Explaining Christianity – a continuing journey by Ade Sawyerr
“Why do you worry when your Lord never sleeps…..prayer for forgiveness, should be our guiding staff, and we will sing Alleluia and never never lose our way!”
Ramblers International Dance Band
Two holiday periods are celebrated by most Christians across the world: Christmas and Easter. Christmas is a period of good cheer and goodwill amongst men and has been widely accepted by both the secular and religious world as a time for festivities. People go on shopping sprees, exchange cards, gifts and greetings as we usher in a New Year that we wish will be filled with hope and prosperity. It also evokes debates amongst the various sects on the true meaning of the Advent and whether indeed the date chosen is correct or merely a convenient one. This long period of nourishment of the body, soul, and spirit always gives way to Easter and its more profound symbol of a Christ who lived a life of example and teaching but who was tortured and crucified and yet rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven.
These festivals present an opportunity to reflect on various interesting schools of thought surrounding Christianity. So, after these festivals, I felt that after several years celebrating these holidays it is time for me to consider how I might explain why I profess and attest to Christianity in the hope that those with a deeper knowledge of this faith will share with me their understanding and help strengthen mine.
Born and nurtured within a Christian family, I was baptised an Anglican and dutifully followed my grandmother to the church at St. Mary’s till I was old enough to follow my older siblings to Sunday School at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Accra, to learn about Jesus Christ and the other stories of the Bible. For a while, I lived with my uncle Mr Mensah, who led the daily devotion for the whole household at the crack of dawn. I also had the opportunity to attend Brother Lawson’s ‘The Lord is There Temple’ at Korle Gonno the Apostolic sect to which he belonged at the time. When we moved to Accra New Town, because there was no Anglican church in the area, I attended the Presbyterian Church.
In secondary school, I spent my Quiet Time reading the Bible, especially the compelling stories of the Old Testament: the story of the creation, God’s relationship with man, the books of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets. These stories were about how living a righteous life would lead mankind to prosperity and yet despite those teachings, man broke all the covenants with God and strayed onto the path of sin that always ended in adversity and destruction.
I attended morning service at the school chapel and evening worship in the common room before ‘lights out’ and of course the Sunday evening service. I was also expected to attend the mass on Sundays, and Father Wild our Anglican priest helped prepare me for my confirmation. For this important sacrament, I had to learn and understand the different articles of faith; the significance of the Apostle’s Creed and my intention to, of my own free will, embrace Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. As I went through learning the catechism I sought answers to many questions about sin: thought, word, and deed, about absolution after confession and about the meaning of the Eucharist. I had to get to grips with the Christian doctrine of belief, prayer, liturgy, worship, rituals, conduct and reading more of the Bible to be recognised as a Christian.
As my knowledge of the Bible grew so did my confidence as a Christian to the extent that one of my mentors, the late Franklin Dove, asked me to assist with teaching in the Sunday school at Anumle village. My Housemaster, Reverend Agbeti, who was also my Bible Knowledge teacher, was very impressed by the responsibility bestowed on me.
My Christian belief then could be summarised as – God, the Father created the world and people in his own image. He gave us commandments on how to worship Him and lead good and righteous lives for which we are rewarded with prosperity. Whenever we strayed, He visited adversity on us but because we continued to sin, He promised that He would send his Son, Jesus Christ to come and lead his life as an example for all of us. With the death of Christ, this covenant was extended to both Jew and Gentile, giving us all the assurance that for as long as we confess our sins and believed in him as the Saviour we would not only be saved from damnation but are also assured of eternal life in this world and the next. With Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven, Man has the Holy Spirit as Comforter, to live in us and continue to guide us till He comes again to redeem all who believe in Him and worship him – a three-person God who was very much the Father Creator, Son the example and Redeemer and Holy Spirit the sustainer.
When I was in sixth form my Religious Knowledge teacher, Mr Amexo suggested that my commitment to Christ would increase my understanding and help me do better in the exams. He did his best to answer most of the many questions I had about things mentioned in the Old Testament and their fulfilment in the New Testament. The deeper knowledge acquired and new-found interest was rewarded when I was made both Entertainment and Chapel prefect. However, my attempt to join the Scripture Union Movement that would ‘endorse’ me as a Christian was rebuffed. The leaders believed that my contribution to discussions was disruptive, showing off my knowledge of the Bible whilst my behaviour – smoking, drinking and a wandering eye because of my adolescent raging hormones was in stark contrast to and inconsistent with my acceptance of Christ. I felt let down and left the movement. My behaviour did not improve and I was expelled in the first term of my senior year for a crime that I did not commit and therefore for which I showed no remorse.
This period was a real setback for me and my mother took charge of re-directing my studies and my Christian education. It was not just about studying to pass my exams, it was also about praying for good health and turning my life around. She led me in prayer and fasting for long periods so that I would repent of all my sins of drinking and smoking but especially praying to ward off and overcome any temptations of fornication. My prayers must have been answered because my classmates petitioned the school authorities to allow me back for the final term to sit my examinations.
During this period, I had to re-learn the essential elements of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. That Jesus Christ, the loving Son of God teaches us a different kind of prayer, he is more forgiving than the jealous Father, the God of Moses who commands us to worship Him and Him alone and who threatens us with fire and brimstone if we depart from His ways. Jesus, however, taught us to praise and worship our Lord and keep his name holy, we must adore Him because of His greatness because He watches over all of us and has a purpose for each and everyone one of us. We must confess our sins, our overweening pride in thinking that all our achievements are because of our own hard work and that He has no hand in guiding us. We must acknowledge our moral weaknesses and ethical lapses and inability to love our neighbours as ourselves and ask for His forgiveness. We must thank the Lord for the daily blessings that He showers on us, for miracles, great and small, his guidance and direction and the fact that he keeps us away from evil and danger most of the time, the fact that he has always come to our assistance when we have called on him in time of trouble and then we must finish our prayer in supplication, asking him for what we want for ourselves and our family, friends, and neighbours and that the same Lord will solve all the problems for others. We must believe that He will grant what we pray for because He is our Source and Provider and that our prayers will be answered because of His promise to do so. All our sins are forgiven because of His precious blood that was shed for our salvation, and that Spirit God will descend on us when we get to that Kingdom in heaven through our faith in Jesus Christ who came to save the world created by His Father.
I wish that I had been more aware then than I am now of the challenges along the journey of Christianity, the episodic floundering of faith and reconciliation, of belief and practice with behaviour and the plain facts of doubt and sin. I also wish that I had been better prepared for the drastic changes that would take place in the Christian movement.
In my youth, religion was about whether you were an adherent of African traditional religion, a Muslim or a Christian and the Christian church at the time had three main branches the Eastern and Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant faith represented in Ghana by the Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Evangelical Presbyterians and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.
Considering that the world now has more competing opinions about politics and culture where some religious ideologies have provided a greater source of discord and conflict where the fervour of the moral majority is being matched by the radical Islamist who intend to create their own state, the increase in Christian beliefs fuelled by both the American new charismatic movement and the African instituted or initiated churches over the past 50 years is certainly a good thing. We now have Revivalists, Adventists, Apostolic, Evangelists, Reformists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Congregationalists, and lately the Charismatics and the Spiritualists. The names of the churches are now more vivid, the flourish of titles by which the leaders are known evokes more reverence than did before. Titles such as Pastor, Pastoress, Bishop, Bishopess and Overseers abound although some of them have absolutely no idea about the role of dissertations or thesis in having the title Reverend Doctor bestowed upon them. They enjoy being addressed by whichever title they choose, the attires they wear, adorned with colour coded suits, capes, cloaks, are more elegant.
This has brought a considerable change in the teaching, worship, and practice of Christianity with the different founder leaders providing their own interpretation of the word of God and the reason for belief in Christ. The better-managed churches have flourished to become mega-churches operating as hypermarkets whilst those with smaller congregations have the status of boutiques or corner shops. Church founders have gained guru status and sometimes the names of the churches are synonymous with those of the founders. The liturgy is more fluid, backed by praise and worship, loud music, drumming, singing, clapping of hands and dancing. Prayers are said in more flowery language, figures of speech tested to the maximum, rhythmic incantations of intercession, and supplications and invocations to make the service a more interactive experience.
The intense competition for saving souls has led members of congregations to shop around for the ‘most powerful’ leader who they believe can fulfil their material and spiritual needs, protect them from adversity, predict their prosperity and provide them with salvation. The prophetic role of the pastor is now more important than the priestly role of sharing the good word. Divination and direct intervention are now in the hands of the Leaders rather than direct from Christ and has taken over the pastoral role of fellowship, support, and guidance.
The churches have embraced modernity and the digital age in a refreshing way, delivering sermons and prayer using electronic media throughout the day, night week via television, podcasts, radio, and telephone. Social media is afloat with exhortations, prayers, and sermons and the word of God is readily available on computers, tablets and mobile phones. Even offerings and collections have now gone digital with electronic point of sale machines in some churches and ATM and transfer of tithes through online banking.
Navigating through the maze of churches remains a challenge to me, who considers himself a non-denominational Christian. I attended church regularly during my university days but my actions did not reflect my being Christian by which I mean that I smoked to look hip, drank for courage and though still very shy, I chased after all the women who would have me. This worldly life was presented the greatest sins for me but nevertheless, I prayed a lot more. I prayed so that I would not fall ill and for God’s wisdom so that I would pass my exams. During the period that I worked in Ghana, I probably spent as much time attending church as I did a lot of partying. There was a revival of my faith when I came to study in Manchester and where I worshipped at a non-denominational church.
Try as I might, I am still worded to the old ways of worship, the traditional solemnity of the Anglican liturgy, the melodious hymns of old continue to be more uplifting spiritual nourishment, the thoughtful and well-delivered sermons of the word of God remain for me more of a guide than the motivational prosperity preaching sermons, the screaming, screeching of the pastors with their loud exhortations. I cannot bring myself to be joyous in church and dance with abandon to ‘jama’ songs with ‘azonto’ moves so I guess that I will not be out there trying to find a new church soon.
Over the past 30 years, I have visited at a Downsview Methodist Church where my wife is a member and my son visits often. I belong to a London Gadangme Speaking Fellowship of the United Reformed Church tradition at Ealing St Andrews Church, whose members despite worshipping at their respective churches come together once a month for closer fellowship with one another. So, I may be getting back my knack for the fellowship of worship.
My Christian beliefs have been reinforced by my life experiences. Diagnosed as a sickle cell patient at the age of 10 by Dr Felix Konotey Ahulu, I endured many long periods of ill health on admission in hospital, the stories in the Bible providing me with a moral compass and direction on how to have a fulfilling life, teaching me about God, faith, about never despairing and having hope, charity and helping others, about forgiveness and above all about the love of God and love for humankind. The Bible has also taught me about being non-judgemental because I too am human and that though it might be difficult to follow that narrow path, believing in Christ is the only way to live my life and which is about being satisfied with all the blessings that God continues to shower me so that my life can be a testimony to his mercies and grace.
Prayer continues to be a feature of my adult life; I continue to call on the Lord for my health problems, my work problems, my relationship problems and though I know that problems will continue to crop up, I have the confidence that whenever I have called on Him He has delivered because he always directs and guides. So, for as long as I live a life that is directed by the word of God, I am confident that I can call on Him and know that He will hear my prayer and will not disappoint me. I have called on him when faced with my health challenges when my business is not going well, when my family is in crisis when my friends are in anguish and difficulty because though I may seek and want to help, I call on him because He has never failed me. Indeed, it is He who directs and guides us always it is the Lord that directs and guides always.
There is no other scientific proof that I must offer to the agnostics and the atheists or the scientists who are concerned with how this earth was created. My belief that God has continued to be good to me and watches over me in all that I do is enough for me so will I worship and pray to him.
My greatest challenge, however, is in the intersection between my Ga culture and my worship of Christ? Is my culture at odds with Christian teaching? Can I worship my God without recourse to Olive Oil, candles, Florida and Holy water?
But are the practices of kpodziemo, yooshibimo, yarafeemo and the celebration of my Homowo and sprinkling of kpokpoi really against my Christian beliefs? The naming, marriage, death rites and the celebration of the festivals should not make me any less Christian since most are an acknowledgement of my tradition and evolving culture. They should not go against the essence of my Christianity since they merely place me in terms of my ethnicity and indeed my identity. Is the libation ritual that much against my Christianity and does that mean that I serve other gods? Are these practices not just part and parcel of a social and cultural life, like an English man asking for a cup of tea on his return home after a long absence from home?
At this moment of continuing need in my life, I know that I will continue to praise and thank God for my many achievements, I know that prayer and praise of God is what will resolve for me the problems and challenges that I face so I give thanks that the Lord has preserved me and surrounded me with people who are able to help and see me through my darkest hours. But I also pray that God will grant me wisdom so that I can help those in need of direction in both their religious and secular lives.
I know that my God will be merciful and gracious to me, a sinner, and I pray that He will continue to teach me the value of prayer and shower me with the gift of the Holy Spirit in Jesus name. Amen.
Ade Sawyerr is a management consultant with community consultations and policy research focussed consultancy, Equinox Consulting. He comments on political, cultural, diaspora and third world development issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.equinoxconsulting.net. Some of his articles can be found on his blog at https://adesawyerr.wordpress.com. He will very much want to hear about your views on this piece by a comment on his blog to help deepen his faith.