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.

On Life, and A Song…

For the WordPress Discover Challenge Prompt: Song

– –

as-for-my-house_

1995 was an interesting time to be young and Christian. DC Talk, The Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline were at various stages in their evolution from being the niche interest of church youth groups to becoming recognisable by mainstream music lovers. Seemingly out of the blue, Christian Contemporary Music was on its way to acquiring a sort of coolness that the work of the likes of Larry Norman and Rich Mullins had deserved but somehow never achieved.  In my corner of the world, Hosanna Music‘s body of work was the rave, a slew of live worship albums including a couple recorded in post apartheid South Africa (Tom Inglis’ We Are One and Lionel Petersen’s Rejoice Africa) building on a collection that included several offerings from the likes of of Ron Kenoly, Don Moen, Bob Fitts and Randy Rothwell.

At the time we lived in a little, four bed house on the corner of 3rd and 12th streets, one of a number of identikit pre-fabricated buildings in what passed for the University Senior Staff Quarters at the time. These, meant as temporary housing at the time the University was founded, had taken on an unplanned permanence, dried up funds meaning that the grand plans for a permanent site across town for both University and staff housing were scaled down significantly.

On a personal level it was a time of great change, one that would see me take the School Leaving Certificate Exam a year early and pack in my secondary school education. That meant that as the year wrapped up I found myself with loads of time on my hands, some free cash and little to prevent me from walking into town from time to time to browse the shelves at any number of music shops in the city centre. Crucially, I was at an age where my on-off friendship with Di began to take on an element of seriousness, at least in my mind.

DC Talk and the Newsboys notwithstanding, it turns out that the defining song from that era for me is a lesser known song, One Love, from the Rick and Cathy Riso album As For My House. My memories – and I recognise that memory can be a fickle thing  – are of playing the song over and over on my Walkman until sleep took me away. I was sure at the time – and I told anyone who cared to listen – that like Rick and Cathy I would sing my wedding vows to whoever had the fortune (or misfortune some would say) of agreeing to marry me.

Years later, with the prospect of actually marrying someone a lot realer than it was back in those days, the song remains a favourite of mine, albeit one that serves as a reminder of The-One-Who-Got-Away. As for singing my wedding vows, common sense – and the biology of a cracked voice – suggest that that is now a non-starter.

Outer Layers: On Dressing in Four Objects

reuters-nigeria-catholic-church-abuja-photog-afolabi-sotunde

Source [Afolabi Sotunde]. For the WordPress Discover Prompt, Outer Layers


When asked to describe my look, I tend to go for scruffy chic, this being my attempt to rationalise away what is my laissez-faire approach to dressing up. Left to my devices I default to four objects: jeans, a t-shirt, super comfy shoes and a pair of glasses which I am increasingly dependent on. On the occasions on which I have deviated from these, they have tended to be to the relative safety of a shirt and a blazer over jeans; the full shebang – a suit and a tie – only coming out for weddings (the last of which I agonised over before buying a new suit) and black tie dinners, which I tend to avoid. I suspect I have managed to get away with this, particularly at work, because I work in the Engineering field and have largely worked for employers where a formal dress code has never really been enforced.

This bare bones, minimalist approach to dressing up is one which is at odds with most of the communities I am part. Being African – and Nigerian at that – the default garb for events is in bright, loud colours; never more obvious than on a Sunday morning. From memory, a number of the rows I had with my father growing up stemmed from this, his concerns centring on how my scruffy dressing reflected negatively on the family. The aphorism about dressing the way one expects to be addressed got thrown about a fair bit during these conversations.

***
The official line as to why dressing down is my default behaviour is that I would rather let my non-physical characteristics define me, and stand out when I meet people. In my mind – rightly or wrongly – I am this creative, eccentric chap, far too focused on being awesome to give a hoot about my appearance. Implicit in this is the assumption that those talents – which the reality is I do not have – exempt me from the expectations of society as they relate to befitting appearance. The truth – as always – is far more nuanced than this.

For one, having been on the bigger side of plus size for most of my growing years, jeans and t-shirts served the purpose of providing a mask for all the flab I was carrying. Being a procrastinator, jeans and a t-shirt make preparing to go out a tad easier. Solid colours – my go to t-shirt is a solid navy blue one – remove the need to think about colour coordination. Buying them wrinkle free obviates the need to use an iron which saves a lot of time over the course of a year. 🙂

There is also a sense of individualism behind all of this, a slight bent towards rebellion, towards refusing to accept the strictures of community and public expectation and embracing the simplicity inherent in just being. On occasion, a fifth object will make an appearance, a leather bracelet plucked on a whim from the counter at a H&M a few months ago now.

***
Last weekend on a whim, as I prepared to meet up with S at the Ilford TFL Rail Station ahead of an afternoon out, I opted for a slightly dressier shirt than usual. The slight raise of her eyebrows suggested she took notice, a fact confirmed when over lunch she complimented me on my shirt. As I pressed her further, she remarked – in her characteristically understated manner – that it was the first time since the first day we met that I had turned up in anything but a t-shirt. If I have learned anything from my thirty something years of blokehood, it is that the things which draw compliments from the people in my life whose opinions I care the most about are the most important things.

Duly noted S, noted.

#13 – 25 kids, 25 years

IMG_2039

Sometime in the late 80’s/ early 90’s.. The place: a University in Ekpoma, Nigeria.. The people: kids and teachers from the Chapel’s Children’s Sunday School, a few of whom I still remember by name – all grown up now. A few dead people (RIP Gracie, GB, ‘Lena and Harold), one fairly famous (Nigerian) fashion designer (M) and seven kids who made it into engineering with a further six involved in other STEM subjects.

Less than a quarter of those in the picture still live and work in Nigeria, but I suppose the bigger question is where did all that time, life and living go?

#LifeHappened

 

On Crime and Punishment

pankere_

[Source]

When my father would tan my hide – which was often in the years between turning twelve and escaping to University when I turned seventeen – he would send one of the many cousins who lived with us to fetch his preferred instrument, a lean, mean pankere, roll up his sleeves and matter-of-factly deliver a canning of epic proportions.  The speed with which the instrument materialised time and time again – in spite of my best efforts – had me convinced that my cousins took a certain perverse, gleeful joy in seeing my bum tanned. Any number of infractions could have been the trigger for one of those in those days – taking apart his treasured gramophone for the heck of it (and not being able to put it back together again a la Humpty Dumpty), sneaking off to ‘dessert’, the patch of red earth where endless games of football took place – and young men where introduced to cigarettes and girls if you believed my mother, and once resorting to my fists to settle an altercation with E, the sharp mouthed imp who seemed to delight in getting under my skin. Early on, the tears flowed in copious amounts, until I mastered the act of tensing my buttocks just enough to mitigate the pain, the odd faint moan escaping my gritted teeth the only concession I allowed myself. Custom and practice dictated that, upon completion, I would have to say thanks and then sit through a debriefing session where my failings would be analysed, and alternate behavioural practices highlighted. In retrospect, the canning – intense as it was – was never truly the worst outcome. Infinitely worse was being left to stew in silent contemplation, particularly where my failings had occurred outside the confines of the house on 39th; my sense of guilt being complicated by the uncertainty around how much, if any, my father knew of my misdemeanours.

Punishment as a consequence of crime or offending is primarily regulatory. By inflicting pain, discomfort or a penalty of some sort, punishment acts as a disincentive, conditioning the behaviour of the members of the collective towards what is ostensibly for their good, and more importantly, the greater good of the collective. In society, these limits of acceptable behaviour are codified in  rules, laws and regulations with the justice system providing the framework for deciding appropriate punishment.

In the home, the limits of acceptable behaviour are largely part of an unwritten social contract – parents have a duty of care to their offspring, and responsibility for passing on the body of knowledge of social mores, the elements of a worldview and core values which accrete over time into the culture that defines the specific religious, ethnic and social space within which the family operates. Offspring on their part implicitly trust what is being provided for them – at least at first – and agree to operate within the boundaries their parents set, however arbitrary these might seem. As the offspring age, and hopefully develop the mental capacity for interrogating their own spaces, they add to, delete from and modify the premises of the body of knowledge they have been handed, keeping it fluid, relevant and appropriate for being handed over to the generation they themselves will cater for.

Beyond the obvious regulatory objectives of punishment, there is a sense in which punishment is redemptive – that much I gleaned from the fall out in my heady teenage years. I suspect the redemption punishment brings is premised on two things – that the offender can come to terms with what they have done with a measure of contrition, and that the punishment exacted is somehow seen to be commensurate to the offence committed. In a sense, the offender has to be seen to have paid for the disruption before reintegration into the wider collective can take place – being able to contribute to the greater good of the collective is the upside to reintegration and rehabilitation.

In conversation over the weekend with a friend, the Ched Evans case came up. Following his release from prison after a rape conviction, his attempts to  get back into football have floundered, largely due to the public outcry, and the threat of the withdrawal of sponsorship from the various football clubs who have mooted the idea of re-signing him. I expressed the opinion during said conversation that punishment could be redemptive, and that in this case having been released from prison, he should be allowed to get on with his life, whatever shape or form that might take. I was quickly reminded – sternly I might add – of how the girl in question has had her own life overturned having to change her name and change location several times over the last five years after being outed on twitter. She is unlikely to ever be able to just get on with her life, which makes the premise of commensurate punishment somewhat difficult to achieve here.

Having said that – and I am not pretending that I even remotely understand the nuances of the case, and if he was/or was not innocent as he has maintained – surely the premise of punishment in the law is that having served his sentence, and being registered on the violent and sex offender register rehabilitation is in order? By no means am I suggesting that Ched Evans is the victim here; I am merely pondering how rehabilitation and reintegration square with his situation. It is a difficult conversation – particularly given his relative profile – and the fact that he maintains his innocence. I wonder though if any of the two or so people who still stop by these pages might deign to offer an opinion? Fire away if you do!!!

Crossroads

Canada: The country after my heart, thanks to stumbling on a description of the low population, arctic in Kurt Koch’s demons and Demonology. Problem is the relatively high entry cost for me – uprooting myself from my life of the last three years, loss of income and the costs of chasing further studies required to break into that part of the world.

A girl: The girl I think I like enough to, in the words of Clay Christensen, devote my life to making happy; and who has only just moved to Aberdeen and is adamant she’s got a two year plan before she buggers off to Nigeria.

Australia: The future, land of opportunities and growth in oil and gas, and one which has popped up fairly regularly in my conversation lately both at work and with trusted knowledgeable others. Plus side is I can progress permanent residence without leaving the UK.

The Dream role: Back in Operations support as a Corrosion & materials engineer for an oil and gas producer with a reputation for great work, opportunities, international exposure and great remuneration.

The problem:  Finding a means to meld these disparate directions into a coherent whole, or at least find the optimum solution to the problems!

😦

 

On tribal stereotypes

Being born on the campus of a Federal University in the ’80s, I grew up in what was a cultural multi-verse. On my street alone, one was as likely to run into a Pakistani anthropologist as a Cameroonian linguist, or a Scottish librarian for that matter. Over the course of growing up, these seemingly distinct cultures all bled into each other, till there was almost a multi-cultural sweet spot at the centre of it all.

At the top of my street lived a family of Bini people – if children from multiple wives each keen to advance the cause of their own mother could be termed a family. The middle son – a stocky bow-legged bloke we called Osas (short for a much longer name, seemingly cobbled together from an assortment of successive vowels) – was a classmate, and in time we grew close enough to pit our burgeoning table soccer skills against each other from time to time. Our table soccer sessions were often punctuated with half time entertainment – dodo fried from plantains pilfered from his mother’s pantry. On the day I failed to wipe oil from my mouth in a bid to beat RustGeek Snr home, I learned a most important lesson – delivered to the rhythm of Mother’s pankere on my backside – about relating with Bini people – they can ‘jazz’ you. Clearly, that we both ate the dodo paled in significance next to the fact that his father’s academic speciality was ‘African traditional religion’ and that from time to time white chalk and ogbono soup turned up at the junction of fifth and eighth streets!

A few houses away lived an unmarried Yoruba woman who I imagine was in her late thirties at the time. Legend had it, that she kept food for months in her freezer, and that she ate only out of saucers so small none of her little relatives lasted longer than a couple of months with her. She also happened to serve on the same chapel committee as did my parents, so this was one neighbour’s house Mother was willing to allow us play in. Each time, before we vanished out of her door headed to the Yoruba woman’s house, Mother would reiterate that by no means were we to eat in her house. On the odd occasion when a relative showed up to spend an extended holiday, we soon would get an earful of insults of all sorts delivered in rapid fire with her whiny, nasal voice. Whenever the tirade would start, Mother would smile knowingly and shake her head. Our neighbour was only behaving true to character; Mother believed that the Yoruba person’s gift of the garb expressed itself primarily in colourful, inventive cursing.

The Idoma woman who lived on 3rd street quickly garnered a reputation for being a sharp shooter. She held a PhD in biochemistry (I think) and was married to some Professor whose speciality was ceramic engineering. She had kept her maiden name, drank beer at the staff club and smoked like a chimney, becoming in the process a byword for the damage an overly liberal worldview wrought on young women. All three of her degrees were earned in Russia; it was claimed that she publicly averred that there was no God, something which was definitely not de-rigeur at that time. When the upturned lips and smiles of condescension were shared, word was that Idoma women took too much to beer.

Mother truly believed that no Ibo person could be trusted, and that they were cold hearted, cruel and were masters of deception on a scale beyond her comprehension. Her strong distaste was acquired after a particularly nasty smear campaign run by one of the Professors to unseat one of her allies as PTA chairman. The way the operation was run – almost like a CIA black op in its secrecy and ultimate success left my mother scarred for life. It also didn’t help that my Uncle Fred’s Ibo wife purportedly locked out her mother in-law over a minor dispute. Said mother in-law was reported to have said reconciliation with her would be over her dead body.

Laila lived on Sixth Street, all the way across the quarters and she was only in town for three years. Her last act was to headline the school’s end of year presentation with a dance so sensual and pliant in its execution that the consensus was that she was either mammy water in the flesh or possessed of some serpentine deity. My friend K whose father owned the Kurt Koch book ‘Demons and demonology’ swore by his dead grandmother that a whole chapter in the book was devoted to that very dance routine.

In retrospect, these stereotypes were merely an instinctive coping mechanism my mother evolved as a means of keeping her brood of overly inquisitive children, and quite a few cousins together.  I suspect there were quite a few stereotypes around my mother too; after all she had a reputation for being hard as nails.

On shi**ing (Or, the criticality of the angle of perch)

Gross post alert

The one thing being suddenly pushed out of my sheltered teenage years into shared hostel accommodation (in a very rugged Nigerian University) taught me, was that squeaky clean loos were a luxury. Growing up,  we didn’t live a posh life,  but thanks to theOOhj Snr‘s day job  in the academia, we had decent living quarters – complete with a loo I shared with the kid brother. On pain of a severe caning, Mrs RustGeek (Snr), ensured we kept our little loo clean. Unbeknownst to me, that luxury would be rudely snatched away from me in short order.

My first year at University was a culture shock of sorts. If coping with the new surroundings  – and being far away from everyone I’d known up till that time  – wasn’t hard, a slew of issues made it harder still. First us fresh-faced Jambites were given rooms on the ground floor;  from which we were dispossessed by hardened serial students and confra-men. These same self appointed Lords of the domain  colonised two of the four toilets on the floor, complete with padlocks for their own use, leaving the rest of us scrambling to use the remaining two. True  to form, these were absolute cesspits of  bodily fluids and smells, especially when baked to boiling by the withering sun.  On the first occasion where I popped in, the cornucopia of smells and liquids made every desire to download vanish – a shell shocked state I stayed in for a full week.

With time,over that first semester, I learned a couple of  crucial things that would keep me out of harm’s way through the following years:

1. Timing was of essence: The loos were cleaned at around about 10am – if dousing them in bucket fulls of izal and hosing them down with water could be called cleaning. Given that the rest of us normal chaps had to share a couple of loos, they did get soiled pretty quickly. Give or take, there was a two hour window within which the smell of izal was strong enough to subdue these smells of bodily excretions. I learned to synchronise my download meter to that crucial window to avoid being laid prostrate by the stench.

2. The angle of perch was critical: I learned pretty quickly that the easiest route to various skin infections was to allow fluids from the bowl splash willy nilly. Minimising the particle impact momentum was essential to achieve this goal. Two tactics evolved into very useful tools over that period. The first was create as much of a bed of toilet paper in the bowl [source] to soften the impact, thus minimising splashes. The second – and most important tactic – was to modify the angle of perch. At the right angle, the entire momentum of the solids are  absorbed by the walls of the toilet, leaving gravity as the only driving force moving the delivered pellets. Where delta h (the vertical distance between the impact point and the liquid level in the bowl) is small, the resultant liquid impact velocity is negligible,  thus transferring minimal momentum to the liquids (and avoiding splashing).

I am glad to say that by utilizing these two tricks,  I grew to achieve well nigh 96% success in avoid the splash…Thankfully, after spending a couple of years in those conditions Mrs RustGeek Snr sold off a couple of choice wrappers (those were the Abacha days when money was scare) and got me out of there fast, a feat of quick thinking that probably saved me.

Postscript: Reliving the garish details has made me queasy if that is any consolation. I apologise for any lunch plans I may have (indadvertedly) mucked up… 

In which I perfect the non-trivial art of eating hot dodo

One of my lesser known ‘life skills’ is eating piping hot dodo – and that fresh from the frying pan. Looking back, this non-trivial skill was honed in the kitchen of #19 Aiguobasinmwin Crescent. It must have been sometime in 1986 – those were the heady days in which Lawrence Anini our very own Robin Hood-lite and his side kick Monday Osunbor reigned supreme in Benin City. Sane, un-jazzed-up people stayed indoors, the not so sane limited their night-time frolicking nonetheless.

At the time my coffee intoxicated PhD chasing father, my barely four year old sister and I shared our three bed flat. Meal times consisted of soups and stews warmed so many times that they had gone stale by mid week with rice or eba – hardly something to look forward to. Mother and the other sister lived about 80 kilometers aways in another town, so the best she could do was make the soups and stew over a weekend, pack them and get them frozen for when we had to make the hour long trip, typically on Sunday evenings. I suspect the dull green colour of the food bowls didn’t help either –  hardly an inspiring choice.

Amidst our food travails, suya on Airport Road and piping hot dodo became the only high points we could look forward to. Like all evolving organisms we adapted our eating processes to maximise the amount of dodo we could get. I for one learned to suck in a huge glob of air at the same time as dropping dodo into my mouth to cool it. Many years later I would learn, that the heat transfer rate was proportional to the mass flow rate of air (ie the more air i sucked in the cooler the dodo would be). Over time, I got so adept at pulling this trick off that my father finally put his foot down and made us all wait for the entire batch of dodo to be fried and shared before eating… So much for my ‘life skill’. Sigh