Thursday, November 6, 2014

OKITO: THE REVENGE OF THE KING

On that Saturday morning of the annual Fego Inter-house Sports competition, Okito, King of the Fego tracks, woke at dawn and took a short walk to the field. In his purple tights, body hugging, dark blue tee, and shiny navy blue spikes, he looked like the champion sprinter that he truly was. But reputation was one thing. Having an actual 100 meters winner’s medal was another thing entirely. Okito had never won a Senior Boys hundred meters race in Fego. And he had just one last chance to set the records straight.

Everyone had tipped him to win the previous year. In a weak field lacking a real contender, the whole school had conceded both the 100 meters and 200 meters gold medals to the gentle, dark complexioned runner from Cross House, even though he was nursing an injury, and wasn’t sure he could run that day.

As he trudged the narrow, well beaten path dividing the old, abandoned field -across the road from the Girls Hostel- like a laceration that had refused to heal, other students jumped out of his way. Some stepped onto thorns, and some on grass. But the big fellow was too far gone in his own thoughts, to care. He remembered taking a similar walk the year before as an SS2 boy, on that day that was also supposed to be his. But after a few rounds of practice sprints, the unbearable pain from his left thigh had sent a message to his brain: there would be no competitive sprinting for him that day. He was reduced to watching by the sidelines that afternoon, as his Cross House relay teammates – Olumide Ojejimi and Ahmed Etti- dominated the field in his absence, and became overnight sensations.

Both students and teachers alike agreed that Okito was the fastest boy in the school that year. Everyone thought he was unbeatable; everyone, except Richard Sodiya, the SS1 boy who had broken every junior sprint records, and had waited one whole year to have a go at Okito’s crown. The King was faster than him, Richard conceded. But he was beatable, simply because he had one small flaw in his running routine. Richard knew that flaw, and had devised a clever plot to exploit it to maximal effect.

On your marks! Get set! That long pause. And the gun went off. Okito, a natural slow starter, left the block a fraction of a second behind Richard, but soon covered the grounds and was leading the pack by the 40 meter mark. Richard could see the lanky Ojejimi in the corner of his eye, stealing a march on the rest of the field, but Okito was his major concern. If he stayed close to Okito, nobody else would catch him anyway, he reasoned. More importantly, he needed to stay close to the king in order to execute his coup too.

Looking at him, you wouldn’t have guessed, but Okito carried his big frame with grace. As he galloped into the clear field before him, and widened the gap on Richard, Okito began to relax, and to imagine all the glory that awaited him. He was effectively putting the ghost of his past misses behind him that day, he thought. At last, he could finally regain the respect of all those who had began to doubt him. He could hear the roar from the stands to his right. The girls were screaming his name. ''O-Kito! Oh-Kito!'' Glory beckoned on him from the other side of the finish line. And around the 80 meters mark, he slowed down to raise his arms. He had rehearsed that pose. He would cross that finish line with his hands in the air, like a true conqueror. An undisputed champion. But just as Okito slowed down, like Richard had predicted, having trained with him all year in the Relay team, the younger challenger quickly summoned his reserve energy, increased his pace, and swiftly dipped his head to cross the finish line.


Nobody knows for sure who won that race. But Mr Balo, the Osun House Master, liked under-dogs. And quickly, while the other officials at the line were debating who was the real winner, Balo grabbed Richard from his crouching, resting position, and dragged him towards the medals table, saying as he went, ''this is the winner! This is the winner!''

Okito’s eyes were red with rage. But he kept his cool. He had set himself up for the unfortunate upset, he admitted. If he had simply run the race, and left celebrations for later, there would have been no chance of a photo finish. As he walked towards the back of the green-white painted VIP stand, he began to hatch his sweet revenge. Against his earlier plan, he was now going to run the 200 meters race, and finish with the 4 x 100 meters senior boys race. This time, there would be no doubt as to who was the master of the tracks.

Raypower had seen many great races in the past. He knew all the great Fego sprinters by name: Fash, Hakeem the Bash, Tolu Owate, Orhomu Ejuomah, and the great ‘Bender’. He knew where Okito was coming from, and the legends he was aspiring to join. What he had not seen before however, were the two beautiful, almost perfect 200 meters and 4x100 meters anchor leg performances that Okito later executed that afternoon.

From where he stood in his Niger House blue Inter-House shirt, Chinedu Nnamoko couldn’t tell who was leading the 200 meters race as the sprinters completed the bend and faced the home stretch. But he would never forget the image of Okito as he emerged from the middle lane, and gracefully peeled himself away from the rabid pack. If the others were on a moving trolley, Okito ran like one on a power bike. Fifty meters to the finish line, the race was practically over. But still Okito ran.

The 4 X 100 meters final leg was even more spectacular. Okito stood on the line with Richard, as their respective third leg runners approached. As expected, Olumide Ojejimi ran a perfect leg, and handed over the baton first to Okito. Richard also collected his baton at around the same time, and the school waited for another great sprint match up. What followed afterwards however was not a race; it was an annihilation, as Okito took off like a man in search of redemption. As the gap between him and Richard stretched, and stretched…5 meters. 10 meters. 15 meters.... The whole field rose as one to its feet, clapping wildly. This time, Okito was not in any race with any mortal. He was running against his own Chi; the personal god of all his past failings. And even though he wore a yellow shirt, somehow, everyone watching seemed to divine the larger truth being played out. Okito was not running for Cross House in those moments. He was running for himself. One grand audition for the gods. He was crafting a story for the ages; one that would be told again, and again, and again.

Legends have it that, even till this day, if you stood long enough on the FGC Odogbolu 100 meters track, and faced the Ring Road, especially on a night with a full moon, you might still catch a glimpse of Okito's silhouette, still running towards a finish line beyond sight, and Richard, -the prince who later became a king too- in his wake, panting and telling him to please wait. Some believe that the king might not know that the race is actually over. But those of us close to him know, he is only trying to stretch that margin of victory as wide as possible. For, who is that man that will not run, when sent on an errand by his own Chi?





*According to the Igbo culture, a man's Chi is his personal deity, assigned to him in the lower world to oversee his affairs.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

FROM NEEDS TO LOVE


Without needs, can a man approximate God?

The turf of our needs is the holy ground on which we meet God. At the border of a new life, the sick, the weak, the poor, the lost, the desperate, the fearful, the confused, the weary, and the misunderstood all present their needs like a passport and are ushered into the presence of the I am.

Pray, what God can a man who has never wrestled with sin, never been sick, never known lack, and who has never nursed a need, claim to have apprehended? What man can cry 'saved!' whose deep needs have never met with His endless supply of grace?

Still, our needs are but many means to one end. A gate, they grant us audience with the King. But woe to the man, whose hope is fed solely by the fervor of his needs. An easy and very combustible fuel, our needs may sometimes inspire a deep affinity for God, but worship that relies on the desperation of unmet needs, will falter, and ultimately fail, once the needs on which it draws have been met.

If our needs turn us in to the presence of the Almighty, we would be naive to think that they would suffice to take us into and around his vastness. For even though a stamped passport may be presented at the entry point to a new country, it cannot be used as a ticket to move from point A to B, or as a legal tender for the exchange of goods. The regenerated man needs something else to navigate his new environment.

Blessed are those who trade in their dependence on unmet needs for the more difficult walk of Love. The Law shows our absolute need for a Savior, but Grace challenges us to seek Him only because we Love Him. If our needs form the gate to God, then Love is the narrow path that we must traverse afterwards.

Here now is my burden: if to Him I draw now, only because of my desperate needs –for a savior, a provider, a healer, forgiver, friend and Lord- how will I summon sincere worship, when before Him I stand, saved, healed, satisfied, without a need to lean on? Will men who never worshiped Him out of Love -alone- here on earth, now suddenly become worshipers when their Lord they meet?

If in heaven, there will be no sin, no sickness, no lack, no tears, no fears, and no needs for God to meet, then only those who have discovered the path of uncondititional pursuit and worship born of Love, will be at ease, when they, their God meet.

GOD FOR ALL SEASONS

About two years ago, I stumbled on a blog posting by Lanre Fatokun. He had posted a series of heart-rending essays following the death of his wife and children in the DANA air crash. Reading him was a painful exercise. The seeming unfairness of life to him troubled me. His was a gripping demonstration of faith in a caring God. And for a long time, I wondered where he found the courage to write of a faithful God at a time of such great pain and confusion. Here was a man writing about a deep assurance in God, from a place of deep personal hurt. They say good writing is advanced telepathy, and I agree. Till date however, I am still incapable of partaking in the euphoria that courses through Lanre’s words, when I place his essays side by side with his loss. And to be honest, I still find it easier to situate God in narratives which find their endings in some great triumphs, rather than pain, or death, or any other type of loss that living in this world can serve up.

Lest I fool you with my prose, let me start with a confession. I do not understand death. Cannot fathom it. Cannot adequately console a bereaved. I bet, even death does not understand death. I came to that enlightened submission three months ago, when I lost two friends. One, to an acute flare-up of a long standing condition; and the other, a writer, to a stab wound inflicted by robbers, who wanted his laptop. For me therefore, reading about Nigeria is a special kind of personal torture. And I imagine how life must hurt for the parents of the girls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorists, the Secondary School children killed in the week of our Centenary Celebration of National shame, and now, the graduates killed in the NIS interview scam. What do we tell the parents of these people? That God is good? That God knows all about their different pains? That God is somehow working things out? Frankly, I do not know. But I have seen enough of life to know that, God does exist. And in our moments of despair, He is right there with us; a God for all the seasons of our lives, and an ever present companion for the hurt-filled rise and ebb of daily living.

Death is not the only thing that leaves me speechless. Woven into the fabric of the faith that we profess are experiences that are better reported in retrospect. We over-indulge testimonies about material blessings, physical healing, and dramatic interventions, neglecting to report adequately, all the victories over the very real losses which come with everyday living. The duality of life's reality in the face of our confessions of faith has led many to apostasy, to agnosticism and to atheism. If God cannot keep us from all the evil that life throws up, then of what use is He?

The answer to that is beyond my reach. But in closing, I ask: why did the risen Christ keep his scars?

Scars point to a recovery from a wound; to many recoveries from breaches in our continuities of ease. I would like to believe too that, somewhere in the seamless border between Christ's spirit and his soul, there exists a scar, marking the place of separation -to death- and re-union –back to life. Because, out there, there are people like Thomas, who will never believe, except we show them our scars; the stories of our complete recoveries from all the dark places of life, when God seemed absent, but wasn’t.

THE MASTER INVESTOR

Growing up as a child, I was taught that food wasting was a sin. Like all things said by the adults at that time, I just took it as gospel truth. I was secretly convinced too that, someday, I would come across a bible verse that says ‘‘thou shalt not waste food’’, perhaps after ‘‘thou shalt not kill’’ somewhere in the boring books that followed all the excitement of Genesis an...d the early part of Exodus. Wasting food in my house guaranteed you the wrath of God; and God could use any of my uncles and aunties to deliver quick judgment on your bum.

So I was not surprised when I read that Jesus told his disciples to gather the remnant of food left over after he had fed several thousand with five loaves and two fishes. Reading that verse as a ten year old, something leapt up in my belly! Yes! And I could finally believe that this Jesus with long hair was actually related to the God of the Old testament.

Why would Jesus tell his disciples to gather food remnants? The answer was not clearly spelt out like I had imagined as a child, but it is there all the same, smeared on every page of the good book. As the Israelites prepared for the Passover, they were told to gather around in clusters to share meat; on the way to Canaan, even with the abundance of Manna, each man was instructed to carry only as much as he could eat. There is so much attention to details in Numbers and Leviticus that, we are left to conclude that this God of Abraham really knows his numbers, and He hates waste.

Beyond food, God’s attention to other resources is obvious. He keeps watch over his words to perform them. He knows the number of hair on our heads; he knows the number of sheep on a thousand hills; God knows the number of leaves on every tree in the Amazon forest. And nothing falls to ground without His approval. Have you ever wondered why Jesus didn’t heal every leper in Israel; why didn’t he open every blind eye; and when tempted, why didn’t he put on a show for the devil, and prove that he was God? The answer is simple: our God keeps a close eye on his resources, and does not condone waste in any form.

Knowing this, one can relate to Jesus’ shout of alarm after being touched by the woman with the issue of blood. Right in the body rubbing midst of a crowd, he shouted: who touched me? Peter was miffed. ‘‘Of course Baba J, this place be like Oshodi under!No how, people go generally touch you o!’’ But Jesus knew what he was saying. Someone had catheterized his spirit, overrode his control, and withdrawn a measure of God from him; and Jesus needed to account for that virtue that had left him. Have you ever been singled out for God’s favor? Ever received an unexpected break? Healing? Provision? Has God ever done you good? If He has, then this conclusion is as much yours as it is mine.

Being omniscient, God is a master investor. He will not invest his grace and virtue amiss. If he has been good to you, it is because somewhere in the days beyond your present dilemma, victory awaits you. The God who would gather food remnants would never commit his resources to you if you were not already programmed to win. He would not waste his power to take you out of Egypt if you were meant to drown in the Red Sea. He sure wouldn’t fund your business so that you can fail. Just like rain will not return to heaven till the earth is drenched, and fruitful, so will God’s word not return to him void (without turning a profit)! His word will not return to Him until our lives have been transformed aright. Take it from me: You lost the right to give up on the day that God placed his son on the line to redeem you!

SO YOU SEE YOUR FRIEND'S PICTURE

So you see your friend's picture, the one he took standing beside his grey sedan, and you judge him. His suit looks expensive, his smile, light, free of every shade of doubt. What you selectively ignore, are the rings under his eyes. Facebook wouldn’t tell the unimportant details anyway. That the car belongs to his friend; his friend who believes God for other realities. The picture won’t tell, even if you asked, how many times your friend has fallen or triumphed, how he has been pressed, and left uncrushed. How he has fought and risen, in faith, and out of faith…

So you see your friend's picture, the one he took with the gorgeous model, and you judge you. You wish you were in that picture, standing where your friend stands, in closer proximity to that cleavage, your hands resting where his rest, and your eyes, caressing the horizon before him. And you think of you. Nobody knows where you have been. All your friends are making sense, and you, you are making explanations. What the picture won’t tell, even when you press it to your cheeks is whether the grass is greener beneath your feet or in the luxuriant place behind your friend...

So you see… Facebook knows and tells in part. The grass is green where your friend is, and it is green where you are. There is no greener grass anywhere. Only Blessed People, and People who have not been reconciled to their blessedness. We are walking ecosystems my friend; we carry our atmospheres with us. A blessed man is as blessed in Ketu as he is in London. The reverse is true too, in Saudi Arabia, and in Switzerland. A man cannot be separated from his atmosphere. He carries his stars and heavens with him. A man may change his stars however, and the change starts in the place of understanding.

‘‘…And God blessed them’’ is the summary of God’s first conversation with humanity. Paul let the cat out of the bag when he thanked the ‘‘God who HATH BLESSED US us with all Spiritual blessing…’’ It is as asinine to tie the blessing to location, as it is to tie it to material possessions.

So, when next you see your friend's picture on Facebook, the one he took with the Queen of England, do not admit it in evidence, for it will tell you neither of the powers of Photoshop, nor the workings of faith going on behind his smile. You can respond however, by posting your own picture, the one you took with Michael Jackson, when you won the Power Ball.

THE GOD OF DESPERATE PEOPLE

In the church I attended as a child, men and women would occasionally have this playful exchange. Someone (usually a man) would start a mischievous chorus ‘‘okunrin lokoko ri, k’awon obinrin ko to ri’’ meaning ‘‘men saw Him –the resurrected Christ- first, before the women saw Him’’. Instantly, all the women and girls in the church would rise as one shrill blend of sopranos and altos, announcing the opposite: ‘‘a woman saw Him first, before any man did!’’ Only recently did I begin to understand the importance of the identity of that very first witness to a life beyond the grip of death.

John provides the most vivid account of the events of the Resurrection morning. Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, one of the many women who hung around Jesus -a ‘spiritual groupie’ in today’s parlance- had gone to Jesus’ grave, and met it empty. Alarmed, she ran to fetch Peter and John (whose account we later read), and they all raced back to the grave.

John, who was decades younger than Peter and probably fitter, arrived first at the grave. But he held back and didn’t enter the tomb, waiting for Peter to arrive –for men who rely on their own strengths will always come behind men elevated by grace. In God’s scheme, grace trumps self-strength. Mary, the ex-prostitute arrived last before Peter led them into the open tomb, and they all saw Jesus' discarded grave clothes. Confused, both John and Peter left the graveyard immediately. But Mary, who had arrived first in the morning, stayed behind after the ‘Men of God’ had left. Only then did Jesus make an unscheduled appearance for her sake!

There is something about desperate people that commands God's empathy. Something about people who cannot afford to take ‘No’ for an answer; people whose only ticket to a better life is He; people who are running away from a sordid past, into the arms of an unknown future; people who have run out of options; obstinate and persistent, only because they have no one else to turn to; people who would never mean anything outside of His grace; people just like me.

On that most important morning heralding the birth of a new era for all mankind, Jesus broke an itinerary that had been drawn up, eons before the foundations of the earth was laid, and He made time out and showed up for an ex-prostitute, who wouldn’t go home without seeing her Lord. She ‘gate crashed’ his Resurrection party, but Jesus treated her like a VIP. He wouldn’t ascend to the Father without attending to her first.

Mary’s story was written for us all to show that God’s blessings are not reserved for the most naturally gifted of us, or for the big men of God amongst us. By showing up for a woman, a second class citizen in the Jewish culture, a former harlot, a social and spiritual minority, Jesus showed His availability to the weakest, the poorest, the ‘sinnest’ of us all, and everyone with no clout in this present world system; for us who seek a city whose builder and foundation is God, the Almighty one is not ashamed to be called our God.

He is ‘Jehovah El-desperatis hominibus’, the God of desperate people, savior to those who have no backup plan, people who have no helper to run to, people who are doomed if He doesn’t show up. In their moments of distress, Jesus would interrupt a Resurrection parade, break the protocol of men, and if need be, shove heaven and earth to one side to make himself available, and to show Himself faithful; a God to their every need!

FAITH IS NOT ENOUGH

In his lecture on the shortcomings of the intelligent design theory, astrophysicist and new host of Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson articulated his observations on the interphase between knowledge and faith. He wondered why all the references to God by some of the brightest people to ever walk the earth such as Ptolemy, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton, occurred only at the limits of their knowledge. In summary, man only invokes God when he encounters phenomena that he cannot explain; and his perception of God is only as vast as the perimeter of his knowledge and understanding of the world around him. Indeed, man has come a very long way from the stone and stick gods of his early ancestors.

There is a frightening irrationality that drives the average, ultra-religious Nigerian. It is both sad and irritating to behold at close quarters. We act as if God is against logic, against knowledge, against rational thinking and the exercise of common sense. That may explain all the outrageous things currently being done in the name of religion. People are more interested in what they think their pastors are saying, than what God may be saying. The pastor is God. Prophet. Mentor. Star gazer. Financial Advisor. Marriage Counselor, and central authority figure, all rolled into one psychological monument. It is this outsourcing of our thinking faculties to charlatans, thieves in robes, fundamentalists, ecumenical 'grifters' and 'frenemies' of God, that makes me afraid for Nigeria's future. Very afraid.

There are things about the Bible that I do not understand, and I won’t try to rationalize. What I will not accept is the attempt by some to silence the voice of enquiry in our places of worship. Each believer must seek to know God for himself/herself. And every word spoken by anybody, no matter how anointed, must be filtered through the brain, the bible, the spirit within us, and most importantly, through increasingly sensitive and perceptive eyes -of understanding; God understanding. Fifty years from today, we will be ashamed of some of the prayer points that we prayed in the past: the ‘die by fire prayers’, the ‘name it, claim it prayers’, and all the financial seminars and motivational hashish that is being handed out by men who themselves have no understanding of the God they claim to represent; hustlers and wolves, looking to get rich quickly at the expense of the flock.

This is no attack on pastors, Imams and other good people in religious authority, because I do understand and respect authority. Rather it is a call for us all to take responsibility for the things we do in the name of religion. In our search for ‘revelations’ we must not abandon our individual pursuit of God. Moses had a ring side ticket to some of the most amazing miracles ever recorded in human history, but when the excitement had waned, all he really wanted was to know the ‘ways of God’. The man who 'had seen it all' sought to know the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ of God; the mechanics of the divine. The ‘get rich or die trying’ Christianity that is currently being peddled around by the 'Sign Firemen' of this world, is not only dangerous for what it does to our perception of God. It is dangerous for what it does to the senses, both physical and spiritual. It paralyzes the mind, creates personality cults and breeds mental cripples; people who know nothing about absolutely nothing, and who easily resort to lazy spirituality to explain everything away.

God is unchanging. But if we step out of our fears, and widen the perimeter of our knowledge of Him and the world around us, our perception and personal appreciation of His greatness will significantly increase. Somewhere in 2nd Peter, it is written ‘‘…ADD TO YOUR FAITH (emphasis mine), virtue; to virtue, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’’. Those are Peter's words, not mine. Peter. Not Okoye o. Apostle Peter gan gan, 'the rock'.