Category Archives: Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – When Forgiveness Is Suffering

When Forgiveness Is Suffering

In four horrific months in 1994, at the urging of the Rwandan government, the poorer Hutu majority took up bayonets and machetes and committed genocide against the wealthier Tutsi minority. In the wake of this unspeakable tragedy, nearly a million people had been murdered.

In August of 2003, driven by overcrowded prisons and backlogged court systems, 50,000 genocide criminals, people who had already confessed to killing their neighbors, were released again into society. Murderers were sent back to their homes, back to neighborhoods literally destroyed at their own hands, to live beside the few surviving relatives of the very men, women, and children they killed.

Now more than twenty years later, with eyes still bloodshot at visions of a genocide it failed to see, the world continues to watch Rwanda with a sense of foreboding, wondering what happens when a killer comes home; what happens when victims, widows, orphans, and murderers look each other in the eyes again; what happens when the neighbor who killed your family asks to be forgiven. For the people of Rwanda, the description of the Hebrew prophet is a reality with which they live: “And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’”(1)

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – When Forgiveness Is Suffering

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Forgettable Power of Empathy

Perched above the altar in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice hang the ciborium columns.(1) The artist is unknown. Constructed in the early 1300s from alabaster, the columns hold numerous carvings depicting various stories, among them, the life of Jesus. There are so many stories—108 in fact—that one can easily lose track of all that is displayed.

On one particular panel, apparently, Jesus talks to Zacchaeus, who reaches out of some tree branches to participate in what must have been a truly entertaining conversation. After all, it was a conversation that resulted in a divine home-visit, a meal, and a turnaround in Zacchaeus’s life profound enough to warrant its recording and retelling.(2) Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen the ciborium columns and, presumably, this panel a few times. But I remember nothing about it.

Some of us remember the story of Zacchaeus for various reasons described to us as young children. He was a “wee” little man. He climbed up in a sycamore tree. He was a despised tax collector. But like this work of art, is there also a piece of this story that is forgettable?

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Forgettable Power of Empathy

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leafs a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.(1)

One of my most cherished memories is of the New England landscape in the fall. The vibrant colors from dogwood, sassafras, sumac, red oak, and maples can only be described as the finest artist’s palette of paints—crimsons and scarlets, purples, oranges and yellows splashed across the canvas. Making our pilgrimage each year to the local fair, the route transported my husband and me into that world of color, as the road would bend through picturesque towns and take us deeper and deeper into that fall canvas. Sadly, this beauty was transient. Fall rains and wind would come to fade and to muddle those colors. All that would remain were the dull browns melding and making their home in the dark soil that encompassed them.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Nothing Gold Can Stay

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Flattered Selfies of MeWorld

There is something about a smart phone that subtly (and not so subtly) conveys the notion that we are important. With three missed calls, 18 unread e-mails, and 32 notifications between twitter, facebook, instagram, we are pelted with the enticing idea: “Someone needs my attention!” The immediate ring, buzz, or pop-up note proclaiming the arrival of these new messages is somehow complimentary, even as it demands our attention—”Check now! Something somewhere is happening!”

The language of technology seems to further our sense of importance by bidding us to claim and personalize these worlds. I am only one click away from “my documents,” “my calendar,” “my favorites,” “my music,” “my pictures,” and “my shopping cart.” Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita calls it “MeWorld.” In a book that examines the ways in which the world of media shapes our lives, de Zengotita portrays the technologically advanced, media-saturated West as a world filled with millions of individual “flattered selves,” each living in its own insulated, personalized world.(1) He believes the narcissism that comes from living in MeWorld has been fashioned and is constantly being fed by media representations in all areas of our lives, from those private self-representations that purport us the star to public advertisements, television, and magazines that ever address us personally.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Flattered Selfies of MeWorld

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Servant Like This

For his fluency with words and unrivaled poetic voice, Isaiah has been called the “Shakespeare of the prophets.” His words are assuredly lyrical; they were also political and prophetic, enduring well beyond his life.

The 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah offers the image of a servant who embodies a severe faithfulness despite unjust opposition. “He was oppressed and he was afflicted,” writes Isaiah, “but he did not open his mouth” (53:7a). The prophet describes a sufferer of flint-like submission in the face of extreme violence. “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (v.7b). He describes a servant who is crushed and anguished, stricken, and yet somehow satisfied. “As a result of the anguish of his soul,” writes Isaiah, “he will see it and be satisfied; by his knowledge the righteous one, my servant, will justify the many, and he will bear their iniquities” (v.11). Whether Isaiah had in mind someone who fit the description or merely longed to see God’s words come to fruition, the prophet offers an image of one who changes all the rules.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Servant Like This

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – An Experimental Fellowship

“The Bible was not given for our information, but for our transformation.” —D. L. Moody

The Bible may be one of the best-selling books of all time, but it is a resource that polarises opinion. Some atheists are strongly opposed to it, as they maintain that scripture contains unhelpful, ill-informed, and incorrect teaching that is positively harmful for today’s society. Others take a more disinterested view of it, as they see it as a largely irrelevant piece of literature from a more primitive time, which inevitably contains an eclectic mixture of both good and bad instruction. By contrast, Christians believe the Bible is not only the word of God, but it is completely indispensable for all of humanity.

In truth, of course, many believers find parts of scripture difficult. Some of it is hard to understand or relate to, and the teaching doesn’t always have a lasting or deep impact. One obvious reason for this is that people have busy lives and whilst they often invest a great deal of energy developing their professional skills or taking part in hobbies or leisure activities, they simply don’t spend much time reading the Bible. Another reason is that often Christians only engage with scripture in a fairly surface-level way, like a sportsperson preparing for a contest by training in a manner that provides only limited improvement.

RZIM Chaplain, Tom Tarrants, suggests that people should look to the example of George Müller (1805-1898) for guidance in this area. The latter was an evangelist who achieved fame not only for helping hundreds of thousands of British children in his orphanages and schools, but also for his steadfast faith that the providence of God would meet the considerable needs of his many ventures. Yet he is less known for the life-changing discovery he made in 1841, which lay behind the deep joy and faith that defined and drove his ministry.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – An Experimental Fellowship

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Journey of Dust

The sun bore down on my neck as I walked through neatly laid stones, each row like another line in a massive book. My eyes strained to take in all of the information—name, age, rank, country—and perhaps also death itself, the fragility of life, the harsh reality of war. In that field of graves, a war memorial for men lost as prisoners of war, slaves laboring to construct the Burma-Siam railway, I felt as the psalmist: “laid low in the dust.” Or like Job, sitting among the dust and ashes of a great tragedy. Then one stone stopped my wandering and said what I could not. On an epitaph in the middle of the cemetery was written: “There shall be in that great earth, a richer dust concealed.”(1)

It is helpful, I think, to be reminded that we are dust. We are material; when we die, we  remain material. It is a reminder to hold as we move through life—through successes, disappointments, questions, and  answers. For the Christian, it is also a truth to help us approach the vast and terrible circumstances leading up to the crucifixion of the human son of God. Beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the journey through Lent into the light and darkness of Holy Week is for those made in dust who will return to dust, those willing to trace the breath that began all of life to the place where Christ breathed his last. It is a journey that expends everything within us.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Journey of Dust

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Paradoxical Call

For Christians around the world, the life and ministry of Jesus—his birth, his life and death, his resurrection and ascension—are enacted and re-told through the celebrations and seasons of the church year. The Christian church prepares for his coming during the season of Advent. Anticipation grows for the triumphant entry of God into the world in Jesus on Christmas Day, while the season of Epiphany, that follows Advent, invites all to see God at work in the life and ministry of Jesus. Each season of the church year is filled with expectation, discovery, and hope.

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. And unlike the celebration of Christmas day or the expectation of the season of Epiphany, Lent is a solemn season for the Christian. As part of the Ash Wednesday worship service, ashes are imposed on one’s forehead in the pattern of a cross. The imposed ashes are the remains of the Palm Sunday fronds from the previous year—fronds reminiscent of those waved triumphantly as Jesus entered Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha—but that now serve as a reminder of death and mortality. The Jews of Jesus’s day believed he entered the city as the coming King; they could not see how his reign would be from a Roman cross.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Paradoxical Call

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – What Do You See?

They told me to give it three weeks. “Your eyes and your brain are getting reacquainted again,” he said. “Your eyesight will fluctuate for the next few days.” Less than a week after eye surgery, I was tired of fluctuating. At times my vision was so crisp that it was almost too much for me—like I was somehow seeing more than I should. But this clarity came and went; I was sometimes far-sighted, sometimes near-sighted, sometimes neither very well. Perfect sight was not as immediate as I anticipated.

My inhabiting of faith and belief is not so far from this. Fittingly, I was given the charge of writing about my meandering path toward Christian belief the same week of my eye surgery. The reflective task of peering into my life, looking at patterns and history with the hope of illumination seemed ironic as I squinted to see my computer screen. But it served as a helpful metaphor. My vision of Jesus has been far from immediate. It has been much closer to a fluctuating timeline of beholding and squinting, seeing, not-seeing, and straining to see. My experience has been something more like the blind man’s from Bethsaida:

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – What Do You See?

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – In This Place

 

To the people of ancient Israel, the image of God’s house was the center of the world. It was a house reaching from the heavens to the places on earth where God caused his name to be remembered. God’s house was seen in experiences like Jacob’s, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”(1) It was experienced in the tabernacle that once moved among them as pilgrims, and later in their pilgrimages to the temple. Ever-expanding their vision of God’s house, altars were built over the places where God had appeared to them, marking the reach of its walls. Though at times as prodigals, their longing for home was a part of their identity as children of the house of God: “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.”(2) The house of God as it reached from heaven to earth was occupied by the Creator. As the people of God, they had been invited inside, where they longed to remain.

As with any group with a clear vision of inside and outside, belonging and not belonging, the Israelite’s understanding of the house of God could have easily become the very rationale for excluding foreigners, neighbors, and outsiders. Yet not long after God had called the people of Israel his own, God instructed them very specifically on the treatment of such people: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”(3) “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”(4) The house of God was to be a house of hospitality, for such a spirit reflected the God within it: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”(5) Called to ever-remember their own status as foreigners, the people who were invited into the care of God’s house were to become a sign of that care themselves.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – In This Place

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Problem of Proximity

When was the last time that you saw the Milky Way? We live on a planet that has a stellar view of the night sky. Our historical records show us that from our earliest drawings and writings humans have been gazing into the infinite expanse above our heads and pondering our own significance. Even though we all should be able to peer into the depths above us, there is actually a good chance that you have not clearly seen the night sky for quite some time. There are reasons for this. The first is that many people live in places that have enough smog to block our view of anything beyond what we have made. The second reason is that most of our time is spent bent forward consuming digital material on our devices rather than leaning back to enjoy the grandeur that transcends us. The third and final reason is the problem of proximity. The reason that most of us do not have a clear view of the stars is light pollution. We simply cannot see into the heavens because of all of the light that is constantly around us. Very few of us are ever in total darkness because there is always a light somewhere nearby or in our pocket.

This is all a bit silly. Just think, there are thousands of visible stars above my head that are incomprehensibly bright, and yet, I cannot see them because of a streetlamp 18 feet above my head that is a negligible fraction of a single star’s brilliance. There is a world of untold splendor twinkling above my head that the ancients stared into for years, and yet I can’t see the reflection of this beauty in my hand because of the dim glow of my phone. My inability to see this beauty is not a problem with the brilliance of their lights; rather it is the problem of my proximity to lesser lights.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Problem of Proximity

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Foreign and Belonging

I have not spent much of my life as a foreigner, though my short bouts with being a cultural outsider remind me of the difficulty of always feeling on the outside of the circle. Just as the distance between outside and inside seems to be closing, something happens or something is said and you are reminded again that you do not really belong. On a visit with Wellspring International to Northern Uganda some years ago, the thought never left us. Everywhere the director and I went, children seemed to sing of “munos,” a term essentially (and affectionately) meaning “whiteys.” It made us smile every time we heard it. But even when communicated playfully, it can be both humbling and humiliating to always carry with you the sober thought: I am out of place.

The book of Ruth scarcely neglects an opportunity to point out this reality. Long after hearers of the story are well acquainted with who Ruth is and where she is from, long after she is living in Judah, she continues to be referred to as “Ruth the Moabite” or even merely “the Moabite woman.” Her perpetual status as an outsider brings to mind the vision of Keats and the “song that found a path/ through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Foreign and Belonging

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Space for Questions

Returning to graduate school in mid-life has re-introduced to me the importance of asking questions. There are the all-important pragmatic questions that involve the mechanics and the specifics of various assignments. Should one use a particular style guide in writing papers, for example, or what material will be covered on the next exam? There are the questions of curiosity about a particular topic or subject, and there are research questions intended to take a student more deeply into the minutiae of her course of study. I often find that questions beget other questions, and many are not as easily answered as when I first began “formal” education. Instead, I am often led from one question to another on this journey of inquiry that is often only tangentially related to the original question.

When this happens, I wonder whether or not I am in fact asking the “right” questions which would generate answers. Perhaps inquiring into the motivation behind the questions is an even more important task. Do I simply ask out of curiosity? Or am I asking in order to fill my head with as many possible answers as there are question? Or do I continually ask questions as a way of blocking answers—answers that I may not want to hear, or to receive. Of course, asking questions is one of the wonderful qualities of being human. And anyone who has spent even a small amount of time around young children knows that asking questions about every possible subject preoccupies their early verbal expressions.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Space for Questions

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Presence and Absence

The deep-seated impression of a parent in the life of a child is a subject well traversed. From pop psychology to history to anthropology, the giant place parents occupy from birth to death is as plain as the life they initiated. Of course, the massive giant which occupies this place may well be the absence of that person, inasmuch as the person him or herself. “It doesn’t matter who my father was,” Anne Sexton once wrote, “it matters who I remember he was.”(1) The looming memory of an absent parent is every bit as big as a present one, maybe bigger. For me, it was a spiritual revelation: Absence itself can become something of a presence.

It is little wonder that the deepest struggle many of us have with faith is in the absence of God. We learn early that absence is a characteristic connected to despair, wrought from disconnectedness, or born of devastation. We do not see our experience of God’s absence as a subject for lament—like the psalmist’s “Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed”—but as a sign of doubt. And so, we often do not know how to reconcile the God who appears in burning bushes and dirty stables, who descends ladders and rends the heavens, but whose crushing silence feels every bit as profound. We don’t know what to do with the ruinous sensation of neglect when God comes so close to some but remains far off from others. We hold in mind the one who came near to the rejected Samaritan woman, but we uncomfortably suspect that we might have been given something else, or worse, that God has for some reason simply withdrawn. The sting of abandonment is overwhelming; with Gerard Manley Hopkins, our prayers seem “lost in desert ways/ Our hymn in the vast silence dies.”

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Presence and Absence

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Call to Maladjustment

What does it mean to be “maladjusted”? In much of psychological literature, maladjustment implies some level of psychopathology. A pathology implies an underlying illness or disease in the body. Psychopathology, therefore, implies mental illness. Unlike other diseases of the body that have biological markers, however, psychopathology does not have a biological test, like a blood test, for diagnosis. Instead, psychopathology is manifested in cognitions, emotions, and/or social behaviors that are considered maladaptive because they cause distress, danger, dysfunction, and disruption both to the individual and to those around her/him.

But are there any conditions under which it would be “abnormal” not to experience maladjustment? This is the question taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech given at Western Michigan University in 1963, five years before he was assassinated. In this speech, he suggested that there are specific conditions when maladjustment is called for:

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Call to Maladjustment

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Cello in the Rush

Dale Henderson gives cello concerts in New York City subway stations because he fears the day when classical music will be no more. He plays for free, focusing primarily on Bach Solo Cello Suites because their “power and beauty unfailingly inspire great appreciation, joy and deep emotion in those who hear them.”(1) Some commuters stop and stare, curious or captivated, many having never heard a cello or Bach concerto before. For Henderson, the music is an offering of something meaningful, seeds for future generations of classical music admirers who would not otherwise know it, beauty well worth lugging his heavy cello down into the subways to protect.

It is not always easy to talk about beauty without a minefield of objections or at best complicating list of qualifiers. Its modern place in the “eye of the beholder” gives it a tenuous feel at best. While Henderson describes a world without classical music as soul-less, others may not miss it so much. And yet it is hard not to talk about beauty in a broken and breaking world that makes its distinctive encounters increasingly stand out.

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Cello in the Rush

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Advent and the Hopeful Realist

In a recent story on the wildfires that ravaged the Southern California landscape, the reporter Thomas Curwen wrote, “In this climate and on this landscape, fire is the great equalizer. But all natural disasters are. They provide a glimpse into the vulnerability of others no matter their place in life. Houston. Florida. Puerto Rico.” It’s a wise observation, and one that forms an ideal complement to Christ’s words about the Father sending his “rain on the just and the unjust” alike.

Though frequently excruciating, hardship and heartache are far from surprising. It was none other than the Apostle Paul who famously declared, “If in Christ we have hoped in this life alone, we are of all men most to be pitied.” While an overestimation of “this life alone” leads to despair, a hope in Christ’s resurrection and his coming kingdom leads to an unshakeable conviction—one that remains steadfast even when we’re shoveling through the ashes of our former homes or burying someone we love.

The year 2017 has been a difficult one. It’s been a year of national disasters, growing political unrest, and personal loss. With the passing of Nabeel Qureshi, the world lost a brilliant evangelist, and many of us lost a dear friend. In the midst of these dire circumstances, talk of hope runs the risk of sounding not only naive but also downright evasive. How do we speak of hope in a world this brittle?

Continue reading Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Advent and the Hopeful Realist

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Portrait of a Soul

 

In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde describes an exceptionally handsome young man so captivating that he drew the awe-stricken adulation of a great artist. The artist asked him to be the subject of a portrait for he had never seen a face so attractive and so pure. When the painting was completed, young Dorian became so enraptured by his own looks that he wistfully intoned how wonderful it would be if he could live any way he pleased but that no disfigurement of a lawless lifestyle would mar the picture of his own countenance. If only the portrait would grow old and he himself could remain unscathed by time and way of life. In Faustian style he was willing to trade his soul for that wish.

One day, alone and pensive, Dorian went up to the attic and uncovered the portrait that he had kept hidden for so many years, only to be shocked by what he saw. Horror, hideousness, and blood marred the portrait.

The charade came to an end when the artist himself saw the picture. It told the story. He pled with Dorian to come clean, saying, “Does it not say somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’?” But in a fit of rage to silence this voice of conscience, Dorian grabbed a knife and killed the artist.

There was now only one thing left for him to do; he took the knife to remove the only visible reminder of his wicked life. But the moment he thrust the blade into the canvas, the portrait returned to its pristine beauty, while Dorian lay stabbed to death on the floor. The ravages that had marred the picture now so disfigured him that even his servants could no longer recognize him.

What a brilliant illustration of how a soul, though invisible, can nonetheless be tarnished. I wonder, if there were to be a portrait of my soul or your soul, how would it best be depicted? Does not the conscience sting, when we think in these terms? Though we have engineered many ways of avoiding physical consequences, how does one cleanse the soul?

Today we find a limitless capacity to raise the question of evil as we see it outside ourselves, but often hold an equal unwillingness to address the evil within us. I once sat on the top floor of a huge corporate building owned by a very successful businessman. Our entire conversation revolved around his reason for unbelief: that there was so much darkness and corruption in this world and a seemingly silent God. Suddenly interrupting the dialogue, a friend of mine said to him, “Since evil troubles you so much, I would be curious to know what you have done with the evil you see within you.” There was red-faced silence.

We too, face Dorian Gray’s predicament. Sooner or later, a duplicitous life reveals the cost. The soul is not forever invisible. But there is one who can cleanse and restore us. The Christian way gives us extraordinary insight into this subject of our soul-struggle, as God deals with the heart of the issue one life at a time. Indeed, in the words of the prophet Isaiah to which Oscar Wilde alluded: “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (1:18). God upholds the solution asking only that we come “willing and obedient,” ready to “come and wash” (1:19,16). So come, willingly and obediently, and find God’s rejoinder to the marred portraits within. The greatest artist of all speaks even today.

 

Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

 

http://www.rzim.org/

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Soul of the City

 

In the early 80s, an image campaign began in the city of Atlanta with the hopes of encouraging Atlantans to see their city with pride and hope—despite some of its darker plaguing issues of race relations, violence, poverty, and unemployment. The jingle was endearing, if cheesy, chirping birds in the background and all:

There’s a feeling in the air, that you can’t get anywhere… except in Georgia. I taste a thousand yesterdays and I still love the magic ways of Atlanta.

The lyrics stayed mostly the same for years, though they came out with a country version, as well as a version featuring the Commodores in the mid 80s. The accompanying pictures were all hometown, feel-good scenes: firm hand-shakes, hot dogs in the park, a couple blissfully showing off their engagement with the city skyline behind them. All of it was meant to inspire nostalgia, loyalty, and camaraderie—and to counter some of the more negative images and present uncertainties at that time. Those who remember it speak of the “Hello Atlanta!” song quite fondly, attesting to its convincing look at Atlanta’s unique brand of urbanism and the pride that the song actually did drum up for their city.

Makes no difference where I go, You’re the best hometown I know. Hello, Atlanta. Hello, Georgia. We love you on 11 Alive!

The song served as something of an anthem for the city, so much so that Ira Glass recently featured it on his program This American Life.(1) He interviewed people who remembered the song. And then he completely burst their unique sense of city-pride by playing for them the exact same song and lyrics with “Milwaukee” or “Calgary” substituted out in chorus and pictures. As it turned out, this “image campaign” was a syndicated campaign that took place in 167 different cities worldwide. There’s a feeling in the air, that you can’t get anywhere, except… fill in the blank.

In the chapters of Isaiah, the ancient prophet presents a complex meditation about the destiny of Jerusalem into the crises of exile and the promise of Jerusalem out of exile into new well-being. This city of intense promise that he lauds in poetry, in lament, and public proclamation is not a song like Hello Atlanta (or Hello Any City, USA as it turns out). Isaiah’s is not an image campaign meant to play on a syndicated sense of nostalgia for the masses, pie in the sky images of life meant to erase the darker scenes of their present reality. Nor is it the sort of meditation that one can substitute a different city or a different set of people and still hold onto any semblance of his bold and hopeful lyric.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he proclaims, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted…to restore faint spirits, to give gladness instead of mourning.(2) For a people who had been through the darkness of captivity and exile and the loss of everything they loved and held near, this is exactly what they had longed to hear from the God they suspected had abandoned them and the city they loved: Through Isaiah, God says, I have not forgotten you. In fact, I am sending good news for you in darkness. I am going to comfort you who mourn and care for you who are grieving. I will bestow on you a crown of beauty instead of the ashes you have been sitting with. And I am bringing garments of praise for you to put on, instead of the spirit of despair you have been carrying.

Isaiah paints in stirring metaphor and image the potent Hebrew concept of Shalom. We translate this word as “peace” in English, but this misses far too much. While it is possible to consider peace abstractly, shalom cannot be extracted from its multi-level application to every part of life as we know it. Shalom is closer to human flourishing. It is God’s gift of peace, but it is also God’s enacting of good news, God’s offering of well-being in such a way that we are able to hold it, to take it in, and taste it—like the great wedding feast Jesus uses to describe what it looks like to be gathered together in God’s care and comfort. Shalom is beauty for ashes and comfort for the grieving. It is not an abstract, inaccessible picture of life as it could be or life simply as it will be one day. It is not an escape vehicle from the harsh realities of life. Surely God’s promise of shalom involves dimensions beyond time as we know it. But the Hebrew word Shalom very profoundly aims at the flourishing of bodies and souls and life as we find it presently, dark though it is.(3) Beauty and comfort and release and gladness and joy are indeed proclaimed, but it all comes as the promise of a God who is somehow present in the midst of Israel’s complicated, difficult, dark and beautiful realities.

In a time when religion is often viewed as an opiate or an escape from reality, Isaiah presents a clear challenge. His description of life renewed is not at all like an image campaign to help us forget the harder realities of life, to woo us with images that simply erase our earlier recollections of despair. If we were going to put it in terms of an image campaign, in fact, Isaiah’s promising words and the gospel that brings these promises to life sing a rather unflattering, enigmatic song about a very meek Son of God who appears on the scene of a fairly unimpressive city: not the Jerusalem of royalty and fanfare, but the back streets of Bethlehem where we are given not easy answers but a baby who embodies something far different.

The promise of God’s shalom is not a thin attempt to distract us from our own darkness or a flimsy pat on the back for the profound brokenness of the world. It is not an image campaign to make us feel better, but the unexpected gift of one who, somehow, mercifully, can hold it all.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) “No Place Like Home,” This American Life, episode 520, March 14, 2014. Ira Glass tells the story from the point of view of Calgary.

(2) See Isaiah 61, particularly 61:1-3.

(3) “Dark though it is” is a line from the W.S. Merwin poem, “Thanks,” written in 1927.

 

http://www.rzim.org/

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Outside In

 

Every society has insiders and outsiders. Groups of people or individuals are often defined by those characteristics, beliefs, ethnicities, or behaviors that identify them them as “winners” and “losers.” If one was a Jew in Nazi Germany, for example, she was an “outsider” and branded as such by a yellow Star of David sewn into her garments. If one was a Tutsi in Rwanda in the 90s, he would be forced to use an ID card which specified his ethnic group. In addition, his skin color was a general physical trait that was typically used to designate him an ethnic “outsider.” Recently, in the United States the #MeToo movement gave voice to millions of women around the world who were on the losing end of male abuse of power. These women were kept on the outside and marginalized from career advancement or in personal relationships.

But just who is inside and who is outside in particular cultures is often a matter of perspective. The Amish community intentionally lives as “outsiders” as a witness to the larger, secular culture. Standing outside of mainstream culture is their chosen position. In the community in which I live, tribal tattoos and multiple piercings set one apart as an outsider in the button-down-shirt-world of suits and ties, setting one apart from the rest of society. It seems that the boundaries around who is in and who is out shift and change with the whims of culture and fashion.

Jesus, as presented in the gospel accounts of his life, often blurred the lines between who was inside and who was outside. Indeed, he often suggested in his teaching ministry that those deemed on the outside of his society were actually on the inside. In his “outside-in” perspective, the first would be last, and the last first. Rejecting the rules that kept the poor, the broken, the sick, or the disabled person firmly on the outside, Jesus instead opened-wide his arms and extended the reach of his hospitality far beyond what would have been acceptable in his day.

Yet standing in stark contrast with Jesus’s welcoming reputation is an encounter with an unnamed Syrophoenician woman. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus is passing through the predominantly Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon when this unnamed, Gentile woman approaches him to ask for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. As a Jewish male, he is an outsider in this Gentile region. Yet, he speaks to her in the voice of a Jewish insider. “It is not good to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”(1) In Matthew’s account of this story, this woman’s outsider status is highlighted in even stronger terms. She is a Canaanite woman—a member of the people group Israel was commanded to expel from the land thousands of years earlier.

We who are more familiar with a loving, welcoming Jesus are jarred by his seemingly cruel response. Matthew tells us that the woman was pleading with Jesus to help her, yet “he did not answer her a word.”(2) Is this the same man? How is it that Jesus could ignore her cries for help?

Remarkably, the woman is not deterred by this familiarly abrupt response from an insider. In league with the great negotiators of old—Abraham, who bargained with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses, who bargained with God over destroying the people in the wilderness; and King Hezekiah who bargained for more years to his life—she very cleverly argues: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Both Matthew and Mark highlight Jesus’s delight at her faithful response. In Mark, Jesus is impressed simply by what she has said; “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” In Matthew, Jesus acknowledges her faith; “O woman, great is your faith!”

A casual reader may not realize the boldness and courage of this outsider, and the gift of Jesus in giving her a public voice. A Gentile woman alone with a daughter did not hold a good position in first century society. As a Gentile and a woman, she was an ethnic alien invisible to the society, greatly amplified since she was without a man to represent her in the public realm. Yet, this woman stepped beyond the prescribed boundaries to seek out Jesus for the sake of her daughter whom she valued, and Jesus praises her publically for it.

This story of the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham overflows to the outside. Her story foreshadows the wind that would blow at Pentecost, a wind that could be heard, but that defied direction. This wind would envelop those kept outside. The Syrophoenician woman understands this better than some in Jesus’s own circles and he gives her the opportunity to educate them: There is an overflow of blessing to one such as me, and it does not involve taking away the portion allotted to the insiders. As Peter declares in his own encounter with the Gentile Cornelius, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”(3)

Beyond this ancient story, we who sometimes feel ourselves as outsiders can take heart. For here, this outsider of outsiders is the recipient of mercy and truth. Jesus brings the outsider inside, he gives the least a voice, he makes blessing overflow. And that is very good news.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) See the full story in Mark 7:24-30. Matthew’s Gospel also records this event. Cf. Matthew 15:21-28.

(2) Matthew 15:23.

(3) Acts 10:34-35.

 

http://www.rzim.org/