How do Christians Connect with God?

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia on Religious Founders’ Day, October 15, 2017

Background

Good afternoon. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian writer. My volunteer work focuses on Hispanic ministry and I write about Christian spirituality. My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married 33 years and have three grown children.

My comments today will focus on how Christians connect with God. Because today we are celebrating Religious Founders’ Day, I take the inspiration for my talk from a sermon by the Apostle Peter that he gave on the day that the Christian church was founded, which we call Pentecost.

Invocation

Please join me in a word of prayer.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14 ESV) In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

Let me start by asking, what do secular people think about connecting with God?

Basically, they say that if you talk to God, that’s prayer, but if God talks to you, that’s psychosis. While pastor’s often tell this story as a light-hearted joke, psychologist Sigmund Freud described God’s existence as an illusion.[1] Karl Marx believed that religion (that is, God’s existence) was the opiate of the masses.[2] In other words, if you believe in God, Freud tells us you must be nuts and Marx tells us that you must be on drugs.

In my recent memoir, Called Along the Way, published this last month, I write that anyone in this secular age who takes God seriously must be considered a brother or sister in the faith. In this spirit, I would like to thank the Mubarak Mosque for the invitation to speak this afternoon to address this important topic.

Scripture

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

The basic path to connecting with God is outlined by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Hear Peter’s words:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some 2,000 years ago:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Roman 10:9 ESV)

Rome at the time of Paul’s writing was the capital of the Western world much like Washington DC is today.

Because most of you here today are not Christians, you may be asking yourself why Peter and Paul are so adamant about two things mentioned in these two passages: confession of sins and belief in Jesus Christ (2X).

Transcendent and Holy

To understand the focus here, you need to understand the Christian understanding of God. Christians believe in a personal God who is both transcendent and Holy (2X).

God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe. The first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis says:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)

As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space (2X). Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us (2X).

Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates us from a Holy God.

To summarize, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. There is no path up the mountain to God; God must come down (2X). As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. For example, the Prophet Job wrote (slide 5):

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27 NIV)

The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.

God’s Self-Revelation

So who is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?

Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.

Listen to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“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 [that is Peter’s nickname], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinth 15:3-6 ESV)

Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Will you pray with me?

Oh dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your presence through the person of Jesus. Forgive our sin and draw us closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Presentation

Before I turn over the podium, let me read a few words from the acknowledgment section of my book, Life in Tension.

“In the fall of 2014, I was invited to speak at a local mosque about my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Speaking at a mosque was new to me and anticipating this visit I spent three days fasting and praying for guidance. Instead of guidance on the mosque visit, God inspired me to write this book.” (xvii)

The reference here is to the Mubarak Mosque where we now stand. Consequently, I would like to present you with a copy of the book, Life in Tension. Thank you.

[1] Sigmund Freud. 1961. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people.

How do Christians Connect with God?

Also see:

Blackaby Expects Answers to Prayer 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Silk Shares Wisdom About Relationships

Silk_review_07302016Danny Silk. 2013. Keep Your Love On: Connection, Communication, and Boundaries. Sacramento: Loving On Purpose[1] (publisher).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The intrusion of technology into our lives has increased the time spent interacting with machines and reduced the time spent interacting with people. Because developing healthy relationships take time, the reallocation of time away from development of healthy relationships has contributed to declining civility and increasing violence, both at home and in public places. Against this rather bleak environment, an emerging role for the church in these postmodern times has been to teach the basic relational and social skills that can no longer be assumed to exist: enter Danny Silk.

In his book, Keep Your Love On, Danny Silk starts by writing:

“I wrote this book to help people build, strengthen, and heal their relational connections.” (11)

Silk sees three themes as components of healthy relationships—connection, communication, and setting boundaries (12)—and he structures his book around these three themes. Let me turn to each of these themes in turn.

Connection. Silk starts his discussion of connection by distinguishing powerful people from powerless people, writing:

“You need to be a powerful person. Powerful people take responsibility for their lives and choices. Powerful people choose who they want to be with, what they are going to pursue in life, and how they are going to go after it.” (20)

Being powerful is important in relationship because:

“A healthy, lasting relationship can only be built between two people who choose one another and take full responsibility for that choice.” (20)

Powerless people are driven by fear and anxiety in making choices and look to other people to fill in for their perceived lack of power (21-24); powerful people realize that they can only control themselves and do not look to others to solve their problems (25). Consequently, it is powerless people who feel a need to role-play as victims, villains, or rescuers (23), because these roles focus on sharing power that powerless people feel they lack, as Silk writes:

“Powerless people use various tactics, such as getting upset, withdrawing, nagging, ridiculing, pouting, crying, or getting angry, to pressure, manipulate, and punishing one another into keeping their pact” [in being victims, villains, or rescuers] (24).

Real love is a challenge for powerless people because being deeply insecure in themselves they approach relationships as consumers (21) who have trouble being full partners in relationships … Obviously, a lot more can be said about the subject of connection and relationships.

Communication. Silk sees communication as a transaction between the inner and outer life, citing Jesus:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45 ESV; 81)

Silk sees powerful people insisting on assertive communication where: “My thoughts, feelings, and needs matter and so do yours” (86), not motivated by fear. Powerless people are governed by fear, trying “to hide what is really going on inside” (81), not able or willing to communicate on an equal basis. Instead, powerless people adopt a passive communication style (you matter, I don’t), an aggressive style (I matter, you don’t), or a passive aggressive style (you matter, but not really) (82-84).

Silk offers some helpful advice on dealing with these three powerless, communication styles:

“A powerful assertive communicator responds to a passive person with, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ They respond to an aggressive person with, ‘I can only talk with you when you decide to be respectful.’ And they respond to a passive aggressive person with, ‘We can talk later when you choose to be responsible and tell me what is really going on.’” (87)

Clearly, not everyone starts out as an assertive communicator—Silk himself admits that he started out as a passive communicator married to an aggressive communicator. Because he had to learn to be an assertive communicator paying attention to the needs of others, there is hope for the rest of us.

Boundaries. Silk begins his discussion of boundaries by observing:

“…not everyone should have the same access to you. You are responsible to manage different levels of intimacy, responsibilities, influence, and trust with people in your life.” (124)

Silk starts by recounting several stories about Christians who did not understand this issue of levels of intimacy and counters these stories by observing that “Jesus prioritized certain relationships over others”, as in (most intimate) =>God the Father=>John=>Peter, James, and John=> the twelve disciples=>other disciples=>spectators=>everyone else (125).  He goes on to state:

“I love lots of people through my ministry. I counsel them, pray with them, laugh with them, and cry with them. But that’s it. They don’t get the bulk of my time, attention, or money. They don’t get to know my heart and influence my decisions. After our few hours together, I leave those people at church and go home to my family and close friends.” 128-129)

This insight into Silk’s own relationships might come as a shock to many Christians who have trouble establishing such priorities and maintaining them, especially Silk’s comment about the “God-spot” (126), reserved only for God—not spouse, not work, not kids, not political causes, and so on. You get the idea—if not, remember how the Ten Commandments start out:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:2-6)

Danny Silk’s book, Keep Your Love On, is an important resource for church groups, readable, and interesting. Before I had finished the first 20 pages, I started thinking of all the people that I would like to share this book with, especially newlyweds and family members. Read it; discuss it; share it. You will be glad that you did.

[1] http://www.LovingOnPurpose.com.

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Turkle Analyzes Tech Impacts on Connected Self

Alone_together_review_02042016Sherry Turkle. 2011. Alone Together:  Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  New York: Basic Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Immediacy versus immensity. What does it mean to be only a couple of key strokes away from speaking to anyone on the planet? We still struggle to find an adequate metaphor for the impact of technology on daily life today.

I am reminded of when I arrived in Germany as a foreign exchange student in 1978,  Before I left, I could not find my destination, Göttingen, on any map that I owned or could find in the local library. Furthermore, my correspondence with the university was entirely in German, a language that I had studied but not yet mastered. When my flight arrived in Frankfurt, I was entirely at the mercy of the stationmaster to get on the right train to reach my destination. Today, answers to all such travel questions can be found on any smart phone; one need not be fluent in German to understand them fully; and, anywhere along the way, you can call your parents (or kids) to help sort everything out. Talk about a reduction in uncertainty!

The effect of changes in technology on us as individuals and on today’s culture is the subject of Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together. Turkle explores the immediacy of technology in part one—The Robotic Moment: In Solitude, New Intimacies—and the immensity of technology in part two—Networked: In Intimacy, New Solitudes (vii). While these parts could easily have been themes in separate books, Turkle’s interest in the changing perceptions of intimacy and solitude clearly binds them together. Alone Together is part of a trilogy (The Second Self, Alone Together, and Life on the Screen; 4) focused on the cultural effect of technology.

Turkle’s 14 chapters are equally divided between analysis of the individual response to robots—

  1. Nearest Neighbors
  2. Alive Enough
  3. True Companions
  4. Enchantment
  5. Complexities
  6. Love’s Labor Lost
  7. Communion

—and the response to life tethered to cell and computer networks—

  1. Always On
  2. Growing Up Tethered
  3.  No Need to Call
  4.  Reduction and Betrayal
  5.  True Confessions
  6.  Anxiety
  7.  The Nostalgia of the Young (vii-viii).

Throughout the book, Turkle anticipated my anxieties about technology and offering a balanced assessment. She writes:

“we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place” (295)

In other words, technology is a tool that can be used for either good or evil.

Turkle’s focus on the individual response to technology is no accident. Turkle describes herself as: “the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.”[1] Her background as a psychologist shows through clearly in her choice of topics to discuss and in her extensive use of case studies to authenticate her points. An economist or sociologist might easily have focused more on questions of productivity and institutional change, but Turkle never goes there. Here the focus is on responses by individuals to technology—no military drones, no self-driving cars, no targeted advertising, no robotic assembly lines, no wiz bang. Turkle’s perspective is reflective, fresh. Her special concern is for children.

Let me focus a minute on Turkle’s two parts: robotics and networking.

Robotics. As a member of the MIT faculty, Turkle has special access to the MIT robotics lab where her work focuses on social robots, especially robotic toys like Tamagotchi, Furbi, Merlin, My Real Baby, Cog, Kismit, and so on. Turkle writes:

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” (1)

Unlike Barbie, who invites you to project your issues and emotions on the doll in a kind of Rorshach test, these toys interact, talk, and appear to learn with you—what Turkle describes as a “new psychology of engagement” (38). In other words, the relationship possible with these robots is much more complex than that with traditional toys. For example, citing Baird, she asks:

“How long can you hold the object [a toy, an animal, or a robot] upside down before your emotions make you turn it back?” (45)

With a toy, no one cares if you abuse it; with a gerbil, abuse is seen as cruel and is discouraged by most adults; but with a robot, like Furby, that complains, how do you respond—do you feel an ethical dilemma? Why? Turkle observes:  “We are at the point of seeing digital objects as both creatures and machines.” (46)

As part of her research, Turkle lent these robotic toys to children and adults and then return after two weeks to interview them about their experiences and to retrieve the toys. Frequently, the interviews would be postponed as the recipients—even the adults—did not want to give up the toys. Occasionally, this issue posed an embarrassment, such as when a grandmother obviously preferred a robot, My Real Baby, to spending time with their own grandchildren (118). This happened so often that Turkle stopped trying to retrieve the robots after the interviews.

Networking. The immensity of telephone and computer networks can be intimating. Not only do we have the ability to contact anyone, anywhere on earth; we never really leave home. Turkle writes:

“When I grew up the idea of ‘global village’ was an abstraction. My daughter lives something concrete. Emotionally, socially, wherever she goes, she never leaves home.” (156)

This level of connectedness poses a challenge for adolescents who have a developmental need to separate themselves from their parents (174).

Especially in American culture, individual autonomy is a cultural icon. In my own experience as a foreign student, the current level of connection made possible through cell phones and the internet was unthinkable. During my year in Germany, for example, my primary way of communicating with my parents was to write letters. Telephone calls were so expensive that my gift for Christmas from my host family was a call home. My remoteness during the year disrupted a number of relationships, particularly with my parents[2], but I was well-prepared for this separation having worked summers as a camp counselor in high school and attended college out of state.  By contrast, my own kids have had cell phones since high school and are seldom out of touch with their mother for more than a few days; they are more normally in touch several times a day.

Turkle talks about kids using texting to validate emotions even before they are fully aware of them.  In effect, they poll their friends on how they should feel about things or test out emotions before fully investing in them (175-177).  To my ears, this sounds like co-dependency. She writes:

“in the psychoanalytical tradition, one speaks about narcissism not to indicate people who love themselves, but a personality so fragile that it needs constant support. It cannot tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are and splitting off what it needs, what it can use.” (177)

So here we have a niche for technology—to insulate people from the push and pull of normal, complex human interaction. What is perhaps surprising is that kids that text constantly are often texting their own parents (178)—which suggests a heightened need for a mature and informed parenting style precisely when mature adults are becoming scarcer than exits in a movie fire!

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is hugely interesting, informative, and accessible read. College professors looking for insight in discussing the role of technology should consider this book. I would certainly consider reading the other books in this trilogy.

[1] http://www.mit.edu/~sturkle.

[2] At one point the year after I returned home I visited relatives and attended a dinner party. No one felt comfortable talking with me.  Finally, I learned why—my farm relatives could not imagine that a world traveler, such as myself, would find talking to them interesting to speak with. Once we got over that point, things picked up and returned to a more normal interaction.

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