, the Reverend Dr. Jesse Mabanglo.  Like Neal Presa, Pastor Jesse hails from the Philippines.


[1]Download Belhar at: www.pcusa.org/resource/belhar-confession.

[2]Belhar is now one of the standards of unity of the new Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa.  Closer to home, the Reformed Church in America adopted it as a confession in 2010.

[3]Rollin Grams. 2010.  Stewards of Grace:  A Reflective, Mission Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962.  Eugene:  Wipf and Stock.

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The Wisdom of God. A Meditation on Alzheimer’s Disease

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Wisdom of God. A Meditation on Alzheimer’s Disease

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Sometimes we experience God in unexpected places.

How do we minister to those who no longer speak?

God tells Moses in the burning bush:  I AM WHO I AM (Exod 3:14). In the Hebrew, the words are actually:  אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exodus 3:14 WTT).  Literally, this means:  I will be that I will be.  God chooses who He will be.  We like to choose, but often don’t get to.

Notice that God does not tell us that being requires speaking.

If you think about it, we actually spend very little time during our lives speaking much of anything.  Most of us sleep about eight hours every day.  When we are young, we scream, we smile, we laugh, we cry, and we sleep a lot but we do not really say much of anything.  When we are old, we revert to the sleeping mode again.  But like God, we are present, but we are mostly silent.

The silence of God is both a blessing and a curse.

When God is silent, we are able to speak and find our voice.  How would we ever grow as individuals, if God did all the talking?  Our identities would be muted because God is all knowing and all powerful.  But we know that God is not a big talker because heaven is full of singing.  As we read in Revelations, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him saying:   Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created (Revelations 4:10-11 ESV)[1].

Yet, when God remains silent, we perish.  The Psalmist writes:  You have seen, O LORD; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me! (Psalm 35:22 ESV).  The silence of God comes to us as judgment, in part, because He alone can act to save us from our own folly.

The Apostle Paul writes: For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:22-25 ESV).

It seems foolish to us that God would speak to us mostly without words on the cross.  Yet, in not speaking, He said everything.


[1]For Alzheimer’s patients, singing and dancing are startlingly therapeutic.  If you have a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, try singing the Doxology (or any other familiar tune) to them and see for yourself.

Also see:

Brackey: Look for Moments of Joy (https://wp.me/p8RkfV-VY)

Other ways to engage with me online:

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

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