Looking the Part

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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

Seminary studies involve a number of transitions beyond the obvious academic challenges that can be especially difficult because they require changes from not only the student but also the community of faith that they represent. When I registered for seminary, for example, I worked as clerk of session at Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) and, as clerk, needed to work closely with the pastor on church business. Because the pastor often serves as a mentor to inquirers and candidates of ministry and they are both normally also under care of session, my different roles were suddenly in conflict. This conflict proved stressful and within a few months I resigned from the clerk’s role and from session.

The transition from clerk of session to seminary student provides insight into the larger transition in my identity as an economist to a pastoral identity. While economist are highly independent professionals who mostly work in isolation to perform their job functions, pastors primarily rely on collaboration with other staff and volunteers to perform to succeed in their professional role. While economists have often highly specialized and technically skilled professionals, the typical pastor is a jack of many trades, but not necessarily of master of them. Progress in adopting a pastoral identity therefore required that I not only make this transition in my own skin but also that I bring those around me along for the ride.

In the summer of 2009, Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC) invited five former members who had been called into ordained pastoral ministry back to the church to preach a sermon series on God’s call; being a seminary student, I was also asked to preach. In view of my struggle with pastoral identity, I decided that it was time to kill off my “Dr. Hiemstra persona” at CPC during my sermon. Consequently, I enlisted the assistance of a couple of friends in performing a little skit during the introduction to the sermon. It went something like this:

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

After a prayer, I then led off the sermon with a story from my youth:

As I was thinking about this mornings’ message, I kept coming back to an experience in high school as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout camps where I taught swimming, rowing, and canoeing. One of the enduring memories of this experience occurred when I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. Talk about scary moments. The picture of a lake full of drowning scouts still comes to mind.

By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts were swimming. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course. The first had perfect form in swimming the American crawl, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He became violently upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water. The second swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would swim a lap or two in his swim test. Then, a great big smile would come on his face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me get mad at a drowning scout—that is, until they saw him stop drowning and finish his swim test.

Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? Swim in deeper spiritual waters? Who me, Lord? Stop focusing on myself and step out for Christ? Who me, Lord? I think the hounds of heaven have been after me all my life. Yet, like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, I just didn’t get it.

The sermon text for the day, which I delivered without notes, was the story of Stephen in Acts 7[1]. After I was done, my mother insisted on being given the tee-shirt. The sermon itself succeeded in softening my pastoral image and made such an impression that people remind me of it to this day.

Have you ever had to tweak your identity significantly? How?

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

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

Read my April newsletter at: http://mailchi.mp/t2pneuma/monthly-postings-on-t2pneumanet.

[1] The sermon was given at CPC on August 23, 2009.

Continue Reading

Preface

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

Preface

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the enduring memories of my experience as a camp counselor in my Boy Scout years occurred when I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts were swimming. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course.

The first had perfect form in swimming the American crawl, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He became violently upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water. The second swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would swim a lap or two in his swim test. Then, a great big smile would come on his face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me get mad at a drowning scout—that is, until they saw him stop drowning and finish his swim test.

Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? Swim in deeper spiritual waters? Who me, Lord? Stop focusing on myself and step out for Christ? Who me, Lord? I think the hounds of heaven have been after me all my life. Yet, in the chaos of life frequently cloaked God’s presence day to day.

A woodcut called “The Ship of Fools” has hung over my desk since 1985. A couple years back I learned that this woodcut satirized a practice prevalent in the Age of Reason in Europe of driving special needs individuals out of the towns or placing them on boats (Foucault 1988, 3-37). For years, however, this woodcut symbolized my experience of the chaos of life. Yet, God blessed me in unmistakable ways which with the passage of time lifted this cloak over his presence.

One example of the lifting of this cloak occurred on a Sunday morning as my mind drifted during a long sermon by a Guatemalan friend. I prayed to God: why am I sitting here working in Hispanic ministry? I have no Hispanic heritage; my preaching in Spanish is weak and boring. Why am I here? God reminded me that I came to Christ through the testimony of a young man named Nicky Cruz[1] who I realized for the first time was Puerto Rican. It came as a surprise because at age 13 when I came to faith I had no idea what a Puerto Rican was—to me, Nicky Cruz was just another member of a street gang in New York. If I am a fool for the Lord, it is because he called me from the first day of faith.

This example illustrates that one of the ironies of life is that we are often strangers to ourselves. Our desires, motivations, and purposes lie behind a veil that cloaks our shadow side, limiting our personal growth and relationships, especially our relationship with God. Pulling back the veil accordingly offers the hope that we realize our potential, become comfortable with others, and welcome God more fully into our lives. One of my purposes in writing this memoir is to lift this veil.

Richard Niebuhr (1937, 1) observed that: “All attempts to interpret the past are indirect attempts to understand the present and the future.” I explore my past in this memoir not only to understand the past, but also to inform my call into pastoral ministry. During the darkest days of my career, several verses hung on my office wall:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isa 43:1-3)

Much like God called the Nation of Israel out of slavery to human masters, God calls us out of slavery to our own desires and sin. In doing so he also blesses us so that we can bless others (Gen 12:3).

Consequently, this memoir focuses on the history of my personal journey of faith and call to ministry so that those that come after me will be encouraged in their own faith knowing that Christ walks along side of us each step of the way.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Orig Pub 1965). Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. (Review: Part 1 ; Part 2 )

[1] My parents took me to see the pre-release showing of a film, The Cross and the Switchblade, which told the story of the dramatic conversion of a young gang leader, Nicky Cruz. The film starred Pat Boone and Erik Estrada (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amg_Q4aT6Mg). We viewed the film in Constitution Hall in Washington DC.

 

Also see:

Christian Memoir: Looking Back 

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Continue Reading

The World of Perception

One of the oldest photographs of me as a baby shows me in a high chair. I am smiling with my hands in the air and oatmeal on my face wearing a diaper and a top covered with a bib. The date on the photograph is February 1954 which means that I was about two months old.

Does little Stephen remember this early meal? Hardly. Did little Stephen climb into this chair or prepare his own food? Hardly. We know, however, from the picture that little Stephen is well fed and cared for because he is plump and happy. We suspect that little Stephen has a mom that loves and cares for him, but she is nowhere in the picture.

How does little Stephen perceive his world?

As parents (or siblings) we know that little Stephen needs constant watching because everything in arm’s reach goes straight into the mouth. Science tells us that babies are actually born blind, but babies can still feel, smell, and hear, although the mouth has priority. For the baby, trying something out generally means putting it in the mouth. No amount of reasoning by mom will change that behavior.

So how do little Stephen’s perceptions change with time?

If stuff goes into the mouth that does not belong there, little Stephen cries and cries, but that does immediately mean that it won’t go into the mouth a second time. If little Stephen does not like smashed peas, for example, he will still try them a few times before learning to refuse them on sight.

In the same manner, dad and other relatives may initially hold little Stephen, but pretty soon he will recognize that they are not mom and may get anxious and cry unless mom is in sight and comforting him.

How sophisticated is little Stephen’s decision making?

Through tasting, little Stephen learns that he likes some food and does not like other food—and other random, mouth sized objects. Good food gets a positive response from little Stephen; bad food gets a negative response. This tasting elicits a behavioral response, with either positive or negative.

Through sight, little Stephen compares his food and visitors with his prior experiences and either accepts or rejects them. Although these comparisons come much later than tasting per se, they form the basis of early rational decision making.

Who provides little Stephen’s template for thinking about God?

In little Stephen’s world, mom is the early model of God’s immanence because she brings him into the world and cares for him. Dad’s role as progenitor and provider is less obvious and serves as an early model of God’s transcendence.

How does little Stephen relate to his parents?

Little Stephen has a definite preference for mom because she cares for him and is always present. This preference only changes once trust is established both with mom and with dad.

Isn’t telling that we, as postmodern people, have grown fat and irritable? In our anxious world, the fascination with food reflects a mass regression to a child-like state, where we trust only things that go into the mouth—not because we are hungry, but because we are anxious—and where we cry for the one who cares for us, even if we do not even know his name.

Continue Reading

Why We Care About Epistemology

Our concern with epistemology is simple: faith is a lifesaver and, when faith is undermined, people suffer.

To see why faith is a lifesaver, let us return to our earlier discussion of the scientific method, when we consider the steps—problem definition, observations, analysis, decision, action, and responsibility bearing—the key step typically is the first one: problem definition. Glenn Johnson (1986), a friend and former professor, used to talk about how researchers would get stuck on a pre-step in problem definition—having a felt need—which does not mature into an actionable, problem definition. A good problem definition requires insight in the problem and creativity that is frequently absent.

Viktor Frankl offers an interesting problem definition in reflecting on faith and the meaning of life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shares both his concentration camp experiences during the Holocaust and his observations as a logotherapist (meaning therapist) on the meaning of life. He observes:

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to copy with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning.” (Frankl 2008, 31)

He defines neurosis as an “excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession”[1] while an existential vacuum (lack of meaning in life) “manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom” which afflicts 25 percent of European students and about 60 percent of American students, according to Frankl’s own statistics. He concludes that meaning comes not from looking inside one’s self, but from transcending one’s self (Frankl 2009, 110,131). In his book, he repeatedly associates this existential vacuum with despair and suicide, based on his experience both as a concentration camp survivor and a professional psychiatrist.

If our culture obsesses about individual freedoms, encourages individuals to look within themselves for meaning, and rejects faith out of hand,[2] then Frankl suggests that we should observe epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide, as we observe. Lucado (2009, 5) puts it most succinctly: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.” Frankl and Lucado’s observations about the emotional state of a society are hard to quantify in a statistical sense, but the New York Times recently reported that suicide rates in the United States had reached a thirty-year high.[3]

How did we reach this point?

Part of this story is one of a stagnant economy where about half of all Americans have seen no increase in real income since about 1980. Families under economic pressure have increasingly both spouses working full time which implies both smaller families and fewer economic and emotional reserves, especially for those with only a college degree or less. When both spouses work, it is harder to set aside Sundays for family and church, reducing spiritual reserves. When a family crisis emerges for families already stretched to the limit, the absence of reserves—economic, emotional, and spiritual—can be stressful. Remove faith from this mix, the absence of reserves can be devastating.

Faith is more than a spiritual reserve, but it is certainly no less. If faith functions as a reserve, then its removal leaves the family more prone to stress. We accordingly care about maintaining the vitality of our faith at least as much as our economic and emotional vitality. If our faith informs our work ethic and our devotion to marriage, as indeed it does, then the vitality of our faith is actually more important than our economic and emotional vitality because it is more primal. Attacks then on our faith are the most basic threats to our life both here and now, and eternally. So we care about epistemology because our lives depend on maintaining our faith.

Reference

Frankl, Viktor E. 2008. Man’s Search for Meaning: A Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (Orig Pub 1946). Translated by Ilse Lasch. London: Rider.

Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] https://www.google.com/#q=neurosis&*.

[2] Guinness (2003, 145) describes prevailing attitude when he was a philosophy student during the 1960s as ABC—anything but Christian.

[3] Most surprising, the largest increase among men aged 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

Continue Reading

Challenges to Faith

One of the most seductive arguments against faith in God is the idea that faith is optional. This argument is usually offered by people who refuse to accept any ethical obligations. This argument is insidious because it is normally preceded by excuses for why God does not exist or the church is unattractive or just plain obstinance. What matters is not the excuse given but rather the motivation—laziness, self-centeredness, and the like. The Apostle Paul had little time for such people and simply advised the Thessalonian church: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thess 3:10) However, since few people accept Paul’s admonition today without qualms, let us examine the arguments.

The first inference, that faith is optional, ignores the problem of idolatry and is simply counter-factual, from a scientific perspective. Let me turn issue to each issue in turn. Then, let me address the usual excuses.

If we treat faith as optional, we frequently fall into idolatry. The problem of idolatry today has less to do with worshiping statues of pagan gods than with misplaced priorities. We commit idolatry whenever we place anything other than God as the number one priority in our lives and it is a sin because it breaks the First Commandment given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3). The sin of idolatry is often taken lightly, but this a mistake because idolatry is life threatening.

To see the threat posed by idolatry, consider what happens when alternatives to God become our number one priority. Common today, for example, is to place work as the number one priority in our life. What happens then when we lose our job or our ability to work? Americans, particularly men, are prone to depression and suicide when a job is lost and cannot be replaced for whatever reason.[1] People who cannot work, like the mentally disabled, the young, the old, the uneducated, are treated badly. When we neglect our faith in God, we end up committing idolatry, which threatens our self-esteem and our relationship with people we should care for.

If we treat faith as optional, we also fail to understand how faith undergirds modern science. Knowledge based on the scientific method follows a distinct method for testing knowledge’s veracity. These steps are usually employed: a problem is defined, observations are taken, analysis is done, a decision rule is imposed, an action is taken, and responsibility is born (Johnson 1986, 15). The very first step in the scientific methods (problem definition) requires beginning with assumptions and a hypothesis. These assumptions are faith statements—no testing can be done without them. Faith is simply not optional.

The two most famous excuses for why many people believe that God does not exist were given by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud (1927). Marx (1843) commented that: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” By contrast, Freud (1961, 30) characterized religion as an illusion, a kind of wish fulfillment. While both Marx and Freud can be considered authority figures, the thrust of their argument is not due to a lengthy scientific analysis, but is presented more as simple slander, acceptable primarily as an excuse for decisions reached for other reasons. If we take faith as necessary part of a rational decision process, then simple slander does not warrant further investigation because burden of proof lies with those advancing a particular argument to make their case, which in this case was not done.

As Christians in a postmodern context, we have inherited a worldview which is quite capable of interpreting the world as we know it. In fact, Western civilization is built on premises advanced from the Christian worldview. The question for those who advance criticism of that worldview, normally by picking on some of its assumptions (or disputing its ethical requirements), is not how can we accept those assumptions. Rather, because those assumptions form a coherence and ethically defensible system, the question is whether alternative assumption can be used to construct a better system.

For the most part, proposed postmodern alternatives to the Christian worldview, such as deconstructionism, refuse to accept the responsibility for benefiting everyone, preferring to focus on criticism without advancing alternative, morally-defensible systems. Others talk about rights, but not responsibilities, for their client groups. Either position is morally reprehensible leaving many people hopeless and abandoned. Yet, powerful groups have advanced such changes primarily to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

These challenges to faith are repeated daily in the media, in our schools, and in society, yet they lack merit as an alternative to faith and cause significant harm to many people through their promotion of idolatry and other sins that isolate people from God, from themselves, and even from the science that has brought humanity numerous benefits.

References

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The Future of an Illusion (Orig Pub 1927. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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

Marx, Karl. 1843. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie). Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher. (Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people)

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

[1] This observation is not hyperbole. The New York Times recently reported that suicide is now at a 30-year high point and the increase in suicide is greatest for men ages 45-64 (Tavernise 2016).

Continue Reading

Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

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

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

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

Continue Reading

The Christian Memoir

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian Memoir

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Memoir talk scheduled for Sunday, March 19, 2017, at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia (www.Lewinsville.org) in the Chapel following the 11 a.m. worship service. All are welcome.

Introduction

A memoir is an autobiography with a theme.[1] A Christian memoir is an autobiography with a focus on God’s role in our own character development, which requires both the passage of time and reflection. The Christian memoir communicates the Christian walk effectively because, like Jesus’ own use of parables, we remember stories better than other forms of communication.[2]

Some philosophers believe that Western Civilization, for example, began with a Christian memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, which related the prayers of his mother to his confession of sexual sin, and conversion to Christ. Augustine’s biographer, Peter Brown writes:

“The Confessions…is not a book of reminiscences. They are an anxious turning to the past. The note of urgency is unmistakable. Allow me, I beseech You, grant me to wind round and round in my present memory the spirals of my errors…

It is also a poignant book. In it, one constantly senses the tension between the ‘then’ of the young man and the ‘now’ of the bishop.” (Brown 2000, 157)

Do you feel the theological strain here? The New Testament has been described as both the breaking out of the Kingdom of God (already) with the cross and resurrection and yet the unresolved spiritual warfare of the current age (not yet). This tension between the “already” in Christ and the “not yet” of our human sinfulness occurs, not only in the New Testament, but also in our own faith journeys. Christian memoir is therefore painful not only because we must relive our past but also deal with this spiritual tension.[3]

The Spiritual Discipline of Writing

Part of the need for distance arises because pain forms our character more radically than pleasure. With each pain in life, small or large, we are confronted with a decision—do we turn into our pain to throw a pity party or do we turn to God to give it over to Him? In a real sense, our characters are formed by these “Gethsemane moments” as we journey through life (e.g. Matt 26:39).

Questions that might be asked to help expose our Gethsemane moments include:

  • What were the important milestones in your faith journey? (e. g. Jos 4:1-7)
  • Who were your most important mentors in the faith? (e.g. Luke 24:25-31)
  • What faith stories were especially meaningful to you? (e.g. Exod 12:17)
  • When was God’s presence especially obvious? (e. g. John 8:28; Blackaby 2002)

Writing a memoir helps this process of reflection, which makes it an important spiritual discipline.

If writing is in general a spiritual discipline, writing memoir is especially challenging. In preparing my own memoir, mechanically, I mapped out the different stages of my life into an outline and then looked for key challenges during the stages. This process parallels the Greek distinction between chronos time (the stages) and kairos time (the challenges). Reflecting on these challenges turns up raw, unprocessed emotions, which can hijack the whole effort. Part of the incentive for writing was to lay claim to my past and to work through those emotions. Still, not everyone is so adventurous and willing to spend their spare time reliving their Gethsemane moments.

It is worth pointing out that while my own memoir, Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir, is a call story, a call story is a special type of Christian memoir which focuses on vocation (e.g. Acts 9:4-6). But memoir need not focus on vocation and the vocation need not be pastoral ministry. We are all called to faith (Mark 10:49) and we are all called to different vocations, which may be only for a season. Thus, not all Christian memoirs are call stories.

Recognizing Important Stories

The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis; yet, under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing, which allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance (Rosen 1982).

Savage (1998) writes about 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.
  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.

Motivation to Write

Identifying the stories that people tell points to the motivational content of their communication and allows the pastor to relate to them on a deeper level. This is why storytelling is important in pastoral ministry and it helps explain why Christian memoir provides especially poignant witness.

Consequently, the current need to write Christian memoirs arises not only from our desire to claim our own history, but also to witness to our children and grandchildren. For many of us, it has been painful in this generation to watch our children fall away from the faith. While historically children would fall away from the church during their single years and return when they have children, this pattern has been broken in the millennial generation (Kinnaman 2011). Still, as Christians we know that the stresses of life invariably lead us back to God, we do not know when that will occur. Consequently, a Christian memoir could serve as a trail of crumbs for our kids to follow their own way home in Christ after our own passing.

Mechanics of Writing

Earlier I made reference to the mechanical process of writing, which for me has been rather lengthy. Even before I started my own memoir, I assisted my father in publishing his, which served to help me understand my own history better (Hiemstra 2016). I started out with a chronological outline of the stages of my life: childhood, youth, young adult, college, graduate school, places worked, and so on (Peace 1998). Then, I looked for important points in my character development and difficult transitions which I then ordered with my outline. I then blogged this outline writing a reflection each week on Friday from January 1, 2016 through February 2017.

The actual writing was finished in November 2016 and I finished my first edit in December. An important task in the first edit was to bring each of my reflections up the standard of writing that evolved over the course of the year. In particular, Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace had an important influence on my writing style mid-year and I needed to go back to earlier reflections and re-write them to incorporate the insights learned.

In the second edit in January 2017, I organized my draft into four parts,[4] still roughly chronical but focused on my faith transitions: coming to faith, consolidation of faith, realization of call, and beginning of seminary. These four parts highlighted the theme of my memoir—the call to ministry—and, in doing so, it became obvious that I left out several important stories, which then had to be written.

Note on Writing Styles

While autobiography tends to focus on reminiscences, Christian memoir focuses on divine encounters, which may be told in the first person or through narratives about the people and events that help stage them. For someone who has been a technical writer for most of his life, I found books on writing fiction most helpful in drawing out the most important events and influences on my life.

Fiction writers are experts in observing character and character change, and they often write with an indirect style, where character is revealed through description or dialogue rather than naming emotions and perspectives.[5]  For this reason, I have included a number of references that were helpful in my own writing and thinking.

Footnotes

 [1] (Silverman 2009). Also see: (Karr 2015).

[2] Sachs (2012) talks about this point a great length. King (2012) writes some of scariest horror stories and talks about his own life and craft.

[3] Spiritual tension was a theme in my last book, Life in Tension (Hiemstra 2016b).

[4] Warren (2016) sees fiction written best as a four-act play. I applied her framework to my own story and realized that I had left out stories from my past that were key to my development but which I simply did not understand the significance of.

[5] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

[4] This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).

References

(Many of these books are reviewed on T2Pneuma.net)

Angelou, Maya. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books. (Review)

Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 398). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguine Books. (Review)

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.

Blackaby. Henry and Richard.  2002. Hearing God’s Voice. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016a. My Travel Through Life: Memoir of Family Life and Federal Service. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2016b. Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Karr, Mary. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.

King, Stephen.  2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.  Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Kress, Nancy. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Lee, John E. Jr. 2014. Born Rich: In a Time That is Gone Forever. Aliceville, Alabama.

Peace, Richard. 1998. Spiritual Autobiography: Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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

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

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

Silverman, Sue William. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Warren, Susan May. 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Williams, Joseph M.  2003. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Longman.

 

Continue Reading

How We Learn

simplefaith_web_01172017

We most frequently follow one of three approaches to learning: the behavioral approach, the rational approach, and the authoritative approach. In the behavior approach, we follow the path of least resistance—we do more of things that have positive reinforcement and less of things with negative reinforcement. In the rational approach, we explore the alternatives presented and chose the best alternative based on our exploration. In the authoritative approach, we may start with either the behavioral or the rational approach but we limit our exploration to options suggested by a mentor or leader.

An example of the authoritative approach is found in Luke 8 following the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus gives his disciples a lesson:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15 ESV)

In this context, how do we know what we know? In the passage, Jesus gives us an interpretive key: “The seed is the word of God.” We understand and accept the lesson in this passage for two reasons. First, the key comes from a reliable source: Jesus. As Christians, we trust the Bible to tell us about Jesus who is known to use parables in his teaching. Second, the key itself, like the Copernican mathematics of planetary motion, makes intrinsic sense—the parable which was posed as a riddle, suddenly becomes meaningful like a lock opened with a key.

While not all problems that we are confronted with take the form of a riddle unlocked with a key, the parsimony displayed in Jesus’ parable demonstrates the value of the authoritative approach in learning. Most learning both inside and outside the church follows the authoritative approach, in part, because it accelerates our learning. Unbridled skepticism is a rookie mistake or a cynical attempt to undermine faith.

Our discomfort in the present age arises because we have many more choices than tools for selecting among them and we have been convinced that we should prefer the rational approach, even though even the best scientists rely on the informed opinion of others. Just like good seminary students apprentices themselves to the best pastors and theologians, the best scientists compete to be students in the best universities and with the best professors. It seems to be no accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, was the son of Germany’s finest psychologists of that day.[1] The question as to whether the authoritative approach is a valid approach to learning is moot, because everyone uses it.

If we try to avoid the authoritative approach, we actually put ourselves at risk. If we adopt the behavioral approach to every problem, for example, the positive reinforcement of addictive substances and addictive circumstances will lead us to self-destruction. Alternatively, if we adopt a rational approach to every problem, analysis paralysis will lead us into burnout and untimely decisions will cause us to miss opportunities. In this context, trusting a divine mentor can lead us to limit our choices to better choices.

The Parable of the Sower offers at least one other insight into our learning process. Jesus tells his disciples a story in the form of a parable. Story telling accomplishes at least three things relevant to the learning process. Stories are:

  1.  Easily understood and remembered.
  2.  Suggest insights into how the world works indirectly which does an end-run around our natural, human resistance to taking advice.
  3. Provide context for the words used in the story, defeating the criticism that the meaning of words depends solely on the social context of the reader.

Far from being unsophisticated, Jesus’ use of parables suggests a level of sophistication seldom equaled in the modern and post-modern eras, even in mass media.

Reference

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] “In 1912, Dietrich’s father [Karl] accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany, position he retained until his death in 1948.” (Metaxas 2010, 13)

Continue Reading

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament pictures Jesus as someone who enters our life, calls us into discipleship, and gives us kingdom work to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus finds Peter and Andrew at work fishing and calls them with these words: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19) As a rabbi, Jesus offers his lifestyle and teaching as a model to follow, but, unlike other rabbis, Jesus seeks out his students and redirects their life in terms of what they are already doing. Their response is remarkable—they drop their nets and follow Jesus (Matt 4:20)—because their simple faith in Jesus amounts to only two things: obedience (responding to Jesus’ invitation) and action (following Jesus). Other than obedience and action, they only know that he is a rabbi (Matt 4:17). Their roadmap was the person of Jesus.

What is Faith?

Knowing only that Jesus was a rabbi and that he invited them to follow him suggests that their faith consisted of taking the risk of enrolling in a class of religious instruction. The content of Jesus’ instruction was not necessarily obvious nor was it obvious that this instruction would provide gainful employment, because Jesus not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Furthermore, Peter and Andrew were already Jews so their faith in Jesus did not constitute an obvious conversion experience. Jesus offered them a study opportunity and they accepted. No strings were attached; no tuition was required; Peter and Andrew just had to accept Jesus’ instruction. The fuller meaning of this instruction only comes later as Jesus’ full identity is revealed because knowing who Jesus is raises the stakes in accepting his instruction.

Why Epistemology?

This model of simple faith—obedience and action—extends also to us, but how do we know? In this age of suspicion and doubt, this question has particular significance because Jesus’ call—“follow me”—comes to us at least second hand. We read an English text translated from Greek which was itself copied by hand for almost two thousand years after the Apostle Matthew wrote it based on the testimony of others, having himself been called later (Matt 9:9), and, then, only after the resurrection made it obvious that these events had eternal significance. The epistemological question—how do we know?—is therefore a reasonable and interesting question worthy of study even in the absence of doubt.

The Four Philosophical Questions

The epistemological question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. Those questions are:

  • Metaphysics—who is God?
  • Anthropology—who are we?
  • Epistemology—how do we know?
  • Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. In this book, I explore the epistemological question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy (I have a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in economics) but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we know?

Simplicity

In approaching the epistemological question, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But the young seeker curious about God and a hardened old atheist should take note. It is interesting that Copernicus’ observation that the planets revolved around the sun simplified the mathematics of planetary motion, because the earth was not the true center of the solar system.[1] In the same manner, our lives are simplified when we acknowledge that we are God’s creation, not the creators of our own universe. Simple is good; weeds are bad. As life is short, the need for a proper focus is instrumental to coping with life’s many adversities.[2]

What Does Holy Mean?

The act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[3] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

Roadmap

In this writing project I propose to look at the epistemological question analytically by breaking it down into a series of questions, including:

  • How do we approach thinking?
  • What does the Bible Say About God?
  • How do we argue God’s existence?
  • What can we say about the criticisms of faith?
  • Why do we care?

This last question may seem out of place in this discussion, but it is, in fact, a critical to our evaluation of faith arguments. Faith is a life and death matter because, as human beings, we strive for meaning and cannot face life without it. When the Apostle Paul repeats an early Christian confession—

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

—he starts by describing it as being “of first importance”. Paul is not writing about a philosophical hobby-horse. He is talking about faith as something worth dying for, which he later did. Faith is both our compass and our anchor. And anything worth dying for, is worth living for.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Lotz, Anne Graham. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing.

Polanyi, Michael. 1962. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernican_Revolution. Polanyi (1962, 3-5) argues somewhat differently: “This would imply that, of two forms of knowledge, we should consider as more objective that which relies to a greater measure on theory [Copernican theory] rather than on more immediate sensory experience [Ptolemaic system].”

[2] Some stories bear repeating. One story concerned a dinner party where Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills. “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lotz 2000, 3) The punch line here is that the best apologetic for the Gospel is Jesus himself.

[3] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

Also see: Incentive to Examine Faith

Continue Reading

Incentive to Examine Faith

simplefaith_web_01172017Christians face an enormous challenge in living out their faith today because major tenets of Christian theology are being openly challenged in the media, in schools, and in the political arena. What are we to believe and, then, how are we to apply those beliefs in our daily choices?

The question of what are we to believe falls in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge (how do we know what we know). Epistemology is an intimidating subject normally reserved for those with a strong background in philosophy, but, like it or not, each of us has to answer these questions of faith without the benefit of a doctorate in philosophy. As such, our decisions always involve a high level of uncertainty.

Even though none of us are adequately prepared for this challenge, two reasons force us to pay attention to epistemology.

First, the rate of cultural change in this generation is a consequence of a fundamental shift in philosophy. Modernism is dead; postmodernism is unstable and transitioning to something else. Philosophical change directly affects our understanding of theology and how to apply it. The most obvious illustration of this problem has been the breakdown of the division between church and state which had existed since the time of the reformation.

Second, when philosophical disagreements arise, institutions leveraged on them no longer can be relied upon to provide guidance on how to handle the changes. Professional pastors, for example, receive specific training in biblical interpretation, pastoral care, and preaching; they receive no more training than the rest of us in journalism, politics, psychology, science, philosophy, and business management. Institutions actively engaged in self-preservation offer little shelter to those dependent on them.

Because of these changes, much like the average person following the mortgage crisis needs to know more about financial decision making, they also need to know more about epistemology. The alternative is to reject faith leaving one open to unreflective acceptance of the many pseudo religious alternatives (atheism), to accept pagan or other faith alternatives, or to merge Christian faith with either of the prior alternatives (syncretism). Everyone has a belief system; not everyone reflects systematically on what they believe.

Now, some of you may be thinking, why do I need to bother myself? Why can’t I just apply scripture and be done with it? Of course, you can. However, if you do this on Sunday morning and forget about it on Monday morning, then do you honestly believe your Sunday morning applications or are they simply an interesting mental exercise? Blind acceptance of faith invariably leads to beliefs only tentatively held and of little use when life’s challenges arise. In some sense, epistemology provides a lens for viewing the current age through the eyes of scripture so that it is more meaningful, hence, more applicable.

The purpose of this writing project, Simple Faith: Something Worth Living For, is examine the fundamentals of epistemology from the perspective of faith. In many cases, I will take the arguments no deeper than the fundamentals of apologetics—offering a defense of the faith—but to shy away from deeper debates would be a disservice. Each and every day we are asked to make decisions about epistemological topics with a minimum of information—decisions under high levels of uncertainty. Any additional information is accordingly most valuable.

Continue Reading