By Cornell Ngare
CS Lewis, a convinced-atheist-turned-convicted-Christian once said, “Sometimes I find in me, a desire that no earthly thing or being can quench or satisfy; this is proof that I must have been created for another world.” (Paraphrase mine)
1. THE VOID
That’s the mystery clouding this man’s vision as he steals away into the shadows tonight. He needs answers: Answers to questions that his scholar mind cannot provide: Solutions to mysteries that his experienced years cannot unravel. He waits until way past sunset. He sits and waits until the quiet evening cacophony is completely replaced by the rhythmic chirping of crickets. He tarries until his wife and the kids have slipped into the sub-conscious country of slumber land. He doesn’t make a noise. Like a cat pad-footing through a messy kitchen, he steals into the night. Silently, he weaves his way through the city. Avoiding street-lights and highways, he chooses the dark alleys and back-roads. The cover of the darkness gives him courage to go out. This perplexed patriarch seeks the truth in the dark.
After fifteen minutes of avoiding late-night drunks and street-bums, Nicodemus senses that his destination is close by. The soft chatter of voices and the misty shafts of candle-light from a house two blocks away give him hope. Soon I will be able to sleep in peace. Soon, I will have the missing piece: The answer to my puzzle. He stops at the door and takes a deep breath. Suddenly, second-thoughts catch up with him. Perhaps this was a bad idea. Maybe I should just go back. What if one of the elders catches me here? How am I going to explain myself?
What if my best friend sees me going to church? How am I going to handle the endless taunting?
What if my room-mate catches me listening to Don Moen? Will I ever hear the end of it?
That was Nicodemus’ greatest fear. His fear was not discovering the truth, but being discovered. It was not getting transformed, but getting trapped. Sadly, that was also Ngare’s greatest fear, it was my worst nightmare. Not getting saved, but not hearing the end of it from my friends, family and classmates. I could not risk a public spectacle. No matter how much I really wanted to learn and experience this saviour. This Jesus that they talk about: The one we sang about in Sunday school, I just couldn’t shake off “people’s opinions”. The “world” was making sure I didn’t forsake it. How? By injecting GUILT in my every move towards salvation: Towards the truth.
But I still had a VOID to fill.
There was still a thirst in me that could not be quenched.
But I was yet to be convinced that Jesus was the solution. Not if this is how His followers were meant to behave.
2. THE OUT-CAST
But this guy found a solution. He waited until the “world” was asleep and got up. When the people were turning in, he ventured out. When the world snored, he strolled. So, now here he is, standing inches away from the door that will unveil the answers to all his questions, but he is not sure whether he is ready to knock. Eventually, fifteen minutes later, after weighing the options and the repercussions: After pre-enacting in his head the public humiliation that might result from this encounter, he decides this was a bad idea. So he turns to leave, but he is too late. The door swings open and a disciple (maybe Peter) almost runs into him on his way out.
“Oh, sorry sir,” Peter quickly apologizes, “almost didn’t see you there.”
Nicodemus is frozen. He opens his mouth but no words come out.
Come on man. This is bad. Say something! Talk your way out of this fix. Pretend you are in the wrong place, apologize and leave.
“Would you like to come in?” Peter opens the door wider and motions him in.
Nicodemus’ scared gaze wanders onto the group of men huddled around the table. A single candle illuminates their attentive faces. Suddenly, the conversation stops. The people turn and look towards the door. Then the man seated at the farthest end of the table, directly facing the door, motions him to get in.
Too late now. They’ve seen me. Might as well face them.
“Oh, thank you.” He says politely to Peter, lifts up his robes and steps into the room.
The silence is deafening. The moment he stepped through the door, everyone recognized him. And everyone held their breath. They had seen him before. He was always hanging out with the fellow Pharisees. When Jesus had claimed to destroy and rebuild the temple in three days, Nicodemus was among the members of the council who confronted him. Though he didn’t say a word then, he shared in their verdict. They knew him. They recognized him and they knew he was up to no good.
Nicodemus, trying hard to ignore the stares, finds a place to sit down at the table. But the moment he settles down, the two seats on either side of him are quickly vacated. It’s clear that no one wants to sit next to him. He is not welcome here
No one invited me to their bible studies.
No one cared to know what I really felt inside.
No one bothered to ask how I was really doing.
When they left for church on Sundays, they didn’t wake me up.
They knew that I hated church and they didn’t even try to convince me otherwise.
They had already sentenced me to hell. Even as Jesus beckoned me to attend that service on that day, their glances were skeptical; their stares were judgmental and very, very suspicious. They were sure that I had come to gather more dirt on Christ. They had heard my friends trash-talk “SAVEDees” on the streets. They had witnessed my best friends bad-mouth all the Christians in class. Whenever I joined any two born-again classmates for lunch, they quickly changed the subject and switched from the Holy Spirit to sports.
That made it even hard for me to consider Christ in my life.
I felt like an OUT-CAST in the company of believers.
Even though all the eyes in the dimly-lit room are fixed on him, Nicodemus can sense the fire in those eyes. He can sense the suspicion in their stares. All eyes on him seem against him, all, but these two eyes. These two eyes look at him differently. These two eyes don’t suspect him. They don’t accuse him. They don’t condemn him. They look at him in a different light: A strange kind of light. A holy light. This confuses him even more. Quickly, in his mental sheet, he adds the look of Christ to the list of questions that brought him here. Is that what they call the look of love?
How come I never get that look from Christians?
Something must be very wrong, because this isn’t what I heard on the streets.
The last time I bumped into the disciples, there was no love in those eyes, in fact I sensed some sort of fear…or shame. Wait a minute, are they ashamed of Christ? Is that why they are so quick to jump and run at the slightest provocation? Are they ashamed of their new lifestyle? I thought that this new faith brought with it security, contentment and justification. That’s what I’ve heard, but it’s not what I see around me. It’s not what I see in the eyes of Christians.
In Christians, I see a scared and terrified bunch. I see an ashamed people. I see an insecure and unsure generation. Could this be the reason why they fear to share? Could it be the answer to their silence about the gospel? Could it be why they like keeping to themselves and hang out with their born-again buddies? Could that be what they call “fellowship”? Sounds to me more like an AA meeting for evangelophobics. But I am not the judge. All I seek is the truth.
4. JUDGES…OR DOUBTERS?
After quick and short pleasantries, Nicodemus quickly dives into the business that brought him here. Consequently, the suspicion hurriedly shifts from the disciples’ eyes to their ears. They anticipate a spiritual debate as usual. They quietly lay their bets on how quickly this Pharisee will be shut up. With all votes cast on Christ, they listen with baited attention. But Nicodemus’ first sentence is the last sentence they expected to hear from a Jewish leader.
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God…” (John 3:2a)
Actually, the first word is the last word they expected to hear.
He called him teacher! The gasps in the room could have made the Guinness book of records cover page. The murmurs of disbelief quickly fill up the room but are interrupted by the sound of a breaking dropped pot of water. Peter, who stands frozen at the door on his way back to bring water, also cannot believe what he just heard.
I wish someone would have shushed these Christians down for me.
I wish there was a way I could have convinced them that I was serious when I asked them about Salvation. But they didn’t think so. They assumed I was mocking them. So, they blew me off and changed the subject. If only they could have heard the cry for hope tearing up my heart, they would not have been so mean. Perhaps I would have considered this belief. This lifestyle called Christianity. But no! They blew me off. They muted my moans for help.
Could that be it? Could this be the reason why no one ever approached me about Jesus? Maybe I over-reacted. Maybe I was quick to accuse them of feeling guilt. Maybe I was wrong to assume that the reason they didn’t discuss Christ with me was shame. Perhaps Christians are not cowards after all.
Perhaps they are just…..just doubters.
That’s right. I think that kind of explains it. It might explain why they didn’t bother approaching me. They doubted that I could be saved. They did not believe that a sinner like me could be saved. Perhaps they saw that I was in too deep to be redeemed. Maybe the reason they never bothered, was that they had lost hope in the sinner. Hope in me.
This is all the more reason why I am so glad Jesus didn’t.
5. READ THE SIGNS
Undeterred, Nicodemus continues this legendary discourse, the conclusion of which (John 3:16) will forever be imprinted upon the mind of all Christianity, “For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”(John 3:2b)
This man is curious. His reasoning has been assaulted. His logic has been disrupted. Something doesn’t fit in the resume that we have of this carpenter from Nazareth. We can explain the doctrine (disillusioned fallacy), we can counter his arguments (self-righteous proclamations). In-fact, given sufficient time, we can debunk his parables (flawed sentimental stories). But something just doesn’t fit the scene. Something about this man still eludes us. The miracles! The signs! The impossible healings and the supernatural manifestations! This just doesn’t add up. From history, only a prophet could do that. Correct that, only God’s prophets could do that. Magicians and Sorcerers don’t even come close to what this man can do.
This troubles me. Could I be missing something greater here? Only you can peel off these scales of religious myopia from my eyes Jesus. Only you can provide the answers I need.
Ngare was and still is a curious creature. I was never the type to let any logical provocation put me down. I theorized. I pondered. I asked questions. I googled. I did all I could to satisfy my unquenchable thirst for answers. I bet you can see the dendrites of such a mind still stringing these pages. I questioned everything. I could have easily dismissed Christianity as one more religious mumbo jumbo, but there was something that just didn’t add up. There were some Christians that really intrigued me. The greater bunch was normal: scared, cowering, hypocritical Christians. But a few managed to capture my attention.
No, it wasn’t their words, or their logic or their arguments that captivated me. Like Nicodemus’ I was drawn by these guys’ actions. I was attracted by The Signs. Some of these things simply defied “human” motions
How a mother could still praise God after losing her new-born baby.
How a daughter could still forgive after being raped by her father.
How a husband could be kind to the man who murdered his wife.
How a millionaire could spend it all on some unknown orphans.
These things baffled me. These things grabbed my attention. But the sad thing is that, these things, made me question the rest, the majority, of my Christian friends and neighbors.
Why didn’t they walk their talk?
Why were they always hanging out at the Church?
Something is wrong with this picture. Something is off. Perhaps Jesus had the answer that explains this rift in a body that claims unity: A house that claims a single Father. I was not ready to believe, until I understood.
6. GRACE MISUNDERSTOOD
The Jewish theologian is confused. He hopes that this man who calls Himself “The Light” will shed some light to his quagmire. Jesus looks at him, and a flush of compassion overcomes Him as he solemnly declares to this confused Patriarch, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3)
Out of the Psychiatric reception room and into the loony bin, Nicodemus is desperate. I thought I was coming to clear my mind, not to fog up my head even more! Jesus, I am hanging on to my last thread here. What do you mean born again? Ok, I am not stupid. I won’t assume that you mean that literally. I have been studying you long enough to recognize your metaphors and riddles. But I have to admit, this one is on another level.
Allow me to be naive, Jesus. Let me assume that by birth, you mean starting afresh. Anything born is a new creation. And anything born-again is as good as new. PASTLESS. No signs of the past still attached to it. It has no history. Anything born again is STARTING OVER. It has no attachment with any former versions of itself. If that is what you mean. Then I am ready to embrace that. Just show me how.
I had heard that explanation before. It was in a church and the pastor was preaching about salvation. He was explaining to us the beauty of grace: what it meant to be born again. He told us that when one is born again, he has no past. He was PASTLESS. He was in a sort of divine amnesia. In other words, he has no sinful past in God’s eyes or God’s book. His sins are washed away by the blood of Christ on the cross. He is a new creation. A holy generation. Someone who was born again no longer had any allegiance to his sinful past. That sounded incredible. It was exciting. I wanted that! I yearned for that kind of gift.
No condemnation about my sins? No reminders of my past mistakes, failures and addictions? I want a double dose of that kind of Salvation. That Good News was too good to be true. It sounded more like a feel-good campaign slogan to join Christianity. Too Utopian. It was simply unbelievable! Yes. It was unbelievable, and I didn’t believe it.
I didn’t believe it because the Christians I knew never displayed it.
I didn’t believe it because self-proclaimed sons of God still walked around acting like orphans.
I didn’t believe it because my “born-again” friends were still bound by guilt.
I found it hard to believe when Christians ran around, lost in “religious” responsibilities behind church doors as if they were on a “Community-service-get-out-of-sin-jail-ticket”.
I didn’t believe that these people I see walking around blaming their pasts and apologizing for their sin-bound pedigrees were born again.
They didn’t act born again. They didn’t live as people born again. Maybe that was the problem. The people proclaiming this Good News were not living it out. It sounded to me more like Phony News. Perhaps I had misunderstood the phrase. Because I sure hadn’t misunderstood grace.
7. THE NAKED TRUTH
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Nicodemus tells himself. I know I have a master in theology and a PHD in enunciating religion. But Jesus, what I am going to ask may sound stupid, but I don’t have a choice. I came looking for answers, and I am going to leave with answers. Even if it means leaving my pride in this room. I don’t mean to be funny Jesus, but,
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. ”Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4)
A stifled giggle escaped from one of the men in the room. But Jesus did not smile. Neither did he snicker. They knew that they too had the same question on their minds, however absurd it sounded. They just didn’t have the guts to ask it. They couldn’t risk being stupid in the quest for truth. Nicodemus did, and that’s why he chose to be the bigger man and ask the childish question. Casting a knowing glance to the disciples around him,
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘you must be born again.’
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
8. THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I don’t know where it came from, but it finally arrived. In fact, I think it has always been there, though I chose to ignore it. But it was there. And it was real. What am I talking about? I am talking about something that exists in all of us, Christians or not, born-again or not. It is the desire for something greater than ourselves. The need to worship. The yearning for something out of this world. Something more powerful, more important than we are. What keeps us going. What gives our life meaning and a purpose.
Like CS Lewis, I realized that I had a desire to worship. I acknowledged the existence of a supernatural being that held everything together. Everything on earth that I thought would sustain and satisfy me had let me down. Wealth had dumped me. Fame had worn out and the search for approval had grown stale. I never contemplated alcohol or drugs (luckily). I guess my need was more intellectual than emotional. No philosophy could make my mind content. No. This world didn’t have the answers.
Dissatisfying relationships had taught me that I needed something more than human love.
Broken friendships had birthed the need to have a more permanent fellowship.
A shaky family showed me that I needed more than my earthly father’s approval.
I needed more.
I needed justification.
I needed TRUE freedom
I needed REAL LOVE
I NEEDED TRUE LIFE
I needed Jesus.
So when my friend Monta Victor visited me at home as usual on that Thursday afternoon, I knew this would be an unusual visit. We had been friends for four years, through-out high-school. But we were always different. He was more out-going and out-spoken while I was more reserved. I almost missed it when it happened. But I am so glad I didn’t.
While he partied, I practised refrain.
While he raved, I resorted to reading Shakespeare.
While he clubbed, I enclosed myself in philosophy books and jargon.
While he danced to rap songs, I memorized Eminem lyrics.
We were always different.
But I guess I never noticed it, until almost too late.
When Monta’s party-nights shifted to prayer-nights, Ngare still practised refrain.
When his raving shifted from K-2 to K-Rave, I was still stuck with Shakespeare.
When he stopped clubbing and joined bible clubs, I was still busy in philosophy books.
When he switched from Krazie-bone to T-bone, I had acquired the name Eminem.
What changed? He was born again. But I didn’t buy it until that December Thursday. I didn’t buy it until he shared with me about this Jesus. The Jesus I never knew. The Great Grace God.
I got born again, because I believed he was born again. Monta; your name will forever be remembered in Heaven’s hall of Fame, because you just didn’t tell me about Jesus. You showed me Jesus.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked (John 3:9)
Perhaps that’s all someone needs today.
They need you to be born again so that they can be saved.
They need you to accept them so that they can accept your Jesus.
They need you to believe that they can believe.