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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
As the oldest child in the family and the oldest cousin among grandchildren, I grew up surrounded by adults, who gave me a lot of attention at a time when children were to be seen and not heard. Because my father attended graduate school until I entered the first grade and we frequently moved around, it remained hard to make friends my own age. In this 1950s environment, my sister, Diane Sue, was my closest friend.
Diane and I played hide and seek, learned to eat ice cream from cones, and celebrated each other’s birthdays together. I will never forget Diane’s expression on viewing a pink rabbit cake that my mother baked for her second birthday. Still, close relationships between boys and girls at that time was a bit countercultural, at least in the world we lived in.
Boys and Girls
Diane and I were both baptized in Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where my dad grew up and my parents were married. During Sunday school classes, boys sat on one side of the room and girls sat on the other, which I remember because in visiting one Sunday I made the mistake of sitting on the girls’ side before most people had come in. As the kids filed in, the girls thought it was funny and the boys ridiculed me. I never repeated that mistake.
Farm Not Interesting
Although I always asked to visit the farm during summer vacations and spent most summers until high school there, Diane showed little interest. Perhaps, she did not enjoy going to livestock auctions, gardening, and learning to knit. It’s hard to say because we were never nosey about each other’s business.
During the school year when we got older, Diane and I took piano lessons together. We also sometimes watched television or played board games together at home and attended youth events and choir together at church. Still, Diane preferred doing girl things, like playing with dolls, while I did boy things, like collecting coins, stamps, and bugs, and playing with the neighbor kids. I became a Cub Scout; she joined the Brownies.
Boys and girls played differently, maintained a different circle of friends, and this was normal, accepted behavior. This pattern was pronounced. In elementary school the boys had to be forced to dance with girls in gym class. So Diane and I drifted apart after I was about eight years old, although we always maintained an unspoken but close relationship.
So I went to the angel and told him to give me
the little scroll. And he said to me, Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.
Changes in Routine
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Between February 1984 and May 2007, I kept a journal in which I wrote in episodically recording major life events. On October 4, 2000, for example, I recorded the death of my grandfather, Frank Hiemstra and the next event, May 13, 2003, I recorded that my son, Stephen Reza, had given his life to Christ. This pattern of journeying persisted for many years.
In 2006, CPC Pastor Neil Craigan experimented with a Saturday evening service focused on church workers, who seldom got a moment’s peace on Sunday mornings. The service began around 5:30 p.m. when coffee was served, he pulled up a stool and began talking. The Hiemstra family attended this service weekly, but it never caught on with the rest of the congregation and eventually it was dropped.
My morning routine began to evolve in 2007 after I read a book—Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book—that Pastor Neil Craigan had thrown to me during one of these Saturday services the previous fall.
Eat this Book
The book was an eye-opener. Among other things, it outlined the spiritual practice of “Lectio Divina” and the connection of the title to Revelation 10:9, cited above. Studying this book and others, I became convinced of the need to have daily devotions taking advantage of a series of spiritual practices, including journeying, Bible study, and prayer.
On May 4th, 2007, my journeying pattern changed as I noted in my journal:
In the New Year, I began Hebrew class as the Jewish Community Center. The class ran ten weeks. My goal was to learn to read the Hebrew alphabet so that I could study further on my own [as I had for Greek since 2004]. In mid-March, I then began reading Genesis [in Hebrew]. While Hebrew is entirely new to me, for a long while I had a strange sense of deja vue about the language.
The pattern changed because I began journeying more frequently and by July 15th I had started journeying daily. This became possible because I started getting up a half hour earlier before work at 4 a.m. to establish a new routine of morning devotions and praying the hours as best I could. This routine quickly morphed into praying continuously throughout the day.
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? He said to him, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. He said to him, feed my lambs.
An Old Friend
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
In the fall of 2003 my mentor and friend at Michigan State University, professor Glenn L. Johnson, broke his hip removing a fallen tree from his back yard. Glenn knew me as well as anyone having served on my doctoral committee, attended the same church, and become a close friend during my student years. When I heard of his injury, he was in physical therapy and I called to check on my friend.
Among agricultural economists, Glenn was known for his work on the asset-fixity problem. This problem arises because, once investments in real capital are made, they cannot be reallocated without suffering a capital loss. Having invested, farmers often continue producing at a loss, which, in the aggregate, led to further price declines and worse losses. The asset-fixity problem provides a theoretical justification for farm policy intervention, which made Glenn ‘s work famous.
Behind the asset-fixity problem is the stark reality of farm policy—modern agriculture produces too much food. The world food problem that motivated me to enter agricultural economics proved to be more politics than reality. When farmers in the developed countries produce too much food, low food prices force farmers in developing countries into poverty. When I realized that the world food problem was a myth, I also realized that agricultural economics could not be my ultimate call as a Christian.
Professionals face the same asset-fixity problem when they invest years of work in a particular field, only to find their work ignored and their career stalled. For both the farmer and the professional, the problem of getting stuck is best solved by investing in new skills and activities during slow periods. As the saying goes, you need to know when to cut bait and when to go fishing.
During my conversation with Glenn, we talked about my work at OCC on agricultural banking, but I also regaled him with details of a sermon that I spent weeks preparing. On and on I went about this sermon, getting more excited by the minute.
Glenn listened patiently but pretty soon, like every good Illinois farm boy, he had reached his limit and blurted out: “Stephen, you really seem to enjoy preaching, why don’t you go to seminary?”
His seminary comment puzzled me, but I sensed that I had bored him long enough. I thanked him and excused myself.
Several months passed. I then heard through the grapevine that Glenn passed away the week after I spoke with him. The last words I heard from my mentor of 20 years was: “Stephen…why don’t you go to seminary? Stephen…why don’t you go to seminary?” For me, Glenn’s words sounded like Jesus’ last words to Peter (John 21:15).
When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine. And Jesus said to her,
Woman, what does this have to do with me?
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
In 2006, my sister, Diane, developed a second round of breast cancer. She had started chemo-therapy unsuccessfully in the fall and planned a new round of chemo in the New Year. After Christmas I drove to Philadelphia to visit her and offer encouragement.
When I arrived, we walked around the house inspecting the renovations that she had contracted. She was especially proud of her new kitchen that included a system of warm water circulation in the floor tiling.
I bought her a DVD film starring Queen Latifah, Last Holiday,1 which we watched together. The film is the story of a woman, Georgia, diagnosed with a fatal neurological disorder who blows her life savings visiting a celebrity chef working in a large, luxury hotel, called the Grandhotel Pupp in the Czech Republic. During her visit, Georgia discovers hidden talents, finds love, and, in the end, learns that she had been misdiagnosed. I hoped the film would offer Diane hope and the strength to persevere in her new chemo treatments.
On Monday, February 12, 2007, my mother called me as I commuted to work in Washington D.C. with a colleague. She told me that Diane had taken a turn for the worse. What had begun days earlier as an adverse reaction to chemo had by Sunday night left Diane with blood clots, a heart attack, and a stoke. As she lost consciousness, she asked for her two brothers, for John and for me.
I returned to Centreville, dropped off my colleague, and picked up John. Together, we then traveled to Springfield, Pennsylvania, where Diane lay in the intensive care unit of the local hospital. Our parents waited for us, having traveled earlier in the week on a visit.
When John and I arrived at the hospital mid-morning, Diane lay unresponsive on life-support. The person I saw lying in the hospital bed no longer looked like my sister and the doctors opined that nothing more could be done. I consoled my brother-in-law, Hugo, while we waited for their pastor. Once he arrived, we read Psalm 23 and prayed. Then, we instructed the doctor to remove Diane from life support and sat with her as she took her last breaths.
The Funeral Services
Hugo and my father worked to schedule funeral services for Thursday at Diane’s home church, First Presbyterian Church, in Springfield, Pennsylvania and for Saturday at LPC in McLean, Virginia, where Diane would also be interned in the family burial plot. I thought to attend the LPC service, but my father insisted that I eulogize Diane at both services.
As I prepared my eulogy, I realized that the two, enduring friends of my youth, Diane and our cousin, Carol, had preceded me in death although I had preceded them in life. Carol died years earlier at the age of 31 of an undiagnosed heart condition leaving behind John and Jackie, ages three and four; Diane left behind a teen-aged son, William, who grieved fiercely. My grief ran silent and deep. The passing of Diane and Carol brought my mortality more clearly into view, sharpening my sense of urgency in attending to life’s work.
At the Springfield service, the only people that I knew were family members and my friend, Jon, from high school, who pastors a Lutheran church in Pennsylvania. As I grieved Diane, I drew comfort from the fellowship of about 350 saints who also mourned my sister. As I looked out from the pulpit in McLean, I could see the entire Hiemstra family, many friends in Christ, and about a dozen friends from my office.
Wedding at Cana
Diane’s funeral service served as a “Wedding at Cana” moment in my ministry. Just as Mary drafted Jesus into solving the wine problem at the wedding, my father drafted me to lead Diane’s eulogy. Later I noticed that the colleagues who saw me in the pulpit and heard my eulogy stopped using profanity in my presence.
Over the following year, I began to think differently about part-time seminary studies. In March of 2008 I drove to Charlotte, North Carolina with a friend to attend an open house at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS). Walking through the door, GCTS students greeted us. We felt truly welcomed seeing many second career students and learning that the entire curriculum could be taken during long weekend visits. Unlike at other seminaries, at GCTS we could continue working while we studied.
Also unlike other seminaries that I visited, African Americans made up about a third of the students. African American students were largely absent on other seminary campuses. Having worked in Washington D.C. for twenty-seven years, I had many African American colleagues, felt comfortable in their presence, and respected their deep spirituality. Seeing the African American students at GCTS gave me comfort that I had finally found the right seminary home.
When I returned to my home in Centreville, I applied to GCTS, was accepted and began classes the following August. I never experienced such joy as I felt on entering seminary.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
More than a snack, coffee time (kaffietijd in Dutch) structured our lives and became an institution where my fondest memories of family life unfolded and I got a glimpse of heaven.
On weekdays, at nine in morning, at three in the afternoon, and around eight in the evening, My grandmother, Gertrude Hiemstra, prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.
Whether knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone paused, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked. No one was excluded no one; everyone was invited; and conversation was required.
On Sundays, coffee time got more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school or leave town before lunch at grandma’s house. So we attended church at nine-fifteen, but took a break for snacks during Sunday school. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. After changing one thing led to another and, being kids, by the time the adults called us for lunch, we might be hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch escaped our attention, but the adults bribed us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.
These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at four o’clock. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks requiring fold up trays and breaking out the card tables, which might be used later for playing hearts or board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand. When we complained about helping churn, the adults reminded us that “kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream.”
Sunday coffee time became more formal when we celebrated birthdays among my grandparents’ siblings. Because both grandma and grandpa had eight siblings and came from Dutch families who lived around Pella, Iowa,1 their siblings pooled birthday celebrations several times a year and would collectively make the twenty mile trip to Oskaloosa. When the “Pella crowd” visited, a leisurely three or four hour visit followed where no one hurried during the heavenly banquet and everyone naturally wore their Sunday best. Formalities took distinctive phases, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and board games, and then to goodbyes.
The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out their signature dishes, such as my grandmother’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or the market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes.
The eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. When my uncle, Pastor John, visited, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, my grandfather, Frank, simply gave thanks.
Having blessed the food, we grabbed a plate and the family crowd snaked in line around the kitchen helping ourselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. Grandma normally served a lime or strawberry punch—iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adults assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile, the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. The women later served coffee with the dessert.
The end of dessert marked the beginning of pointed discussions. Great Uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I might get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my father. Silence followed.
After a couple of embarrassing seconds, Great Aunt Nelly inquired: “What is comparative literature?”
With a questioning tone like that, I figured out before my next visit what I really wanted to study.
Some discussions took a less serious path.
You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? Really? Do tell. In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills.
While everyone took part in discussions, board games marked an informal end. Those less interested in playing hearts, domino’s, or board games headed for the door, as regular as Grandfather’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting; the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.
As Years Went By
As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.
My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents visited, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever-easier, downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.
Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned ninety, he lost his driver’s license after having a fender-bender. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, the family historian and a live wire. Nelly usually voiced what others only thought. A quick call and Nelly would invite the surviving Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.
Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, travel has become infrequent and the memory of coffee time became elusive.
Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under the shelter are cool and I cherish seeing distant relatives. The coffee and the snacks remain the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time, and my grandparents no longer accompany us, but I look forward to the day they will.
More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks used to say) built a palace in time2 that lives on in the memory of my youth.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching
(1 Tim 5:17)
Return to Leadership
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
My term as elder began in January 2003 when Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) ordained me and I was elected as clerk of session, a leadership position. As clerk, I worked closely with the pastor to set agendas for the session and congregational meetings, and kept the official notes on all meetings.
Pastor Rob encouraged the elders to deepen their faith and to become more involved in the life of the church. He encouraged us involved dedicating the first half-hour of our meetings to study and prayer. The first book that we used in this effort was Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership, which served to make the point that elders were more than merely the board of directors of the church. Session soon became my first small group.
Pastor Rob also encouraged us was to become more involved in the life of the church through preaching and teaching. In the spring, our associate pastor resigned and Pastor Rob asked that elders to offer personal testimonies on Sunday morning to give him some time off.
At first, I avoided the question, but after thinking about it, I told him:
I am uncomfortable giving a personal testimonial, but if you want, I will preach for you. I am used to teaching college students so it should be no problem to preach.
He agreed and shared a book, Communicating for a Change, with me by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones to help me get started. Over the next year, I preached four times on the call to faith and ministry, the problem of pain, the Book of Esther, and the covenants of law and grace.
The following year, I taught my first adult Sunday school class, a video series crafted around R.C. Sproul’s book: Reason to Believe. We had more than twenty adults who attended the class and, because of the success of the class, I was encouraged to teach Bible studies, starting with the Book of Romans in 2005. After that I taught Luke, Genesis, Hebrews, Philippians, and Matthew.
After a point in teaching, I got frustrated by the poor attendance on Sunday mornings. I thought: “Where are the elders? Where are the deacons?” When I looked around the room, I realized that only one or two in a class of a dozen were even church members. My class consisted primarily of family members, colleagues from work, and active, non-members who wandered in. These were people who, like myself, struggled to understand their faith and chided at the usual pat answers.
Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer. Chicago: Moody Press.
Sproul, R.C. 1982. Reason to Believe: A Response to Common Objectives to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Stanley, Andy and Lane Jones. 2006. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs: Multinomah Books.
At the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, it became increasingly obvious that I had completed my work. I still lacked a thesis subject, but I had reams of statistical data which could be better analyzed at Cornell University than at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Rio Piedras where I worked during the summer. So I contemplated leaving the island earlier than planned which opened up an unexpected opportunity.
My parents had a twenty-fifth anniversary on September 13th, 1977 but because my siblings were still in school, they planned to celebrate in late August in Oskaloosa, Iowa at Central Reformed Church where they had been married. Leaving Puerto Rico early offered the opportunity for me to attend their anniversary celebration after I had earlier sent my regrets.
Because I knew that my uncle Hubert, who was actually my grandfather’s cousin, had to drive south from Clarion, Iowa through Des Moines, I wrote him and asked him to pick me up at the Des Moines airport to make my attendance at the anniversary a complete surprise. It would also mean that we could spend an hour and a half catching up on each other’s activities. Hubert was active in Iowa politics and always wanted to hear my take on events.
When we arrived in Oskaloosa, Hubert parked on the street south of the church and we walked down the steps into fellowship hall. Just by chance, my father walked up those same steps without recognizing me, because I was supposed to be in Puerto Rico. However, close behind him came my mother who immediately burst into tears when she saw me.
So often in ministry, we hear about people suffering anniversaries, which mark the death of a loved one or some other tragedy. Equally important are the joyous anniversaries where we remember to honor our relationships and celebrate the blessings of this life, even if it involves a bit of travel.