To Postmodern and Back

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies,
dissensions, and quarrels about the law,
for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
(Tit 3:9-11)

To Postmodern and Back

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The influence of postmodernism on each of us is pervasive and ongoing because it provides the context within which we perceive our world. Yet, as a young person I identified with postmodernism as a movement with origins in the 1960s and liberal opposition to the Vietnam War. As an emotional influence, I started to realize that I was mistaken when I drove along the Berlin Wall in 1978 and noted the crosses marking where someone had been shot to death attempting to escape the “workers’ paradise” in East Germany. At that point, I realized that America stood for human rights not found anywhere else in the world, especially the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The contrast between the U.S. attitude about human rights and that of the communists could not have been greater. The U.S. Constitution, which had been modeled after the governance system of the Presbyterian Church, recognized the Bible’s teaching that:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

In God’s eyes, human life has intrinsic value because humans are created in the image of God. This Christian teaching is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. attitude about human rights. For the communists, who were officially atheistic following Marx, human rights consisted of only the rights conferred by the state and God had nothing to do with it.

The source of rights matters because people attempting to flee from communist rule were considered enemies of the state who had no rights and, if they were not shot, they were sent to work camps never to be heard from again. So, the crosses on the Berlin Wall evoked a strong and very basic emotional reaction in me. Rights conferred by the state can be rescinded by the state; rights conferred by God are eternal.

Later, traveling with my family through East Germany on the autobahn to Berlin reinforced this point; when I attempted to speak with an East German family in a restaurant, they were so frightened by prospect of visiting with an American that they shook visibly with fear. I returned from my year in Germany with a new attitude about America and a profound skepticism of any political movement influenced by leftist thought.

My emotional transition in Germany did not immediately influence other aspects of my thinking. After Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s right legislation in the 1960s, I came to believe that the world was fundamentally different from the world that my parents had grown up in, a view reinforced by popular culture—particularly music and the arts. This idea that the world had changed influenced especially my attitude in my studies as a economist. I thought—why do I need to learn all these old ideas because everything is now different? Naive as that idea seems to me now, at the time it was a huge influence.

As I proceeded in my doctoral studies, I began to realize that the world was not so fundamentally changed as I had assumed. Logic was still logic; English was still English; mathematics was still mathematics. Old ideas, especially about religion and human sexuality, were not suddenly null and void. In fact, in the context of a rapidly changing world, many ideas were being questioned that were really quite important. My having dismissed so many really important ideas was not only naive; it set me back in my studies and stunted my relational development. Intellectual flexibility (pragmatism) was good; ethical relativism was not so good.

At a very basic level, I started to notice, especially in my work as an economist, how many people did not do their homework in approaching problem solving and research. The assumption that the world had fundamentally changed in the postmodern era prompted a new kind of subjectivism that was highly destructive of good relationships among people and of quality research in economics—if everything is relative, why can’t the world just revolve among me? Faith in God works quite differently because God’s view may not be like my own and, if I am to evangelize my neighbor, I need desperately to understand my neighbor’s point of view. In a godless, secular society, no such objectivity is required.

In a very real sense, those crosses on the Berlin Wall reminded me of the one cross that really matters.

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Evangelische Kirche

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

Evangelische Kirche

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Towards the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, I briefly began attending a church, but not long enough to get involved or remember the name.[1] In that church, it became immediately obvious that I should have attended church from the moment of my arrival because I would have met more people and learned more Spanish—I knew my English Bible well enough that I did not need to look up the translation when I read the Bible in Spanish. So later when I returned to Cornell University, I ordered a Spanish Bible from the American Bible Society[2] through the mail.

My experience with church in Puerto Rico led me to seek out a church immediately after I arrived in Germany. From my dormitory on Rosenbachweg, I was able to walk or take the bus to a number of churches, but most had one thing in common—few if any members. Most churches, even cathedrals, that I visited in Germany were empty on Sunday morning with only a few old widows and the pastor in attendance for worship. The exception, I learned, was a little village church, Kirche Herberhausen, which my friend, Hermann, drove me to one Sunday.

Kirche Herberhausen was different because it was packed every Sunday with women and students, many of whom no doubt attended Göttingen’s seminary. Every week worshipers would come in, grab a hymnal (gesangbuch) from a shelf near the door and have a seat—even the loft was full most weeks. Then at the appointed hour, the pastor would come in through a door in the chancel, give his sermon, and leave again through the chancel door—he never engaged the congregation in conversation or shook anyone’s hand. In Germany, clergy receive a government salary and are not dependent on the morning offering. In a Christmas visit to Germany in 1982, I learned that Baptist churches in Germany, who are not officially sanctioned by the government, operate more like American churches and one gets a hand-shake.

I remember the Sunday morning routine at Kirche Herberhausen clearly because I had to decide each week whether to walk or take the bus. The bus schedule either brought me to church very early or about ten minutes late, in which case I would not be able to get a scarce hymnal.

In my first attempt at using the bus, I arrived more than an hour early and, because the church door was locked, I stepped out for a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, whose door was also locked. But I noticed as I stood there that people kept walking by me and around to the back of the building. So I joined them going to the back of the building and through the door. There I discovered a room full of men—apparently, the tradition of frühschoppen (morning pint) amounted to men tipping beers while the women attended church. I later bought a hymnal and started walking to church, which was interesting because Herberhausen and Göttingen are separated by a beautiful park.

In addition to a hymnal, I bought a German Bible, complete with concordance, to supplement the New Testament with Psalms that I had brought with me from home. Like any typical student in those days, I traveled to Germany wearing my winter coat and carrying a backpack, which meant precious little space for a full-size Bible. Most of my biblical study at that point in my life was of books in the New Testament so not having the Old Testament did not crimp my style, but I came to love this new Bible.

My beloved German Bible never made it home. As I packed to leave for home, I was moved to ask a friend whether she needed a Bible. Being Catholic, she responded that she had never even owned a Bible so I left my Bible with her. Consequently, my only German Bible today—other than my New Testament with Psalms—is published by the American Bible Society and does not include a concordance.[3]

Shortly before I left Germany, I received admission to several university doctoral programs, including the one at Michigan State University, which I accepted in a long distance call from Germany. This call became an interesting talking point because the department secretaries perpetuated the rumor that I was myself German and every time a foreign student needed to be picked up at the Lansing Airport I got tapped with the responsibility. Of course, I did not mind at all because I met some very interesting foreign students, but I did not immediately learn the reason for my good fortune.

Between my experience at the Kirche Herberhausen and the influence of my friend, Jon, who had become a Lutheran pastor, when I studied at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan I began attending University Lutheran Church (ULC),[4] whose pastor was German. Like many university churches, ULC’s charter called for them to reserve a portion of their leadership positions for college students so I was quickly elected to serve on the worship committee and became chair of the committee, which meant that I also served on church council.

While I was happy to be of some use to the church, it was probably a mistake in view of my busy schedule with doctoral studies. Instead of fellowship and quiet time with the other students, I found myself engaged in long committee meetings focused on ULC’s stressful financial problems and discontent with the pastor. The financial problems arose because the church built a small cathedral without adequately estimating potential growth, only to find themselves strapped with a burdensome mortgage. The pastoral problems were compounded by weak and obstinate lay leadership. I remember being so frustrated with one attorney on the personal committee who instead of offering reports would dodge and weave reasonable questions—after a point I made it a personal policy to walk out of the meeting and read a book outside whenever he would make a report.

My mistake in taking on such responsibilities at ULC ultimately soured me on the Lutheran church, perhaps because I never really had a chance to enjoy it, and when I left East Lansing to live and work in Northern Virginia I returned to worship at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, where my parents were also members. Still, it was at Kirche Herberhausen and ULC that I came to appreciate the usefulness of the liturgy for dispensing God’s grace in spite of the limits of our linguistic abilities and human frailties in our hour of need.

[1] I walked from my boarding house on Calle Manila in Santa Rita to church so it could have been several churches. However, it was likely las Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal.

[2] The date written in that Bible is August 20, 1978.

[3] The American Bible Society does not publish Bibles with concordances, in part, because the concordances pose a fault line in arguments on how to interpret scripture.

[4] http://ulcel.org.

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Germany

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and
do not lean on your own understanding.”
(Prov 3:5)

Germany

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In July of 1972 before my freshman year of college, I traveled with the Parkdale Senior High School symphony band around Europe. We played concerts and visited tourist sites, such as Saltzburg, Munich, and Venice. Our final destination was Vienna, Austria where we competed in a music festival and played our grand performance in Mozart Hall. Pretty much everywhere we visited, the French that I had studied in high school was useless and most people spoke German. So when I started college at Indiana University (IU) in September, I registered to study German.

German was an interesting language, in part, because it was very logical and a bit counter-cultural. Worried about whether my draft board would accept my application to be a conscientious objector status,[1] I also envisioned that I could immigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany to avoid Vietnam—a completely uninformed idea. Even though I had visited Germany, I knew really nothing about it nor how I would support myself if I went there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed studying German and modern German literature, and continued my studies until I decided to leave IU in 1974.

After leaving IU, my focus shifted to economics, which required catch up work also in mathematics, statistics, and computer science. My language study at Cornell University focused on learning Spanish and on gaining oral and reading competence in Spanish during my time in Puerto Rico. My focus did not return to German until I later realized that Cornell would not support me for continuing with doctoral studies.

My interest in things German was sparked again at Cornell because I had a close friend, Joachin, in the department of agricultural economics who was from Germany. We spent at lot of time together and, because of our friendship, he began dating a student living in my house on Elmwood Avenue. When I learned that my time at Cornell would end once I finished my thesis, he suggested that I apply for an exchange program that Cornell had with Universität Göttingen [2] in Germany—this was a pretty exotic idea because I was only one outside the German studies program to apply. Shortly before I left for Puerto Rico in 1977, my friend graduated and returned to Germany where he was killed in a motorcycle accident on the autobahn, which I learned on returning from Puerto Rico.

On my return, I wrote and defended my thesis, which was entitled: Dual Market Structures in the Food Economy of Puerto Rico (January 1979). The U.S. Census Bureau took an interest in this work and I was offered and accepted a full-time position in Washington D.C., presumably to head up the Census of Puerto Rico. This position was to start in the June of 1978, but one morning in May I received an unexpected call. When I picked up the telephone, a very German sounding voice asked: “do you want to go to Germany?” I responded: “when do you need to have an answer?” He asked again: “do you want to go to Germany?” I managed to convince him to let me call him back in the morning. In the meantime, I called my father who said that I should talk to my supervisor at the Census Bureau. When I spoke to my supervisor, he was emphatic—“take the fellowship; go to Germany!” So I accepted the fellowship—everyone else (six others) who had applied for the fellowship had turned them down, perhaps because of the way the question was posed!

The decision to study in Germany was a big deal, in part, because it bought me time to apply to other doctoral programs and, in part, because I had no idea what I was getting into. Universität Göttingen was in a small university town by that name and, at the time, I could find no map of Germany—at home or in the library—detailed enough to locate the town. When I received letters from the university, they were in German which I could not read well enough to understand. My parents recruited a German woman from Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, [3] who tutored me in the language, but she was too polite to be much help.

When I left for Germany, I did so totally on faith that I would be able to find the university once I arrived. My flight with Icelandic Airlines flew to Luxembourg where the station-master directed me to board the correct train to Göttingen. It took the entire day to travel to Göttingen which was to cause me some heartache because I intended to spend the night in the Göttingen youth hostel, which closed its doors a half hour before I arrived. The taxi driver who dropped me off had already left when I discovered the hostel door was locked so I found myself wandering around the neighborhood looking for help.

Help came in the form of a man attending a meeting in a nearby school—he wasn’t much interested in helping me out, but took me back to the hostel and, much to my embarrassment, started throwing pebbles at the director’s window. The director finally came down and let me in, where I joined the other residents in their evening meal. By then, it was about 8:30 p.m. and I was exhausted, but happy to have a place to spend the night.

In the morning, the director moved me from a bunk bed in the dormitory to a private bedroom. Almost immediately I was visited by a young man who worked as a janitor in the hostel. We tried without success to speak in German causing me great consternation, but then I discovered that he was not German, but Polish and he spoke passable English. He had come to me looking to get advice about finding a college to study at in the U.S.!

After my visit with the Polish student and breakfast, I set out to find the international student office. The office was not hard to find, but the director then informed me that I was a week late in arriving because university registration required that I  visit a number of government offices and a doctor’s office; I also needed to move into the dormitory. In other words, I had two weeks of work to do in one week, but first paperwork, paperwork, paperwork—Sei willkommen zu Deutschland!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientious_objector.

[2] http://www.uni-goettingen.de.

[3] http://www.lewinsville.org.

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2 Corinthians 5: Be Reconciled with God and with One Another

Maryam_with_flowers_07292014Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)[1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you long more for heaven or for something else?

When I was a foreign exchange student in Germany, I never missed home more than during Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday when families converge and spend time together.  The foreign student office arranged a dinner party for the Americans on campus, but goose is not a perfect substitute for turkey. So between my incomplete comprehension of German at that point and my absence from the family, my homesickness reached a peak.

As Christians, we experience sin as a similar kind of homesickness.  We groan feeling the particular pain of knowing our sinfulness and separation from God (v 4).  It is much like the point in a fight with your spouse when you know that you screwed up but still have not reconciled.  Or, like Adam and Eve as they are being sent out of the garden (Genesis 3:23).  Or, like the prodigal son as he woke up finding himself slopping pigs in a foreign country (Luke 15:15-17).  And even as we groan, all of creation groans with us (Romans 8:18-23).

But as Christians we are not without hope.  We know the source of our problem.  Our holy fear of God’s judgment marshals us to admit our guilt and reconcile with God.  And not only that.  As the Apostle Paul writes:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.  Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others (vv 10-11).

Absent our knowledge of God, our groaning might lead us deeper into sin. The alcoholic, for example, does not have simply a bodily ailment.  The problem of addiction is inherently a spiritual problem—it is groaning without knowledge of God and of the need for reconciliation.  The bottle is not substitute for knowing the ultimate object of our groaning.  We are homesick for Eden and intimacy with God; yet as addicts, we are unaware.

Paul lived this reality.  He wrote:  For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you (v 13).  We evangelize, not just to save others; we evangelize to save ourselves.  Our holy fear of God means that we feel God’s heart for the fallen and pine for the other objects of God’s holy love—our neighbors.

So in Christ, God gives us new clothes and a new job description—the ministry of reconciliation (v 18). Not only are we marked as God’s chosen as with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), but also commissioned into His service.

[1] Also: 2 Corinthians 5:10-11.

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