Nigeria's Prayer Houses and the Near Emptiness of their Divine Invocations
Nigeria has the uncommon reputation as the poverty headquarters of the world, the happiest people on earth as well as the citadel of all kinds of received religions. The last of the qualifications makes Nigerians the most religious in the world, with the connotation of being the most prayerful. The modes of the prayers are however at variance with divine injunctions on how prayers could get to the throne of grace to guarantee an appropriate divine response. Sadly, as a result of their prayerful qualification and inclination, Nigerians ended up being annoyingly docile. This is in the sense that they, more often than not, petition God to do for them what, ordinarily, they could do for themselves but which are within the divine injunctions.
My concern in this essay has to do with our modern prayer houses- the Churches and the Mosques and their self-induced near spiritual emptiness that negates the qualification of prayer as an active force in divine encounters, while turning it into a passive force. My focus is particularly on the church, especially its Pentecostal variant and its spiritual guides that Biodun Jeyifo calls the evangelists of "holy" greed and graft". These Pastors are after tithes though they are often reluctant to give unto Caesar what is Caesar's. They would rather enjoin their congregations to be cheerful givers because God loves a cheerful giver; they would rather be less concerned about social obligations of building industries to create jobs to reduce the number of the teeming unemployed Nigerian youth; they would rather build more 100,000-capacity churches to rake in more tithes and offerings; they would rather build universities which tuition fees are beyond the reach of their members; they would rather commercialise the divine gift of magnetic healing, and they would rather buy jets in which their members can never fly. These are my honest, confident and accurate assessments of this brand of the body of Christ.
The Pentecostal Churches by their very departure from the path of rectitude, consequent upon their egregious and subjective interpretations of the word of God, cannot claim to be in constant communion with God. Also, their utter disregard of the essential ingredients of quietude and solemnity has made communion with the divine, the Almighty Father a near impossibility. Our Pentecostal Pastors have deliberately sidestepped these essential ingredients in order to achieve an end that is patently materialistic. These digital-age Pentecostal Pastors have erroneously believed that it is the beauty, the opulence of the physical structure, called the church, the orchestras, the dancing and the raucous babbling of inanity as prayers that attract the presence of God. No, that is not true. It is the convergence of free will and the knowledge of the will of God and the timeous deployment of prayers in deference and solemnity that provoke divine intervention, intimation or revelation. So, it is not about the beauty of the Church whose congregants in Nigeria have become irritants without a redeeming feature, and their so called prayers have become noisy invocations of divine interventions or intimations. Yet prayer should be a silent and meditative spiritual communion with the divine, conducted in absolute reverence, solemnity and in a serene environment. Unfortunately, all of these conditions have been deliberately contravened by these Pentecostalists. Their Church services, including prayer sessions are conducted in an uproarious and noisy congregational setting. Under such conditions, the body and the mind, the soul or spirit are not primed for the reception of the solicited or even the unsolicited divine interventions, intimations or revelations.
I dare say that it is the noisy invocations of divine interventions that have become common denominators of churches and mosques in Nigeria today. These prayer houses are at their best in noise pollution. They will mount loudspeakers on top of their various prayer houses and their environments, blaring soul dampening songs and spiritual inanity at very high decibels, agonising and antagonising fellow citizens at the receiving end of their indiscretions. And, perhaps, attracting from these hapless citizens commensurate remonstrations that will probably neutralise their various petitions to Almighty God who has enjoined humanity to commune with Him in solemnity. Churches have become orchestras with ensembles of gorgeously dressed dancers as worshipers. They danced and danced with little left for sermons. The solemnity of church services of yesteryears has been lost to the extent that the awesomeness of the altars is no more; altars have been desecrated.
Even, unfortunately though, orthodox Churches- Catholic, Baptist or Methodist- have joined the frays of uproarious spiritual ministrations and have consequently lost the equanimity of the religious services of yesteryears. How can I not be nostalgic about the solemnity of services at Owu Baptist Church, Abeokuta in the early 1960s, with the Reverend S. O. Akande ministering! May God bless this exceptional man of God. While he is preaching, you're bound to forget everything about the outside world; you're engrossed in the word of God coming from the altar.
Years after my odyssey in the United States of America, I still remember Dr. Grizzard of Baptist Church on Columbia street? in Washington DC and his soul or spirit lifting sermons in an atmosphere of absolute serenity. I remember one of these sermons: "How can I sing the Lord's song in a foreign land". This 'sermon on the mountain' talked to the harrowing experience, the cruelties and the indignities that were (and probably are) the lot of African Americans. Ironically, the Reverend gentleman of God that delivered this sermon was Caucasian. The sermon left the congregation with mixed emotions of joy, love and sadness. Surely, it is not about Church but about the how-of-prayers, the conduct and environment in which Church services and prayer sessions are held. Contrary to the propagandist posturing of the Nigerian Pentecostal Churches and their rapacious/avaricious Pastors/Bishops/Prophets, the environment, church services and prayer sessions have violated divine injunctions. If it were not so, these Pentecostalists would have received divine intimations on how to pray Nigeria’s underdevelopment and its associated myriad of socio-economic anomie and leadership problems out of existence. But, because they have departed from the right modes for prayers, prayers have unfortunately become a hollow or empty ritual or passive force in divine encounters; prayers are no longer a necessary medium to solicit and compel a divine intervention, intimation or revelation. Not any more can prayers provoke divine presence in the individuals or in the collective. That explains why the visions and prophecies of our Pentecostal Pastors are received or believed with a pinch of salt.
But on the other hand, our Traditionalists are quite at home with the essence of tranquillity as a factor of spirituality and how to tap from its essence through the medium of prayer. You just need to visit the Osun groves in Osogbo during the Osun festival for confirmation. Wole Soyinka also knows and, I guess, believes in the factors of solemnity, quietude, peaceful, unobtrusive environment and divine knowledge in divine intimation and intervention, which break hurdles or strongholds of enemies. Thus the import of tranquility, quietude or solemnity in currying favour with the divine was not lost on our own WS, as the Nobel laureate in literature chose to tour alone, unguided or without the encumbrances of guides ``the crypts, the grottoes, the temples and mosques, the reliquaries, and the mythologies of the spirit” at the Holy sites in Jerusalem (You Must Set forth at Dawn). The result was his intimations of what God had concluded for him with regard to the struggle for the de-annulment or the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by MKO Abiola. And that which God had concluded for him was the dispatch of the dictator to permanent rest in heaven or hell of his arch enemy, the brutal dictator, General Sani Abacha and the installation of General Abdusalami Abubakar as Nigeria’s new head of state. The experience shows that God, as a constant, with the qualities of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, must be approached in peace, solemnity, and in truth/candour, if we are to draw from Him positive responses to our petitions.
I believe that prayer, which is the outcome of man’s search for how to interface with the divine after the sin of disobedience by the two occupants in the Garden of Eden is paramount. It must, however, be conducted in absolute deference to the will of God and in solemnity to be assured of divine response in the forms of intervention, intimation, vision and revelation. In the Garden of Eden incident, the Holy Bible intimates as follows: Two occupants of the Garden had been forbidden from and warned against eating fruits from a particular tree of knowledge of right and wrong; doing so, they will become like God; knowing right from wrong. They did disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit through the persuasion of Satan. Paradoxically, they became partakers of God’s quality of omniscience- the divine knowledge of right and wrong. They also drew to themselves divine curse- "thou shall eat from the sweat of thy brow" et cetera.
The essence of the Garden of Eden encounter and the resultant divine remonstration did not take away from Adam and Eve that knowledge of right and wrong. It only, however, reinforces the desirability and necessity of prayer as a medium to compel or solicit divine intervention and cooperation as we journey through life despite the post-"Adamic" sin and the divine remonstration. Meanwhile, the divine remonstration also underscores the need or the desirability to deploy prayer in the efforts to obtain divine approval, mercy and forgiveness for whatever part we might have played in the drama of life. The concept of prayer or its process should not be at variance with God’s injunctions and His intent for man after the drama of the Garden of Eden.
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