As the Priest said the benediction, bringing to an end, the service of the first Sunday in the 2016 Lenten season, I decided to stay on my knees a while longer than necessary to allow other worshippers to exit the Church. I did so in order to have some quiet time to solemnly reflect on a plaque that caught my attention in the ancient cathedral building of the Anglican Diocese of Zanzibar.
However my quest for solemn reflection was abruptly cut short by a crowd of visiting Caucasian tourists, who surged into the cathedral having been waiting patiently for the service to come to an end. They were on a guided tour of the cathedral, which is a UNESCO heritage site, having been built on the grounds of the former Zanzibar slave market.
Having been denied the desired quietness necessary for meditation by the chattering tourists, I decided to take a second look at the plaque that had caught my attention in the course of the Eucharistic service.
The plaque was embedded on the inner wall of the sanctuary beneath three columns of magnificent stained glass windows and read as follows: “To the Glory of God and in memory of Livingstone and other explorers. Men; good and brave. Who to advance knowledge and set free the slave, and hasten Christ s kingdom in Africa, loved not their lives even unto death. This window is dedicated by their friends”.
The first thought that went through my mind was the age of the brass plaque. It was obviously quite old but was well polished and maintained. It couldn’t have been less than 130years old and yet its message remained relevant and a challenge to modern-day Christians.
The plaque paid glowing tribute to a life lived to the glory of God and for the service of humanity. The man, David Livingstone (1813 –1873), was a medical missionary of Scottish descent, and an anti-slavery campaigner. According to church history, when asked why he became a missionary to Africa, he replied, “I was compelled by the love of Christ”. In the course of bringing the light of the gospel to a dark continent, among his numerous travails was a lion attack which left a scar on his shoulder as an eternal memorial. He travelled the length of Africa, and raised concern on the evil of slave trade. In his words, “ the strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be broken heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves”. David Livingstone died in his grass hut in Chitambo village in 1873, kneeling in prayer by his bed. His body was carried back to London and entombed in the Westminister Abbey, where his epitaph reads: “Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone, missionary, traveller, philanthropist, born March 19, 1813, at Blantyre, Lanarkshire, died May 1, 1873, at Chitambo s village, Ulala. Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring (John 10:16)”.
A month after his death, due to the his protests and journalistic attack of slave trade, the House of Commons was spurred into action, and England threatened a naval blockade of Zanzibar which forced the Sultan of Zanzibar to close its slave market forever.
Therefore, as I stood scrutinizing the plaque in his honour in the ancient cathedral in Zanzibar, the following thoughts went through my mind:
1.) Although the plaque was dedicated to many explorers, only one explorer was named – Livingstone. He obviously stood out among his peers, bearing testimony that a life of excellence always stands out from the crowd. The question here is; are you living a life of excellence for Christ? Will your name stand out, long after you are gone or will your name be under the category of “others”? Christ likens us, his followers, to a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden. That implies that we are to stand out based on the quality of our life s service, wherever we may find ourselves. We may not all be explorers like Livingstone, but every child of God is expected to stand out in his or her field of endeavour. The Holy Spirit cannot indwell a life, only for it to end up being ordinary. We cannot afford to receive His Grace in vain. As you observe the 2016 Lenten season, you will do well to reflect soberly on the quality of your service and life for Christ. Are you affecting lives? What will you be remembered for long after you are gone? As the most gorgeously dressed woman in church? As the man who drives the most expensive car to church? As the Professor who had a chain of 20 academic degrees from the world s best citadels of learning? What impact is your life making in the body of Christ and to humanity in general? Livingstone and others, left the comfort of their birthplace to bring the glorious light of Christ to a dying continent. These are sobering thoughts which should not be taken lightly.
2.) The plaque bore testimony to the character of Livingstone and his company – Men; good and brave. We live in an age where character is put as second fiddle and the quest for materialism at all cost is given undue prominence. This is a reminder that character remains the pillar upon which every great Christian journey begins and ends. These were good and brave men. They spoke up against injustice in their time. They were in the minority but refused to be put down. They were out-numbered but refused to bow to the evil of their time – slave trade. They did not only pray as several of us will want to do today, but in-addition they sensitized the government of the day against the evil practice of slavery. They were not docile. The slaves were not their relations, but the love of Christ compelled them to speak out on their behalf. They became the voice of the voice-less. The man or woman who God will elevate and honour with His precious anointing is the man or woman who not only loves righteousness but hates iniquity ( Heb. 1:9). Do you speak up against evil in the Church, your home, street, place of work and society in general? Are you concerned when people s rights are being trampled upon? Or do you choose to look the other way because the people in question are not related to you? Have you adopted the “ if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude? Livingstone and company were not like that. They followed the glorious example of Jesus and the Apostles who spoke up and condemned evil in all its ramification irrespective of whose ox was gored. Christians today must rise up and be brave to confront societal ills for the true light of Christ to shine forth.
3.) The plaque testified that their goal was noble and to the glory of God – “ who to advance knowledge, and set free the slave and hasten Christ s Kingdom in Africa”….. We live in a world where men and women are daily killing themselves pursuing goals that have no eternal value. The goal of some is to have on their resume’ that they attended the best schools in the world. For others, it is to build the biggest mansion in their city. And yet, for some, it is to be the prettiest and best dressed woman that ever lived. For others, it is to buy the best private jet available in the market. These goals are not in themselves bad, but the key consideration is how such goals line up with the expansion of the Kingdom of God. How relevant is it to God s plan for His Kingdom here on earth? Any goal that is self- centred, and self- promoting; as several are today, and is not relevant to the establishment and expansion of the Kingdom of God, is a useless goal. Any pursuit that is not of eternal value is a wasted pursuit. What is your goal in life? What do you hope to become? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 to 10 years? Is your pursuit of eternal value? Is it relevant to the advancement of the Kingdom of Christ here on earth? Like Livingstone, are you advancing the knowledge of Christ? Are you committed to setting free the oppressed? In this season of fasting, we must recall that one of God s key requirements for our fast to be accepted by Him is to free the oppressed and help the less privileged (Isaiah 58: 4-11). Are you concerned only about people of your own ethnic or tribal group? Livingstone was Scottish, but he died freeing African slaves. His life must be a lesson to several of us particularly in Africa whose reasoning are so beclouded by our ethnic descent for which we had no input – it was entirely the prerogative of God. In this Lenten season, we must refocus and re-prioritize our pursuits in life. Let us pursue those things that are of eternal value, which will outlive us and pave the way for us to enter the Kingdom of light.
4.) The plaque bore testimony to the extent they were willing to go for the cause that they believed in – ‘they loved not their lives even unto death”. We live in an age where the fear of death appears to be the beginning of wisdom. Christian men and women cling unto their lives as if there is no future beyond this world. Once people are threatened with death, they cringe and comply with whatever demands are made of them in order to preserve their lives. The Bible gives us a vivid description of those who overcame and the attributes that enabled them to do so. “ And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death”( Rev.12:11). Therefore, it is obvious that Livingstone and company followed the footstep of the master, “ who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”( Heb.12:2). The Bible is clear that the Lord Jesus, amongst others, came to set us free from the fear of death, which subjects us to bondage ( Heb 2: 14,15). It is therefore an aberration for a Christian to be afraid of death in this dispensation, after the completed works of Christ. The Apostle Paul confirms this in his statement “ For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Esther said, “and if I perish, I perish”. ( Esther 4:16). The four Hebrew boys refused to bow to the Babylonian King even at the threat of death. From whence then cometh this spirit of the fear of death which is holding back several of God s children in our generation? It is certainly not of God! Like Livingstone and company, who loved not their lives unto death in order to advance and hasten Christ s Kingdom in Africa, we must not be deterred by the fear of death as long as we are doing the right thing in the sight of God. We must remember that this world is transient. We are just pilgrims here looking forward to an eternal hope and home, whose maker and foundation is God. We must therefore stop at nothing to transform this world to become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ. There is a glorious crown awaiting each of us. I pray that you will not miss your crown!
5) The plaque is a reminder that there are always witnesses and that there is a day of remembrance. Livingstone and others did not commission their friends to put up the plaque in their honour or remembrance. Rather, their friends who were touched by the quality of their selfless service decided to set the plaque in that ancient cathedral as a memorial that there once lived men; good and brave. Whether we know it or not, there are always people who are observing our lives. Every day, we are either influencing people for Christ or discouraging them from following Him. To what category do you belong? Can the quality of testimony given of Livingstone be given by your friends? Can your wife, husband, children, colleagues at work testify of your good works and service to Christ and humanity? The Bible lets us know that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and encourages us to lay aside every weight that limits us so that we may run the race of life with our gaze fixed on Jesus ( Heb. 12:1). Finally, it is important to remember that a day of remembrance will come for each of us at the end of our earthly pilgrimage. What will be the testimony of men and women on the day of your death? Beyond that, what will be written in God s book of remembrance concerning you and the quality of your service here on earth?
As you go through the 2016 Lenten season, it is my prayer that what you resolve to be remembered for long after you are gone, will be such that will glorify both God and man. I pray that you will not fail or be discouraged. I pray that every yoke of besetting sin hindering you from focusing on God s Kingdom and His righteousness will be destroyed in this season in the name of Jesus Christ.
Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.
The Revd. Dr. Nduka Iwuchukwu.
Priest, Diocese of Lagos West, is presently attached to St. Nicholas Cathedral, Anglican Diocese of Victoria Nyanza, Tanzania. (firstname.lastname@example.org)