Maybe it is the shock of the delayed cognition of turning 39 – perilously close to the age of eternal foolishness – or the weariness of dealing on and off with death and grieving that births this feeling hovering over me that I can’t quite place. It is not entirely inscrutable: the little I understand of it suggests part of it is a heightened sense of my own fragility, the deaths – ranging from old classmates of mine to friends of my father’s – underscoring the fleeting nature of life and with it the sense of time speeding by. The other part that rears its head from the haze is the feeling of drifting, one day blurring into the next which is barely distinguishable from the one that follows it with the only discernible purpose being fighting whatever fire glows brightest both at work and in my personal life.
One of the most visible symptoms of this lingering disquiet has been a withdrawal from all but the most inescapable of contacts – work, family and the friends I have had the longest. I’ll be the first to admit I have never been the most outgoing of persons, but even by my standards the past year has been a new low for engagement across the board, from the spiritual to the mundane and then some more. Part of this reluctance to engage has to do, I suspect, with this feeling of drifting; the ones I might otherwise come across being reminders of the past and where I once was. There is also the small matter of the sense of feeling like I am at a crossroads of sorts, looking towards the next decade of my life and wondering if corrosion will continue to be a part of it, if tweaks are required to how I currently practice it, or if a wholesale change to something different is required to enable me reach the heights I feel like I need to. All of this makes taking time out to reflect for the next month a good place to start this rebooting from.
All told, one of the clearest lessons I have learned from the year of being 38 is that drifting is dangerous, particularly when it is a slow gradual descent in which the evolving present seems just familiar enough that no alarm bells ring, until at the end one finds oneself – to quote the lost son – in a far country. Once firmly ensconced there, returning can feel impossible, the distance between there and home feeling like a chasm so great that it cannot be bridged. More than I would like, I fear many times over the past year, I have tottered on the edge of that chasm sometimes beginning to slip and at others just managing to avoid taking the last step that would take me over the edge. It is a dark, dangerous and isolated place, one I am keen to step back from and begin the long trek home. Here’s to rebooting, and beginning again, yet again.
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.
Amidst the rolling, changing landscape that is my recollection of growing up, two things remain as immutable constants; the university communities I spent most of my growing years till turning seventeen and churches— searching, attending, serving in, and leaving them.
In my first memories of church, my father and I are in Benin City, at the Air Force officers christian fellowship. The University Chapel in the next town, Ekpoma, becomes church for the five or so years following our relocation; the desire being to bring both sides of the family together for good. The trigger for a change of state is, in my memory, an acrimonious debate about what direction to take the chapel in, one which leads to us joining up with a fledgling pentecostal startup in a city further north, eventually leading to us being foundation members of a branch of that church, when it rolls into our corner of the world.
Along with this journey through various churches, my folk remain active in a number of less formal organisations — mainly the local scripture union and the campus student christian fellowship — which tie up our Sunday evenings.
In retrospect, it seems that the overarching driver for each church move, bar the one forced on us by the family situation, was a sense of seeking more — more connection, greater community and a more pentecostal reality, the Chapel and the church we helped found (CwHF) being the opposite ends of the spectrum. Where the Chapel was prim, proper and very much in the mould of a traditional Anglican Church, CwHF lived at the bleeding edge of Nigerian pentecostalism, complete with hand clapping, loud, lengthy preaching, tears during worship and speaking in tongues.
Far from having repudiated that charismatic, pentecostal upbringing, I find that the expression of church I am most drawn to these days is focused more on being useful in the real world. Social justice, a safe space to wrestle with doubts without being judged and freedom to engage in the more introspective form of worship I increasingly crave have become the determining factors in what places I choose to worship in.
I suppose in a sense I am a prodigal of sorts, God does love all His children though, that much I still hold to.
Long before I segued into the way of all flesh, I had always had a sense of connection with the Prodigal Son. In these dark days when my faith vacillates between the highs of unquestioning belief and the depths of blatant scepticism with the increasingly longer spells of being mired in the drudgery of self deprecating musing, I find myself drawn to the text again and again. Something about the lost son finally coming to himself, realizing there is a better life, a better way of doing stuff resonates with me. I fear I am lost, that somehow I have eaten so long of the hors d’œuvres of the beguiling tempter that his full feast of bitter gall is an ineluctable consequence. Trust me I have tried; but the overwhelming sense of guilt at the bloke I have become weighs me down. Like the proverbial swine given pearls, I appear to have taken world class opportunities and contrived to lose them amidst the quotidian pursuits of the good life.
My scant consolation, is that someday, sometime, I can drag myself back home – and that the Father will still be there to run the last few miles and welcome me home. .. Sigh..