Still Water…

For The Sunday Muse prompt #180:

**

We come to water
to be washed and be reborn,
this hand cupping the curvature
of the face, the other dipped,
drenched in the very fluid
from which we come, the space
between the fingers of that hand
filled with the water, straining
against the strictures
of the hand.

We come to water
to lose ourselves in the beauty
of the simple things, to see
the dirt of our days and the detritus
of the night loosen, dissolving
until we see ourselves pristine
whole again, the way we
have imagined in our dreams
a lip, an eye, lingering still
in the mirror of still water.

Faces…

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.

Faces apart, I have found myself returning again and again to Carlos Andres Gomez’ poem, Father. I first heard it read by Pádraig Ó Tuama on the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast, its second stanza perfectly encapsulating how I felt on many a visit to the ICU in the aftermath of L’s arrival.  Those moments, in which I grasped at everything that I hoped could provide certainty, come back to me in lines such as:

I confessed every wrong
of my life to an empty, over-lit room of steel
and sterile instruments

and

I never wanted
so badly to have been wrong
about anything in my life

This, for me, is part of the allure of poetry. Sometimes, amidst the many lines we read, we can feel seen and known in the words of others.

Being Prodigal: An Origin Story

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.

* Originally published at therustgeek.me