Do you sometimes get so caught up in doing God’s work that you start considering yourself wise and better than others? Could be your great sermons which lead to the conversion of tens of precious souls or your gift of singing that draws thousands to the church.
Could it be your service to the poor, the sick, the orphans and other disadvantaged groups in the society or your selfless leadership in the church or society?
Listen to what Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says about the correct attitude towards our work;
“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” 1 Cor 3:7-8
According to Paul, we are instruments used by God to achieve His purpose on earth and our ministry is limited to ‘planting’ and ‘watering’ the seeds. We work together with God in promoting the purposes of His glory; it is an agency relationship in the ordinary operations of His providence.
He warns us against the sin of pride brought about by taking credit for what the Holy Spirit has accomplished. This is particularly the case when our words, our actions, or our writings lead others to salvation. It is absolutely critical to give credit to God for one’s salvation since He is the only one who can ‘make things grow’.
And this is not limited to the salvation of souls or spiritual help we may give to others. In my view, the above words by Paul are not limited to pastors, priests, evangelists, and other ministers of the word of God.
God’s work involves many players with diverse talents from one and the same spirit. Some are gifted in serving in the youth ministry while others serve in the worship team, guest welcome teams, widows/widowers ministry, homeless ministry and many other areas.
Furthermore, some have been called to serve in the secular world. Politicians, business leaders in the corporate world, volunteers in not-for-profit organizations, service to our families and in many other areas.
Whatever your gift and calling, when you do God’s will and yield to him in obedience, God blesses your labour. When this happens, it is important to acknowledge that it is His mighty hand that gives us the abilities to exercise the gifts and to succeed in our endeavours.
In any case, using Paul’s analogy in the text above, we can say that God has the power to make the seeds grow even if they were not planted or watered by human beings. But he does not do it, preferring to have the agency of the farmer as co-workers in God’s service.
To God, there are no superstars, only team members in his husbandry and building.
“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.” John 4:6
God was tired and weary? How? This verse clearly portrays the picture of the “The Word became flesh” by humanizing Jesus. We have read verses where Jesus wept, was hosted for dinner, was thirsty etc but this verse in, John 4:6, communicates a pitiable proof of his participation in our limitations, weaknesses and struggles of life.
“[Jesus] who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Phil 2:6-7.
Though he was still God, Jesus he did not come to live in the world as God. He lived as men did so it does not surprise anyone that on this occasion he was tired from his journey. But what exactly about this journey that made Him so tired?
Could this have been one of those days when his day started long before dawn to spend time with his Father in prayer such that by noon His body could not have it any more? Or could it have been one of those days when his interactions with human beings vexed him? Like when he whipped the money changers out of the temple. Or could it be that the day was just simply hot, dry and dusty?
Or was it the mental weariness due to the stresses and strains of thought and care associated with leadership and love for humanity?
Whatever the cause, Jesus sat at the well alone, weary and thirsty. He sat there as if he could not go any further or do any more. He wanted to rest and recuperate: to quench his thirst.
Does this sound familiar? Ever had a very long journey and you were weary and worn, footsore and could not make an extra step? Or is your daily work so hard that by the time the day is over and it’s your to rest, you can scarcely crawl up to your bed? Do you work in an environment where your contribution is rarely recognized or you are overworked or overused to the extent that by the time you get home you are dull, worn-out and weary and you don’t find life is worth living?
Or are you a housewife who spends all your days providing relentless domestic services to children – some of them with special needs, husband, parents and elderly people and your services remain unrecognized, unaccounted for and unappreciated by those who you serve? That difficult and tiresome job that has no off days, annual leave or monthly income and whose contribution in the economy is never recognized when calculating the nation’s GDP? Do you occasionally get to a point where you are so worn-out and want to give up due to the invisibility of your contribution to your families?
And for the fathers who make sacrifices which are unknown to their families? Do you try your best to provide for your families and you sometimes feel you can do no more yet you are unable to provide what you want your family to have? You have not succeeded and you are disappointed and heart-weary.
Does the idea of a lonely, tired Jesus ring a bell?
And how about those whose weariness come from suffering? Those who suffer from great physical pain, heartaches, social rejection, loss and so on. Those whose sleeping and waking up is all about pain and can hardly get time to rest due to the physical or psychological pain? Those who may be compelled to consider death preferable to life?
And the spiritual leaders who toil day and night to speak for Christ and try to bring sinners to Him and all they get is rejection and frustrations? Those spiritual leaders whose congregations are shrinking despite their best efforts. You are worn-out and disappointed as the congregation becomes hostile to the message. The missionaries who left the comfort of their homes and families and experience dust, heat or cold in faraway lands with ‘strange’ people and cultures and all they get for their efforts is rejection and persecution.
And the weary sinner who is always longing for rest?
We all, at one point or another in our lives, found ourselves seated in the well of Jacob just as Jesus was. The words “Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well” reminds us of a Jesus who bears exhaustion and deprivation of comfort for our sake. Him, who was the Prince of peace, the immortal one, not only heard or saw human suffering, but he personally experienced it.
We should go to him with confidence for He was tried in all points as we are and He will be able to rescue us and give us rest. He who sits in the right hand of God knows what is meant by all that heaviness and heat of the foot and the stretch of the muscles from long journeys and hard labour, that blistering of the soul due to hate and rejection and that pain and weariness from suffering. He understand it all for he experienced it firsthand. When we find ourselves in such circumstance, we should soldier on gallantly for we now that He sympathizes with us in every moment of distress.
The image of a tired Christ also communicates to us what we should be. If Jesus worked to the edge of His capacity and did not shy away from service due to the hard circumstances of life, we are also challenged to take up our crosses, to yield up one comfort, one moment of leisure for the Lord who bore it all for us. We are called to represent Christ by loving, sharing the Good News and showing compassion by our words and actions even when we feel tired and weary and the last thing we want is to around God’s beloved and hurting people.
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.
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.
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?
There is this story in Luke 23 where Jesus, on his way to Calvary, encountered a group of women who were weeping for him. Jesus was a sorry sight; hungry and possibly not taken a bath for the past 24 hours, had also been scourged, mocked, spat on, had a crown of thorns and carrying a heavy cross, but he turned to the weeping women and asked them not to weep for him but instead to weep for themselves and their children “For the time will come when you will say, “Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!”” Luke 23:29
Wait! Did He just say that? I can imagine the shock and disbelieve on the faces of these women. “How insensitive? What a thankless fellow, this man is!” they may have asked among themselves. Did Jesus bless barrenness?
Barrenness is a violation of God’s original plan for man since right from the creation time, He commanded man to be fruitful and fill the earth. Barrenness is against the promise in Deuteronomy 28:11 “The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity – in the fruit of your womb…”
It would therefore be inconceivable how Jesus would imply that at any one point in time, barrenness would be preferable to fertility. A fruitless love may actually be seen as the devil’s mockery of the Creator’s gift to the creature.
It is a difficult task trying to understand this verse using the three-pronged bible-study formula of what did the text mean at that time and to whoever it was intended? What does it mean in the modern world? And how does it apply to my life?
So what did the text mean then? Bible interpreters and commentators are in agreement that Jesus’ message to the women was a prophecy of what would befall Jerusalem later in AD 70 during the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Jesus’ prophesy in Matthew 24:19 “how dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” contextualises the message to the lamenting women. It’s clear that His seeming insensitivity is not the absence of love, but the deepest expression of it.
And what does the text mean now? Well, no idea, but could the following be among the possible meanings?
In our highly competitive and capitalistic world, would the poor and those of limited means represent the barren? The poor have been made to suffer the humiliation of indecent housing, poor sanitation, and malnutrition and this compares to the humiliation suffered by the barren. Despite their deplorable living conditions, a number of studies, including by Gallup, have shown that the poor nations are the happiest although the UN’s happiest reports have a completely different result. In addition, other studies such as the one by Oishi and Diener have concluded that although life satisfaction was substantially higher in wealthy nations than in poor nations, meaning in life was higher in poor nations than in wealthy nations. Can this verse be applied to challenge (encourage?) the poor to focus on a kingdom beyond what they can see and touch, since Jesus offers something more bigger and better than what the world offers? Could Jesus, the Restorer of what is broken, be calling the poor to focus beyond their present troubles in order to find healing?
In the pro-life and pro-choice debates, pro-lifers have argued that right from the biblical days and up until recently, barrenness and sterility have been considered a curse but there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards children who are now seen more as a burden not a blessing. It is argued that the days are here when the biggest danger is the possibility of conceiving or getting too many children. One writer paraphrased it as follows ““Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me but weep for your descendants. For the days are coming when people will actually say blessed are the barren. The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children or to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when expectant children will be aborted and the capacity to do this will be called a right, where women with difficult situations will be taken to abortionists and those who bring them will think they are doing something good.” Is the message of Luke 23:29 applicable in this pro-life and pro-choice debate?
And what does the gospel text portend to me as an individual? I find the gospel message pointing towards a day of hardships and trials akin the suffering and pain of childlessness. It might be hard for us to conceive of that possibility now, but we are reminded that whatever the circumstances in our life we should always trust that God’s plans for us are perfect. He knows better than we do what is best for us.
We are reminded of the story of Joseph son of Jacob. When he was sold to Egypt by his brothers and later sent to jail on trumped-up charges, his life appeared completely messed up. However, in the background God was preparing Joseph for a higher call as a prime Minister, a role which saw him save not just the government and the people of the country which unjustly jailed him, but also the whole of his father’s household including his brothers, who sold him, and their dependents.
Another example from the Gospel is Jesus’ passion and death for the sake of man’s salvation. As was noted above, Jesus was a sad sight and as Isaiah described Him “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Is 53:2-3.
Isaiah goes further to ask “Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny?” Is 53:8.
This was a perfect representation of the feeling of all those who were with Jesus at His crucifixion.
During his passion, Jesus’ cross was a sign on defeat, humiliation and a symbol of the ultimate conquering of the evil over good. Although human beings, including Jesus’ disciples, may have given up on Him being the Christ, God was not done just yet.
Three days later, upon His resurrection, the role of the cross was reversed and it became a sign of victory and a representation of the triumph of life over death and good over evil.
It is evident that we might find ourselves in circumstances of barrenness in which it might appear as if nothing is happening in our lives or as if our life is not worth living any more. For such moments, we called to remember that God could be doing a lot in the background and we should wait upon Him for his timing is best.
Our barren circumstances may be represented by periods of extreme suffering due to illnesses, rejection, financial distress, strained relationships or even actual incidences of childlessness. We are called to wait upon the Lord for our moment of salvation is coming and even though the salvation may not come in the exact nature or form we expect, we should always be pray for the will of God to be done in our lives. We should love God in all the circumstances since it is better to love the gift giver more than the gift.
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.
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.
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.
On Friday last week, as we prayed the Way of the Cross, the character of Simon in the fifth station caught my attention in a way it had never done before. After the meditation we had the following prayer “Merciful Lord, in Simon of Cyrene, you offer us an opportunity to cooperate in our redemption. Mold our hearts to be fully open to embrace all those in need. Bless every ‘Simon of Cyrene’ whom you place on our journey and grant us the willingness and the zeal to carry the crosses of those who have no strength. Amen”. For the following couple of minutes, as the rest of the church proceeded to the sixth station, I got stuck in the fifth station as a number of questions ran through my mind- Well, yet another occurrence of those moments of weakness when my mind strays from the main activity in church and you need not worry so much about it since am still ‘work-in-progress’.
Having been from Cyrene in Africa, in the present day Libya, was Simon an African or a Jewish immigrant? Did he know Jesus previously? What ran through his mind as he carried the cross and was there any communication between him and Jesus, verbal or otherwise? What became of him after carrying the cross? For what distance did he carry the cross and did he hand it over back to Jesus at some point or he carried it all the way to Calvary? Did he wait for Jesus’ crucifixion or did he make haste and left the venue as soon as his work was done? Having been described as a bystander who was coming from the country what was his initial reaction after being conscripted to carry the cross – shock, annoyance, reluctance or may be embarrassment? Was he still in town on Sunday when Jesus resurrected? If he was, did he meet Jesus after His resurrection? Did he leave Calvary a changed man and was his life given a new sense of purpose after the encounter? Surely Simon was a figure of curiosity and yet very little about him is said in the Bible; only three verses in the whole Bible – a verse each in the Gospels on Matthew, Mark and Luke i.e. Mark 15:21,Matthew 27:32, Luke 23:26- narrate the complete story of Simon.
What struck me most about Simon’s involvement in Jesus’ life was how he was plucked from obscurity to prominence. According to the three verses above, Simon was a passerby who was on his journey from the country when the soldier grabbed and forced him to carry the cross. In an instant, by the actions of the soldiers and without being consulted, Simon was made to participate in the most important event in the history of the salvation of mankind; he got an opportunity to participate in our redemption. The Bible is full of stories of people such as David and Moses who by the workings of God were lifted from very lowly backgrounds to position of prominence but the Cyrenian one sounds more dramatic. Sometimes in life, we may find ourselves, though in a much smaller scale, in similar circumstances being picked from very humble backgrounds to positions of prominence. How do we deal with the fame and the glory and do we reflect on the role and plan of God in such circumstances?
From the prayer quoted above, we requested the Lord to mold our hearts so that we could be fully open to embrace all those in need; in other words, to be ‘Simons of Cyrene’ and participate in alleviating the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. It is a matter of conjecture that, being a human being like everybody else, Simon had his own cross in the form of daily challenges of life, but he also had the opportunity to carry somebody else’s cross and this turned out to be the most important cross he ever carried. In the same manner, the most important crosses that we will bear in our lives belong to other people and just like Simon we rarely have the luxury of choosing the crosses we are conscripted to carry. Often times, as we go about the business of our lives, we happen to be bystanders to the lives of friends, family and strangers when it suddenly occurs to us that their crosses are now ours to carry. In such circumstances we may suffer extreme injustice and unfairness but, just like Simon, it may turn out that the most important thing we will ever do in our lives is carrying someone else’s cross. We pray to God that He may grant us the grace to bear other people’s burdens as we serve Him who declared that “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
In addition, what about the call to be a ‘Simon’ to the Body of Christ, the Church? As Christians we have been called to help to provide for the needs of the church, each according to their means, by volunteering our resources, financial and human, in the various church ministries. By participating in these church ministries, for example those of the sick, the poor, the street families and other vulnerable groups, we allow the Lord to use us as vessels through which His gospel reaches the world. When we show kindness to the suffering, the persecuted and the defenseless and share in their suffering, we hope to carry that same cross of Jesus and thus obtain salvation and help contribute to the salvation of the world. A very critical ministry to which we have all been called is the one of praying for and being a good role model to the young Christians, especially the youth, as they navigate this treacherous stage in life. This is particularly critical in today’s world, an era during which technological advances have presented new challenges in relationships and family life as well as provided easy access to harmful substances and online content. Another way to be a ‘Simon’ to the church is by creating a conducive environment in our homes and neighbourhood where the vocations of priesthood and other religious are nurtured so that the church may always have adequate servants to minister to the faithful. Further, by offering our expertise, finances and time in church projects we play a crucial role in carrying Jesus’ cross as He walks the long journey towards the salvation of souls.
And who are the ‘Simons of Cyrene’ in our lives and who have helped us carry our crosses? Travelling through the various stages of life, we have encountered people who have greatly impacted our lives; people who uplifted our downcast spirits, provided guidance in spiritual as well as temporal matters, people who ‘walked a mile’ with us in our journey, people who just provided a shoulder to lean on. Do we always acknowledge the many, sometimes seemingly insignificant, sources of assistance whose actions and/or words act to ‘smoothen’, as it were, our otherwise rough journey? Do we consider such ‘Simons’ to be a gift from God and do we remember to pray for them, to thank God for them? By allowing these ‘Simons’ to participate in the carrying of the crosses in our life, we not only earn our own salvation but, just like for Simon who by participating in carrying Christ’s cross got an opportunity to participate in his own salvation, we also provide them with an opportunity to earn their own salvation – it is a win-win scenario for both parties. Consequently, we should guard against rejecting help from such ‘Simons’ by for example failing to share our troubles, deep fears and challenges of life with our trusted friends, family members or professionals since by so doing we may lose a moment of salvation both for ourselves and for them.
Suppose Simon declined to participate in the carrying of the cross?
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)”
I 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.
Today marks the beginning of lent; that time in the liturgical year when a believer is called to prepare for Easter through prayer, repentance, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. As I was reflecting on this year’s lent, I went searching for famous quotes on lent and fasting. I came across many quotes but this one by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stood out for me: “Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”
I found this quote presenting a fresh way of looking at lent; all our activities and observances during lent should be aimed or geared towards renewing our hearts and minds to prepare them as a fertile ground, to receive the life-giving Word of God which in turn penetrates our life giving us a new identity and direction. I understood this to mean that lent is not so much a time for making all those many religious observances, though necessary, but it is more of a time to study the word of God, reflect on it and apply it in my life so that going forward, it can guide all my thoughts, actions and words. It is a time to stop, observe the wind and adjust my sails so that the boat of my life can take the correct route towards our destiny.
As has been taught by the Church, the three pillars of lent are prayers, fasting and almsgiving. As part of the lent preparation I sought out to learn more about these three pillars and below I present some of the lessons learnt so far on fasting.
For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one’s intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food). Seems there are varied descriptions of what really constitutes a fast during lent (and I believe any other times) but the most common one seem to be that on days of fasting, we are to eat only one meal, that can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. If needed, two smaller meals (not adding up to more than one regular meal) may be eaten at regular mealtime. No food is to be eaten between meals. Both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of designated as days of fasting and abstinence.
There are many benefits for fasting and from the bible I was able to pick out three of those;
Fasting helps in preparing the soul for prayer and contemplation of divine things as can be demonstrated from three examples in the Bible; In Exodus 34:28 Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights before he wrote the second set of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments; Daniel 10:1-2 explains how Daniel had a 3 weeks fast before a great vision and in 1 Kings 19: 8 we are told how Elijah traveled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. To this you can add Jesus’ forty days fast before He started His ministry.
Fasting serves as a satisfaction for sin. As St Jerome puts it “Fasting and sackcloth are the arms of penance, the help of sinners”. In Jonah Chapter 3, we read how after Jonah had prophesied about the destruction of Nineveh, the king declared a fast for the Ninevites and following this fast, and the genuine conversion from their sinful life, God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had promised.
Fasting is meritorious and is very powerful in obtaining divine favours. Matthew 6:17-18 advises us about fasting “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Also, in 1 Samuel 1:6-7, we read about Hannah’s fast as represented by her husband Elkanah’s questions, and how this led to her womb being opened and giving birth to Samuel.
Fasting tames the flesh by crucifying it with its vices and when fasting the idea is to use the hunger to help us to focus more clearly on Christ. We should convert our fasting to be a prayerful exercise during which we draw closer to Christ by meditating on His forty days in the desert and how hungry and thirsty He was while hanging on the cross. During this fasting moment, as my stomach rumbles or as I yawn, it is a good moment to say a quick prayer asking for forgiveness for the many sins I have committed as well as to ask for strength to be able to face whatever temptations the evil one may throw my way. The pangs of hunger also reminds me of my hunger for God.
Further, with fasting, it is not just about giving up our favourite food but it’s also about going further and giving up things like hatred, ‘unforgiveness’, impatience, anger and so on. It should thus be looked at as an opportunity to clean our hearts and to prepare ourselves for purity; a moment to pick up new habits and new virtues.
In Isaiah 58, we learn about true fasting and why fasting may fail to produce the right fruits
““Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” ‘Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.”” Isaiah 58:3-9
Below are some other quotes on fasting which I came about;
“”Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.””
St John Chrysostom:
“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.”
Pope Benedict XVI
“Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual ‘combat’ which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism.”
“The ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us to make a complete gift of self to God.”
St. Peter Chrysologus:
“Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”
Fr. Thomas Merton
“The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; it is hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another, but the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence, it demands the emptiness of the faculties, and when the faculties are empty, then your whole being listens… Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitations and from preoccupations.”
“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.”
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.
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!
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.”