Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101For I do not understand my own actions. 

For I do not do what I want, 

but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:15)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As North Americans, we are the best fed and most pampered generation of all time; yet, our young people and senior citizens are committing suicide at historically high rates and “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” (Lucado 2012, 5) Why?

Isolated from Ourselves

One answer is that we have become painfully isolated from ourselves: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds” (Nouwen 2010, 89). Our isolation has been magnified by a loss of faith and community, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Isolated people often ruminate about the past. In ruminating, obsessing about a personal slight, real or imaged, amplifying small insults into big ones. For psychiatric patients who are not good at distinguishing reality and illusion, constant internal repetition of even small personal slights is not only amplified, it is also remembered as a separate event. Through this process of amplification and separation, a single spanking at age 8 could by age 20 grow into a memory of daily beatings.

Rumination

Amplified in this way, rumination absorbs the time and energy normally focused on meeting daily challenges and planning for the future. By interfering with normal activities, reflection, and relationships, rumination slows normal emotional and relational development and the ruminator becomes increasingly isolated from themselves, from God, and from those around them. Why do we care? We care because everyone ruminates and technology leads us to ruminate more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the video game played every waking hour, and the work that we never set aside all function like rumination to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads. Much like addicts, we are distracted every waking hour from processing normal emotions and we become anxious and annoyed when we are forced to tune into our own lives, a kind of escalation behavior in the language of psychiatrics. Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful when alone and in today’s society we are frequently alone even in the company of others. We are in tension with ourselves.

A Heavy Burden

Jesus sees our tension and offers to relieve it, saying: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30) Self-centered rumination is a heavy burden, not a light one. Jesus models the Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness that break rumination by encouraging us to look outside ourselves. In Sabbath rest we look outside ourselves to share in God’s peace, to reflect on Christ’s forgiveness, and to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to prayer. In prayer we commune with God where our wounds can be healed, our strength restored, and our eyes opened to our sin, brokenness, and need for forgiveness. When we sense our need for forgiveness, we also see our need to forgive. In forgiveness, we value relationships above our own personal needs which break the cycle of sin and retaliation in our relationships with others and, by emulating Jesus Christ, we draw closer to God in our faith. Faith, discipleship, and ministry require that we give up obsessing with ourselves. On our own, our obsessions are too strong and we cannot come to faith, grow in our faith, or participate in ministry. For most people, faith comes through prayer, reading scripture, and involvement in the church, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. For the original apostles, the discipling was done by Jesus himself.

Honored

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tutors the disciples and says that we will be honored in at least three ways: Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Honored are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt 5:3–5) Jesus takes the world’s threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity and reframes them as promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth. But, Jesus ties these promises to discipleship as part of his yoke (Matt 11:28-30) and does not extended them to spectators.

REFERENCES

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Tension Within Ourselve

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Gospel as Divine Template

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity began in a graveyard with the resurrection (Ps 16:10). The resurrection could not have occurred without Jesus’ crucifixion and death which was, in turn, associated with his life and ministry. Because Jesus’ life and ministry were chronicled after the resurrection, each sentence in the New Testament should be prefaced with these words: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore . . . Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection are the Gospel story, which we know because after the Gospels themselves, sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41) all focus on Jesus’ life story.

The Template

Just before his death the Apostle Paul writes from prison:

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)

In other words, the Jesus story—life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection—was for Paul a template for the Christian journey of faith, beginning with the end in mind. Yet, we know that the end of the story—like its beginning—is in Christ and provides Christian hope (1 Pet 1:3). 

While our eyes remain on the prize (Phil 3:14) and our expectations for the end times, our relationship with each member of the Trinity sustains us day to day. The Holy Spirit is with us, empowers us, and helps us to break the power of sin. Jesus Christ’s life and ministry models a faithful life in a stressful world. God Our Father demonstrates love, grace, and sovereignty over all earthly powers. Because of God’s sovereign power and presence, our hope of the resurrection transforms into our hope in Christ (Col 1:24).

Begin with the End in Mind

The resurrection accordingly influenced how early Christians read the Beatitudes, as in: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore “Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) Notice that the Beatitude explicitly refers to the kingdom of heaven—a place of healing and rest where the resurrected are assumed to go. Because early Christians read this Beatitude in view of the resurrection, so should postmoderns. 

More typically, postmoderns read the Beatitudes as “pie in the sky”—unobtainable and unrealistic. But how much risk is there in buying a stock if you already have tomorrow’s stock report? If tomorrow’s paper eliminates today’s risk, why dawdle in buying the stock? Unobtainable and unrealistic goals suddenly become reasonable— in light of the resurrection common fishermen become extraordinary apostles.

Knowing that the end of the story is in Christ, the Beatitudes outline the three tensions in our spiritual life: our inward tension with ourselves (poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness), our upward tension with God (righteous, merciful, and pure), and our outward tension with the world (peacemakers, persecuted, and reviled). Inward tension exists, but we know the Holy Spirit will guide us. Upward tension exists, but we know that God loves us. Outward tension exists, but we have Christ’s example in seeking reconciliation and an open door to the future (Rev 3:20).

Tension was not the Plan

Because of our reconciliation with God, we know that our sinful nature which drives this tension was not part of God’s original design. Breaking God’s design, sin emerged in the Garden of Eden as Adam and Eve turned away from God and allowed sin to enter their lives (Gen 3:6). Yet, even as sin entered the world and tensed up our lives, God provided for our restoration through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gen 3:15).

Jesus rose from the dead, therefore our faith starts with God, not with us.

Gospel as Divine Template

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Preface to a Life in Tension

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101“Be holy because I am holy 

says the Lord God.”

(Lev 11:44)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When God enters our lives, we change. This change occurs as we increasingly reflect Christ’s divine image in our lives and the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds as we behold him (2 Cor 3:16-18). The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19), which means that we accept Christ’s invitation to a lifelong journey to become more holy—sacred and set apart—and the Holy Spirit’s guidance along the way. As Christ’s church—the called out ones, our sanctification is a group activity and, like any activity where individuals  travel at their own pace, tension among believers is expected.

Introduction

Tension? What tension? Sanctification is necessary because we sin. Sin separates us from other people, from God, and from the person that God created us to be. Sanctification presumably reduces our sin, encourages us to abide in union with God and draws us closer to the person that God created us to be, but it also widens the gap between us and those resisting the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). Consequently, sin and sanctification can both potentially tense up all three relationships.

Tension comes up daily, as a pastor observes:

Would you drink from a dirty cup? No—of course not. If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another.⁠1

Someone accustomed to clean cups immediately recognizes a dirty one. When we model our lives after Christ, we reveal our identity as Christians; we are set apart from those around us in tension with the world. As conscious image bearers, we naturally begin to share in the tension that exists between God and this world, which implies that how we live and how we die matters to God.

This tension that we feel is a subjective mirror image to three gaps that we can objectively describe. The first gap is within each of us and it describes the distance between our natural selves and the person who God created us to be. This gap can lead to humiliation in the eyes of the world and shame within us, as we realize how far we have fallen from God’s image for us. The second is gap is between us and others and it can lead to isolation, ridicule, and persecution, as we can no longer run with the crowd or accept its norms. The third is the gap between us and God created by sin can lead to feelings of fear, abandonment, and a loss of spiritual power, as we realize what it means to live without God’s presence and blessings.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps—the shame, the isolation, and the fear? Can you imagine being persecuted for your beliefs? Are you okay with it or do you try to run away? How do we respond creatively to this tension?

Alone with these three gaps, we are lost; but in Christ we are never alone. Christ works in our lives to close these gaps through his reconciling example in life, his atoning work on the cross and his enabling gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us by grace through faith to participate actively in our own sanctification while experiencing God’s peace in the midst of life’s tensions.

The Beatitudes

Early in his ministry, Jesus preached a sermon, a kind of commissioning service for his disciples. He advised his disciples to be humble, mourn, be meek, chase after righteousness, be merciful, be holy, make peace, be persecuted for the right reasons, and wear persecution as a badge of honor (Matt 5:1–11). Incredibly, in the middle of this sermon and in spite of expected opposition, Jesus says:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16)

This parable about light offers two important insights for our understanding of tension. First, this passage makes no sense unless tension exists between darkness and light—light normally drives out darkness. Second, this passage alludes to the creation accounts where we read:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. . . . And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen 1:2–4)

Creation involved creating light. The implication is that Christians who embrace tension with the world are participating in a second creation (or re-creation) event (2 Cor 5:17).

Recognizing Christ’s re-creative work in our lives, we participate through the power of the Holy Spirit, not only in our own sanctification, but in the sanctification of others. In other words, progress in reducing one gap in our lives affects the other two. (Nouwen 1975, 15).  Attending to the sin in our lives, for example, makes it easier to get along with others and helps us to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, reducing our gap with God helps us appreciate God’s love for those around us and sensitizes us to the corrupting power of sin in our own lives. In God’s economy is nothing is wasted.

Structure of the Book

In exploring the spiritual dimensions of tension in our lives, I reflect on the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. The Beatitudes introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and prioritize his teaching. Because the sermon serves as an ordination service for the disciples, the importance of the Beatitudes for the early church, Christian spirituality, and discipleship cannot be overstated.⁠2

The chapters in this book divide into three parts: tension with ourselves (part A), tension with God (part B), and tension with others (part C). Each part contains three of the nine Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel (numbered from one to nine with decimal points identifying particular sections within them).

Four sections appear in each Beatitude. The first section focuses on understanding what Jesus said and how he explained it. The second section examines the Old Testament context for each Beatitude. The third section examines the New Testament context—how did the Apostles respond to and expand on Jesus’ teaching? And the final section applies the Beatitude in a contemporary context and how we should respond. Each reflection is accompanied by a prayer and questions for further study. Soli Deo Gloria.

Footnotes

1 Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya (http://AGCKenya.org) speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015. 2 Guelich (1982, 14) citing Kissinger (1975) reports that: “Matthew 5-7 [appears] more frequently than any other three chapters in the entire Bible in the Ante Nicene [early church] writings”.

References

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Kissinger, W.S. 1975. The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. ATLA 3. Metuchen: Scarecrow.

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

Preface to a Life in Tension

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From the Heart

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christian leadership often begins with a broken heart. In Mark’s Gospel we read:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

How do you react to seeing friends and family trapped in needless sin and pain?

Moving the Heart

The call to action in many of my essays starts with citing statistics on suicide, often a result of despair and loss of hope. For me, suicide is personal because I lost my first best friend as a kid because his father shot himself to death and the family moved away. For those of us able to experience joy because of the hope we have in Christ, suicide is needless because it indicates a lost opportunity to share the joy we have. What moves you to take action?

Technical and Adaptive Change

Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002, 14, 18) distinguish technical from adaptive challenges. In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem. A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach, often the need to change not things but ourselves.

This distinction between technical and adaptive changes is helpful because making technical changes when adaptive change is needed is the classic bureaucratic ruse to show progress in an organization sliding downhill. Grabbing for “low hanging fruit” is safe and permits the manager to petition for increased budget without asking for other sacrifices or convincing anyone to change how they approach their work. In a church context, this is like the annual appeal for members to bring a friend to church as a response to declining membership.

The Aging Congregation

Adaptive changes are required when something fundamental needs to change. Consider the aging white congregation located in what has now become an Hispanic or African-American neighborhood. I tell my kids—you better get used to making new friends because when you get older your old friends have a nasty habit of dying off. Asking members to invite a friend to church is probably not going to stimulate a lot of new members at this church. An adaptive response might be to plan holding events for the new neighbors—something harder; something riskier. Christian leaderships often requires difficult heart work before any real action can be taken.

References

Heifetz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

From the Heart

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Value Of Life

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Church and State in the Confessions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The relationship between church and state evolves during the history of the Protestant Churches as reflected in the reformation confessions. The creeds recognize Christ’s persecution. The reformation confessions recognize tension between church and state but argue for separation of the secular and religious domains following Luther. In the twentieth century confessions, the old separation of the church and state is clearly breaking down with the increasing power of the state relative to the church and increasing secularization of society. The twentieth century confessions themselves reflect both new intrusion by the state designed to redefine of the role of the church in society.

In the discussion that follows I focus on the creeds and confessions adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Creeds

The suffering of Christ under Pontius Pilate is the only overt mention of a relationship between church and state in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (PCUSA 1999, 1.1 and 2.1). The persecution is known from scripture but not explained in these creeds.⁠1 Both creeds use the enigmatic phrase, a “holy catholic church”, but the need to emphasize the church’s unity (catholic) and being set apart (holy) is not explained. It could be read to separate the church from the secular world, including the state, but we are not told explicitly.

The Reformation Confessions

The reformation confessions codified this separation in Luther’s distinction between church and state. The Scots Confession, for example, reads (The Civil Magistrate):

We confess and acknowledge that empires…are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of his own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or to overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will (PCUSA 1999, 3.24).

Elsewhere we read (The Works Which Are Counted Good Before God):

To honor father, mother, princes, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, to support them, to obey their orders if they are not contrary to the commands of God, to save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, to keep our bodies clean and holy, to live in soberness and temperance, to deal justly with all men in word and deed, and, finally, to repress any desire to harm our neighbor, are the good works of the second kind, and these are most pleasing and acceptable to God as he has commanded them himself (PCUSA 1999, 3.14).

Knowing that these divisions and relationships were entirely new during this period, the confessions do not so much codify existing relationships as establish new ones. In this sense, the reformation confessions may have provided the template for the relationship between church and state that inspired the U.S. Constitution (Smylie 1996, 57-61).

The reformation confessions are more than political manifestos. Because the protestant churches broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, they needed to develop more comprehensive statements of their beliefs, including statements of metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. The different confessions each cover these topics, but they cover them in different orders. For example, The Scots Confession starts with a description of God (metaphysics), then moves to discuss the creation of humanity (anthropology), followed by sin (ethics), and later by scripture (epistemology; PCUSA 1999, 3.01, 3.02, 3.03, and 3.19).

The Twentieth Century Confessions

The nineteenth century cast a heavy shadow over the twentieth century as the enlightenment was already past its prime. In Russia and later in China, the overtly atheistic philosophy of communism became the official doctrine leading to persecution of Christians outside of officially sanctioned churches. Belief in God waned in the western nations and the growth of new technologies led to the rise of state power relative to the church.

Official doctrine in the twentieth century still separated church and state, but religious skepticism combined with material wealth increasingly limited the influence of the church over public law and private mores. This skepticism included attacks on the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the Bible. The twentieth century confessions accordingly differ from the reformation confessions in that they neglect to provide their metaphysical and epistemological foundations and focus on anthropological and ethical prescriptions. While we might assume that they are grounded in the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of the reformation confessions, the twentieth century confessions stray from theological orthodoxy even in what is said.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen.

The growth of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s led the government of Adolf Hitler to propose an officially sanctioned church of “German Christians” with overt political objectives. Representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches met May 29-31, 1934 and drafted The Theological Declaration of Barmen. Key participants in this confession were pastors Hans Asmussen, Karl Koch, Karl Iraruer, Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth (PCUSA 1999, 246-247).

The Theological Declaration of Barmen rejects six false doctrines:

1. Holding up other doctrines as of equal importance with God’s revelation in scripture.

2. Suggesting that parts of our lives are not subject to the reign of Christ and are subject to other lords.

3. Ordering the doctrine of the church to current ideologies and political convictions.

4. Vesting special powers to leaders who rule over the church.

5. Giving the church absolute control over people’s lives beyond the church’s special commission.

6. Placing the Word of God and the work of the church in their service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purpose, or plans.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen organized no new churches or other bodies to implement the declaration, but simply asked the churches for prayer and support for participating pastors. With no official power, The Theological Declaration of Barmen attempts to persuade believers and thereby limit the ability of Nazi government to manipulate the church. (Barth 1959, 160).

The Confession of 1967.

If the Theological Declaration of Barmen responded to an external threat to the church posed by the State, then The Confession of 1967 responded to an internal threat to the church posed by the encroachment of modern and postmodern culture.

The Confession of 1967 builds on part of a single verse: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The verse focuses on reconciling the world to God (evangelism) while the confession refocuses on reconciling us to one another (social ministry). In refocusing this verse, the confession crafts a four part mandate for the church:

In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act…discrimination…reconciliation…ending poverty in a world of abundance…anarchy in sexual relationships … (PCUSA 1999, 9.43-9.47).

Nothing is left out. The summary statement for the confession reads: God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate (PCUSA 1999, 9.53).⁠2 Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Roe versus Wade case in 1973 and rule changes increasing the availability of contraceptives intruded deeply into the personal lives of Christians rendering church interpretation moot. Even further, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 redefined marriage to include same-sex marriage causing deep splits within many denomination over how to respond.

The weight of these changes was to establish a precedent whereby the State could intervene into matters previously reserved for the Church. This reversed a consensus about the separation of church and state that had prevailed since the reformation and allowed new voices to be heard on questions of morality that oppose even the participation of the church in public debate. Having overturned the separation that prevailed on matters of moral conduct, the State has increasingly injected itself into church benevolences, personnel policies, and property rights.

A Brief Statement of Faith.

The breakdown of the division between church and state established during the reformation appears complete in the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. The merger itself can be seen as an attempt by the church to consolidate influence already lost to postmodern culture.

The newly formed Presbyterian Church (USA) crafted a Brief Statement of Faith consisting of only eighty lines which focuses on the humanity of Christ and a stateless world where we stand almost alone as individuals before God. For example, confession writes:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture (PCUSA 1999, 10.4, Lines 65-69).

Here the private work of believers is to deconstruct (unmask) idolatries in the church and culture equally, suggesting that the church itself is suspect in our relationship with God rather than an instrument of the Holy Spirit.

It is fair to conclude from The Brief Statement of Faith that the separation of church and state assumed since the reformation no longer exists. The culture, acting through the State as a secular religion, has intruded on the private life of faith and brought it into the public domain. The public crusades of The Confession of 1967 have become private crusades in The Brief Statement of Faith perhaps explaining the new emphasis in pastoral care and the psychological hermeneutic in ministering to a broken and fearful world.

Where Jesus contended with intrusion of Mosaic Law, the Church today contends with an activist, secular State within its very walls rendering the concept of a division of church and state entirely anachronistic.

Footnotes

1 More detail is, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism (PCUSA 1999, 4.037-4.039).

2 While innovative, the confession followed rather than led major changes in society, such as Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

References

Barth, Karl. 1959. A Shorter Commentary on Romans (1940). Richmond: John Knox Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 2011. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Part II: Book of Order 2011/2013. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Smylie, James H.  A Brief History of the Presbyterians.  Louisville:  Geneva Press, 1996.

Church and State in the Confessions

Also See:

Value Of Life

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

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Generational Reach

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristHonor your father and your mother, 

that your days may be long in the land 

that the Lord your God is giving you. 

(Exod 20:12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After the Trinity, the family is our first small group. The church—the bride of Christ—is the family written large. How we treat our family affects everything else we do, if for no other reason than little eyes are watching.

The family is under severe pressure in our time. The majority (about 80 percent) of Americans have seen no real increase in income since the 1980s. Fertility rates have fallen below the rates required to reproduce the current population. Suicide rates are a historically high levels, which, together with drug overdoses and premature deaths due to diabetes, has contributed to an unprecedented decline in life expectancy for the past three years. Meanwhile, the focus on individual rights, social media, video gaming, and cell-phones have left many young people isolated and fearful of assuming family responsibilities.

To be fair, postmodern life wears out families. For couples in their family-raising (ages 30-50) years, two incomes are required to meet the normal expectations for the American dream—two cars, a house, two-point-one kids, college education, a healthcare plan, and retirement savings—and eldercare competes with childcare for time leftover after work. No one can reasonably be expected to meet these expectations and many have stopped trying. Couples are delaying marriage and many prefer to retain a single lifestyle even after marriage, sharing life only with their pets.

In the midst of social chaos, Jesus calls us to live a sacrificial lifestyle. Lead a disciplined work life, manage your resources of time, talents, and money carefully, and care for your kids and your parents modeled after Christ under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. Remember—the future belongs to those who live in Christ. Honoring your parents in a age that worships sex and youthfulness is a particularly obvious and righteous testimony.

The Eldercare Journey

For those not yet acquainted with eldercare, it poses a number of challenges that no one can fully meet. For the senior, growing old is experienced as a series of losses in function, physical abilities, and relationships, each of which need to be grieved.⁠1 For the care giver, these losses pose gaps that need to be filled and challenges in offering comfort.

Stepping up to meet these challenges is hard for caregivers because it presumes a role reversal—the parent suddenly becomes the child and the child assumes a parental role. This role reversal is difficult for both parties and the reversal may need to be repeated as different issues arise.

Consider the issue of driving. For suburbanites, every activity starts with a car trip. Driving is a teenage rite of passage for this very reason. A socially-active senior without a driver’s license is suddenly house-bound and must depend on others for transportation. Seniors are reluctant to admit their dependence and caregivers may not have time. Oftentimes, seniors only surrender their licenses after an accident because their kids are unwilling to raise the issue. Memory-loss issues only make the problem worse.

For all the challenges, eldercare also offers the opportunity for children and grand children to spend time with their parents. Where you once knew your parents as a child, now you get to engage with them more fully as an adult.  One of the first things that I did when my father came down with Alzheimer’s disease was to edit and publish his memoir as a prelude to writing my own. This proved to be a fruitful exercise because it deepened my understanding of him and made it possible to share the memoir with the caregivers that we hired to care for him. For the caregivers and for me, my father grew from a daily burden to someone deserving of empathy, much as God sees him.

References

Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Footnotes

1 Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 35-45) identify six major types of loss, including:  1. Material loss, 2. Relationship loss, 3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream, 4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy, 5. Role loss—like retirement, and 6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin.

Generational Reach

Also See:

Value Of Life

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

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Covered and Healed

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristFor we know, 

brothers and sisters loved by God, 

that he has chosen you, 

because our gospel came to you 

not only in word, but also in power and 

in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. 

(1Thes 1:4-5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you truly feel forgiven and loved by God?

It is one thing to know that you are covered by the blood of Jesus in your head and it is another thing to feel it in your heart. 

Fear and Anxiety

In 2010, I signed up for a small group discussion at church. A couple days later the pastor’s wife called to inform me that the group that I have signed up for was over-subscribed and asked whether I would be willing to join another group. No problem, I said reluctantly thinking to myself–why would I want to join a group talking about fear? So I bought the book and as I read along, I found my life jumping off the pages–not only had fear crept into my life; it was quietly dictating a lot of my decisions. Through almost no effort on my part, God had directed me to a major stronghold in my life and helped me deal with it.

Max Lucado (2009, 5-6) observed that: ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s. Fear displaces happiness; fear is unproductive; fear is self-defeating. After the storm on the Galilee, Jesus asked: why were you afraid? (Matthew 8:26) In suggesting the destructive potential of fear, Martin Niemoeller observed in 1933 that it was fear that transformed Adolf Hitler into a tyrant (Lucado 2009, 9-11).

Fear of losing one’s children, one’s job, or one’s health can paralyze a person. Who can contemplate Einstein’s theory of relativity when one worries about the roof collapsing? We live in an age of fear. 

Emergency Room

I recently made a trip to Cambridge, MA to visit my daughter and her husband. We had a wonderful time together, but two days before my return home I ate something that set off my stomach and it exacerbated a problem that I have with my prostrate. Unable to urinate, I ended up in the local hospital in the emergency room where they inserted a catheter, which I lived with for about two weeks. Because movement of almost any kind was uncomfortable, I was able to travel home but almost all of my normal activities—writing, exercise, volunteering, church attendance—halted during my distress.

Embarrassed by my condition, I did not advertise my sudden dependency on the good graces of my friends and family. Nevertheless, word got around and I soon found three churches and a lot of friends praying over me. Meanwhile, my wife proved herself to be an absolute angel.

A great peace came over me. For the first time in recent memory, I found myself anxiety-free. I have always felt God’s love; now, I felt loved like never before by the church and my family. Being a lifelong nervous eater, this peace displaced interest in food and I lost more than ten pounds, a healing brought about by this peace.

Loved by God

We serve a God of abundance. The Apostle John recognized the divinity of Christ through his miracles of abundance: wine, loaves of bread, and fish (John 2, 6, 21). The trademark of God’s healing displays itself as healing extends beyond the presenting diagnosis. In my case, I no longer need a catheter and I continue to enjoy a deep peace and weight loss.

References

Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Covered and Healed

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Finding Closure

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristJesus said to him, 

No one who puts his hand to the plow and 

looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

(Luke 9:62)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters to God. Jesus makes this point when he finds himself alone, talking to the woman caught in adultery:

Jesus stood up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

We all have history. What we share in Jesus Christ is the opportunity to live into a future defined by who God says we are, not what our sins might define us to be. This is the essence of our freedom in Christ.

The Plow

When Jesus talks in Luke 9:62 cited above about putting ones hand to the plow, he is reminding his followers of the calling of Elisha by Elijah the prophet:

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you. And he said to him, Go back again, for what have I done to you? And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kgs 19:19-21)

Here in this story, no one questions the commitment of Elisha to follow Elijah, but Jesus’ ministry is coming to an end and he demands a higher level of commitment as he prepares his disciples for his own death.

Os 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. (Guinness 2003, 184) 

Mind you, this young man plowed with a team of horses that have a mind of their own!

Guinness’ story not only reminds me of the story of Elisha’s calling, but also of the importance of attending to our daily work as service not only for our supervisors but for the Lord. Imagine what might have happened to the young woman if this young man had abandoned his efforts after only plowing half his field that day.

Finishing well

The need to complete what we start, to take risks to advance God’s kingdom, is highlighted in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. In this parable Jesus describes a businessman who, in preparing for a trip, leaves his assets in the hands of trusted assistants, in amounts corresponding to their abilities. The first receiving, for example, a million dollars, another two million, and a third five million.

When he returned from his trip, he asked for an accounting from his assistants. The latter two assistants invested his money and doubled it, earning their bosses’ praise: well done, good and faithful servants. The businessman then promoted these assistants placing them in charge of entire divisions in his company.

By contrast, the first assistant stashed the boss’ money in a vault and simple returned what he had been given. Seeing no gain from his confidence in this first assistant, the businessman criticized him calling him lazy and gave his million to the assistant now holding ten. The businessman then fired this assistant and sent him on his way. (Matt 25: 14-30)

Celebrate the Season

In my own life, I have always sensed that life is short, too short to dawdle. I have learned, however, that rather than running from one task to another, we need to celebrate the seasons of life both by completing them and by marking their completion.

Remember the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. Once they crossed the Red Sea and witnessed the salvation of God in the destruction of the Egyptian army, they danced and sang praises to God:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exod 15:1)

After then spending forty years in the desert, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed into the Promised Land. As they did, God instructed Joshua to mark the occasion:

And Joshua said to them, Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, What do those stones mean to you? then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Josh 4:5-7)

These memory stones are sometimes called Ebenezers. Modern Ebenezers are things like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, funerals, and simple things, like keeping a journal of answered prayers and other divine interventions in your life. 

When I have a bad day—get stuck in a moment—and need a good talking to, I often go back and read my own prayers and other writings. Being reminded of where I have been (God’s goodness in my life) and where I am going (our future in Christ) reminds me of whose I am and gives life meaning.

References

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

Finding Closure

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Thanks_2019

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Anger and Murder

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“You shall not murder.” (Exod 20:13)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sixth Commandment—you shall not murder—seems cut and dry. In case you missed it, the Bible repeats it five times using the exact same words.⁠1 The punishment for murder—death—is given in the account of Noah (Gen 9:11).

When Jesus talks about murder, he compares it with being angry with and insulting your brother or sister. He then makes a curious comment: [if]

“your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:24)

This comment is curious for two reasons. First, at the time when he spoke only priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place in the Temple and approach the altar. Second, this comment appears to make reconciliation with our brother or sister more important than reconciliation with God.

So what is that all about? Jesus is reminding his listeners not of the Temple, but of the first murder story in the Bible—the story of Cain and Abel. He uses it as an object lesson. Cain got angry with his brother, Abel, after Abel brought a better sacrifice to God. For this, Cain murdered Abel (Gen 4:1-8). The lesson is that we should reconcile with each other before anger gets out of control and before we do something that we may later regret (Matt 5:23–24).

Jesus is making two important points. 

First, Jesus teaches us to prevent murder by removing the incentive to murder. This lesson can then be applied to all sorts of situations, not just murder.

Second, asking God for forgiveness (bringing a gift) does not erase the sin that we have committed against one another. If we murder someone, asking God’s forgiveness does not restore the life lost or heal the emotional devastation experienced by the victim’s family. Forgiveness cannot be just about words.

The point is that asking God for forgiveness, such as repeating a prayer of confession on Sunday morning, neither requires a change of attitude towards our sin (Jesus’ first point) nor compensating those hurt by what we have done (Jesus’ second point). True repentance (a real change in heart) answers the first point; making restitution (compensating our victims) answers the second point.

Does Jesus’ lesson mean that we should never be angry? No. Anger has an object. Some objects of our anger are selfish and evil; some are not.

Jesus clearly got angry about injustice, about those doing business in the temple (John 2:14–17), and about the hard-hearted Pharisees who refused to allow good works, such as healing, on the Sabbath. By contrast, the Pharisees got so angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath (because it made them look bad) that they responded by plotting his death (Matt 12:10–14).

Footnotes

 1 Also: Deut 5:17; Matt 5:21; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

Why Not Murder

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Value Of Life

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Transcendence and Identity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then God said, 

Let us make man in our image, 

after our likeness…

So God created man in his own image, 

in the image of God he created him; 

male and female he created them.”

(Gen 1:26-27)

 

By Stephen W. HIemstra

For us as Christians, our identity is secure—we are created in the image of God. If you want to know who you are, look at Jesus, God’s son and our role model or, as I have said colloquially, Jesus is my denominator. Jesus is the measure of all things human.

So why the interest in identity?

If God the father seems illusive and Jesus is just a man, then the whole denominator analogy falls apart. Like it or not, Americans have a problem with the transcendence of God. The fascination in the identity question is therefore a mirror image of God’s evaporating transcendence or, in other words, if God is not real, neither are we.

The Problem of Dysfunction

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. 

The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one (Exod 20:4-6). Centering our living on the one who made us gives life meaning and stability. Not doing so, leads to many flavors of dysfunction.

Idolatry and Priorities

The focus on carved images in idolatry suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. heir idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps 115:3-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them.” Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number-one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god (Hoekema 1994, 84). Giglio (2003, 13) writes:

So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy. You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your loyalty. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne; and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship.

Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Idolatry Hampers Spiritual Formation

Focusing only on time, how much time do you spend each week in activities contributing to your spiritual formation as compared with other activities? 

Many men spend much of their free time in shoot-them-up video games, often developed by the armed forces for training soldiers. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the fact that automatic weapons have been available since the 1920s, it is only in the last decade that we have seen a rise in mass shootings in public places in the United States unrelated to any political or economic agenda? Intensive activities form us and become part of our identity—spiritual formation is not the only formation that takes place.

Poor formation leads us to worship idols that let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy (Hos 8:4).

The Problem of Suicide

Consider what happens if your number-one priority is work and you lose your job. In spite of record low unemployment, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are at record levels in the United States, and have contributed to a decline in life expectancy (Bernstein 2018).

Amidst the high level of suicide (Tavernise 2016), two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest a tie to idolatry.

Death by suicide is just the tip of the iceberg according to Mason (2014, 28):

Based on large national surveys, for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.

If psychiatric problems, such as addictions, anxiety, and depression, have a spiritual root, then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem. A solution requires dealing with the root cause.⁠1

God’s Love

Because we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy is part of his care for us. The Jewish daily prayer, known in Hebrew as the Shema (the name), goes like this: “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) Loving God above all else serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

Reclaiming Lost Transcendence

The problem of lost transcendence arises because the world screams at us and attempts to drown out the still, small voice of God. Although God has created us and, in sending Jesus Christ to die for ours, has saved us, we need to make room in our lives—both mind and body—to hear God’s voice. 

The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is find space in our lives for God. It is possible to “fake it until you make it” with spiritual disciplines, but this is actually a fool’s errand because God stands outside of time and space—he can approach us but we, being limited in time and space, cannot bridge the gap on our own. Bridging the gap is the work of Christ.

In some sense, our faith in Christ gives us the strength to pursue the spiritual disciplines. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

When we express faith in this way, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and bridges the gap through out faith in Jesus Christ. Transcendence becomes a reality when we experience salvation and we find a firm identity in Christ.

Footnotes

1 May (1988, 14-16) defines addiction as: “A state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” and specifically relates it to idolatry.

References

Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29.

Giglio, Louis. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers.

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Transcendence and Identity

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

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

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