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. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 4:18–20).
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
My first encounter with this quote from Jim Elliot’s diary is lost to the blurred edges of memory but if I were to hazard a guess it would have had to be at one of the myriad youth camps and Sunday schools I was dragged along to in my teens. Jim Elliot’s story is a fascinating if morbid one, of martyrdom, forgiveness and building an enduring legacy, things which matter in the long run.
The view that meets my eye on day 1 of 10 in Paphos, Cyprus. Truly looking forward to chilling and bonding with S, and catching my breath after what has been two weeks lived on the very edge of sanity (A Nigerian Wedding will do that to you).
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.
Me, Benin City and an intense desire for fried chicken was how I ended up here; walking along Airport Road looking for a Chicken Republic. Having spotted it from the window of the speeding cab ferrying me from Ring Road to the neither-here-nor-there hotel I planned on sleeping over at on Ihama Road, I grossly underestimated the distance. That only became apparent once my cravings had gotten the better of me and I was back on the road, in the sweltering heat, plodding along whilst wondering what had gotten into my head.
The joys of peppered chicken, fried rice and an uber chilled coke? Well worth the road taken, if I say so myself.
A damp squib of a day is perhaps as good as any to wrap up January, given how off script the weather has been. It used to be that loads of snow and travel disruptions were par for the course for this time of the year; neither happened. Even the threat of thunder snow – cold air from Canada invading our own Northern skies – failed to materialise, a few inches of snow and gale force winds being the worst of the lot.
Work, like the weather, has been out of character too. Far from easing into work following an extended break for year end, it has felt like a schedule from hell; meetings, reviews and more meetings being the bane of my life. As week after week has hurtled past, I find myself hoping for 4.30pm on a Friday, leaving and then bingeing on Elementary over the weekend, before suddenly realising it is Sunday night, with a return to work looming.
At the beginning of the year, I was sure that developing a daily consistent practice of writing would be one of the focus areas for the year. So pumped at the prospect of that was I that I bought a URL, set up a publication on medium, and updated my social media profiles to reflect this. As the days have dragged on, what has become obvious is that more thought and planning was required than I had applied. My cringe-worthy musings on there very quickly became more the fevered thrashings of a wondering wanderer than the coherent, collected thoughts of the thinker I persist on believing I am.
The point of all of this- if there is a point – is tactfully beating a retreat from those grandiose plans, back to this place of certainty and reality to begin yet again. To aid my recovery, I have decided to use WordPress Blogging University’s Finding Everyday Inspiration course as a prompt which brings me to the question for today, Why I write.
When I have considered this question in the past, most recently here, I have honed in on the cathartic reasons for writing – the memories and the clarity of thought that comes from relentless massaging whatever is on my mind. Reading through George Orwell’s thoughts on the subject – recommended reading for this prompt – brought a new one to the fore in my mind; sheer egoism.
I suppose everyone who writes publicly as opposed to in a private journal is motivated to some extent by this; which would explain why we crave comments and feedback. For the one or two who still pass through these parts, indulge my curiosity… Why do you write?
There is a lot I enjoy about my work, not least being a purveyor of the somewhat esoteric knowledge of materials and how they perform in a variety of service environments.
Most of the time I am advising, providing insights into what types of degradation can occur, how likely it is to progress and what actions we should be taking to assure ourselves of the future integrity of the kit we look after.
Once in a while bad news strikes, a failure or an inspection finding that requires significant (and often expensive) action surfaces. My job in those circumstances then morphs into one in which I become the bearer of bad news.
I suppose it is the same way — in a manner of speaking — that a doctor who has to break the news of the diagnosis of a terminal illness feels; the need to get a job done been tempered by the tension between providing clarity around the seriousness of a situation and softening the blow. Different consequences of course….