A Worshiping Community

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristObserve the Sabbath day, 

to keep it holy, 

as the LORD your God commanded you. 

(Deut 5:12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The divine origin of the Sabbath is well-attested in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, it is the only commandment that appears also in the creation account and it is also the longest commandment—an indicator of emphasis. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5) and performs several miracles specifically on the Sabbath. Why all this attention to the Sabbath?

A Biblical Understanding

A key to understanding Sabbath is found in Hebrews 4, which list four aspects of Sabbath rest: physical rest, weekly Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest—our return to the Garden of Eden.

Physical rest is underrated by many Christians. Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) How are we to love God and love our neighbors when we are physically exhausted all the time? Sabbath rest allows us to build the physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity to experience God and to have compassion for our neighbors.

We see a clue to this interpretation of Sabbath when we compare the Exodus and Deuteronomy renderings of the Fourth Commandment. Deuteronomy adds the sentence: 

“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:15)

Free people rest; slaves work. Sabbath rest is a symbol of our Christian freedom.

The Promised Land, promised rest (Ps 95:11), heaven, and the new Eden (Rev 22:2) all display and reinforce Sabbath imagery. The image of our Divine Shepherd is one who gives heavenly rest: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” (Ps 23:2) Sadly, this poetic image of rest only seems to come up at funerals.

The 24-7 Culture

Postmodern culture refuses to rest. Sunday is fast becoming just another day where the malls are open and employers seldom offer overtime to those required to work it. So why does Moses insist on honoring the Sabbath?

Under penalty of death (Num 15:32-35), the prohibition on work on the Sabbath provided a cultural alternative to Pharaoh’s relentless pursuit of wealth. Brueggemann (2014, xiii-xiv) writes: YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh. Sabbath rest appears in the creation accounts because God balances work and rest. Egyptian gods, by contrast, never rested.

By honoring the Sabbath, Moses created room for the Hebrew people to reflect on their lives and on God, the gateway to keeping all the other commandments.

Sacrificial Worship

The link between rest and worship goes beyond occurring primarily on Sundays. Marva Dawn (1991, 1) observes: “To worship the Lord is—in the world’s eyes—a waste of time…the entire reason for our worship is that God deserves it.” To see this link, consider the ancient practice of offering burnt animal offerings in the temple rather than human sacrifices. Listen to the words of Aaron during the Golden Calf incident:

“And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4)

No doubt Aaron was simply practicing worship in a manner that he had learned in Egypt—worshiping a Golden Calf (think of the Wall Street Bull) could be thought of as an ancient form of the prosperity Gospel! 

Sacrificing a bull (or some other animal) on the alter could therefore be another way for a Jew to demonstrate his allegiance to God, not to foreign gods. Because many of these foreign gods were crafted in the form of animals, sacrificing those same animals on an altar would be a gutsy, in-your-face type of activity for a Jew.

For us today, devoting our Sundays to worshipping God is to pledge our lives to him alone and not to the god of 24-7. In the same way, donating money to the church’s work is to worship God, not the god of money. Jesus speaks plainly on this subject:

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt 6:24 KJV)⁠1

Because time and money are the reigning deities in our culture, offering God our time and money is our sincerest worship.


1 The King James Version transliterates the Greek (μαμωνᾷ), while other translations simple say money loosing the inference of deity more accurately that honors the text.


Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dawn, Marva J. 1999. A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor fo Worshipping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

A Worshipping Community

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Misplaced Affections

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

The radio silence today on discussions of morality is killing people.

In my annual physical this year, my doctor indicated that Baby Boomers are now considered at risk for hepatitis C and require routine screening. The key justification for this recommendation was:

“There is increasing HCV [hepatitis C virus]-associated morbidity and mortality, as annual HCV-associated mortality in the US increased more than 50% from 1999 to 2007 [currently 3.5 million cases]. People born 1945-1965 with hepatitis C face increasing hepatitis C-associated morbidity and mortality.” (CDC 2019b)

What stuns the heart is how hepatitis is usually contracted. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports:

“Although transmission via injection drug use remains the most common mode of HCV acquisition in the United States, sexual transmission is an important mode of acquisition among HIV-infected MSM [men having sex with men] with risk factors, including those who participate in unprotected anal intercourse, use sex toys, and use non-injection drugs.” (CDC 2019a)

While one might contract hepatitis in a third-world country through exposure to unprotected water, in the United States one generally needs to engage in high-risk behavior to contract the disease. In this context, thoughtful teaching about the morality of avoiding high-risk behavior can save lives and reduce much suffering.

Public Health Crises

High-risk behavior has become a public health hazard in the United States . Given our recent experience with Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), this conclusion should come as no surprise.

Roughly 675,000 people have died in the United States from AIDS according to the CDC (2016).  In addition, there were 1.1 million people in the United States infected with AIDS in 2015. Two-thirds of them were gay men. Most of the rest have been intravenous drug users, although spouses of victims can also contract the disease. The average lifetime treatment cost in 2010 dollars was: $379,668, which implies a drug market of roughly half a trillion dollars, one of the nation’s largest (CDC 2017, 2018a).

On top of HCV and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)  infection, the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and chancroid) have growing rapidly over the past decade, especially among millennials and the elderly. A thirty-one percent increase between 2012 and 2017 (2.3 million cases) reported STDs cases reversed a downward decline in reported cases that began in the 1940s (CDC. 2018b). Today’s sexual liberality bears much of the blame for these outcomes.

Taking Stock

You may be thinking, why do I care? Isn’t using a condom sufficient caution and isn’t there a pill for every one of these diseases? The answer today is a qualified yes. Yes—if you are diagnosed early, then these diseases are treatable and there may even soon be a cure for AIDS.

The trouble is that not everyone has a health plan and gets a prompt diagnosis—sex has an addictive quality that often leads to taking more risks. More troubling is the observation that diseases often mutate into new, more viral strains—twenty years ago no one had heard of HCV and before 1980 no one had heard of HIV.

For those that want to limit this conversation to the realm of personal freedom and conversations with their doctors, the opioid crisis raises the specter of conflicting incentives in the health care system.⁠1 Treating AIDS is expensive and it may also be more profitable than treating other illnesses. What happens if drug companies and other health care providers become complicit in promoting alternative lifestyles motivated by their economic interest rather than concern for those afflicted?⁠2

Who exactly can you trust when a lot of money is changing hands?

Toward a Christian Perspective

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Before any conversation about moral behavior, know that God loves you because he created you and sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die for you. God’s love is extended unconditionally, irrespective of your health care status. But God’s love is a gift that must be accepted. The consequences of rejecting God’s love (or holding it lightly) can be severe.

The teaching of the church on the question of human sexuality has been clear since biblical times (Fortson and Grams 2016). Sex is reserved for married couples in a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. All other sexual activity is sin, something that Christians are advised to avoid (Gagnon 2001).

The focus of a disciplined life is ideally on God. Extramarital sex leads to other priorities and denigrates the image of God that we should normally look for in other people.⁠3 One pastor I know makes the point that he always knows when kids start having sex because they soon drop out of church.

Doing Better

Knowing that the health care consequences of sexual immorality in this world can be severe, the critical question for those wavering on their response: if by your words you lead someone else into risky behavior, are you okay with the pain and other consequences? Are you okay, for example, with the problem that rising health care costs mean that more young mothers cannot afford care for their kids?

One of the most tortured women that I ever met was an HIV-positive prostitute who lost custody of her kids back in 2011. At one point she considered herself a consenting adult. Now, her kids have lost their mother. We cannot anticipate all the consequences of our decisions—the best we can do is to rely on God’s help to make better decisions.

If it is too late to worry about the above question, remember that we worship a God of second chances. Turn to him and find forgiveness, remembering Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery.⁠4


Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (review)

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2016. “Today’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” CDC Factsheet. Online:  https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/todaysepidemic-508.pdf. Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2017. HIV Cost-effectiveness. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/programresources/guidance/costeffectiveness/index.html. Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2018a. Basic Statistics [on AIDS]. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/statistics.html. Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Health and Human Services (HHS) Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data. (Cited: 18 October 2018).

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2018b. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2017. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/2017-STD-Surveillance-Report_CDC-clearance-9.10.18.pdf. Cited: 24 September 2019.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2019a. Epidemiology and Prevention of HIV and Viral Hepatitis Co-infections. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/populations/hiv.htm. Cited: 24 September 2019.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2019b. CDC Recommendation: Adults Born from 1945-1965 (Baby Boomers) get Tested for Hepatitis C. Online: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/populations/1945-1965.htm. Cited: 24 September 2019.

Fortson, S. Donald and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.(review)

Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (review)

Pope Paul VI. 2014. On Human Life (Humanae Vitae). San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (review)

Washington Post (WP) 2019. “Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic.” Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/2019/07/20/opioid-files/?arc404=true. Cited: 24 September 2019.

Wener-Fligner, Zach. 2015. “Every US company arguing for the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.” March 10. Online: https://qz.com/359424/every-us-company-arguing-for-the-supreme-court-to-legalize-same-sex-marriage. Cited 24 September 2019.


1 More than 200,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses. Many of these addictions began with prescription painkillers known to be addictive and very profitable for the companies producing them.. (e.g. WP 2019)

2 Among the 379 companies filling an amicus brief before the Supreme Court on Obergefell v. Hodges were some of the largest drug companies in the United States. (Wener-Fligner. 2015)

3 Mary Eberstadt cites four prophecies made in the Pope encyclical that appear to have taken place: “a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.” (Pope Paul VI 2014, 11)

4 See John 8. A good book on ministering to homosexuals has been written by Campbell (2010)


Misplaced Affections

Also See:

Value Of Life

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

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Sunshine and Exercise: Monday Monologues, October 28, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Sunshine and Exercise.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Sunshine and Exercise: Monday Monologues, October 28, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Sunshine and Exercise

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christwe rejoice in our sufferings, 

knowing that suffering produces endurance, and 

endurance produces character, and character produces hope 

(Rom 5:3-4)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In April 2019 after I published my book, Simple Faith, I was burned out. Physically and emotionally exhausted, my motivation also flatlined. I thought to myself, take it easy a couple weeks and you will bounce back. Weeks passed; no bounce back. Clearly, in my writing and editing this time I had pushed myself too far.

Burnout’s Physical Component

In June I returned to my usual swim routine of swimming half a mile a day. During my eight months of editing, I had often cheated on my routine swimming only a quarter mile to make more time to work. Besides, I thought, I am too distracted to concentrate on or enjoy my swim. 

Returning to my routine did nothing to relieve the burnout, but I noticed that my burnout was more pronounced in the evening, much like sunset dementia—a condition where Alzheimer’s patients manifest dementia more clearly when tired at the end of the day. At first this observation really bothered me—am I beginning to manifest Alzheimer’s disease, like my father or my grandmother? In prayer, I found the strength to take another interpretation. If burnout has a physical component, then a physical solution is warranted.

Negative Self-Talk

Initially, this insight helped little. I said to myself, what good is this? I barely have the energy to complete my workout, let alone step it up. One day in the gym, I even made fun of myself joking with a friend—what am I going to do, buy a pair of running shoes and start running intervals? Later, I was so embarrassed at myself. Then I thought, why not? I haven’t had a knee problem since the 1990s. Perhaps, I could cross train and avoid knee injuries.

Physical Training

In July I ordered a pair of running shoes online. The days after placing the order I was so uncertain about my ability to jog again that, when they arrived, I hid the shoes from my wife, thinking she would ridicule me for wasting my money on such a foolish idea. Still, I put on a new set of shorts and new tee-shirt and started jogging every other day. All along hoping that no one would see me.

To keep things easy, I began running intervals. Jog a hundred paces, then walk a hundred paces. Days became weeks. Now, three months into jogging I have abandoned running intervals to jog continuously at a slow pace.

As I write at the end of September, I have never felt better. Although my workout leaves me physically exhausted, the burnout has gone; my head is clear; and many of the old-age sorts of complaints have vaporized. 

Heart, Mind, and Body

The New Testament assumes that heart, mind, and body are inter-related parts of an undivided, unified whole that I have often described as Hebrew anthropology. The alternative is Greek anthropology where heart, mind, and body operate independently. 

Why did Jesus need to experience bodily resurrection after the cruxifixction? Jesus was not a ghost, that is, a spirit without a body, and he was not a zombie, a body without a spirit. Jesus rose from the dead—re-created whole—retaining physical scars, but displaying no emotional scars, as might be expected of a resuscitated body. Bodily resurrection exemplifies Hebrew anthropology because heart, mind, and body are interrelated, not separable in a complete, healthy person.

Sunshine and Exercise

I have often been chided for my advice to people depressed to get more sunshine and exercise, both natural anti-depressants. In my own burnout narrative, this advice worked but only after several months of effort.

The spiritual principle at work here, other than recognizing the importance of Hebrew anthropology, is that pain presents us with a Gethsemane moment. In our pain do we turn to God and give it over to him or do we turn into our pain and have a pity-party? (Matt 26:39) Elsewhere, Jesus says plainly: “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:38) 

In a world of chronic problems and endless ways to avoid pain, this teaching sounds harsh. Many friends and family members when hearing of my burnout have advised me to find a good counselor or simply to get my doctor to prescribe anti-depressants. Is sunshine and exercise a harsh response? Yes, it is harsh, almost masochistic. But if God communicates with us through our pain and we medicate our way through it, what have we learned and how has the experience transformed us?

Many answers can be given to our Gethsemane moments, but our responses ultimately define who we are as Christians, as the Apostle Paul suggests in the verses cited above.

Sunshine and Exercis

Also See:

Value Of Life

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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.


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

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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

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Run_2019

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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

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

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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.


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.


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

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Value Of Life

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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.


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.


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

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

Spiritual Disciplines

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Value Of Life

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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.


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.


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.


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

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Value Of Life

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

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