On God’s “With” being better than his “Why”

One of the reasons I love Lagos so much is the fact that I don’t have to try very hard to not be alone.

I’ve just returned from another four month stint in my favorite city, and it was glorious. Of course there were the normal frustrations of living in Lagos – the oppressing heat, god-awful customer service, intrusive questions from near strangers. But being surrounded by family, young and old, by friends, old and new, even by strangers, on random road trips to hiking spots – all of this more than made up for it.

And then this past week I came back to Boston. I came back to my perfectly lovely apartment and went through the motions of falling in line and obeying the rules of living in America: updating my car’s registration that had expired while I was gone, paying my outstanding bills, switching my car to a covered space ahead of winter’s snow, opening mail, talking to junior partners at work about new projects. It was all a mostly smooth and predictable process, and I hated every moment of it.

I hated being back. I hated being alone. I missed my family and Lagos friends. I missed not having my 15 month old niece walk into my room saying “Hi” and rummaging on my bed for my phone, and if that was missing, a string of pearls or a bracelet. I missed saying, “No, you can’t brush my new, expensive, full lace front malaysian hair wig with your pink plastic brush” to the four-year old. I missed the food. I missed knowing that one of my oldest friends was just across the bridge and I could meet up with her with a little bit of planning. I missed having people over and hosting games nights and slumber parties. I hated the jetlag – falling asleep at 6pm, and waking up at midnight. I hated missing Let Us Pray’s calls and not getting through either when I called back. I hated the cold. Fine, I still loved the cold weather fashion and my new leather trimmed wool coat made me smile every time I put it on, but once I got outside, the temperature in the 30’s (in Fahrenheit) felt like an extra “f-you-you’re-in-Boston” directed specifically to me.

And so I had a few days where I spiraled. Once the most urgent tasks had been attended to, I took to my bed. I procrastinated the rest of my tasks, and alternated between binge-watching TV and crying. Why was I stuck in this job that would soon again require 14- to 16-hour days from me. Why was Trump getting away with his kleptocracy already – why was he even the president elect? Why wasn’t I able to complete the capital project that had been one of my goals of going home? I was miserable, and I wallowed in my misery.

But then a funny thing happened. Because I was waking up so early (see jetlag above),  I had a ton of time to focus on my morning devotion. And because I had previously decided to fast in December and recruited a girlfriend to join in,  I was fasting anyway. I finished the book of Galatians that I had started weeks before, and I started hearing more clearly. Within a matter of days, the whisper wait became a certainty, and the niggling feeling that there might be something to being okay with being away from my family and friends in Boston became a roaring crescendo that I was actually not alone. I started to see and hear confirmation everywhere – passages and music brought to my remembrance, devotionals by email and in book form, even the two Sunday evening church services I attended (still can’t decide between Park Street and Aletheia) seemed to all have been conscripted into delivering a co-ordinated message from the Most High: Wait on me – don’t rush ahead. Trust in me – stop trying. Give it to me. And the best of all: You are not alone – I will never leave you nor forsake you.

And so I have learned and I am learning. I have no answers for any of the Why’s above. God does not often give answers for that question  [see Job for a sample of his response – it wasn’t an explanation]. But he always answers with a “with.” I don’t know that I’ll get an answer to any of the why’s, but I know that he is with me. And finally, finally – after a decade of running away from learning this lesson – God with me is becoming enough.

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On mourning

It was a sad night in Itebu Kunmi in early July of 2011. My dad had just passed, and we had travelled to the village for the burial ceremony. All the plans had been made – aso-ebi chosen, clothes sewn, cows bought, fines and fees paid to the various grasping elders of the village and leaders of the extended family. We had travelled from Lagos in a convoy of black SUVs, with the soldiers for hire that my sisters had procured for protection. We had arrived and made final arrangements for the tent and band and DJ and preacher and the women who were doing the cooking. There was nothing to do but wait until morning for the funeral to begin.

Then around 2.00am, there was a loud banging on the front door. I started awake, and my siblings and I looked at each other with fearful eyes. There were loud noises, shouting at the door and at our windows. My brothers went to investigate.

“It’s some of his age group”, he returned and said. “They want to pay their respects. They want his body.”

“His body for what?” My mom asked, sharply. “Your father was a Christian. There will be no rituals-”

“They just want to sit with it. Out front. In the courtyard.”

“Sit with it?”

“Yes.”

My mom conceded. The casket was taken to the front yard. Some of the group had come with their folding chairs, and others asked for and got chairs from the dining room. They sat around the casket in a semi circle, and for the next two or three hours, they sang.

It was the most beautiful and also the creepiest sound I had ever heard.

They paid their respects to their friend and colleague. They spoke in Ilaje. They sang songs I had never heard. They drank. They poured libations. We sat inside and listened apart from it, all of us. Yes, we were his kids and his family, but this was their time to mourn their friend.

When chapters close in our lives, we are often in a hurry to move on. We delete the person on facebook, or at the very least limit what they can see. We block them from texting us, and filter their emails to trash. I have done this in the past. Partly out of anger – you hurt me, and so I will show you how quickly I can move on, and how little you matter.

But as I get older, I am taking a different approach. I am closing out a three-year season in my life, and I am going to take time to mourn it. I learned a lot from it. I learned about myself, and I grew more steadfast and more resolute in my faith. It was a great season, but I could not stay there for ever. It was not going to work out.

And so we lay out the casket. We pour out the libations. We sing songs. And we mourn.