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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Where Is God

In a certain home town there lived a cobbler, Martin Avdeitch by name. He lived in a small basement room whose one window looked out onto the street, and all he could see were the feet of people passing by. But since there was hardly a pair of boots that had not been in his hands at one time for repair, Martin recognized each person by his shoes. Day after day, he would work in his shop, watching boots pass by. One day he found himself consumed with the hope of a dream that he would find the Lord’s feet outside his window. Instead, he found a lingering pair of worn boots belonging to an old soldier. Though at first disappointed, Martin realized the old man might be hungry and invited him inside to a warm fire and some tea. He had other visitors that evening, and though sadly none were Christ, he let them in also. Sitting down at the end of day, Martin heard a voice whisper his name as he read the words: “I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in. Inasmuch as you did for the least of these, you did unto me.”(1)

Every Christmas, our family reads the story of Martin the Cobbler as an aid to our celebration. Tolstoy’s words offer something of a creative attempt to capture the wonder of a God who comes near and helps us picture the gift of Christ among us in accessible terms. Notably, the story was originally titled, Where God Is, Love Is.

The Christian story that informs the Christian calendar gives its followers time and opportunity to remember the coming of Christ in a specific context—in Bethlehem, in the Nativity, in the first Christmas. But it also presents repeated opportunities and reminders to prepare for the coming of Christ again and again. Like Martin eagerly waiting at the window, the Christian worldview is one that asks of every day of every year: How will Christ come near today? Will I wait for him? Am I ready for him? Am I even expecting to find him? We are reminded to keep watch, to be prepared, and to continually ready our hearts and minds for the one who is already near. At the same time, the Christian story would also have us to remember how unexpectedly Christ at times appears—as a baby in Bethlehem, a man on a cross, as a woman in need.

In the book of Titus, we read that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people.” How and where will grace show up this week? In order to stay alert to the rich possibilities, perhaps we need to keep before us the radical thought of all that God has offered: a Christ child who comes down to us, a redeemer willing to die for us, a God willing to redefine what is near—all so that we might be where God is. Christianity is not an escape system for us to avoid reality, to live above it, or to be able to redefine it. Christianity is a way that leads the world to grasp what reality is and, by God’s grace and help, to navigate through it to our eternal home in God’s presence.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Waiting for Hope

In the process of moving and reorganizing some bookshelves in the middle of October, I recovered something long out of place. Carved out of olive wood, a small nativity had been left behind from last year’s Christmas. I held it in my hand and cringed at the thought of digging through boxes in the garage long buried by post-Christmas storage. At this point, it seemed better to be two months early in setting it up than ten months late in packing it away.

Strangely enough, my decision then coincided with a friend’s mentioning of a good Christmas quote. Advent was suddenly all around me in October. In a Christmas sermon given December 2, 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!” To be early with my Nativity scene suddenly seemed a wise, but convicting thought. I had kept it around for the sake of convenience, what about for the sake of waiting? If Advent reminds us that we are waiting in December, what reminds us that we are waiting in October or February or July?

The story of the Nativity, though beautiful and familiar, and admittedly far-reaching, is as easily put out of our minds as Christmas decorations are put in boxes. On certain sides of the calendar, a nativity scene looks amiss. Sitting on my mantle in the fall or the spring, it seems somehow away from home, far from lights and greenery, longing for Christmas fanfare. But looking at it with thoughts of Advent near, I am struck by the irony that longing is often precisely the sentiment I am holding amidst the burgeoning lights, greens, and fanfare of Christmas.

As Bonhoeffer continues, “When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us… The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more—a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father.”(1)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – It’s a Wonderful Life

“I know what I’m going to do for the next year, and the next year, and the year after that…I’m going to shake the dust off of this crummy old town and I’m going to see the world.”(1)

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is the classic film of Christmas holiday fare. It’s ubiquity on the airwaves belies its dismal performance at the box office when it was first released just after World War II.(2) Capra’s film follows the life of George Bailey in his small town. And while the film has a happy ending, it exposes the creeping despair and bitterness that comes from the loss of George’s dreams. The film offers a powerful visual of the gap that forms between knowing what George will do “the next year and the year after that” and the reality of living that leaves him wondering whether his is a wonderful life.

Despite the film’s often saccharine sentimentality, it nevertheless presents a realistic picture of lost or abandoned dreams. Like the film’s main character, George Bailey, many of us had dreams of “seeing the world” and “kicking the dust off” of our ordinary lives and existence. Our ideal plans and goals called us out into an ever-expanding future of possibility and adventure.

In this sense, It’s a Wonderful Life offers all who enter into its narrative a chance to look into the chasm between many cherished ideals and the often sober reality of our lives. This glimpse into what is often a gaping chasm of lost hopes and abandoned dreams offers a frightening opportunity to let go. Indeed, facing the death of ones’ dreams head on forces a moment of decision. Will we become bitter by fixating on what has been lost, or will we walk forward in hope on a path of yet unseen possibility?

For Christians, the classical language of faith offers resources in depth for facing the fact that life entails death; it cannot be circumnavigated or avoided. Those who follow the path of Christ are presented with a decision: will the giving up of aspects we suspect essential to our vision of a ‘wonderful’ life lead us to bitterness or to hope? The discipline of discipleship often reveals hands grasped tightly and tenaciously around ideals that must give way to new realities. Author M. Craig Barnes suggests that the journey away from our own sense of what makes for a wonderful life is actually the process of conversion. “It is impossible to follow Jesus and not be led away from something. That journey away from the former places and toward the new place is what converts us. Conversion is not simply the acceptance of a theological formula for eternal salvation. Of course it is that, but it is so much more. It is the discovery of God’s painful, beautiful, ongoing creativity along the way in our lives.”(3)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Like a Thief in the Night

The alarm of discovering your house has been broken into is one I imagine stays with you long after the thief has gone home. Though most are not eyewitnesses to the looming figure that wrongfully entered, victims of such crimes often report seeing shadows in every corner and silhouettes peering through their windows. Signs that someone had been there are enough to call them to alertness.

Whether you have experienced the shock of burglary and its lasting effects or the violating despair of personal loss, the portrayal of Christ as one who will come like a thief in the night is a startling image. The description is one that seems uncouth amongst the less taxing images that will soon be sentimentally upon us—a peaceful mother and father beside a quiet baby in a manger, a bright star that guides wise men in the obscurity of night. How can the gospel juxtapose these images of one who comes as a child of hope and yet returns like a looming, unwanted figure? But this is the counsel from Jesus himself: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”(1)

The cry of the Christian season of Advent, the sounds of which are just starting to stir, is the cry not of sentiment but of disrupted vigilance. One of the key figures in celebrating the season, John the Baptist brings the probing message that continues to cry in urgency: “Are you ready?” Are you ready to discover this infant who came to dwell in the midst of night and suffering? Are you ready to hear his invasive message? Are you ready to discover God among you, the hunter, the thief, the King, the human? During the season of Advent, the church calls the world to look again at stories that have somehow become comfortably innocuous, to rediscover the disruptive signs that someone has been here moving about these places we call home, to stay awake to the startling possibility of his nearness in this place even now. “I say to all: ‘Stay awake,’” says Christ in Mark 13:37.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Festivals of Want

 

In many ways our society is motivated by consumption. Our desire to have stuff charts the course of many of our pursuits and without such desire the economy would no doubt collapse. Yet reflect for a moment on how pervasive this is in our lives.

We have festivals of consumption. Every Easter and Christmas we have special rituals. Sale signs go up all around us, the good news of great deals is announced on television, and all are invited to join in the worship of consumption. So where do we go? To the temples of consumption: the malls and car dealerships and super-sized department stores. These centers provide an opportunity to find whatever we seek at a price we can afford, as we are invited to take the waiting out of wanting.

All the while, the atmosphere is tailored so that we are comfortable. The commercials and displays are attractive and compelling and it is all so much fun. We are soothed by a background of ambient music and stimulated by the smells of freshly ground coffee or freshly baked cookies.

To take it further, we even sing the songs of consumption, as we memorize our favorite commercials and slogans. I can still hear the sounds of the Rice Krispies commercials from my childhood in Scotland. Today it is probably a cosmetics commercial or a car commercial.

We buy and sell and work all day so that we can have these things, which, once we have them, keep us working even harder to maintain the lifestyle we have achieved. We go to school so we can get good jobs. We send our kids through school so they can get out and make money to have nice things. But do we ever stop to ask, “Why?”

Now I’m exaggerating I realize, but there is some substance to what I’m pointing out. There is a story of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament that might apply. Esau was very much a man of the field, a man of the world. One day, after finding no satisfaction in his search for something to consume, he sold his birthright to his younger brother for nothing more than a bowl of stew. The birthright was supposed to be a cherished thing. It represented the dignity, inheritance, and leadership that would come to its beneficiary in the future. But Esau saw neither sense nor value in waiting for the future. He was hungry and he wanted what he wanted now. And so he gave away what should have been the most important thing to him in order to feed his desire.

“How senseless,” we might say of this story. Yet we do the very same thing when we spend our time in pursuit of what we want right now at the expense of what is lasting. Jesus said it simply: What does it profit you if you gain the whole world and yet lose your soul? The Christian season of Advent is the season of waiting, fittingly arriving during this season of rush and want. Waiting is hard, and yet it can be a hopeful gift for a world consumed. Amidst our festivals of distraction and impatience, Advent is an invitation to turn to the God who did not remain distant from our situation but stepped right into the midst of it to give us what we needed most.

Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Nativity Scenes

A general position on December birthdays (particularly for those of us who hold them) seems to be that its proprietors are easily neglected. We are over-shadowed by Christmas decorations in November and over-looked in December by relatives busy with Christmas errands and office parties. And yet, I suspect that others, like me, have always secretly loved it. In the season of our births, the world was awake, decking the halls, and a great number of them were looking to the birth of another infant. The spirit of Christmas seems a part of our own, the birth of Christ reminding us each year that we, too, were born, that we were fragile, that we were held. For those born in December (and for any who remember their own beginnings in the scenes of Advent), the season offers a time of contemplating infantile beginnings, a lesson in what it means to be human like no other. Stories and celebrations of one’s birth are juxtaposed with a nativity story told long before we were born and one that will continue to be told long after us.

In fact, the story of Christianity is a story filled with nativity scenes. In these stories, we find a God present before we have accomplished anything and longing to gather us long before we know it is happening. Thus David can pray, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” And God can say to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” And those who witnessed the miracle of Elizabeth and Zechariah can rightly exclaim God’s hand upon the child before that child could say his own name: “The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”(1)

In a world where significance and identity are earned by what we do, by what we have accomplished, by what we own, by what we earn, and Christmas is about the lines we fought, the lists we finished, the gifts we were able to secure, the kingdom of God arrives scandalously, jarringly—even offensively—into our captive and often content lives. In this kingdom, a person’s value begins before she has said or done the right things, before he has accumulated the right lifestyle, or even made the right lists. In this kingdom, God not only uses children in the story of salvation, not only calls us to embrace the kingdom as little children, but so the very God of creation steps into the world as a child.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Waiting Houses

In the world of quirky factoids and interesting anecdotes, I have often heard that if one lives to be seventy years old, one will have spent three years of her life just waiting. Waiting in line at the grocery store; waiting in the doctor’s office; waiting in traffic; waiting for lunch to be ready; waiting for recess time at school; waiting. In his book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, children’s author Theodor Geisel, or “Dr. Seuss,” describes a place called “the waiting place.” It sounds like the place most of us inhabit. He describes it as a useless place where people are just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go

or a bus to come, or a plane to go

or the mail to come, or the rain to go

or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow

or waiting around for a Yes or No

or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Sometimes waiting feels useless and futile. We are waiting around for what, exactly? More than this, waiting is difficult. It is difficult to have patience. It is something we admire in others, but find difficult for ourselves. Patience is something I can admire in the driver behind me, for example, but not in the one ahead of me!

The patience required by waiting is counterintuitive in our busy, fast-paced world. When our daily lives are made up of high speed Internet, instant messaging, and fast food, waiting for anything seems like an eternity. Moreover, in a world where so much beckons us, waiting asks us to be still and this can feel meaningless. English poet John Milton once wrote that those who serve stand and wait. Indeed, waiting asks us to be disciplined, self-controlled, and emotionally mature as the world speeds by us. Waiting requires an unshakeable faith, hope, and love that will trump all the action done for the sake of expediency. Waiting is often our best, hard work.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Power, Truth, and Beauty

Whether in conversations with Christians, skeptics, or firm-believers of other religions, the issue of truth is often in the forefront of my mind. As I engage with questioners who want to know how I can trust the Bible, or how anyone could believe the resurrection was an actual event, or how on earth a man who lived two millennia ago could have anything to do with us today, the question that comes to mind as I listen is similar to theirs, yet asked with the wonder of a witness: Is it true? Can it be true that God has come so near, that Christ is so loving, that God reigns and has opened wide the doors to the kingdom? Can it be true that the power of the gospel is such that I can be called a witness? It is an inquiry that orients me as I engage in conversations that otherwise reduce matters of faith and religion to personal preference.

Is it true? In fact, even Jesus in his conversation with Pilate couched his identity in the authority of truth: “You are right in saying that I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). In our current religious context, where preference and choice are often played as trump cards, reintroducing truth as a category is often necessary.

And yet, communicating the gospel isn’t only about communicating the truth. This is not to say, of course, that the gospel is untrue or that truth is not one of the most significant factors in my decision to follow Christ. Far from this, the truth of the gospel is indeed one of the reasons why I believe it is good news. But it is Christ himself who is in fact the news! Whether the apostle Paul was wearing the hat of preacher, prisoner, nurse, or mentor, the content of his message was always Christ; he knew that even truth can be made an idol if lifted above Christ himself. In fact, the most distinctive quality of Paul’s ministry is that he believed himself a witness standing at the scene of God’s kingdom testifying to all that he saw—not a detective or prosecutor or whistle-blower trying to expose the truth at all costs.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Love of People

Let love be our legacy is a sticker that adorns the back bumper of my car. Passed out by churches in my county after the early days of the 2016 presidential election in the US, at the very least it reminds me to be careful how I drive and react to other drivers on the highways and roads of my city and state. For how could a car with that kind of bumper sticker cut someone off in traffic?

Obviously, the sentiment conveyed is far more than simply a corrective to road-rage or crazy driving. It points to a future yet to come when I am long-gone and others talk about the imprint (if any) my life has made. Will it be an imprint of love? Did love guide my choices such that there is a future left for all who will come after me? And not just any future, but a world characterized by love, even filled up to overflowing.

On my good days, I am very conscious of my bumper sticker and take its challenge very seriously. I ask myself if love was the legacy from this day. On my bad days, the bumper sticker simply reminds me of how short I fall when it comes to love; it is nothing more than a platitude or a pretend piety that barely hides my misanthropy. I see the real size of my heart and it is so small. The legacy of love seems an impossible dream.

French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre once wrote: “Hell is other people.” In his play, No Exit, Sartre presents a sardonic vision of hell as the place in which one must spend eternity with individuals one would barely seek to spend five minutes with in real life. As one writer notes, “The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.”(1) Sartre’s vision, though highly narcissistic and individualistic, is often closer to our real selves than most of us would care to admit.

Living, working, and interacting with other people can indeed create a hellish existence for many. And most of us, if we are honest, can quickly think of the names of individuals whose personal habits or grating personalities make relating to them very difficult at best. Sartre’s honesty, albeit through a cynical lens, also exposes clear boundaries of human love. The capacity for love is generally offered to those who are easy to love or who share our own way of living in and viewing the world.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Second Greatest

Sam Harris is one of the well-known band of atheists whose vitriolic rantings and button-pushing avowals seem to draw audiences like reality television. His observations are shouted angrily; his ideas are often inflammatory. His frustration with Christians is spouted with sarcasm, antagonism, and resentment. And something in one of his recent works made me wonder how I might have contributed to it. In an open letter to American Christians, Harris begins, “Thousands of people have written to me to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians believe that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own.”(1)

When one understands apologetics as a defense of the Christian faith, voices like Harris, who attack Christianity and its morality with fluent hostility, seem to justify a defensive stance. How can one respond to those who readily earn and live up to titles like “Darwin’s Rottweiler” without barking a few hostile lines of their own? Is it ever Christ-like to respond to Harris in the manner that Harris responds to Christ?

There is no doubt that Jesus frustrated more than a view scribes; he was fairly harsh on the rich, and he responded angrily to the commercialization of the temple. Yet while these are the scenes we might summon to substantiate hostile words when the God we love is debased with insult, Harris is right. Jesus told anyone who would listen that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything that is in us, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as we would ourselves.

In fact, in this scene it is interesting that Jesus noted the second greatest commandment at all. No one had asked this question (we generally are not interested in runner ups), and yet he willingly offered the information. He made note of the second commandment as if it was so near to the greatest commandment to warrant formal connection. Elsewhere, Jesus furthered these instructions so that we would be sure that “neighbor” was not a word with which we could take creative license. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”(2)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Faith and the Whole Picture

I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “faith” recently. It just doesn’t get the message across. “Faith” is a word that’s now misused and twisted. “Faith” today is what you try to use when the reasons are stacking up against what you think you ought to believe. Greg Koukl sums up the popular view of faith, “It’s religious wishful thinking, in which one squeezes out spiritual hope by intense acts of sheer will. People of ‘faith’ believe the impossible. People of “faith” believe that which is contrary to fact. People of ‘faith’ believe that which is contrary to evidence. People of “faith’ ignore reality.” It shouldn’t therefore come as a great surprise to us, that people raise their eyebrows when ‘faith’ in Christ is mentioned. Is it strange that they seem to prefer what seems like reason over insanity?

It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t overemphasize the individual elements of the whole picture of faith, like we so often do. But what does the Bible say about faith? Is it what Simon Peter demonstrates when he climbs out of the boat and walks over the water towards Jesus? Or is it what Thomas has after he has put his hand in Jesus’s side? Interestingly, biblical faith isn’t believing against the evidence. Instead, faith is a kind of knowing that results in action. The clearest definition comes from Hebrews 11:1. This verse says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In fact, when the New Testament talks about faith positively it only uses words derived from the Greek root [pistis], which means ‘to be persuaded.’ In those verses from Hebrews, we find the words, “hope,” “assurance,” “conviction” that is, confidence. Now, what gives us this confidence?

Christian faith is not belief in the absence of evidence. It is the proper response to the evidence. Koukl explains that, “Christian faith cares about the evidence…the facts matter. You can’t have assurance for something you don’t know you’re going to get. You can only hope for it. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is so important. It gives assurance to the hope. Because of a Christian view of faith, Paul is able to say in 1 Corinthians 15 that when it comes to the resurrection, if we have only hope, but no assurance—if Jesus didn’t indeed rise from the dead in time/space history—then we are of most men to be pitied. This confidence Paul is talking about is not a confidence in a mere ‘faith’ resurrection, a mythical resurrection, a story-telling resurrection. Instead, it’s a belief in a real resurrection. If the real resurrection didn’t happen, then we’re in trouble. The Bible knows nothing of a bold leap-in-the-dark faith, a hope-against-hope faith, a faith with no evidence. Rather, if the evidence doesn’t correspond to the hope, then the faith is in vain, as even Paul has said.”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – What Is Wrong With the World?

In a world of finger-pointing, Tetsuya Ishikawa paused instead to confess guilt. After seven years at the forefront of the credit markets, he took the idea of a friend to write a book called How I Caused the Credit Crunch because, in the friend’s analysis, “it sounds like you did.”(1) In the form of a novel that discredits the notion of the financial sector as a collaboration of remote, unthinking forces, he admits in flesh and blood that he believes he is guilty, too. Though reviewers note Ishikawa does not remain long with his admission of responsibility, he succeeds in showing the financial markets as a reflection of human choices with real, moral dimensions—and, ultimately, the futility of our ongoing attempts at finding a better scapegoat.

Whenever the subject of blame or fault comes about in any sector of life, whether economic, societal, or individual, scapegoating is a far more common reaction than confession. Most of us are most comfortable when blame is placed as far away from us as possible. Even the word ‘confession,’ the definition of which is concerned with personally owning a fault or belief, is now often associated with the sins of others, which an outspoken soul just happens to be willing to share with the world happily willing to listen: Confessions of a Shopaholic, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Confessions of a Columnist. We are interested in those confessions of a former investment banker/warlord/baseball wife because the “owning up” has nothing to do with owning anything.

Perhaps like many of us in our own confessing, Charles Templeton’s 1996 book, Farewell to God, which offered the confessions of a former Christian leader, is filled with moments of confession in both senses of the word: honest commentary and easy scapegoating. In his thoughts that deal with the Christian church, it is particularly apparent. Pointing near and far and wide, Templeton observes that the church indeed has a speckled past: “Across the centuries and on every continent, Christians—the followers of the Prince of Peace—have been the cause of and involved in strife. The church during the Middle Ages was like a terrorist organization.”(2) He admits that some good has come from Christian belief, but that there is altogether too much bad that has come from it. He then cites the church’s declining numbers as evidence that the world is in agreement; people are losing interest because the church is failing to be relevant. Pews are empty; denominations oppose one another; the church is floundering and its influence waning—except perhaps its negative influence, which he insists is on the rise. Of course, Templeton is by no means alone in these accusations.

Undeniably, many of these confessions regarding the church are riddled with difficult truths that someone somewhere must indeed own. Other assertions are not only difficult to posit as relevant, but are simply dishonest attempts to point blame and escape the more personal, consistent answer. As Templeton determinedly points out the steady decline of attendance in the church as reason to disbelieve, it is unclear how this supports his personal confession that Christian beliefs are untrue. Does the claim of the church’s decline (the veracity of which is debated) say anything about whether Christianity is based on lies, lunacy, or fact? Jesus spoke of those who would turn away, churches that would grow cold, faith that would be abandoned. Moreover, if one is truly convinced that Christianity is an outlandish hoax, isn’t it odd that so much energy is taken in criticizing the church in the first place—as if one had a vision of what the people of God should look like?

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Of Gratitude and Grief

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit with some friends who live in Colorado. We spent a couple of days hiking in the beautiful San Isabel National Forest. Within this section of the Rocky Mountains are five major mountain ranges that rise from 5800 to over 14,400 feet and have the most mountain peaks above 14,000 feet. The difference in elevation affords one multiple views from different perspectives.

Starting at the tree line populated by various conifers, aspens, and cottonwoods, we climbed to the more barren alpine terrain dotted with scrub brush, alpine wildflowers, and wildlife. Reaching the ridgeline, the vistas of the valleys and trails below took on ever-new perspectives. Climbing higher gave a broader panorama, obviously, but each step taken presented ever-changing views. From my perspective, I thought I had seen everything on the trail, and yet new aspects of the horizon continually became visible.

Like hiking, life often has a way of shifting one’s perspective. While on the hike, I received a text message from a concerned relative. “Was I anywhere near the shootings?” the text read. I hadn’t learned yet about the horrible massacre that had occurred just hours earlier in an Aurora, Colorado theater where 12 people were killed and 58 were seriously injured. From striking beauty and the grandeur of mountain vistas to images of suburban sidewalks spattered with blood, our perspective shifted once again. Now the awe producing vistas of our hike were juxtaposed against the horror and terror of what should have been any other night at the movies in suburbia. While we had been enjoying the landscapes, others were fighting for their lives. While we laughed at marmots at play, others wept over their lost loved ones. While our feet trod lightly without a care in the world, others bore the weight of worry and fear that their loved ones, too, were among those killed. And this grievous juxtaposition of opposites occurs over and over again in contexts all around the world.

How quickly our perspectives changed. Just as our view of the landscape looked differently as we made our way along the trail, so too changed our perspective of our precarious place in the world and the brevity of life. Despite the serene beauty around us, our perspective shifted to dark and deadly forces not two hours away from where we stood. Gratitude gave way to grief over what was lost.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – This Is a Human

The recognition of one’s humanity can be an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Life’s fragility, life’s impermanence, life’s intertwinement with imperfection and disappointment—bitter medicines are easier to accept. The Romantic poets called it “the burden of full consciousness.” To look closely at humanity can indeed be a realization of dread and despair.

For the poet Philip Larkin, to look closely at humanity was to peer into the absurdity of the human existence. Whatever frenetic, cosmic accident that brought about a species so endowed with consciousness, the sting of mortality, incessant fears of failure, and sieges of shame, doubt, and selfishness was, for Larkin, a bitter irony. In a striking poem titled “The Building,” he describes the human condition as it is revealed in the rooms of a hospital. In this vast building of illness and waiting, one finds “Humans, caught/On ground curiously neutral, homes and names/Suddenly in abeyance; some are young,/ Some old, but most at that vague age that claims/The end of choice, the last of hope; and all/ Here to confess that something has gone wrong./ It must be error of a serious sort,/ For see how many floors it needs, how tall…”(1)

With or without Larkin’s sense of dread, this confession that “something has gone wrong” is often synonymous with the acknowledgment of humanity. “I’m only human,” is a plea for leniency with regards shortcoming. In Webster’s dictionary, “human” itself is an adjective for imperfection, weakness, and fragility. There are, nonetheless, many outlooks and religions that stand diametrically opposed to this idea, seeing humanity with limitless potential, humans as pure, the human spirit as divine. In a vein not unlike the agnostic Larkin, the new atheists see the cruel realities of time and chance as reason in and of itself to dismiss the rose-colored lenses of God and religion. Yet quite unlike Larkin’s concluding outlook of meaninglessness and despair, they often (inexplicably) suggest a rose-colored view of humanity.(2) In the other side of this extreme, still other belief-systems emphasize the depravity of humanity to such a leveling degree that no person can stand up under the burden of guilt and disgust.

In deep contrast to such severe or optimistic readings, Jesus of Nazareth adds an entirely different dimension to the conversation. The divine and human Jesus brings before us the notion that while there is indeed an error of a serious sort, the error is not in “humanness” itself. In his own flesh, he provides a way for the great paradox of humanity to be rightly acknowledged: both the deep and sacred honor of being human and yet the profound lament and disgrace of all that is broken. So the Christian’s advantage is not that they find themselves less fallen or closer to perfection than others, nor that they find in their religion a means of simply escaping this world of fragility, brokenness, guilt, suffering, and error. The Christian’s advantage is Christ himself. The human Son of God mediates on our behalf, bringing us back to a full and forgiven humanity. We are, in Christ, re-humanized not dehumanized. In his life, death, and resurrection, Christ shows a world that has gone awry in light of God’s severe and merciful pursuit. In his vicarious humanity, we encounter our own.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – An Unexpected Encounter

 

During my high school years, my friends and I would always attend church youth group on Friday evenings. More often than not, these events comprised of playing different games and eating food. After the games were done, we would be ushered in to a room where we would sing songs and then listen to a short talk given by the youth leader. I knew what to do in these moments. I had become an expert at tuning out religious or spiritual talk. I had fifteen years of growing up in a Christian home which consisted of attending church twice every Sunday, one midweek service in addition to another church club. I was a well-seasoned Christian, or at least I thought I was.

But on this particular Friday evening, something happened that I will never forget. I was in the chapel listening to people singing songs, but it all felt so different. I looked across the room and saw people singing as if they really meant what they were singing. People were not only singing about God. They were singing to God. They looked and acted as if God were really in the room. And I must confess that it was the first time, at least to my remembrance, that I felt that same reality. The only way I can describe this moment is to tell you that God was in the room.

I did not sing. I saw the words on the screen. I looked at the person leading the songs and stubbornly did not sing a word. But here’s where things became a bit complicated. The fact is, I did want to sing. All my life, my soul longed to sing out to God. It is hard to explain this tension, but let me put it like this. My soul longed to sing out a song to God, to God’s greatness, but I felt that up to that point, if I were to sing I would simply be singing a song for the sake of being in church. I had never felt the “Godness” of God. It was in this moment that I first sensed the greatness of God all around me. I gave in and started singing.

And what pleasure I felt when I sang. I did not fully comprehend this God to whom I was singing, and I still don’t, but I knew that the one to whom I was singing was real. Deep down, I knew that God was real. Worship, in this case, came before I placed my utter dependence in God. As I tried to make sense of what I experienced that evening, I came across the writings of the late Abraham Heschel. He once wrote that “the secret to spiritual living is the power to praise. Praise is the harvest of love. Praise precedes faith. First we sing, then we believe. The fundamental issue is not faith but sensitivity and praise, being ready for faith.”(1) My heart’s expression of worship at the Friday night youth event served as a means to knowing and understanding God more. Indeed, as Heschel pointed out, trust in God was obtained by first acknowledging and responding to the reality of God.

Christian conversion happens in many different ways. As it has been said, there is only one gospel but there are many ways to that gospel. In my case, on one particular evening while I was midway through high school I attended a church youth event not looking for God and was confronted with God’s presence. God’s presence was immediate and palpable. It was then that I encountered God for the first time. I was “overtaken with awe of God.”(2) and in singing out, even raising my hands to God, I experienced a rich pleasure that I had never before tasted, pleasure because my voice and hands were finally able to express what my soul had so longed for.

Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(1) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man? (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1965), 116.

(2) Ibid.

 

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Curiosity and the Current Scandal

In an interview with Mars Hill Review producer Ken Myers, historian John Lukacs spoke of what surprised him most when he first arrived in America to teach at the university. He noticed in the students he taught a total lack of curiosity—and he claims it has only gotten worse. Anything we learn, says Lukacs, is compelled by the curiosity which first caused us to pursue it, to follow a topic where it leads, and in so doing, find out how very little we know.(1) This principle is highlighted in the French 16th century term for an intellectual historian. Such a scholar was called a “curieux,” notes Lukacs. That is, one who is curious.

Sometimes I wonder if curiosity has been replaced by a fascination with the current scandal, gossip, or mystery plastered about the media. Television ratings remind us that there is always something fantastic about a new revelation, a long-lost document, or some controversial new evidence. We are quickly pulled in by the promise of a scandal. We are easily taken with a good mystery. And we are compelled to be up on the latest public frenzy. But I’m afraid such fascination shows not an attitude of curiosity towards knowledge, but an attitude of passivity that is always waiting to be shown the next new thing.

It is not surprising then to watch whatever latest media revelation become a public fascination. Such was the case with James Cameron’s documentary called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” as he claimed there was new evidence that a tomb in Jerusalem held the remains of Jesus, his wife, and their son. “It doesn’t get bigger than this,” Cameron said at the press release. “We’ve done our homework; we’ve made the case; and now it’s time for the debate to begin.”(2) The foundations of Christianity were hardly devastated, as some of the headlines promised. But the heads of the masses were indeed turned, if only for a moment. Before the premiere of the documentary, the film’s companion book jumped to the top five best selling books online. The coming and going of May 21, 2011 and Harold Camping’s failed prediction of the end of the world presently holds a similar attention. Searches related to his false predictions have been top trends on both Google and Twitter since Saturday. Not surprising, many are using the story as further reason to laugh off religion in general.(3)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Unobscured

 

A trend continues to take place in the online world of anonymity. Several websites offer the opportunity to air one’s darkest secrets. Visitors put into words the very thing they have spent a lifetime wanting no one to know about themselves. While visiting, they can also read the long-hidden confessions of others, and recognize a part of humanity that is often as obscured as their own secrets—namely, I am not the only one with a mask, a conflicted heart, a hidden skeleton. “Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart,” one site reads.  “If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world.” Elsewhere, one of these sites made news recently when one of its anonymous users posted a cryptic message seemingly confessing to murder, catching the attention of Chicago Police.(1)

So often the world of souls seems to move as if instinctively to the very things asked of us by a sagacious God. The invitation to confess is present in the oldest stories of Scripture. After his defiance of God’s request, Adam is asked two questions that invite an admission of his predicament; first, “Where are you?” and later, “Who told you that you were naked?” God similarly inquires of Cain after the murder of Abel, “Where is your brother?” Through centuries of changing culture and the emerging story of faith, this invitation to confess is given consistently. “Therefore confess your offenses to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed,” writes the author of James 5:16. A similar thought is proclaimed in 1 John 1:7. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Perhaps the call to transparency is not from a God who delights in the impoverishment of his subjects, but a God who knows our deepest needs.

The hope of an online confessional brings us one step nearer to meeting the need of bringing what is hidden to light, and it is commendable that so many are giving in to the impulse to explore the ancient gift of confession. But perhaps such an impulse to haul the truth from obscurity is worthy of something even greater than anonymity. Light is not meant to be kept in shadows; the benefit of openness is not meant to be experienced alone. The stories and scriptures mentioned above speak of the element of community in confession, the promise of fellowship where there is courage to be honest about our selves and our needs. On websites of nameless visitors, though I tell you my darkest secret, we remain nameless to one another. While it may help significantly to know that I am not the only one with a mask, my mask remains. The anonymity factor offers the glimpse of light while maintaining the security of darkness. But isn’t this undermining the very light we seek? It is akin to lighting a lamp and putting it under a bowl.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Dining Scandalously

We typically fill our parties with people similar to ourselves. We invite into our homes those we work with, play with, or otherwise have something in common with. We celebrate with fellow graduates, entertain people from our neighborhoods, and open our doors to four year-olds when our own is turning four. Psychologists concur: we socialize with those in our circles because we have some ring of similarity that connects us.

The man in the parable of the great banquet is no different. The story is told in Luke chapter 14 of an affluent master of ceremonies who had invited a great number of people like himself to a meal. The list was likely distinguished; the guests were no doubt as prosperous socially as they were financially. Jesus sets the story at a critical time for all involved. The invitations had long been sent out and accepted. Places were now set; the table was now prepared. All was ready. Accordingly, the owner of the house sent his servant to bring in the guests. But none would come.

Anthropologists characterize the culture of Jesus’s day as an “honor/shame” society, where one’s quality of life was directly affected by the amount of honor or shame socially attributed to him or her. The public eye was paramount; every interaction either furthered or diminished one’s standing, honor, and regard in the eyes of the world.

Thus, in this parable, the master of the banquet had just been deliberately and publicly shamed. He was pushed to the margins of society and treated with the force of contempt. Hearers of this parable would have been waiting with baited breath to hear how this man would attempt to reclaim his honor. But scandalously, in fact, the master of the feast did not attempt to reverse his public shame. Altogether curiously, he embraced it.

Turning to the slave, the owner of the house appointed the servant with a new task: “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and the poor and maimed and lame and blind bring in here.”(1) Returning, the servant reported, “Lord it has all occurred as you ordered, and still there is room.” So the owner of the house responded again, “Go out into the waves and hedges and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – God at Terminal Five

I wrote one of the last sections of the book Why Suffering? on a plane flight from London to New York.(1) As I came through security at Heathrow Airport, I had about an hour until my departure, and I had it in mind to find a quiet spot and make a start on the writing I had planned.

As I began to walk toward the departure gates, a small sign for the “Multi-Faith Prayer Room” caught my eye, and instantaneously—though I have never before had an urge to visit an airport prayer room—I felt this conviction that there was someone in that room whom I was supposed to talk with. It was as if someone had just told me, “There is someone waiting to speak with you there,” even though I had not audibly heard those words.

I did an about-face and walked a good distance away from my departure gate to the arrivals terminal where the prayer room was located. When I walked in, there was one man in the room, sitting in a corner on the floor. He appeared to be about my age. When he saw me looking around the prayer room, he asked, “Are you religious?” We began speaking about what it means to be religious, and he soon shared with me that he was going through the worst suffering of his life.

Mohammed fought back tears as he shared about what no one would ever want to go through. He expressed that he never talks about such things with anyone, but that he just needed to get it out. He told me that he used to pray five times a day, but that now the suffering is too much; he opens his mouth to pray and nothing comes out. Finally, Mohammed challenged me, “If God exists, why is there so much suffering? And where is he amidst it all?”

Now I understood why we were supposed to meet. I told Mohammed that the one person of whom he finally asked “Why suffering?” was currently writing a book by that very title, and in fact was walking in the opposite direction toward the departure gates when God turned him around and led him to this specific room to share that God does care and that he is present.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – What Is Lost

Losing things is a nuisance that seems forever mine. It’s the minor things I lose, things I seem to have given myself permission to be less attentive to keeping found. I am notorious for misplacing my car keys most of all, and my sunglasses are almost always missing. Most days I haphazardly place them somewhere near the first thing that was on my mind as I took them off or turned off the engine—which means that sometimes I find them in the laundry room and other times by the refrigerator.

Habitually missing keys are certainly a frustration, but finding them is usually as simple as retracing my steps—and there is always a spare set if they don’t turn up right away. To my husband, however, lost keys are a source of unnecessary frustration. He has worked patiently on the problem; we have a special place to put the keys when we walk through the door. Some days this works.

Other days I more resemble the woman in Jesus’s parable tearing apart the house to find the lost coin, lighting a lamp, sweeping the house, searching carefully until she finds it. And perhaps this contributes to my attitude with regard to lost keys—I know I will eventually find them. In fact, the only time I seem lose them is when I am comfortably in the confines of my own house. Sadly, sunglasses are another case entirely.

In two different parables, Jesus compares the sentiments that accompany the person who has lost something to the sentiments of the heavens over the one who is lost. When the woman in the parable has found the coin she was searching for, she calls her friends and neighbors together and asks them to celebrate with her: “I have found my lost coin!”

Jesus then concludes: “In the same way, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over even one sinner who repents.”(1)

My lost keys or pens or coins don’t typically evoke in me such sentiments. And I wonder how easy it is to carry a similar lightness about a world buried in injustice, lost in pain, distraction, or indulgence. How easy is it to give ourselves permission to be inattentive to so much around us, to see a world of need as something minor, to view our own wandering as a problem that will work itself out like lost keys? No doubt the heavens grieve over this sort of inattention even as they grieve over the lost daughter or missing son.

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