I spent Christmas day last week in my village in Kwara State and as I encountered some of our more elderly men who came home from Lagos I could not but remember some of the letters I helped their mothers to write them more than three decades ago as a primary school pupil. The contents of those letters were as diverse as the characters of the mothers and the children to whom they were communicating. Aside a negligible few that were prayers from mothers to sons, most of the other letters were expressions of bitterness and those mothers (most of them now late) would always insist that I conveyed their discontent in a graphic manner. “Tell him not to provoke me into using these breasts (usually exposed for me to see) with which I fed him for three years to curse him. Now read what I said to me again.”
I am by the way not the only letter writer in those days as practically all members of my age-group were. Incidentally, the idea of letter as an expression of anger is a universal concept for village mothers as Pius Adesanmi who drove all the way from Accra to spend Christmas with his grandmother in Ilorin, told me when we got together. He also wrote letters for some mothers in the Okun nation of what is now Kogi State and knowing Pius, I bet the receivers would not have slept easy in those days.
It is noteworthy that while each of such letters may have been written by a mother to a son, the idea of calling any young boy who could put some words together made them nothing but open testimonials. And since most of them were mere expressions of negativity, it is safe to conclude that they could not have enriched the lives of the recipients. And the evidence is all there to see in how some of those children have turned out.
With intemperate letters between president and president, daughter and father and governor and president flying around in our nation today and all containing nothing but recriminations, insinuations, self-justifications, accusations and counter-accusations, I am now reminded of those days of innocence in my village. Even when conventional wisdom teaches that those who live in glass houses should ordinarily not walk naked, that lesson seems lost on those who have ruled our country before, those who rule today and those still aspiring to rule tomorrow. Whatever the short-time political advantage it may confer on some people, exchanging angry letters is a sign of the collapse of the mores that hold a society together.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me state that I have decided not to write this week as I take time out to reflect on so many things. However, because this page must be filled, I leave readers with an abridged version of a paper I presented three weeks ago at an annual dinner of “The Excellent Men”, a group of some young professionals within the Abuja Area 3 Province of the Redeemed Christian Church of God led by Eng. Elviz Agbonifo-Obaseki. It may just bless someone as we begin a new year.
There is this good old barber in some city where there are nationalities of all countries. One day an American florist goes to him for a haircut. After the cut, he goes to pay the barber who replies: "I am sorry I cannot accept money from you. I am doing community service." The Florist is happy and leaves the shop. The next morning when the barber goes to open his shop, there is a thank you card and a dozen roses waiting at his door.
A Ghanaian farmer goes to the same shop for a haircut and when he wants to pay, the barber replies: "I am sorry I cannot accept money from you. I am doing community service." The farmer is happy and leaves the shop. The next morning, there is a thank you card and a dozen tubers of yam waiting at the door of the barber's shop.
At last, a Nigerian software engineer also visits the barbing salon for a haircut. As usual, when he wants to pay, the barber tells him: "I am sorry I cannot accept money from you. I am doing community service." Quite naturally, the Nigerian software engineer is happy as he takes his leave. The next morning when the barber goes to open his shop, guess what he finds there...
Can you guess?
Does anybody know the answer yet?
Com’on, I want someone to think like a Nigerian....
Well, the barber met a dozen Nigerians waiting for free haircut!
In that anecdote, one of the numerous our people have devised to laugh at our problems, there is a moral there for all those who can reflect. The Nigerian in the story would have concluded that he knows the address of one mugun (fool), essentially because many of our people have not cultivated the virtue of giving back to the community. That indeed speaks volume because the challenge of our nation today is not only in the failure of government but that of the society.
One of the best sermons I ever heard was based on the disturbing but rather significant Biblical parable of how one rich man failed to attain eternal life. Yet it was not so much the abundance of his riches that was the problem but rather the fact that he could not see the need of a poor man who had been strategically placed within his reach. I want to take the story from Luke 16: 19 to 23: “There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom...”
It is a story Christians are familiar with. But I am sure many of us have never bothered to interrogate the reason why the man failed to make heaven and neither had I until I heard that sermon. If we read the passage very carefully we will realise there is nothing in the parable that indicates that the rich man was dishonest in his dealings. Neither did the Bible say that he maltreated the poor man called Lazarus who was at his gate. There was also no issue about the source of his wealth. The main problem really was that he just could not be bothered about Lazarus or his plights. Whether we want to admit it or not, far too many people that we know are going through hard times but do we care?
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a profound message about putting the needs of others before our own greed. The mark of a true believer, as our Lord Jesus Christ teaches in the new testament, is to provide food for the hungry, water for those who thirst and shelter for the homeless. And the book of Proverbs is replete with curses for those who despise the vulnerable of society.
According to Dr. Scot McKnight, professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, United States, a closer look at the parable of the rich man and Lazarus reveals that it is more an admonition of those privileged citizens in society who neglect those on the margins, than about heaven and hell. "Who is the Lazarus at your gate?” is a question McKnight poses, as he enjoins Christians to "cross the distance" into marginalized communities in seeking out the poor and the displaced. He believes that if we don’t, then we risk succumbing “to the same unchecked, apathetic privilege of the rich man whom Jesus warns in this parable”.
I am aware that members of this group, like many other groups within our church, are comfortable people but how many of us are aware of the level of poverty and deprivation in our country or more appropriately within the community we live? Perhaps I should share with you a story. On December 7 (2013), my Parish, The Everlasting Arms Parish, TEAP as we call it, organised the annual charity event called “Tabitha Tent” where we generally give food items, clothing and other materials to the less privileged. Having been nominated into the committee this year I was involved in all the planning and the night before we had a final meeting in church. But when I arrived the church at about 6pm, a crowd had already started gathering outside the premises to spend the night so that they could get an early entrance into the church. By the time I arrived Church the next morning at exactly 5.50am, I could not gain entrance because of the huge crowd that far exceeded 5000 people.
This is a programme that we do not advertise anywhere yet huge crowds usually turn up every year. For a small bag of rice that would last no more than a week at most, people were ready to come from as far as Nasarawa and Plateau States to sleep. Some came with their children. They slept on bare floor outside the church premises. They endured the scorching sun the next day and some still went home empty handed because the turn-out far exceeded the provision. What “Tabitha Tent” has taught me is that the level of desperation in our society is rising and in the absence of any safety net, each one of us must rise up and begin to pay attention to the Lazarus at our gate.
The Lazarus at our gate includes the several children who are out of school because their parents cannot afford the school fees as well as those who cannot put food on their tables. But it does not have to be about money only. The Lazarus at our gate could be that next door neighbour who recently lost his wife or her husband and is looking for a friend. It could be the orphan within the family who needs direction in life. The moral here is that we should stop pretending that the need of one so near to us is not our concern. To embark on an authentic journey of faith, we must begin to light an exemplary candle in the darkness of poverty and want. And the best way to do that is to begin to pay attention to the Lazarus at our gate…
I wish all my readers a prosperous and letter-free 2014.