June 2011


Eugene Peterson, one of my spiritual mentors, suggests in ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ that prayer and parables are the tools of the subversive pastor (p36).

This claim is of course not limited to pastors. To be subversive is the call of all Christians: to be in the world, and look like the world, and engage fully in the world, but not to be “of the world”. Jesus of course was the ultimate subversive, embedded in the life of his day but living out of a deep sense of calling, motivated by a selfless love.

As I move around New York City, outside the context of my job at Redeemer, I find myself trying to figure out who else shares my view of the world. It’s not all that obvious, but I’m always on the lookout for clues. They come in random places but the subway is my favorite place: snippets of conversations overheard on the train – 2 teenage boys discussing Jesus as the reason for Easter – or as I watch people interact when its crowded during rush hour – responding with a smile rather than an insult when someone shoves them to squeeze in.

Being a writer is a similar experience. You feel you’re part of a secret society of people who fiercely guard their time so we can engage in the solo pursuit of weaving words together to create life and meaning. Every now and then, you discover someone else who shares the same passion, who is figuring out how to pursue their craft in this city full of distractions. And then you experience an unspoken connection and realize you have a new companion for the journey. “You too? I never knew.”

For a Christian who is a writer, these circles overlap, which brings us back to Jesus and Peterson and parables and prayer. After all Jesus is the Word who was and is. He not only taught us how to pray but gave us the ultimate weapon of subversion: stories he called parables which slip past our defenses. And, of course he gave us the ultimate story, the one in which all of our stories gain significance.

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For Memorial Day weekend, instead of remembering the sacrifices made for freedom in this country, I spent those three days at my first home here in the U.S.  I went back to my undergraduate college, Oberlin, in Ohio for a reunion.  In this internet age, it’s probably hard to believe it but I picked Oberlin out of a two-inch thick college catalogue. (Do I hear anyone saying ‘wow’!?) I arrived there in September of 1982, having never laid eyes on the campus and being deathly afraid of being half a world away from the only home I’d ever known in Nigeria.  I can’t say I thrived, but by the grace of God, I did manage to survive (probably by spending far too many weekend nights in Mudd library.) Now, here I was several decades later returning to re-claim those and many other memories. 

Though I’d visited Oberlin several times since I left there  in the mid-1980’s, I’d never been back for a reunion. Considering I was only a short plane ride away and had an unused ticket that was going to expire in early June, I concluded this was God’s way of nudging me to go.  I had several friends who cheered me on too,  and multiple sets of people who prayed for me before the trip.  I went on my own, having no idea who I might see or if my classmates would remember me.  For me to return to the place where I actually drifted away from God because it seemed so devoid of a Christian community,  it was a brave move. 

The weekend  was  full of wonderful surprises. I re-connected with three different sets of friends I’d had there, some going back to our freshman dorm . These were folks I’d not stayed in touch with (for no particular reason) but we reminisced and shared some sweet and funny memories about times from those awkward first months.  Some showed me pictures of their kids; others tried not to brag too much about their accomplishments. In it all, there was something really sweet about recalling a common history and sharing a love for a place that influenced us as young adults.  

For me, there was even more to the experience.  This time around, I not only saw evidence of a vibrant Christian community, I got to participate in it. On Sunday morning, I walked a little ways off campus to worship at a house church, led by a religion professor, Rev AG and his wife Brenda. We worshiped, prayed and sang together. Several students were graduating and testified to spending 4 years being loved and nurtured in this environment. What an encouragement it was to see this!  Despite my doubts all those years ago, God and his people remain active and present in Oberlin, Ohio. 

For that – and for my multiple connections to that memorable place – I am grateful.