Tag Archives: Ravi

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – 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)

How does a culture bear the wounds of genocide and the agony of forgiveness?

For Steven Gahigi, that question is answered in a valley of dry bones which cannot be forgotten. An Anglican clergyman who lost 142 members of his family in the Rwandan genocide, he thought he had lost the ability to forgive. Though his inability plagued him, he had no idea how to navigate through a forgiveness so costly. “I prayed until one night I saw an image of Jesus Christ on the cross…I thought of how he forgave, and I knew that I and others could also do it.”(2) Inspired by this vision, Gahigi somehow found the words to begin preaching forgiveness. He first did this in the prisons where Hutu perpetrators sat awaiting trial, and today he continues in neighborhoods where the victims of genocide live beside its perpetrators. For Gahigi, wounds received in the house of friends can only be soothed with truth-telling, restitution, interdependence, and reconciliation, all of which he finds accessible only because of Christ.

In some ways, the work of reconciliation that continues to take place in Rwanda in lives on every side of the genocide may be difficult to describe apart from the cross of Christ. While it is true that forgiveness can be explained in therapeutic terms, that the act of forgiving is beneficial to the forgiver, and forgiveness releases the victim from the one who has wronged them, from chains of the past and a cell of resentment; what Rwandans are facing today undoubtedly reaches something beyond this.

While forgiveness is certainly a form of healing in lives changed forever by genocide, it is also very much a form of suffering.

Miroslav Volf, himself familiar with horrendous violence in Croatia and Serbia, describes forgiveness as the exchange of one form of suffering for another, modeled to the world by the crucified Christ. He writes, “[I]n a world of irreversible deeds and partisan judgments redemption from the passive suffering of victimization cannot happen without the active suffering of forgiveness.”(3) For Rwandans, this is a reality well understood.

And for Christ, who extends to the world the possibility of reconciliation by embodying it, this suffering, this willingness to be broken by the very people with whom he is trying to reconcile, is the very road to healing and wholeness and humanity. “More than just the passive suffering of an innocent person,” writes Volf, “the passion of Christ is the agony of a tortured soul and a wrecked body offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of the torturers.”(3) There is no clearer picture of Zechariah’s depiction of wounds received at the house of friends than in a crucifixion ordered by an angry crowd that lauded Christ as king only hours before. And yet, it is this house of both murderous and weeping friends for which Jesus prays on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Far from the suggestion of a moralistic god watching a world of suffering and brokenness from a distance, the costly, unsentimental ministry of reconciliation comes to a world of violence and victims through arms that first bore the weight of the cross. For Steven Gahigi, who facilitates the difficult dialogues now taking place in Rwanda, who helps perpetrators of genocide to build homes for their victims’ families, forgiveness is indeed a active form of suffering, but one through which Christ has paved the hopeful, surprising way of redemption. Today, wherever forgiveness is a form of suffering, Christ accompanies the broken, leading both the guilty and the victimized through valleys of dry bones and signs of a coming resurrection.

 

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

 

(1) Zechariah 13:6.
(2) Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis books, 2010), 202.
(3) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 125.

 

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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:

“[T]here are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.” (1)

Whether or not maladjustment always equates to a diagnosis of psychopathology is often asked beyond the academic hallways of departments of psychology. Shouldn’t it make sense for someone who grew up in conditions of economic deprivation, social isolation, ignorance, poverty, and crime to experience, trauma, depression, or anxiety? Isn’t maladjustment an appropriate response to environmental and social conditions of deprivation, isolation, and instability? And perhaps, as Martin Luther King Jr. suggested in his address: those of us who live in abundance, community, and stability should feel this maladjustment most keenly.

In many of his speeches, including the one given at Western Michigan University, Dr. King quoted from the ancient Hebrew prophets. Often, Israel’s prophets called the nation to see the ways in which she had “adjusted” to a way of living that was far from ideal. And we learn from the preaching of Jesus that most of these prophets were rejected and killed. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to you!”(2) The prophets called out from the margins proclaiming a message that few heeded. They were viewed as “malcontents” and perhaps as maladjusted. Isaiah walked through the streets naked. Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” fastened a cattle yoke to his shoulders. Hosea married a woman he knew would be unfaithful. Ezekiel ate a scroll and laid on his side for more than a year. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale and then begged God to kill him. And Amos, who wanted “justice to roll down like mighty rivers” brought his message of justice and righteousness in a time of total economic prosperity and ease: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion!” he declared. To be “well-adjusted” was not at all what they preached, nor often how they lived. As Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Prophets notes:

“To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”(3)

The ancient prophets call attention to what most overlook, or do not want to see. Like, Martin Luther King, Jr., they understood that the call to maladjustment was a call to action and a call to reject the status quo. But to extend this call, often meant being labeled as a malcontent, or crazy, or worse! Throughout history, those who called for “maladjustment” often lost their lives, including the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remarkably, Dr. King ended his remarks with a call to be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos:

“I’m about convinced now that there is need for…men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice…this will be a great day.”(4)

The call to maladjustment might just be a call to justice. To overturn the status quo, just as Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, might be the most well-adjusted thing we who are made in God’s image could do.

 

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

 

(1) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “On Creative Maladjustment,” Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections and University Libraries, 1963, accessed Jan. 27, 2018.
(2) See Matthew 23:37. See also Hebrews 11:26-39.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 4.
(4) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “On Creative Maladjustment,” Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections and University Libraries, 1963, accessed Jan. 27, 2018.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Hindsight, Eyesight, and Insight

When this century began, the world was bordering on near hysteria over the coined phrase “Y2K.” You may recall how that “Millennium Bug” spawned fears that the date change from “99” to “00” would create havoc in computer networks around the world.

This year marks the next generation birthed since Y2K. As with the sitcoms of a previous era, the coming offspring will probably never hear of Y2K. What one generation battles, the next one forgets. The world didn’t collapse on January 1, 2000, but the fallout of a strident secularism has changed our culture, albeit with the aid of computers. It may not be accidental that the emblem on the new means of communication is ironically a half-bitten apple, man playing God and then fearing his own creation.

Twenty years from now, the next generation will marvel at the impeachment hearings that have dominated the news ad nauseam in this 2019/2020 transition. One of the most surprising things in this was an Ivy League professor of law who said this: “[W]e have to ask ourselves, someday we will no longer be alive and we’ll go wherever it is we go. The good place or the other place. And, you know, we may meet there, Madison and Hamilton, and they will ask us, ‘When the president of the United States acted to corrupt the structure of the republic, what did you do?’”

We know that politics has become our religion. More to the point, with the absence of much history being taught in our schools and a new pluralism that does not educate our young in the shared meanings of the past, leave alone thoughts of an afterlife, some student might wonder what a city in Wisconsin or a Broadway play have to do with our eternal destiny! Almost every category the professor invoked in his statement is actually disbelieved by our intellectuals. They thrive on repudiating the past, deny an eternal state, and toss moral accountability to the wind.

The fears of Y2K never materialized, but what we’ve done with the ability to mass communicate is more real and devastating. No foreign nation needed to meddle in our electoral process. We’ve done a thorough decimation job by ourselves.

But a new year is dawning. What do we pick as memorable from 2019 and to what will we pin our hopes in 2020? Can we look beyond our political melodrama and instead, see what God desires for us as his creation? It could make the difference. In the beginning, God created the human family and for millennia since then, that has been his purposeful plan. That is what He intended to bless for our own good. Our self-destructing culture notwithstanding, can we, each one of us, build a family to the glory of God?

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Peace That God Brings

 

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

Ours is a world in which few people would look to the government for signs of hope. Corruption of power seems more the norm than the ideal presented in Isaiah’s vision of a government ruled by a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, or Prince of Peace. Instead, most view government with a sense of cynicism and despair, and few would see government as the conduit for peace.

In Isaiah’s day, there were many foreign powers and rulers that threatened both Israel and Judah. And, within Isaiah’s lifetime, Judah would go into exile under Babylonian rule. Thus, the original recipients of Isaiah’s prophecy would have heard a promise that a king was coming who would be wise and powerful. He would inaugurate an everlasting age of peace, and foreign powers would no longer threaten or rule over the people of Israel. This prophecy brought light in dark times.

However, the history of Israel tells another story. Isaiah lived and prophesied during the divided kingdom of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Israel would be conquered by the Assyrians, and soon the kingdom of Judah would be ruled by the Babylonians. Judah would continue to see foreign powers rule over her in the form of the Persians, Greeks, and the Romans. Ultimately, Judah would see the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of its people from the land.

Was Isaiah wrong in his prophecy, or did he see something more than simply a political kingdom or earthly government for the Jewish people?

The promised child foretold in Isaiah’s vision was not simply a human king or ruler who would come to establish an earthly kingdom. Rather, the titles Mighty God and Everlasting Father attributed to the child to be born indicate that this coming ruler is divine. While the Jews did not have a concept of incarnation in their understanding of God, Isaiah foresees a day when God would be with the people, as Immanuel, “God with us.” And if God was the one who would come among human beings to rule and reign, then that rule would be characterized by wisdom, Wonderful Counselor, and peace—shalom—the well-being of all the people.

But, what kind of peace does God bring if it is not the peace that ends wars and strife among human beings and with the created world? We begin to find answers in the advent of Jesus, and his death and resurrection.

First, the peace that God brings in Jesus heals our estrangement that results from sin. The apostle Paul writes: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This is the “gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15); God is “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

Second, the peace that God brings enables us to have peace within our hearts because of our reconciliation with our Creator and his Spirit at work within us. It is the well-being that comes from reconciliation with God.

Third, because we have peace within, we can pursue peace with others—friends and enemies—alike. Indeed, the apostle Paul marvels at the new unity between Jew and Gentile when he writes, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, (Ephesians 2:14-15).

Isaiah’s vision came at a time of intense fear for Judah when foreign powers attacked and oppressed her on every side. He saw a day when God would rule the people with wisdom and peace and when this rule would have no end. We, too, can take heart, no matter where we live and no matter the government we live under. God has come near to us in Jesus and established a government that is available to us as we walk in fellowship under his rule. In Jesus, we have a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, and a Prince of Peace.

Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker and writer with RZIM and a licensed counselor.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Unintended Consequences

 

The modern era has been a time of rich progress. It has been a time of scientific and economic breakthroughs and increasing visions for more and more liberty on personal and political fronts. Yet most of us sense that all is not well in our contemporary world order. Our values, visions, tastes, desires, and longings are all clashing against one another with a tremendous cost in civility, uncertainty, and angst about our wellbeing and future. A number of years back, the scholar Alisdair McIntyre sought to address the competing moral conversations and approaches in our time in his book “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” His conclusion was that in the public square we have arrived at a place of incommensurable demands and conversations that actually cannot be resolved because the principles involved and the methods employed cannot lead to shared outcomes.

This is certainly a sobering thought and not one to bring a burst of enthusiasm or hope on our early morning reflections. Most of us would contend that we want to view time and history realistically. But what does that look like? Who decides what is realistic? For the Christian, we do so in light of God’s sovereign oversight and rule, in light of God’s word and the nature of reality, and in light of the work of Christ, and in the ongoing work on the Spirit in history. We also take note of what real decisions have been wrought by real people in real space and time, and the consequences of those accumulated ideas and decisions on all we face today. The “inheritance,” if you like, our earlier commitments or rejection of things that were seen as hindrances to personal or societal progress have costs and consequences.

I think here of the intense focus on values and on what one sees as personal rights—such as the quest and pursuit of identity, where this pursuit becomes an absolute and a stance that all must respect. In this quest, the individual is elevated as the sum of all goods and the choice as intensely personal, inviolable, and supreme. With such a personalized value and vision statement operating in many hearts and minds, the idea of compromise, the common good, or any serious validity to views that differ or conflict with mine becomes an anathema. The other is made entirely irrelevant, sacrificed at the altar of self. Reflecting on various versions of how I should “look out for number one” as a means of being serious about my vision and rights, I cannot help but hear a new religious creed: If any man or woman would succeed, let them pursue their passion, take up their cause, and follow their deepest self.

In such a world, everything becomes a simple dialectic of win or lose. Life is easily managed and understood in binary terms for those who adopt this approach. Who is right and who is wrong? Who is good and who is bad? Those who agree are welcomed and those who don’t are vilified. The costs and consequences of this kind of thinking are vast. As a society, we lack any shared philosophical basis to even process the questions. The psychological cost mounts as various extreme views lead the way and fuel deep sadness at the tone and style of interactions. The social price is seen in polarization and fragmentation all too readily confirmed in the hyper-vocal media. The political cost is equally plain to see and painful to admit.

But the gospel invites a contrast in imagination. For the centrality and supremacy of love for God and love for neighbor are clear in the teaching of Jesus whose love is costly and sacrificial. Jesus takes the notion of the common good, the other, and grace itself very seriously. The love of God is both an alternative and an antidote to the strident self-centeredness and selfishness that is fostered by our culture. It is a love that cares, that shows compassion, that reaches out, and yes, that stands for truth while being willing to bear the cost vulnerably. The birth, life, and example of Jesus gives us much to reflect on.

This is a call to renunciation that hits us all at the deepest level but it is also one which would have a serious impact on our own lives and those around us if it were to be embodied faithfully. Am I willing to love others with such a cost involved? Am I willing to deny my right to be right, to win, or to dominate? When in doubt, I turn my gaze to the one who so loved this world that he stepped into it not as a conqueror, but as a vulnerable child. The coming of Christ as an infant in Bethlehem is not just an event or a symbol, it is an invitation to a new way of being.

Stuart McAllister is regional director for the Americas at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Christmas Through Indian Eyes

 

India is a land seeped in spirituality. Indians have a worthy reputation of being ardent spiritual seekers. It’s no surprise that the subcontinent happens to be the cradle of at least four of the twelve major world religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The ideas of karma, mukti, moksha, and nirvana are central motivators of life for any spiritual Indian to this day.

In the backdrop of such a salvation-driven eastern culture, the motif of Christmas seems supremely relevant. Different world religions and traditions have looked at the idea of salvation differently through the ages. Christmas offers the biblical explanation of the human predicament and the divine involvement that enables mukti and moksha.

As Charles Sell poignantly observes of the human predicament: “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”(1)

Thinking of divine intervention, Hinduism is replete with the idea of Avatars in its religious texts and traditions. Avatars are divine incarnations that would come into this world at crucial points to restrain evil that had crossed a certain threshold. With their mission completed, having accomplished the purpose of their birth, they seal the circle of life with their death.
The story of the historic Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas is similar in some ways, yet vastly different. The eternal Son of God puts on human form in the Incarnation. He enters the very world he created as an infant miraculously born of a virgin. But his entry into this world is not to restrain evil, but to overcome it. Not for a time (yug) but forever. He validated his victory over evil by vanquishing death itself, the final tangible evidence of evil through his resurrection from the dead. He  remains forever, fully God and fully Man. Certainly an atypical avatar.

The beauty of the story of Jesus is the purchase of victory, through defeat, another rather radical and unusual departure from any typical avatar narrative. In a world rooting for macho messiahs and avengers, the Jesus narrative is a counter-narrative, it is an odd narrative, and it is a neglected narrative seldom explored, sparsely understood.

The “all is well” anthem that is peddled around is more an indicator of a deep desire than it is of the reality. We live in disturbing times. All is certainly not well within us or around us. All is not well for those mourning the loss of a loved one, for those battling chronic illnesses, for those struggling to repay debts, for those whose marriages are at the brink of collapse. It is to such wounded and weary, downcast and distraught souls that the counter-cultural protagonist, Jesus, reaches out to and communicates hope and cheer. The biblical, historic Jesus, is deeply familiar and intimately acquainted with human pain and sorrow. He is uniquely qualified to not just sympathize but ably empathize with human suffering and agony like none other.

The kind of Savior that this scar-ravaged world needs today is not an avenger, not an avatar, not a macho messiah, but a Savior with scars. Edward Shillito, a World War I veteran perhaps closely acquainted with scars visible and invisible, poignantly captures the image of the mangled Messiah:

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Mukti, Nirvana, and Moksha are the prominent motifs of Christmas through Indian eyes. For those of us who carry deep wounds, may the gift of Christ birth new hope and comfort, mukti, and moksha. This Christmas might he light up our hearts and homes and dispel evil, darkness, and pain both around and within.

Charles Premkumar Joseph is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Mumbai, India.

(1) Charles Sell, Unfinished Business (Eugene, OR: Multnomah, 1989), 121-122.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Light Changes Everything

 

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2

Last Christmas, my next-door neighbor generously provided white Christmas lights for all of the trees in the front yard of every house that lined the main street of our housing division. The result was both breathtakingly beautiful and unexpectedly transformative for our small community. Each night it was as if our entire street was filled with wonder and joy, as the lights glowed brilliantly against the dark winter sky. Commuters drove leisurely down the street on their way home from work, instead of racing back to their garages. People from all around the neighborhood started to go on evening walks, and children were now able to laugh and play outside with each other long after the sun set each day.

Light changes everything. It brings clarity, creates warmth, and provides power. Our need for light is often felt most in the middle of our literal or metaphysical darkest night, which is right where this verse begins. Isaiah is speaking to the people of God, who in their time of need chose to look to other nations for salvation rather than to Yahweh. The outcome of their choice was total devastation. The temple is destroyed, their nation is disbanded, and they are exiled to foreign countries.

The people walking in darkness in this passage are battle weary, hungry for peace, struggling against the gloom of despair, and desperately in need of salvation. The remnant who remain faithful to Yahweh in the midst of this deep spiritual and emotional darkness do so purely out of faith in the character of Yahweh who covenanted to be God with them, even when they could not see Him.

The book of Hebrews declares, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (11:1, KJV). You and I are blessed to stand on this side of history, knowing that Christ has come to us. We are the ones that Isaiah prophesied about who have seen his great light and watched the dawning of redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, we too, can identify with the remnant walking in darkness, holding fast to the promise that one day we will be united with the Lord for eternity. Until then, we wait.

The season of Advent is all about waiting, and waiting is rarely easy. We wait in seasons of doubt by staying close to the One who helps us in our unbelief. We wait in times of silence, confident that God’s Word is still living, active, and trustworthy for our lives today. We wait with tears through suffering, trusting that though weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning. Although deep darkness may surround us this season, or in seasons to come, we can rejoice because we know that the light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ has come to us! We know that his light still shines in our darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. We have a reason for great joy, regardless of our circumstances.

As an ancient prayer of the church declares, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” He is present now to us through the Holy Spirit. May his light shine on you and fill you with a light that spreads his joy across the world today.

Michelle Tepper is a speaker for RZIM and Chaplain at the Zacharias Institute.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Voice in the Wilderness

 

Amidst all the twinkling lights, decorations, gleeful holiday carols, festive parties, and holiday sales, a more somber spirit resides in many homes. There is weeping and mourning for lost loved ones. There is loneliness and despair on the margins of every celebration. There are cries for justice that go up and interrupt the mainstream revelry and festivity that is the Christmas season.

Traditionally, the season that precedes Christmas, the Advent season, is a somber season. It is a season that calls for repentance and reflection. For during the Advent season, another voice from the margins of society calls for repentance, righteousness, and justice. It is the voice of John the Baptizer crying out from the wilderness.

John’s voice, often forgotten in our hurried, holiday preparations, is crucial to our understanding of this season. His is such a crucial message that all four gospel writers include aspects of John’s story. Mark, in particular, begins his gospel this way: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER BEFORE YOUR FACE, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY; THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT” (Mark 1:1-3).

For the writer of Mark’s Gospel, the beginning of the gospel is not a birth narrative, as in Matthew and Luke, but the one who proclaims the Messiah; proclaims his Advent, and proclaims the Advent of his kingdom. Advent, like John the Baptist, calls for preparation, for reflection, and for repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s anointed one. For all who would declare Jesus the Messiah, preparation involves aligning lives with the values of his kingdom.

Luke’s Gospel continues where Mark begins by providing the most detailed portrait of John’s wilderness preaching and message. Here the reader learns of the kingdom values. John exhorts his audience: “Therefore, bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’ And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8-9). As Luke’s narrative continues, three groups come to John asking him what they should do to prepare for the King and his kingdom, and avoid this terrible and awesome fate. John tells those who have an abundance to share food and clothing with those who have none; he exhorts tax collectors to exercise fair business practices, and he tells soldiers not to take money by force, accuse anyone falsely, and to be content with their wages.(1)

I was surprised, as I read John’s exhortations, at the immense practicality of repentance. To bear good fruit involves the treatment of others, generosity, fair measures, the proper use of wealth and resources, and a sense of contentment. This seems a timely word today, as mistreatment of others, perpetual cycles of violence, fear, and the temptation to hoard resources tempts us to turn this season of repentance into an empty celebration of materialism and mindless consumption.

Instead, I wonder if Advent preparations can be practical provisions—bringing forth fruit “in keeping with repentance”? As repentance has its way—literally understood as “turning around” or “turning toward”—might there be a turning away from that diminishes life, and turn toward the One to whom John pointed—One who provides fullness of life? The life that if offered by Jesus can then be poured out as blessing for others.

John’s message of repentance is the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And his call during the Advent season is a call to join him in the margins. As I listen again to John’s voice in this season of preparation and repentance, I hear his prophetic call to me; he calls me out of my busyness, my own preoccupation with comfort, and my own self-interested desires. He calls to me to “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.” Through the din of the all the other voices, I strain to hear his voice calling to me from the wilderness.

 

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

 

(1) See Luke 3:1-14; See also Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:34-40.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Ordinary and Extraordinary

For those who are well-familiar with the Christmas narrative from the Gospel of Luke, the inherent strangeness to the story may be missed. When read without either an over-familiarity or a commercialized sentimentality, the Lukan account of God’s advent into the world is fairly extraordinary. I am struck by the way Luke juxtaposes the announcement of the King of Israel—”For to you is born this day in the city of David the Savior who is Christ the Lord”—with the sign of his advent: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(1) The God of the universe would be set in a lowly manger, a feed trough for animals. he would be clothed, not in purple finery, but in woven, cloth strips.

Luke’s narrative highlights what seem to be the most ordinary and the most mundane details of Jesus’s birth for many modern readers. And yet, these seemingly ordinary details highlight a God who chooses to display divine glory in the commonplace birth of a human child. The gospel writer’s utter preoccupation with ordinary details reveals the belief that coming of the Messiah and his kingdom would look very different from the kingdom that was expected. And this was extraordinary.

The Bible indicates a long silence of God from speaking directly to the people—a silence that must have seemed an eternity. But out of the silence of that quiet night, the angel spoke and announced what the people of Israel had all hoped for: God is near, the gospel proclaims, born in the same city as your great king of old, King David! The people now would look upon the new David, their new deliverer, who would be their Messiah. The prophet Micah announced this special context as well: “As for you, Bethlehem, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His going forth is from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Out of the silent sky came the news that surpassed all news. The Messiah had come and the world would never be the same again, for a king had been born this day in the city of David—Christ the Lord!

Yet, this king would not be born in an expected palace or even into the household of a priest, like John the Baptist, for example. The glorious place of Israel’s new king would be different than expected: “And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” Born this day, in the city of David is your Christ, your Messiah. And guess what? You’ll find him in a manger, which is the feeding trough for ordinary farm animals. Who would believe this report? How could the Messiah come with such vulnerability and poverty?

 

But the manger would prove to be his palace, and the first subjects of the kingdom would not be the influential or the powerful, not the righteous or the rulers. In fact, only a few people actually hear the news. After the silence of ages, God does not come with a shout, but like a whisper into the ears of a few select, uninfluential individuals. God comes as a crying baby needing the comfort and succor of human parents.

Mary, a young girl as yet unmarried, would be the first recipient of this good news. She was young and insignificant, and this announcement of an illegitimate and unexplained pregnancy wouldn’t help her place in that society. The announcement also comes to shepherds—the least influential in that society—young boys, out in the fields, far from their towns and villages, tending to the family sheep. The glory of Israel is revealed to those most would deem inglorious. Israel’s new king is born to a young, unmarried girl, in a town not her home, placed in a manger with animals as the initial witnesses to the birth. The heavenly announcement is made only to a group of poor, unnoticed shepherds.

Unveiling the glory of God through humble means and ordinary details is a point Luke’s gospel highlights in portraying a kingdom that would upend many cherished expectations. The Almighty God, who created heaven and earth, who created the shepherds and the animals, Mary and Joseph, was the same God who chose to be glorified in human flesh as the baby Jesus. In the dependence and vulnerability of an infant, God’s glory is revealed. Humble circumstances with unremarkable witnesses reveal the greatness and glory of God. Humility, from the very beginning, is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’s Kingdom. Dr. James Denison elaborates on these extraordinary circumstances: “As a young child, [Jesus] was celebrated by foreign Magi, not of his own people. He spent his public ministry touching lepers, welcoming Gentiles and prostitutes, discipling tax collectors and other despised people, and offering the gospel to all who would receive it. His birth proved the words: ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but receive eternal life.’”(2)

In a world that confuses glory with glitter, glamour, power, and prestige, would we see God’s glory in this seemingly inglorious package—cradled in a feed-trough, presented to peasants, and announced to the least and the last? For all who would wonder at this kind of birth, this kind of king, and this kind of God, they are welcomed to draw closer to the manger and the stable.

 

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

 

(1) Luke 2:11-12.
(2) James Denison, blog entry, 2007.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Lion in the Manger

It is a strange story. There were shepherds living out in the fields, protecting their sheep from predators in the night. An angel appeared to them, not the sort of modern sentiment, but a terrifying wall of light that told them not to be afraid. A baby had been born, and they could find him wrapped up and resting in a feeding trough. To a group of outsiders, God offered the first birth announcement. To a peasant mother outside of Bethlehem, the Son of God was born.

If we take a step back from the familiar dance and rush of Christmas and consider the story the Church around the world is really waiting for, we may well be thrown off our usual Christmas kilter. This is not really the innocuous historical narrative we imagine. This is not a dull or domesticated story. The bright lights and colors of ad campaigns and Christmas pageantry can easily paint over the stark scenery of a story that startled history itself. Who imagined God coming as a child, a God stepping into our world through an animal stall and into the unlikely arms of an unwed mother? Who can understand that story?

Yet even long before these strange additions to the story of this God among his people, the prophets were asking similar questions: “Who has understood the mind of the LORD?”(1) This God who moves among people, touching all of life and history is certainly not the quiet and tame being we often imagine. God’s movement isn’t predictable. God’s stories are not the kind of stories we would write if the telling were up to us. God’s thoughts are the sort of thoughts that expose deception and obliterate darkness, that overshadow souls and rewrite stories.

It is the same with the child born in a stable two thousand years ago. The infant the world vaguely remembers lying peacefully in a homey manger with cattle lowing nearby did not take long to fulfill the words spoken to his young parents weeks after his birth: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”(2) The old man’s words to Mary are definitely not the sort of thing a stranger typically says to a young mother holding the hopes and fears of a new baby. Is this the child we are anticipating this Advent?

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – O Come, Emmanuel

A post in The New York Times caught my eye: “Amsterdam Has a Deal for Alcoholics: Work Paid in Beer.”(1) One of the most emailed columns that week, the article detailed the creative and controversial work of The Rainbow Group Foundation, an NGO helping to prevent social isolation for people without caring networks of community like the homeless, the poor, drug users, and those with psychiatric problems. The organization seeks to create vital connections that foster community and enable these socially exiled individuals to participate in society in more healthy ways.

Their latest project, however, has provoked both public ire and praise. Hiring alcoholics as street cleaners and paying them with beer is not a traditional form of compensation, nor does it appear to deal with the problem of addiction. Yet, one of the unlikely supporters of the Rainbow Foundation’s efforts is the Muslim district mayor of Eastern Amsterdam, where there is a large percentage of these marginalized persons. As a practicing Muslim, the district mayor personally disapproves of alcohol but says she believes that alcoholics “cannot be just ostracized” and told to shape up. “It is better,” she said “to give them something to do and restrict their drinking.” Indeed, Hans Wijnands, the director of the Rainbow Foundation, explained: “You have to give people an alternative, to show them a path other than just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death.”

One of the participants in this program has struggled with alcoholism since the 1970s after he found his wife, who was pregnant with twins, dead in their home from a drug overdose. He has since spent time in a clinic and tried other ways to quit but has never managed to entirely break his addiction. “I’m not proud of being an alcoholic, but I am proud to have a job again,” he said. Once a construction worker, he was out of work for more than a decade because of a back injury and his chronic alcoholism. Finally landing this job sponsored by the Rainbow Foundation, he now gets up at 5:30 in the morning, walks his dog, and heads out ready to clean litter from the streets of eastern Amsterdam. While he has found a new sense of purpose he still acknowledges how difficult life can be. “Every day is a struggle,” he said during a lunch break with his work mates. “You may see these guys hanging around here, chatting, making jokes. But I can assure you, every man you see here carries a little backpack with their own misery in it.”

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but hear the traditional Advent hymn in the back of my mind:

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
 
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The haunting tune of this hymn provides a musical illustration of this modern-day exile: solitary individuals, homeless on cold, wintry streets in Amsterdam, living in a world where most consider them a nuisance at best. Gaining access to that which enslaves them as payment for cleaning the streets, they exist in a form of exile. These individuals wander in their own wilderness of addiction, exiled from themselves, from others, and likely feeling far, far away from the presence of God.

This notion of exile, of being exiled from ourselves, others, and from God, is an overarching theme in the Bible. Indeed, it is often the mournful story of God’s people who traverse its pages as captives, wanderers, and exiles. First captives in the land of Egypt, the children of Israel are freed from their bondage only to spend the next forty years wandering around in what is now the Sinai Peninsula. Brought into the land of promise, their years of freedom were relatively short-lived before they were again exiles; first, conquered by the armies of Assyria, then conquered by the armies of the Babylonians, the people of Judah ‘wept by the rivers of Babylon’ for their home. Even when they returned to their land, they were now under the thumb of the Roman Empire as captives, wanderers, and exiles.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – God Among Us

 

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
1

 

The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” begins with these profound and precious words. And yet they are in many ways just the preamble to four words that utterly alter and define every landscape. Four words, so stunning in their scope and impact, that blow the mind. Four words that announce, crashing onto the scene of human history, the author of the play. Four words that perhaps due to familiarity seem no longer to inspire awe in us, but when really considered, cannot even be fully fathomed by human minds. Four words:

“For Christ is born…”

What must that instant have been like in the heavens? Surely every heavenly being was tense with attention, in hushed silence, watching with baited breath this most significant of moments in eternity. Immanuel. God became man and dwelt amongst us.

We are thinking of hope this week. Perhaps you, like me, have at one point or another had a friend tell you they are happy for you that you have faith, but that they, for their part, cannot believe. Part of what they’re actually saying is: Your faith clearly makes you happy, content, peaceful, hopeful. And, of course, everyone wants that. But they cannot will themselves, delude themselves into believing this hopeful fairy tale of the Christian faith. They simply cannot force themselves to believe what they consider to be false.

In other words, they consider themselves to be forfeiting hope for truth.

The carol speaks of the hopes and fears of all the years met in the person of Christ. It is right to do so. We tend to look for the answers to our doubts and struggles with “wheres” and “whats.” Much like the disciples in John 14, we assume that the destination and fulfilment of our journeys is a place, or a state of being, or an experience. Where will we end up in all of this? What will happen to us?

The Christian faith uniquely, staggeringly, answers our deepest cries with a who.

Hope, as it is presented to us in Scripture, is the anchor for the soul. It is not primarily rooted in the events of the future—the promises of God as they unfold—although of course it encapsulates that also. Hope is rather anchored in the person who holds the future, and by his word and power, upholds and guarantees it.

A devastating death, reaching and distorting every part of creation, was unleashed on the earth as humankind broke their relationship with God. Human history demonstrates the futility of our attempts to restore the order, caught as each of us are in the break. Yet woven throughout that very history are God’s whispers of hope, promises of a different future. Glimmers of light. A life to come that would swallow up the death and destroy it. “For unto us a child is born,” Isaiah writes in anticipation.2 And in that birth we see the sudden “now moment” of God. The accelerated unveiling of redemption plans. The dawn of the kingdom, the unveiling of the King. Christ has done what we are unable to do.

 

And so it is that hope and truth, far from being in opposition, are inseparable concepts in the Christian faith, the former owing its existence and reality to the latter. It is the one who called himself “The Truth”– his life, his death, his resurrection, and all that they signify—on whom our hopes are laid. Firm and secure.

I have found it intriguing that the book of Hebrews, speaking to us so powerfully of hope, does so in both the past and the future tense. Writing figuratively of the authority and victory of humankind in their intended God-given role, the author of Hebrews speaks of all creation being under their feet: “In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them” (Hebrews 2:8).

I confess that my own life is fraught at times with challenge, struggle, pain. I do not seem to see the reality of which these words speak Perhaps right here, in the midst of uncertainty, of pain, of vulnerability, the stage is set for Christ. As again Hebrews 2:8 reminds us, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus.3

I am struck this Christmastime, that had I been present at that first Christmas morn, I might have been forgiven for looking at a little baby and wondering how it might be that this little life would hold all the answers. And yet, in every generation there are some, Simeon-like, who seeing with the eyes of faith, seem to really see Jesus, and in that sight, see all.

This Advent season, as you remember that most sacred of moments in history—the birth of Jesus—may you “see Jesus” again. And in seeing him, find afresh faith, courage, peace, wonder, joy… and hope.

Tanya Walker, PhD, is the Dean of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA) and a speaker for RZIM (Zacharias Trust) in the UK.

1 “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks (1868)
2 Isaiah 9:6.
3 Hebrews 2:8c-9a, emphasis added.

 

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Mysterious Safety

 

Someone told me recently that he wondered if humans only truly ever pray when we are in the midst of despair. Despite creed or confession, is it only when we have no other excuses to offer, no other comfort to hide behind, no more façades to uphold, that we are most likely to bow in exhaustion and be real with God and ourselves? “For most of us,” writes C.S. Lewis, “the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model.” In our distress, we stand before God as we truly are—creatures in need hope and mercy.

The words within the ancient Hebrew story of Jonah that are of most interest to me are words that in some ways seem not to fit in the story at all.(1) Interrupting a narrative that quickly draws in its hearers, a narrative about Jonah, the text very fleetingly pauses to bring us the voice of Jonah himself before returning again to the narrative. The eight lines come in the form of a distraught and despairing, though poetic prayer. And while it is true that the poem could be omitted without affecting the coherence of the story, the deliberate jaunt in the narrative text seems to provide a moment of significant commentary to the whole. The eight verses of poetry not only mark an abrupt shift in the tone of the text, but also in the attitude of its main character. The poetic words of the prophet, spoken as a cry of deliverance, arise from the belly of the great fish—a stirring image reminiscent of another despairing soul’s question: Where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me.

Jonah’s eloquent prayer for deliverance stands out in a book that is detailed with his egotistic mantras and glaring self-deceptions. By his own actions, Jonah finds himself in darkness, and yet it is in the dark that he speaks most honestly to God. The story is vaguely familiar to many hearers, and yet memory often seems to minimize the distress that broke Jonah’s silence with God. The popular notion that Jonah went straight from the side of the ship into the mouth of the fish is not supported by either the narrative as a whole or Jonah’s prayer. As one suggests, “[Jonah] was half drowned before he was swallowed. If he was still conscious, sheer dread would have caused him to faint—notice that there is no mention of the fish in his prayer. He can hardly have known what caused the change from wet darkness to an even greater dry darkness. When he did regain consciousness, it would have taken some time to realize that the all-enveloping darkness was not that of Sheol but of a mysterious safety.”(2)

When I think of the prayers I have offered in my deepest despair, the despair is always memorable, palpable even. And yet so is the sense that I was not yelling into an altogether empty darkness, that my voice was not alone, but that in this pained and enveloping darkness somehow the veil between creator and creature was parted. In the mysterious safety of the fish, Jonah seems to attest to the link between prayer and desperation; but more so, he attests to a God who hears in the void, whether the darkness is self-inflicted or thrown upon us like a violent sea. Likewise, the prophet reminds us of what is all too often our ironic refusal to face the face of a God who is equally present in the light of the ordinary. In prayer and desperation, Jonah saw himself without pretense. If only momentarily, the drowning prophet clung to a truth more secure than comfort and able than his alternatives: “Salvation belongs to the LORD.”

Sadly, Jonah’s distracted theology returned not long after the prayer was finished and his life was spewed back into normalcy. For many of us, it is a familiar tale. Honest words offered in despair remain with God in the darkness where we once cried out, the return of familiarity convincing us of a God more comfortably and safely remote. But if Jonah leaves us with a thought in the dark, it is the presence of options. Which view of God do you prefer? Which veil? Which distance? Which safety?

Once convinced there was a place he could flee from God’s presence, the prophet, sinking further into the depths of the sea, realized he was mercifully mistaken.

 

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

 

(1) See Jonah 2:2-10.
(2) H.L. Ellison, “Jonah,” The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 374.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – ‘Tis the Season of Enough

 

Black Friday is the name Americans have given the day after Thanksgiving, though the concept has caught on in Canada and Europe. It is called “black” because store-keepers know it as the time of year when sales move further into the black and farther into profit margins. “Cyber Monday” is a clever addition to the frenzied consumer holiday, luring black Friday shoppers and their less adventurous counterparts to continue their purchasing online. Whether in-store or online, steep sales and loud advertisements evoke both buyer and seller competition and make for frenzied scenes. Those who watch as bystanders still sense the fervor that begins on Black Friday and continues in a hectic race until Christmas. When everyone around you seems to be running, standing still is easier said than done.

Each year the commencement of the Christmas shopping season overshadows the commencement of a far quieter season. The season of Advent (which begins on December 1 this year) signals the coming of Christmas for Christians, though not in the way that Black Friday signals the coming of the same. “Advent is about the spirituality of emptiness,” writes Joan Chittister, “of enough-ness, of stripped-down fullness of soul.” It is a far cry from the hustle of the holidays that is a race for storing things up. Speed-hoarding through the days of Christmas preparation, Christmas itself even becomes somewhat anticlimactic. “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out,” said C.S. Lewis more than fifty years ago, “physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making… They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”(1) Quite the opposite, Advent is a season meant to slow us down, to open windows of awareness and health, to trigger consciousness. It is about finding the kind of quiet mystery and the sort of expectant emptiness that can offer a place for the fullness of God as an infant among us.

Of course, for even the quietest of hearts, this God who becomes human, the incarnate Christ, is still a disruptive mystery. But mystery, like beauty and truth, is well worth stillness, wonder, and contemplation. And this mystery—the gift of a God who steps into the world he created—is rich enough to make the most distracted souls stop and wait. As H.G. Wells said of Jesus, “He was like some terrible moral huntsman digging mankind out of the snug burrows in which they had lived hitherto.”(2) “Let anyone with ears listen!” said Jesus repeatedly throughout his life on earth. “But to what will I compare this generation?” he added. “It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”(3) You and I can open our minds to hear the great and unsearchable things we do not know, things like the Incarnation that we may never fully understand but are always compelled to encounter further. Or we can look for all of Christmas to correspond with societal whims and unconscious distractions, cultural debates about what we call or don’t call the season, arguments about public billboards and private mangers.

Christ will come regardless. The hope of Advent is that it is always possible to make room for him. Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who composed a remarkable series of journals in the darkest years of Nazi occupation before she died in Auschwitz, wrote, “[S]ometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”(4) Advent can be this simple; the invitation of Christ this simple. Let anyone with ears open them. Contemplating Christmas need not mean Christmas wars or lists and budgets, endless labor, fretful commotion, canned happiness.

Advent, after all, is about the riches of being empty-handed and crying “Enough.” Enough stuff. Enough chaos. Enough injustice and hatred. Enough death and despair. This is a disruptively countercultural posture: empty-handed, so that we can fully hold the mystery before us and nothing less; empty-handed, like the God who came down from heaven without riches or power, but meek and small—full, expectant, and enough.

 

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

 

(1) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 305.
(2) Herbert George Wells, The Outline of History: being a plain history of life and mankind (New York: MacMillan, 1921), 505.
(3) Matthew 11:15-17.
(4) Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries 1941-1943 (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1983), 93.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Different Choice

On a recent visit to my local grocery superstore it hit me. I was standing in an aisle with over thirty types of orange juice and I couldn’t make up my mind about which kind I should buy. Pulp-free or extra-pulp? Added vitamin D plus calcium or anti-oxidant plus? No sugar or low-sugar? Low-acid or heart-healthy and fiber-rich? It didn’t occur to me to ask why there were this many varieties of orange juice.

The reality of an abundance of choices doesn’t just hit me as I stand in the grocery store. It pervades my reality. At the food court in the mall, or in the sporting goods store, or the electronics store, or while on the internet, the abundance of choices overwhelms me and I am paralyzed to choose. Especially during November and December when holiday buying becomes the dominant theme, I find myself numbed by choice. More often than I care to admit, once I do decide, I am less satisfied with what I choose. In the back of my mind swirl all the other options. Did I make the right decision or buy the right gift? The question plagues me and steals all of the joy of having been able to make a choice in the first place.

Author and psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices often have a negative impact:

“All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.”(1)

It is not hard to understand that the more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything that is disappointing about the option that you chose. Schwartz suggests that this is because the multiplicity of choices heightens our expectations. When there are not as many options human expectation is mediated. But when there are endless options, our expectations become heightened. The more heightened the expectation the more inevitable the disappointment.(2) Perhaps this is why many travelers to poorer nations are surprised to find so much more happiness and contentment among people who have so little.

I bought my low-acid, high fiber orange juice, but I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by it. Why? Even though all the varieties of orange juice enabled me to ‘do better’ with regards to tailoring an orange juice to my needs, all of the options elevated my expectations not only about the number of varieties I should be able to choose from, but also how ‘good’ the varieties should be in terms of taste, ingredients used, or in how they were produced. I remember the days when there might have been differing brands of orange juice, but very little difference between them.

This, as Schwartz terms it, is the “paradox of choice.”(3) In Western industrialized nations it is as natural as breathing in air to assume that maximizing the welfare of citizens comes through maximizing individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, and essential to being human. If people have freedom, then we can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.

No one would deny that freedom is essential to the flourishing of human societies. But when freedom of choice becomes equivalent to defining ourselves as consumers more than as citizens or as neighbors, what becomes of community and society? And what becomes of our identity as human beings?

These were pressing questions for the earliest Christian communities as they looked toward the one who demonstrated freedom by laying down his life. The apostle Paul raised this issue as he wrote to the Christians at Corinth. In discussing matters of personal freedom he exhorted these early Christians that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his or her own good, but that of his or her neighbor….Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”(4) In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul applies the gift of freedom to a sense of corporate responsibility: “You were called to freedom; only do not turn your freedom into and opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”(5)

This definition of freedom for love and service seems to fly in the face of understanding freedom as doing whatever one wants to do, individually. Furthermore, Paul’s understanding calls into question an identity defined by mindless consumption as well. “I choose, therefore I am” is the default of many in the modern world. But for those who seek to follow Paul’s admonition, exercising choice is not simply the unchecked, unthinking, and often self-centered understanding of consumerism that occupies many Western societies and systems. The paradox of choice need not simply be the resultant “buyer’s remorse” or unmet expectations once we have chosen. Instead, the paradox of choice might be in following the one who chose to love and serve others rather than individually pursue options for best for himself. Freedom for choice can be grounded in love for the sake of another and gratitude in all circumstances.

Perhaps, the aisles of goods and services available to us might prompt this way to choose.

 

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

 

(1) Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice,” TEDGlobal, July 2005.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) I Corinthians 10:23,24, 31.
(5) Galatians 3:13-14.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Privilege of Gratitude

A Thanksgiving Meditation for 2019

During my graduate studies in the 70s, I had the privilege of being part of a tour (“In the Footsteps of Luther”) led by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. It was one of the most remarkable courses I had ever taken. From lectures on Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg to the music of Bach in the church where he had played in Leipzig, Dr. Montgomery was a goldmine of information. I can’t remember the exact number of people on that journey, but there were some business people who joined the students for those memorable ten days.

One couple had their daughter with them who was struggling with her faith. When I happened to sit next to her on the bus, I did my best to answer some of her many questions. Her father was profoundly grateful for the change he saw in her life and to express it, he paid one semester’s fees for me. I was shocked at his generous gift because I hardly knew him and I never met him again. But his gift came with a very strange condition. He didn’t want me to thank him. I couldn’t quite understand that proviso, especially since his gift itself was an expression of his thanks. After days and days of struggling, I sent a tangential note and just stated how much he had blessed my wife and me by his kindness. Not being US citizens at that time, we were very restricted with what work we could do, so it was a difficult three years. His gift was a huge benefit for us. I never heard from him again, and it was only when he passed away several years later that his wife dropped me a note to inform us of his passing. He had obviously tracked my ministry.

He is now with the Lord, and ‘til this day, I don’t know why he didn’t want to receive my thanks. I may have disappointed him by sending the note I did because I did what he asked me not to do, albeit, in a very subtle manner. When I see him in heaven, I hope to ask him why.

“Please,” “I’m sorry,” and “Thank you” are the coinage of courtesy we teach our children. Even when somebody steps on our toes, we impulsively say, “I’m sorry.” We dispense those kind words every day. In fact, the Bible talks much about having a thankful heart. The most memorable of illustrations that Jesus gave on thankfulness is found in Luke 17 when he healed ten people of leprosy and only one returned to say, “Thank you.” The Bible says, “And he was a Samaritan.” There was a sting to that tale. As far as the background goes, the other nine should have known better. This “foreigner” was the lone one who returned. The most culturally marginalized was the most spiritually grateful. It is a mystery beyond words. How does one who has been healed from such a disfiguring disease not remember to say, “Thank you, Jesus”? In fact, gratitude is a privilege that blossoms at its peak into worship. Ironically, the other nine were on their way to the temple to proclaim their healing, forgetting to thank the one greater than the temple.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Weight of Giving Thanks

Amid the darkness of the Thirty Years’ War, German pastor Martin Rinkart is said to have buried nearly five thousand fellow citizens and parishioners in one year, including his young wife. Conducting as many as fifty funerals a day, Rinkart’s church was absolutely ravaged by war and plague, famine and economic disaster. Yet in the midst of that dark year, he sat down with his children and wrote the following lines as a prayer for the dinner table:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In Whom his world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us still in grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
in this world and the next.

Rinkart’s expressions of thankfulness seem either incredibly foolish or mysteriously important. On the eve of a national holiday aimed at gratitude and thankfulness, an article in The New York Times questions similarly: “For many families—too many, really—across an America battered by wildfires, hurricanes and mass shootings, this Thanksgiving is the first major holiday since life was ripped apart. There will be familiar meals and rituals. And a haunting new question this year: How does one give thanks after losing so much?”(1)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Re-imagining Life

“I shut my eyes in order to see,” said French painter, sculptor, and artist Paul Gauguin. As a little girl, though completely unaware of this insightful quote on imagination, I lived this maxim. Nothing was more exhilarating to me than closing my eyes in order to imagine far away exotic lands, a handsome prince, or a deep enough hole that would take me straight to China!

In fact, like many, imagination fueled my young heart and mind. After reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I would walk into dark closets filled with warm winter coats fully expecting to be transported like the Pevensie children into strange, new worlds. Charlotte’s Web took me to a farm where I could talk to animals, like Fern to her pet pig Wilbur or to the spiders that hung from intricate webs in my garage. Pictures on the wall came to life and danced before me; ordinary objects became extraordinary tools enabling me to defeat all those imaginary giants and inspiring me toward endless possibility.

Sadly, as happens to many adults, my imagination has changed. I don’t often view my closet as a doorway to unseen worlds, nor do I pretend that my dogs understand one word of my verbal affection towards them. Pictures don’t come to life and I no longer pretend my garden rake or broom is a secret weapon against fantastical foes. Often, I feel that my imagination has become nothing more than wishful thinking. Rather than thinking creatively about the life I’ve been given, I daydream about what my life might be like if I lived in Holland, for example, or could backpack across Europe, or lived on a kibbutz, or was a famous actress, or a world-renowned tennis player, or any number of alternative lives to the one I currently occupy.

Sadly, the imagination so vital in my youth doesn’t usually infuse my life with creative possibility, but rather leads me only to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. Mid-life regrets reduce imagination to restlessness and shrivel creative thinking to nothing more than unsettled daydreams. Rather than allowing my imagination to be animated by living into my creativity, I allow it to be tethered to worldly dreams of more, or better, or simply other. Like so many others, the all too familiar experience of unrealized dreams withers my imagination and feeds a world-weary cynicism.

The psalmist was not in a mid-life imaginative crisis when he penned Psalm 90. Nevertheless, this psalm attributed to Moses was a prayer to the God who can redeem imagination for our one life to live. Perhaps Moses wrote this psalm after an endless day of complaint from wilderness-weary Israelites. Perhaps it was written with regret that his violent outburst against the rock would bar him from entry into the Promised Land. Whatever event prompted its writing, it is a song sung in a minor key, with regret so great he feels consumed by God’s anger and dismayed by God’s wrath.(1)

Whether prompted by deep regret, disillusionment, or a creeping cynicism about reality, Moses reflects on the brevity of life. He compares it to the grass “which sprouts anew. In the morning it flourishes; toward evening it fades and withers away.”(2) Indeed, he concedes that a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night. Before we know it, the psalmist concedes, our lives are past and what do we have to show for them? Have we lived creatively? Have we used our imagination to infuse our fleeting, one-and-only lives to bring forth anything that may offer beauty and blessing?

Imagination, like any other gift, has the potential for good or for ill. It has power to fill my one and only life with creative possibility, or it can become nothing more than wishful thinking, or nostalgia. As the psalmist laments, “All our days have declined…we have finished our years like a sigh.”

But imagination built upon a foundation of gratitude invites us to live our lives with hope and with possibility to imagine great things for our God-given lives. “So teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom” reminds all of the brevity of life and the importance of bringing that reality to the forefront of our imagination. Perhaps as we do, we might imagine ways to fill those brief days with possibility and wonder.

 

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

 

(1) Psalm 90:7-8.
(2) Psalm 90:6.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Scene of Miracle

 

Middlemarch is the epic novel by Mary Anne Evans, better known by her male penname George Eliot. The work is considered one of the most significant novels of the Victorian period and a masterpiece of English fiction. Rather than following a grand hero, Eliot explores a number of themes in a series of interlocking narratives, telling the stories of ordinary characters intertwined in the intricate details of life and community. Eliot’s focus is the ordinary, and in fact her lament—in the form of 700 pages of detail—is that we not only so often fail to see it, but fail to see that there is really no such thing. There is neither ordinary human pain nor ordinary human living. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she writes, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”(1)

The world Eliot saw around her is not unlike our own in its capacity to silence the dissonance of details, the frequency of pain, the roar of life in its most minute and yet extraordinary forms. We silence the wild roar of the ordinary and divert our attention to magnitudes more willing to fit into our control. The largest tasks and decisions are given more credence, the biggest lives and events of history most studied and admired, and the greatest powers and influences feared or revered most. And on the contrary, the ordinary acts we undermine, the most common and chronic angst we manage to mask, and the most simple and monotonous events we silence or stop seeing altogether. But have we judged correctly?

Artists often work at pulling back the curtain on these places we have wadded out of sight and sound, showing glimpses of life easily missed, pulling off the disguises that hide sad or mortal wounds, drawing our attention to all that is deemed mundane and obscure. Their subject is often the ordinary, but it is for the sake of the extraordinary, even the holy. Nowhere does Eliot articulate this more clearly than in her defense of the ordinary scenes depicted in early Dutch painting. “Do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish those old women scrapping carrots with their work-worn hands….It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy, and flame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes.”(2) For the artist, ordinary life, ordinary hardship, ordinary sorrow is precisely the scene of our need for God, and remarkably, the scene of God and miracle.

In this sense, maybe, the psalmist and prophets and ancient storytellers are all struggling artists, closing the infinite distance between the grandeur of God and an ordinary humanity in which God mysteriously wills to dwell. What are human beings that You are mindful of them? Mortals that You care for them?

The parables Jesus tells are also richly artistic, theological pauses upon the ordinary. Presented to people who often find themselves beyond the need for stories, whether puffed up with wealth and self-importance, or engorged with religion and knowledge, his stories stop us. Jesus seems acutely aware that the religious and the non-religious, the self-assured and the easily distracted often dance around idols of magnitude, diverting their eyes from the ordinary. And yet his very life proclaims the magnitude of the overlooked. The ordinary is precisely the place that God chose to visit—and not as a man of magnitude.

Whatever one’s philosophy or worldview, attention to the ordinary will be a gift, rooting bodies in this mysterious place, awing these bodies to the miraculous. It is far too easy to miss the world as it really is, to hold a philosophy in hand and mind that cannot hold the weight of ordinary life. While Jesus’s own disciples bickered over the most significant seats in the kingdom, they were put off by a unwanted woman at a well, they overlooked a sick woman reaching out for the fringe of Christ’s robe, and they tried to silence a suffering man making noise in an attempt to get Jesus’s attention—all ordinary scenes which became the place of miracle. Even in a religion where the last are proclaimed first, where the servant, the suffering, and the crucified are lifted highest, the story of the widow’s coin is still easily forgotten, the obscure faces Jesus asked the world to remember easily overlooked. How telling that the call to remember the great acts of God in history is itself a call to remember the many acts of life we mistakenly at times see as less great. For the ordinary is filled with a God who chooses to visit.

 

 

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

 

(1) George Eliot, Middlemarch, (London: Penguin, 1994), 194.
(2) George Eliot, Adam Bede (London, Penguin, 1980), 224.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Different Category

The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a familiar story for many. In fact, some of us are so familiar with it that we might even fail to see the rich contours of grace presented in its narrative. Familiarity with the story assumes its central figure to be a son who leads a wasteful and extravagant life. But a careful reading presents the multi-faceted contours of God’s extravagant display of grace towards all wayward sons and daughters.

Jesus presents this story as a crowd of tax-collectors, sinners, and religious leaders gathers around him. “A certain man had two sons,” Jesus begins. The younger of the man’s two sons insists on having his share of the inheritance, which the father grants though the request violated the Jewish custom that allotted upon the death of the father a third of the inheritance to the youngest son.(1) With wasteful extravagance, the son squanders this inheritance and finds himself desperately poor, living among pigs, ravenous for the pods on which they feed. “But when he came to his senses” the text tells us, he reasons that even his father’s hired men have plenty to eat. Hoping to be accepted as a mere slave, he makes his way home. “And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him” (Luke 15:20).

This statement reveals the first contour of God’s grace—it is a prodigal, or wastefully extravagant, grace. The prodigal nature of the father’s grace compels him to keep looking for his son—he saw him while he was still a long way off. And despite being disowned by his son, the father feels compassion for him. With wasteful abandon, the father picks up his long garments, exposing his legs and customarily shaming himself, and runs to his son to embrace him and welcome him home. The father orders a grand party for this son who has been found, “who was dead and has begun to live,” brought to life by the rich, prodigal grace, both unexpected and undeserved.

But the prodigal nature of the father’s grace is also a disruptive grace, offending any sense of fairness or justice. It seems unjust, for example, that such an extravagant party was thrown for such a reckless, rebellious son. It seems equally unjust that the dutiful, older brother was not celebrated in the same way as his wayward, younger sibling. Clearly, the prodigal nature of the father’s grace disrupts because of how it is given—prodigally and seemingly wastefully.

The older brother in Jesus’s story provocatively gives voice to this sense of outrage.(2) The text tells us that “he was not willing to go into the celebration. The older brother does not understand why his duty has not been similarly rewarded. For so many years, I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a kid, that I might be merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots; you killed the fattened calf for him(Luke 15:29-30). We can hear the implicit cry, “It’s not fair!” Not only is he angry because he thinks he has not been treated fairly, but he is also angry over how the father demonstrates grace towards his younger brother. Yet, the older brother fails to hear the entreaty of his gracious father both to come in to the celebration and to recognize that “all that is mine is yours.” The grace that is given freely and lavishly towards sinners is the same grace given to those who do not see their need for it and take that grace for granted.

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