Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101So when they had come together, they asked him, 

Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? 

He said to them, It is not for you to know times or seasons 

that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 

But you will receive power 

when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, 

and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem 

and in all Judea and Samaria, 

and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:6–8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The First Beatitude—Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—pairs humility in tension with power. Humility makes room in our lives for God but pride pushes God out. Guelich (1982, 262) writes: 

This tension between the Kingdom present and the Kingdom future, between the fulfillment and consummation of God’s promise of salvation for human history, applies not only to history but to the experience of the individual.

Ladd (1991, 57–69) sees the kingdom of God as already here, but not yet fully realized.

Kingdom of Heaven

The obliqueness of the First Beatitude arises because the phrase, kingdom of heaven, is a circumlocution (a round-about way of describing) for the name of God. In Jewish tradition, the covenant name of God (YHWH) is holy and can only be properly used in the context of public worship; in other contexts, other words—such as kingdom of heaven, LORD, or, simply, the Name—are substituted out of respect for the holiness of God’s name. With these substitutions, the First Beatitude might accordingly be rewritten: honored are the humble, for God will come into their life.

Understanding the First Beatitude sheds light on another distinctive teaching of Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist both taught—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17)—but John focused on judgment while Jesus focused on forgiveness. Because forgiveness leaves space for God’s judgment and humility makes forgiveness easier, both forgiveness and humility work to make room for God in our lives (Matt 6:14–15).

Humility in the Old Testament

Humility signals that God is welcome in our lives, as the life of Abraham illustrates. Abraham was clearly hospitable, a kind of humility (Gen 18:2–5), and God blesses him: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) God’s blessing is clearly meant to be shared—Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to others. God blesses Abraham with His presence, with sharing His plans for the future (Gen 18), and with offering His provision and protection in spite of Abraham’s obvious duplicity (Gen 20). 

The importance of humility is most clearly stated in God’s response to King Solomon’s prayer dedicating the first temple in Jerusalem:

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chr 7:14)

Here we see that humility is a precondition for God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing.

Space for God

Pride, the opposite of humility, may also be an occasion for God’ to enter our lives, as is revealed in Jesus’ response to the disciples’ impertinent question in Acts 1:6-8,cited above.

In his response, Jesus tells the disciples that they cannot usurp God’s sovereign authority and then, like a good leader, refocuses their attention on the mission. In his explanation of the mission, Jesus refers to the two types of time, translated here as times (χρόνος; “chronos”) and seasons (καιρός; “kairos”). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch (or calendar) that might be thought of as is a season of waiting on the Lord. Kairos time is a moment of divine revelation, a crisis for us when everything changes.

When we humble ourselves, we invite God to enter our lives, which can be a time of blessing, forgiveness or healing. When we do not, God acts sovereignly to accomplish his plans, with or without us.


Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Ladd, George Eldon. 1991. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdman.

Living Out Poor in Spirit

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Peterson Writes About His Life as a Pastor

the_pastor_review_03032017Eugene H. Peterson. 2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most dramatic appearances of God in the Bible comes in chapter 3 of Exodus when God appears to Moses in form of a burning bush. It is interesting to ask why God would appear in the form of a naturally occurring inkblot test. If the inkblots are properly prepared, they have no inherent structure so when a patient looks at them, the only structure seen is the structure imposed by the patient.[1] Is it any wonder that my kids, when they were small, used to confuse our pastor with Jesus? My kids are not the only ones; the inkblot image is a wonderful metaphor for how people today relate to their pastor and to God. The more enigmatic the pastor, the more fitting the inkblot image.[2]

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson captures this enigmatic character[3] when he writes:

“I can’t imagine now not being a pastor. I was a pastor long before I knew I was a pastor; I just never had a name for it. Once the name arrived, all kinds of things, seemingly random experiences and memories, gradually began to take a form that was congruent with who I was becoming, like finding a glove that fit my hand perfectly—a calling, a fusion of all the pieces of my life, a vocation: Pastor.” (2)

Peterson see the pastor as a particularly talented observer, much like God took animals to Adam to see what he would call them (Gen 2:19), as he writes:

“A witness is never the center, but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the center—in this case, the action and revelation of God in all the operations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (6)

But, of course, naming is the creative act of a sovereign, not of a passive observer. For this reason, some theologians describe God as a Suzerain (King of Kings) and Adam as his Vassal (king), but Peterson would chide at the whole idea of being an authority figure, preferring the title of pastor, not “Reverend or Doctor or Minister” (2) even though he was all of these things.

Even if Peterson prefers business causal, he is not just causally present. He writes:

“Staying alert to these place and time conditions—this topos, this kairos—of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding than I thought it would.” (8)

Peterson’s sensitive to matters of time and space comes as a surprise. As Christians, we think of God in terms of the omnis—omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent—all present, all knowing, and all powerful; but Christianity has no Mecca where we must worship or make a pilgrimage—God is not partial to a particular place and even Sabbath is not so much a day as a commitment to devote time to God. But for Peterson pastors must model themselves on God in his omnis in a sacramental sense:  For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6 ESV) And Christ did not die in some random place; he died conspicuously—in front of the whole world—in Jerusalem. Therefore, Peterson cautions that “the life of faith cannot be lived in general or by abstractions.” (12)

Do you get the idea that Peterson chooses his words carefully?

Peterson’s idea of the pastor call is wrapped up in a peculiar package. He describes a dog wandering around marking his territory in a manner that appears haphazardly to a human observer, but no doubt makes perfect sense to the dog. He then writes:

“Something like that is the way pastor feels to me. Pastor: not something added on to or imposed on who I am; it was there all along. But it was not linear—no straight-line development.” (26)

This sort of explanation, which is potentially quite demeaning, describes an image of the pastor as a Myers-Briggs personality type of ESFP:

“Outgoing, friendly, and accepting. Exuberant lovers of life, people, and material comforts. Enjoy working with others to make things happen. Bring common sense and a realistic approach to their work, and make work fun. Flexible and spontaneous, adapt readily to new people and environments. Learn best by trying a new skill with other people.” [4]

This postmodern concept of a pastor leaves me wondering what would happen if Martin Luther or John Calvin were to come before an ordination committee today? While I know that Peterson’s pastor has great appeal today, I am not sure that Peterson intended his vision of the pastor to be normative, as it has become.

One of the attractive things about Peterson to me as I read this book in seminary was that he had been a church planter. At a time when organized churches seem to be wandering off the rails, God’s presence appears most conspicuously in new churches that have yet to be coopted by our culture. Peterson writes about an old rabbinic story:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (100-101).

I can relate to this Shekinah image, having worshipped in so many different places, in so many different styles of music (or none at all), and in so many different languages.

Peterson’s final chapters begin with a story of a visit to a monastery where the cemetery was always prepared for the next funeral, having an open grave as a reminder (289). This is fitting end because Christianity is the only religion that began in a cemetery (Matt 28:1-7).  Citing Karl Barth, Peterson reminds us: “Only where graves are is there resurrection.” (290).

I have tried several times to review Eugene Peterson’s book, The Pastor, and flinched at the task, not knowing where to begin. Having written my own memoir, however, during the past year, his book started to make sense to me in spite of its nonlinearity. I think that I have read most of Peterson’s books, but this is a favorite, but do not ask me why. Still, I am sure that most pastors and seminary students will share my love for this book.

[1] What does Moses see? Moses sees God commanding him to return to Egypt and ask Pharaoh to release the people of Israel, something that had been on his heart for about 40 years (Exod 2:11-12; 3:10).

[2] This is at the heart of the psychiatric image of God and counseling model of the pastor. People have a lot of trouble with the transcendence of God. They do not want to be “fathered” with conditional love, they wanted to be “mothered” with unconditional love. For this reason, the postmodern image of God is more of a grandparent than a parent and people chide at the ideal that God is a father that actually requires anything at all of us. The code language normally used is to say that a pastor should be a “patient, non-anxious presence.”

[3] If you think that I am the only one to see an inkblot here, meditate a few minutes on Peterson’s book cover.




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McManus: Take Risks for Christ

Erwin McManus Seizing Your Divine Moment
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Erwin Raphael McManus. 2002. Seizing Your Divine Moment.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you are the kind of person who encourages your child to take a swan dive off the roof of your house and into your arms, then you really need to read Erwin Raphael McManus.[1] If not, perhaps you should think about it.


McManus writes:  The divine potential of a moment is unlocked by the choices we make (18).  The Gr

eeks call this kairos time—a moment of crisis or decision.  Kairos time contrasts with chronos time—calendar or clock time which just plods along. When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in a “garden of choices.”  They choose badly and everything changed (19).  Later, God set choices before the nation of Israel.  Moses wrote:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. (Deuteronomy 30:15-18 ESV)

Likewise, God asks us to make choices (21).  Even the life of Rahab, the prostitute, was redeemed by her choices both a physical and spiritual sense [2]. In joining the Nation of Israel, Rahab became the great, great grandmother of King David which also means that Jesus himself was her descendant (23-24).

McManus warns Christians against getting trapped in passivity.  He writes:

We have put so much emphasis on avoiding evil that we have become virtually blind to the endless opportunities for doing good…the great tragedy is not the sins we commit, but the life that we fail to live…There is a subtle danger of hiding apathy behind piety..If there is one secret to seizing your divine moment, it is that you must take initiative (34-35).

McManus focuses his message on 1 Samuel 14:1-23 which is the story of Jonathan, King Saul’s son and friend of David.  This is a saga of competing discernment stories.  King Saul slept under a pomegranate tree with 600 men waiting for a word from God; Jonathan took his armor bearer and went out to challenge the Philistines to a fight asking God to bless his efforts. God not only blessed his efforts (the 2 of them killed 20 Philistines; v 14), God also set off a panic among the Philistine army that resulted in them suffering a huge defeat—the Philistines were so confused that they ended up killing each other (v 20).  Apparently, God is not the god of sleepy Christians.

McManus writes:  I have seen the pomegranate dilemma again and again.  Those who hold the authority and resources of the kingdom are all too often more motivated to make sure that they do not lose them rather than to make sure they are used properly (38).  He concludes:  The more you move with God-given urgency, the more God seems to bless your life.  The more God blesses your life, the more you have to lose… The more you have to risk, the higher the price of following God (39).  Still, McManus observes:  when you are passionate about God, you can trust your passions (47).


McManus is lead pastor and cultural architect of Mosaic in Los Angeles, California [3].  Erwin comes originally from El Salvador and holds degrees from the University of North Carolina, Southwestern Theological Seminary, and Southeastern University.  Seizing Your Divine Moment is written in 9 chapters which divide, like an earthquake, into sections entitled foreshock, epicenter, and aftershock.  The chapter titles are:

  1. Choices—Choose to Live;
  2. Initiative—Just Do Something;
  3. Uncertainty—Know You Don’t Know;
  4. Influence—Breathe In, Breathe Out;
  5. Risk—Live Before You Die, and Vice Versa;
  6. Advance—Unless You Get a No;
  7. Impact—Leave a Mark;
  8. Movement—Ignite a Reaction; and
  9. Awakening—Wake the Dead (v).

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and followed by a write up about McManus.


Seizing Your Divine Moment played an important role in my pastoral formation.  In 2005 when I read the book, I was working full-time as an economist and did not enter seminary until 2008.  It helped shape my view of what church can and should be and kept me from despairing about how it often turns out.  I recommend the book to those considering seminary or simply desiring to jump start their faith.  It is a book for the young and the young at heart.


[1] Paraphrase of a story from a sermon.  See: Erwin Raphael McManus 2005. The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] Her testimony is striking:  I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death. (Joshua 2:9-13 ESV)


McManus: Take Risks for Christ

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Ebenezers, Benchmarks, and Transitions in 2013

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Art by Sharron Beg
Art by Sharron Beg

How will you remember 2013?

Did you watch the corn grow in 2013 or did God break into your life in ways that will change you forever? The Greeks had two words for time which capture this distinction: chronos time and kairos time.

Chronos time is clock time. It is often associated with the Goya painting of Saturn eating his son—a grotesque reminder that each minute on the watch can only be enjoyed during the minute and then it is gone. In chronos time, the corn grows and we watch.

By contrast, kairos time is decision time. When God steps into our lives from outside of time, we experience His presence as crisis. We are changed forever. We are forced to answer the question—who are you, really? This is the experience of God that we read about in Paul when he says: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2 ESV). In kairos time, we grow and God becomes real.

I will always remember 2013 as the year that I graduated from seminary. For 5 years, I worked towards the goal of graduating seminary before my 60th birthday. I passed that benchmark this month. My diploma now hangs on the wall in my office—a kind of metaphorical Ebenezer (a pile of stones erected to God)[1].

School is a transition with a beginning (how you got admitted), a middle (all the classes, experiences, and uncertainties), and an ending (graduation). Looking back, I am not sure which stage in the transition was most stressful!

Other transitions that I will remember include—seeing family members grow, witnessing my first death, preaching my first emotional sermon (, writing my first book (, developing the social side of social media (e.g., and first appreciation Christmas. Of these, appreciation Christmas was probably the most meaningful.

At the Hiemstra Christmas party this year, we got everyone in a room together and shared. The usual fare was been to share things like—what are you most thankful for? Or, what was your most memorable Christmas memory? However, this year I proposed that we go around the room and take turns being appreciated. When it is your turn, everyone else in the room takes a turn telling you why they appreciate you. People really got into this—we spent about two hours appreciating one another. This exercise only works for groups that really know one another, but for these groups it can be a really healing experience [2]. I will never forget.

Return tomorrow to view my Top 10 Postings in 2013.

Thank you for supporting this online ministry.

Happy New Year!

1/ Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, Till now the LORD has helped us (1Samuel 7:12 ESV).

2/ I owe this idea to my Clinical Pastoral Education instructor, Jan Humphreys (

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