Tag Archives: Ravi

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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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Upending Fair

 

I do not know of many races or sporting competitions in which the last person across the finish line comes in first place. Certainly, getting the lowest time often means the winning performance. But to come in last place means to come in last. For all of us who were picked last for various athletic events in school, how whimsical it would have been if being chosen last was a position of honor! Of course, I could very easily see how unfair it would seem if those with the best athletic ability, those who had trained the longest, worked the hardest, and had come in first place did not receive the honor due that effort. The last being first can be very bad or very good depending upon where one stands.

Jesus once told a story that upends expectations for those who perennially find themselves as last or first. A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard. They are hired throughout the work day and all the workers agree to the wage of a denarius for a day’s work. The enigmatic and exceptional punch line to this story occurs when those who are hired at the very end of the day—in the last hour—are paid the same wage as those who worked all day long. The long-suffering laborers cry out, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.” Those workers that were hired first are not paid any additional wage. The first are not first, in this story. Instead, the landowner replies with a radical reversal: The last shall be first, and the first last.

Not only is the conclusion to this story exceptional and enigmatic, it also seems wholly unfair. For how could those who worked so little be paid the full day’s wage? Yet, this upending of any sense of fairness is a recurring theme in other stories of Jesus as well. Indeed, the familiar parable of the prodigal son functions in a similar manner and upsets our sense of what is fair and right, just as in the parable of the laborers. A careful reading presents an extravagant display of grace towards all wayward sons and daughters, even as it illuminates a human frugality with grace.

Jesus presented this story as a crowd of tax-collectors, sinners, and religious leaders gathered around him. All who listened had a vested interest in what Jesus might say. Some hoped for grace, while others clamored for judgment. “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 a third of the inheritance to the youngest son upon the death of the father.(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.

The religiously faithful (i.e., first in faithfulness) in the crowd might have gasped at this statement. How could the father extend such grace towards a son so wasteful and wanton? Yet, this father is the true prodigal, extending grace in an extravagant way. His prodigal heart 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, he 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.”

The older brother in Jesus’s story provocatively gives voice to a deep sense of outrage.(1) In many ways, his complaint intones the same complaint of the laborers in the vineyard. “For so many years, I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of your… But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots; you killed the fattened calf for him.” We can hear the implicit cry, “It’s not fair!” The text then tells us that the older son was not willing to join the celebration. He will not hear the entreaty of his gracious father both to come into the celebration and to recognize that “all that is mine is yours.” Here again, the last shall be first, and the first last and all expectations of fairness or of getting one’s rightful due are upended.

While not vague in their detail or content, these two parables of Jesus are both exceptional and enigmatic. If we are honest, they disrupt our sense of righteousness and our sense of fairness. Both portraits of the prodigal father and of the landowner present a radical reversal. God lavishes grace freely on those many deem the last or the least deserving. But perhaps the exceptional and enigmatic aspects of these parables are felt most keenly by those who fail to recognize their need of grace. For all who see themselves least, last, or lost from the grace extended by the gracious God depicted in these stories, we may yet find ourselves in that honored place of the presence of God.


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

 

(1) Fred Craddock, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 187.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Imagination Reborn

 

Nicodemus was confused. He had come to Jesus under the secrecy of the night professing what he thought he knew: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”(1) Nicodemus was a Pharisee in the time of Jesus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He was highly regarded, which most likely explains the veil of night by which he sought to meet the controversial rabbi. He did not want to draw unnecessary attention to his consideration of Jesus. Even so, it was perhaps an act of faith to seek out the divisive young man from Galilee, an act of humility to grapple with a message that thoroughly confused him, a message that seemed to call the very basis of his faith into question.

In reply to Nicodemus’s admission that night, Jesus offered one of his own: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” The ensuing conversation is one of mystery and semantics.

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.”

Again Jesus answered curiously, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”(2)

Nicodemus replied as many of us reply on a journey of faith, belief, doubt, and confusion: as one reaching for light to see dim outlines of a picture before him. “How can this be?” he asked, and the conversation that followed showed a man not asking hypothetically but actually, as one really longing to understand the logistics of rebirth. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the obscurity of darkness and found himself confronted by a conversation about flesh and spirit and light: “[W]hoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

G.K. Chesterton once said that it is important for the landlady who is considering a lodger to know his income, but it is more important to know his philosophy. Likewise, for the general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s worldview. “[T]he question” writes Chesterton, “is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.”(3) The big picture is always the most important picture. And when the picture is God, God outgrows every frame through which our eyes begin to see the divine. In a manner reminiscent of the exchange between Aslan and Lucy, God as noun, verb, and all always moves beyond the God we imagine.

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “You’re bigger.”

“I am not,” said the great lion. “But every year you grow; you will find me bigger.”

For Nicodemus, the entire picture was turned on its head. Everything he knew was cast into shadows by the light who stood before him. “How can this be?” are the last words we hear from Nicodemus this night. The darkened exchange of Christ and the Pharisee is one that ends without clarity. Yet true to our own lives, his confusion does not seem to disperse in the expanse of one chapter. There are two more references to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, and they suggest that that this initial meeting with Jesus was the beginning of something of a journey. In the darkness of faith, Nicodemus seemed to discover the God who is there, the light who draws us further up and further in, until standing before the divine, we ourselves are reborn.

 

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

(1) John 3:2.
(2) John 3:3-21.
(3) G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 15.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Definitive Fingerprints

He seemed to brace himself for what had become the typical barrage of questioning after stating his occupation. The once unrecognized field of “forensic science” now comes attached with visions of beautiful men and women swabbing for DNA, replicating gunfire trajectories, decoding cyber movement, and piecing together the truth with hair, bugs, and CODIS. The tremendous popularity of forensic dramas has made crime scene investigating a household subject. So with a real forensic scientist standing in front of me, I admit it was hard to repress my enthusiasm. Predictably, I asked if he watched any of the shows. Humoring my line of questioning for the moment, he admitted that he did not.

The vast public intrigue with forensic science has been increasing as feverously as the viewerships of crime scene television. In Great Britain alone, the increase in students applying for forensic programs is up nearly 33 percent, attributed entirely to the influence of CSI, NCIS, Bones, and many similar programs.(1) They come into their programs believing they already know a great deal about the job because they have seen it all performed. In a more damaging vein, criminologists note the pervasive misinformation that is powerfully influencing criminal justice systems in various ways, particularly and significantly in the minds and expectations of jurors.(2)

Analysts refer to this global phenomenon of forensic pop culture and its consequences as the “CSI Effect,” though speculation on the reasons for our feverish embrace of the motif is wider ranging. In my own right, I find something compellingly clean in the uncomplicated movement from mystery and crisis through clues and evidence to truth. In less than an hour, viewers are taken from dark riddle to conclusive resolution. Truth and justice emerge plainly, even where deception, obscurity, and injustice once reigned. In the rare instance when the suspect does not personally own up to the crime after the facts have emerged, the science and its expert witnesses are so definitive that it hardly matters. The truth is clear.

Of course, I know in reality that mysteries are not typically so easily dissected nor the truth so mechanically laid out for the taking. But in that brief hour, I am relieved at the clarity of truth, presented to me quickly and with watertight certainty. English professor Scott Campbell further speculates on the allure of “a longed-for world where deceit is no longer possible and where language finds a close, unbreachable connection to the events it seeks to describe.”(3) On the nature of truth in such a world he notes, “If we know how to look for it, the truth is self-evident. It will, in effect, narrate itself.”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – “Whatever Makes You Happy”

 

The following essay from Vince Vitale is an excerpt from Jesus Among Secular Gods coauthored with Ravi Zacharias.

Suppose there was a machine (maybe before long there will be!) that would give you any experience you desired. You could choose to experience winning Olympic gold, or falling in love, or making a great scientific discovery, and then the neurons in your brain would be stimulated such that you would experience a perfect simulation of actually doing these things. In reality, you would be floating in a tank of goo with electrodes hooked up to your brain. Given the choice, should you preprogram your experiences and plug into this machine for the rest of your life?(1)

I join philosopher Robert Nozick, who first devised this thought experiment in the 1970s, in thinking that we should not plug into this “experience machine.” And this suggests the falsity of hedonism, a view dating back over two millennia to the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus. If all that mattered were pleasure (in other words, if hedonism were true), then we should plug into the experience machine and we should encourage everyone we know to plug in as well.

We rightly care about more than just happiness or pleasure. We want to not only feel loved; we want to actually be loved. We want to not only dream of accomplishing our dreams; we want to actually accomplish them. We want to not only feel inside as if we have made a difference in life; we want to actually make a difference. Hedonism is not the desire of our hearts; it is all that is left when every other “ism” has failed us.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Equal Disability

During a recent stint on jury duty, I had the unique opportunity to ride to and from the courthouse on public transportation—the Metro bus. I say unique opportunity because public transportation affords one exposure to the wide variety of people who live in the city and who make their way around its bustling streets and byways by taking the bus. In fact, a wide gamut of society rides together crammed on the Metro bus. Business people hurry to get to work, multi-tasking laptop, cellphone, and paper folders full of projects and to do lists. Students rush to get to school sequestering themselves from the world of the bus by burying their heads in books or tuning into their iPods. There are also many homeless individuals who ride the bus in the “free zone” downtown back and forth between stops, affording a movable shelter from the cold.

Sheer observation of this dynamic diversity was often the extent of my thoughts as I rode. One morning, a group of developmentally disabled students from the local high school got on the bus with me. I tried to engage in light conversation with the few who sat down next to me, asking where they were going in the city. One young woman just stared at me blankly; another, perpetually talking about absolutely everything and nothing at the same time tried to engage me, but not with an answer. Two other young men simply looked at me, offered a vacant smile, and then returned to fiddling with objects to keep their hands and minds occupied.

As the bus moved forward towards the next stop with our unique human cargo, I was overcome with emotion. I wasn’t crying because I felt sorry for these disabled students or worried about their quality of lives—although I do and I did that day. I wasn’t overcome as a result of my admiration for the adult workers whose vocation led them to care for these students who are often the least and the last—although I do, and I did. I was overcome with emotion because I suddenly identified with these disabled individuals. Though I appear “able” bodied—of sound mind and well put together—I realized that I am just like they are.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Enabled to Love

 

At the very first “show and tell” of my kindergarten career, I was faced with a moment of decision. Seated in a circle, one by one we offered our classmates our name and our favorite color. Within moments, it was clear there was an unwritten rule emerging around that circle. Without exception, all of the girls were declaring unanimously that “pink” and/or “purple” was their favorite. I was new to the idea of classmates and wanted these people beside me to be my friends. But I didn’t like either of these colors. Getting more and more anxious with each passing declaration, I decided to tell the truth. “Orange and green,” I avowed incompatibly only to be met with giggles from boys and girls alike. Somehow the embarrassing spectacle only sealed my affection for the obviously unloved, underdog colors.

So when I found the pitiable orange plastic day lilies in the tiny green velvet flowerpot that summer, I knew I had to buy them. My five-year-old eyes saw the beauty in the rejected knickknack, lost on a table full of junk, bearing a tag marked twenty-five cents at a garage sale. When I got them home, I dusted off the hard plastic petals, proudly wrapped a ribbon around the pot, and presented the find triumphantly as a gift to my dad.

Twenty years later, cleaning out the belongings of my father after he had passed away, I found the unsightly plastic flora still perched upon his desk. Looking at the tacky flowers, covered again with dust, still bearing the small ribbon, I recalled the joy of finding the orange treasure, the excitement in handing over twenty-five cents to claim it as my own, and the hard decision I made to give it away. Brushing my fingers over the green velvet pot, I recalled the pleased expression on my dad’s face as he placed it on his desk and told me he would keep it there always. And then I remembered a detail in adulthood that the eyes of the child overlooked: The quarter that purchased these flowers was his own.  

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Twists and Turns

 

One of the wonderful gifts of being young is the endless optimism about the future. It seems that infinite possibilities stretch out before you; creative energy flows freely and there is a vitality that enlivens each new path and experience. All the roads before you open up and offer smooth transport to the attainment of one dream after another.

When I was a young child, the wisdom sayings of King Solomon were some of my favorite passages in the Bible. Their prescriptions offered an optimistic view of life for those who sought to follow the God. For some reason, the words seemed to bounce with joy, energy, and a sense of lightness. For example, “trust in the Lord with all your heart…and He will make your paths straight” were verses that seemed to indicate God’s direct guidance for all his children into happy, straight pathways. I inferred that trusting in God’s guidance would be the result of walking down all the wonderful, straight pathways that lay out before me. I would willingly and gladly walk towards the attainment of all my goals, desires, and dreams.

While these are still precious Scripture verses to me, I have come to understand them differently as an adult. The trust I proclaimed seemed easy as everything went my way. I didn’t rely on my own understanding because I didn’t have to! But, as is true of much of the human experience, my roads did not all run straight. When dreams began to die, life-goals went unmet, and desires dried up, I realized the challenge these verses really offer.

In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes on the challenging nature of belief. “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box.”(1) Indeed, as many of my life goals unraveled before me, ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding’ took on new meaning in the face of absence, want, and unfulfillment. Real trust in God would be forged out of the fires of testing—testing that revealed whether or not I really believed in God, or in what God would give me. So, as God had seemingly abandoned my plans, my test of trust began.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The New Atheism

Though the chorus of voices decrying belief in God has been humming in the ideological background for centuries, it seems to have reached a crescendo with the emergence of a movement that has been dubbed the new atheism. The trademark of this new and continuing brand of atheism is its vitriolic attack on religion. To its advocates, religious beliefs are not only false; they are also dangerous and must be expunged from all corners of society. The pundits of the new atheism are not content to nail discussion theses on the door of religion; they are also busy delivering eviction notices to the allegedly atavistic elements of an otherwise seamlessly progressive atheistic evolution of Homo Sapiens.

Given the rhetoric, one might be forgiven for thinking that some new discoveries have rendered belief in God untenable. Curiously, this drama is unfolding in the same era in which perhaps the world’s leading defender of atheism, Antony Flew, has declared that recent scientific discoveries point to the fact that this world cannot be understood apart from the work of God as its Creator. This is no small matter, for Flew has been preaching atheism for as long as Billy Graham has been preaching the Gospel. Unlike Flew and others, the new atheists seem to forget that the success of their mission hinges solely on the strength and veracity of the reasons they give for repudiating religion. Venom and ridicule may carry the day in an age of sensationalistic sound bites, but false beliefs will eventually bounce off the hard, cold, unyielding wall of reality.

A good example of a claim against religion that does not sit well with the facts of reality is issued in the form of a challenge to the believer to “name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.”(1) We are expected to agree that no such action or statement exists, and then conclude that morality does not depend on God. The problem is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that a non-believer can utter moral statements and even act morally does not logically lead to the conclusion that morality does not depend on God, much less that God does not exist. This challenge misunderstands the believer’s position on the relationship between morality and God.

The believer’s claim is that the world owes its existence to a moral God. All human beings are moral agents created in God’s image and are expected to recognize right from wrong because they all reflect God’s moral character. The fact that human beings are the kinds of creatures that can recognize the moral imperatives that are part of the very fabric of the universe argues strongly against naturalism. Unlike the laws of nature, which even inanimate objects obey, moral imperatives appeal to our will and invite us to make real decisions on real moral issues. The only other parallel experience we have of dos and don’ts comes from minds. Thus when the atheist rejects God while insisting on the validity of morality, he is merely rejecting the cause while clinging to the effect.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Sheep Gate

 

“Shepherd” is not a career choice you often hear children dreaming about. Tending sheep is not as adventurous as being an astronaut or as glamorous as being a movie star. But to one small child in a Sunday school classroom, “shepherd” seemed the most logical answer. What do you want to be when you grow up? She wanted to be a shepherd because “Jesus is good at it and it makes him happy.” This, I thought self-assuredly, was a child who was paying attention in my class.

Later, as I put the crayons back in the cupboard and turned to get the kids in line for church, my eyes caught the picture that hung on the wall behind me each week. It was one of Jesus, holding a lamb in his arms, smiling.

The Christian narrative is full of images of sheep and shepherding. The ancient prophet writes of God, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”(1) The gospel writer notes similarly of Christ, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”(2) Hearing such descriptions, perhaps you recollect images of a Good Shepherd similar to the painting in my Sunday school classroom: Jesus standing peacefully among his flock, keeping watch and taking care. It is an image not far from some of those carefully painted in well-told stories: The LORD is my shepherd I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.

 

When Jesus stood among crowds and spoke of sheep, familiar images of fields and grazing sheep would have come to the minds of his hearers as well. For some, the biblical images of God gathering lambs into his arms would have crossed their minds. But these wouldn’t have been the only images that came to mind, particularly for those who heard Jesus in Jerusalem. “My sheep listen to my voice,” he said, “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”(3)

Standing in the temple of Jerusalem, preaching to worshipers and religious leaders, these words of Jesus about sheep would have evoked a bold awareness of sounds and activities all around them. At tables nearby, bleating sheep were being sold and carried further into the temple, where they were led through a door to the place of sacrifice. Far from the peaceful setting of a pasture, Jesus spoke of sheep in the place where they were about to be slaughtered. Unlike the shepherd among passive lambs in many of our pictures, tending these sheep requires something more than a gentle hand and a watchful eye. These sheep needed to be saved.

So it is quite telling that Jesus first identifies himself, not as the Good Shepherd, but as the gate for the sheep. In the ancient walls of Jerusalem, there was a gate on the north of the city, by which animals were brought in from the countryside for sacrifice. It was called the Sheep Gate. Once inside the city and within the temple courts, there was only one door where the sheep went in, and no lamb ever came back out after entering the temple. They traveled in only one direction, and there they were sacrificed for the sins of men and women. For first-century hearers of Jesus’s words about sheep, such knowledge added to the shock of Christ’s words: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”(4)

In the temple filled with sheep on their way towards death, Jesus declared there was a way out: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the Good Shepherd.”(5)

Like the child in my Sunday school class, I readily imagine the Good Shepherd delights in the task of caring for his flock. He goes willingly to search for the one that has gone astray. He gently offers his arms and guidance through valleys and beside still waters. He calls us by name and smiles at recognition of his voice.

But he also breaks into courtyards where there is no longer hope. He refuses to cower through the course of our rescue, though he is accosted by our sin and humiliated by our denials. He provides a way, though it costs him everything. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his friends, so that even one lamb can get away.

 

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

 

 

(1) Isaiah 40:11.
(2) Matthew 9:36.
(3) John 10:27-28.
(4) John 10:7,9.
(5) John 10:11.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Vapor and Mist

 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.(1)

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

Nothing gold can stay is the bittersweet reality Robert Frost calls to mind in his poem by the same name. The beauty of the yellow birch leaves, like the young flower of springtime fades and falls away. Frost laments all those moments of precious and profound beauty that are equally fleeting and transient. These experiences are the hardest hues to hold. Just like the fading vibrancy of the New England fall, our very lives and all we experience quickly pass before us in the blink of an eye.

The ephemeral nature of life is opined by artists and poets, philosophers and clerics around the world. Many of the world’s great religious traditions address the ephemeral nature of life. Buddhism identifies, for example, how suffering arises as a result of trying to hold onto the impermanent and the fleeting.(2) In Tibetan Buddhism, specifically, mandalas made from colored sand are created and dismantled in a ritual that symbolizes the transitory nature of material life. Likewise in Hinduism, cremation became a vehicle for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life.(3) The ancient Hebrew poets filled their stanzas with the acknowledgement that life is fleeting, short and temporary: “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.”(4) And springing out of the Hebrew tradition, Christianity reiterates this theme: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.”(5)

For many living in light of such realities today, the temptation is to try to hold onto whatever we think will anchor us to permanence. Or else, it is to abandon ourselves to eating, drinking, and being merry because tomorrow we die. But is there another way?

Christians believe in a God who entered into the ephemeral and the temporal in the person of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirmed the teaching of his own Hebraic tradition when he encourages his listeners not to worry, but to trust the God who “arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace.” Life is short, Jesus acknowledges, but the God who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field will care for us. So we do not have to cling onto our lives or the treasures of this earth. As one commentator notes, “Just prior to his teaching on worrying…Jesus warns his listeners against storing up ephemeral treasure on earth… A central theme of his ministry and enacted in his own life, is that the proper way to respond to the nature of reality is to give away one’s life rather than hold on to it, to open our hands and let things go rather than to close our fist around them.”(6)

In embracing all that is ephemeral about life, Jesus opens and offers his life for others. In fact, Jesus extends an ironic invitation to accept ephemerality and death in order to truly find life—and to find life eternal. Not as simply an escape from death, but the eternal life that comes from a relationship with God in the here and now. Jesus prays for those who would follow him, “that they may know you the only true God” for in doing so they would find eternal life.(7) The challenge Jesus sets before those who would follow is the challenge to “die” to holding on; it is to choose—in this life where nothing gold can stay—what makes for life eternal.

 

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

 

(1) Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from The Poetry of Robert Frost ed. by Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt Publishers, 1969).
(2) The Norton Anthology of World Religions, “Buddhism.” Ed. Jack Miles (New York: Norton, 2015).
(3) Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, “Cremation,” Ed. Robert Kastenbaum (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003).
(4) Psalm 90:5-6.
(5) James 4:14.
(6) Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary Series: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Books, 2001), 60.
(7) John 17:3.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Collaborative Creativity

 

They gathered every Thursday around nine in the evening with pipes and pints in hand. At any given meeting there was likely to have been at least one historian, a philosopher, a physician, several poets, and a number of professors. The Inklings, as they called themselves, were literary enthusiasts who praised the value of good narrative and gathered to encourage, challenge, and better one another in their various attempts at creating it. Out of these spirited meetings, in which it is said that “praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work, or even not-so-good work, was often brutally frank,” there arose the final drafts of The Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet, All Hallows’ Eve, and The Great Divorce to name a few.(1)

Contrary to the many critics who insist these writers had little influence on one another (the Inklings’ themselves said of Tolkien that it was easier to influence a “bandersnatch” than the creator of Middle Earth), Diane Pavlac Glyer avers they would not have been the same writers had they not written within the community of the Inklings. “[E]ach author’s work is embedded in the work of others,” writes Gyler, “and each author’s life is intertwined with the lives of others.”(2) Influence, after all, is far from imitation. While it is true that these authors came to their meetings with determined ideas, their reflective and challenging interactions sharpened thoughts, minds, and lives. J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, as well as C.S. Lewis, would likely have imagined far different worlds had they not participated in the regular reading and criticism of their works in progress.

 

This idea of communal creativity is one I resonant with from my own experience of thinking and writing. Even my most original thoughts or imaginative creations are indelibly shaped by a lifetime of encounters with artists, theologians, family, and community. We do not interpret the world alone nor do we live without influencing one another profoundly. In this sense, we might say that creativity in all its forms—even in the simplest acts of living and acting—is inherently an interactive process. What J.R.R. Tolkien notes on the lips of Frodo can indeed be said of our own interacting stories. Peering at the large red book in which Bilbo started to tell the story and Frodo then continued, Sam looks down in wonder, “Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!” he exclaims.

“I have quite finished, Sam,” answers Frodo. “The last pages are for you.”(3)

When the New Testament writers began to speak of creation through the light of all they saw in Jesus Christ, they affirmed the Old Testament understanding of total dependence upon the maker of heaven earth, but they spoke also of Christ’s presence as the Word at the beginning. Likewise, the early church began to see the role and presence of the Spirit in God’s creative work. Creation, they came to understand, and all we see within it, is the work of God in community. All of creation declares the glory of God, the work of the loving interaction between Father, Son, and Spirit—the very first creative community.

As a Christian, I believe this ultimate image of creative collaboration is one that explains our longing for community and connection, our desire to create and work. We are creatures and co-creators alike. The creative collaboration of the Trinity throughout time and creation invites the notion that God has made us for community and relationship, that our stories come together as if a great book with room for more, and that the grace of a good storyteller is working to make the work inherently beautiful. As the Father has invited us to participate in his good work of creation, so Christ has called us to join him in the community of the kingdom among us, each of us works in progress by the Spirit.

 

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

 

(1) W.H. Lewis, “C.S. Lewis: A Biography” (Unpublished Manuscript, 268-269); Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
(2) Diana Pavlac Gyler, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007).
(3) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 1027.

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