Learning from Experience

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

From the fourth century before Christ, philosophers have distinguished experience (Aristotle) from theory (Plato). Experience has the characteristic of being concrete and personal while theory transcends individual experience to distinguish relationships and general trends.

Personality Types

In developing a classification of personality types, psychologist Carl J. Jung (1955) further refined the distinctions made in the process of reflection. Jung (1955, 90-92) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified.

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…”

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people do change their classification over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

While individuals often prefer one or the other yielding classified personality traits, our experiences are shaped by the theories that we hold and these theories may even permeate our language. An Eskimo language may, for example, distinguish many kinds of ice and snow while an African language might make no such distinctions having relatively few opportunities to experience ice and snow.

Presuppositions Matter

Plato took interest in this influence of theory on language and asked the question: how do we perceive the idea of a horse? If you had never seen a horse, how would you describe one? In the Bible, one of the first things that God did with Adam was to create new creatures and show them to Adam to see what he would name them (Gen 2:19). Naming is often interpreted in the Bible to indicate authority or sovereignty over the items being named[1]; naming also provides form—the idea of a horse or the prior experiences with horses—to our experiences. In a broader sense, culture shapes our language and thinking the same way, providing form to outline and bear our experiences.

Example of Police Shootings

Philosophers call this idea of culture providing form to our language and thoughts a presupposition. Presuppositions can take the form of cultural assumptions, even racial stereo-types. In recent months, presuppositions have been controversial in the context of police shootings where in ambiguous and threatening situations police are more likely to shoot suspects from one racial group than another, even when they themselves come from the same racial group.

The presumption that a person from one racial group may be more dangerous than another is discriminatory because information about a group is being substituted for information about the individual. But the source of this presupposition is unclear—does it reflect experiential knowledge (the group is objectively more dangerous) or theoretical (discrimination). If this presupposition is experiential, then no amount of police training will make it go away, because police officers would have to place themselves in greater danger to comply with their training. But if it is theoretical, then training will presumably change future police behavior because the presupposition is unconscious discrimination. Obviously, we care a lot about the source of this presupposition, but to date the public discussion has simply assumed a theoretical source.

Presuppositions in Church Attendance and Biblical Interpretation

Presuppositions influence our attitude about church attendance and how we read our Bibles.

For most Americans in the 1950s, American culture presumed that women worked primarily in the home and families attended church on Sundays. The “blue laws” mandated that most retail stores were not open on Sunday. In my grandfather’s home town, a farmer combining his corn on Sunday would likely have received a pastoral visit the following week. Today, the stores are legally open seven days a week because the culture presumes that women and men both work during the week away from the home and church attendance is no longer assumed.

Biblical interpretation is also informed by our cultural presuppositions. Today, for example, many people read their Bibles without believing the miraculous events that are recorded. Behind this skepticism is the metaphysical presupposition that the physical world is the only world and science has not been able to reproduce many of the miracles recorded in the Bible.

Luke 10, for example, reports that Jesus restores the sight to a blind Bartimaeus (Luke 10:46-52). Was the miracle the restoration of sight or something else, like a restoration of faith? If Jesus restored Bartimaeus’ sight, then Jesus’ status as the Son of God is validated. If he merely restored his faith, Jesus may be nothing more than a great teacher or prophet, as many have claimed.

Christians who have experienced God’s hand on their lives have no problem believing that Bartimaeus had his sight restored, a counter-cultural presupposition. How do you interpret the miracles recorded in the Bible?

References

Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Many in Search of a Soul (Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type (Orig. Pub. 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.


[1] The power of words is again emphasized in a biblical context when we see how serious blessings and curses are taken. For example, after Jacob is caught stealing his brother, Esau’s, blessing from his father, Isaac refuses to take back the blessing—much like God creates the heavens and the earth with spoken words, blessings—once conferred—cannot be retracted.

Learning from Experience

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

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The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to understand the role of authorities in our decision making, let’s return for a moment to my decision as a college student to follow my father into the economics profession. As mentioned previously, when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision. This implies that my decision was not entirely rational in the sense that I exhaustively studied the alternative to studying economics and chose the field yielding the highest prospective salary. What I knew was that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living.

Notice the high level of uncertainty that I confronted in making this life-changing decision of a career. Those of you who have read my memoir, Called Along the Way, probably recall that I made this decision under duress—I had labored anxiously for months without direction and on the morning that I made this decision I had a bad hangover. These are not ideal conditions for making major life decisions and bring to mind the circumstances facing the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Still, I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Rationality of Decisions Based on Authority

Two important points can be made about my decision to study economics.

The first point is that most decisions are made within a context of high levels of uncertainty. Uncertainty motivates the gathering of additional information. Because information is costly and time-consuming, the search process is often constrained by the limits of our budget (both money and time). When no limit is imposed, analysis paralysis can arise if we have trouble making decisions.

The second point is that the use of authorities in the decision process provides an obvious short-cut to searching for more information. While some may not languish over decisions but simply adopt the advice of others to avoid the anxiety of decision making, this was not a motivator for me. I knew that if I studied economics, my father could advise on what to do and what not to do along the way, reducing my decision risk. In a sense, I became an informal apprentice to my father. Being an apprentice therefore not only cut my search costs in making the initial decision, but also the prospective costs in making future career decisions.

If I chose another field to study, I could have gotten the same benefits by seeking out mentors to guide through difficult decisions along the way. In fact, when I moved in my career to finance, I did exactly that. Although I changed positions repeatedly in my government career, I always sought mentors to guide me in my career.

Christ as Mentor

In a very real sense, placing our faith in God is analogous to taking Christ as our mentor. When we come to faith, our information set is minimal, but we know that God is good and is trustworthy. By trusting God and taking Christ as our guide, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that come with inexperience as decision makers in this life.

But there is one other important point to make. As Christians, we know that the future is in Christ. Knowing the end of the story reduces the uncertainty that we face in this life. Thus, we not only benefit from the guidance of our mentor, he reduces our uncertainty. It is like we already have tomorrow’s newspaper and know today which stock will go up tomorrow.

The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

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Decisions Under Uncertainty

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Decisions that we make are often assumed to be made in a context of certainty about outcomes. We use language like, if I do A, then B will follow, as if we knew the outcome with absolute certainty. This is an unrealistic assumption, but we assume it anyway to keep things easy, at least for purposes of explaining our decisions to ourselves or others.

Why Do We Assume Certainty?

Part of the reason for this simplistic assumption is that decision making creates anxiety. The future is never known for sure and important decisions can affect outcomes, our state of mind, and how others view our competency. Our anxiety levels go down when we are confident of our ability to make decisions and have experience showing that our competency is justified.

Experience with Decision Making

In my own experience, my decision skills improved greatly when I traded commodities, stocks, and options. Timely decision making was important as a trader and my decisions had previously been marked by “analysis paralysis,” a condition where the decision maker keeps procrastinating in the hope of gathering more information. In trading, analysis paralysis proved costly because buying opportunities quickly disappear in a competitive market. My training as a trader proved costly, but I learned how to assess information requirements quickly and to limit the markets that I traded so I could act quickly without a high level of uncertainty. I also learned to cut my losses when the market did not perform as expected.

Cutting one’s losses quickly is important in other contexts. Suppose that I worked in a particular field for a number of years only to find that my chosen field was no longer “hot”. If I continued to work in that field and to deny the lack of interest of my employers, my career would suffer even if I retained my position. Suppose that I reached a certain age and no longer needed to work to earn a living in a stressful job. If I continued to work anyway because the money was good and ignored the effect of the stress on my health and on my family.

Uncertainty Affects All Aspects of Decisions

Going back to our original example of a decision—if A, then B—we have at least three sources of uncertainty in this simple equation.

First, what if condition A is only partially met or if we are mistaken in our ability to trigger this condition? If I want to purchase a car, I need to have the money necessary for the purchase. What if I do not have the cash and do not know if a lender to make me a loan?

Second, what if the relationship between A and B changes? Suppose I raise the money to buy the car, but it is no longer available for sale?

Third, what if I raise the money for my car and it is still available for sale, but the dealer package does not include the features that I really wanted, like perhaps a car radio or guidance system or air conditioning, at the price originally quoted?

Uncertainty is Especially a Problem with Investment Decisions

While buying a car can raise a number of issues in itself, the uncertainty level rises when the car is needed to make an investment decision or needs to be paid out of future earnings. What if I am starting a new job as a traveling salesman, what car is most suitable for my new position? Suitability might take the form of having seats that remain comfortable after a six hour drive so that I can meet with customers in a relaxed manner. Or it might take the form of safety features that prevent accidents in the case of narcolepsy.

If my investment in a new car needs to be paid out of my earnings as a salesman and my future earnings are in question, my ability to repay my automobile loan needs to be estimated and may depend on events that I have no control over.
The same problem arises in making decisions about education. In college when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision, but I knew that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living. I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, however, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Focus on the Assurance of Salvation and Doubt

The defining characteristic of the postmodern era is uncertainty, precisely the oppose of tradition society. In traditional societies, tradition informs every important decision in one’s life—what gender roles we follow, who our friends are, who we marry, what profession we take up, and who we worship and how. Life has meaning in a traditional society because when we accept this guidance, we are rewarded with status and honor. All of this guidance has been abandoned in postmodern culture where we are responsible for every imaginable decision with little or no guidance and, in any case, given no rewards of status honor. If we succeed, we are fully employed, have a medical plan, and can buy stuff. The defining characteristic of the individual in the postmodern era is anxiety.
The church responds to the postmodern dilemma primarily by over-emphasis of the assurance of salvation in Christ and, in effect, denial of any form of uncertainty. We all know this is a highly problematic theological stance because it leaves little or no room for doubt. Jesus did not take this position. Listen to the words of Jesus spoken to the father of a boy possessed by an evil spirit:

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us. And Jesus said to him, If you can! All things are possible for one who believes. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

The father recognizes that his faith is not sufficient for healing; Jesus accepts his prayer and heals the child notwithstanding. The father’s prayer is effectively our prayer.
God’s mercy through Christ is the only assurance of salvation that we have and Jesus knows that the uncertainty in this life, which wells up in us as doubt day to day, cannot snatch us from his hand (John 10:28).

 

Decisions Under Uncertainty

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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

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The Immaturity Problem

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Decisions in a society focused on youth culture pose a special problem because of the refusal of many to shoulder responsibility for their actions. As mentioned previously, in an ideal world we would approach important decisions as well-informed adults who understand our own weaknesses and consider carefully the options presented to us, taking our time to consult with our mentors, friends, and family and being devoid of dysfunctions, like mental illness or drug use. Even in the absence of external manipulation, youth culture undermines decision-making out of ignorance, impatience, and unwillingness to rectify obvious dysfunction.

The Designated Adult

Families and organizations manage to survive in this environment, not by encouraging greater rationality, but by weakly tolerating a few designated adults who tirelessly attempt to hold things together while many others simply party on. Family systems theory refers to this phenomena as overfunctioning (Friedman 1985, 210-212). Gilbert (2006, 17) notes that the overfunctioning individual usually pairs up with an underfunctioning individual to form one functioning person out of two.

In a church context, a pastor may be hired to rescue the congregation from a decline in membership only to find that members refuse to accept the new members that the pastor welcomes into the church. Churches of this sort may go through a series of pastors and eventually close their doors because the members refuse to adapt to and accept the changing demographics of their community. Parents unwilling or unable to practice “tough love” may find themselves saddled with caring for children that fail to launch and for grandchildren engendered by the same.

The One-off Solution

Postmodern culture encourages this behavior by refusing to insist that participants hold an internally consistent set of values and preferring one-off solutions.

Probably the most obvious example of this problem arises with the American drug culture that arises, in part, as the dark side of the propensity of Americans to place too high a value of an unsustainable work ethic. When attempts to compete in this unsustainable work culture fail, recreational drug use spirals into addiction and destroys any possibility of further advance in one’s career. At the heart of the problem is the attempt to live a licentious lifestyle alongside of a career that requires exacting personal discipline.

In this example, recreational drug use is proffered as a one-off solution to the problem of stress. Instead, of living a balanced lifestyle with time devoted both to work and self-care, the worker self-medicates and skips the trip to the gym or the family outing. Drug use starts out as the solution to the problem of stress through self-medication, not perceived as a problem in itself.[1] This confusion between problem and solution can lead to addiction, but—more to the point—it began by trying to find a one-off solution to the problem of stress, rather than mitigating the stress itself.

When the usual pattern of problem solving is to seek a one-off solution—looking for a pill to solve our health problem—we are less likely to perceive the spiritual problem that may be behind many of life’s challenges.

More than the Usual Background Noise

Every age has had its distractions. The postmodern era stands out because the volume of the background noise has been turned up significantly while the usual institutions—family, church, community—for dealing with it have been seriously weakened. It is now up to the individual to turn off the cell phone, computer, and other media or, alternatively, screen the massive amount of information available for specific information of use in making decisions. Meanwhile, the pace of life and work has accelerated rendering this filtering process for the conscientious decision maker more difficult.

But not everyone steps up to this challenge.

Presented with an overstimulating environment, many people opt simply to check out, self-medicate, or insulate themselves with white noise—the omnipresent headset, the television never turned off, or refusing to leave their rooms or other comforting environments. This latter option functions much like rumination that keeps the individual from reflecting on their daily challenges as they obsess about events in the past, especially past trauma. The individual who ruminates (or employs white noise) essentially refuses to think about current decisions and, as a consequence, frustrates their own maturing process becoming developmentally impaired.

Decisions in a Sub-Optimal Decision Environment

The problem of relying on designated adults, rather than aspiring to maturity, and habit of seeking one-off solutions both undermine the decision environment that many people face in the postmodern era. Many people reach the age of consent or of legal maturity well before they are able to function as self-reliant adults leaving them unable to make good decisions, vulnerable to manipulation, and unable to advance spiritually.

References

Clinebell Jr, Howard J. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic Through Religion and Psychology (Orig. Pub. 1956) Nashville: Abingdon.

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA): Leading Systems Press.

Footnotes

[1] Clinebell (1978, 19) observes: “Does the person’s drinking frequently or continuously interfere with his social relations, his role in the family, his job, his finances, or his health? If so, the changes are that that person is an alcoholic or on the verge of becoming one.”

The Immaturity Problem

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2BKihbl

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Why Do We Care About Learning Processes?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The process of learning affects the quality of our decisions, especially when it comes to faith decisions, and how we respond to external manipulation. While reflecting on the learning process may sound academic and perhaps boring, the learning process plays a critical role in our faith journey.

In an ideal world, we would approach important decisions as well-informed adults who understand our own weaknesses and consider carefully the options presented to us, taking our time to consult with our mentors, friends, and family and being devoid of dysfunctions, like mental illness or drug use.[1] In the postmodern world, advertisers encourage us to behave like kids, who deny that bad habits are bad and rush to make decisions based on the latest fad rather than careful reflection, discounting any advice offered by friends and family. The youth culture that dominates postmodern life offers an advertiser’s paradise.

If you believe that modern media is irrelevant to your religious life, then ask yourself a couple of questions. For example, why are most sermons about 20 minutes? and where do you go when you get upset? Twenty minute is about the amount of time remaining in a 30 minutes television show after the time devoted to advertising is subtracted out. If you go shopping when you are anxious, then consider what your grandmother might have done—50 years ago it was common to go to a chapel and pray on stressful occasions.[2] Today, if someone wanted to pray in a chapel, the door would likely be locked.

In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks talks about the contribution of dark art of marketing to cultural changes that we have seen. Borrowing from the work of Joseph Campbell, Sacks describes the purpose of myth (story-telling) is to help us grow up because we yearn for maturation. But mature adults (self-responsible, free agents) threaten marketers who typically prefer us to remain adolescents where we suspended in an immature state dwelling on emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity—the bottom rung in Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs.[3] In this immature state, we are encouraged to feel inadequate and incomplete where consumption of product X, Y, Z can presumably make us complete again (Sacks 2012, 85-86).

Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark because the advertiser works explicitly to undermine rational decision processes, stroke anxieties, and tell us stories that sell their products at the expense of undermining our own self-worth.

Through unconscious and voluminous repetition, this advertising entertains us daily like the air that we breathe and it shapes our perceptions, leaving us impatient for catchy phrases, tunes, and images. When our children say that church is boring, they simply observe that the pastor cannot offer the same catchy phrases, tunes, and images that they see on their cell phones every day. As parents, pastors, and teachers, postmodern culture outguns us on daily basis, unless we focus on the learning process and how decisions really get made.

References

Maslow, Abraham H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Footnotes

[1] Plantinga (2000, 108-134) wrote at length about the proper function of decision making and defining rationality with philosophical precision.

[2] In Hispanic films, people still consult a priest and/or visit a chapel to pray, but not in English language films. The last example of a chapel visit in film that I remember was in Home Alone (1990) starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern.

[3] Maslow pictured a pyramid of needs in which the foundational needs were physiological, followed by safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization at the top of the pyramid (Sacks 2012, 130).

Why Do We Care About Learning Processes?

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2jaUhI7

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Teachers, Mentors, Friends, and Family

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)

We seldom learn alone. From a young age, we learn to take advice and our teachers, mentors, friends, and family guide and instruct us. We read: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (Prov 19:20) While such advice may seem obvious, it frequently ignored. Many articles and studies cite few sources and give little evidence that they consulted anyone. A long list of references at the end of a report signals that the author has done his homework and can likely be trusted.

The first step in any research project is to consult the literature on the subject being studied. Few topics are truly new and, even when they are, prior research may have answered a similar question. Many academic fields of study invent entirely new terminology for what may be an ancient topic. This problem of new terminology may make a trip to the library (or to Google) seem pointless, but it points to the need to consult with advisers who can frame the proper terminology.

Resistance to consulting others frequently starts with pride or shame or the desire to take credit for the work. We may be too proud to ask for advice or be ashamed that we are not already experts on the subject. The desire to take credit for an innovation often motivates the keeping of secrets, but it also limits our productivity. A simple word of advice can eliminate many hours of searching and reduce the number of errors committed in the process. Working as a professional researcher, I often discovered in the final stages of a project a book or report that I wish that I had started with.

Of course, not all advisers can be trusted and ideas are frequently stolen. One reason for this problem arises because the hardest step in the scientific method is the problem definition. One of my most helpful professors used to add an additional step to the method before the problem definition: felt need.[1] A felt need reflects a concern without a clear idea of how usefully to frame the discussion. Once the problem is defined, the remainder of the research is a matter of filling in the blank. Thus, an adviser or a reviewer must be trusted enough to know that they will not steal an idea or, in an administrative context, take over (or kill)  your research project.

This problem is no different in a personal context. Sharing with a friend that you like someone entails the risk that they will realize that your relationship is uncertain and they could be emboldened to step in and initiate their own relationship. Talking about a job that you have applied for could invite competition or, alternatively, poisoning the well—your boss or co-workers may not want to see you advance or leave them.

Still, good friends and supportive colleagues will want you to be successful—to do your best work, to advance your career, and to find happiness. Working together and offering helpful advice speeds the learning process making life much more interesting. In fact, I frequently find prayer does exactly the same thing. When I take time to pray, often the first thing that happens is that God reminds me of something that I neglected to do—call a family member or take care of some unfinished business. With such insights revealed, I often sleep much better after evening prayers.

References

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Footnotes

[1] Johnson lectured on felt needs but had not formulated the approach when he published his formal work (Johnson 1986, 15).

Teachers, Mentors, Friends, and Family

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2jaUhI7

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Driving Lesson

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

Driving Lesson

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One summer afternoon on the farm as grandpa and grandma rested after lunch, I slipped out without permission, started up the tractor, and began cultivating a field of soybeans for the first time. After plowing about three rows of beans, the tractor got stuck in a wet spot in the field. Try as I might, the tractor just sank deeper in the mud.

Ashamed of myself having got stuck in the mud, I went to get my grandfather. He tried, but was also unable, to dislodge the tractor from the mud. He then called the neighbor who brought a chain, hooked it to the tractor, and pulled the tractor free with his pickup truck. The job took all afternoon.

In spite of the work I created and inconvenience, neither the neighbor nor my grandfather complained or scolded me, much as I deserved it. While this was first lesson in driving a stick-shift vehicle, what I remember best was grandpa’s patience. My sense of forgiveness as a pre-teen was immediate, yet something that I will never forget.

Also see:  Looking Back 

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John David

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

John David

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My brother, John David, arrived on April 9, 1963. He was ten years younger than me, but I knew reasonably well even as a tot because we shared the room in the basement in the house on Trexler Road. He was an angel from an early age. The brother I always wanted, he was, ironically, too young to share my childhood blues. Three incidents remained embedded in my memory.

The Incidents

The first incident came in fifth grade when a kid down the street sold me half a dozen cherry bombs that I eagerly tested in the backyard placing it in a coffee jar next to my bedroom window. Forgetting how powerful these explosives were, the blast knocked me down, bloodied my right side with glass shrapnel, and blew out my bedroom window. My room was also sprayed with glass. John was not there but I remember seeing his crib and feeling guilty about what might have happened had he been there.

The second incident came several years later. In the middle of the night in the dark, John got up from bed and began sleep walking around the room. I freaked out, began screaming, and mom ran downstairs and turned on the light. Poor John woke unaware of what had happened and began crying. Mom comforted us both and we all went back to bed.

A final incident happened when John was a youngster and I was in high school. John climbed up the steps in a tree behind the house where I had attempted to build a treehouse years earlier. The step collapsed; John slipped; and an exposed nail sliced the skin in John’s leg open from the ankle to the knee.

Scout Emergency Training

By the time I heard about it, John was sitting the kitchen. He did not cry, but my mother held onto him as I cleaned and bandaged up his leg, holding the skin together and taping it together inch by inch. I was surprised that there was not more blood and that John did not cry. The emergency room doctor that treated John later complimented my work and praised my Scout training.

Football Wonder

John went on to play football for the New Carrollton Boy’s Club at the age of seven, even though I had been discouraged earlier from playing—mom told me: “Football is too violent.” By high school John was a star athlete, quarterbacking the only winning team in twenty years, and president of his class for several years running. Instead of being my younger brother, I became known around town as his older brother, which was fine with me. I always wanted a brother.

 

Also see:  Looking Back 

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Appearance: Looking the Part

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

Vindicate me, O LORD,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the LORD
without wavering. (Ps 26:1)

Appearance: Looking the Part

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Seminary students must grow academically and relationally which requires transitions in both the student and the community. Pastors work for their congregations as well as lead them in a covenant relationship, where one cares for the other. This relationship can, however, get complicated.

When I entered seminary, I worked as clerk of session at CPC and worked closely with the pastor on church business. Because the pastor often serves as a mentor to inquirers and candidates of ministry and session oversees both, my roles conflicted. This conflict proved stressful and within a few months I resigned from the clerk’s role and from session.

The role conflict between clerk of session and pastor in training symbolized a larger conflict in identity. As clerk, my background as economist underscored my technical competence in managing the business affairs of the church. As pastor in training, technical competence can get in the way of relational competence when people become intimidated by one’s technical competence and step back relationally. This dilemma posed a question—how do I get people to reboot their image of me, from economist to pastor?

Call Sermon

In the summer of 2009, CPC invited five former members who had been called into ordained pastoral ministry back to the church to preach a sermon series on God’s call; as a seminary student, the pastor also invited me to preach on August 23. In view of my struggle with pastoral identity, I enlisted the assistance of a couple of friends to introduce the sermon with a little skit designed to kill off the “Dr. Hiemstra” persona at CPC:

Heckler 1: Is this going to be one of those boring sermons that you just read?
SWH: This? [Holding up script]
Heckler 1: Put it right in here [Holding up a trash can].
SWH: [Ripping up script and depositing in can].
Heckler 1: [Walking off a few steps…]
SWH: [Smiling and pulling out a backup script]
Heckler 1: Oh no you don’t….[Returning with the trash can]
SWH: [Ripping up second script]
[Standing there holding jacket lapels and staring…]
Heckler 2: Do you think you can be a pastor by dressing the part?
SWH: [Pointing to self]
Heckler 2: You don’t need a suit coat—what you need is a call from God.
Here take this. [Tossing a CPC tee shirt]
SWH: [Taking off jacket and putting on the tee shirt]

Someone warned me that ministry is a team sport at CPC!

After a prayer, I preached on the story of Stephen in Acts chapter seven, which was my first sermon without notes.

After the sermon, my mother asked for my CPC t-shirt and I gave it to her. The sermon itself softened my pastoral image and after eight years friends and family still remind me of it.

 

Also see:  Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2wVZtbb

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Christian Spirituality

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality
For more information, see: T2Pneuma.com

Christian Spirituality

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Spirituality is lived belief. When we pray, worship, or reach out to our neighbors, we live out our beliefs. Our beliefs structure our spirituality like skin stretched over the bones of our bodies. These beliefs start with faith in God the Father through Jesus Christ as revealed through the Holy Spirit in scripture, the church, and daily life. Our theology orders our beliefs. Without a coherent theology, we lose our identity in space and time having no map or compass to guide us on our way. In the end, we focus on ourselves, not God.

Spiritual Foundation

Christian spirituality accordingly starts with God, not with us. Like the woman Jesus cured of a spinal disfiguration, our only response can be to glorify God with songs of praise (Luke 13:13). We experience lasting Christian joy, not with recognizing Christ as savior, but with recognizing Christ as Lord. Spiritual disciplines and experiences are part of this spirituality, but they are not necessarily the focus (1 Cor 13:8).

This focus on what God has done begins in verse one of Genesis where God is pictured creating the heavens and the earth. What exactly have we done to deserve being created? Nothing. In fact, our first independent act was to sin. What exactly have we done to warrant forgiveness? Nothing. Christ died for our sins. The only meaningful response to these gifts of creation and salvation is praise.

Early Church

The early church interpreted and summarized God’s revelations in the biblical text and early creeds. It later developed the catechisms to summarize key church doctrines. The Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s catechism, and the Catholic catechism focus on three key statements of faith: the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (Chan 2006, 108). Not surprisingly, Sunday morning worship has for centuries focused on these three faith statements, often being memorized and put to music. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, encourages a focus on worship and is itself divided into 52 sermon topics for weekly use.

The key spiritual discipline in the Christian faith naturally is Sunday morning worship. The worship service includes prayer, readings from scripture, the spoken word, the sacraments, music, statements of faith, and other expressions of faithful worship. In worship, music binds our hearts and minds.

Spiritual Practices

This worship experience is strengthened daily through personal devotions as well as devotions with our spouses, families, and other small groups. The original small group is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our template for healthy community. And when we take our spirituality into the work world, it too becomes an opportunity for worship.

Hear the words; walk the steps; experience the joy!

Reference

Chan, Simon. 2006. Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Thielicke, Helmut. 1962. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

 

Also see:  Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2wVZtbb

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