Storytelling

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“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 5:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus told a lot of stories.

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1991) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Biblical stories serve the same function rehearsing events from the past with current emotional and relational relevance.

Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis. Still, even under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing rather than issuing directives. These stories of healing allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance while giving the patient a template for resolving their issues on their own (Rosen 1982).

Recognizing Stories during Pastoral Visits

Savage (1998) suggests using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:

1. Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers—economist becomes pastor is one of my stories.

2. Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.

3. “I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.

4. Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.

5. Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).

Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.

The Parable of the Sower

Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, which is found in three of the four Gospels accounts, stands out because after telling the parable he explains its meaning to the disciples allowing Gospel readers the benefit of both left-brain and right-brain versions of the story.

Jesus’ use of this parable provides a template for preaching. Hearers of the Gospel not only have different responses to the message, reflecting the different types of soil that seeds can fall on, they also learn differently. Some respond to allegory and metaphor; others just want to have things explained. A sermon can accommodate each of these needs through use of prayers, personal stories, scripture readings, and didactic lessons. If the sermon’s theme is also reinforced in the music, then the worship service can be a highly integrated means of communication.

The Good Example

Bad examples litter the landscape of the postmodern world where drug use is being de-criminalized, prostitution is being promoted as just another vocation, and shoot-them-up gaming has become a competitive sport. Even our news, kid shows, and prescriptions are subject to advertiser’s narratives. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you, as the saying goes.

With our eyes on Christ, each of us as Christians should strive to be a good role model. Much like good writers try to “show rather than tell” their stories, good Christians work to act out their faith on life’s stage where the lights never go out. Hypocrite is the Greek word for actor, who steps in and out of roles. Our role extends from birth to death. This is why we strive to improve our characters and habits with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Showing rather telling becomes particularly important in witnessing to people afflicted with pride, who refuse all straightforward attempts to offer advice much like Erickson’s psychiatric patients. Extremely intelligent and wealthy people often view themselves as too clever for everyone else, much like many teenagers. This implies that they need to learn for themselves, reflecting on the examples of others or stories told through film, theatre, conversation, or a well-chosen book.

References

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1991. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Orig Pub 1975). New York: Penguin Books. 

Rosen, Sidney. 1982. My Voice Will Go with You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Show Don’t Tell

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/Run_2019

Continue Reading

Downward Mobility

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“There is neither Jew nor Greek, 

there is neither slave nor free, 

there is no male and female, 

for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

(Gal 3:28)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry involved organizing a summer program for students in my parent’s new church home in McLean, Virginia in the late 1970s. The high school students loved this idea and I continued to organize the summer program throughout graduate school. Over these years, I saw one cohort of students after another progress through school, graduate, and move away, a process that I described as downward mobility. As a doctoral candidate with good prospects, I was one of the few able to live and find work in affluent Northern Virginia.

The Downwardly Mobile

This downward mobility is actually a phenomena facing most young people today. Studies show that real income in the United States has been relatively flat for college graduates since about 1980. The average student has a couple years of college before dropping out and, like high school graduates, has suffered a decline in real income since 1980. Only students with postgraduate work—maybe 10-20 percent of the population—have seen an increase in real income since 1980, generally associated with their ability to take advantage of changes in information technology—the hamburger helper of today’s professionals.

This downward mobility has placed economic pressure on many people making it hard to purchase a home or have a family. The disappearance of pensions and healthcare are a related problem. In the midst of this economic pressure, American society has increasingly been stratified by economic class. Throw in gender, race, and ethnicity, and you have a highly combustible mixture because no one feels better off. The decline in life expectancy over the past three years, due in part to record suicides and drug overdoses, is testimony to the stress that people feel.

Being the Church

In the middle of a chaotic social situation and pressure on budgets, how does the church resist the temptation to serve only the wealthier economic classes rather than the entire community? This is not an idle question.

Churches, like the Roman Catholics, that operate on the parish model are better able to serve the entire community than those that differentiate themselves based on their theological heritage, like most Protestant churches. A parish is defined geographically that should ideally serve both rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

A theologically defined church can attract one or another social group, depending on particular concerns. A church promoting the prosperity Gospel, for example, is much more likely to attract the economically-disadvantaged while the work-ethic of traditional Calvinist denominations, like the Presbyterians, is more likely to appeal to professional groups.

Irrespective of structure or theology, we are called as Christians to minister to and evangelize the entire community. Just because a stressful economy has raised the stakes, does not mean that we can neglect the mission.

The Special Problem of Immigration

Massive immigration from Latin American countries, particularly in Central America, has exacerbated class distinctions in America. Hispanic immigrants often speak no English and lack documentation that allows them to work in the United States. Political deadlock has led a humanitarian crisis at the border and the development of a rigid underclass in virtually every American city.

What makes this crisis interesting is that policy changes in the United States helped promote this immigration. Illegal drug use in America has prompted the growth of narco-trafficking and the development of drug gangs in Central America that has made life difficult in these countries. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lowered the price of grain in Central America undermining the rural economy (where most of the immigrants used to work) after 1994.

Complicating matters, the lack of population growth has created an urgent need for workers in the United States in low wage industries, such as janitorial services, hospitality, construction, and agriculture.

Role for Churches

While immigration has met the need for workers and promoted economic growth, the Hispanic immigration has proceeded too quickly for immigrants to be legally and socially integrated into American society. Churches need to intervene to assist with both problems.

The biblical mandate to assist immigrants is obvious. In Exodus, we read:

“You shall not wrong a sojourner [immigrant] or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Exod 22:21-23)

From a practical perspective I remind people that about a third of the children in the United States under the age of twenty share an Hispanic background. Another third are minorities. Learning to serve these groups today while the kids are young is an important investment in the future of congregational ministry that we dare not neglect.

Downward Mobility

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/Run_2019

Continue Reading

Christian Distinctives

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

One of the most important roles that Christian leaders play is distinguishing orthodox Christian beliefs from beliefs from other religions. If our spirituality is practiced theology, then right action follows primarily from right beliefs.

Let me focus on two deviations from orthodox Christian belief. First, why do Christians believe in original sin? Second, why does Christ provide the exclusive path to God’s salvation?

Original Sin

Original sin describes the action of Adam and Eve in breaking God’s command not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17; 3:6). As a consequence of this first act of disobedience to God, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. A holy God cannot tolerate the presence of unholy human beings.

Ever since, humanity has been tainted by this sin. Because of the doctrine of original sin, Christians are seldom surprised by sinful behavior and the existence of evil and considerable effort has been made over time to promote moral behavior, avoiding sin and embracing godliness.

Recently, some have questioned the doctrine of sin arguing that humanity is basically good and teaching morality is unnecessary because it only induces guilt among those taught.

An important implication of this new teaching is that basically good people have no need of salvation from sin or reconciliation with God. Thus, Jesus cannot have died for our sins, as the New Testament teaches (e.g. 1 Cor 15), and need not have been divine, because no divine intervention was necessary to reconcile us with God. Jesus may be a great teacher or prophet, but is not the son of God.

Thus, original sin, as taught in scripture, is a key to understanding our need for salvation and Christ’s work on the cross to bridge the gap between a holy God and unholy human beings. Unfortunately, those who believe we are basically good cannot be saved because they do not believe salvation is necessary.

The Exclusivity of Christ

Holiness is not the only gap that needs to be bridged between us and God. God creating the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), which means that God created time and space—attributes of the created universe. Like carpenters must be separated from the book shelve that they built, God stands outside the universe that he created.

Standing apart from the universe is what theologians refer to as transcendence. God’s transcendence implies that we cannot approach God because we are locked inside time and space. Existentially we cannot reach out to God; he must reach out to us. As Christians, we believe that God reached out to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man—a necessary attribute to bridge the existential gap between us and God (Heb 7).

The creation account in Genesis thus eliminates the possibility that the pantheists are correct, that God is in every living and inanimate things, because God stands apart from his creation. Also eliminated is the Jainist notion of multiple paths up the mountain to God—God’s transcendence implies there are not paths up the mountain—God must come down. Christ is also not just another avatar (an incarnation of of Visnu bridging the gap between God and humanity) because his sacrifice on the cross bridged the gap between God and humanity for once and for all—there is no need for God to reach out a second time.

Moving On

Orthodox Christianity grew up in the polytheistic environment of the first century, distinguished itself from many other religions, and thrived to become the one and only truly world religion. Christian leaders today need to understand this history in order to witness in the postmodern world where communication and borders are relatively porous. Fear of other religions stems primarily from ignorance of the strengths of our own faith in Jesus Christ.

Christian Distinctives

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/Run_2019

Continue Reading

Creation Living

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

How does creation fit into your spirituality? 

Myself, when I am anxious at the end of the day, I retire with a good book to my front porch to enjoy a cool breeze, listen to the birds, and watch the sun set through the trees. Here God’s presence comforts me.

Spiritual Roots to Ecological Sensitivity

One of my earliest and most enduring influences was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. He begins:

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner to civilized life again.” (Thoreau 1960, 1)

He goes on to explain:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce to its lowest terms…” (Thoreau 1960, 62-63)

The idea of a Spartan existence, which he immediately related to reformed spirituality paraphrasing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, always had a special appeal to me:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (PCUSA). 1999, 7.001)

Exposed to the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and to Thoreau, I have always implicitly associated creation with spirituality.⁠1 However, it took a recent reading of Holt (2017, 31) to remind me of my own spiritual roots in this regard.

Genesis describes the earth as God’s creation (Gen 1:1) over which the Holy Spirit hovers (Gen 1:2). We are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and given the mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Later, God created the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) and put man into it to “keep it” (Gen 2:15). Reluctant gardeners, perhaps, Adam and Eve sin (Gen 3:6) and are driven out of the garden (Gen 3:24). It is therefore correct to say that original sin not only separated us from communion with God, it introduced tension into our relationship with creation and our intended stewardship role.

The Apostle Paul speaks of this tension, writing:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23)

In the hours immediately before his arrest, Jesus retired to the Garden at Gethsemane to pray. Some have interpreted this retreat to Gethsemane as a kind of return to Eden.

Ecological Anxiety

In recent years anxiety about the fragility of our earth’s environment has reached a fever pitch. Where nineteenth century anxiety focused on limits to the quantity of food available to feed a growing population, recent concerns about global warming might be described as prophecy of an ecological Armageddon. How should Christians respond to these concerns?

Few scientists question that the earth is warming. The opening of Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans which was  icebound in the nineteenth century, reminds us that global warming is taking place. Less certain is the question: what can be done about it? In my experience as a Washington economist, the more heated the debate, the less obvious the solution.

What is Our Mandate?

Because the science and politics of global warming are not easily discerned, I do not profess to have all the answers or the ability to direct a solution. My personal limitations, however, do not relinquish me of responsibly as a steward of creation. As Christians we should refuse to play the victim or the villain or to claim that we are powerless in any endeavor. We can do a number of things:

  • We can pray for the Holy Spirit to sustain us and our planet.
  • We can inform ourselves and others about ecological matters.
  • We can reduce our consumption of energy and products known to create environmental hazards.

Following Thoreau, we can live a Spartan lifestyle as a spiritual discipline, mindful of God’s provision and thankful for his protection. Waste not; want not.

References

Holt, Bradley P. 2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Meadows, Donella, H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III (MMRB) . 1975. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books Publishers.

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.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1960. Walden and Civil Disobedience (Orig pub 1854). Edited by Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Footnotes

1 I went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics, possessed as it were of a strong desire to deal with the world food problem following the 1970s concern for limited resources and limits to growth (MMRB 1975). This background does not make me an environmentalist, but it gave a deep appreciation for our role as stewards of creation.

Creation Living

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/Run_2019

Continue Reading

Spiritual Disciplines

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

If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then staying attached to the vine is our first priority. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) John’s Gospel goes a step further declaring Jesus as the ethical image of God with God during creation:

“He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John. 1:2-5)

The idea of an ethical image is introduced here in describing him as “the light of men.” 

In describing Jesus as the light of the world, John draws our attention to God’s first refinement—creating light—after creating heaven and earth (Gen 1:3). The implication is that creation itself started with an ethical intent, which we share in by virtue of being created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27).

Two Objectives of Spiritual Disciplines

In his Sermon on the Mount uses this same light metaphor of his disciples:

“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)

The implication here is that staying attached to the vine is the first priority and that the purpose of this attachment is to convey light, an ethical mandate. Thus, for Christians spiritual disciplines have two objectives: increasing our openness to God’s blessings and extending them to others (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 22:36-40).

Jesus is not looking for fans, he is looking for extension cords.

Rapprochement

The eating of forbidden fruit led to humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Banishment is a penalty reserved for rebels and it creates a physical barrier between us and God that only God can overcome. For as creator of the universe, God stands outside of time and space while we remain within time and space unable to bridge the gap on our own.

Implicit in taking Christ as our example is that Jesus is the divine image in which we were created. As both God and human, Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is able to bridge the gap that we cannot (e.g. Heb 9:11-13).

In dying on the cross, Christ paid the penalty for our sin, but our remoteness from God requires rapprochement. We must accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and be willing to admit God into our lives. Admitting God into our lives—our sanctification—has three parts: renouncing sin (practicing holiness) and taking on the attributes of Christ (pursuing godliness) (Eph 4:20-24; Bridges). A third part is reconciliation with those who we have sinned against—social ministry.

How we approach practicing holiness and pursuing godliness naturally depends on the sins that we are most prone to commit. In a fractured world where people hide themselves from the consequences of their collective actions, social ministry might be seen as a particularly important sanctification activity.

Dancing with God

In some sense, sanctification is like taking God as a dancing partner. Accepting an invitation to dance is a verbal commitment, but dancing requires coordinated movement between two people. One would never claim the title of dancer having only accepted an invitation to dance. Neither would anyone enter a dance competition without practice. Faith is like accepting the challenge of a lifelong commitment to become the best dancer one can be.

References

Bridges, Jerry. 1996a. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Spiritual Disciplines

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/TakingCare_2019

Continue Reading

Hidden Ministries

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

Hellerman (2001, 1) asks an intriguing question: what explains “the marked growth of the early Christian movement?” His response is that the early church was a surrogate family which:

“…may be defined as a social group whose members related to one another neither by birth nor by marriage, but who nevertheless (a) employ kinship terminology to describe group relationships and (b) expect family-like behavior to characterize interactions among group members.” (Hellerman 2001, 2)

This is an intriguing hypothesis because we observe sibling terminology being used by Peter even on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:16)—before the church had been organized—and it is used throughout the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 1:10). We also note that referring to God as father (e.g. Matthew 6:9 and John 17:1) is also consistent with the idea that we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. Furthermore, the early church shared resources, acting like a family in taking care of one another (Acts 2:44-45).

Introducing Family Systems

If this hypothesis rings true family systems ministry holds an important key to congregational ministry. Just like a presenting diagnosis may simply fill a void created by an underlying problem like grief, those that show up at worship on Sunday morning may represent family systems struggling with enormous pain.

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. A medical doctor or counselor treating only an individual’s symptoms may not have a high degree of success because the cause of the symptoms lies in the family system, not the individual. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Five Concepts

Friedman (1985, 19) outlines five basic concepts in family systems theory, including:

  1. The identified patient;
  2. The concept of balance (homeostasis);
  3. Differentiation of self;
  4. The extended family field; and
  5. Emotional triangles.

Each of these concepts deserves discussion.

The Identified Patient

Symptoms arise in a family system first in the weakest members of the system.  This unconscious scapegoating effect arises, in part, because they are least able to cope with problems elsewhere in the system like plumbing subject to excessive water pressure (Friedman 1985, 21). For example, a child may act out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc) because the parents have marital difficulties. Focusing on the child may simply make the problem worse, while counseling the parents may not only resolve the marital difficulties, but the child’s issue as well.

Balance

The family emotional system strives to maintain equilibrium (resist change) having an effect not unlike a thermostat.  When problems surface, questions according arise like:  what is out of equilibrium? Why now?  Ironically, familiar dysfunction may be preferred to therapeutic change. Dynamic stability may accordingly be attained, in part, by how loosely or tightly individuals respond to changes.  Friedman classifies families as acting more like a serial (tightly integrated) or parallel (loosely integrated) electrical system. Families that are loosely integrated exhibit a greater capacity to absorb stress simply because they are less reactive to the stress. (Friedman 1985, 24-26)

Differentiation of Self

Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration.  The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence). Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis. Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges. This is a principle that can aid leaders in many a dysfunctional organization (Friedman 1985, 27-31).

Extended Family 

Understanding one’s extended family and family history can identify unresolved issues and repeating patterns.  The principle is that one cannot solve a family system’s problem by withdrawing temporally or geographically—in such events we simply take our issues with us.  Such problems have a nasty habit of reappearing kind of like genetic diseases transmitted by DNA. Friedman (1985, 32) observes that:  family trees are always trees of knowledge and often they are also trees of life. This re-emergence of family systems problems across time and distance extends the principle of homeostasis.

Emotional Triangles

Friedman (1985, 35) writes: An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus on a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. This has the effect of putting stress on that third person to balance the system. An unsuspecting pastor could, of course, end up participating in many such triangles and simply burn out. This leads Friedman to observe that: stress is less the result of quantitative notion such as “overwork” and more the effect of our position in the triangle of our families.

The importance of the pastor’s stance in a church family is immediately obvious in this framework. The pastor functions as a parent in the church family system. Problems in the pastor’s family of origin have the potential to transmit immediately into the church family because of the pastor’s key role in the system. Likewise, the pastor can also be easily triangled into families within the church family if the pastor is not a non-anxious presence within the system. Homeostasis can leave a new pastor vulnerable to dysfunction in a church years after the apparent source of the problem, perhaps a prior pastor, has left.

Hiddenness

The relative emptiness of church pews may not be a good indicator of the influence of the church and church leaders within the community.  Suppose the only family members to attend church were the over functioning members. Teaching over-functioning members to become a non-anxious presence, perhaps by modeling Sabbath rest could bring healing to an entire extended family. The importance of funerals becomes more obvious because members of the extended family may suddenly find themselves in church for the first time in many years.

Alternatively, one might find a young person in the youth program acting out. Viewing the young person as the weak link in the family system may provide a flag for unspoken marital difficulties in the family, either present or absent from church. But how would you know unless you made a house call?

Of course, the church as a family system could also be dysfunctional, refusing to cope with leadership problems that manifest in excessive gossip, pastoral burnout, or disregard for the mission of the church.

References

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

Hellerman, Joseph H. 2001. The Ancient Church as Family. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Hidden Ministries

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/HotWeather_2019

Continue Reading

Authentic Grief

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristFor godly grief produces a repentance 

that leads to salvation without regret, 

whereas worldly grief produces death. 

(2 Cor 7:10)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

About half of the patients I visited with in the emergency room during my time at Providence Hospital suffered physical maladies as a consequence of unresolved grief. Presenting diagnoses, such as backaches, strokes, heart attacks, failed psychiatric medicines, suicides, addictions, obesity, and head aches, often resulted from unresolved grief over the loss of a close family member. In such cases, treating the presenting ailment proved secondary to helping them cope with their loss.

American society does not cope with grief adequately. In a strong sense, we mask our grief with physical ailments to garner support that would otherwise be withheld. Supporting the grieving in their mourning can therefore promote both their emotional and physical well-being.

Godly Grief

The tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we lean into our pain or turn it over to God? Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future (Matt 26:42).

Because of the ubiquitous nature of pain and the decision it poses, our response over time to grief defines our character—who we become. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt 5:4).

Widening Our View of Grief

Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:

  • Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
  • Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
  • Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
  • Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
  • Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to 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.

What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment.” Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?

Ministering to Those in Pain

Do you give grieving people permission to grieve? Or do you try to sweep grief under the rug? VanDuivendyk (2006, 12) observes:

So many well-meaning friends and loved ones may try to cheer us up rather than just be with us in our sadness. Rather than help us grieve through and talk out our pain, they may attempt to talk us out of pain. Rather than be sojourners with us in the wilderness, they may attempt to find us a shortcut. Jesus openly cried over Lazarus and the widow’s son, and raised them both from the dead even though no words of faith were spoken (John 11:1-46; Luke 7:11-17), suggesting that we have permission to mourn rather emulating the stoics with their stiff upper lip.

Worden (2009, 39-50) sees the process of grief as divided into four tasks:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss,
  2. Working through the pain,
  3. Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
  4. Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.

The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.

Unresolved grief—getting stuck in one of the tasks above—results in anxiety attacks and physical ailments when people refuse to honor their pain and are forced to pretend that it does not exist. American culture is complicit in promoting unresolved grief because co-workers, neighbors, and friends often give a grieving spouse or parent about two weeks before signaling that something is wrong if you are not over it. This is why it is important to give the grieving permission to grieve in the funeral to signal to their support group that two weeks is unlikely to be a sufficient period to complete the tasks of grieving.

References

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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

VanDuivendyk, Tim P. 2006. The Unwanted Gift of Grief:  A Ministry Approach.  New York:  Haworth Press Inc.

Worden, J. William. 2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practioner. New York: Springer.

Authentic Grief

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/TakingCare_2019

Continue Reading

Interpretative Community

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

The interpretative problem in ethics arises because every observer of an action may potentially explain the event differently. While pastoral training normally includes instruction in biblical interpretation, the ethical problem is seldom openly discussed and formal training, if provided, is handled as an apprentice activity. Biblical interpretation is, in some sense, easier because the interpretative context is fixed and, given enough effort, can usually be described. Ethical interpretation is harder because the context of an action may differ between observers and may be fluid in a society in philosophical transition.

Shooting Example

Let’s return for a moment to our shooting example.

The interpretative problem in ethics is complex enough that even experienced judges can get it wrong and books are written whose plot hangs on the interpretation. Suppose one man shoots another. Immediately, everyone wants to know details of what happened. Consider these questions:

  • Who were the men? 
  • What were their ethnicities? 
  • What was their relationship? 
  • What roles did they play? 
  • What was going on at the time of the shooting?
  • Has this happened before?
  • What was the motivation for the shooting?

Suppose a judge officiates the trial and a jury finds the shooter innocent (or guilty). What happens if the community riots when the decision is announced? In the case of a shooting, emotions may run wild, but every action is potentially subject to a similar conflict in interpretations.

The Church is an Interpretative Community

While the example of a shooting is pretty extreme, it makes the point that ethical interpretation is less a question of philosophy or individual accountability and more a case where the community plays an important role in interpretation. For Christians, the pertinent community is the church, but the church’s interpretative role arises primarily in teaching; the final word in interpreting events rests mostly with the state. When the church abdicates its interpretative role, state both determines and polices morality.

Key Role of the Bible

the Bible is a book written by adults for adults, yet as biblical illiteracy grows it is increasing obvious that the modern church treats the Bible as a book written primarily for kids. No one would actually say such a thing, but actions speak louder than words. Consider these observations:

  • Sunday school attendance is weak, particularly among adults, and books other than the Bible are often featured in small group study.
  • Even when Bible study is offered, video studies take the burden off leaders and participants to engage scripture deeply.
  • Churches often recruit young pastors with little life experience or biblical awareness with the primary entry point to ministry in many churches being youth group leadership.
  • Sermons have grown shorter to keep worship services no longer than an hour, often feature feel-good topics—God is love—rather than serving to teach biblical awareness or interpretation, and seldom ask listeners to do or remember anything.
  • When the Bible is neglected, spiritual disciplines tend to emphasize spiritual experiences rather than opening us up to receive God’s word for our lives and acting on it.

As biblical illiteracy within the church grows, the church increasingly serves as an interpretative community for particular ethnic groups, economic classes, or gender identities.

Interpretative Community

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/HotWeather_2019

Continue Reading

Managing Change

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

Probably the most difficult aspect of leadership is managing change. Often pain is involved which provides an important clue that the status quo has been or will soon be disrupted. Pain presents a Gethsemane moment (Matt 26:36) when a decision needs to be made—shall I turned into my pain and initiate negative self-talk or turn to God and give it over to him? The answer to the many times this question comes up defines our character both as Christians and as Christian leaders.

Seeking Guidance

As the Apostle James reminds us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (Jas 1:5) A Gethsemane moment poses a need for pain relief, but the need for guidance is almost always a more pressing concern. Guidance is obviously needed to know how to proceed to solve possible problems, but also to know how to respond to the pain. Left to simmer, pain often turns into negative self-talk, depression, and anger.

Anger can be especially destructive. In copying with anger, Lester (2007, 62) presents a 6 step model:

  1. Recognize anger;
  2. Acknowledge anger;
  3. Calming our bodies;
  4. Understanding why we are threatened;
  5. Evaluating the validity of the threat; and
  6. Communicating anger appropriately.

This list sounds suspiciously like how other authors suggest speakers cope with hostile questions—anger is often suppressed and expressed in a devious manner. Lester notes that anger is often camouflaged as procrastination; actions that frustrate, embarrass or causes others pain; nasty humor; nagging; silence; sexual deviance; and passive-aggressive behavior (Lester 2007, 88-89). It is more productive to seek God’s advice—Lord, why have you brought me to this time and this place?

Tension between Stewardship and Theology 

The problems facing church leaders today seem endless, but one problem stands out: stewardship. Real wages have been flat for most workers in the United States since the early 1980s with most income gains accruing to the top earning ten percent (Desilver 2018). If one combines wage stagnation with declining church attendance, the stewardship problem becomes obvious. In many churches, every funeral is accompanied with a financial crisis.

While most people are familiar with the biblical concept of the tithe, relatively few people understand where it comes from. Historically each Jewish worship service requires at least ten Jewish men to be present—a minion. Jesus traveled with his twelve disciples which meant that everywhere he stopped to speak was an official Jewish worship service. Well, if a Rabbi had a minion and each of them contributed the title, then the Rabbi would enjoy the average standard of living of his minion. In the American church where the average congregant donates one percent of income, it basically takes a membership of one hundred congregants to support a pastor, which implies that an American minion is one hundred congregants.

The stewardship crisis facing American churches also poses a theological crisis because the pastors must keep their minions happy. If the pastor’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, a balance is obviously easier to maintain with a Jewish minion than an American minion. In other words, because of how churches are financed, the pastor today must be an expert in crowd control in a society focused more on media entertainment than biblical literacy. Maintaining faithful teaching in the midst of this framework is understandably difficult.

Change as Transition

Change seldom happens overnight. This makes it helpful to think of change as a transition with beginning, middle, and ending phases rather than single event. In pastoral care, the typical hospital visit is a transition—something prompted the visit, the patient requires a period of treatment, and, then, what will be different as they leave the hospital? This final question is inherently spiritual, especially when the patient passed through a near-death experience.

The Exodus experience poses the classical biblical transition. It took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took him 40 years in the desert to get the Egypt out of the people. Even then, Joshua, not Moses, was the one that led them into the Promised Land (Bridges 2003, 43). Interestingly, it was in the desert where the people of Israel learned to rely on God (Exod 7:16; Card 2005).

Rebooting a Program or Career

Whenever one invests heavily in a project, program, or career, it becomes like human capital, analogous to the purchase a specialized machine, like a harvester for picking only corn (Johnson and Quance 1972). Once this investment is made, it is fixed and cannot be easily changed. When market conditions change, the value of this investment declines and may become worthless. Still, for the manager making the investment, it may be easier pretending markets will come back than owning up to the loss.

Early in my economics career, I invested a lot of time and effort learning Spanish hoping to work in Latin American affairs. By the time I completed my degree, interest in Latin American development had subsided and everyone was taking about West Africa development, where the dominant language in French, not Spanish. Consequently, I found myself studying French, but before long I ended up going into finance where my language skills were pretty much irrelevant. My willingness to learn new things and switch fields paid off handsomely over the years and I retired with a salary about double that of colleagues who had started out with me in international affairs.

Churches are typically much smaller than government agencies, which intensifies the the need to learn new things. In this context, rebooting programs and careers is an ongoing battle. The need to go to the Lord in prayer is important both in knowing what to do and in managing the painful emotions that change can bring.

References

Bridge, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005.  A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. [Also: Experience Guide]. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Desilver, Drew. 2018. “For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades” Pew Research Center. Accessed: 25 July 2019. Online: (https://www.pewresearch.org/staff/drew-desilver) August 7.

Johnson, Glenn L. and C. Leroy Quance [editors]. 1972. The Overproduction Trap in U.S. Agriculture: A Study of Resource Allocation from World War I to the Late 1960’s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Managing Change

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/HotWeather_2019

Continue Reading

Beyond Default Settings

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

An important struggle for Christians in this postmodern society is striking a balance between structure and change. Structure can mean worshipping with our preferred music, theology,  or ethnic group while change can mean mixing any of these things up. This tension between structure and change exists in all aspects of life today—family, community, church, and work—which exhausts us constantly. Finding peace in the midst of this chaos is a theme in the postmodern church.

Reverting to Default Settings

In the midst of chaos and the absence of reflection, many people and churches naturally revert to their default settings, which reflect a happy period in their past. In the political realm, we see ethnically-based groups forming that resist compromise and shamelessly promote their own narrow interests at the expense of others. In the church, we see spirited food-fights—worship wars—over small changes in musical genre. These default settings are deeply ingrained aspects of our identity that, as Christians, are supposed to be in Christ, not other things. At least, three explanations can be offered for these reversions:

  1. In a period of fundamental change in life in society, we may look for structure in our Christian lives that previously may have vested elsewhere.
  2. If our faith is not centered on Christ but on other things, then the superficiality of our faith has been unmasked for all to see.
  3. It is amazing how often default settings come into play when people act out of fear or anger.

In all likelihood, all of these explanations work together to intensify the emotions driving these reversions.

The Role of Presuppositions

Default settings often operate at a subconscious or presuppositional level. In its simplest form, a presupposition is an implicit, unstated assumption about how things work.

Think about the colors, white and black. We normally associate white with day—safe time when you can see everything— and black with night—a fearful time when crooks and evil spirits are at work. White is often thought to good, as in the good cowboys wear white hats while the bad ones wear black hats. Old movies may have even reinforced these cowboy stereotypes, which may seem harmless until we start talking about race relations.

Because presuppositions operate subconsciously, they can affect our behavior without us even being conscious of it. In my own case, I volunteer working in Hispanic ministry and often practice my Spanish by listening to Spanish Christian music. One summer day several years ago when I was out driving I caught myself becoming anxious having the windows down as I played my music sitting at a traffic light. Why was I anxious? Subconsciously I was afraid that complete strangers would assume that I was Hispanic. Ouch! I instantly became ashamed of myself.

The way to overcome such presuppositions is to examine our own behaviors and ask: why am I doing this? Presuppositions stop influencing our behavior when we take the time to reflect on why we impulsively do things.

Emotional Clues

One area where reflection is likely to be fruitful in understanding our own presuppositions arises when we get emotional. What makes you mad? What touches your heart inducing sadness?

Lester (2007, 14) observes that we get angry when we feel threatened. While we could be angry because of a physical threat, most often we get angry because of psychological threats:  threats to our values, our beliefs about right and wrong, our expectations about the way good people should act. When threatened: The intensity of our response depends on the amount of personal investment we have in the values, beliefs, and means that are being threatened.  Following this “threat model” of anger, our first responsibility when we get angry is to recognize that we feel threatened and to identify the nature of the threat (Lester 2007, 28-29). Anger always has an object.

What can be mystifying is when you find yourself intensely angry or hurt without knowing exactly why, a phenomena known as an emotional hijacking. On reflection, an emotional hijacking may reveal a repressed grief or presupposition that offers rare insight into your emotional history.

During my internship at Providence Hospital, the head nurse in the emergency department asked me to speak with a young woman who miscarried that morning. I ministered to her for about ten minutes before she began ministering to me, as I recalled a un-grieved miscarriage that my wife and I experienced twenty years prior. The feelings were so intense that I broke off my meeting with the woman and spent the next half hour in tears in the chapel.

What Can Christian Leaders Do?

The more we center our lives on Christ, the less likely we are to revert impulsively to default settings. With Christ as our number one priority and consulting God in prayer when questions arise, we are more likely to reflect on our actions and less likely to act impulsively.

Centering our lives on Christ does not mean suddenly giving up our favorite music, revising our theology, or hanging out with people that make us uncomfortable. What it does mean is that we will not act impulsively when reflection is warranted. It is amazing how quickly secondary things become secondary when we take such things to God in prayer.

References

Lester,Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Beyond Default Settings

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/HotWeather_2019

Continue Reading
1 2 3 28