She seemed disgusted, almost repulsed by all the hand-raising going on around her.
Eventually, she gave voice to her feelings. “Urgh! I can’t stand it when you people lift your hands up like that! As if you’re holier than the rest of us?!?”
It was a Sunday morning Church service, and all the exuberance was just too much for her to handle. She found me in the lobby, and since we were sorta kinda distant friends, she let me have it!
I have to admit that I immediately got defensive. I wanted to argue that our actions were no different than those of thousands of passionate fans who gather in an arena to worship and adore a band they love. I wanted to know if she had a problem with them too?!?! But then I remembered that I'm supposed to be like Jesus, patient and understanding in my interactions with those who inquire about my faith. So I took a serious chill-pill and tried to be as gracious as I could in my response.
Looking back on that conversation though, what I wish I had really done was invite her to meet with me the next day for coffee so I could share with her the real reason behind my high-spirited, slight-booty-shaking, hand-raising celebration of my salvation in Jesus Christ.
I would have begun our conversation with the events that transpired in the late summer of 1989 that set my life on its current trajectory.
I was a junior high student in Nicholas Orem Middle School, Maryland, and had just been sent to the principal’s office for the “umpteenth” time. Principal Toni Menchan must have been having a really bad day because when she saw my face (again), she angrily stormed into her office and came back out with a pink slip, (not the yellowish detention slip or the greenish suspension slip I’d become accustomed to). The slip had a lot of information on it I didn’t understand, but what I understood clearly was the word, “EXPELLED” stamped across the bottom of it.
Just like that, I was kicked out of school for being a fool one too many times. At the time, my older brother and I were living with my uncle and there seemed only one reasonable course of action; put me on a plane and send me back to Nigeria to join my parents.
Three weeks later, I was back in Lagos, Nigeria.
My parents were convinced I needed some maturing to do, so they did what most Nigerian families do in Nigeria. They sent me off to boarding school to learn to become a man. Several academies were considered, including one school in Ogbomosho, Osun state, that sounded like day one from the Hunger Games. Thankfully, it was rejected. They finally settled on Loyola College Ibadan in Oyo state, which at the time sounded significantly better than anything else I’d heard. Until I actually arrived on campus and saw Loyola College myself.
Those were some of the scariest and loneliest days of my life. I was thousands of miles removed from everything and everyone I had known over the last several years, and a few hundred or so miles from anyone I could call family. Add to all of that the fact that boarding school for boys in Nigeria, in the 90s, was comparable to the experience of inmates doing hard time in an Third World minimum security prison. (I wish that were an exaggeration).
Several weeks later, (after not-dying as I thought I would on day one) I was invited to an afterschool Christian youth program by a clean-cut kid named E.C Abebe. He was awkward with his invite, perhaps out of fear that I might think him weird, which I did. But for reasons unknown, I felt drawn to give the group a look, though my friends cautioned me saying, “Shegzee, No go O! Them go make you become odeh [fool]!” Disregarding their counsel, I went anyway.
Walking into the group, I must confess that I felt the same way the young lady at the beginning of this article felt about the folks she was observing at my Church. The room was filled with 50 or so junior and senior students singing, clapping, and hand-raising! I recall thinking, "This must be what my friends were warning me about, the holy-rolling-hand-raisers!"
In spite of how out of place I felt, I stayed put. Thirty awkward minutes later, a skinny but passionate senior named Niyi, walked to the front and began preaching. He began speaking of a loving God who made the world and everything in it, He described this God as the source of breath for everything and everyone who lives, the God who marked out each person’s appointed time in history and boundaries to which they could travel.
He had my full attention.
He went on to tell the story of an event that took place in the Garden of Eden where the first man and woman (Adam & Eve) disobeyed God’s instruction. He explained that their disobedience resulted in a relational rift between man and God that is perpetuated each day each one of us sins, hence we're all culpable.
Then his message got darker.
His described a fiery location where those who chose to stay in rebellion against God would end up. He argued that in our own ability, we were incapable of “getting off the bus” that was heading to this place of doom called hell (I physically wanted to leave the room at this point, but I felt strangely compelled to stay and hear him out). I’m glad I did, because shortly thereafter, his tone lightened.
He began to speak of God initiating a rescue operation to reinstate humanity to Himself, and that plan centered around one man, Jesus Christ. He described Jesus as being the sinless Son of God who not only lived an exemplary life, but asserted that He Himself was the sole means through which one could fully gain access to God. Niyi then went on to speak of a life of joy and freedom one could have (in spite of hard times) through faith in Jesus Christ. He also explained that Jesus was the only one who could “get us off that bus headed to hell” (an idea that strongly appealed to me).
The more he talked and the more I processed his message, the more it occurred to me that there was a strong possibility that God had ordained my steps to meet with Him in this very room to hear this very message. The truth is, I was no saint. The “umpteenth” suspension slips I spoke of in the beginning were a result of numerous fistfights and class disruptions I had engaged in during junior high. Somehow, I always found myself in the middle of conflict, and was on occasion the actual rabble-rouser. There were several other foolish, even dangerous choices I’d made as a teen, but we’ll leave those stories untold for now.
Whatever the case may be, convincing me that my life had earned a seat “on the bus” didn’t require much of a debate. Even at a very young age, I knew I had “red in my ledger” with the Big Man Upstairs. So, to hear a sermon about the possibility that I could have my debt wiped clean and be let off the bus? To think that God Himself had brought me all the way from the United States (where I continually made the wrong choices) to Nigeria to give me a fresh start? It all resonated with me deeply. It was clear in that moment that I desperately needed what Jesus had to offer; which worked out perfectly because just then, Niyi explained that Jesus was offering an open invite to anyone who was “weary or burdened and desperately needed rest.” He explained that Jesus was inviting us at that moment to “confess that He [Christ] is Lord of our lives, and to believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead.” All of which I did.
No fireworks followed, nor were there angelic appearances in the room. But the moment I prayed and asked Jesus to forgive my sins and sit on the throne of my heart, I immediately felt a burdensome weight lift off my shoulders. It literally felt like I had just taken off a heavy backpack (full of past, present, and future sinful junk) I’d been carrying for years.
On that day, I became a follower of Jesus Christ.
As much as I would like to say I never experienced difficulty from that moment on, or that the rest of my years in boarding school were a walk in the park; that would be a lie. Many difficult days followed, and have followed. But here’s what I found to be true through it all.
Jesus Christ remained constant at my side.
- On the days when a group of thugs attempted to attack our dormitory and harm students over the loss of a soccer game, but turned back at very last minute; even there, Christ remained close to me.
- During the three days where I attempted my first-ever prayer and fast, (because I was so broke and thought I was about to die from hunger), Christ showed up by directing my parents to come visit me on campus after several months of zero contact with family.
- During the dark days on campus where several students woke up in the middle of the night with tormenting screams, even there, no harm ever came near me because Jesus was close.
- Upon graduation (6 years later), and not sure of what to do or where I was headed with my life, Christ provided the means through which I would return to the United states for college.
- Through those long lonely years of doing life all on my own (again) in the U.S, Christ demonstrated His great love for me through a community of caring people at Grace the Church on the Mount who welcomed me with open arms.
- During my single years where I thought God had cursed me with the “gift” of singleness, I found the nearness of Christ in close friends who chose to do life with me. Christ was also vividly present in my last semester of seminary when my professors invited me to Nigeria to assist them in a leadership conference they were hosting (the same trip where I met the gorgeous beauty who is now my wife).
There are countless more moments in my story where Jesus Christ demonstrated in dramatic ways that He truly would never leave me or forsake me (in spite of the many failures that marked my life at different points through those seasons).
So back to my imaginary coffee-shop conversation with my sorta-kinda distant female friend.
After sharing my story, I would have explained to her that my annoying hand-raising in Church last Sunday was not because I thought I had attained some level of holiness that somehow placed me in a spiritually superior position over her. Rather, my hands were lifted in gratitude because I recognized that in spite of my appalling failures and lamentable weakness, Jesus Christ still calls me, "friend." My spirited swaying and swerving was because I was so thankful that Christ orchestrated the events of my life to lead me to that school in Nigeria, got me “off the bus”, reconciled me back into a right relationship with God, and graciously guided me by hand through some of the most difficult seasons of my life.
Jesus Christ is, and has been the joy of my salvation, not because of anything I’ve done, but because of EVERYTHING HE DID. It’s only right that I celebrate Him with some booty-shaking, hand-raising, head-banging, fist-pumping exuberance when a song about Him comes on. So please pay me no mind next Sunday if you see me shamelessly shaking what my-mama-gave-me. I promise I'm not trying to distract you nor do I perceive myself as "holier than thou".
I’m just so grateful that in spite of me, Jesus Christ still calls me His own.