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A Slice of Infinity
Words of challenge, words of truth, and words of hope. A blog maintained by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)

Iconoclast of Inconsistency
Mon, 05 May 2008 04:00:00
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 claim life is meaningless, 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 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. Yet there is a promise for those who seek, for those willing to confront their own contradictions, and it comes near in the Incarnation we celebrate in December and nearer still in the Ascension we just celebrated--the first event remembering God's willingness to reach humanity by becoming human, the later remembering the permanent exaltation of humanity into the life of God. Indeed, this exalted one who knows what it means to be human is continually at work flattening our altars of inconsistency, uncovering our contradictions, urging us into eyesight, and leading us into humanity as God intended. The child we welcome in December remains among us every month thereafter. In the momentous words of a hymn that speaks as much to the hope Christmas as it does to the assurance of the Ascension: Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King... Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ... No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found. Our redeemer will continue to find us. May it be his song we hear and employ. Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) As quoted in the New York Times, (Dec. 14, 2004). (2) Ibid.
Author: Jill Carattini
Graceful Disturbance
Fri, 02 May 2008 04:00:00
In a letter dated September 6, 1955, Flannery O'Connor confessed that though the truth "does not change according to our ability to stomach it," there are periods in the lives of us all, even of the saints, "when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive."(1) I took solace recently in these unapologetic lines from a writer who viewed her faith not as a substitute for seeing, but as the light by which she saw. As I stared at a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus by Giovanni Bellini, I was unexpectedly but entirely disturbed by the story of the Incarnation. While the message and mystery of the Incarnation is a hope I expect to engage over the course of a lifetime, and the character and complexity of a Father who sends a Son into the world exudes a depth I hope forever to plumb, in front of me was suddenly a different side of the story. Theologically, I was asking questions of the Incarnation I had never uttered. Would we label a father "loving" who gives a teenage girl a task that devastates her future, destroys her reputation, and in the end, mortally wounds her with grief? What kind of God asks for servants like Mary? Madeleine L'Engle reflects on faith and art with words O'Connor would have affirmed and I in that moment embodied. She reminds us that in all artful learning "either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace."(2) I have recalled and retold the Christmas story for years, but I had never remembered it like this. In the light and shadows of Bellini's interpretation of this biblical scene, I was startled as I remembered in the call of Mary to bear the Son of God the severe cost of obedience and the complete disruption of a life. In fact, it is fairly easy to rush to the theological implications of the texts that depict the role of Mary in the life of Jesus. We quickly move from Mary's acceptance of Gabriel's words to the man who preformed miracles and calmed storms in a way that made him seem motherless. While the song of Mary recorded in Luke 1:47-55 slows us down and bids us to consider the young mother in her own words, it is easy to assume in the ease of her praise of the Almighty a sense of ease for her situation, to add to her cries of joy the assumption that she never wept. Mary sings: "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." Luke depicts an image of Mary that is hard to ignore, and Bellini follows his example. With one hand, Mary holds Jesus securely to her side, while with the other she gently holds his foot in a way that seems to communicate both her willingness to share the child with the world and her suspicion that he will spring from her care to lift the lowly as she herself has been lifted. Mary is seated poised, stoic, and adult-like, which in some ways seems far from the childlike Mary we encounter in Luke, and in other ways seems to reflect the wisdom she was able to express far beyond her years. As one pledged to be married in first century Nazareth, Mary would have been little more than a child herself, a child who was perhaps able to respond to Gabriel the way she did because "she had not lost her child's creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world."(3) Bellini's Mary looks far more weathered, serious, and austere, as if she is somehow aware of the fate of the child in her arms and her helplessness to save him. In the face of the girl who was somehow able to see beyond the great risk of being pregnant and unwed, the weight of her yoke is here apparent in her tired expression. In front of this picture, I could not help but remain at the level of the servant and the severe cost of discipleship. Yet the longer I stared, the more grace seemed to permeate my deepest reservations about the nature of God's calling and the often unchallenged images of a Father with strange ways of showing love. The longer I considered the song of Mary in light of all she would endure, the more I heard in my disturbance the cry of Christ himself: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" How often it seems that the glimpses of God's light which stay with us longest are not the glimpses that are blinding and certain in their power, but those which are compelling, mysterious, and steady in their invitation, emerging out of dark questions and disturbing moments. In fact, there are far worse things than being disrupted by the one who calls us to follow, the once-fragile child who now asks that we put our hands on the plow and not look back, let the dead bury the dead, take up our own crosses, and bring with him good news to the poor. It is far worse to be so at ease that we do not receive the graceful disturbance of a Father who would offer his only Son, and a Son who would go willingly. It is far worse to be so familiar with the story that we fail to see the Mighty One disturbing our world, lifting up the lowly, sending the rich away empty, and filling the hungry with good things. Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1988), 100. (2) Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Bantam, 1982), 30. (3) Ibid., 18.
Author: Jill Carattini
The Last Enemy
Thu, 01 May 2008 04:00:00
In spite of the proverbial certainty of death and taxes, the human psyche has always dreamed of discovering loopholes in whatever mechanisms fix the limits. Yet though it might be possible to cheat on one's taxes, "cheating death" remains a phrase of wishful-thinking applied to incidences of short-lived victories against our own mortality. Eventually, death honors its ignominious appointment with all of us, calling the bluff of the temptation to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny. But despite the universal, empirical verification of its indiscriminate efficiency, we continue to be constantly surprised whenever death strikes. Only a painfully troubled life can be so thoroughly desensitized against its ugliness as to not experience the throbbing agony of the void it creates within us whenever the earthly journey of a loved one comes to an end. Such a peculiar reaction to an otherwise commonplace occurrence points strongly to the fact that this world is not our home. As Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, God has put eternity in our hearts, and therefore the mysterious notion that we are not meant to die is no mere pipe dream: it sounds a clarion call to the eternal destiny of our souls. If the biblical record is accurate, there is no shame or arrogance in pitching our hopes for the future as high as our imaginations will allow. Actually, the danger is that our expectations may be too low, for "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9). Far from being the accidental byproducts of a mindless collocation of atoms, we are indestructible beings whose spiritual radars, amidst much static noise, are attuned to our hearts' true home. Trouble begins, however, when we try to squeeze that eternal existence into our earthly lives in a manner that altogether denies our finite natures. We do so whenever we desensitize ourselves against the finality of death through repeated exposure to stage-managed destruction of human life through the media. Or we zealously seek ultimate fulfillment in such traitorous idols as pleasure, material wealth, professional success, power, and other means, without taking into account the fleeting nature of human existence. Or we broach the subject of death only when we have to, and even then we feel the need to couch it in palatable euphemisms. With some of our leading intellectuals assuring us that we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and we therefore have no need for God, the only thing missing from our lives seems to be the tune of "Forever Young" playing in the cosmic background. A visitor from outer space would probably conclude that only the very unlucky ones die, while the rest of us are guaranteed endless thrill-rides through space aboard this green planet. But such a visitor would promptly be treated to the rude awakening that even the most self-assured of human beings are still in transit. While it is possible to sustain a façade of total control within the confines of material comforts, a functional government, and a reasonable distance from the darker side of human suffering, this opportunity is not equally shared around the globe. It would take a very specialized form of education to believe in the ability of human beings to control their own destiny when hundreds of people are being put to the sword, homes are being razed to the ground, and your neighbors are fleeing for their lives--a scenario my family lived through a few months ago in Kenya. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, news anchors in this part of the world rarely preface their gruesome video clips with viewer discretion warnings, and so the good, the bad, and the ugly are all deemed equally fit for public consumption. Affronted by such an in-your-face, unapologetic reality of human mortality, one finds oneself face to face with a dilemma: why should you devote all of your energy to making a meaningful difference in the world if it is true that everything done under the sun will eventually amount to zero? Once one has come to the conclusion that the emperor has no clothing, what sense does it make to keep up with the pretense? Sadly, some see through the emptiness and choose to end their own lives. From a naturalistic perspective, that seems to be a perfectly consistent step to take. Yet the Bible grasps this nettle with astounding authority. Not only has God placed a yearning for our true home in our hearts, He has also promised to cloth the perishable with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality through Christ's victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:54). In the meantime, the light of the Gospel shines an eternal perspective upon our service unto God and humanity, fusing all of our activities with significance. When the call of God has been answered, nothing that is done in obedience to Him is ever trivial. Thus even in the face of suffering and death, as a follower of Christ, I neither bury my head in the sand nor grope blindly in total darkness. With faithfulness and joy, I enthusiastically render service to my God, And when my task on earth is done, When by thy grace the victory's won, Even death's cold wave I will not flee, Since God through Jordan leadeth me.(1) J.M. Njoroge is associate apologist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) From the 1862 hymn, He Leadeth Me, by Joseph Gilmore.
Author: J.M. Njoroge
Christ Is Risen
Wed, 30 Apr 2008 04:00:00
Most of us will miss it. Couched between Wednesday's building crescendo of assignments and Friday's promise of their demise, Thursday hardly seems more than a means to an end. So even though this Thursday is every bit as holy as Easter Sunday, most of the world will miss it--even those who have ever confessed the momentous lines of the Apostles' Creed: "On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." Tomorrow is Ascension Day, the day that marks the ascension of Jesus Christ. Forty days after the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, the church around the world holds in remembrance this eventful day. The gospel writer records: "Then [Jesus] said to his disciples....'See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.' Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God" (Luke 24:49-53). The ascension of Christ may not seem as momentous to us as the resurrection or as rousing as the image of Jesus on the Cross. In fact, after the death and resurrection, the ascension might even seem somewhat anti-climatic. Perhaps it is for such a reason that the resurrection and ascension statements of the Apostles' Creed are essentially treated as one in the same: On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. One might even think that the one miraculous act flowed immediately into the other; the death of the body of Jesus was answered in the resurrection of Christ, a presence who then floated on to heaven. Unfortunately, the result of this impression is that many think that the ascension somehow points to the casting off of Christ's human nature, as if Jesus is now a presence that only used to be human, one we see far more fit to memorialize than we expect one day to see face to face. But in fact, this is far from the experience of the disciples, to whom Jesus appeared repeatedly in the days following the resurrection. To them it was abundantly clear that Jesus was not any sort of spiritual ghost or remote presence. He ate with them; he talked with them; he instructed them as to the ministries they would lead and the deaths they would face because of him. He was in fact more fully human than they ever before realized, and it was this holy body, this divine person that they held near as they lived and died to proclaim the kingdom. Moreover, the ascension they remembered, as well as the future they envisioned, was no different. As the disciples were watching and Jesus was taken up before their very eyes, a cloud hid him from their sight. The text then refers to them "looking intently up into the sky as he was going" when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them: "'Men of Galilee,' they said, 'why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go'" (Acts 1:9-11). In his resurrected body, Christ ascended to heaven, fully human, fully divine, and entirely glorified. No action of Christ is without weight, and this, his last action on earth, is weighed with far more hope than is often realized. On the day Jesus was taken into heaven, the work God sent him to accomplish was finally completed. The ascension was a living and public declaration of his dying words on the Cross: It is finished. Ascending to heaven, Jesus furthered the victory of Easter--the victory of a physical body in whom God had conquered death. Because of the ascension, the incarnation is not a past event. Because of the ascension, we know that the incarnate Christ who was raised from the dead is sharing in our humanity even now. And just as the men in white informed the disciples, so we carry in our own flesh a guarantee that Christ will one day bring us to himself. It is for these reasons that N.T. Wright affirms, "To embrace the Ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless."(1) Truly, Ascension Day, a holy day falling inconspicuously on a Thursday in May, is the bold declaration that we are not left as orphans. In the same post-resurrection body he invited Thomas to touch, Jesus is accessible to us today. He ascended with a body; he shares in our humanity, extending his own body even now; and he is coming back for those in bodies. Christ is preparing a room for us, and we know it is real because he himself is real. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 114.
Author: Jill Carattini
The Least of These
Tue, 29 Apr 2008 04:00:00
Not long ago, as I was doing research for a paper I had to write, I stumbled upon some statistical data that greatly disturbed me. Researchers estimate that every day 16,000 to 24,000 children die from hunger related causes. In 2004, for example, almost one billion people lived below the international poverty line, earning less than one dollar per day. These impoverished people struggle daily with malnourishment and hunger, and the majority live in what is called the "developing" world. This developing world has six times the population than the 57 or so countries comprising the "developed" world of which the United States is a part.(1) Yet in the United States, by contrast, over two-thirds of the population are overweight and almost one-third is considered obese according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years 2001-2004.(2) In fact, the Centers for Disease Control shows an increase in the number of obese persons in the United States in their data compiled from 1985-2006.(3) It is not difficult to see how a country with a smaller population would have greater access to food and therefore less problems with malnutrition and hunger. Perhaps more troubling, however, is the fact in 22 different states 25 to 30 percent of their populations are considered obese.(4) These statistics became more than facts and figures when I encountered Jesus's illustration of the sheep and the goats in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25. In this harrowing account of final judgment, the Son of Man holds court over all the nations. Like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats, the Son of Man gathers the nations before him and separates them from one another. On his right go the sheep, and on his left go the goats. The sheep are commended for their righteousness, and the goats are punished for their unrighteousness. Among the many insights one could glean from this passage, one stood out in bold letters, particularly as it relates to the facts and figures of poverty and hunger; Jesus defines righteous living in terms of acts of justice and kindness done to the least of these. He says to the sheep on his right: "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me" (Matthew 25:34-36). The sheep are astonished that they are counted among the righteous, based on this definition, for they never saw Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, sick or in prison. Yet, Jesus answers them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). What a surprise to find that righteousness involves acts of mercy, kindness, and protection for the "least of these" among us. Indeed, how sobering it is to know we are counted among the unrighteous when we neglect those opportunities to show mercy, kindness, and protection. Perhaps an even more vital insight is found in the opportunity to encounter the living Jesus in the presence of "the least of these." Author Paul Janz notes: "Christ does not say that inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, it will be 'as if' you had done it unto me; but rather that inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."(5) In the bleak, gaunt, ravaged expressions of malnourishment and hunger, we glimpse--indeed we encounter--Christ himself, the way, the truth, and the life. We are given the opportunity to recognize, to receive, and to respond to Jesus himself in the plight of the "least of these" among us. What do world hunger, poverty, illness and despair have to do with righteousness? What do they have to do with Jesus? According to Matthew's Gospel, they are the vehicles for a revelatory encounter with Jesus, unto whom we minister through acts of mercy, kindness, and justice. Indeed, according to Matthew's Gospel, we have the opportunity to experience the blessedness of inheriting the kingdom prepared for us as we minister to Jesus in the least of these all around us. Rather than seeing poverty, hunger, homelessness and imprisonment as pervasive societal ills, statistics, or problems to avoid, we are given the blessing of ministering to our Lord, and of seeing in their faces, the face of Jesus. Margaret Manning is associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) Statistics from Bread for the World, www.bread.org and the World Food Programme, www.wfp.org. (2) Statistics from the Weight Control Information Network, www.niddk.nih.gov. (3) Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov. (4) Ibid. (5) Oliver Davies, Paul Janz, and Clemens Sendak, Transformation Theology: Church in the World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2008), 115.
Author: Margaret Manning
Light of the World
Mon, 28 Apr 2008 04:00:00
"God is light," said Irenaeus of Lyon. "But God is unlike any light we have ever known." In our best attempts to consider God, we are essentially asking the everlasting light to lighten our darkness, for theology is an attempt to consider that which cannot be put into words. God cannot be defined by human language as if merely another subject of study or object of our attention; our finite minds and words cannot begin to specify with any precision the reality of that which is infinite. As Gregory of Nazianzen observed centuries before us, "It is difficult to conceive God, but to define Him in words is an impossibility." For the subject of theology is, in fact, a Subject. That is to say, theology is the act of peering into the light and glory of a Person. Yet because of this, because God is a Person who has come near, the impossibility of the task of considering God need not prevent us from trying. To children with limited understanding, God has chosen to reveal God's self. The great councils that gathered in antiquity, the list of faithful pilgrims in the book of Hebrews, men and women in history who have dared to do the work of theology--each of them, each of us, is squinting at the mystery of light. But that theology exists, that we are able to speak of God at all, is because the Christian God is one who has come near to us. In this sense, theology is one of the most practical disciplines. Peering into the light, looking at the Person of God, coming to know who it is that has been revealed to us, we ourselves are changed, reoriented by the one we encounter. This one has been encountered since the beginning. The people of Israel were shown the power of God to save in Egypt and given the powerful command of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). The early church professed the same shema, the same confession of God as one, along with the encounter of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom they believed they saw the Father. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). To this encounter, the early church was also touched by God at Pentecost, where "suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting....All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability" (Acts 2:2-4). The encounter of a saving God in history, the knowledge of God's glory in the face of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit came together in the lives of believers in what they were eventually convicted to call the Trinity--the presence of three in one. The doctrine of the Trinity further reminds us that the subject of theology is uncircumscribable, but this is not to say that our squinting is fruitless except in its capacity to blind our eyes. On the contrary, there is much of God to find in this divine mystery, much that is both compelling and instructive. The divine community that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit is a community, bonded by love, having created humankind in God's image, and even now seeking to bring all of creation into this life-giving fellowship. We discover more of who God is by looking into this image of unity in community; we see the truest qualities of God's nature by considering the love and relationship God models in the Trinity, and we are further shown the attributes of God as revealed in Scripture--God's grace and holiness, compassion and justness, omnipotent power and omnipotent love, omniscience in wisdom and in patience, eternality and gloriousness, among others. Guided by the witness of Scripture, I believe we find these qualities at times mysterious in their tension, at times incommunicable, but other times quite profoundly shared with creation. When we experience certain virtues such as love and justice, we are experiencing a taste of God and God's reign, the heaven for which we were intended and the one who called the heavens into existence. As we grow more in likeness of God, as people that are being restored by God and God's communion, God's moral attributes are something in which we in fact participate. In this way, we are not only squinting at light, we are being changed by it. Our union with Christ and communion with the Trinity add a certain and heavenly dimension to our lives, and it is indeed one that correctly and profoundly orients us here and now to the world around us. We are at our best a reflection of God when we are drawn into relationships with one another, modeling the love that has been modeled to us. We are at our best a reflection of God when we live in community that expresses God's concern for all of God's creation--from the downcast and the powerless among us, to the oppressed and the least throughout the world. If God is light, how are we reflecting it? The hope of theology is always that, like Moses, we may come down from the mountain glowing. For the Christian today, illumination begins with Light itself, God unobscured, though incomprehensible, revealed by the Spirit through the glory of the Son. There is indeed a source for all illumination, and this God is one: the Father who called light into existence, the Spirit who illumines, and Christ who is the light of the world. Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
Author: Jill Carattini
The Church of Negativity
Fri, 25 Apr 2008 04:00:00
It was a worship service gone awry. We had gathered to celebrate the person of Christ, but in the end it seemed we were more celebrating words void of life. I cannot recall the name of the church, the denomination it was a part of, or even what the sermon was about. I only remember the rabbit trail that led us down a darkened hole of condemnation. From body piercings and baggy pants to homosexuals and liberals, the list was long, the frustration clear, and the rationale was fired with as much passion as the targets that had been chosen: "For we recognize that hell is a fearful reality, and that many--maybe even those near to you--will find it their final place of unrest." "Amen!" the person in front of me called out. "Yes, amen," said several others in agreement. My heart sunk further into my soul than I knew was even possible. Did they know that "Amen!" means "Let it be"? A great deal of time has passed since this experience, and yet, remembering it still brings shivers down my spine and a bad taste to my mouth. But what I once remembered only as a particular worship service in a particular city on a particular Sunday afternoon, I now remember as an illustration of the worship service I am all too capable of leading. When I allow myself to cling more to negativity than to Christ, when I cherish words of death more than words of life, when I spend more time complaining about what is wrong with the church than putting energy into being the church, this is exactly the worship experience I recreate--and there are far too many voices willing to shout "amen" at the end of each of my sermons. Christianity in many circles has become synonymous with negativity. In his sermon "The Weight of Glory," C.S. Lewis took note of a subtle shift in the language of his day, which he felt was the first detour in a road leading far away from Christ. Writes Lewis, "If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philosophical importance."(1) He goes on to explain the ideologies that grow out of subtle shifts of language. The positive answer requires a perspective that looks outward at others--those who are the recipients of the virtue or else the one from whom this virtue arises in the first place--whereas the negative virtue shows that our concern is primarily with ourselves--our own self-denial--and hence the appearance of good virtue. To this Lewis notes, "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself." To put this in terms for the subject at hand: Scripture has lots to say about what is wrong with the world. But thankfully, this is never the end of the sermon. (And of course, both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about complaining.) It is very true that we live in a world that is full of philosophical pitfalls, bad behavior, and theology with which we could rightfully see fault. But so it is full of the glory of God. So why are we at times more excited to see fault than to see faith? Why are we so quick to complain and so lamentably slow at showing the world our reason to be more fully alive and authentically graceful? The same scripture that tells us to defend our faith tells us to do so with gentleness and reverence--so that those who abuse you for "your good conduct in Christ" may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-16). The same scripture that bids us to do all things "without complaining and arguing" instructs us to do so because it is by our "holding fast to the word of life" that we demonstrate we are truly holding onto a different message than that of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:14-16). Moreover, the same apostle who died to defend the person of Christ called us to stay focused on the kind of person Christ is: "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.' For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.' For this reason it is through him that we say the 'Amen,' to the glory of God" (2 Corinthians 1:19-20). In the worship services we create with our words and actions, with the things we do and the things we leave undone, might there be good reason for those around us to say "Amen." Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 25.
Author: Jill Carattini
The Healing Fields
Thu, 24 Apr 2008 04:00:00
While ministering at a women's shelter in Cambodia not long ago, I met some very special people whom I will never forget. The founder of the shelter was a former prisoner of Pol Pot's killing fields. During his courageous escape from the brutal torture camp, he described having a stirring encounter with God as he ran for his life through the jungle. He was inspired to establish what can be fittingly described as his healing fields, which include a women's shelter, a trade school, and an orphanage. Among the precious souls who live in these healing fields are young girls who have been rescued from abusive homes and from the horrors of the sex-trafficking industry. When I inquired about how one would go about rescuing girls from a brothel, I was told that a ransom needed to be paid to redeem the girls. These girls were in complete bondage to their "pimp" or brothel boss. Everything they had was given to them by their boss. But no matter how hard they tried, they would never be able to earn enough on their own to repay their debt and buy their freedom. While sharing Scripture with the girls at the shelter, I asked (with the help of a translator) if there were any particular passages they wanted to discuss. The passage they brought up was from Romans, chapter 8 verses 15-17 : "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, 'Abba, Father.' For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God's glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering." Their question was not about suffering--they understood what it meant to share in Christ's suffering more than I ever could. Their question was about adoption: What did it mean to be adopted as God's children, to call him "Abba, Father"? For many people who have had abusive or absent earthly fathers, it is quite a challenge to believe in a loving heavenly father. In his book Faith of the Fatherless, social scientist Paul Vitz writes that in his study of the world's most influential atheists (including Nietzsche, Hume, Russell, Sartre, Camus, and Wells), all had one thing in common: strained or absent relationships with their fathers. H.G. Wells wrote in his autobiography: "My father was always at cricket, and I think [mum] realised more and more acutely as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord, on whom to begin with she had perhaps counted unduly, were also away--playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe."(1) On the contrary, when Vitz studied the lives of influential theists (such as Pascal, Burke, Mendelssohn, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, and Bonhoeffer) during those same historical time periods, he found they enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with a father figure. There seems to be this widespread assumption that belief in a heavenly father is based on all kinds of irrational immature needs and wishful thinking, while skepticism is derived from a rational, no-nonsense appraisal of the way things really are. However, the reality is that many people reject God not because of hard evidence, but because of painful emotional experiences. We cannot deny the reality of evil all around us inflicted by the pimps and Pol Pots of the world. Nor can we deny the fair share of shortcomings each one of us has to contribute; all of us have a ransom to pay of our own. As we read in Mark 10:45, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." However broken or wounded our past, this is our promise. Because Christ paid our ransom with his life, we can tenderly approach God and call him "Abba." Because of Christ, we have the ultimate model and source to create healing fields of our own. Alison Thomas is itinerant apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1)H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1934), 52-53. Quoted in, Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 51.
Author: Alison Thomas
Remaining Awake
Wed, 23 Apr 2008 04:00:00
If there is one thing Martin Luther King Jr. would have us to remember on the month that marks forty years since his death in April of 1968, perhaps it would be that remembering the past must never come at the expense of remaining alert today. "We stand in the fierce urgency of now," said Dr. King in one of his final sermons. It is far too easy to locate these words into a specific moment that we deem past, a time King and many others fought to see changed, through a movement we now remember within stories of history, speeches long memorialized, and events that seem both tragic and far removed. But this I think is to misread King as much as it is to misread history. "The past is never dead," said William Faulkner. "It's not even past."(1) Just as ignoring history is itself a type of amnesia, so an awareness of history as something that is only history invites a posture of self-deception. If we only see King's fight as one fit for the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's, we are neither seeing the Civil Rights Movement for all it was, nor the moment before us. Sunday is still very much the most segregated hour of the week. It is still very possible to order our worlds in such a way that we never have to see the poor among us. Racial inequality, social injustice, and blind allegiance to materialism are all still present and active, its victims crying out for a better kingdom, a better story, a better hope. The message of Martin Luther King Jr. and the history we remember on the anniversary of his death is not a static bundle of dates and details past. The history we recall when we tell stories of the Civil Rights Movement is the vital form in which we must both take account of our past and fathom the present before us. There is a parable Jesus tells in the book of Luke that is perhaps as easy to overlook as any injustice we want not to see. I have misread the story for years. In it, Jesus speaks of a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. "And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table" (Luke 16:20). When the poor man died he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. Then Jesus notes, "In Hades, where the rich man was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us'" (16:24-25). It is far from a mere commentary on wealth. In this parable, Jesus describes a man who chooses to live with a great chasm between his success and a poor man's fate. At his own gate, he daily passes the beggar, choosing neither to see him nor his agony. He allows the rules of social hierarchy to keep the man at his feet nameless and invisible. Even from Hades, the rich man chooses to address Lazarus as a mere servant, asking Abraham to send him to soothe his own discomfort. But the chasms he allowed in life have now grown fixed in death. If we will hear this parable with our ears open to the story, attune to our discomfort and possible biases, approaching with a sensitivity to the lessons of history within the fierce urgency of now, there is a glimpse of an amazing God and the welcoming table to which we are invited. For Christ's is a theology that is far from assuming God's only concern for humanity is that we make it to eternity. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, "God's love of justice is grounded in God's longing for the complete shalom of God's creatures and in God's sorrow over its absence."(2) And so, the kingdom we discover in the proclamations of Jesus is one that turns social norms, status, and hierarchies upside down, one that reminds us that the beggar Lazarus has a name, a place, and a value beyond the one we may have given him. The words and actions of Christ call us to take seriously the world in front of us, because in fact, it matters deeply. Will we discover the face of Christ in the humanity that exists across the great chasms we have built? Will we work to close the gaps while there is still time? These are the questions that wait for our attention every moment of our lives. In truth, the final sermons of Dr. King can largely be read as laments, for he could hear the God of history saying to a world that was not listening, "That was not enough! I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not...And consequently, you can not enter the kingdom of greatness."(3) King was increasingly aware that the only hope for the present existed in our ability to see the fierce urgency of now and to hear the voice crying through the vista of time for all things to be made new. His dream was that we would remain awake to both. Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) William Faulkner, "Requiem for a Nun" in William Faulkner: Novels 1942-1954 (New York: Library of America, 1994), 535. (2) James Washington, Ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 269. (3) Nicolas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Spring Arbor: Spring Arbor Distributors, 1999), 113.
Author: Jill Carattini
The Incongruity Theory of Faith
Tue, 22 Apr 2008 04:00:00
Most of us associate laughter with humor. We've all experienced the side-splitting guffaw in response to a good joke, a funny story, or to an embarrassing moment. But gelotologists, scientists who study laughter, suggest another trigger point altogether. This trigger is formally called the incongruity theory for laughter. The theory suggests that laughter arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don't normally go together; when we expect one outcome and another happens. Generally speaking, our minds and bodies anticipate what's going to happen and how it's going to end based on logical thought, emotion, and our past experience. But when circumstances go in unexpected directions, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears and laughter emerges out of the tension between what we expect and what actually happens. Now as I thought about the incongruity theory of laughter, I wondered if it might shed light on the nature of faith, particularly as it relates to the biblical story of Sarah and her laughter at God's promise of children in Genesis 18:11-15. I've always been amazed that the letter of Hebrews counts Sarah among the faithful in the "hall of faith." Sarah, we're told by the author, is one of the faithful witnesses because she "received the ability to conceive by faith, even beyond the proper time of life since she considered God faithful who had promised" (Hebrews 11:11). Many commentators, and perhaps most of us, see Sarah's laughter at God's promise as evidence of a lack of faith. Perhaps we see a lack of faith because we have difficulty believing that faith can be found in the gap between what we expect, and what actually happens, or that faith never doubts, nor questions, nor struggles with the seeming incongruities of life. On one level, Sarah's laughter does indicate a level of disbelief. And frankly, who can blame her? Who wouldn't laugh at the promise of a child to someone barren and long beyond the childbearing years? But I also believe Sarah's laughter contains a glimmer of faith--faith that is really found in incongruity--in holding together belief and disbelief in the face of incongruent circumstances and situations. God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would indeed have a child from whom God would "make a great nation" seems too good to be true. God tells them one thing, but Sarah's experience tells her another--age alone made it physically impossible to bear children! And so Sarah laughed when God came calling that day. She laughs out loud! And I'm certain her laughter was filled with the tension between disbelief, incredulity, doubt, and that tiny glimmer of hope beyond hope that what God was saying, despite all she knew to the contrary, was the truth. Sarah's story helps us to see that faith is the tension between belief and unbelief. For long before, when the Lord first made this promise to Abraham, the text tells us that Abraham "believed God and it was counted as righteousness." Twenty-five years transpire after this initial declaration of faith, twenty-five years of barrenness, and futile attempts to have children in other ways, and twenty-five years of God seeming silent, of not making good on what was promised. So, when you look at what it meant for Abraham and Sarah to believe God, it meant taking a journey--of following God in faith, even when God did not clearly show them the way. Abraham and Sarah believed God, but that belief was not absolute certainty. It was a journey filled with tension between what was expected, and what actually happened. Sarah's story shows us that the laughter of faith is the laughter of incongruity. But ultimately, like Sarah and Abraham, real faith casts us wholeheartedly upon the God who is free to act and to do as God wants, in God's time, and in God's way. Faith is the ability to answer "yes" to the God for whom nothing is impossible, even when our lives tell us the answer is "no." More than this, faith is not dependent on us but is rooted in the God who time and time again proves faithful. The apostle Paul affirms this idea as he re-tells the Abraham and Sarah story in his letter to the Romans: "That promise God gave Abraham and Sarah...was not given because of something they did or didn't do....[I]t was based on God's decision to put everything together for them. As we throw open our doors to God, we discover at the same moment that God has already thrown open the door for us."(1) And just like that, the doors open and God gets the last laugh. Isaac is born. Isaac's name means "one who laughs." And Sarah declares in the laughter of faith: "God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me!" (Genesis 21:6). Margaret Manning is associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. (1) Romans 4 as translated in The Message.
Author: Margaret Manning

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