Interpreting Life

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

One can argue that a defining characteristic of the postmodern era is uncertainty, captured in the popular expression: “The only constant is change.⁠1” This uncertainty is compounded by a lack of consensus on basic values and the rapid pace of changes in technology and social conventions.

Postmodern uncertainty is also in sharp contrast with the stability of traditional society where 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 and how we worship. Life has meaning in a traditional society because when we accept this guidance, we are rewarded with status and honor. 

Postmodern culture questions tradition and focuses on the individual who is responsible for every imaginable decision with little or no guidance. If we succeed as postmodern individuals, we are fully employed, have a medical plan, and can buy stuff, but we have no guarantee of status and honor because the culture’s standards keep morphing. Thus, anxiety has become a defining characteristic of the postmodern era.

The Indeterminacy Problem

Postmodern anxiety and uncertainty point to a more general problem of indeterminacy that is more typically masked when we act on consensus.

If you think that postmodern anxiety is a myth or an exaggeration, how do you respond to sleep deprivation? At one point, I got anxious and depressed. What was wrong with me? As I thought things through, I realized that my depression typically occurred on Saturdays. Then I realized that I was not depressed, I was tired from a long week. A good Saturday afternoon nap each week did away with my “depression.” I had interpreted my own physical condition incorrectly. Clearly, our attitude about the little setbacks in life can make all the difference in the living of it.

Indeterminacy arise in statistics because we know that correlation does not indicate causality. In theory, many causes can explain a particular correlation so a theory is required to suggest the cause of an observed correlation. Otherwise, the relationship can be entirely a random association.⁠2 If sunspots are associated with weather on earth, what explains this relationship?⁠3 The Rorschach (inkblot) test provides an interesting application of this indeterminacy problem (Smith 2001, 205-206). When a psychiatrist shows a patient a random inkblot and the patients sees patterns in the inkblot, the patterns arise from preconceptions of patient being imposed on the inkblot. Does the patient see angels or demons? Naked women or monsters? These preconceptions (or random associations) provide insight into the interior life of the patient that are hard to track any other way.

Telling a Faithful Story

The anxiety and uncertainty of postmodern society presents the Christian leader with a kind of cultural inkblot test. How can leadership successfully navigate through this perilous test?

One answer can be taken from my earlier comments on the book, Crucial Conversations, where I noted four stages in a dialogue: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting (PGMS 2012, 110). They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action. Crafting a vision for the church is an important starting point.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful. Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).⁠4 More productive is to tune into the church’s history and to compare it with other faithful churches or stories from the Bible.

Example of Barnabas

The story of Barnabas comes to mind when I see many churches in action. In his book, Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement, Paul Moots (2014, 2-3) writes:

“The ministry of encouragement is the art of leading and supporting others in the discovery of their own spiritual gifts and call to discipleship…We can become a Barnabas…encouragement allows the congregation to shape its ministry around its strengths rather than to base its work on some model derived from another congregation’s story, another pastor’s experience.”

Notice the role of story in this description. Each of us and each congregation has its own story of its Christian walk that deserves to be honored and built on. Herein lies our spiritual gifts and our strengths in ministry.

Encouragement is at the heart of the multiplication of gifts and church growth (Moots 2014, 6). It stands in contrast to the usual concept of discipling that implicitly (or explicitly) defines discipling almost exclusively in a teacher-student role and seeks more to replicate than to strengthen. At the heart of encouragement is respect, much like Barnabas clearly respected Paul. Imagine what might have happened had Barnabas attempted to fashion Paul into a mini-me version of himself?

In Hebrew, Barnabas literally means “son of the prophet,” but Doctor Luke gives it a metaphorical translation: “son of encouragement.” Interestingly, it is a nickname given to Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Would that we all be remembered in such a way.

References

Greene, William H. 1997. Econometric Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Moots, Paul. 2014. Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement. Herndon: Alban Institute.

Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.

Footnotes

1 Ironically, this expression is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) who actually said: πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει (everything changes and nothing stands still). https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus.

2 Statisticians frequently talk about the problem of inferring causality from correlations, but they seldom write about it because it undermines a lot of popular, but spurious statistical procedures. Greene (1997, 816) provide a review of the problem in discussing a statistical procedure called Granger casualty, a kind of statistical work around.

3 Superstition can be defined as a random association being confused with a particular causality. If seeing a black cat is a bad omen, exactly how does that relationship work?

4 Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around. The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.

Interpreting Life

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Value Of Life

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Church and State

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

Today when we talk about our freedom in Christ, we normally refer to our freedom to live within the will of God through Christ’s forgiveness and the work of the Holy Spirit. In the early church, freedom in Christ also meant freedom from the micro-management of daily life proscribed by Mosaic Law, which encompassed much more than the Ten Commandments and served as the foundation for the theocratic state of Israel.

The earliest mention of relationship between church and state is the reference to Jesus’ suffering under Pontius Pilate in both the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (PCUSA 1999, 1.2 and 2.2), an explicit statement of religious persecution—a measure of the level of this intrusiveness.

Church and State in the Bible

Two traditions of church and state relations appear in scripture: the theocratic state of Israel and the magisterium of Rome. Tensions between the two conceptions of state authority arise not only in the view of legitimate use of power, but also in influence of law as it effects the distinction between private and public space.

The theocratic state of Israel is most obvious in the Old Testament where we observe tension between king and prophet, but this is also the world into which Jesus was born. When Jesus taught about taxation with a denarius coin—render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt 22:21)—his concern was that the religious state—even as a client state of Rome—dominated public life to the exclusion of God.

We are reminded that John the Baptist was executed by King Herod because of his indiscrete comments about Herod’s adulterous marriage (Matt 14:3-11). Jesus’ own teaching on marriage put him at similar risk (Matt 19:9). Although Jesus is formally sent to the cross by Pontius Pilate, it is the Jewish authorities who hand him over to Pilate (Matt 27:1-2). In a theocratic state, the lines between public and private space are blurred and do not always enhance personal faith.

The early persecution of the church, like that of Jesus himself, had a Jewish origin. Before he became Paul the Apostle, Saul was a zealous Jew and persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3). Rome allowed Israel autonomy in religious affairs and focused on other matters.

The Apostle Paul, whose ministry was outside the nation of Israel, viewed the state as having more limited influence—that of a civil magistrate —which relieved much of the tension found in Jesus’ ministry. Paul exhorts us: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1).

Paul could travel the Roman Empire establishing churches—frequently over the objection of his Jewish colleagues—because civil authorities showed interest in matters of faith only to the extent that public order was disturbed. Even in Jerusalem, Paul is able to use his Roman citizenship to garner protection from the magistrates who by arresting him also saved his life from an angry Jewish mob (Acts 21-22). For the most part, religion fell in private space in polytheistic Rome even though Rome occasionally persecuted the church after it became more influential. 

The pertinent question today is this: does the secular state more closely resemble secular Rome or the theocratic state of Israel?

Augustine, Luther, and Calvin

This dichotomy between the theocratic state of Israel (still subject to Mosaic law) and the magisterial state of Rome (subject mostly to civil law) found in the New Testament is lost in the writing of Augustine’s book, De Civitate Dei (The City of God). Augustine pictured two eschatological cities, the city of God, and, the earthly city, in opposition. The city of God consists of those who love God rightly and the earthy city consists of those contemptuous of God (Weitman 2009, 236-237).

Building on Augustine’s two cities and Paul’s magisterial state, Luther divided the world between the Kingdom of Christ (church) and the Kingdom of the World (secular state) which defined the concept of church and state in reformation thinking (Bainton 1995, 186-187). Because the reformation divided the Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church, this division between church and state was pragmatic giving legitimacy to German princes that aided Luther in his break from Rome.

Unlike Luther who was almost exclusively a theologian and pastor, Calvin was both a lawyer and civil magistrate. Calvin’s writing on church and state accordingly lent further credibility to Luther’s teaching on separation of church and state (Calvin 1939, 202-214). We think of Calvin primarily as a theologian, but he is best known in Europe for having been the first to introduce public education and public water works.

Why Do We Care?

One observation that we can draw from Old Testament law is that it tends to pervade all aspects of daily life. This is the nature of using rules verses principles. Principles can be outlined and apply in an infinite number of contexts; rules always to be updated constantly to deal with new circumstances. Secular law is no different.

Ethical behavior defined in secular law binds every Christian and yet the law need not comport with Christian ethical principles. Christians find themselves in an ethical bind with secular laws that legalize immoral behavior. The problem can be overwhelming in trying to explain to your children that the things that their friends are allowed to do, they cannot do because they are Christians. As teenagers, the temptation just to walk away from the faith can be real and immediate. 

The breakdown of the separation of church and state means that churches must lobby government to fashion laws that govern their own members and it makes it harder for them to do so. It also makes it harder for churches to discipline their members when they are unfaithful to biblical teaching and their church’s own confessions.

References

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand:  The Life of Martin Luther.  New York:  Meridan.

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Calvin, John. 1939. A Compend of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Edited by Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr.  Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Christian Education.

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.

Weithman, Paul. 2009. “Augustine’s Political Philosophy” pages 234-252 of The Cambridge Companion to Augustine.  Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Church and State

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Value Of Life

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Language

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“And God said, Let there be light, 

and there was light.” (Gen 1:3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bible takes words seriously. God uses words to create the universe. The Apostle John equates those words with the pre-immanent Christ:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

The original Greek of this passage uses the Logos, which translates into the noun  “word” in English, but in Latin and in modern Spanish Logos is translated as the “verb,” which emphasizes the action implied in the theology of this statement.

The seriousness of words is highlighted elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, but when his deception is discovered, his father refused to take back the blessing. (Gen 27:35) In Exodus, two of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic covenant govern proper speech: taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness (Exod 20: 7, 16). Numerous times in the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out demons with nothing other than verbal commands (e.g. Mark 5:13).

Pentecost Reverses the Curse of Babel

The importance of language in the formation of communities is highlighted in the Tower of Babel narrative, as we read:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1-4)

A couple of points need to be stressed about this account. First, having a unified language is explicitly related to the formation of community, in this case the city of Babel. Second, these people are proud, wanting to make a name for themselves, and they rebel, lest we be dispersed, explicitly against the divine commandment to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) So God cursed them to be confused by language and thereby forced them to disperse as commanded earlier(Gen 11:7-9).

The giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost occurred in this way:

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Pentecost is celebrated today as the birth of the Christian church. Whereas language differences divided people in the Tower of Babel narrative, the gift of understanding and speaking different languages unite people through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the formation of the church.

Christian Culture

Unlike other religions, Christianity does not assert that God prefers any particular language. The Bible is translated into more languages than you can name even though the Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament is exclusively written in Greek. The “language of the church” is our understanding and worship of God, not the speaking of any particular language. This characteristic is a direct consequence of Pentecost and it is formative.

We know, for example, that many modern languages, such as English and German, evolved in response to translations of the Bible into local dialects and the support that the church has given to literacy and education over the centuries. Left to themselves, many languages fragment along class and ethnic lines leading to greater divisions and conflict. Likewise, national cultures fragment into sub-cultures and lose their cohesion as we have seen in recent years with the development of slang and music traditions more representative of generational and political divisions than of ethnic identities.

The idea that somehow postmodern culture is inherently superior to Christian culture because of new cultural insights suggests primarily a lack of insight into the history of the church. Because Christian culture is truly transnational, multicultural, multiethnic, and transracial, the Christian message need not be watered down or changed to accommodate a local culture so much as be expressed in culturally sensitive language. As at the original Pentecost, the church’s message should be heard by each in their own heart language.

Language

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Value Of Life

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Sailing: Learning to Tack

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

One rare pleasure that I had as camp counselor in high school was learning to sail. Sailboat differ from other boats in being powered by wind rather than someone rowing or by an engine. Winds change. Sailor need to prepare themselves for every eventually. Television ads always picture sailboats speeding along with a good tailwind, but experienced sailors know that tailwinds are an exception, not the rule.

When the wind changes, the sail must adjust to make maximum use of the wind’s force. The hardest maneuver is to sail into the wind because the boat must wind back and forth into the wind—tack—with little, if any, efficiency in moving forward. The only thing worse than headwinds are the doldrums, when the wind simply disappears.

Postmodern Sailing

Being stuck between the headwinds and the doldrums aptly describes postmodern life, especially if you are young. The American dream of a college education followed by a good paying job, which your parents and grandparent enjoyed, now seems illusive and out of reach. For many students, years of hard labor in school are more likely followed by a minimum wage job and crushing student debt.

Headwinds followed but the doldrums is not just a problem for the young. Even well-educated and experienced seniors must frequently reinvent their careers late in life as companies restructure and offer little prospect for a pension or a health plan for most employees laid off. Suicide rates in the U.S. are at record high levels with suicide among older men showing the largest increases. For years, bankruptcy rates in the U.S. were closely tied to a family medical emergency—what do you do if you are disabled and your health plan was tied to your employment?

Storm on the Galilee

The New Testament contains several sailing analogies, as we read:

“And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, Peace! Be still! And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:36-39)

What is most striking about this story is that many of Jesus’ disciples were professional fishermen and expert sailors. When an expert comes to you for advice in their area of expertise, you know that you are in serious trouble. Yet, instinctively the disciples turn to Jesus in their well-founded fears and Jesus calms the wind and the sea.

Summing Up

Two points come to mind in reading this account of the near drowning experience of the disciples and Jesus. 

The first point is that this story occurs early in Jesus’ ministry and the storm on the Galilee is a kind of communal baptism for the disciples. Ministry is not going to be a walk in the park—early in my seminary journey I framed a copy of Rembrandt’s painting, the Storm on the Galilee, and hung it in my kitchen. This same painting appears on the cover on my book, Simple Faith.

The second point is reinforced by the context in Mark—the next story is the healing of the demonaic, a kind of resurrection story. Immersion baptism is a symbolic death and resurrection; sprinkling baptism is more of a symbolic cleansing. The near drowning of the disciples in the Sea of Galilee is more of an immersion experience!

Jesus’ admonition to the disciples remains valid today: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) When the headwinds blow, the water rises, ,and our expertise fails, we need to turn to Jesus in faith rather than in fear.

Sailing: Learning to Tack

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Value Of Life

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Risk Takers for Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Frequently in the Gospel accounts, Jesus teaches us to be watchful for his return. Mark 13:33 reads: “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come.” Likewise, Luke 12:35 echoes the Parable of the Ten Virgins: “Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.” But right after the Parable of the Ten Virgins we read an enignmatic Parable of the Talents that not only talks about watchfulness, but also gives guidance on how to wait.

First Two Servants

The parable starts off with advice about being watchful, but then goes on: “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” (Matt 25:14-15) But then we are told how the first two servants invest the master’s money and double his principal, ,while the third servant buries the master’s money in ground. When the master returns, he settles accounts with each of the servants. The first two servants present the master with his principal and the earnings from their investments. In both cases, the master responds with the same statement: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:21,23) Clearly, the money grants were a test, the master is pleased, and the master rewards them with greater responsibility.

The Third Servant

The case of the third servant is most revealing because he acts out of fear: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (Matt25:24-25) The master calls this servant “wicked and slothful” and reiterates his characterization by the servant as a hard man, suggesting that he agrees that he is, but he goes on to suggest: “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” Matt (25:27) In so many words, the master suggests that the third servant is both cowardly and imprudent, because depositing the money with a banker requires accepting very little risk of financial loss. The master takes the money given to the third servant and gives it to the first. Then, the third servant is described as worthless and condemned to perdition, a penalty too harsh for many modern people to even to hear.

Context of the Parable

So what are we to make of this parable? The first thing to note is the context. Immediately after the Parable of the Talents is parable of judgment, where the goats and the sheep are separated. Then, in chapter 26 of Matthew we read: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” (Matt 26:1-2) The implication is that the three parables in chapter 25 are given to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and second coming. All three suggest that the disciples should be watchful of Christ’s return, but only the Parable of the Talents suggests how to spend the time while Jesus is absent.

Lesson

What is the lesson? Knowing that Christ will return, we should be cheerful in our work, not fearful, as we take risks with our spiritual gifts to advance the Kingdom of God. Cheerful risk takers, not fearful hoarders, are the one’s described as good and faithful servants.

Risk Takers for Christ

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Value Of Life

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Ethical Perspective

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote that if ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. I then proceed to outline a number of philosophical explanations of ethical behavior and decision-making. Yet, what makes Christian ethics unique and simply not a branch of philosophy is the relationship to God.

Vines and Branches

Jesus gives an analogy:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

Today this analogy evokes the picture of an electric appliance that is perfectly useless until it is plugged in—the power is in the cord, not the appliance. As Christians, we rely not on a philosophical approach to determine our actions, we rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, especially as revealed in scripture.

This reliance on the Holy Spirit solves an important ethical problem for the Christian because ethical actions are contextual and, in the absence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is extremely hard to sort out which philosophical precedents to follow.

Ethical Perspective

Suppose a man gets shot dead. From an ethical perspective, we must immediately ask: what is the relationship between the shooter and the dead man? Was the shooting intentional or accidental, and how do we know? What led up to the shooting? What was the shooter’s emotional state of mind? Where the dead man and the shooter from the same ethnic group? What were their roles in this shooting? From a legal perspective, an public inquiry may be required to sort all these questions out before a court decides what to do about the shooting.

Notice that at least three people are involved in this example: the dead man, the shooter, and a judge. Each will have a perspective on this shooting and the community may be divided on how to interpret this shooting. Ethics always involves interpretation. This implies that the philosophical precedents guiding the shooter could be different from the perspectives of every other participant in this event. The emotional mindset of each participant has a bearing on the interpretation rendered.

In the midst of potentially raging emotions, the Christian guided by the Holy Spirit has a unique advantage in dealing ethically with a situation because God alone knows all the relevant factors to consider and the eventual outcome. Mere ethical knowledge pales in comparison as a guide to behavior because we never control all the factors influencing the ethical interpretation of an event by all the participants. 

It is as if we walk through life as in a room with four different landscapes painted on the walls. One landscape may be a beach; other a bedroom; another an office, and still another a battlefield. Each person we meet may see us against an entirely different landscape, even at a point in time. And we cannot choose which landscape they see or the emotional baggage that they carry with them. We are at the mercy of their projection of these things on us, but the good news is that God is great and his Holy Spirit is our guide.

Ethical Perspective

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Dialogue

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One practical implication of being created in the image of God is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself.  In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God. Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen. One only cares for something of value (Benner 1998, 21).

Dialogue in Writing

Screenwriters understand dialogue better than anyone. James Scott Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (Bell 2014, 12-13)

The role of compression is important. Bell (2014, 16-17) writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. Bell (2014, 22) sees five functions of dialogue: reveal story information, reveal character, set the tone, set the scene, and reveal theme.

In weaving a story, Bell (2014, 25) advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (Bell 2014, 35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other. The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other. Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (Bell 2014, 37-38)

Why do I go through all these writing tips about dialogue? When we listen to each other and to ourselves, much can be learned that might not be discovered any other way.

Dialogue in Business

Corporate lawyer Thomas Stanton (2012, 10) writes:

One of the critical distinctive factors between successful and unsuccessful firms in the crisis was their application of what this book calls “constructive dialogue.” Successful firms managed to create productive and constructive tension between (1) those who wanted to do deals, or offer certain financial products and services, and (2) those in the firm who were responsible for limited risk exposure.

The importance of quality dialog within the firm or government agency arises from the simple observation that no single individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could understand the totality of the highly technical financial environment that now exists. Having an open-minded executive is accordingly insufficient; the firm culture must embrace active learning and open communication.

Good Dialogue is Increasing Rare

If dialogue is important in caring for people, in communication, and in risk management in a corporate setting, why has good dialogue become so rare? These days we are used to commentators and politicians shouting at each on television with virtually no one listening. We are also accustomed to interactions on social media that share information not expecting a response and, if one is given, the person responding is de-friended. 

It seems that our egos have become so fragile that we cannot hear anyone providing an alternative view. We even have a word for this fragile-ego syndrome: micro-aggression. A micro-aggression can be perceived by the smallest slight, like not paying enough attention to all members of a group.

In this context, it is hard for people to hear information inconsistent with their self-image or preconceptions of an issue. Dialogue dies.

Context for Dialogue

For authors (PGMS) collaborated in 2012 to write a book, Crucial Conversations, that became a popular in business circles. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting. They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful.  Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).  Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around.  The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.

Dialogue is Transactional

Most dialogue is transactional in the sense that even when we disagree, we both have a stake in talking and are willing to talk to reconcile our differences. This does not imply that the discussion will be easy, but the outcome of the discussion is presumably open-ended. In the framework given by PGMS, this is a sharing of facts and a comparison of stories that explain the facts.

When we start off talking in terms of unproductive stories—victim, villain, or claiming helplessness, we shutdown dialogue with an expression of feelings in the PGMS framework and try to force the other party into surrendering to our interpretation of events. This sharing of feelings signals that the dialogue is over and a digging in of the heels. This all-or-nothing negotiating strategy is likely to produce resentment and risks a violent response. It is unlikely to produce compromise because it is a strategy that shuts down conversation.

A Biblical Example

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to be reconciled with our neighbors before going to church to worship. The example he gives is of a man who has failed to pay his debts. Jesus says:

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. (Matt 5:25)

In today’s context, a lender may extend payments or settle for less than full payment for someone unable to pay a debt for reasons like illness or unemployment, but the debtor must be willing to dialogue with the lender, as Jesus has recommended. Claiming victimhood or having been cheated by a villainous lender will obviously not end so nicely. 

References

Bell, James Scott  2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Stanton, Thomas H. 2012.  Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail: Governance and Management Lessons from the Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dialogue

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Value Of Life

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The Color Purple

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?

Jesus tells a story:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)

This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.

But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.

The Good Shepherd Context

Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.

Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.⁠1

So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)

In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.

The Testing of Abraham

A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:

The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)

Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.

The Ethical Problem

An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:

not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)

Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.

In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:

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

When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.

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1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).

The Color Purple

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Value Of Life

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Equal Pay

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Equal pay between men and women in the workplace is impossible in the current cultural environment because they face different social expectations both inside and outside the workplace. Cultural expectations of women disadvantage them especially in the area of unpaid work that directly affects current and future salary expectations.

Christian Perspective on Equality

Although a diversity of opinion exists about Christians should relate to each other within the family, little diversity of opinion exists about the need for Christians to live in and value family life. We are created male and female equally in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and we cannot fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiple” without working together (Gen 1:28). The Apostle Paul underscores this equality of the sexes when he writes about our equality in Christ (Gal 3:28)

The diversity of opinion arises from the division of labor between husband and wife stated in Biblical accounts. For example, after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses Eve saying: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16). Meanwhile, God curses the ground to bear “thorns and thistles” increasing Adam’s labor in the fields to grow food (Gen. 3:18). The implication that Eve is to be busy with the kids while Adam works the fields.

While this division of labor is often viewed as prescriptive for husbands and wives today, even in rural settings in the developing world today women also work the fields. Reading more closely in the Genesis account we also see that this division of labor is not ideal—it only comes after the fall. The Biblical ideal is better read as we are equal under God and we do what we must to be faithful servants. We must look elsewhere to explain the disparity in men and women’s wages, but be sensitive to the divine intention.

Presuppositions and Discrimination

In human capital theory, economists have two working definitions of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made both types of discrimination illegal, but it is helpful to distinguish these types in order to come up with effective policy alternatives.

The first type of discrimination is based on preference (Becker 1957). If I find a group disagreeable, then I will be willing to pay a penalty to avoid associating with them. 

The prescription for dealing with this type of discrimination is to raise the legal penalty for disobeying the law. Thus, someone alleging discrimination has a legal right to file a lawsuit and ask for penalties to be assessed to recoup losses accrued on account of the discrimination.

The second type of discrimination is statistical discrimination (Thurow 1975). Statistical discrimination occurs when observations from past experience with members of a group are applied unreflectively to new individuals. The calculus would be something like in the past people from group A were worth $10 a hour while those from group B were worth $15, so I will pay individual A+1 $10 and individual B+1 $15 without bothering to explore their actual work experience.

The prescription for statistical discrimination is assign the search costs to evaluate work experience to the individuals applying for work because this removes the incentive to discriminate on the basis of rules of thumb from the employer’s past experience. Other prescriptions have included the use of quotes in hiring.

Market Observation

If women’s work is equal to men’s work, then companies could hire only women and drive the discriminating companies out of business on account of their misogyny. The observation that we seldom see this sort of behavior suggests that discrimination against women is not based on preferences so much as statistical experiences being applied to individuals. The real question is why does past experience continue to justify these sorts of rules of thumb being applied?

The Nature of Work

Aspects of wage determination seriously disadvantage women. Returning to the ideal of human capital, when an employers pays an employee a wage, part of the wage pays for today’s work and part pays for future work that may well change in ways that cannot be anticipated. Consequently, employees in skilled occupations constantly need to learn new things to keep up. We would expect therefore that if women are disadvantaged in learning new skills on the job, then we would expect them to earn less in proportion to the amount of skill required in a particular occupation.

The key disadvantage in this context arises in the area of unpaid work. Unpaid work occurs when an employee works sixty hours a week, but is only paid for forty hours. Unpaid work is a significant portion of  the work done in most salaried positions today and it has increased with the almost ubiquitous availability of cell phones and laptop computers.

Unpaid work has two important outcomes that affect wages. Unpaid work lowers the effective wage and it increases the job-related training that employees engage in. Unpaid work is sometimes required but more normally it is at the discretion of the employee. If women as a group engage in less unpaid work than men, then wages ought to reflect that difference.

Policy Alternative

If social obligations make it impossible for women to engage in as much unpaid work as men, then wage differences reflect a reality well-known to employers. Given this reality, forcing employers to paid men and women the same wage will naturally result in fewer women being hired, which is an anticipatable yet unintended effect.

Recognizing that unpaid work is the source of the wage discrepancy suggests, however, that employers could level the playing field by severely limiting opportunities to engage in unpaid work both inside and outside the workplace. Because employers are unlikely to give up unpaid work, government regulations could change the treatment of salaried work to make it more like hourly work where overtime regulations apply. Requiring overtime to be paid irrespective of employee classification turns unpaid work into paid work and would discourage employers from encouraging excessive unpaid work.

Regulations could also be developed to require employers to pay employees for time spent reading emails and doing work-related studies. The problem with taking this policy too far is that a vibrant economy requires that companies innovate and workers learn and evolve with changing circumstances. Unpaid work is a component of economic adjustment and in that context should be encouraged. This implies that true gender equality in the workplace is but one among many policy goals.

A Christian Response to the Workplace

Facing an increasingly competitive global work environment, Christians like everyone else are constantly given choices among undesirable alternatives outside our control. Having women compete with men in the workplace invariably devalues family life by making children an expensive option. Falling fertility rates among American women show that in the absence of immigration population levels will decline, which is a measure of the stress currently being placed on families.

In our family, my wife and I had children in our thirties and my wife stayed home for ten years while our threes kids were young. The kids were born about sixteen months apart to minimize her time at home. Although my wife is trained as an engineer, she found that teaching mathematics and chemistry in the local high schools was more compatible with family life and she enjoyed teaching. Having her work was not so much an income maximizing activity as an effective hedge against uncertainty in my own employment prospects.

What is the Christian response to a difficult workplace? We are called to live in and value family life. Other considerations are secondary.

References

Becker, Gary S. 1957. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thurow, Lester C. 1975. Generating Inequality. New York: Basic Books.

Equal Pay

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Value Of Life

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Value of Life

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The value of human life has been neglected in many controversies in recent years. Once believed to have infinite value because we are created in the image of  God, the chipping away of this value has been dramatic during our lifetime.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to honor God’s name in keeping with the Third Commandment—do not take the Lord’s name in vain—because all the other commandments are leveraged on it (Exod 20:7). Why keep the other commandments, if we dishonor God’s name?

Intrinsic versus Market Value

The practical implications of honoring God arise because we are created in God’s image. Because we are created in the image of God, human life has intrinsic value—value in itself that does not change with life events. Because life has intrinsic value, we cannot accept discrimination, injustice, abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, weapons of mass destruction, euthanasia, abortion, designer babies, and a host of other detestable practices. Our human rights—a concept based on intrinsic value—exist because we are created in the image of a Holy God.

Our capitalist society focuses, not on intrinsic values, but on market values. Market values change with circumstances that are volatile. Your market value as a person implicitly depends on your productivity. If you are young, old, or unable to work, then you are a dependent and a burden on working people. The focus on market values inherently disrespects God’s image. When God is not honored; neither are we.

The strong influence of market values on our self-image explains, in part, is why depression rates tend to be highest among population groups—like young adults and senior citizens—who are unable to work. The rate of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, addictions, and divorce appear to be correlated, in part, with changing job prospects.

Honor and Idolatry

When God’s name is dishonored, we also become more prone to idolatry (Rom 1:21-23). Why worship the God of the Bible when my income and status in society depends more on my family legacy, education, and hard work? So I naturally run to all sorts of substitutes for God that work, like insurance, to manage the ups and downs of life. Alternatively, I can obsess about the security of my home, spouse, and family.

The implications of honoring the name of God come together in the debate over euthanasia—the right to die. If my self-image and my dignity in society are both increasingly subjected to the same market values, then I will surrender myself to assisted suicide precisely when I need support from my family. And, of course, they will agree because I have become a burden both financially and emotionally. Consequently, euthanasia is evil masquerading as compassion. We are created in the image of a holy God who declares that life is good and sacred (Gen 1:31).

Link to Ethics

The question in ethics is on what you do about your faith.

When someone is speaking, do you honor them by listening or go to that happy place in your mind? Do you know the name of the janitor in your office or only the names of your supervisors? How do you show that the people in your life, including those really annoying people, are created in the image of God? 

Ethics is about who we honor and the choices we make.

Value of Life

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