A foolish war strategy? Joshua’s capture of Jericho

Jericho was a military fortress, a strongly fortified city built to defend the eastern approach to Canaan, the Promised Land. After crossing river Jordan, Jericho presented the biggest huddle for the Israelites in their mission to conquer Canaan.

The story of the capture and destruction of the city of Jericho as narrated in Joshua Chapter 6 makes for an interesting read and, probably, the city goes down in the history of mankind as the only one that was conquered using the most irrational military strategy.

Military Strategy

According to Joshua Chapter 6, the Israelites were commanded by God to march round the city walls once every day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. It was a rather outlandish march seeing that a section of the instructions read “‘do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout.” Joshua 6:10

After marching round the city for the seventh time on the seventh day, “When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.”

Now if that is not a militarily irrational, illogical strategy, tell me what is! It is said that in ancient warfare, such cities could only be taken by assault or by surrounding the city and starving the people to submission. Such missions usually occasioned heavy losses for the attacking forces.

And here we have Joshua commanding a silent army and a horde of Israelites armed with the ark and trumpets.

Baffling story

This story triggers a few question in my mind. Why did they have to march silently? And how were they to do that, anyway? Several hundred thousands of people to march around the city without uttering a word? What went through in the minds of Israelites as the marched for two, three, four days without any results? Knowing that they had previously been impatient with God and had flatly disobeyed him, did they consider giving up on the 5th or 6th day? And for the war strategy, did they consider it ridiculous? Foolish even? Did the military advisors raise any objections to the strategy?

But the most interesting part of this story is seeing how resolute Joshua was. By human standards, the instructions given to him by God were obviously strange and, though it seemed foolish, Joshua followed them faithfully. And it is easy to see why.

Joshua had learnt early in life to trust in the immutable God of Israel. Having been Moses’ disciple since the day they left Egypt, Joshua always remained on the Lord’s side even when all of Israel went against God. He was always ready to serve the living God.

He had witnessed all the wonders the Lord had done during the forty years in the wilderness. And when Moses was about to die, he handed over the leadership mantle to Joshua saying “‘be strong and courageous…the Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deut 31:7-8

Further, God had already promised Joshua that “I have delivered Jericho into your hands” Joshua 6:2.

What challenges does this story throw to us?

We all have our little jerichos, obstacles which obstruct us from possessing the canaans which God has promised us in His Holy Word. These jerichos hinder us from attaining our full potential in life and from fully enjoying our possessions in Christ Jesus.

They may take different forms such as a weakness in character, materialism, challenges in our relationships, physical illnesses, difficulties in places of work or marriages, financial burdens and many others.

How do we face such jerichos in our lives? The account of the fall of the walls of Jericho reminds us that though we have human responsibilities, strategies and power to destroy any strangleholds, victory can only be assured by two parameters; God’s power and our faith and faithfulness to his directions and plans. It is a lesson on man’s improbability and God’s ability.

The normal human behavior to desire instant remedies to all the difficulties of life may sometime run counter to God’s will in our lives. We want to trust in our bank balances, our health, reputation, talent, education, abilities and so on instead of trusting in the Lord alone. The Israelites went round the city on the first day and nothing happened. Second day, third day, fourth day…same result! The same ritual was repeated six times on the seventh day with similar results. But on completion of the seventh round on day seven, all that was needed for the walls to collapse was the sound of the trumpets combined with a loud shout from the men.

So how many times have you sat for that exam and failed, walked into that hospital and the pain persists, sat for job interviews and are yet to be hired? For how long have you prayed for your family, spouse or children, attended counselling session and the challenges are yet to be overcome? For how long have you suffered the pain of childlessness? The message today is that at an opportune moment, the sounds of the trumpets and the loud shout from the army shall be hand and the walls of your jericho shall come tumbling down.

This reminds me of the song “Four days late”, where in reference to Jesus’ act of raising of Lazarus from the dead, the song goes ”but His way is God’s way Not yours or mine When He’s four days late He’s still on time

We are called to approach our jerichos with the same attitude that the Israeli had; if we want to overcome our obstacles, we must submit to God’s way by faith. God knows what is best for us and we should patiently wait upon him at all times. The lesson here is that whatever the circumstances of life, our prayer should be that God’s will be done and that He may give us the strength, will and discipline to patiently wait for Him.

Joshua’s Jericho story also reminds us that faith without action is dead and obedience is the clearest evidence of faith. Joshua and the Israelites had to religiously obey, and without grumbling, all the instructions which God had given them on how and when to capture Jericho. God had the power to destroy the city right on day one while the Israelites watched.

But he made them go round the city thirteen times. The walls fell and the Israelites had easy victory because God said they would not because of their efforts. We are equally called to participate in the destruction of our jerichos.

Its only through obedience that our faith is put to work. It is not enough for us to say “I believe” and then sit down and wait for miracles to happen. God has the ability to make us pass exams or miraculously heal our many infirmities. He does it every day. But sometimes we have to study the voluminous course text, take those bitter drugs or withstand some other inconveniences for us to achieve the solutions we seek in life.

And why did the Israelites have to march while silent? Difficult to decipher but a guess may do for us for now.

Can the demand to observe silence while matching round Jericho be interpreted to signify the importance to keep quiet, calm down, stop all this running up and down seeking earthly solutions and to just take some rest as we reflect on God in the midst of our trials and temptations in life? Could it be a reminder for us to stop our tendencies of spending more time complaining and seeking consolation from people than we spend talking to God and seeking comfort from him?

 

 

 

This Man Jonah! And The Lessons From The Belly Of A Fish.

There are those moments in life when you are at peace; at peace with your family and friends, at peace with your Maker; your business is flourishing or you just got promoted in your workplace and your relationship with your boss is at its peak. However, just while at that glorious moment and without any warning, things suddenly take a turn and you are left wondering what on earth struck you.

This must have been Jonah’s experience when the word of God came through to him saying “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it…” He was a renowned prophet with an excellent relationship with the Lord when this ‘unpleasant’ assignment came his way and he thought that he could run away from it and from the presence of God by taking a ship headed the opposite direction. He would later learn the folly of his undertakings.

As expected, his disobedience displeased God and the result was that a violent storm threatened to break the ship prompting an investigation which identified Jonah as the culprit. He was thrown overboard and ended up spending three days and three nights in the belly of a fish before he could resume his journey to Nineveh.

Reading the story recently, a few questions crossed my mind:  What kind of a fish was it and what was its size? Why a fish and not say, a snake or a crocodile? Was Jonah conscious for the whole period? If conscious, what was he doing during the three days and what was running through his mind? How much time was Jonah in the sea before the fish ‘picked him up’? Could the fish have swallowed a lamp to illuminate Jonah’s new home or may be a table and a chair for him to use while, say, reading a book. How about some food for him or may be some chemicals to neutralize the acids in the belly of the fish?

My search for answers to these questions led me to Jonah Chapter 2, where I found his prayer at what appears to be the end of his three days stay in this deplorable, putrid, nauseating environment.

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Photo Courtesy: Christart.com

Once thrown overboard Jonah must have feared for his life. By his account “The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” Jonah 2:5-6

Being swallowed by a fish must have exacerbated his fears and everything seemed to have gone wrong. Having been a respectable prophet and, most likely, having had the best of the best in life, his life now seemed to be turning towards the worst of the worst. His good reputation and good popularity amongst Israelites was completely lost and he was headed to ‘hell in the sea’.

Luckily for Jonah, God was not done with him yet. His journey to “the deep” and the belly of the fish marked a new phase of his relationship with God whose beginning is marked by Jonah’s prayer in Chapter 2.

From Jonah’s prayer I got to learn some lessons;

  • When you seek the Lord and cry out to Him, He hears your cry no matter where you are. We have, at one time or another, been in the “belly of the fish”, a point in our lives when we contemplated giving up since everything in life seemed to go wrong; our health, finances, relationships, careers, businesses and so on. At that point in life, it may take a Jonah-like experience to consider our spirituality but as exemplified by Jonah’s experience, it’s never too late to change our ways and turn back to God and call upon His name.
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    Photo Courtesy: holyspiritinteractive.net

    It’s while he was in the belly of the fish (probably kneeling or sitting!) after experiencing a near-death experience that Jonah, who had previously flatly rejected to obey God to the point of opting to die than obey, discovered that he could still draw from God’s infinite well of Mercy. In such situation in life the lesson from Jonah is that we should pray, pray and pray some more. “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” Jonah 2:1

  • God is in control and we should always have trust in Him. Jonah teaches us that, no matter what we are going through in life, God is always in control. By boarding a ship to the opposite direction, Jonah thought that he could run away from God’s presence. How wrong he was! God, not only caused the violent storm, but also caused Jonah to be hurled to the bottom of the sea and later to the belly of the fish and finally to the city of Nineveh. He was in control of all these events for the glory of His name. He is still in control of all the events happening in our lives. The Bible says that His ways are not our ways and therefore His plans for us may involve being ‘swallowed by a fish’ and during such moments we are called to submit to His will and pray that we may remain faithful to Him.
  • Keep your focus on God at all times: Jonah says “when my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Jonah 2:7. When we find ourselves in the belly of a fish, it helps a great deal to keep our focus on God. In such circumstances, only God alone deserves our attention and faith since anything else we focus on is likely to fail us miserably, or at best, only offer some temporary relief. Faced with life challenges, it’s a normal human behavior to look for solution from friends, relatives, secular counsellors, self-help books and so on, and though these are not bad in and of themselves, the lesson from Jonah is this: “Do not look around for how the world solves their problems. LOOK UP! There is absolutely no substitute for God’s power”
  • It is all about God’s plan and timings, not ours. “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Jonah 2:10. After all the miseries and torments that Jonah brought unto himself and other sailors, God’s plan had to be executed by the person and in the manner He had planned. Often times, when God calls us to a mission, we tend to second-guess the call by considering ourselves inadequate to the task. The story of Jonah reminds us of what happens to people when God wants them to do something and they don’t want to do it; God has a way of bringing us to that place where we want what He wants. Have you been delaying the response to that call to serve in the youth ministry, the ministry for the sick, the poor or the imprisoned etc?
  • Trust God to respond to prayers even before the answer is received: “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ Jonah was still in the belly of the fish but he knew that it was enough that the Lord had heard his prayer. In faith and trust, Jonah knew that he would be saved.

GROWTH NOT PERFECTION

Last night it dawned on me that we were already on day 14 of 40 of this year’s lent. Two weeks already! How fast! I couldn’t help but wonder what I have been doing with myself this past two weeks. What became of all the ‘resolutions’ for lent? All those habits I was to drop and the new ones I was to pick up, the devotions, the spiritual materials I was to read, the commitment to become a better person, better employee, better husband, better father? What really happened? Honestly for some resolutions, I forgot about them immediately the priest applied the ashes on my forehead-may be sooner, for others I followed through for a few days then slowly and quietly abandoned them, for some am yet to start and for a few others, am still faithful and living them although am not sure for how much longer I can manage. I had made a commitment to improve my relationship with God, that I would take full advantage on this period of grace to work towards becoming a better Christian, a better reflection on my Maker in His service and service to His creation. But now, there I was two weeks later, with nothing to write home about; the old trend had crept back in.

Unfortunately, this has been the cycle for as many Lents as I can remember; start on a high, ease out as the time progresses and by the time its Easter I can hardly remember what the resolutions were but still hope to be better behaved come next lent. This made me wonder; now that this walk with the Lord has been an on-and-off thing, a recurring pattern in life, is it possible that I have exhausted my apportioned “quota” of God’s patience? Naturally, this led to a very low moment, a moment full of feelings of hopelessness, failure and dejection. Could it be that I can never do this and God already knows that I can’t? Is it time that I gave up on these attempts?

But almost at the same instant and, as if to stop me from dropping any further into the abyss of self-pity and hopelessness, a positive thought crossed my mind – “There is something positive this time round. That some power has jolted me to remember about the resolutions at the end of week 2 of 6, and not at Easter time, cannot be by chance. This cannot be man’s doing!” And this latter thought was more powerful than the earlier one and appeared to provide me an opportunity to consider a fresh start, a new beginning, another opportunity for repentance, to go back to my Father and say ““I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (Luke 15:21) “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” (Psalm 130:4)”

repent-its-not-too-lateI resolved to grab this opportunity to reset my Lenten resolutions, first by contemplating about the God we serve and who Nehemiah 9:17-18 describes as ”a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf.” In fact, reading the narration in Nehemiah Chapter 9 sounded very familiar; the Israelites had a vicious circle of states of sinfulness-repentance-forgiveness-sinfulness that lasted many generations. Their lives were a clear manifestation of how frail and imperfect human beings are and how merciful and compassionate our God is. It is very easy to dismiss the Israelites as an ungrateful people but in reality we are not any better than them. In fact, we are worse off seeing that we are unable to learn from their many run-ins with God.

I could be wrong but most likely am not the only one who has slowed down on their Lenten resolutions this year and are currently trying to find their footing as we deal with the guilt of failing God once again. Have you ever experienced similar moments of highs and lows? During such low moments we stand a real risk of judging ourselves too harshly which, instead of leading us to be remorseful for our failures and to seek God’s mercy, may lead to a further deterioration of our relationship with God as we may forget that “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” Psalm103:10-11. With as a sincere and contrite heart, we should always be ready to go back to Him for as many times as we wrong Him just as Christ advised us in Luke 17:4.

In his book “Happiness is an Inside Job” John Powell advises that human beings should seek growth not perfection. He states that “Perfectionism is indeed a slave master. To put one’s happiness in the hands of such a master is indeed foolish. The human condition is that of weakness. We are all trial-and-error types, real mistake makers” (Page 110) He explains that growth sees life as a process during which skills are learnt and everyone of us is called upon to experience joy of getting better and better as the process will be ongoing for a lifetime. He further advises that if we set out to enjoy, we are likely to do a much better job than if we were determined to be perfect. Powell’s lessons are vital in our Christian journey as we “work out our salvation.” We should never give up but should always seek growth in our spiritual lives.

With this lessons in mind, am off to a rejuvenated lent; I resolve to maintain the momentum of the Ash Wednesday. And so should you! And should I falter again, I will pick up my lesson, go back to Him for a restoration and continue with my journey. After all its not about perfection; its GROWTH.

 

ZACCHAEUS’ SYCAMORE TREE

The scene of a portly, rich man who had been ostracized by the community, running in the middle of a crowd to climb a tree, being ordered to “come down” to host Jesus in his house and thereafter offering to give half of his wealth to the poor and repaying fourfold any irregularly acquired wealth makes Zacchaeus’ story one of the most dramatic conversion stories in the New Testament. But why exactly did he run to the sycamore tree and whats is the significance of the tree in today’s christian life?  Here is the story from Luke 19:1-10;

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”” Luke 19:1-10.

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Zacchaeus Photo Credit: hasslefreeclipart.com

When I recently reflected on this story, it occurred to me that in most of the homilies that I have listened to and the commentaries I have read on this story, the reflections are usually based on the behaviour of three major players (characters, if you wish); Jesus the Saviour, Zacchaeus the sinner and the crowd which represents distractions/hindrances. Very little, if any, is said about the sycamore and this sent my brain into overdrive. What was its significance in this story? Does it matter that it was a sycamore tree or it could have been just any other tree or may be a rock? What became of it? Did it outlive Zacchaeus? After his conversion did Zacchaeus have any relationship with it again? Did he ever revisit the site? Are the claims by some writers that the sycamore tree still exists somewhere in Jericho factual? The tree…so many things about the tree and Zacchaeus are vague. And of course the bonus question: given its huge trunk and Zacchaeus short stature (the mental image I have of Zacchaeus is a stout man with short legs and arms and carrying some extra weight around the mid-section) how did he manage to climb the tree? Naturally, he couldn’t have jumped on the branches!

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Sycamore Tree. Photo Credit: FreeFoto.com

According to wikipedia, the sycamore grows to 20m tall and has a considerable spread, with a dense round crown of spreading branches and whose flowering and fruiting occurs year-round. The Bible Study Tools notes that the sycamore was a tree of great importance and with very extensive use in Egypt and Palestine and so great was its value in David’s kingdom that he had appointed a special overseer for sycamore and olive trees –  1 Chronicles 27:28. The sycamore tree is a very fruitful tree and it is said that it can have as many as six crops in a year.

In the absence of the sycamore tree, or any tree for that matter, would Zacchaeus story have been told? Would his conversion have been as dramatic? I don’t know. Going by other Gospel stories such as the ones for Batimaus and the lady who had bled for 13 years, it is a fact that Jesus had the power to spot Zacchaeus from the crowd even without the diminutive publican having to climb a tree. Right from the creation of the world, Jesus knew Zacchaeus and therefore by the time He made His journey to Jericho, He knew that Zacchaeus’ moment of salvation was ripe. On the other hand, Zacchaeus developed a strong desire to see Christ and I can only imagine his townsmen shock when they saw him go up the tree and thus affording himself a clear line of vision to see Jesus. The Biblical text does not tell us the distance that Zacchaeus ran in order to reach the sycamore tree but given his strong desire to see Jesus, one imagines that the distance was substantial and even in the absence of a tree he could have climbed on some rock or taken some piggyback ride on some stranger. In my view, therefore, the tree represents the environment in which, or the opportunity through which, God’s divine plan for man’s salvation and Zacchaeus’ human desire for God‘s  love and salvation met.

For the believers, even today Jesus still walks in the dusty streets of our lives and He always shows up for those who have their spiritual eyes open. At the same time, just like Zaccheaus we have all compromised our character in various ways and may not be worthy to host Christ in our hearts.  The story of Zacchaeus therefore, in a way, mirrors our own lives and struggles and seems to be an invitation for us to identify our own sycamore trees – that place, that opportunity, that environment that will enable us, and others, to see Jesus as He passes through our lives.

One property of the sycamore tree, as noted earlier, is its fruitfulness and this can be taken to symbolise rejuvenation/regeneration. It was on that tree that Zacchaeus was to meet Christ, acknowledge and repent his sins and also rediscover his mission in life – that of taking care of the poor. By climbing the tree, Zaccheaus had strategically positioned himself for a life-changing encounter. And Jesus did not disappoint. I can’t recall reading anything else about what became of Zacchaeus after this encounter but from Jesus’ concluding remarks “salvation has come to his house, it is evident that he lived a very happy and satisfying life thereafter.  By going up the tree Zacchaeus got more than what he bargained for; he was requested to come down and not just to see or meet Jesus face-to-face and to host him for a meal in his house but, just like Paul on his way to Damascus, he was invited to a life-changing experience that completely transformed his mission in this world. We can also experience the same life-changing encounter with Christ the moment we identify our sycamore and positively respond to Christ’s request to host Him in our hearts.

Another important property of the sycamore tree worthy noting is its imposing nature over the crowds. As noted earlier, the crowds only served to distract Zaccheaus from the attainment of his heart’s desire.  Compared to the sycamore tree, with its sturdy trunk and low –spreading branches which stood tall and strong in the midst of the crowd, the people in the crowd appeared insignificant, individually and collectively. Buttressed by this imposing nature of the tree and his strong desire to see Jesus, Zacchaeus’ short stature was no longer a limitation to the attainment of his goals.

We are called to identify our sycamore trees in all the areas where Jesus is passing through in our lives, families, places of work, relationships and so on. Once we identify our trees, we shall be able to position ourselves for the encounter and be able to have a clear line of sight to see Jesus. In addition we should pray for receptivity to His gentle presence so that He may help us not to be so deafened and desensitized by the world’s loud outcry that our receptivity fails to register him. For us to be able to achieve the rejuvenation symbolized by the sycamore tree as well as take advantage of its imposing nature, we are called to focus on the Lord and not the crowds. There is a human tendency to wonder what He will ask of us should we meet Him – what habits and what relationships will He ask us to drop or pick? From Zacchaeus experience, it’s clear that, once perched up on the tree Jesus takes over and His grace is sufficient and guides us to a life where we understand that we are nothing but stewards of any possessions or statuses in society and that we should only  “glory in the cross”.

Looked at in another angle, the story of Zacchaeus also presents us with an opportunity as well as a challenge to be the sycamore tree in the lives of our brothers and sisters. It calls us to be the tree for people to come and climb; climb higher to witness, discover or research on the wonderful, may be shocking or extreme, claims of, and about, the Son of God.  As noted earlier, the sycamore tree is monstrous in appearance, tall and wide and with its leaves growing to be up to 6 inches long thus making a fully grown one to be one of the densest trees. Consequently, for us to be the sycamore tree in other peoples’ lives, our spiritual trunks and branches must be very strong so that they can support the weight of the Zacchaeuses in our lives.  In addition, unlike most trees, sycamores are highly resistant to pollution and salty soils and are also known to stand up well in stormy weather, such as strong winds and hail. This means that for us to be sycamores, we are called to be deeply rooted in the faith, love and service of Christ and God’s kingdom so that despite the many temptations and struggles of life we should rest with the knowledge that all these are temporary, as outlined in John 16:33 where Jesus informed the disciples that “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.””

In particular there is a special call today for Christians who can be sycamores to the teens and the youth; Christians who can lift these young sycamores above the crowds in order for them to see the approaching saviour. These youth ministers are especially called to emulate Jesus’ tone in His encounter with Zacchaeus. In Jesus’ voice, Zacchaeus hears offers for love, compassion, understanding, protection and a promise. Jesus seems to say “Zacchaeus, I know you and your circumstances. I know your past mistakes and your anguish. I know your deep desire to know me, to be my friend and to serve me so that we can walk together. I also know your temptations but my love is stronger than them. My Father sent me to come, to seek and save you; even if you were the only one in the world, I would still have come to die and save you. Accept my love, come down and my right hand will save you; I will wipe away all your tears and as for your sins, I will remember them no more. I will guide you.” This is Christ’s message to the youth today and the youth workers/ministers are called to go to Christ and be in service with Him, and in His way, so that His kingdom may become present in this world and especially in the world of the young people.

The good thing about being a sycamore is that their success is not necessarily measured in terms of the numbers of Zacchaeuses who climb them or the number of pats on the back but rather on the sound of one Zacchaeus shouting (or at least living the words) “I can see Him now. And I know he sees me” and repentance is done, forgiveness offered and salvation delivered. And what is a sycamore’s joy or reward? Occupying a front row seat to witness the miracle of a Zacchaeus’ life song being re-written afresh, being so much more fun to sing; a life changed, a broken relationship restored, an injury pardoned –basically receiving an answer to the St Francis prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”