Tag Archives: Ravi

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Triumphant Defeat

French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There are triumphant defeats that rival victories.” His words fit awkwardly into the battles that fill our days with sweat or worry. Whether battling disease or bidding in an auction, defeat is far from our goal. It is a word that, presumably for most of us, carries with it tender recollections of loss and disappointment. Past defeats always with us, even the smallest of victories can offer a hopeful sweetness. And perhaps this is so, at least at first, even in those victories of which we should not be proud.

With his mother on his side, Jacob won the battle of wits over his brother and father. Posing as Esau before his blind and aging father, equipped with animal skin and stew, Jacob convinced his father of his status as the first born and lawful heir of the blessing. Shortly thereafter, a defeated Esau returned to find his younger brother promised all that was rightfully his own. Jacob won the battle, but then he was forced to live on the run.

The battles we win at the expense of honesty or at the expense of others have a way of staying with us. Years after the fight for firstborn, Jacob seemed to still be living in fear of that victorious scheme and the brother he defeated with lies. When word came that Esau (and the four hundred men with him) were quickly approaching, Jacob suddenly stood at an impasse with no where else to run. Genesis 32 reports that in the silence of the night before Jacob would face the brother he cheated, he found himself in a battle once more: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”(1)

Along the road to surrendering to God, for some of us a battle is unavoidable. In fact, there may be some truth in the notion that surrender is a fight that begins again every day as if nothing had yet been done. For Jacob, the battle over his life and will took place in that moment when he found himself completely alone. With no one else to come to his aid, no possessions to bribe or barter with, stripped of all his usual tools of combat, Jacob wrestled with his attacker and only to find he was wrestling with God—and losing.

Physically broken, the socket of his hip now dislocated, Jacob nonetheless continued in a battle with words: “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he told his assailant. Yet this time it was Jacob who was outwitted. “What is your name?” asked the one he wrestled with, a question hastening back to the very lie that sealed Jacob’s deceptive victories of the past. This time, he answered correctly, and though limping, Jacob walked away blessed.

In the presence of the one who can move the mountains of shortfall and estrangement, we have reason to surrender as often as it is necessary. For we surrender to a fortress far mightier than our best days of battle. In the words of a fellow wrestler:

Did we in our own strength confide,

our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side,

the Man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth, His Name,

from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

However often God must win, it is our most difficult but always most triumphant loss. For in this great surrendering we find, as Frederick Buechner says, “the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”(2)

Carrying the scars of a fresh wound, the humbled Jacob limped toward the brother he betrayed, on his way to becoming the father of a great nation. We, too, can be humbled by the God who refuses to leave despite the words we shout in protest and despite our constant refusal to surrender. We can be awed by the one who says, “Follow me!” and expects us to trust that he will neither leave us nor forsake us. And we can marvel at the kindness of a God who, carrying in his own body the scars of defeat, invites us to the very nearness that is our victory.

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

(1) Genesis 32:24.

(2) Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Harper Collins, 1985), 18.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Emotional Intelligence

In Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Emotional Intelligence he writes about the last moments of Gary and Mary Jean Chauncey battling the swirling waters of the river into which the Amtrak train they were on had plummeted. With every bit of energy they had, both fought desperately to save the life of their young daughter Andrea, who had cerebral palsy and was bound to a wheelchair. Somehow they managed to push her out into the arms of rescuers, but sadly, they themselves drowned.

Some would like to explain such heroism as evolution’s imprint, that we humans behave this way by virtue of evolutionary design for the survival of our progeny. One is hard-pressed not to ask, “Why did the healthier preserve the weaker and not themselves?” But even the author was unable to explain it all in mere Darwinistic terms. He added that “only love” could explain such an act.

In another story, you may recall the chess victory of the computer “Deep Blue” over the world champion Gary Kasparov, which caused many to compare the similarities of machines and humans. Yale professor David Gelertner disagreed. He explained:

“The idea that Deep Blue has a mind is absurd. How can an object that wants nothing, fears nothing, enjoys nothing, needs nothing, and cares about nothing have a mind? It can win at chess, but not because it wants to. It isn’t happy when it wins or sad when it loses. What are its [post]-match plans if it beats Kasparov? Is it hoping to take Deep Pink out for a night on the town?”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Within the Void

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

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. The poem could be omitted without affecting the coherence of the story whatsoever. And yet, the deliberate jaunt in the narrative text provides 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 prayer 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?” cried David. “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.”(2)

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 finally speaks most honestly to God. The story is vaguely familiar to many hearers, and yet our familiarity 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 scholar 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.”(3)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Constancy of Change

Not much is known about the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who lived in ancient Ephesus approximately five hundred years before Jesus was born. What is known about him is his belief that the fundamental essence of the universe is change. The source of change, Heraclitus believed, was that fire was the central element of the universe; fire alters everything continuously and as a result nothing is fixed or permanent in the world. The aphorism “No one steps in the same river twice” gives a concise image for his philosophical views.(1) Perhaps it might not surprise the modern reader of Heraclitus to learn that those who wrote about him characterized him as the “weeping philosopher.” His contemporaries noted that he suffered such bouts with melancholy that he couldn’t finish many of his philosophical writings.(2)

While a direct intellectual link cannot be drawn from Heraclitus to the Buddha, the belief that everything is changing is also a central part of Buddhist teachings. There is no underlying substance that is not subject to the impermanent nature of existence. Instead, everything is in flux.(3) The doctrine of impermanence or anicca, applies even to human nature. Simple observation shows that the human body, for example, develops and changes from infancy to adulthood and into old age—continually changing. All living beings change as cells develop, die, and then are replaced by new cells. On a cognitive level, most humans have had the experience of fleeting mental events, or have thoughts come and go dissolving into memories that cannot easily be accessed. And all know how time seems to slip through our fingers: the future becomes the present, which becomes the past. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan penned over fifty years ago, “The order is rapidly fadin’ and the first one now will later be last for the times they are a-changin’.”(4)

Friedrich Nietzsche drew upon both of these traditions as he looked out onto what he considered to be a crumbling foundation of Judeo-Christianity—a foundation taken down in part by continual change. He wrote:

“The eternal and exclusive process of becoming, the utter evanescence of everything real, which keeps      acting and evolving but never is, as Heraclitus teaches us, is a terrible and stunning notion. Its impact is most closely related to the feeling of an earthquake, which makes people relinquish their faith that the earth is firmly grounded. It takes astonishing strength to transpose this reaction into its opposite, into sublime and happy astonishment.”(5)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – There Is More to See

If you want to investigate whether Sherlock Holmes was a real or fictional person, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. His “biography” is as easy to find as Winston Churchill’s (and there seems to be some fact/fiction confusion on both counts).(1) Between the years of 1887 and 1927, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically of the famous detective known for his heightened skills of observation and eccentric personality. Holmes was both memorable and beloved—and entirely fictional. It is a strange irony indeed that there are a great number of people who would claim the clues suggest otherwise. As Holmes himself once said, “The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.”

The process of gathering and interpreting information is never ending. From childhood we learn patterns of life around us and create theories on how it all works and how we must live. Not knowing whether it is insufficient data or fast truth, children readily form theories. For instance: pans on the stove burn fingers. This is one theory a child might conclude having learned the hard way. But as data becomes more sufficient, a child’s theories are readily adjusted—namely, certain parts of a pan on a hot stove burn fingers. Though memory of the sting may last, there seems an unconscious acknowledgment that their theories are the means to understanding and relating to the world. This is very different then theorizing the end they might want, need, or hope to be true.

Strangely, the temptation Sherlock Holmes describes—forming theories upon insufficient data—seems to grow with age. As the questions we seek answers for become more difficult, so the ante for interpreting accurately increases as we grow older. And yet, as adults we are often less willing to adjust our theories. The biases we bring into investigating often prevent us from recognizing data as insufficient or even faulty. We also more readily remember the sting of being burned and hold onto it in our interpretation, so that even for some of life’s deepest questions we are responding with predisposed theories. For instance, God cannot exist because if God did exist my mother wouldn’t have died so young, or tsunamis and hurricanes wouldn’t kill people, or I wouldn’t still be struggling with my finances. But how would we respond to a child who insisted that if broccoli were good for her, it would taste like candy?

In one of his essays, F.W. Boreham writes of his grade school difficulties with geography class. When the teacher spoke of life in a far-off land, he found himself drifting off to scenes in that land and remaining there long after they had switched to another destination. One day, catching him in the midst of a daydream, the teacher called on Boreham and asked, “What part of the world are we studying?” Recognizing a fellow student in distress, a friend scribbled the correct rejoinder on the paper beside them. “Java is the answer,” said Boreham. “Good,” the teacher noted, “Now tell me, what was the question?”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Non-Answers and Hope

In the fifteen seasons of the television series ER, there is one scene for me that uncomfortably stands out among the many. In a hospital bed rests a former prison doctor named Truman, ridden with cancer and laden with guilt. Julia, the ER chaplain, sits beside him, trying with great compassion to listen, and being slower to give answers than he’d like. One of Truman’s roles as a prison doctor was to administer lethal injections to those who were sentenced to die. With great torment, he remembers one man in particular who did not die after the injection and needed to be given a second round. Looking back, Truman believes it was a sign from God, a sign which he ignored and would never be able to undo; the man he injected was later found to have been innocent, framed for the crime for which he was killed.

Now desperate for answers—blunt and solid answers—Truman reels at Julia for the uncertain comforts she attempts to offer. “I need answers, and all your questions and your uncertainty are only making things worse!” he yells. But in his last, livid outburst he is even more honest: “I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time.”(1)

The problem of injustice and the difficulty of forgiveness are specters often met with cries for answers. Christians who attempt to respond at all often invoke the story of Job, for in it, the questions of injustice reel like Truman in his hospital bed, and unexpected answers from God counter in a way we never fathomed. The story begins with an accusation that Job only serves God because God has allowed him to prosper. To prove Job’s accuser wrong, God steps back, removing divine protection and leaving the tempter to his destructive game. Job loses everything; he writhes in his own anguish, confusion, and ashes. In the end, he remains in his belief of God, though limping with his weighted questions, and he encounters God without pretense.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Last Enemy

In spite of the proverbial certainty of death and taxes, the human psyche has always dreamed of discovering loopholes in whatever mechanisms fix the limits. Yet though it might be possible to cheat on one’s taxes, “cheating death” remains a phrase of wishful-thinking applied to incidences of short-lived victories against our own mortality. Eventually, death honors its ignominious appointment with all of us, calling the bluff of the temptation to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny. But despite the universal, empirical verification of its indiscriminate efficiency, we continue to be constantly surprised whenever death strikes. Only a painfully troubled life can be so thoroughly desensitized against its ugliness as to not experience the throbbing agony of the void it creates within us whenever the earthly journey of a loved one comes to an end.

Such a peculiar reaction to an otherwise commonplace occurrence points strongly to the fact that this world is not our home. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 explains, God has put eternity in our hearts, and therefore the mysterious notion that we are not meant to die is no mere pipe dream: it sounds a clarion call to the eternal destiny of our souls. If the biblical record is accurate, there is no shame or arrogance in pitching our hopes for the future as high as our imaginations will allow. Actually, the danger is that our expectations may be too low, for “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Far from being the accidental byproducts of a mindless collocation of atoms, we are indestructible beings whose spiritual radars, amidst much static noise, are attuned to our hearts’ true home.

Trouble begins, however, when we try to squeeze that eternal existence into our earthly lives in a manner that altogether denies our finite natures. We do so whenever we desensitize ourselves against the finality of death through repeated exposure to stage-managed destruction of human life through the media. Or we zealously seek ultimate fulfillment in such traitorous idols as pleasure, material wealth, professional success, power, and other means, without taking into account the fleeting nature of human existence. Or we broach the subject of death only when we have to, and even then we feel the need to couch it in palatable euphemisms. With some of our leading intellectuals assuring us that we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and we therefore have no need for God, the only thing missing from our lives seems to be the tune of “Forever Young” playing in the cosmic background. A visitor from outer space would probably conclude that only the very unlucky ones die, while the rest of us are guaranteed endless thrill-rides through space aboard this green planet.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Untethered

The average cell phone user would likely now claim that life without one would be more than inconvenient. Upon its invention, in more ways than one, we became untethered. There are entire generations that cannot remember getting tangled up in phone cords while trying to make dinner or reach for the passing toddler, while finishing that conversation with the loquacious relative. The thought of dashing home from work in order to make that important phone call now seems ridiculous. We make it on the way, sitting in traffic, driving to the next appointment, making a stop at the grocery store, or all three. For those who remember that phones used to have cords, it is with great appreciation that we are no longer operating with a five-foot radius. Yet, this is not to say that we don’t feel a tethering of a different sort. Owning a cell phone can foster the attitude that its owner is always available, always working, always obtainable. While there is no cord to which we are confined, the phone itself is the tether.

It is worth considering that these kinds of shifting dilemmas are not all that uncommon. Just as the pendulum swings in one direction offering some kind of correction, so we often find that the other side introduces a new set of problems or the same problem in a new form. Major and minor movements of history possess a similar, corrective rhythm, swinging from one extreme to another and finding trouble with both. The pendulum swings from one direction, often to an opposite error, or at best, to a new set of challenges.

Within and without the walls of religious institutions, people of faith, too, are continually responding to what we perceive needs correction. When the need to get away from dead, religious worship initiated certain shifts, it was an observation wisely discerned. But what this meant for many was unfortunately a shifting away from history, shared liturgies, and our own past—in many cases contributing to a different set of problems. While breaking away from the “religiosity” of religious history, many now find themselves tethered in a sense to all things contemporary and individual, unable to draw on the riches of the very history from which we have isolated ourselves. While the intent may have been good, and in the case of the church, the shifts did separate us from certain problems within church history, it also seems to have separated us from all of history. As a result, many Christians now seem more divorced from history than ever, having swung so far in one direction that we can no longer see from whence we have come. Coupled with our culture’s general devaluing of anything that is “outdated,” the risk of seeing the church’s identity more in terms of today’s form than its enduring essence seems both high and hazardous.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Three Questions

As a Christian writer and speaker, I am often asked what the most frequent questions are regarding the Christian faith. Of course, I am frequently asked questions of an intellectual or historic nature: Did Jesus of Nazareth really exist? Is his resurrection from the dead a historical event? How is one to understand the Bible as the Word of God? For some, the questions never go beyond intellectual curiosity or pursuit. For others, these questions need to be answered for constructing a sound apologetic.

Probe a bit deeper, however, and it isn’t difficult to discover that many questions come from the deepest places of the heart. They come because of personal experience with suffering of one form or another. Is there a God? If so, does that God care about me, know me? If so, why does God seemingly allow so much suffering? When the fervent prayers of righteous men and women do not prevent the cancer from spreading, or the child from dying, or the plane from crashing, or the marriage from failing, these more existential questions come like water bursting through the dam.

The kinds of questions I receive are not unique to my contemporary context. They have been asked for millennia. The technical term for the theist’s response to the issue of suffering is called theodicy. Theodicy is the word given in the seventeenth century by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the great intellectual thinkers of the Enlightenment period.(1) Theodicy attempts to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and loving. In trying to solve this problem, some thinkers have denied the omnipotence of God; God is all-loving, but not able to do anything about suffering. Others dispense of the notion that God is all-loving, at least in any conventional understanding. But neither of these alternatives provides a satisfactory answer.

Intellectual wrangling over this problem, aside, the experience of suffering in light of both the goodness and power of God has caused many to doubt God, and others to walk away from faith altogether. If God does not prevent suffering, and if God does not care about the sufferer, then for some, the only alternative appears to be that God cannot exist in any meaningful way.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Mysterious Ways

Psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the bothered, sometimes pained, state of mind that occurs when new evidence conflicts with a current belief or outlook. When such dissonance occurs, resolution is arrived at by discarding the new evidence, discarding the belief itself, or ideally, evaluating what is known to be true and integrating the new information.

If we closely examine the lives of certain biblical characters such dissonance is often and clearly evident. Abraham was devastated by the God he loved who asked him to trust, even as he led his young son to be sacrificed. Saul spent three days in blindness and without food trying to comprehend the presence of the Christ he once persecuted. Mary wept at the empty tomb, pleading with the gardener to show her the body of her friend and teacher. The instances where God’s plans conflicted with the understanding of God’s people are scattered liberally throughout Scripture.

Even so, it is perhaps safe to say that Job suffered from the most significant case of cognitive dissonance known among humanity. Job’s understanding of a gracious and just God who rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous was shattered by new evidence. Grieving the loss of the God he loved, yet unable to discard the relationship, the question of divine justice tortured his mind. “As water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil,” he cried, “so you destroy man’s hope.”(1) And yet, against the counsel of his wife, Job was unwilling to discard his belief and allow his hope to be washed away.

Job is the hopeful symbol of a steadfast mind amidst the ashes of our own questions. Why am I so troubled and afflicted? Why would a good God permit suffering? Why does God stand far off in times of trouble? Why is God so absent? The dung heap of life’s most plaguing questions is resistant to decomposition.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Image of Things

I was on hold the other day trying to schedule an appointment for a haircut. As I waited for the receptionist, I half-listened to the obligatory recordings. The announcer asked me to consider scheduling a make-over with my upcoming appointment and to make sure I leave with the products that will keep up my new look. (Apparently, when you have a captive audience of customers “muzak” is hardly strategic.) But then I was caught off guard by a question: “What do the local communities of Chad, Africa, mean to you?” The answer he offered was as immediate as my inability to think of one: “Chad is a leading producer of organic acacia gum, the vital ingredient in a new line of products exclusively produced for and available at our salon.”

In a culture dominated by consumption, the commodification of everything around us is more and more of an unconscious worldview. Thus, when we think of Chad, we can think of our favorite shampoo and its connection with our hair salon. The land where it came from, the conditions of its production, and the community or laborers who produce it are realities wholly disassociated with the commodity itself. Like soap and luggage, the nation of Chad can become just one of the many commodities within our consumer mindset.

As I put down the phone, I couldn’t help but wonder about Amos’s description of those who are “at ease in Zion.” How at ease do you have to be to begin to see the world in commodities?

In fact, at the time of Amos’s words, Israel itself was at one of its most opulent junctures. They had expanded their territory in more than one direction. Their winter palaces were adorned with ivory and their feasts were lacking nothing. They could be heard singing songs to the sound of the harp and seen anointing themselves with the finest of oils. It was in such affluence that the shepherd Amos proclaimed indomitably: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.”(1)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Their Finest Hour

Winston Churchill was responsible for some of the most striking and memorable speeches ever delivered. The strong rhetoric he often deployed during the Second World War was of course partly out of necessity, as the country desperately needed inspiration, at a time when the conflict was very much in the balance. One of the most famous messages he ever gave was in 1940, as he sought to prepare the British citizens for the looming Battle of Britain. During it, he stressed that the very future of Christian civilization was at stake and that the country needed to be ready to face the ‘fury and might’ of an enemy that wanted to sink the world into the ‘abyss of a new dark age.’ Whether or not they would succeed was uncertain, but he reiterated that if they succeeded it would be judged by history as ‘their finest hour.’

The power of the message lay not only in the evocative and inspirational tone, but in the strong moral language that connected the listener to a higher cause. In other words, it specifically challenged people on a personal level, like the famous war-time ‘your country needs you’ posters.

What is interesting from a Christian perspective is that the speech is doing precisely what the gospel message is doing, albeit in a different way. The power doesn’t come from inspirational or moral language, but it comes from connecting us to the higher cause: God himself.

Yet, if we are brutally honest, many of us feel a sense of inadequacy, when it comes to living up to this higher calling. We have personal failings that continually let us (and others) down, our lives don’t seem to be as successful as those around us, we feel ashamed by things in our past, and we harbor guilt for not doing more to help others. Such insecurities are only natural in a world that puts so much emphasis on what we achieve, but the gospel message is radically different because it applies to everyone equally, irrespective of who we are or what we have done. In fact, Christ’s unconditional love for us was so great that he even took the punishment we deserved for our wrong doing, so that we could be in a relationship with him. It’s very easy to forget just how profound this is, but he is offering us a new life.(1) Furthermore, Jesus doesn’t just leave us to fend for ourselves unaided, but he offers us assistance, through his spirit, so that we can be changed.(2) This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will all have a sudden transformation in our lives—although this certainly does happen—or that we will never do wrong again and things will be easy thereafter, but it makes all the difference to have God walking beside us through thick and thin, as well as to know that we can be secure in our identity in him.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – For the Weary

Grief is a strange thing in that its memory is more characterized by what the relationship was or was not than by what characterized the death.(1) You look forward and ache over what has now been lost for the future. You look backward and grieve what never truly was and can now never be.

The award-winning author Paulo Coelho is a beautiful writer, and his lines of pure poetry are disguised as novels. His book The Witch of Portobello, a mystical story with many unusual turns, remains on my shelf, no matter where I live. I often pull it off, brush my hand across the cover, and flip it open to a page I have nearly memorized.

The story begins in Beirut, Lebanon, a country that boasts of warm hospitality, platefuls of hummus and tabouli, the Mediterranean coast, and beautiful cedars. Coelho describes his heroine, Athena, as an unusual girl who possessed a sense of spirituality from the time of her youth. She married when she was nineteen and wanted to have a baby right away. Her husband left her when the baby was still young, and Athena had to raise him alone.

During one Sunday Mass, the priest watched as Athena walked toward him to receive Communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest, drew her eyes closed, and opened her mouth to receive. I picture her standing there in vulnerability, asking to receive Christ’s body, given for her. She was hungry for the grace that it offered.

But he did not give it to her.

The young girl opened her eyes, terribly confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Spiritual Geography

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to travel across the country from Massachusetts to Montana. While I had often traveled across the country on family vacations, I had never driven through South Dakota. But on this trip I was able to see quite a bit of the state that makes up part of the Great Plains in the United States. Having lived near the city, I remember being struck by the vast expanses of what appeared to be uninhabited land. Rolling grasslands, without many trees, offered a view of the landscape that was as far as it was wide. I remember wondering why anyone would make a home in such a desolate place.

Several years after this trip, I read Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota and marveled at her poignant description of this land. Her memoir both enticed me and made me wary of life in the Dakotas. The opening paragraphs of her book explain why:

“The high plains, the beginning of the desert West, often act like a crucible for those who inhabit them. Like Jacob’s angel, the region requires that you wrestle with it, before it bestows a blessing… This book is an invitation to a land of little rain and few trees, dry summer winds and harsh winters, a land rich in grass, and sky and surprises.”(1)

She concludes by saying that “the land and the sky of the West often fill what Thoreau termed our ‘need to witness our limits transgressed.’ Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy.”(2)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The End of Hope

In John Bunyan’s abiding allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, hope is personified in two ways. Hopeful is the traveling companion of Christian, the story’s protagonist, along the winding journey toward the Celestial City. Hopeful was born in the town of Vanity and grew up with great expectations of the things of the fair; honor and title, ownership and ease were his great hopes. But he had suffered bitter disappointment in these pursuits and found only shipwrecks of his own optimism. In this valley of emptiness, Hopeful was able to recognize the full and solid quest of Christian. And thus, Hopeful’s drastic conversion of hope begins with pilgrimage and community.

The other character marked by hope in Bunyan’s tale is encountered near the river one must cross on foot in order to enter the Celestial City. Vain-Hope is a ferryman, who offers to ferry travelers across the River of Death so that they don’t have to cross on their own. Yet as one man discovers, it is a promise that gets him across the river, but destroys all hope of staying there. In the end, Vain-Hope is a deadly end.

With these two lucid pictures, Bunyan divides hope in two, possibly simple, but maybe wise, categories: the life-giving and the destructive. Considering all the ways in which we use the word, it seems easily an oversimplification. In the painting above, for instance, artist George Frederic Watts shows a female allegorical figure of Hope, for which the painting is titled, sitting on a globe in a hunched position, blindfolded, clutching a wooden lyre with only one string left intact. According to Watts, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”(1)  G. K. Chesterton, who was far from alone in his criticism of Watt’s image, suggested that a better title for this work would be Despair. Chesterton describes the lone string of Hope’s lyre as “a string which is always stretched to snapping and yet never snaps. . . the queerest and most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible. . . Faith is always at a disadvantage; it is a perpetually defeated thing which survives all its conquerors.”(2)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Overwhelming Rejection

There are those who say that lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection. I always wonder if they have ever heard the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus was on his way to a place where no one would recognize him. From the chaos of Jerusalem and the crowds of Galilee he withdrew to the region of Tyre. According to one of his disciples, when he had entered a house, he wanted no one to know of it. Yet, he did not escape notice. A Gentile woman of the Syrophoenician race immediately fell at his feet and began to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But he did not answer her a word.(1)

In the lives of those who believe in God, rejection is always a distinct possibility. Of course, this is not to say that God is rejecting us personally. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”  And yet, in the barren silence after years of praying for a child, in the slamming of a door that held a real and certain hope, in the wordless dismissal of a mother brought to her knees, the rejection is indeed personal.

But this woman at Jesus’s feet refused to turn away at the first sign of his refusal. She was not deterred by the disciples’ request that she be sent away, nor was she convinced to cease her plea after the harsh words that finally did break Jesus’s silence:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Being a Gentile, she was not one of them. Lesser rejections have certainly brought me to crumbled mess. Yet even this was not a thought that would dissuade her. Bowing down before him, she pled once more, “Lord, help me!”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Misdiagnosing ‘Normal’

Almost everyday, we are beset with news of daily atrocities, murders, and tragedies that continue to shake us. I sit in a somewhat curious state as I hear certain phrases so often repeated. “They seemed like such a normal person.” “My kids played at his/her house regularly.” Then the reporter chimes in, “How could such an ordinary person do such a thing?”

I guess what intrigues me in this constant replay from daily and weekly life is the surprise. The reporters genuinely seem surprised by the actions committed and in joining in with the social narrative’s rules, so do we! Many \centuries ago, the ancient writer Herodotus wrote, “The most hateful torment for men is to have knowledge of everything but power over nothing.” This is perceptive.

The modern era was birthed in the consciousness of rational men and women in control of their own destinies. It was the age of reason; we can and would figure everything out. It was the age of man; no need for god, the gods, or superstitions of any kind. It was the age of science; the new insights, techniques, and technologies would allow us to build our brave new world. It was the age of progress, as many believed we would grow from good to great, and perhaps end up in something like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek future, where all need has been eradicated and all live for justice and the good of all.

The problem with this, and with all utopian dreams, is that they are illusions or delusions. They are fantasy constructs of the very sort Schopenhauer and Freud attacked in terms of religion. Despite promethean promises, guru advice, or our deepest sincere desires, wanting it badly enough does not make it so. What kind of a world do we live in? Who and what are we? What is wrong in life and with me? How can anything be improved? These are world and life view questions.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Pharisees

“You are nothing but a Pharisee,” said Maggie with vehemence. “You thank God for nothing but your own virtues; you think they are great enough to win you everything else.”(1)

Whether familiar or new to the scathing words of Maggie Tulliver to her brother Tom in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, it is clear that she is not speaking complimentarily.

The word “Pharisee,” as this interchange illustrates, is often used as something of a synonym for hypocrite, a haughty individual with a holier-than-thou air about them. Webster’s dictionary further articulates this common usage, defining the adjective “pharisaical” as being marked by “hypocritical censorious self-righteousness,” or “pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without actually being so.”(2) To be called a Pharisee is far from a compliment; it is to be accused of living with a false sense of righteousness, being blind and foolish with self-deception, or carrying oneself with a smug and hypocritical legalism.

The etymology of the word from its roots as a proper noun to its use as an adjective is one intertwined with history, drawing on the very tone with which a rabbi from Nazareth once spoke to the religious group that bore the name. In seven consecutive statements recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus begins his stern rebukes with the scathing introductions: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” “Woe to you blind guides!” His conclusion is equally pejorative: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”(3) The word “Pharisee” has become far more associated with this critique than its greater context. Thus Maggie can call her brother a Pharisee and not be thinking of the Jewish sect of leaders for which Jesus had harsh words, but of the harsh words themselves.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Tearing Down the House of Cards

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” was a slogan I heard over and over again as I grew up. As a young person, this slogan meant that all my plans would be wonderful because God loved me. Now that I am older, I understand that this slogan had more to do with the Christian Gospel’s understanding of salvation than it did with guiding me down the primrose path of life. Yet, it still reverberates in my head when I experience hardship, pain, and loss. For it is often difficult to square a belief in the love of God with a series of life experiences that run counter to the expectations for a wonderful plan.

The seeming contradictions between stated beliefs and life experience often make faith complicated. For me, many of the cherished beliefs I held imploded and what I once thought was an invincible fortress came crashing down as life experience smashed up against them like a battering ram. C.S. Lewis described his own spiritual dismantling after the death of his wife, Joy, this way: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”(1) Yet having to dwell in the rubble of what is left of one’s faith doesn’t feel as if it is the work of a God who desires to smash all our false conceptions.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Questions of Power

A story told in the Hebrew scriptures offers a dramatic interplay of manipulation and honor, kings and kingdoms, power and powerlessness. It is the story more commonly known as “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” But this title, accurate though it is in terms of the dramatic climax, actually misses the main actors entirely. Ultimately, the story is a depiction of power and weakness at play in two very different kingdoms and communities. On one side stands Darius, the mighty king and ruler of the people and nations, powerful sovereign of the powerful majority. On the other side is the God of Daniel, king of a community in exile, the ruler of a minority people whose city lies in ruins. The question of sovereignty seems as though it has already been answered quite definitively.

Most of us are not familiar with the devastating encounter of the powerlessness of exile and the forcible display of the powers that created it. Nonetheless, every aspect of our lives is touched by issues of power and weakness. The question of control and power is common to our relationships, communities, politics, business, education, and religion. Unfortunately, our common experience of the struggle is not to say we are well or healthily adjusted to it, far from it. Of course, it is easiest for those who actually hold any given power to be the most unaware of the dynamics of powerlessness upon others. For others, the struggle to be in control, to challenge authority, to make a name for ourselves, is largely thought of as a dynamic that is outgrown with adulthood. So in the face of authority issues, we say things like, “Teenagers will be teenagers!” Or we diagnose the battle to be in control as “middle child syndrome” or “terrible twos,” all the while failing to see our own struggle with similar dynamics. Still for others, questions of power involve wondering if they will ever have a voice, if anyone with power is listening, or if they have been forgotten and silenced indefinitely. Admittedly, to be conscious of the struggle is far better than being complacent about the question of power in general.

The story told in Daniel 6 begins significantly with a king who is for all practical purposes very much in control. Daniel, a Hebrew slave in exile, is found by king Darius to be distinguished in a way the king believes he can make use of and Daniel is given a position of authority in the kingdom for the sake of the king. But as the story moves forward, we see king Darius played like a pawn and Daniel is found guilty by the law of the land. To his utter dismay, king Darius finds himself bound by the law that his own lips decreed. Darius is the most powerful king in the world, and yet he is powerless beside his own decree, powerless to save his trusted servant. Whether Darius himself sees the irony in his power and position, we are left to wonder.

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