Authentic Grief

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristFor godly grief produces a repentance 

that leads to salvation without regret, 

whereas worldly grief produces death. 

(2 Cor 7:10)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

About half of the patients I visited with in the emergency room during my time at Providence Hospital suffered physical maladies as a consequence of unresolved grief. Presenting diagnoses, such as backaches, strokes, heart attacks, failed psychiatric medicines, suicides, addictions, obesity, and head aches, often resulted from unresolved grief over the loss of a close family member. In such cases, treating the presenting ailment proved secondary to helping them cope with their loss.

American society does not cope with grief adequately. In a strong sense, we mask our grief with physical ailments to garner support that would otherwise be withheld. Supporting the grieving in their mourning can therefore promote both their emotional and physical well-being.

Godly Grief

The tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we lean into our pain or turn it over to God? Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future (Matt 26:42).

Because of the ubiquitous nature of pain and the decision it poses, our response over time to grief defines our character—who we become. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt 5:4).

Widening Our View of Grief

Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:

  • Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
  • Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
  • Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
  • Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
  • Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to identify six major types of loss, including: 1. Material loss; 2. Relationship loss; 3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream; 4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy; 5. Role loss—like retirement; and 6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin.

What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment.” Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?

Ministering to Those in Pain

Do you give grieving people permission to grieve? Or do you try to sweep grief under the rug? VanDuivendyk (2006, 12) observes:

So many well-meaning friends and loved ones may try to cheer us up rather than just be with us in our sadness. Rather than help us grieve through and talk out our pain, they may attempt to talk us out of pain. Rather than be sojourners with us in the wilderness, they may attempt to find us a shortcut. Jesus openly cried over Lazarus and the widow’s son, and raised them both from the dead even though no words of faith were spoken (John 11:1-46; Luke 7:11-17), suggesting that we have permission to mourn rather emulating the stoics with their stiff upper lip.

Worden (2009, 39-50) sees the process of grief as divided into four tasks:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss,
  2. Working through the pain,
  3. Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
  4. Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.

The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.

Unresolved grief—getting stuck in one of the tasks above—results in anxiety attacks and physical ailments when people refuse to honor their pain and are forced to pretend that it does not exist. American culture is complicit in promoting unresolved grief because co-workers, neighbors, and friends often give a grieving spouse or parent about two weeks before signaling that something is wrong if you are not over it. This is why it is important to give the grieving permission to grieve in the funeral to signal to their support group that two weeks is unlikely to be a sufficient period to complete the tasks of grieving.

References

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

VanDuivendyk, Tim P. 2006. The Unwanted Gift of Grief:  A Ministry Approach.  New York:  Haworth Press Inc.

Worden, J. William. 2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practioner. New York: Springer.

Authentic Grief

Also See:

Value Of Life

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

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Holiness

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“For I am the LORD 

who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. 

You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

(Lev 11:45)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In recent years the list of church leaders and high government officials who careers have tanked due to moral failure seems endless. Factors contributing to these moral failures  include changing mores, increasing social conflict, and the ability of social media to document our private lives from birth to death. Nothing today is off the record.

The Role of the Church

The church bears responsibility for the moral failures of its leaders. Contributing factors include:

1. The focus on the individual has relegated responsibility to families and individuals to teach and practices holiness that is the proper role of the church.

2. In some denominations, theology has divided law from Gospel suggesting that the holiness code in the Leviticus no longer applies to the Christian.

3. In some churches, the emphasis on love is so pervasive that other parts of the Bible are simply neglected.

4. Preaching in many churches offers nice to know guidance and simple eschews hard teaching on morality especially because of permissive attitudes on issues related to marriage and sexuality in society more generally.

While the traditional teaching of the church is clear on the question of holiness, many churches no longer accept this teaching. The watchword for this new teaching comes directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:15-16) False prophets need not be ravenous wolves, but weak teaching can lead to bad fruit resulting in unnecessary brokenness and departures from faith. Clearly, God can use broken pastors and broken churches to advance his kingdom, but we should cling to Christ’s mantel as closely as we can and avoid grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30).

Modesto Manifesto

During an evangelistic campaign in Modesto, California in 1948 Billy Graham asked his team to list the reasons that evangelists had failed in previous campaigns. Four items topped everyone’s list:

1. Excessive interest in money and weak accounting of it.

2. Sexual immorality, especially while on the road.

3. Failing to work closely with and respect local churches.

4. Exaggerating ministry successes (Graham 1997, 127-129).

Among these temptations, sexual immorality stood out as a threat and Graham committed himself to never being alone with any woman other than his wife, Ruth. These rules, together known as the Modesto Manifesto, have been picked up by other Christian leaders, including most recently Vice President Mike Pence.⁠1 While not all temptations can be cited as holiness concerns, moral failures figure prominently.

The Role of Christian Leaders

The Beatitudes have a general audience, but they also appear as a kind of commissioning service for disciples, which today would be of special interest to Christian leaders. The Sixth Beatitude focuses on a clean heart—“Honored are the pure in heart”—but, how can I remove the impurities? This is a call for holiness. Jesus provides two methods that stand out: pruning and intensifying.

Prune

Jesus gives us two metaphors of pruning—cutting away unnecessary or unwanted growth to make a plant stronger and more fruitful (John 15:2). The first metaphor involves eyes: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) The second metaphor involves hands: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt 5:30) In both metaphors, we remove sin from our lives by pruning.⁠2 Jesus’ pruning metaphors imply that sanctification—casting off sin and taking on godliness—is serious business: eyes and hands are parts of the body—parts of us—that are not easily discarded. If the threat of sin were trivial, then a better analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair. But if sin threatens both our physical and spiritual lives, then amputation is an acceptable option and the analogy is not hyperbolic.

Intensify

Jesus widens the scope of commandments under the law by drilling into the motivation for breaking them, intensifying the scrutiny given to sin. For example, when Jesus talks about adultery, he focuses on the lustful look that corrupts the heart, not the sinful act that follows. If sin begins in the heart, then sanctification must strive for purity of heart, and not only avoiding sin, but pursuing godliness, as the Apostle Paul writes:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:20-24)

The likeness of God, of course, refers to the divine image in creation, as implied in the word, godliness, used by Paul in admonishing Timothy: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). Taking Jesus Christ as our example, we should strive to be a good example to others.

References

Graham, Billy. 1997. Just As I Am: An Autobiography of Billy Graham. New York: Zondervan.

Footnotes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Graham_rule#%22Mike_Pence_rule%22. 2 The eye gouging and hand chopping metaphors could also have been heard by Jesus’ audience as a messianic call to arms. When the Prophet Samuel anointed Saul messianic king of Israel, he said to him: “And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.” (1 Sam 10:1) Notice the hand metaphor in this charge. Saul’s first act as king was to save the besieged city of Jabesh-gilead from an Amorite king whose condition for surrender was: “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” (1 Sam 11:2) Understanding the story of Saul, Jesus’ metaphors might be interpreted as saying: stand on your own two feet.

Holiness

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Dialogue: Monday Monologues, May 27, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will pray and reflect on Dialogue.

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

Dialogue. Monday Monologues, May 27, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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

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Dialogue

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One practical implication of being created in the image of God is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself.  In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God. Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen. One only cares for something of value (Benner 1998, 21).

Dialogue in Writing

Screenwriters understand dialogue better than anyone. James Scott Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (Bell 2014, 12-13)

The role of compression is important. Bell (2014, 16-17) writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. Bell (2014, 22) sees five functions of dialogue: reveal story information, reveal character, set the tone, set the scene, and reveal theme.

In weaving a story, Bell (2014, 25) advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (Bell 2014, 35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other. The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other. Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (Bell 2014, 37-38)

Why do I go through all these writing tips about dialogue? When we listen to each other and to ourselves, much can be learned that might not be discovered any other way.

Dialogue in Business

Corporate lawyer Thomas Stanton (2012, 10) writes:

One of the critical distinctive factors between successful and unsuccessful firms in the crisis was their application of what this book calls “constructive dialogue.” Successful firms managed to create productive and constructive tension between (1) those who wanted to do deals, or offer certain financial products and services, and (2) those in the firm who were responsible for limited risk exposure.

The importance of quality dialog within the firm or government agency arises from the simple observation that no single individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could understand the totality of the highly technical financial environment that now exists. Having an open-minded executive is accordingly insufficient; the firm culture must embrace active learning and open communication.

Good Dialogue is Increasing Rare

If dialogue is important in caring for people, in communication, and in risk management in a corporate setting, why has good dialogue become so rare? These days we are used to commentators and politicians shouting at each on television with virtually no one listening. We are also accustomed to interactions on social media that share information not expecting a response and, if one is given, the person responding is de-friended. 

It seems that our egos have become so fragile that we cannot hear anyone providing an alternative view. We even have a word for this fragile-ego syndrome: micro-aggression. A micro-aggression can be perceived by the smallest slight, like not paying enough attention to all members of a group.

In this context, it is hard for people to hear information inconsistent with their self-image or preconceptions of an issue. Dialogue dies.

Context for Dialogue

For authors (PGMS) collaborated in 2012 to write a book, Crucial Conversations, that became a popular in business circles. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting. They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful.  Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).  Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around.  The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.

Dialogue is Transactional

Most dialogue is transactional in the sense that even when we disagree, we both have a stake in talking and are willing to talk to reconcile our differences. This does not imply that the discussion will be easy, but the outcome of the discussion is presumably open-ended. In the framework given by PGMS, this is a sharing of facts and a comparison of stories that explain the facts.

When we start off talking in terms of unproductive stories—victim, villain, or claiming helplessness, we shutdown dialogue with an expression of feelings in the PGMS framework and try to force the other party into surrendering to our interpretation of events. This sharing of feelings signals that the dialogue is over and a digging in of the heels. This all-or-nothing negotiating strategy is likely to produce resentment and risks a violent response. It is unlikely to produce compromise because it is a strategy that shuts down conversation.

A Biblical Example

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to be reconciled with our neighbors before going to church to worship. The example he gives is of a man who has failed to pay his debts. Jesus says:

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. (Matt 5:25)

In today’s context, a lender may extend payments or settle for less than full payment for someone unable to pay a debt for reasons like illness or unemployment, but the debtor must be willing to dialogue with the lender, as Jesus has recommended. Claiming victimhood or having been cheated by a villainous lender will obviously not end so nicely. 

References

Bell, James Scott  2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Stanton, Thomas H. 2012.  Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail: Governance and Management Lessons from the Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dialogue

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/MayBe_2019

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Relational Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is one of the Christ’s defining characteristics, which we know from the first three Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In these Beatitudes, Jesus focuses on tension within ourselves and honors disciples who live humbly, mourn their fallen state, and embody a spirit of meekness. Such disciples will receive heaven and  earth,  a merism⁠1 meaning everything (Matt 5:3-5). While we normally talk about humility in individualistic terms, the biblical context for humility comes in relationships with our families, churches, and communities.

The Christian Family

In Christ, we honor each individual regardless of status or age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ meeting the challenges of each stage in life without fear.

Family Function

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

Here we see humility being worked out in a family context. A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. 

The Family as an Emotional Unit

Family systems theory focuses on “the family as an emotional unit” rather than on particular individuals (Gilbert 2006, 3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice. Family systems theory is often applied to other emotional units, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.

The emotional unit is sometimes compared to the plumbing system in your house. If the water pressure rises to the breaking point, the leak will show up in the weakest link in the system. For families, the weakest link is usually a child so when parents quarrel continuously, it is often a child that starts acting out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc). If the child is sent to a therapist alone, the problem is not resolved, but when the parents stop quarreling, the child often stops acting out (Friedman 1985, 21).

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Humility as Emotional Maturity

Humility is not shyness and is not a natural trait—it is a learned trait that often comes with emotional maturity. It can also often healing within emotional units because anxiety is infectious ( Gilbert 2006, 7).

Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak ( Gilbert 2006, 21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (Gilbert 2006, 33). Gilbert’s grandfather, who farms, attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle; otherwise when spooked, cattle will stampede (Gilbert 2006, 22).

Friedman (1985, 27-31) describes differentiation as the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration. The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence. Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (a tendency to resist change).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges in dysfunctional organizations.

1 Another famous merism is:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

References

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.0

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999. Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. New York: Howard Books.

Relational Ethics

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Problem of Boundaries. Monday Monologues, February 18, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Prayer about Healthy Limits and talk about the Problem of Boundaries.

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

To listen, click on the link below.

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

Problem of Boundaries. Monday Monologues, February 18, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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

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The Ethical Image of God

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ethical image of God is a hot-button issue today because of the proclivity of many pastors and Christians to view God exclusively through the lens of love, as we read repeatedly through the writings of the Apostle John: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Matthew’s double love command is likewise frequently cited:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

The Greek word for love (ἀγαπάω) is the same in both cases and means: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love” (BDAG 38.1). Agape love provides little help in understanding God’s character because of the wide scope in Greek usage. More useful is focus on the word depend (κρέμαμαι) in Matthew 22:40, which means: “to cause to hang [like a hinge].” (BDAG 4395.1), because the law and the prophets hang on love, but they also inform love’s meaning. The law and the prophets inform Matthew’s use of the word, love.

Covenantal Love

In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“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” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated “steadfast love” here (חֶ֥סֶד; hesed) means: “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, &c.; unity, solidarity, loyalty” (HOLL). The context makes it clear that the type of love in view here is not a generic agape love, but a more specific covenantal love focused on keeping one’s promises. We honor God and our neighbor by treating them with respect and keeping our word, especially when it hurts. This is a heart-felt relationship, but it is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

The fact that love is not the first characteristic of God, mercy is, reinforces the idea that love requires an interpretation beyond the warm and fuzzy agape love that so many cherish. When we say that Jesus died for our sins, we experience his love by means of (or through the instrument of) his mercy. The point that mercy is more primal than love is also reinforced in Jesus’ Beatitudes: mercy is listed; love is not (Matt 5:3-11). When we experience God’s love through his mercy, covenant keeping love, not warm and fuzzy agape love, is in focus.

The Hermeneutics of the New Covenant in Christ

This interpretation of love in Matthew makes particular sense because Matthew views the new covenant in Christ in terms of five commandments. The first commandment is to honor the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18-20). The second has to do with stepping out in faith (Matt 14:2829). The third instructs the disciples not to obsess about spiritual experiences (Matt 17:9). The fourth instructs then disciples not to pic nits with the law (Matt 19:16-21). The five commandment is the double love commandment already mentioned (Matt 22:36-40). 

If this set of commandments seems obscure, what we see is Matthew struggling to interpret the new covenant in Christ in an Old Testament framework of specific rules. By contrast, the Apostle John sees the new covenant in terms of the person of Jesus, which is hermetically harder and leads to competing visions of the person of Christ. Whose Jesus are you going to accept? 

Matthew’s double love commandment gives us a better idea of how to interpret the person of Christ because it “hangs” on our understanding of the Old Testament. It also pre-empts attempts to adopt a licentious interpretation of God’s love inconsistent with Old Testament teaching.

References

BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago Press. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und für frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English Editions by W.F.Arndt, F.W.Gingrich, and F.W.Danker. This edition is an electronic version of the print edition published by the University of Chicago Press.

HOLL – A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, edited by W.L. Holladay. Copyright © 1997 by Brill Academic Publishers.

The Ethical Image of God

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Blessed are Those that Hunger and Thirst

FPCA_crossBlessed are Those that Hunger and Thirst

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul,Wednesday, August 10, 2016, Trinidad Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to the Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church and also a Christian author. In our sermon today, we continue our study of the Beatitudes

What are your priorities? Our Beatitude today says that we should hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

Invocation

Let’s begin with prayer.

Holy Father. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. We are grateful that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this time and this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that listen. In the previous name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Scripture lesson

Today’s scripture lesson comes from Matthew 5:6. It is the fourth Beatitude and a part of the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount. Hear the Word of the Lord:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6 ESV)

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Introduction

In 2013, I graduated from seminary y wrote my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. My Book was written but I had no contracts in the business of publishing, not an editor, nor publishing contract. Consequently, I needed to attend a conference and talk to the publishers. Normally, business of this sort requires a lot of preparation; at a minimum, I needed to have business cards that describe my office, position, and contract information. All of these things were problematic for me because I was a new graduate, was out of work, and only had a book to sell and was unknown.  What would I do? (2x)

What was my answer to the problem of not having business cards? Without work, I began to write about my priorities: slave of Christ, husband, father, volunteer pastor (or as Paul said: tentmaker), author, and speaker. At first, I felt ashamed of myself because I was unemployed, but my business cards grew to be a topic of conversation, especially with my kids and their friends. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to talk about priorities in life with them in a fresh, new context and with other folks too.

These priorities—God, husband, father, work—are important because if you alter the list of priorities he, or drop any, bad things can happen. What would happen, for example, if I put my work in place of God on this list and lost my job? Or, perhaps, what would happen if I substituted my wife in God’s place and she left me? These examples are not very hypothetical because the primary reason for suicide among American seniors is the loss of a job and the primary reason for suicide among young people under the age of twenty five is loss of a significant other. Bad things happen when we hold inappropriate or disorganized priorities.

In the fourth Beatitude, Jesus said:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6 ESV)

Context

What do you hunger and thirst for? For what are you passionate?

This theme of deep needs—hungering and thirsting—is in contrast with the provision and abundance of God in the Gospel of John. There, Jesus reveals himself first to a young couple who throw a wedding party without sufficient wine to meet community standards for hospitality—it’s like today not have clothes appropriate for eating in a stylish restaurant with your family after a funeral. In this context, Jesus provided the wine.

In our context, our weaknesses are contrasted with the super-abundance of God in the Gospel of John—abundance of wine in the wedding at Canaan (John 2:1-11),abundance of bread when Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6:5-14), and the abundance of fish when Jesus revealed himself to the Apostles for the last time in Galilee (John 21:3-12). This every day food illustrates the trade mark  generosity of  God that we saw for the first time in the Garden of Eden where there was neither hunger nor thirst. And there, we had a very intimate relationship with God himself.

Do you feel the deep symbolism here in the fourth Beatitude? Are you passionate today for God? As Jesus said:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6 ESV)

Analysis

Whether you are passionate about God or not, our passions reflect the priorities in our lives. Our emotions protect our feelings, our identities, and our priorities. In other works, we get angry about the things that we feel are important.

In theology, this concept is known as the “cognitive theory of emotions” (2X) (Elliott 2006, 31) and the idea is that even God becomes angry only (2X) his law has been transgressed. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Rom 1:18 ESV)

Therefore, our emotions reveal the real priorities in our hearts.

Do you  hunger and thirst for God before all things? (2X)

Post script

In my story mentioned above, I printed my business cards with my priorities—slave of Christ, husband, father, tentmaker, writer, and speaker—and atended a conference where I met a Publisher who offered a contract to publish my Book. In the end, I did not accept this contract, but instead began to publish books independently with my own business.

Closing prayer

Let’s pray.

Holy Father:

In our finitude, our sin, our brokenness, we yearn for your righteousness, oh God. As the hungry grasp for bread and as the thirsty cry for water, we search for your justice where no other will do and no other can be found. Your Holy scriptures remind us that you are ever-near, always vigilant, and forever compassionate. Through the desert of our emotions and in the wilderness of our minds, bind our wounds, relieve our pains, and forgive our sins. Through the power of your Holy Spirit grow our faith even as our strength fails us. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

References

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

 

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Blessed are the Meek

Blessed are the Meek

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church and a Christian author. Today we continue our study of the Beatitudes.

In the Beatitudes, we see that the promises of God are anchored in his unchanging character and we know this because God remains forever meek.

Invocation

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. We are grateful that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this moment and in this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears to listen. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Scripture

Today’s scripture lesson comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:5. This is the Third Beatitude and a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Listen for the word of God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5 ESV)

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

A famous confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees begins with a difficult question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:17) If Jesus answers yes, the Hebrews will be mad at him. If he answers no, he will have legal difficulties with the Romans. This question does not have an obvious answer.

Jesus answers:

“Show me the coin for the tax.  And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, Whose likeness and inscription is this? They said, Caesar’s. Then he said to them, Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:19-21)

In other words, Jesus redefined the question and challenged them to deepen their faith in God—in whose image they were created—and not to focus on political things that they cannot change.

The story of the response of Jesus to the difficult question is an example of a concept known by experts as fogging.[1] Fogging is an answer that responds only to the part of the question that you agree with. In this example, Jesus continues the conversation about taxes but he changes the focus to the coin used to pay the tax. The coin offers an opportunity to give a lesson about God without falling to a political trap and without appearing defensive in front of his opponents.

This last point is important for us because every day we talk with difficult people and fogging is a technique to remain civil during a conflict when it is much easier to become emotional or to feel the stress. It is useful because when we have an appropriate answer to a difficult person, we are not victims; we are not defensive; we are Christians that respect and utilize the wisdom of Christ. It is also an example of how to be meek like Jesus in our everyday life—meek is not weak or as Jesus said:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5)

Context

The Third Beatitude appears only in Matthew and in the Greek, the language of the Old Testament, meek means: “… Not [being] overly impressed with a sense of self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like the character of a person who applies the concept of “poor in spirit”, which we find in the First Beatitude, and which is shown not less than three times in Matthew:

  1. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29)
  2. “Say to the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Matt 21:5) [2]
  3. “And the high priest stood up and said, Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus remained silent.” (Matt 26:62-63)

These three events—the invitation of Jesus to be disciple, his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and his silence during his trial—demonstrate the humility of Christ. The humility of Christ is also observed in the writings of the Apostles—Peter, James, and Paul.

From all of this evidence, it is obvious that humility is very important to Jesus in the New Testament. But, no one normally wants to be humble—we have to learn to be humble.

Is it possible that God also learned to be humble? (2X)

Analysis

This curious question over the God changes during the period of the Bible is very important in today’s theological conversations because if God changed during the history of the Bible, then he can change in our time as well.

I will be very brief. Here I will use an argument from the law and the prophets, like Paul and many other rabbis.

Point One: God acts as someone very meek in spite of the sin of Adam and Eve.

In the Books of the Law we see that God looks meek and gentle. For example, in Genesis before “God sent him [Adam and Eve} out from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23), “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) like a mother prepares her kids for the first day of school. God had every right to zap them both and create new people, but he did not do that. He did not do that because he had compassion on them and made provision for them, in spite their sins and against his own rights and power. In this context, God appears meek.

Point Two: God is humble like his good friend, Moses.

Here in the Books of the Law, only Moses is described as humble, as we see in the Book of Numbers, where it is written:

“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3)

But, many times friends share very similar personal characteristics. Consequently, the implication is that probably God is also meek like his very good friend, Moses.

Point Three: The Books of the Prophets describe the Messiah as meek.

The Books of the Prophets are all the books of the Old Testament that are not among the Books of the Law. Here we find that humility is a characteristic expected of the Messiah. The most famous example was cited above in Matthew and comes from the Prophet Zachariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9)

It is obvious also in the prophets that humility is a characteristic of God reflected in his people, as an important part of his image. For example, we see in the Psalms:

“He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps 25:9)

And we find in the Psalms our Third Beatitude, in so many words:

“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps 37:11)

Therefore, we see in the law as in the prophets that God was meek and he did not need to learn to be meek because he was already meek in creation. This is very good news because the character of God does not change over time and is immutable yesterday, today, and always.

The implication is that, just like the character of God is immutable and does not change, the Bible is also reliable and the promises of God are good forever. Thanks be to God!

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty Good, Beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit, we give praise because you do not change and offer your gracious love and consolation in painful times and times of loss. Cleanse our hearts of evil passions that lead us to sin and lead us to violence against other people. Give us a character that is deep in your wisdom. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

 

[1]  See: Savage (1996, 57-62).

[2] Also: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zec 9:9)

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v .9.>.

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

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Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

Art by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)
Art by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul, Wednesday, June 15, 2016 Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to the Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from the Centreville Presbyterian Church and a Christian author.

Today’s message focuses on a question: In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father.  Thank you for your presence among us this morning.  We appreciate that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this moment and this place.  In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that hear. In the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

Scripture

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of Mathew 5:3. This is the first Beatitude and a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount.

Hear the word of the Lord:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)[1]

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

In October 2014, I was invited to offer comments on my Book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, at the Mubarak Mosque in Chantilly, Virginia on the day of Eid.[2] In the Islamic Calendar, Eid is a day as holy as Easter on the Christian calendar and it celebrates the sacrifice of Abraham of his son, Isaac, by means of their own sacrifices of domestic animals, such as sheep.

This invitation made me very nervous. As a Christian, what would I say about the Christian faith to a group of Muslims? Consequently, during the three days before Eid, I began a period of prayer and fasting and asked God what I should say to the Moslems.

God responded to my prayer, but he said nothing about my invitation. Instead and much better, God gave me the inspiration to write a new book, Life in Tension, which I hope to publish later this summer.

In this example of answered prayer, I spent three days in prayer and fasting. In this way, I was open to her a word from God and God responded.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Analysis

Our text today gives another answer to this question, but this text is a bit more interesting and also more complicated in the context of the Bible. Listen again to today’s text:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)

Every Word in this Beatitude is interesting for different reasons, as we will see.

Blessed (2X). The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language and the Greek for blessed (the word μακάριος) means: “favor, blessing, fortune, happy (or joyful), and privileged”.[3]

In the Old Testament the most famous use of the word blessed appears in Psalm 1, where we read:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Consequently, many times blessed is said to mean more honor or blessings, not only happy or joyful.

Poor in Spirit (2X). This expression is found nowhere else in the Bible,[4] but it explains the significance of the a phrase in Isaiah 61:1, where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isa 61:1 ESV)

Here poor means “brokenhearted”, “captives”, and “those who are bound” which is very similar to the phrase in Matthew for “poor in spirit”.

More important in the understanding of the word, poor, is that in Hebrew, which was the language of the Old Testament, poor also means “afflicted, humble, meek.[5] Consequently, the phrase in Matthew 5:3, “poor in spirit” appears to be a direct  translation of the word, poor, in Hebrew, which has a wider significance in Hebrew than in Greek or Spanish or English.

The Kingdom of Heaven (2X). In the Hebrew language, the covenantal name of God (YHWH) is holy and can only be used in a worship service. In other contexts, phrases such as “the Lord”, “The Name” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” are substituted out of respect for the holiness of the name of God.

After all this analysis, it is accordingly possible to interpret the First Beatitude as saying: God blesses those that are humble or, more appropriately, God blesses those that make space in their lives for him; because those that are humble have respect for other people, including God.

Being humble makes space for other people; as does forgiveness, grace, patience, generosity, mercy, compassion, and other fruits of the spirit.[6] All of the spiritual gifts make room in our lives for relationships, including our relationship with God.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Further Analysis

The idea of offering space for God in our lives (and, by implication, for other people) has a long tradition in the Bible. For example, the night after King Solomon had dedicated the first temple in Jerusalem, God said to him:

“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)

Today which country needs this promise the most? (2X)

After the Beatitudes, later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt 7:7 ESV)

If we offer more space in our lives to Christ, he promises to come into our lives and save us from our sins, our fears, our pains.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit, we praise you for your gracious love and consolation in times of pain and loss. Cleanse our hearts of the evil passions that lead us to sin and lead to violence against other people. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

 

[1]“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 ESV)

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/03/eid-al-adha-2014_n_5927040.html.

[3] μακάριος means “humans privileged recipient of divine favor” and can also mean “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged” (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a).

[4] The Luke’s Gospel, this Beatitude refers only to the poor (Lukes 6:20), but Matthew was an Apostle (and likely witness to the Sermon on the Mount) while Luke was a colleague of Paul and a Greek (and not a witness to the Sermon).

[5] “poor,afflicted,humble,meek” (BDB 7238).

[6] “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v .9.>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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