A 175 year old Moreton Bay fig tree resides prominently in front of the main office at my parish. It’s roots resemble massive tentacles of a mythical sea creature whose limbs both rise above and are submerged deep below the surface. The height and girth of the fig tree make it a showstopper and it’s easy to tell who visitors are to the area because they stop, stare, and try to take in the wonder of it all. And it truly is a wonderful sight to see.
On one occasion, as I was pulling into the driveway of the church for daily Mass, I noticed an older man sitting underneath the tree. His clothes were slightly disheveled, his face seemed sunbeat, and his shoulders slumped heavily at his sides.
Although the sprawling branches of the tree provide much-needed relief on hot and sunny Southern California days, I have made it a custom to always invite anyone whom I see sitting underneath the tree to come inside the cool church and sit with me during Mass. But walking up to a stranger and inviting them to Mass wrestles me outside of my comfort zone. I was also a little anxious because the man appeared to be homeless and I was having a moment of guilt and stinginess. I had a few dollars in cash—a few small bills and a larger one—and although I knew I should give him all of my money, I didn’t want to. At the time my finances were tight and I hadn’t budgeted unexpected charity.
I had a quick talk with the Lord about my selfishness and fear of rejection and prayed for the courage to approach the man and love him well no matter what.
I walked over to him and with an outstretched hand I introduced myself. Tired eyes on a withered face looked up at me, but there was an absolute kindness that expressed itself in his smile. He shook my hand and said that his name was Lenny. I asked Lenny if I could sit with him under the fig tree and with a slight sweep of his hand, he gave me permission.
I didn’t know what to say after that. I’m a pretty shy introvert, so walking up to anyone, especially someone that I don’t know, requires every ounce of courage from the Holy Spirit! I prayed that God would give me the right words to speak.
“It’s pretty hot out today.”
“Yep.” Lenny responded.
“Would you like some water?”
I quickly got up and hustled to the parish office and welcomed the relief away from the awkward small talk. The front desk assistant was kind enough to give me two water bottles and I also asked her for any information regarding shelters, food banks, and resources that could benefit Lenny. As I waited for her return, I took the time I gathered my thoughts. Mass was going to begin soon and although I didn’t want to miss it, I also felt a prompting of the Holy Spirit to be church to Lenny.
I returned to him still sitting in the same spot underneath the fig tree.
“Lenny, it’s pretty hot out here. Would you like to come inside the church? Mass is going to begin in the next few minutes and you can come and sit with me.”
“No. I’m alright right here.”
Taking a moment to pray again, I knew where God wanted me. “Well, if it’s alright with you, I’ll join you as we enjoy the warmth.”
And so we sat. We made small talk at first and then gradually he shared about his life: the adventures he’s had, the places he’s been to, and the people he’s shared it with. We had a few destinations in commons and we chuckled as we recalled the moments that we experienced there. He also shared about his life as a homeless person where the streets were not always kind, but he had somehow managed to keep safe. We sat on the curb underneath the tree for almost an hour.
I knew that God was asking me to give Lenny everything. As much as I sincerely cared for Lenny and felt my love for him as my brother and friend in Christ grow, I was still tight-fisted and worried about my own vulnerable financial place. I reached into my pocket and gave Lenny a handful of my smaller bills. He sighed and looked at me with a bit of sadness.
“I don’t want your money. I’ve just been enjoying your company.”
“It’s the least that I can do, Lenny.”
“But you already gave me the most. Your time.”
I was stunned. Holding his hands, I prayed with him, slipped the money back into his hands, and left.
I wanted to go home and quickly busy myself with anything and everything because my pride was wounded and my encounter with him weighed heavy on me. “I don’t want your money, I’ve just been enjoying your time.”
I turned into the now empty church and slowly made my way to the tabernacle. During my encounter with Lenny, I thought I was supposed to be church to him, and I was. But in a more profound way, Lenny was Christ to me. He gave me the most prized possession of his attention. And I received it, but could only muster up what I thought he wanted in return: a lackluster, half-hearted, materialistic gift. All he wanted was me but I didn’t think that I was enough. I rarely think that me, just as I am, am enough.
My heart was pierced by the swiftness into which he ceased to be Lenny and thoroughly became Christ.
How many times have I assumed what Jesus wanted? How many times have I given Jesus the gift of Cain rather than the gift of Abel? How many times have I withheld my very self from Him?
I’ve often times been hesitant with giving Jesus everything because what if Jesus asked for something that I wasn’t ready to give? How could I ensure that I would be, well, comfortable? And what would I have left for myself? If it sounds selfish, that’s because it is selfish and it’s the reality of my sinfulness.
I was afraid to give Lenny all my money because I placed a disordered value on it. To him, more valuable than money was me and my time. In the same way, I place disordered value on materials, ideas, and situations and hesitate to offer them to Jesus in full and all He wants from me is me… Just me and my time.
The important lesson I learned underneath the 175 year old fig tree didn’t start there. It actually began on the wood of two other trees over 2,000 years ago: the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross.
God knew—and knows—that as much as we strive for holiness, we would get it wrong, and the only rectification for out sanctification could not come from us, but from One like us but perfect in every way. He gave His only Son to leave the glory of Heaven for the manger in Bethlehem. The wood that held our Savior was the first altar of offering from Jesus.
And He wasn’t done. His very self was given on the cross where Jesus gave both you and I everything to the point where no drop of blood or water was spared. His anxiety in Gethsemane was for us. Taking on every lie, curse, and revilement was for us. Every slap, slash, spit, and splinter was for us. Every bruise and every nail was for us. Every breath especially the last exhale was for you and me.
And what He wants from us is just that…us. Our presence. Our time. Our love. Our attention. Us.
We can struggle with giving Jesus the things we “think” that He wants, but this Lent, let’s strive to be present to Him and to allow Him to be present to us. The more that we choose to be in love with Jesus, the easier it will become to let go of everything else because of love.
I held back under the tree but Jesus still gives and gives, and even forgives, and gives again. Let’s learn from our beloved, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” 1 John 4:10-12
Chika Anyanwu is an international Catholic evangelist and author currently based in Anaheim, California. She has shared her love for Jesus as a confirmation coordinator and young adult minister in Southern California, is a two-time alumna of the National Evangelization Teams Ministries, is a devotional writer for Blessed Is She, and was an area contact for Life Teen. Her book, My Encounter: How I Met Jesus in Prayer is the perfect pocket-sized testimonial and devotional for all ages. Chika is a part of a big and beautiful Nigerian family, loves coffee, and strives for sainthood every day although bad drivers challenge her sanctity.