Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Perpetual Long Division

If you were gripped with fear when you read that title, don't worry. We won't be talking about mathematics here.

Rather, a different kind of division is our concern. Social division.

Just last week I saw a Twitter post from a person I really respect. He is the editor of a reputable Christian magazine and has a significant following. I've never agreed with him on everything. But he often has helpful insights, and I appreciate his magazine.

His post made me cringe with embarrassment. How can I associate with a person who thinks like this? And then it made me mad. These sorts of posts are the reasons that people don't take us seriously, and even more, the reasons why we are accused of hypocrisy and judgementalism. In just a few words, he demonstrated the very kind of social division that I'm talking about.

In the 1860s, our society was well-divided over a significant issue -- the abolition of slavery. It led to the Civil War, pitting virtually half of the country against the other half. That's an extreme example of social division.

One hundred years later, we can see social division of a similar sort still at work. In the 1960s, various civil rights issues divided the public, but not in such a disastrous fashion as to lead once again to civil war. From a historical perspective, some advances were made to heal those rifts. Yet, we are all well aware that some matters from that time continue to fester.

Judging from the recent number of books, articles, and other commentary on the topic of social division, one might reckon that it's presently worse than ever. We regularly see the word "polarization" invoked as if we're radically divided and our society is falling apart. But if we consider the Civil War as a standard, things are clearly not that bad.

Perhaps what makes us feel particularly divided at the moment is just how much more aware we seem to be about the various vehement disagreements that cause social division. These phenomena garner easy attention across a variety of media. Some even claim that virtual environments like Twitter are toxic because of the intensity and prevalence of viciousness and vitriol exhibited between users of the platform. The post I read on Twitter was filled with the kind of anger that the platform easily turns into a contagion.

Our attention is drawn to what appears to be the ongoing fragmentation of our society into smaller and smaller groups, often referred to as "tribes," whose very existence is in part understood through the lens of enmity. To have an enemy is, oddly, a unifying experience.

Think of it this way: my tribe and your tribe disagree at a fundamental level and maintain an ongoing banter of criticism, castigation, and shame. In fact, these efforts sustain our existence as tribes, giving each a sense of identity. This trickles down to the tribe's "members." My participation in the tribe helps me know who I am, what I'm for, what I'm against, and feeds my need for a sense of community. My tribe helps me feel like I'm part of something. "We" have united against "them."

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we derive a sense of "righteousness" from our membership in a tribe. For example, your tribe's cause may offer the feeling that you are on the "right" side of history. Those who don't agree with you are considered evil, sick, maybe even something less than human. For the sake of achieving righteousness and justice, perhaps your tribe comes up with arguments to commit violence against those who disagree -- or seek to eradicate them altogether.

Humans tell stories to themselves about themselves. It helps us understand who we are. Tribes do something similar. They often have a story about a kind of loss or damage to something they believe is sacred. The late 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called this "ressentiment," borrowing a French term that includes what we mean by "resentment" in English, but also includes a sense of loss, a claim of damage, along with anger and rage. Tribes feel ressentiment. For example, the two most visible tribes we can point to in American culture are the right and left (or conservatives and progressives, respectively). Each tells a story about harm to America, blaming the other tribe for that harm. Both see themselves as victims, and the fault belongs to the other group.

While the specific harms always vary, each tribe goes on to develop a plan of action to address their unique problem. That action plan involves, at least in part, efforts to leverage all available mechanisms of power to advance their cause. The mechanisms might include politics or litigation using rhetoric and arguments. Or they might include shaming and defamation using various kinds of media. Tribes try to prevent or subvert the efforts of other tribes.

In our present moment of pandemic, we see these sorts of behaviors generated by the loudest disagreements that are getting public attention. Do we stay locked down or reopen? Do we surrender some of our freedoms and privacy for the sake of contact tracing? Should we wear masks, or is this a violation of personal autonomy? These and other concerns generate arguments that devolve into shouting matches, and worse, contempt for the other.

Let it be said for the record that no one is innocent when it comes to social division. Whether we actively participate in the arguments or not, all of us have moments when we simply don't understand another's perspective to the extent that we are willing easily to dismiss them right along with their perspective.

And writing as a Christian, I must admit that I too am guilty of this at times. It's easy to do because thinking is hard. Conversations that might achieve mutually beneficial goals, probably deriving from some kind of compromise, are harder still. I'm guilty of taking the easy route -- thinking poorly of others and better about myself. This move is the exact opposite of what Christians are called to do: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let esteem others better than himself" (Philippians 2:3). Contempt of others can certainly make us feel good as well as righteous, but in the end neither is good nor helpful.

What could be a better way? The Bible offers an image that may help.

From the very beginning, the Bible teaches that all humans are made in the image of God. This means there is something we all have in common, something that is the same about all of us. And this sameness transcends our differences. That is, as a first priority, we ought to see each other through the lens of this sameness. Whatever differences we have are contingent, and thus secondary.

I had to check myself the next day after I read that post on Twitter. It had stuck with me. I was still angry, embarrassed, and frankly, disgusted. And judging by the comments, so were a lot of other people. I could have joined in the reactionary attack. Twitter makes it easy. But I don't know the guy personally. He's probably as well intentioned as many other people whom I've disagreed with, including people I love, like my parents, friends, and even my wife. Because I can easily see the image of God in them, it causes me to treat them differently, allowing our differences to be secondary. Thinking about this, I realized that I shouldn't have been so judgmental about the person who was posting something I disagreed with on Twitter.

Some consequences flow from the fact that humans are made in the image of God that we can articulate in the form of guiding principles aimed at healing our social division. We can each apply them in our own lives.

First, it is a category mistake to equate people with their ideas. That guy on Twitter said something I disagreed with, but I had to remember: people are NOT the positions they support, the ethics they practice, the religion they belong to (or don't), or the politics they adhere to. These things are contingent, and throughout a person's life, they may change. If people have something fundamental in common -- that we are created in the image of -- we are able always to discuss, debate, and critique ideas, perspectives, and convictions, all while seeking vigorously to avoid making ultimate judgments about the person. After all, who are we do say that we are ultimately right, and therefore righteous, while others are evil or sick? How can we have certainty about these ultimate judgments?

This leads to a second principle. If we cannot have certainty, we need to practice a kind of "epistemic humility." Perhaps this is especially important in a time of pandemic. That is, if we know anything at all, we know that we don't know everything. I'm certainly not right about everything, and I don't think that guy on Twitter was right either. As humans, there are limits to our knowledge. Furthermore, we are well aware that certainty about almost everything is inaccessible. New information and new experiences change our perspectives all the time. None of us can see with a "God's-eye-view." We are fallible, prone to mistakes, bias, and over-confidence. Our claims concerning what we believe is right ought to be supported with the best information we have. And we should exhibit a proper confidence about our convictions, yet one that retains an openness to further conversation, learning, and even being questioned, such that we may learn we are at times, wrong.

To get at our next two principles, we should take a step back from experiences we have with other people who have different perspectives and consider our own reactions when we run into disagreement. As we noted above, our participation in tribes unites us against common enemies. Yet, considering our human sameness means we need to rethink what it means to have an enemy. In fact, Jesus teaches that we should "love our enemies" (see Matthew 5:44). Instead of being against, we are called, in an odd and nearly impossible way, to be for our enemies. In light of the earlier example from the beginning of the Bible, Jesus is at least saying here that we ought to love all other humans because they bear the image of God.

It would be difficult, however, to argue that Jesus is saying love, in this sense, equals something like affirmation. That is, the Christian call to love is not necessarily a call to affirm. So we have our third principle: love does not equal affirmation. If people are made in the image of God, that doesn't mean I have to agree with or affirm everyone's ideas on Twitter (or elsewhere).

Affirmation is something we all desire. I think this is part of the reason we post things on social media platforms like Twitter and others. But there are very good reasons why we should not always receive affirmation. Parents and children know this well. There are behaviors and ideas that my parents did not affirm, like lying or disrespect or the belief that I should always get what I want. But this did not mean they did not love me.

If (and when) we are wrong, it may actually be a loving gesture when someone disagrees with us in an effort to help us gain a better understanding. So, love does not equal affirmation. It is another category mistake to expect complete affirmation from people who love us. We should embrace this understanding in order to chasten our expectations when interacting with others who share different perspective.

As a corollary, we should also embrace the principle that disagreement does not equal hate. From a biblical perspective, if Jesus was able to love everyone perfectly (which Christians claim He did), how should we understand His disagreements with others that are recounted in the brief biographies about Him in the Bible? Certainly, we should not assume that He hated those with whom He disagreed. Rather, He sought to correct them for the sake of their own understanding and flourishing. While I wish Twitter were a place where civil discussion existed, the platform isn't made for that. While I could have joined in heaping negativity at the guy whose post I disagreed with, that would have served no helpful purpose in achieving a better perspective. People don't change their minds because of contempt from others. Love, empathy, compassion, and doing the hard work of having difficult discussions is what we should be up to.

These principles are commendable. If our world needs anything right now, it's for people to find ways to see themselves and others through the lens of sameness rather than difference. Healing social division begins here.

I make this argument as a Christian, using Christian reasoning. But I'm well aware that I and many other Christians have failed in this regard. Call us hypocrites. I'll own this label until my dying day.

But that's why I stick close to Jesus. He continues to prod me -- sometimes gently, sometimes in ways that feel chastising -- to prioritize others in the way that He prioritizes you and me. You and I are so important to Him that He gave His life for us. So how can we let our fallible arguments or the causes of our groups and tribes -- even our own need to feel "righteous" or affirmed -- become the hill upon which we make our stand? Jesus died upon a hill. But it wasn't just for you or for me. And it definitely wasn't because we are righteous. Rather, He gave His life because all of us fall short and all of us need His redemption.

Jesus reveals there is a sameness which unites us with every other human. And He opens a space for us to move forward, no longer in perpetual division but together in love. Let's walk with Him.

How has your social media experiences been lately? With all the voices out there going in all directions, it's easy to get burned out with opinions and all the hyped-up rhetoric. How do you use social media? Do you have any special websites or blogs you like to spend time reading. If so, please share.

Written by Chad Lakies

You can share your thoughts on this blog by clicking here and leaving a comment.

You can let the folks at THRED know what you think by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Changing the Mind of a Sheep

I like historical fiction: books, movies, TV. I especially like the kind that has a plot based on some kind of shadow agency, secret society, or cabal that is mysteriously at work in the story, yet lurk in the background. The Illuminati. The Culper Ring. The Trilateral Commission. All kinds of stories include groups like these meddling in world events, often for the sake of power. The identity of the participants in such groups is usually almost entirely unknown. The stories often play with a little bit of true history to create grandiose plots in which the fate of all humanity is at stake. They're fun reads.

Of course, I think they're fun because they're imaginary. Historical fiction is just that -- fiction. It doesn't claim to be anything else.

Deepfakes, Conspiracy Theories, and Extremism

Distinguishing fact from fiction is getting more and more difficult. I'm worried about the further development of deepfakes, for example. Deepfakes -- from "deep learning" and "fakes" -- are videos in which people appear to be saying things they never actually said, built by artificial intelligence (AI) computers using images and recordings of the speaker, mashing them together into coherent and convincing fictions that masquerade as fact. They're very hard to recognize, and they're getting harder. In fact, they've already been playing a part in global-political shifts and experts are concerned about their further disruptive capabilities.

Conspiracy theories are another example of the difficulty we have separating fact from fiction. Much like historical fiction, conspiracy theories try to explain the existence of factual realities using highly questionable evidence (but only if one is willing to raise the questions). For example, pandemics are often accompanied by conspiracy theories. Psychologist Stephen Taylor notes that, "Disease outbreaks are commonly the subject of conspiracy theories, especially when the nature of the disease is poorly understood." Taylor describes some of the theories that arose during the Bubonic Plague in the 1500s, the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the end of that century.

We don't usually think about it this way, but beliefs, such as believing a deepfake or a conspiracy theory is true, are most often the sort of thing that are "caught" rather than, say, chosen. Stanley Fish describes coming to have a belief like catching a cold-rather than having beliefs or a cold, we're "had" by them.

Fish demonstrates this by sharing a story about an old NPR episode. There it was reported about a former member of a eugenicist extremist group. The group believed, among other things, that people with "defects" like cleft palates ought to be "put into special colonies or otherwise dealt with." When asked what "changed his mind" the person did not offer reasons, arguments, or evidence. Instead, he offered a narrative. He told a rather personal story, describing how, in fact, his own daughter was born with a cleft palate. As a father who loved his daughter, he suddenly realized he was caught up with the wrong beliefs and the wrong crowd.

Again, it wasn't reasoned evidence or arguments that accounted for his prior belief, nor his immediate rejection of that belief. It was an experience that could only be accounted for by a story. He didn't deliberate and weigh evidence. In both respects, his beliefs just seemed to happen to him, similar to catching a cold.

Think for Yourself?

We'd like to imagine ourselves as these incredibly thoughtful and deliberative creatures who don't believe anything without weighing the evidence first. In the old adage, we're the kind of people who "think for ourselves." But in fact, most of our beliefs have come to be what they are because of persuasion of various sorts. In fact, group pressure is perhaps strongest. When everyone around us seems to believe a particular thing, it's hard not to believe it too, if only because we don't want to be excluded. Yet we don't really deliberate in making that choice. Rather, it just seems to happen. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we end up thinking with others.

Group pressure is sometimes called herd or mob mentality. One place mob mentality affects us is online. Some have recognized and lamented this reality. Algorithms strongly influence our news feeds, delivering to us pieces that others read who share a similar algorithmic profile. So even if we don't know the mob we're a part of, the "omnipotent" internet treats us like a member and delivers content we'll like, all the while letting us believe we're in control of what we consume.

Social media does the same. But it goes further in encouraging us to actively participate in a mob. When we log on, we're asked what's on our mind. We are encouraged to read, share and hashtag the same things as our friends. This experience can be so overwhelmingly influential that we start to believe that's the only way to think. The only positions to advocate for and support are the ones the mob approves. A kind of "orthodoxy" quickly develops. And if you disagree, you're labelled a heretic.

The member of the extremist group faced a conundrum when having to choose between committing to the orthodoxy of his group or his role of loving father to his daughter. In choosing his daughter, we should recognize that he lost a strong connection to a community in which he probably found belonging, identity, and meaning.

We see this about many issues: racial, ethnic, political, environmental, sexual, gender, guns, speech, and more. The arguments boil down into zero-sum games. If you're not completely and fully for one side, you're ostensibly for the other. No conversation, no debate. Silence is violence, yet sometimes you're just told to shut-up. Your only option seems to be to listen and fall in line or live as a kind of outsider.

Sometimes falling in line with the mob is relatively trivial. I used to live in the Pacific Northwest. IPA beers are all the rage there, and that's what all my friends were drinking. I can't stand IPAs, so I didn't drink them. And while my friends might harass me for not liking their favorite style of beer, I was never at risk of losing their friendship.

At other times, falling in line with the mob is dangerous. Group pressure can lead to some very poor choices. The pressure of the group to remain faithful to the mob above all else begins to cost the loss of other social relationships. We experience fracturing and societal breakdown as people take sides, polarizing, and imagine those who are outside their groups as enemies.

All of this is frustrating and exhausting for at least two reasons.

Frustration and Exhaustion

First, the realities that people are arguing about are very important to many of us, and oftentimes people's lives are at stake. This is true for the ongoing racial tensions, the disagreements about whether to wear masks in public, and many other significant concerns.

Second, when the arguments function like a zero-sum game, there is no room for debate, discussion, or even slowing things down to learn more. Profoundly complicated issues get over-simplified. Emotion and reaction predominate. Confusion arises about the goal. Fruitful progress stagnates.

DO SOMETHING is often the passionate appeal. But "what" and "why" remain tremendously difficult to answer.

In the cartoon series Charlie Brown, there is a recurring scene in which Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick. Over and over again, Charlie lines up for the kick and just as he is about to kick the ball, Lucy pulls it up and out of the way, causing Charlie to fall onto the ground. Various iterations of this scene recur, sometimes with Lucy promising not to pull the ball. In one scene, she even signs a contract committing not to pull the ball. Yet, just as Charlie is about to kick it, Lucy inevitably pulls it anyway despite the contract.

Many people want to do something about the troubling issues of our time, especially those involving concerns of social justice. In a zero-sum game, over and over again well-intentioned people are told that they need to do something. Still, the very things they do -- even when they are doing something in line with the voices they've been listening to -- their actions are derided as not enough or in fact the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown, those who try often experience Lucy metaphorically pulling the ball.

Exhaustion and frustration.

Perhaps people who want to help -- who want to do something -- are captive to a mob mentality much like the man with the daughter who had a cleft palate. And the factual truth of the matter begins to reveal itself when efforts to help and bring about change are met with rejection, silencing, and ostracism.

Covidiots and Sheeple

During the present pandemic, the debate about how best to helpfully behave for the sake of others has led to two unique labels. There's the COVIDiot (from COVID + idiot), a derogatory term used for those who do not follow the health and safety guides set forth amid the pandemic. There's also the "sheeple" (from sheep + people), a term that's actually in the dictionary due to its regular use over the last few years. Sheeple is another derogatory term that refers to people who mindlessly follow the crowd. The term is often used in the phrase "wake up sheeple," evoking the idea of being "woke," but applied in a new way in light of the coronavirus crisis. Getting "woke" in this sense seems to mean one of two things (leading to a rather ironic confusion): either you wake up and realize that following the public health guidelines is for everyone's good, OR it means you should claim your independence from the authorities who can't tell you what to do, like wearing a mask in public. We're facing group pressure in two different directions here.

In the Bible, the word for "sheep" is used more than 400 times. We learn that sheep are followers. They do what other sheep are doing, often to their own detriment. They have a herd mentality. They will follow the mob off a cliff. Sheep need someone to protect them from these dangers, a guide to keep them safe, a trustworthy voice to which they can listen.

Shepherds are the corollary image for sheep in the Bible. Shepherds were those who protected the sheep, lead them away from danger and toward safety as well as sources of life, like food and water. Shepherds were familiar to their sheep. Like many animals who develop relationships with humans, sheep find the voice of a shepherd to be trustworthy and comforting. Sheep follow their shepherd because they know their shepherd cares for them.

Who Are You Gonna Follow?

At some point, we all have to recognize that we're caught up as part of some mob. Maybe it's the mob that's actively dividing us. Maybe it's the mob that's criticizing that mob. Maybe it's the mob that's feeling helpless to make a difference because of frustration and exhaustion, resigned and giving up. And perhaps it's a mob that I haven't discussed yet -- the apathetic mob, who just doesn't care. Indeed, perhaps we've all been a part of each of these at some time or another. If we are "had" by our beliefs, and therefore caught up in a mob mentality without being aware of it, we can draw a striking conclusion:

We're all sheep then. And we all need a shepherd.

The Bible describes us well in this regard, saying, "All we like sheep have gone astray." (See Isaiah 53:6.)

Yet, this is not the last word. It's only the first one. If we have all gone astray and need a shepherd, where do we find one? Jesus says of Himself, "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10.11a). Jesus says of His sheep that He knows them, and they know Him. They listen to His voice. He goes on to talk about more sheep who are not yet a part of His flock but will be, united under His leadership. We need a shepherd these days. Our world is in turmoil. Lives are at stake. A pathway forward and toward unity is not possible without the leadership of the Good Shepherd.

Written by Chad Lakies

You can share your thoughts on this blog by clicking here and leaving a comment.

You can let the folks at THRED know what you think by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Meaning of a Single Hug

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a 20th-century martyr. He was killed for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Prior to his death, he was in Nazi custody for more than two years. Bonhoeffer was a pastor but served most actively as a teacher before his arrest. He spent a majority of that time at Tegel prison in central Berlin. Not far away was the home where he spent much of his youth and where his parents still lived.

While confined in Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer, alongside his fellow prisoners and the general population of Berlin, had to withstand the fear engendered by the sound of air-raid sirens followed by intense bombings of the city by the Allies. After one of these dreadful events, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents reflecting on the emotional experience of having to endure the bombing while also being concerned about their wellbeing.

While Bonhoeffer's experience is not directly correlated to our ongoing endurance of a worldwide pandemic, it's his separation from loved ones that is significant for our consideration. He writes in a portion of that letter to his parents in his Letters and Papers from Prison.

"It's remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people's, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The 'as though it were a part of me' is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence."

In our present circumstance, it's widely reported that people are experiencing "Zoom fatigue" while we're all quarantined and "working from home." Connecting to one another and enduring "meetings" via the myriad assortment of video-conferencing apps is, while helpful, also incredibly exhausting.

To be sure, we certainly have a better situation than someone like Bonhoeffer, who was confined away from his family and close friends, with virtually no access other than letter writing. He was eventually able to see his fiancé, but never often, and only for moments at a time while under incredibly strict supervision. Yet, in our time of social/physical distancing, we are all getting a very real glimpse at why solitary confinement is such an awful kind of punishment.

Perhaps you're not that isolated (neither am I). But if you're feeling exhausted and lonelier than you think you should (after all the Zoom meetings and FaceTime chats), you're not alone.

Perhaps one way of describing why we're feeling so exhausted is that we are having to tolerate the absence of one another's presence. Or, to put it another way, we experience the presence of their absence -- their physical absence which creates a distance that we cannot un-feel. However helpful FaceTime and Zoom and e-mails and phone calls are, what we really want is the presence of our friends, family, and co-workers.

We're becoming somewhat desperate to gather again, to commune (the basis of community), even to touch one another. Perhaps this is because we're made for this kind of human relationship. The digital and the virtual serve a purpose, but they leave us feeling vastly incomplete, even in a way, empty. We need embodied contact with others. It meets our basic needs and contributes to our good health (conversely, loneliness is detrimental). If these natural outcomes tell us anything, they tell us that at the very core of our being, deep in our human nature, profound and intimate contact with other people is critical to our existence.

About two years ago, my family was sitting in church. It came time for the children's message delivered by the minister. A picture came up that showed Jesus hugging a little child. We had seen this picture before, but this time my daughter said to me, "Daddy, I want a hug from Jesus." Now, I'm a trained theologian, and even have a degree in philosophy, yet I wasn't immediately sure how to answer my daughter. But I gave it a shot.

I told her that her desire for a hug from Jesus is something that everyone gathered with us wants. Every Christian wants a hug from Jesus. It would be an amazing thing. But I went further and tried to tell her something rather complicated from a theological perspective. I wasn't sure if it would work. I told her that whenever she wanted a hug from Jesus, all she had to do was ask for a hug from another Christian. Thinking like a theologian, I had in mind something St. Paul said in one of his letters, found in the Bible. He wrote, "It is no longer I who live, but (Jesus) Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20b).

Paul was thinking about the fact that followers of Jesus come to do the things that Jesus does. And if anything, Jesus loved people. And He did so unconditionally. So who wouldn't want a hug from Jesus? Especially if it would be that kind of hug -- one where you knew that no matter who you were, what deep dark secrets you kept, or whatever terrible thing about yourself that you worried would cause rejection of something found out -- Jesus would hug you authentically and with unconditional love in spite of it all. The same often seems to work for children -- people are often freely willing to give them hugs and express care and compassion to them unconditionally.

Right now, I think we could all use a good hug. Probably more than one. I long for the day of many hugs, when we're finally released from this captivity.

To want a hug from another person is nothing more than to acknowledge our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We need each other, and we cannot survive without one another. The embrace of a hug offers us the experience of being seen, recognized as worthy of such an embrace. The gifts of a hug from those we love offer glimpses of the embrace of God's love. It's not uncommon to imagine that such connections with the divine love of God come through extraordinary means. Nevertheless, God has chosen other ways to show love to us. Rather than expecting some miraculous, extraordinary experience, the love of God comes to us through the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday.

The embrace of a loved one or close friend is also and always a glimpse and experience of the love of God for you. You can be certain of this because God created us for human connection and community. And because He chose to use other humans to show us such love. I know of no other way for us to feel completely and totally loved, affirmed, and accepted than through the continued love of those closest to us. Through them, we have a mysterious window into God's unfathomable love for us.

Maybe that's why we miss each other so deeply in this time of separation. We weren't made for this sort of experience. We were made for flesh-and-blood community with one another. We were made not for the absence of presence, not the presence of the absence of people we love, but for the richness and fullness of life that comes from the physical proximity and more often the touch of an embrace of our closest friends and loved ones.

If you're missing hugs these days (like I am), we wait together in hope. The sweet embrace of a hug from my friends and distant family is something I anxiously anticipate.

Written by Chad Lakies

You can share your thoughts on this blog by clicking here and leaving a comment.

You can let the folks at THRED know what you think by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Forget #YOLO and "No Regrets"

The past matters, even if it doesn't define you.

A few years back, there was a massive forest fire near where I was living and working in the Pacific Northwest. Friends of mine had to evacuate their home for weeks while emergency responders fought the fire. The fire burned a major section of forest along a scenic riverway, closing down stretches of highway and rail lines for long periods. Even the river itself was closed to marine traffic for a time. Ash from the fire fell for days where I lived. It took three months to fully contain the fire. Nearly 50,000 acres burned.

The fire started because a teenager who was hiking with a group of friends lit fireworks off the side of a ridge during one of the driest summers on record for the area. Burning anything of any sort was legally banned at the time. The consequences of that single firework totaled more than $36 million.

"Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences," said the Vancouver, Washington, boy. "I know I will have to live with my bad decision for the rest of my life."

Living with our bad decisions is another way of talking about regret. Yet, regret is a rather unpopular topic. We tend to avoid it.

Andy Root works with young people, and he trains others who do the same. In a recent book, he pointed out that more than previous generations, young people seem not to experience much regret. "#YOLO" (short for "you only live once") is their way. #YOLO sounds like a combination of carpe diem ("seize the day") and pop-psychology advice that tells us not to dwell on the past. After all, the past is the past. We can't change it. So we might as well move on.

I'm all for seizing the day and living in the moment. Ancient wisdom offers the same advice, since we don't know what tomorrow holds. For example, the Bible advises us to walk not as unwise, but as wise, for the days are evil (see Ephesians 5:15-16). We're warned to pay attention, be thoughtful, and watch out for danger. This requires a vigilance that's attentive to the moment.

Still, I find it rather difficult to focus on the here and now. It's as if there is a piece of me that is always waiting for some better time to arrive. Whether that's unlocking the achievements and privileges that come with age -- waiting for parenting to get easier.

When I was a teenager, I did something I regret. Due to the context in which I grew up, it took a few years for it to really hit me. I realized that I used a racial slur against a fellow musician in a high school class. To be honest, I was really impressed by her and we performed in all the same ensembles. My comment was senseless, meant to be a joke, and honestly, meant most of all to impress people around me.

Moments later a friend came to her defense, telling me I had made the other girl cry. Her rebuke quickly reminded me that my parents raised me to be better than this. As a result, I've always had a rather high guilt complex about such things. So I immediately pursued reconciliation. I apologized to her about my comment immediately. She accepted my apology, but the damage had already been done. I couldn't take my comment back. The memory of it lingers. The senseless hurt I caused occasionally returns to hurt me back in the form of regret.

Because of experiences like this in which I experience real regret -- whether about things serious or more trivial -- I struggle to connect with the sentiment of #YOLO and the "no regrets" attitude that accompanies it. While I do not share the sentiment, in his book Souls in Transition, sociologist Christian Smith argues that a "no regrets" attitude is nevertheless prominent among emerging young adults (perhaps I'm just a decade too old).

He puts it this way: "Despite often smarting from hard lessons learned, most of the emerging adults who were interviewed explicitly denied feeling any regrets about any of their past decisions, behaviors, or problems. Reinforcing their widespread feeling of optimism about the future, most of the survey respondents -- including many of those with miserably depressing histories and current problems, as well as those who seem to take full responsibility for their own mistakes and stupidities -- insisted that the past was the past, that they learned their lessons well, that they would not change a thing even if they could, that what's happened is part of who they have become, and that they have no regrets about anything at all."

In the next line, Smith transitions to an observation that suddenly seems to include me again, saying, "many emerging adults also appear, we think, to harbor regrets about the past even when they deny that they do. They clearly do not want to see themselves as having regrets, even though they also get angry with themselves about mistakes and continue sometimes to be haunted by problems from the past."

Haunted. That's me. And I suspect it's also the teenager who accidentally started the forest fire.

I was teaching university students when the forest fire occurred. We were in the early weeks of the fall semester taking up questions of the meaningfulness of life. It was hard to ignore the smoke that choked the valley where many of us lived. The ash gracefully falling from the sky gently rested upon windowsills and parked cars.

I remember one of our discussions coming to rest briefly on the subject of the forest fire and the young man who was responsible. "What was he thinking?" a student wondered. I answered by saying that he probably wasn't thinking much at all, due the developmental stage of his teenage brain. While true, I added a bit more nuance. I told them that I could totally relate to what he probably did think: "How cool would it be to light fireworks off the side of the ridge?!?" Aside from perhaps trying to impress his friends, as someone who has always liked playing with fire, I could relate. But what he clearly wasn't thinking about was the bigger picture: the consequences, the illegality of burning, the danger of throwing fireworks without knowing where they'll land, the risk at which he was putting others (the fire trapped 153 other hikers for up to a day).

Yet the consequences that followed, both the visible ones like burnt trees along roadways and barren mountainsides, and others like a massive unpayable fine and nearly 2,000 hours of community service, are hard to look back upon and not elicit feelings of regret, especially for a rather thoughtless choice. Similar for me are the memories of that young woman's tears.

Perhaps one reason that people avoid regret is practical. What can you do about the past? Pretty much nothing. So let's just move on already.

Another reason might be psychological. Dwelling on past failures can affect one's mental health. Regret can sink us. We spin ourselves into a deep depressive slump whenever we're caught up in the spiral of focusing on our past mistakes.

Still, it's appropriate to recognize that those mistakes don't define us, even if they're part of our story. But they do contribute to our identity at least in terms of a memory from which we can learn and make different decisions in the future.

Jonathan Malesic writes powerfully about how we can lean back on our regrettable decisions and actions. He suggests that, "No regrets" sounds great on TV and shares well on social media because we equate decisiveness with importance and control. But to live proudly without regret is to ratify your own idiocy, to take unjustified self-satisfaction in your existence. Your past actions made you who you are, sure, but maybe who you are isn't so great. Without regret, you have no way to reckon with that.

Malesic goes on to suggest that mistakes might be the best sort of teacher. Here's something I can resonate with. Most of the mistakes I've made, once I've realized they were mistakes -- whether they were simple errors on an exam or damage done to personal relationships -- I've usually not made them again. The lesson learned looms almost ever-present. As Malesic says, "Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past ... Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other."

Looking back on that young man who started the forest fire or my experience with the young woman, it's easy to think, "Who would do such a thing?" Well, clearly in the latter case, I did. But my own disgust with myself is powerful. It maintains a haunting control over who I want to be in the future precisely because I remember what I've done in the past.

Nevertheless, such memories do not dominate my life or overly color my self-perception. Rather, they play a role alongside the identity I've received from outside of myself, not the one I can create by looking in the mirror. My identity comes from my Creator, and He calls me His child. I'm His child because He has, despite all my feebleness and failing, redeemed my life. In His eyes, He sees not my past (nor my proneness at times to relive and repeat it). Rather, He sees me as one for whom it was worth sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to die so that I might not have to. My Creator even promises to forget my past mistakes (see Psalm 103:12). Forgiveness provides a freedom that allows me to keep going.

That gives me hope knowing that moving forward in life, I'll likely still do and say things I wish I could take back. Having learned some lessons in the past, however, I pray that I am the slightest bit wiser so that I might mitigate the damage. Malesic seems equally hopeful.

Paradoxically, the way to live confidently isn't to banish regret and look only to the future. The challenge is to act, informed by reflection on past mistakes and ready to regret the decision later. It's to realize that there are worse things than regret. Learning to regret well makes you humble in the face of the consequences your actions will have for a person -- your future self -- who remains something of a stranger. So act with circumspection and humility, and be ready to earn reproach.

What regrets are haunting you? How do you let them play their role of forming you for the future without dominating your sense of self, stimulating inappropriate guilt? How is the gift of God's forgiveness effective for you in tempering feelings of regret in a culture that says, "No regrets"?

Written by Chad Lakies

Looking back at one's past is a difficult thing as we've all blown it a time or two. Sometimes our blunders have cost us -- and others -- dearly. For some helpful perspective on the matter, check out the Men's NetWork's video Bible study, Regrets, Reality, Restoration. It looks at the stories of four people who have dealt with regrets in their lives, and how they encountered the hope that God gives us all to move on through a difficult past.

You can check it out by clicking here.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Does Pornography Kill Love?

Have you ever come across pornography on the internet when you weren't looking for it?

You're not alone. Some 70-plus percent of teenagers encounter porn online by accident. The internet's anonymity and accessibility has led to a flood of pornographic production and consumption in our society. In 2001 it was estimated there were 70,000 porn websites; by 2005, there were 4.2 million. More pornographic videos are streamed online than the combined traffic of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Given pornography's wide reach, we must talk about it more frequently, and examine it more critically.

The point of this article is to discuss some Christian thoughts on porn -- and to go deeper than "We think it's bad." Jump ahead if you want to get straight to the Christian part. But if you don't know much about the porn industry, keep reading, because it's worth understanding porn's reach and impact first. We'll briefly look at the industry from three perspectives: people who make porn, people who consume porn, and porn's wider societal effects.

Actors & Producers

In a celebrity-praising culture such as ours, the adult entertainment industry is sometimes seen as a route to mainstream acting, and the glamorous lifestyle that appears to come with it. However, most adult entertainment industry actors achieve neither a long-term career (most work in the industry for only 6-18 months), nor fame, or long-term wealth. In fact, a UCLA study found that 1 in 4 adult industry workers have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and that many more were exploited in other ways by industry producers or directors.

You can listen to some of their stories by clicking here and watching the two videos.

As these stories demonstrate, even a "successful" career in pornography is often deeply distorted and damaging. Another famous porn star has said that she would never let her children enter the adult industry. And, most tragically, not everyone in a porn film is there because they have freely chosen to be. Consider the words of Linda, one of America's first "porn stars," who was not only coerced into making pornography, but then also forced to promote the industry that she had been forced into:

"That hurt me a great deal, too. To have to be interviewed and say that it (doing porn) was 'wonderful,' that 'it was the greatest thing, everybody should see it.' I didn't feel that way at all. I was just like a robot. I was told what to say, and I said it because if I didn't I was beaten brutally." Linda "Lovelace" Boreman

There is growing consensus that the increase in porn consumption is tied with the growing problem of sex trafficking and forced sexual exploitation. That reality should cause us all to reconsider what exactly porn is and what it is doing to us.

Consumers

Psychologists have only recently begun to study the consequences of habitual online porn consumption. While the findings are still emerging, some things are clear:

 Online pornography is addictive for many users. Psychologists have shown that porn addicts' brains show similar patterns to those of people with drug addictions.

 Habitual porn consumption is associated with decreased relationship satisfaction, insecurity, and lower overall sexual satisfaction.

 When someone who is married starts accessing porn, the chances of that couple getting a divorce double.

 There are signs that the widespread use of online pornography is leading to higher rates of sexual dysfunction among young men.

Far from being harmless, watching porn hurts individuals and relationships.

Society

The health community is growing increasingly concerned about the wider effects of pornography. One of the reasons for this is that the average age of first exposure to online pornography is 11-12, so for many young people, porn is the first introduction to sex. Remember, 12 is just the average, so just imagine an 8-year-old coming across hardcore porn by accident. One of the many problems with this is that the most popular and most viewed porn films are verbally and physically violent towards women -- and a recent study linked porn consumption with significant increases in sexual aggression. Even for those who do not become more aggressive, pornography is "acting" and as such is a terrible education about what sex between two consenting and trusting adults is really like.

Finally, the casual observer can't help but note the "pornification" of our culture: from twerking to barely clothed advertisements for hamburgers, sexualized advertising is everywhere now. This sends a terrible message to young people: "Your physical presentation determines your value."

Some Christian Thoughts

These realities, apart from any religious convictions, should make us all concerned about pornography, and more critical of the impact it is having on everyone involved -- from producers to consumers, and especially on teenagers and children.

What can Christianity add to this conversation? Pornography is a gruesomely twisted cousin of sex, so let's start there.

"And God saw that it was good."

Despite what you may have heard, the Christian Scriptures are incredibly positive about the deep beauty and mystery of human sexuality. The first command given to Adam and Eve was to "be fruitful and multiply" (see Genesis 1:28), that is, to make children through the pro-creative act of sex. The first time Adam sees Eve, he essentially cries, "At last!" and launches into poetry, praising the beauty of his wife.

If that were not clear enough, there is an entire book of the Bible that celebrates the joys and challenges of sexual love between husband and wife (see Song of Songs). The passages of this book are playful, evocative, and celebratory about men's and women's bodies and the beauty of marital love. In the New Testament, Paul teaches that a husband and wife are to give their bodies to one another in mutual enjoyment and delight (see 1 Corinthians 7:3-4). For Christians, sex is an incredibly good and powerful thing.

Porn Is Not Love

The trouble is that, like all good and powerful things, sex is exploited and abused. If you read Song of Songs, you see that the pursuit of sex within marriage is a lively, risk-filled endeavor between two people. Traditionally, there is a long road to arrive at that point: dating, holding hands, staying up all night talking, and a first kiss are all steps along the delicate and gradual path of developing a relationship with someone else. Ultimately, a healthy, life-giving relationship is based upon love -- sacrificing your own needs, wants, and desires for the sake of the other person.

Porn is the exact opposite of all of this. Instead of being uniting, it is isolating. Instead of being gradual, it is fast. Instead of being based around sacrificing for another person, it is nothing more than self-gratifying self-pleasure. Porn is not connection; it is consumption. When it comes to true love, porn is the ultimate lie. True, good, and healthy sex doesn't come in front of a screen, but rather through sacrificing yourself for another person's benefit and pleasure.

The Image of God

Christians believe that all people are made in the "image of God" (see Genesis 1:27). This means that all people are to be treated with the highest standard of respect, love, and dignity. If we turn to porn, we are reducing people to sexual objects to be consumed -- a set of features to gawk at rather than a whole person who is someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, neighbor or friend.

Many Christian organizations work to bring that message to those inside the pornography industry. One group, XXX Church, goes to porn conventions and passes out "Jesus loves porn stars" T-shirts, because the truth is, Jesus does! As individuals and as a society, we should, too. We should refuse to exploit and objectify people for our own pleasure. Instead, we should pursue the beauty and challenge of real love in our real lives.

If you want to make a difference:

 Do not buy in to pornography simply because "everyone is doing it." Consider its deeper effects on producers, consumers, and our society.

 If you are a parent, talk with your kids about pornography before they accidentally encounter it online -- because one day they will. Discuss pornography with your teenagers, letting them know it is not a realistic portrayal of what sex is.

 If you struggle with pornography, seek help -- there are many organizations dedicated to helping individuals or couples break their pornography habit.

 If you are in the pornography industry, know that there are Christians and others who will care about you and will work with you to help you exit the industry.

Chances are we've all been impacted by pornography, sad to say. You can let us know what you think about this blog by clicking here and leaving a comment.

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There are online resources to help better understand and deal with pornography. Here are a few:

You can get there by clicking here.

You can get there by clicking here.

You can get there by clicking here.

You can get there by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Our Golden Age?

We tend to think about past times, especially good ones, in terms of a Golden Age. Reflecting on those times often makes us nostalgic.

Growing up, I'd often hear older people, using cliched aphorisms, tell about their early life experience. "When I was a kid, I had to walk to school through two feet of snow uphill both ways." Indeed, such sayings were good for a (half-hearted) laugh. But by saying it, more than for humor's sake, they also meant to compare their experience with what they thought mine was like. Theirs was hard, mine easy.

Yet at the same time, you could hear in their voice a kind of glowing sentimentality about it all. Whether or not they really experienced the difficulties they meant to communicate with their aphorisms, there was something they missed about being younger.

Longing for Better Times

We all get nostalgic. Regardless of how old we are, we all look back on our lives and think of experiences, seasons, traditions, and more, with deep fondness. Our hearts long to recover the feelings fostered in us by those moments.

Nostalgia is sometimes evoked when facing challenging times or situations. We compare the present experience with a former experience that was, in our minds anyway, somehow better.

We are living right now in one of those challenging times. We can cite these in terms of global circumstances like the pandemic. Social unrest of many different kinds affects us as a nation. As for personal challenges, some of us have lost jobs. Other have lost friends or family. We could all name many other things.

As we try to process our present experience mentally and emotionally, we are likely visited by feelings of nostalgia. We long for times other than these when things were not so hard.

Yet, it is not just difficult or challenging times that make us look back and long for the good old days. Nostalgia sometimes catches us by surprise for positive reasons, too.

Reliving the Good Times

Less than a year ago, my family moved across the country, leaving our side of a duplex condo and moving into a single-family home. We have two children who love to play outside. Our condo had no yard, only a crumbling blacktop driveway and some gravel. Our new home has a modest fenced yard. One evening I was struck by nostalgia as I was mowing the lawn. While pacing back and forth across the lawn with the mower, my children frolicked and played around me with innocent abandon.

My heart was filled with a deep satisfaction in that moment. I used to do the same when my dad was mowing. My mind is filled with such great memories of playing in my yard when I was kid. In our former residence, I had longed for such a yard for my kids. Seeing them playing around me made me remember my own experience as a kind of gift. I'm thankful for it, and grateful that my children get to have something similar.

It is not uncommon for us to have a sense of a Golden Age where we are nostalgic about some time in history when things were much better than they are now. Some people think of the 1990s, when the economy was good and many people were realizing the American Dream. Others look to the post-WWII era, which brought the flourishing of Christianity along with its positive social influence, the baby boom, and renewed hopes and dreams for the future of America and the world. Still others recall different moments, times when people were selfless heroes and institutions were trustworthy, or when neighborhoods were safe and a gallon of gasoline cost less than one dollar.

Not Forever Ago

For many of us, the Golden Age was just three months ago. We're nostalgic about the heavy traffic we had to navigate on our daily commute, packed-out dine-in restaurants on the weekends, going to the movies, browsing the racks at the shopping mall, viewing major league sporting events on TV, or heading out to see your favorite local band perform at a neighborhood bar.

This present nostalgia is saddening, frustrating, and sometimes angering. We grieve what we've lost. We are irritated because we miss what felt normal. And we are angry that all of it has suddenly been taken away from us, with few signs indicating when we'll get it back. We are nostalgic for what we call "normal." We want to return to normal. We feel it so bad that it hurts.

A recent broadcast on NPR highlights the work of a psychologist who studies nostalgia. While we often think of nostalgia in the ways I've been describing -- feelings of fondness for times past accompanied with an ache of loss -- the researcher ties feelings of nostalgia to a sense of deep meaningfulness.

An old friend of mine was born in Germany early during WWII. He recounts his experience of Leipzig, the city where he lived, as it was bombed during Allied raids. You can see in his eyes and hear in his voice a deep nostalgia for those times. This is not because he longs to relive such horrific and terrifying moments. Rather, it is because he tangibly recalls being held in the arms of his grandmother as she sang hymns to comfort him during the bombings.

The NPR story recounts how the researcher spent time interviewing people who were children in England during WWII. Interestingly, my friend went on to marry one such person, an Englishwoman whose experience of the war she tells in much the same was as he does. Similar stories come from the others interviewed by the researcher. Of course, the war and the fear were awful. But their memories tend to recall more meaningful parts of the experience -- the people they were with and the deep bonds they developed because of their shared circumstances.

Perhaps feelings of nostalgia seem to resonate with such meaningfulness because our memories of the good times and the difficult times are always those that we've shared with others.

Do We Really Yearn for "Happy" Times?

Our society highly values the so-called "pursuit of happiness." To be happy, it is believed, is to live the good life. Yet, the stories of war-born children communicate a sense of the good life in a manner that is contrary to what any of us would call "happy." Their nostalgia is rooted in the sense that they share an intimate connection with other survivors: family and friends who lived to tell the story. For my friend and his wife, when they share about their experience as children during the war, however tragic it was, you can almost hear a sense of joy in their words. It's like they wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Rather, the experience has become definitive for how they have experienced so much of the rest of their lives.

As I write this, the Christian church has just celebrated a major holiday called Pentecost. It's the last in a series of holidays over a period of about one and half months that begins with the tragedy of Jesus' crucifixion and death, the surprising celebration of His resurrection a few days later, and finally His departure when He ascended into heaven. Pentecost occurred when Jesus' followers were gathered following these deeply meaningful moments they shared together.

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church, since it's the day that Jesus' followers began proclaiming the Good News of Jesus' redemption for all people. Things wouldn't be easy for this fledgling church. Each of Jesus' closest followers who were together on the day of Pentecost was martyred for the Good News they shared, save for one, who died in exile. But however difficult their lives became, they shared that story with joy, as various historical accounts tell us. The deeply meaningful experiences they shared seemed to transcend whatever challenges they faced, resulting in a joy that characterized their lives.

When We Look Back on These Days

If we feel a deep sense of meaningfulness when experiencing nostalgia, and if the good life goes deeper than merely fleeting feelings of happiness and instead toward joy, perhaps we can wonder about these questions:

* What will we feel nostalgic about after these trying times?

* Who are the people that you are with?

* What memories have you made with them that will carry you through trying times in the future?

* Where are you finding deeply meaningful moments in all of this?

* What will you ache with sadness to experience again because it has brought you, perhaps not happiness, but something like a strange and unexpected joy?

* Could these days possibly be the ones we'll look back on, a Golden Age of sorts?

Like my friends with their stories about childhood during WWII, our present experience will leave a defining mark on our lives. Their painful moments are remembered with a nostalgic joy.

What will be the ones you tell about?

Written by Chad Lakies

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Peace

You may have come to this article thinking to yourself, "Where can I find peace?" If by that you mean how do you get the bad stuff to stop happening in your life, the answer is "Nowhere." Nobody's found a pause button for life yet. If you do find it, let us know! We'd like to use it, too.

But maybe you don't mean that. Instead, you might mean, "How can I continue to live my life and still find peace and quiet -- in spite of all the bad stuff that's happening?"

That question actually has an answer.

A lot of people rely on drugs and mood-changers like Xanax or alcohol. These things can have their place (a very carefully controlled place!) but they're temporary fixes. As soon as they wear off, it's back to the stress again. And since almost all of them are addictive, you can't use them nonstop without screwing up your life.

Some people swear by meditation. Others are into mindfulness practices. Some do nutritional supplements; some carry worry stones; some just scream into their pillows. There are almost as many answers to "How do I find peace?" as there are people.

The Christian answer is more difficult, but more hopeful. We say that peace is found in a Person -- specifically, in Jesus Christ. After all, He taught us to think of Him this way. He's the One who said, "Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

It's real clear from the rest of what Jesus said that He did not mean "I will take away all your problems and make your life smooth and easy." (We wish!) Jesus warned His followers that they would be rejected on account of Him, would face conflict in their families, and trouble from authorities. And all this would be on top of the ordinary problems of everyday life -- things like sickness, loss, grief, and death. Seems like a pretty sober assessment by Jesus.

And yet just hours before His death, Jesus was able to say to His followers, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27). But how does the world give peace? See the partial list above -- techniques (or chemicals) that create a temporary respite from all the bad things in life. Jesus claims to give peace in a different way: He isn't recommending a technique or chemical; rather, He says He'll give His followers His peace.

Jesus claims to possess peace in a way that can actually be transferred to others. There is clearly a mystery involved here. After all, how do you transfer peace? But Christians down through the centuries have claimed to actually experience this peace. Paul, an early follower of Jesus, described it as "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" which has the power to "guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).

I'm going to describe what it feels like for me to know this kind of peace. Feel free to think I'm crazy! But to me, it feels like having a solid floor under my feet. My life may be going nuts. It may feel like there is a flood of horrible things happening all at once, and yes, I may need to go scream into that pillow. But ultimately, I'm not by myself trying to deal with all of this. I have someone who cares about me on my side, who is helping me pull through. Not without a lot of pain and frustration and even fear, but I have that strong presence with me -- that foundation under my feet -- that peace which far "surpasses all understanding." And I know that once the flood of horrible stuff ebbs away, I'll still be there, because Jesus is still there, and He's got hold of me.

This is nothing exclusive to me. I was not always a Christian believer. But in the years since I came to know Jesus Christ, I've had to deal with sickness and disability, life in the slums, the constant yammering of people dependent on me, fighting and discord and things that nearly destroyed my marriage and my health. And yet I'm still here -- not because I'm strong, but because Jesus has hold of me. He has given me His peace.

It turns out one of Jesus' most common greetings after He was raised from the dead was "Peace be to you!" He said that not as token words of well-wishing, but almost as an offer. As if, having defeated death (the biggest, baddest thing all of), He was uniquely positioned to bestow real peace on others. And in fact, that's what He claimed. As He put it, "I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

To this day, Christians call Jesus the "Prince of Peace" (see Isaiah 9:6) and believe that Jesus is still making that same offer ("Peace be to you!") to everyone He encounters. This is why anyone who asks a Christian "Where can I personally find peace?" will likely get pointed to Jesus Himself.

Written by THRED team

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