Being Prodigal — An Origin Story of Sorts

Image: Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (Source)

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.

That to me is the fundamental question.

 

07. Of Sons and Prodigals

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.