Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Explaining Evil Isn't Simple

"The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate," the first man, Adam, tells God in the third chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis.

Possibly that's got to be one of the most creative excuses for the beginning of evil in the world since, well, the beginning of time.

Be that as it may, the Genesis story -- with its serpent, forbidden fruit, and lovely garden -- is one of the first stories we have that attempts to explain a question that has bothered humans for (as far as we can tell) almost as long as there have been humans around: why do bad things happen to good people? When you start to think about it, why do bad things happen at all?

Why do little kids come down with terrible illnesses? Who invented slavery as a way of oppressing people who look different than they do? Why are we so good at destroying things and people, and so poor at making them whole and healthy?

These questions bugged the women and men of the ancient world, too. Floods, plagues, locust invasions, wars waged by foreign armies -- they prompted a lot of theological reflection on the part of some of the top minds in the ancient world. There were entire schools of philosophy designed to answer these questions.

As time went by, Bible experts in the medieval and renaissance periods began to disagree about the meaning of the passage in Genesis: was it bad that Adam and Eve ate the apple because that's what brought evil into the world? Or did eating the fruit help humans learn the difference between what was good and what wasn't, so that they learned more about the world and about themselves?

But we don't live in the abstract world of theologians and philosophers. We suffer when someone we love is hurt, a friend betrays our trust, or we learn about some catastrophe on the other side of the world, and we can't help but ask: why?

I don't know about you, but when I hear someone tell a person who is grieving that it's all part of some bigger divine plan that we just don't understand, it makes me mad. How can a child starving in the Sudan or dying from a bombing in Syria be part of a divine plan?

You may disagree.

But let me suggest that the way we interpret the bad as well as the good times in our lives tell us something about the way that we see God.

What do you think? Is God in charge of everything that happens, or does God allow it? Is there a difference between the bad choices we make (because we choose to make them) and the bad things that occur in our lives?

How do you define evil? Absence of goodness? A force out there? Could it be ... Satan?

Written by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

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, May 25, 2021

Does God Care If We Learn?

Christians believe that education is a good thing -- more than that, that it is a God-given blessing we are supposed to share with our children and with as many other people as possible.

In fact, the Western system of education was created by the Christian church. Many early Christians believed that by educating people, they could share the Good News of Christ. People who became literate could then read the Bible and spread the Gospel more readily to those around them.

Christians have long used education as a form of mission work to underserved nations and communities. Mother Teresa herself used education as a way to alleviate girls' poverty. Many missionaries today work with the same goals in mind; to educate someone is often to pull them out of poverty and point them toward a better life.

A practical gift

Education is practical. Even the birds teach their young how to fly and where to find food and shelter. How much more should human beings teach their children how to live well. We know that a person's level of education typically corresponds to their potential income and thus their ability to care for themselves and their family. Therefore, we ought to encourage education for all people as a logical means to achieve security and well-being.

Theologian Martin Luther said that it was necessary for youth to be educated to ensure, "that there will always be preachers, jurists, pastors, writers, physicians, schoolmasters, and the like, for we cannot do without them."

Harvard University and Yale University were founded as congregational establishments by Christians in search of knowledge and wisdom. Those who are educated well can often go on to achieve great accomplishments to help humanity through medicine, science, the written word, and more.

Good for society

When a social group is well educated, it is more likely to vote for good civic leaders, promote libraries and safe schools, and give back financially to its institutions and to future generations. Contrastingly, we know that there is a strong correlation between lack of education and imprisonment, with prison rates going up as the level of education goes down. Victor Hugo once said, "He who opens a school door closes a prison."

Unfortunately, it's not always so simple. Those who face extreme poverty and/or live in dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods often cannot afford the luxury of a solid education. Many resort to criminal activity or must work to provide for their families instead of attaining a high school or higher education degree. Disproportionate rates of imprisonment for people of color lead to racial inequalities in schools. And the increasing cost of a college education can be prohibitive for many.

Those who can should invest time and resources into providing safe public school systems for all children in all socioeconomic situations. Education is often the best path to a safer, more stable life and livelihood. Kids who are well educated -- particularly about public health issues -- can go on to make wiser decisions that will positively impact their futures.

So what should Christians do?

God delights when we use the gifts, interests, and talents He gave us to the best of our abilities. Developing our God-given potential will look different for everyone and may or may not always follow the traditional college route. We can determine God's will for our lives by seeking Him and pursuing the interests and abilities He has already given us.

Aristotle famously said, "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." Christians in places of privilege should use their education and resources to help others less fortunate to do so, as well. Education does not always look like private school or college. Sometimes educating others can look like teaching people in other countries how to clean their water or to sustainably grow crops. Sometimes it means literacy training, public health education, reading to underprivileged children, or donating books to a shelter.

God intends for His people to use their gifts to serve others in His Name, and that can take many forms. Christians ought to do what they can to allow all people the opportunity to improve their lives through education.

Intended by God

Education is one way in which human beings come to reach their full potential -- and God cares about that. He intends for His people to have life and to have it to the fullest (John 10:10). God made us for many reasons, but one of them is certainly to ask questions -- to trace God's operations in the universe -- to rejoice and stand in awe when we see the wonderful things He has done.

"The study of truth requires a considerable effort -- which is why few are willing to undertake it out of love of knowledge -- despite the fact that God has implanted a natural appetite for such knowledge in the minds of men," according to St. Thomas Aquinas in his work, Summa Contra Gentiles.

We are made in God's image, and God is creative. How can we, then, not be creative? How can we not be interested in the creation God has made? And because God is a God of logic and intelligence and wisdom, we can expect to find logic in creation as well. The stars obey astronomical laws because the mind who designed our universe is an orderly mind. The same sense of order is found in genetics, nuclear physics, and mathematics, and new discoveries are waiting to be made in every field, all the time. God is consistent, and therefore His universe is consistent. That is what makes learning possible.

The human race heaps up more and more discoveries, and we teach what we have learned to our children. And this is right for us to do. To do otherwise would be to insult the God who made such an awesome cosmos. It would be like yawning through Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or turning our backs on Michelangelo's David.

All truth is God's truth

Christians believe that there is no truth anywhere that will ultimately come into conflict with the truth of the Christian faith as the Holy Spirit has delivered it to us. God is the God of all truth, not just theological truth, and truth by definition cannot be in conflict with itself. We should delight in education, not fear it.

In Romans 12:2, Paul urges believers, " Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -- His good, pleasing, and perfect will."

As followers of Christ, we can change our minds based on new things we learn, always holding this knowledge up to the perfect standard set before us in the Bible, God's inspired Word. We can learn from others who came before us and welcome the Holy Spirit to help us determine the truth when opinions are many.

Knowledge and wisdom

The Bible distinguishes between knowledge and wisdom. Anyone can attain an education given proper resources, time, and the motivation to do so. Wisdom allows us to know truth from lies and to use our knowledge to better serve others for God's glory. James 1:5 says that if we ask our generous God for wisdom, He will gladly give it.

In Proverbs 1:7, we see that, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." Let's not be among those who mock others who devote their lives to learning and seeking knowledge. God teaches us how to interact with people, learned or not, and how to use our intelligence for good: "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17).

God Himself is the source of all wisdom. He calls His people to seek Him, to seek knowledge, and to use what we've learned to help others in His Name. We honor Him by developing our God-given talents and interests to the best of our abilities to live fully and serve Him.

Written by the THRED team

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, May 11, 2021

Our Confusing Selves

When I was little, my dad had a poster of an adorable chimpanzee next to his desk. This was long before the days of memes, but you may have seen an updated version. The chimpanzee held a thinking pose above the caption, "I think, therefore I am ... confused."

My dad explained to me about the concept of philosophy and a man called Descartes. I felt incredibly grown up to be in on what I considered to be such a sophisticated joke. I loved that poster as a child, but adulthood continuously teaches me how correct both Descartes and the chimpanzee were. I now suspect that my dad enjoyed more about the poster than simply the cheesy joke.

I freely admit that for me, thinking and confusion go hand in hand. Nothing worth thinking about is simple, straightforward, or without struggle. This especially applies to thinking about "self" or self-evaluation. While discerning things about my own heart, mind, and soul, I have experienced various degrees of success. I am always self-critiquing. It is that kind of thinking that makes me who I am.

I may not be perfect, but during the evaluation process, I have learned three important things not to do: Don't lie to yourself about your self-appraisal; don't ignore the voices of reflection, and don't let those voices shut you down.

Our brains' preservation instincts are probably too strong to ever let us be completely accurate while self-evaluating. The mind has an amazing and slightly terrifying ability to make excuses for itself and block out things that it doesn't want to deal with. This skill is best used as a short-term tool, a triage for all of the things that we think about each day. It is not supposed to last forever. Playing mind tricks on yourself can be useful in the moment, but damaging in the long run.

Figuring out the underlying reasons why you snapped at someone, took an unnecessary risk, or ate fifteen cookies in one sitting is an important thing to do. Understanding yourself is the first step to being able to grow as a human being.

When our self-reflection is able to make it past the protective barriers our brain puts up, it is important to listen. Too many people resist and ignore thinking about unpleasant things. It is not fun or easy to view yourself honestly. It is often downright exhausting, but it is crucial. Lack of self-reflection not only leads to a lack of personal growth, but also to a lack of compassion and empathy.

If you don't think about how you can improve into a better worker, parent, friend, or partner, then you won't realize how hard it is for everyone else to be the best of those things that they can be. If you are perfectly fine with the way you are and don't acknowledge how you can improve, then it can easily seem like everyone else just doesn't care enough to do things correctly. As hard as it can sometimes be, refusing to self-evaluate is not the answer.

The opposite of not reflecting on your thoughts and actions is to reflect on them too much. I once spent a stressful two weeks trying to fill out a self-evaluation form because there was too much information to put down. It seemed like an impossible task. At the time, the pressure of sitting still, picking out the most important sections of my unrelenting self-talk, and then having to also see those thoughts in print truly felt like a larger burden than I could bear. It was bad enough that I had to live with the self-evaluations floating around in my brain. I spent a lot of effort trying to get a break from my thoughts, and now someone wanted me to write them down.

This path is not any emotionally healthier than those who refuse to reflect in the first place. Growing and improving should be something that we never stop doing. There is no failure or condemnation in needing to evaluate and then improve. It is simply a part of life. As human beings, made in God's image, we have the awesome abilities of thought, decision-making, and growth. Yes, thinking often inevitably leads to moments of confusion along the way, but that's okay. It's all a part of the process.

Descartes also famously said, "It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well." Using our brains well and in an emotionally healthy way is a lifelong journey. If we listen and evaluate ourselves honestly, with a dose of kindness, we will be truly present and able to make an impact on the world around us.

How do you self-critique? Too harshly, or maybe too leniently? It's tough to take a look at ourselves and be honest. There are so many narratives we've built up through the years to justify our actions or explain away certain circumstances.

Have you come across any self-evaluation method that works for you?

Written by Elizabeth Rehwaldt

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, April 27, 2021

Community—Have You Found It?

Recently, I interviewed an administrator for a coalition of churches in another state struggling with an enormous drug problem.

"How can churches be useful in tackling a drug crisis?" I asked him.

Frankly, I was a little skeptical. In many parts of the country, churches are treading water, along with other social pillars we used to take for granted: volunteer charitable organizations, bowling leagues, shopping malls.

His answer surprised me.

In some communities, he said, there's no grocery store, no bank, no school left. The church is the only institution still standing. It has a role to play when there is a need for dialogue, comfort, or help in a time of crisis.

Admittedly, I was speaking to someone who lives in a state which is struggling with high unemployment, persistent problems with addiction, and poverty that is passed on from generation to generation. The question of where and how to build community -- a place where people come together to listen and to help each other -- is crucial if they are going to have the resources to deal with the issues they face.

Perhaps you live in Minneapolis, or San Francisco, or Boston. Maybe your town, your city, your country village still has a Starbucks on every fourth corner, and a yoga studio and library right down the block.

Whether you must drive 50 miles to get to a restaurant with decent grub or can look at six out your apartment window, the places and people who anchor our lives are still important -- even if we sometimes take them for granted.

Where do you hang out on a Friday night? Who do you take with you on your weekend adventures? Where do you go for a shoulder to cry on or a quiet space in which to reflect when life gets tough and you feel that you are only hanging on by your fingernails?

For centuries in America, the church and other faith communities meeting in fancy buildings and humble homes were anchors for families from childhood to marriage to grave. Do you think it's possible that they still could have a role to play in being that inviting, sustaining, consoling and (even) enjoyable place in which to, hmm, "congregate"?

Community is a state of mind as much as a concrete place. Share your stories of where you have found it, and maybe you'll help someone who is still looking.

Has your sense of community and people gathering together changed in the last year? Where do you go to get together with people? Is church the place you go? Is it the local coffee or donut shop? Were these places important to you before COVID-19? Are they possibly more so now?

You can share your comments with us at the links below.

Written by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

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, April 13, 2021

Do We Make Faith Too Complicated?

If you ask me, religion has a funny way of complicating things.

For example, take something as straightforward as faith. I don't necessarily mean faith in the religious sense; I'm simply referring to the idea of trusting in someone.

Can someone be faithful and not religious? Is faith reserved for those that believe in and practice a specific religion? Can those of us that don't identify with a religion still have faith?

I'd like to think so. From where I stand, I've always considered myself to be an optimist and, if you ask me, faith and optimism sound eerily similar.

Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

Optimism: hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.

After reading between the lines, it looks like both words are grounded firmly in trust. Having faith means you completely trust in someone or something, whereas having optimism means you trust that things will be okay in the future.

As an eternal optimist, trust means a lot. Every day, I tell myself that, no matter what, I have to trust that everything will be okay. Weirdly enough, this feeling never really wavers and this tends to be all the assurance I need.

When it comes down to it, my problem is sharing this optimism, or faith, with others.

Take this recent tragedy for example: a few days ago, my mom called me in the middle of the night. As soon as I saw her name in my phone, my heart began to pound. While crying on the other line, my mom told me that her brother, my uncle, had just died. He was due for transplant surgery, but died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Since this call, I've been grappling with one simple question: how can I reassure her that everything will be okay?

Most people would tell her, "He's finally at peace," or, "He was a good man who lived a great life," or possibly some combination of both.

To be honest, I have no idea what happens to us after we die. As an optimist, I would like to think we actually do find peace and finally have a chance to see the people who died before us, but as someone who doesn't necessarily believe in heaven, I can't say for sure.

Do you see my problem here? As much as I want to comfort her, I can't, in good faith, tell her something I don't necessarily believe in myself. It wouldn't feel right to tell someone something just because you think it's what they want, or need, to hear. I try to steer clear of doing this.

Maybe I don't need to say anything at all. Maybe, just maybe, being there for her is enough. When I think about it, actions really do speak louder than words, and many times, words aren't even necessary to show someone how you feel.

After reflecting on this entire situation, I can confidently say I have complete faith in my mom. I have confidence that she will make it through this and she will be stronger because of it. After all, she is the toughest, most independent person I've ever met and she has witnessed her fair share of tragedy. I know that doesn't make it any easier for her, but I really do think she will get through this.

I realize now that faith doesn't have to mean life or death. It shouldn't only be reserved for gods and higher powers; we can have faith in each other, one human to another. You can have faith in someone and, sometimes, that's all they need to hear to get through whatever life throws at them.

This has nothing to do with my mom having faith in someone or something else; it's about us having faith in her. It means trusting that she is strong while also reminding her that she has a support system and isn't alone.

In my opinion, faith isn't all that complicated after all ... as always, we just make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Written by William Frazier

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, March 30, 2021

Seeing Myself As Never Truly Alone

We live in a lonely world. Some people have even said that despite (and maybe even because of) our global and immediate connectivity online and on our smartphones and tablets, we are experiencing a "loneliness epidemic."

It's strange, but even as we live in a world where we are bombarded with people at work, in school, on the streets, at the movies, or on social media feeds with hundreds, or thousands, of friends, contacts, and followers ... we all know that modern life can get kind of lonely. We know that there is a deficit of true, fulfilling, and meaningful connection.

No matter how many likes we get on our photos online, no matter how many friends we think we have on Facebook, no matter how many people we text with on a daily basis ... we feel lonely. Deserted. Isolated.

Fortune Magazine published a study in June 2016 and reported that "The percentage of Americans who responded that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11% and 20% in the 1970s and 1980s ...." Now, it's closer to 40% or 45%.

That means that nearly half of us regularly, or even frequently, feel lonely.

Maybe that's you. Perhaps you know what it is to feel alone. Perhaps you've felt lonely recently. Perhaps you feel isolated right now as you surf the web and seek out articles on what to do about your increasing despair about it.

Back in 2009, I volunteered with an organization called the Themba Trust in Mpumalanga, South Africa. When I was living there, I got really lonely.

Don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful network of fellow volunteers, friends, and community members to connect to, plus Facebook and Skype to connect with friends and family back home. But I still couldn't shake my feeling of isolation.

About six months into my time there, I went to a conference called Amahoro, which means peace. Claude Nikondeah, from Burundi, kicked off the conference by introducing us to the concept of "ubuntu": the sub-Saharan philosophy that we are persons through other persons. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, is how it is said in isiZulu.

Nikondeha explained it like this: "Our humanity is all bundled up together -- yours, mine, those outside this camp, even those across the world. We are interconnected, and we are affected by the well-being of one another."

He went on to talk about when someone else is hungry, we cannot feel full; that when someone else is thirsty, we cannot feel satiated; that when someone else is hurting, we cannot be at peace.

Suddenly, I had an entirely new perspective on my loneliness. Better yet, I had a whole new perspective on my place in the world.

No matter where I was, no matter who I was around, I was meant to be in community with the people in my life. In fact, I was meant to be in community with everyone.

I know that may sound really ridiculous and insanely idealistic, but walking away from that camp I had a new point of view.

When I was lonely, I knew someone else out there felt that pain, too. And so, automatically, I wasn't alone. Even more, when I thought about the other person feeling alone, I felt driven to connect -- maybe not to find that person, but to find somebody to talk to, relate with, and share life with.

Taking it one step further, when I felt fulfilled socially, I could not help but think of people out there who don't feel good enough or wanted enough. And so, I wanted to reach out to them, invite them into my home, share a meal with them, or connect in some other way.

I wanted to reach out because I sensed -- for perhaps the first time in my life -- that I was not truly alone.

And why? Because I was needed. Other people who were hungry, thirsty, or alone needed me to feed them, slake their thirst, or be with them for a while just to let them know they weren't alone ... and neither was I.

I suddenly understood what Archbishop Desmond Tutu meant when he said, "We are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and all of creation."

My hope is that if you're reading this and feeling lonely, feeling isolated, feeling like you don't belong, like you aren't worth it, aren't pretty enough, aren't good enough, don't have enough "likes" on Instagram, or followers on Twitter, or friends on Facebook ... that you would know that you are not alone.

You are part of something bigger and greater and grander than you can possibly imagine -- a global, cosmopolitan, human community -- that needs you.

You are part of, and called to, a community.

To learn more about how you can be involved in your own local community in a positive way, check out LHM's brand new Hopeful Neighborhood Project. It's full of resources, activities, and inspiring real-life stories, so you can interface with your neighbors -- and neighborhood -- and imagine the possibilities right where you live!

You can dive into this fun and exciting way to get to know your neighbors and explore your neighborhood by clicking here.

Written by Ken Chitwood

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, March 16, 2021

Jesus Christ, Inc.

*Disclaimer: I currently do not identify with any specific religion. You could say I'm spiritual, but not religious. I'm a curious person. Especially when it comes to religion. When I think about Christianity, I tend to obsess over the same question: "If Jesus was alive today, how would He position Himself?"

This might seem like a weird question, until you get to know me.

I've been helping others brand and position their ideas, businesses, and themselves, for my entire professional career. I'm always dissecting the most effective way for someone to communicate their value to someone else who may want what they have.

When I think back to my childhood, I vaguely remember passages from my children's Bible (with pictures, of course) recounting Jesus as an outsider who wasn't necessarily understood until the end of His life.

This sounds like every misunderstood genius who was posthumously recognized for their contribution to humanity. Think Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson.

So, this is where my curiosity piques. "If Jesus were alive in today's world, how would He deliver His intended message to His followers?"

 Would He go the life/business coach route and create an online empire of endless e-books that share the "10 Steps to Success" using Christianity?

 Or, would He decide to be a lone wolf and freelance, converting followers one by one as He works remotely from coffee shops all over the world?

 How about going for broke, establishing Himself as Jesus Christ, Inc., and launching a franchise of McDonald's-esque pop-up churches that successfully systematize the Bible so He could pay anyone minimum wage to share it with others?

 Would He try and dazzle potential investors by pitching the next "Snapchat for miracles" claiming He was going to "disrupt the religious ecosystem by offering a more pleasant user experience for millennials who don't believe in God?"

Regardless of His chosen business entity, it's safe to say Jesus would inevitably have to face today's challenges head on while capturing the attention of His followers. Here are a few ways He could grow His community in today's world.

Music Festivals: Watch out, Bonnaroo! Jesus is coming, and He's bringing His posse. If you think Chance the Rapper puts on a good show, just wait until Jesus rolls up with His opening act, Kanye West! After all, anyone with a song called "Jesus Walks" has to be down for a Christ-like music collab.

Reality TV: Real Sinners of Orange County? Keeping Up with the Corinthians? Praying with the Stars? Pick your poison. You wouldn't be able to turn the channel without seeing a "real-life" depiction of what it's like being the Big Man Himself. What better way to amass an audience than to show what happens when Jesus stops being nice and starts being real?

Social Media: Snapchat would obviously have to be part of His social media strategy, especially among His younger potential customers. Imagine receiving a Snap-storm of Jesus performing miracles among His followers at the nearby Starbucks? You better believe that would go viral.

Sponsorships: Personally, I could see brand alignment with Jesus and Red Bull. Who wouldn't want to see Jesus parting the Indian Ocean while base jumping off Mount Kilimanjaro, all while chugging Red Bull?! Once again, another opportunity to reach the masses.

Vlogging: With daily vlogs becoming more popular on YouTube, would Jesus build a team around His daily exploits? His video crew would follow Him wherever He goes, from Nazareth to Narnia, capturing the daily grind.

Webinars: What better way to reach a large audience than to spam the internet with the next series of webinars that will change your life and help you reach your dreams (for the low price of $299)? Tony Robbins doesn't have anything on Mr. Christ.

These are just a few channels Jesus would have to conquer in order to compete for attention in today's hustle and bustle. How do you think Jesus would spread the good word today?

Written by William Frazier

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.