Tag Archives: Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Advent and the Hopeful Realist

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

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

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

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Portrait of a Soul

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The Soul of the City

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Outside In

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) Matthew 15:23.

(3) Acts 10:34-35.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Learning How to Think

There are patterns of thought that come as natural to us as our daily routines. These patterns of thought emerge from constructs and experiences that color and shape the way in which we view the world and they can emerge in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes we simply repeat what we have heard. Mindless phrases spill out of our mouths forming the patterns of response—even when the response is incongruent with the situation. “It is what it is,” we say, when compassionate silence is called for or “Everything has a reason” when faced with inexplicable chaos.

I recognize in my own life how these patterns of thought belie my true way of viewing the world, much to my chagrin. Oftentimes, they reveal callousness to the suffering of others. I’ll tell someone, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers” as a substitute for tangible assistance. Or my desire to fit every happening into a neat, understandable package compels me to speak when I first should listen.

Regardless of the situation, it seems a sad reality that so often these patterns of thought and action revolve around placing the self at the center of everything. Many function as if the world really does revolve around the immediate and urgent demands of living one’s own life. Everything is simply an incursion into the routine of putting me, myself, and I front and center. I automatically feel offended, for example, when cut off in traffic. I instinctively feel slighted or defensive that my very presence doesn’t delight and soothe the unhappy. I groan at the inconvenience of having to wait in another line and when I finally have my turn, I take offense at the clerk who doesn’t smile at me the way in which I think I deserve.

In his lauded address to graduates of Kenyon College, the late author David Foster Wallace exposed the routines of thought and action that place the self at the center.(1) In his remarks regarding the benefits of a liberal arts education in shaping one’s ability to think, he suggests that it is the “most obvious, important realities that are the hardest to talk about.”(2) In other words, one of those obvious realities is that when left to our own devices humans think and behave in self-centered ways. But it is one of those routines of thought that mostly goes unmentioned. He continues, “The choice is really about what to think about and how we think about it…to have just a little critical awareness….Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”(3) Rarely, Foster Wallace notes, do we think about how we think because what is revealed is that we are basically selfish in action and thought 99% of the time.

But what if we really made thinking about how we think the routine? Foster Wallace conducts a thought experiment to illustrate how this can be done. What if the car that cuts me off in traffic is not about being in my way or being rude to me, but is a father trying to rush his sick son to the hospital or the doctor and I am in his way? What if the person who is critical of me or sullen towards me has only known criticism and neglect her whole life? What if the grocery bagger is not without social skills, but someone who has had little opportunity, whose parents’ have recently split up, and whose general home life is nothing but misery? How different these situations might look if I took the time to think! Indeed, what if my routine became first thinking of the other person?

One of the beautiful aspects of the Christian story is that we really don’t have to live for ourselves in order to find the good life. In fact, the opposite is true: those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Jesus offered an alternative vision as the one who came to serve. As the apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to not merely look out for their own interests, but also to have the interests of others in mind, he looked to the life of Jesus. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant and made in the likeness of human beings.”(4) How different the world might look if each day we took time to think about the needs of someone else—even just once per day? In so doing, how might that change the very patterns of thought that conspire to keep us living at the center of our own universe, embittered by all the ways we’ve been slighted?

Foster Wallace concludes his address by telling the Kenyon graduates:

“Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation…. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad of petty and unsexy ways every day.”(3)

In a world that isn’t always sure what it thinks about Christianity, Jesus stands inviting us to encounter a very different kind of kingdom at the center of all creation, a kingdom in which he, the suffering servant, is Lord. In this kingdom marked by his living example of sacrifice and care, it is most freeing to discover you are far from alone.

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

(1) David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Commencement Address, Kenyon College Graduation, Kenyon, Ohio, 2005.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

 

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Life After Christmas

In the days following of Christmas, for many the mood is something like the brilliant lights we have just unplugged. Guests go home. Decorations come down. Celebrations cease. Life resumes with a little less fanfare perhaps. Poet W.H. Auden describes the letdown of Christmas almost too well—reminding me even of things I hadn’t considered until my five year old son collapsed into a pool of tears beside our Christmas tree, horizontally resting on the curb beside the trash bins. For my son as much as the poet, the dismantling of Christmas is a lamentable affair:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,

Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes…

There are enough left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—

Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,

Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—

To love all of our relatives, and in general

Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again

As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed

To do more than entertain it as an agreeable

Possibility, once again we have sent Him away…

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,

And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware

Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension…(1)

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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.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Christmas Past

The floor contains the remnants of torn wrappings, boxes, and bows. The stockings hang lifeless from the mantel, empty of all their contents. Leftovers are all that are left of holiday feasting. Wallets are empty and feelings of buyer’s remorse begin to descend and suffocate. On the morning after Christmas, thus begins the season of let down.

It’s not a surprise really. For many in the West, the entire focus of the Christmas season is on gift-giving, holiday parties, and family gatherings, all of which are fine in and of themselves. But these things often become the centerpiece of the season. Marketers and advertisers ensure that this is so and prime the buying-pump with ads and sales for Christmas shopping long before December. Once November ends, the rush for consumers is on, and multitudinous festivities lead to a near fever pitch.

And then, very suddenly, it is all over.

In an ironic twist of history, Christmas day became the end point, the full-stop of the Christmas season. But in the ancient Christian tradition, Christmas day was only the beginning of the Christmas season. The oft-sung carol The Twelve Days of Christmas was not simply a song sung, but a lived reality of the Christmas celebration.(1) In the traditional celebrations, the somber anticipation of Advent—waiting for God to act—flowed into the celebration of the Incarnation that began on Christmas day and culminated on “twelfth night”—the Feast of Epiphany.

For twelve days following Christmas, Christians celebrated the “Word made flesh” dwelling among them. The ancient feasts that followed Christmas day all focused on the mystery of the Incarnation worked out in the life of the believers. Martyrs, evangelists, and ordinary people living out the call of faith are all celebrated during these twelve days.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – A Cynical Christmas

It is the task of marketing departments of all varieties to keep a calculating finger on the pulse of culture, particularly when it comes to consumer trends. The entertainment industry alone has a multi-billion dollar reason to keep their fingers close—which means their research into the entertainment needs of the world is essential. For those of us fascinated with cultural studies, it also means their research into what the public will respond to favorably or unfavorably offers an interesting glimpse into the current cultural landscape.

But even the researchers are getting confused, and especially during the holidays. They find we are sending mixed signals. An article in The New York Times quotes one researcher describing “a curiously widespread contradiction in modern American pop culture—the desperate, self-negating need to be both cynical and sentimental at the same time.”(1) Film historian David Thomson notes of film in general, “One of the main problems in the industry is that young kids do not take the story material seriously. They think it’s mocking.” As a result, “the things we once took very seriously, we half-mock them now.”(2)

By and large, the cultural trend marks a growing distrust and rejection of story and meaning and a general embrace of cynicism. And yet, in recent market research, executives found that audiences of all ages reacted badly to advertising that too sharply dismissed or disrespected the notion or story of Christmas. There is quite measurably a greater desire for storylines with hopeful implications in December. Apparently, we want to joke about life’s meaninglessness, but only 11 months out of the year. The typical cynicism governing the production and marketing of motion pictures is entirely toned down at Christmastime. It seems we want to argue the cake doesn’t exist and eat it too.

I have always appreciated the brave confession of C.S. Lewis that he was once living in a whirl of contradictions. This is a difficult thing even to notice of one’s life, let alone to admit it aloud. Self-deception is always one of the more powerful forces of interpretation; the general human ability to see the lives of others far more critically than our own is another. Yet Lewis observed of himself, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” Our own contradictions often exist glaringly amongst our thoughts, even as they go unnoticed.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Claimed or Rejected

There are some stories that move us whether we hear them at five or fifty-five. The 1965 release of the first Peanuts movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was instantly loved by adults and children alike. But it almost did not make it past the television executives who hated it. The movie was criticized for everything from being too contemporary in music, to being too religious in tone. But audiences everywhere confidently disagreed. Having aired every year since its debut in 1965, it is now the longest-running cartoon special in history.

One of my predictably favorite scenes finds Charlie Brown on a hunt for the perfect “great big, shiny, aluminum tree—maybe even a pink one” as instructed by Lucy for their Christmas pageant. At the tree lot, Charlie Brown walks through row after row of flashing, shiny spectacles of color, trying his best to choose well and please his friends. But then he sees a small, natural tree, nearly overshadowed by the flash and glitter of the rest. It is pitiful and loosing its needles, but it is the only real tree on the lot. In an unlikely moment of confidence, Charlie Brown chooses the pitiful sapling over all the others (and is thus the target of laughter and mockery by all).

Even as children, we seem to know intuitively that there is something remarkable—perhaps something even sacred—about being selected long before we understand the implications of choice at all. That someone saw anything worth choosing in this sickly little tree is a turn in the plot that quiets us. Charlie Brown claims the unlikely, pathetic tree as his own, and there is a part of us that feels claimed too.

The Christian story of God among the world is filled with the language of claiming and calling, gathering and choosing. Yet, stripped of the story and its characters, these words often offend us. We speak of the injustice of a God who claims anyone, who shows signs of favoritism, or calls anyone particularly. We forget what we felt deeply as children—namely, that being claimed among a group of the prettiest and the smartest and the fastest is not about deserving it at all.

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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 – O Come, Emmanuel

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

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

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

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

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Christmas Has Come

According to a national organization dedicated to the study and aid of mental health, holiday stress is a widespread occurrence that plagues more of the population every year, for more time each year. “Americans are stressed during the holidays, we’ve long known this,” said David Shern, president of Mental Health America. “However, on January 2, when a person may expect the stress let up, they instead find themselves feeling down, physically ill, or anxious. This is because stress takes a serious toll on a person’s overall health—both physical and mental.”(1) And the phenomenon is hardly unique to America.

If we could somehow miraculously transport someone from the time of the Old Testament into this conversation and he or she listened to us describe the stress we feel as we move closer and closer to Christmas, they would concur. We would of course first have to explain what Christmas is—namely, the remembrance of the birth of the Messiah, the day God came among us. But at this explanation, they would immediately understand. In fact, they would find it completely remarkable if anyone should not face with stress, awe, and trembling the thought that God is coming, that God is here.

Of course, whatever our religion, we are well aware that this is not why we are stressed at Christmastime. According to Shern, we are stressed at the approach of Christmas because of finances, because of family, because of the absence of family, because of over-indulgence, because we have too much to do, or because we have too little to do and feel the pointed edges of loneliness. For so many of us, the thought that Christmas is coming is indeed one that invokes fear, trembling, and attention, though perhaps for unfortunate reasons.

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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 – O Come, Emmanuel

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

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

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

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – The House of Christmas

Some years ago, we were spending Christmas in the home of my wife’s parents. It was not a happy day in the household. Much had gone wrong during the preceding weeks, and a weight of sadness hung over the home. Yet, in the midst of all that, my mother-in-law kept her routine habit of asking people who would likely have no place to go at Christmas to share Christmas dinner with us.

That year she invited a man who was, by everyone’s estimate, somewhat of an odd person, quite eccentric in his demeanor. Not much was known about him at the church except that he came regularly, sat alone, and left without much conversation. He obviously lived alone and was quite a sorry-looking, solitary figure. He was our Christmas guest.

Because of other happenings in the house (not the least of which was that one daughter was taken to the hospital for the birth of her first child), everything was in confusion. All of our emotions were on edge. It fell upon me, in turn, to entertain this gentleman. I must confess that I did not appreciate it. Owing to a heavy life of travel year-round, I have jealously guarded my Christmases as time to be with my family. This was not going to be such a privilege, and I was not happy. As I sat in the living room, entertaining him while others were busy, I thought to myself, “This is going to go down as one of the most miserable Christmases of my life.”

But somehow we got through the evening. He evidently loved the meal, the fire crackling in the background, the snow outside, the Christmas carols playing, and a rather weighty theological discussion in which he and I were engaged—at his instigation, I might add. He was a very well-read man and, as I found out, loved to grapple with heavy theological themes. I do too, but frankly, not during an evening that has been set aside to enjoy life’s quiet moments.

At the end of the night when he bade us all good-bye, he reached out and took the hand of each of us, one by one, and said, “Thank you for the best Christmas of my life. I will never forget it.” He walked out into the dark, snowy night, back into his solitary existence.

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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 these 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)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – When God Was Homeless

One of the global issues that marked the twenty-first century thus far is the refugee crisis. Some estimates place the number of globally displaced people at close to sixty million. Refugees are men, women, and children compelled to move across political borders because of war, famine, natural disaster, ethnic cleansing, genocide, religious persecution, or the prospect of imprisonment or death at the hands of despotic regimes.

The latest refugee issue making headlines is the Rohingya crisis. According to United Nations estimates, about 146,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from violence in Myanmar since August 25, 2017. Issues surrounding the refugee crisis are more complex than the rhetoric on social media and news channels would have us believe. Governments of various countries responded to this crisis based on their political affiliations, economic conditions, and various other factors. Shiv Visvanathan, a noted sociologist, reacting to India’s stance towards Rohingya refugees writes: “Sadly, India missed the leadership and compassion of a Mother Teresa. She would have stepped out and offered some care and relief to them, stirring the Indian middle class into some acts of caring.”(1)

Surely the complexities of the refugee crisis are many and unique to each country. And yet, there are some things that might be considered regardless. In the Bible, God commands his people Israel to always remember who they were: a once-enslaved people set free by God. As such, they were to treat strangers and sojourners with kindness. “You shall love the strangers” exhorts Yahweh, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”(2) Vinoth Ramachandra writes, “It is Yahweh’s character to take delight in loving the ‘others,’ especially those who are economically and socially vulnerable. Israel was a nation of ‘others’ in Egypt, scapegoated in acts of xenophobic violence when national fortunes declined. So Yahweh, true to his character, loved them and rescued them from their oppression. Having experienced Yahweh’s love for the alien, they now reflect Yahweh’s character by loving the aliens among them.”(3)

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Gifts Regifted

The ethics of regifting is always a hot discussion at Christmastime and the weeks that follow our various office parties and family exchanges. Apparently, there are those who insist that regifting is a tawdry practice, and there are those who have practiced it for years and see no harm. For those who might not be familiar with the concept, Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary offers a helpful definition: To regift is “to give an unwanted gift to someone else” or “to give as a gift something one previously received as a gift.” In any case, two out of three people say they have either regifted or are considering regifting. And while there are no doubt many successful regifters among us, there are also unfortunate stories to show for the less successful, which make the discussion entertaining. Imagine opening the very gift you had given your mother-in-law a year earlier.

The concept of regifting is similar to a word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit. “Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom,” writes Tolkien. “Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.” Whether Hobbit or human, regifting is evidently nothing new.

Even so, when a colleague of mine referred to Christmas as the “season of regifting,” I was certain he had been the victim of too many unfortunate gift exchanges. Except he wasn’t talking about unwanted scarves or random gift-cards. He was talking about the mysterious gift that is resurrected each Christmas and presented again as if new. Year after year, we reopen the story of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi, and the star. “God is a regifter,” he said. The child is the gift.

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Ravi Zacharias Ministry – Winter’s Hope

Those of us who make our home in the Northern Hemisphere must welcome the encroaching darkness of the winter months. At the height of winter in Kotzebue, Alaska, for example, daylight is but a mere two hours. Where I live, the light begins to recede around 4:30 PM. When the winter sun is out, and that is not often where I live, it simply rides the southern horizon with a distant, hazy glow.

While I happen to love the darkening skies of winter, others find the darkness encroaches not just the natural world but their inner world as well. A longitudinal study conducted in Denmark from 1995-2012 of 185,419 people showed an 11% increase of depression diagnoses during the winter months.(1) One researcher notes that “light has a powerful effect on the brain. It can be helpful to those suffering from depression because it can boost serotonin and have an effect similar to antidepressants…”(2) For many, the darkening of the natural world is simply the reflection of their day-to-day reality.

Of course, darkness and night evoked ominous images in the ancient world. Early inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere—who did not separate natural phenomenon from their religious and spiritual understanding—saw the departing sunlight as the fleeing away of what they believed was the Sun God. Darkness indicated a loss of hope, absence, and cessation of life.(3) Darkness created fear. It was the world of shadows, mystery, and all that could not be seen. Darkness has always been associated with chaos, evil, and death, and therefore was not often thought of in either romantic or nostalgic terms.

For many individuals—even those who live in sun-filled hemispheres—the darkness of life is a daily nightmare. Despair, chronic loneliness, doubt, and isolation conspire to prevent even the dimmest light. The darkness that comes only as a visitor during the night is for many a perpetual reality. And many wonder whether there is any reason to hope that light might be found even in these dark places.

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