When the rain comes
breathe in the clarity it brings-
savour the stillness you remember
from the times it came before,
the delights the memories of
past days and gone weeks
and seasons long disappeared,
bring you. Cherish the muscle memory
of the steps that draw you along this path
to the days of innocence, because
drop by drop, the sorrows
of the far country are dissolving
in the rain.
It struck me the other day that even after a year out here, there are still work colleagues whose faces I have not seen without masks on. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic, masks were required in all public spaces – and rigorously enforced – with more than a few people cited for either having theirs pulled down or not wearing one as they approached the security gates and barriers that dot the landscape. Only when I then see a face without a mask does it register that I have made up the hidden contours, seeing the mask as an integral part of these faces. This brings with it a mild sense of discomfort, stemming from – I think – the fact that even though I have built relationships and friendships with these people, their uncovered faces scream unknown rather than familiar.
The question of God’s sovereignty has a different heft when what lies at stake is the health of one’s nears and dears as opposed to the navel gazing satisfaction of an academic exercise. Not to say that academic exercises have no point – being able to dispassionately assess a subject on its merits without the cloud of emotion and peril has its place – but when the stakes relate to matters of life and death, hope and desire sometimes trump cold hard facts. Implicit here is the assumption that God exists, that he is reasonably well depicted by the Bible and that some objective truth about his character can be deduced from that book. The orthodox Christian (Calvinist?) position is that God is Sovereign and in control, and that he “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass“, to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Gombis, Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, offers a rebuttal of that position in a four part series [Part 1, 2, 3 & 4] from last year, one that I read in the middle of my season of rethinking. L’s arrival and the ICU trips which followed have afforded me the opportunity to re-read the arguments from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. As I understand it, the core of Dr Gombis’ argument is that there is a distinction between God’s identity as sovereign and the manifestation of that in the world today. What guarantees there are, if any therefore, relate to a final transformation of this broken world not control over the minute details of our lives. Until then pain, sorrow, chaos and the likes are part and parcel of our experience this side of the divide.
It is not the concept of God being in control that Dr Gombis’ has a problem with per se, I don’t think, but rather the wrong responses, actions/ inaction and decisions it can engender in our lives. The second part of his essay identifies five such responses:
Inaction, in which we fail to consider ways in which we can positively affect outcomes, instead folding our hands waiting for God to act,
False hope, in which we conclude that if God is in control then the reality of the pain/ undesired outcome that stares us in the face is somehow not real and that things will work out
Discerning a divine logic, ie if God is in control and something manifestly wrong has occurred then there must be a meaning to it
A refusal to engage grief and lament, instead focusing on trying to learn the lessons in the pain ‘God’ has sent our way
Speculating on God’s purposes in the pain
The problems articulated in the article and summarised above are ones I recognise, several of them being core beliefs of the American brand of Charismatic Christianity exported to my native Nigeria many moons ago. In that worldview, if you sow seeds, name things and claim them, life will be all honky-dory with nary a cloud on the horizon. That this is a manifestly warped view of the world is not in doubt – even the most cursory of glances reveals the falsity of that. What we have to hold in tension with this on the other hand though is the question of prayer, and what we hope to achieve by prayer.
If God is not in control, then what does prayer seek to achieve? Is it merely preparing and changing us to accept whatever outcomes come our way or does it/ can it materially affect outcomes? Fortunately or unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, a consistent theme I see in these musings of mine.
They say that fiery flames
beget cold ash, the certainty of beliefs
passed down petering out into the lukewarm
ambivalence of doubt and questioning.
These roots are the things that hold us still
each tendril like a link tethering us
to the ones who went before.
She lingers like a ghost in the night,
this memory of my mother, framed
by a distant light: the stately stillness
of her furrowed brow, the slight tilt
of her chin catching the light, defiant.
The moment when the lone tear hangs –
perched impossibly as though straining
against the world – comes to me
again and again in a vision of the night,
its lingering like a thread tethering me
in my seasons of incertitude.
Up until a few years ago, if you asked me if I considered myself a person of faith, I am fairly certain I would have answered in the affirmative. I would have had the receipts too, of faithful observance and community that came with the particular brand I subscribed to, Pentecostalism. Sometime between then and now – and I would say it has really been in the past two years – what I believe has slowly become more fluid, the near iron-clad certitude of those days now replaced by what I can best describe as ambivalence. To riff somewhat on a marital metaphor, it feels like a marriage that has slowly unravelled, ending up in the unwanted woodlands of a divorce of sorts. For what it is worth, it has not been the worst of breakups though; I still retain membership in the church I called home, and continue to contribute to all the good work they do in the community. The songs and thoughts from those days still resonate deeply with me. On the outside therefore, it is not particularly apparent that a deep ambivalence festers. Underneath is where it has been a sea of change, the main symptom being an absence of a desire to partake in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting.
In reflecting on the necessary and sufficient conditions which have resulted in this state, three things come to mind. First is the intellectual struggle to square Genesis with the science of origins, and the wider implications of that for original sin and biblical inerrancy. The very public de-conversions of the likes of Marty Simpson and Josh Harris, and the failings of the Ravis and Lentzs of this world have also contributed I think. The death knell though, I think, was the trifecta of lock-downs, remote church and moving cities (to one in which Christianity – or a Judaeo-Christian worldview – is not predominant), which finally severed the tenuous hold the memories of deeply emotional, spiritual experiences held on me. H and her passing also cast a long shadow on all of this, given her long and storied part in my life and her own strong faith journey.
The origins of my faith journey go back to 1992, in the year I was 11, although my levels of observance have waxed and waned over the years since then. Not being the particularly emotional type, the enduring memory of the day is me sobbing uncontrollable under the weight of the conviction of the message, and joining forty or so folk at the front of the building when the alter call wall made. Two periods, at least in my memory, come to mind as ones in which I was at full pelt, the undergrad years through to national service and then working in the deep Nigerian South (East), and then the 2012 to 2018 period. Across both spans, my spiritual influences were theologically conservative – read Piper, Mohler and the TGC/ Reformed Theology crowd.
Also of note, I must admit is the influence of the prosperity gospel and all its trappings on my conceptions of faith and belief. In my memories, the influences were first from cassette tapes, then reams of Word of Faith magazines from the Kenneth Hagin crowd. That trickle eventually became a firehose, spawning several homegrown versions of that prosperity meets charismatic meets mighty man of god model.
The irony that the majority of these folks hold to a high view of predestination is not lost on me. In that view of the world, and how God saves, those who are saved are saved solely at God’s discretion which suggests those walk away were perhaps never really saved in the first place. A lack of spiritual fervour in that worldview is a symptom of lost-ness not doubt. To quote John Piper:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie.It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world.
To those from my old tribe therefore, I am lost in a manner of speaking, and might never really have been saved at all, leaving my soul in peril of eternal conscious torment. There are moments when I tend to agree too, given what the parables of the sower and the wise and foolish builders suggest, that it is the seed which sprouts readily without deep roots – or the house built on sand – that is readily browned out or swept out to sea by adversity.
This then is the tension that I struggle with internally, what the head understands to be objective truth and what the heart wants to be true do not appear to be the same thing, or even reconcilable at first blush. The main external effect of this tension is in my relationship with S. Seeing as she remains deeply wedded to the Charismatic life with all its trappings – including an extreme willingness in my view to ascribe everything to the influence of God and/or Satan depending on the outcome – tensions seethe and bubble beneath the surface from time to time amidst the mundane bits of life. Implicit in her beliefs – and my ambivalence – is the unspoken accusation that by not pulling my spiritual weight I am a source of entry for Satan and his roving gang of minions. It is a tempting – if simplistic – lens through which to view the world, only it doesn’t add up for me, and adds to the sense of cognitive dissonance I battle daily. What does it matter if Adam was a historical person or not?, she sometimes asks, or if the earth is 6,000 years old or 6 billion? But those are the very things which have wrecked the scaffolding on which my faith experiences have been built, and in the absence of those experiences the whole thing has come crashing down.
It is only in the past year that some semblance of coherence and a path forward has come together in my head, and I have the guys at the Voxology Podcast to thank for helping me articulate this state, of spiritual homelessness. For all my grouses, I have never quite managed to chuck everything all out, baby and bath water, a point which registered very strongly with me recently whilst listening to the Nicene Creed being recited. The core beliefs of God as creator, Jesus as his son and all are ones I cannot repudiate and still want to hold to and grapple with in the light of everything else. What is however clear is that the extras from my old tribe are ones I cannot hold on to unequivocally. In thinking about what a stripped back, core version of faith is, I am grateful for the work of the likes of John Walton, the Bible Project and N.T. Wright, which at their core encourage a reading of the biblical texts in their original contexts (both in time and culture). Also of use is a framework described by Preston Sprinkle of the Theology in the Raw pod in which he talks about Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy and Orthopathy as being foundational elements of a real world faith (my emphasis); right beliefs allied to right practice AND right passions.
What is not in doubt though is that this will be a long and challenging journey, and is unlikely to end up in the place things once were.
I trace the beginnings of my faith journey to Easter of 1992, the enduring image of the day being standing alongside forty or so other people at the front of the bare, minimally decorated assembly hall of the College of Education Ekiadolor. I was there because I had been dragged there by my family; there being an Easter conference put on by the student Christian movement my parents spent a lot of their spare time supporting. Besides my irritation at being taken along — and thus losing the few days of freedom free from parental supervision — responding to the altar call along with the others whilst sobbing profusely is the only thing I remember from the events of the weekend. That would not be the last time I would respond to an altar call — or pray a similar prayer for that matter — but the sense of relief, joy and confidence about the future which followed that day is why I come back to that place as the definitive start of my spiritual journey, never mind the fact that it lasted for all of three weeks before the reality of life brought me down to earth. That personal connection was the final piece of the jigsaw that created a church bubble for me.
Growing up, church life was pervasive, bleeding into every other space I did life in. For all the distinctiveness of the other spaces — home and school — the burden of my recognisable surname meant that in the small town where I lived, certain assumptions were made about my character and behaviour. Life in the bubble had its own versions of things outside the bubble — its own popular music, TV shows, super star speakers and youth group events. Then there was the sense of certainty about what was right or wrong and what the expectations of behaviour were. That pervasiveness only increased after my father took the plunge and plopped for his collar. The ordination in 1993 strengthened the sense of insulation, focusing the involvement in a number of para church organisations into a single one, a properly pentecostal church. Where prior to that church was the University Chapel, stylistically aligned with the Anglican Communion complete with the use of the book of common prayer, church was now loud hand clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and all the other trappings of Pentecostalism.
In my experience, self reinforcing certitude is a notoriously difficult thing to preserve, especially once the barriers that protect it from outside scrutiny are removed. Going away to University did that for me, being the first time I would leave the cover of home for distant lands 80 miles away. Of the various things which chipped away at this bubble, the freedom of distance from home made the most difference, allowing me re-invent my associations with connections outside the bubble. That coupled with the multiplied numbers of people that I met on a daily basis created an overload of influences, ones which were decidedly more worldly wise and cosmopolitan than I had been exposed to previously. Wider questions about biblical hermeneutics — particularly Genesis in the light of the geological record — soon piled on the misery, blowing wide the door to drift and doubt. The only exposure to a non young-earth based theology I had up till then was in the margin notes of my father’s Dake Bible, notes which considered an alternative interpretation of the ‘days’ of Genesis as epochs or ages and hence less discordant with archaeology. Elsewhere a young earth, a historical Adam and Eve and the Fall were put forward as essential building blocks of the worldview I espoused. The seemingly significant disconnect between that and scientific reality left me questioning everything, further loosening what inhibitions remained. Since then five years in the South East of Nigeria — working in a town where a combination of oil money, single men, expats and a pool of attractive, educated single men fuelled a libertarian culture — and nine years in my corner of Scotland, as far removed from my bubble days as could be have done little to ease the sense of drift that I now carry. All of this notwithstanding, I have never fully managed to become untethered, church and faith somehow managing to remain embedded in my routines.
Most days I feel a deep kinship with the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, his hightailing it to a far country somewhat akin to how my faith journey evolved in the University years, once I was out of my church bubble. Whilst the emotional response that followed Easter of 1992 suggests a real change happened, my continuing struggle with the simple stuff — a regular practice of prayer and bible study, engaging a discipline of fasting and evangelism amongst others — often leaves me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Smarter theologians such as John Piper make a distinction between justification and sanctification; justification being a more or less instantaneous accounting of righteousness with sanctification being a more gradual growth. Implicit in that — in my layman’s view — is that a propensity for cognitive dissonance exists in all faith journeys, driven by the distance between what one knows to be right and what one does, between being justified and growing into a ‘sufficient’ degree of righteousness, as Paul’s example in Romans 7:13–24 suggests. The consensus, as I understand it, is that a measure of discipline, work and effort are required to bridge this gap, God both working in one and through one. That I largely accept, what is less certain is how much of the push to grow and improve is due to a real change as opposed to the remnants of the church bubble I grew up in, much in the same way a Muslim or Jew, by dint of culture abstains from non-Halal or non-kosher meat.
I write to find out what I am thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.
All of which suggests a certain absence of certitude which only fades when the subject of doubt is engaged through the meandering paths and rabbit holes it leads us through and down.
This is what (I hope) this space will be for me, a place where the discordant notes of thoughts often coursing through my mind on faith, life, books and a fair few other things can be engaged, each assay like the blow of a chisel which though insignificant by itself, builds on the past and slowly carves out a thing of exquisite beauty.
Memory is an interesting thing, not least for its triggers, the mechanisms behind what we remember and what we (choose to?) forget and also for how something can simmer beneath the surface in the subconscious layer of the mind, feeding a gnawing sense of restlessness but never being comprehended. The return of the Aria Code podcast for a third season this week was one of those jolts, the exploration of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, the kick which opened up the door to a rabbit hole of memories. A few years ago now, in a season of young-ish love infatuation, HMT in the ‘Deen became the centre of many a late night taking in opera, walking along Union Street to cars parked in side streets (for the free parking) but not much else besides. In retrospect, it was very much a period of unrequited love that went no where in the end, although my memories of the time suggest otherwise. The things one chooses to remember or forget, I guess? The one upside to all that remembering was delving into the rabbit hole that is YouTube for performances of the Aria, one of the more fascinating ones for me being the soulful rendition by Aretha Franklin at the ’98 Grammys (which she agreed to do at short notice as Pavarotti was ill). The aria’s closing sentiment (At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!) is apt given our time, as the Aria Code episode so aptly demonstrates.
I have just completed under a month of walking ten kilometres each day; noise cancelling headphones on and music cranked up to as loud as is comfortable as I do the loop around my house. On most days I have tended to pass other walkers at pace, eyes averted, trying the least to intrude on their space (or more accurately preserve the sacredness of mine). On the odd occasion when it has not been possible, I have waved in response to others waving. A chance conversation on the bus the other day did however remind me that it wouldn’t hurt to initiate a greeting now and again as I whizz pass others. That is something I hope to take on board for the next batch of 10k strolls.
Life is fleeting, things can change, and breath is a fickle thing after all. The word for this week, mashshaa‘, for walker.
Recent Finds (x5)
The Stats course I’m taking online at the moment is raking me over hot coals, so I have been looking for all the help I can get. Hannah Fry and the Stand-up Maths dude’s video helped to clarify Bayes Theorem for me somewhat, not out of the woods yet though but I suspect my confidence levels have inched up a wee bit.
The memories of the days are beginning to disappear into a haze, each one a maelstrom of activity that begins with waking with a dull, lingering sense of dread and ending the same way it began, only with a sense of battle weary tiredness layered on. One day it is Sunday, and then suddenly it seems like it is Tuesday and then Thursday – brings respite – only for it all to begin again; wash-rinse-repeat. The good thing is that somehow it is the beginning of March, and each day that passes quickly brings the arrival of that symbol of the worker’s Faustian pact, a salary, another day closer. In my more sanguine moments, I remind myself that for all my bellyaching, there are far worse things to moan about in the world than work.
With March comes a change of season to spring, if one can call day time temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C spring. December, and my will-I-or-won’t-I-wear-a-jacket phase, seem far away now. It is the season for sand storms, as I found out to my pain the other day when I got caught in a sand storm of sorts. As my bare legs stung with the impact of the grit, whipped into a potent weapon of attrition by the wind, I was grateful for the protection my glasses afforded my eyes. That does not happen often.
The other thing that March brought was getting a shot of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Every time an opportunity to register came up, I put my name down, conscious of the seeming inevitability of vaccine passports and what not for travel. I opted to get my shot on a Wednesday evening, my thinking being that the timing would allow me sleep off any side effects. I felt especially tired the next day which might be related to not being able to sleep well the night before. My fitness tracker spotted a 0.4 degree C spike in body temperature for the next two days before returning to normal, but otherwise I had no discernible side-effects. One hopes that vaccine uptakes improves around the world, and a sort of normalcy returns thereafter. It has been a long hard year for most people!
For the word of the week, Khamis, for Thursday and respite.
Teju Cole chats Fernweh amongst other things on the Behind the Covers podcast. Baldwin, race, photography and Switzerland all feature in this wide ranging chat.
Apparently, eating fresh mango with gold cutlery is the business, at least so say the experts on The Infinite Monkey Cage. Fun-fact, silver (in spite of its reputation as being the material of choice for posh, rich folks actually tastes the worst.
Confirmation that the ‘Deen Market demolition is to go ahead is somewhat bitter-sweet news on a personal level. It was hardly the most salubrious of places to eat in, or do anything else to be honest as O points out, but being starved of Nigerian food in my first few years there, popping in there provided some respite now and again.
Jane Goodall & Adam Grant chat Leadership (and chimps), not surprisingly there is stuff to learn in the areas they overlap.
And something poetry related of course. Naomi Shihab Nye chats poetry, growing up and a whole lot of other stuff with Krista Tippet at the On Being Podcast.