He was going to church for the fourth Sunday in a row, since he became an adult or began to call himself one. It was a bitter surprise to him, and a slight embarrassment to his intellect. But it made her happy. Her happiness didn’t matter before. Now it did. She paid the bills.
John was already dressed. He wore his best suit and his only pair of good shoes. Viva was unready; she stooped before the live sized mirror, designing her face. Her large provocative behind a foot from his nose. But he didn’t wish to take notice. She had angered him enough already. This suit he was wearing, she had insisted he wore, filled his belly with displeasure.
The last time he wore this was months back, to that interview. He had since kept it in wait for another interview. But last night, Viva demanded he wore it today, instead of the rags he wore to church. He flared, she flared. For nearly two hours bad words were thrown about like dangerous worktools. Then she burst into tears. He began to fish out the cloth of contention. He might as well wear it. So much for reserving it for an interview he might never see. But John, boiled.
‘I won’t go to church next Sunday,’ he announced.
Viva didn’t bother turning around. She just giggled. ‘Till then.’
‘You can’t force me,’ he said aggressively. She winked. His anger mounted at the realisation that she could. Indeed she could make him do many things. Until he got a job and reclaimed the role of chief provider, he had little power, he had no freedom of worship. Worship, what worship, what did he even believe in? As a boy, he went to Sunday School, believing in an all knowing, terrifying God. Then science taught him that his ancestors were monkeys. He began to scorn people who wore rosary, and mocked their folly. But his ill-tempered widowed mother, a Jesus Jezbel who despised for Christ beat God back into his life. When he entered the university, he dropped God at the gate. Later, he decided that there were many gods, fighting for supremacy on earth. Of recent, he mostly believed in a mysteriously passive God hijacked by men of God, in between this, he believed nothing. This moment he couldn’t say what he believed in.
John would be following Viva to the third church in four weeks. Three Sundays ago, they attended Viva’s semi-regular church where the pastor had worked himself into a graceless frenzy, preaching against fornication. More than twice, his bloodshot eyes were on John as he shouted, ‘How long will you continue to wallow in fornication?’ For two hours he hammered against fornication, immorality, iniquity, iniquity, immorality and fornication. An endless circle. When the alter call was made, Viva went out and gave her life to Christ.
At home, she told John, ‘No more sex till marriage.’ He shrugged. She took her pillow to the parlour. By Wednesday, however, she quietly took her life back from Jesus and resumed sleeping with her boyfriend. But she wasn’t totally back into the flesh. We could say she was half-born again half-sinner. She still observed her morning devotions. Morning sex was canceled. They had intercourse at night and slept it off. By the time she woke up, her sin had become a distance sin which God viewed with blurred eyes and grudgingly forgave. She would leave for work, righteous.
Viva didn’t attend the anti-fornication church the following week. They went to a church where the pastor preached repentance for ten minutes and prosperity for forty-five. They didn’t return to this church because Viva complained that the choir sang mostly Igbo songs and the pastor spoke with thick Igbo accent. John didn’t know what she had against Igbos but he suspected it wasn’t unconnected with a certain Ebuka who left her to wed in his village while she was in convalescence of her second abortion for him.
The church they attended next was the one they would be attending today. It was a small church where everyone wore suit, and the pastors and church workers fried their hair. Viva thought this was cute but it reminded John of the hairy body of the rat he once fished out of his kerosene. He kept this thought to himself.
In this church, they didn’t preach salvation which suited John. They preached ‘Kingdom Living’, how to share God’s love, how to attract Kingdom favours etc. In fact, here, everyone was born again, by default. As soon as you stepped into the beautifully decorated house of God, your sins were forgiven, or suspended, and you became an instant candidate, qualified by His Grace for the special partiality due to God’s children.
Towards the end of the service, the preacher asked the congregation to tear out a piece of paper and write out all the areas they desired the touch of God. They were to drop this list in the offering box, accompanied with a solid offering of faith. John didn’t bother, Viva wrote for two. At the top of her list was ‘marriage’ followed by ‘good job for my fiance’. Fiance, yes, that was how she referred to him when dealing with God. Outside of the Almighty, he was her boyfriend. ‘Bose, meet my boyfriend.’ ‘Sweet Jesus, please grant my fiance a well-paying job.’ ‘What kind of a boyfriend are you?’ ‘Lord God, please draw my fiance closer to Thee.’ Etc. John hadn’t even proposed to her. Perhaps he had proposed to her but he couldn’t remember when and where. But what difference did it make?
‘Why are you smiling?’ Viva asked, jolting him from his cunning reverie. John looked up. The time she had been wasting on her face had paid tremendous dividends. It had made her plump face almost beautiful, and in coalition with her weave on and cream jumpsuit had chopped four years off her 34.
‘You were smiling at me,’ she accused.
Lazily, John rose to his modest height, critically proud of his woman. She approached him and he feared she would hug him or/and kiss him, but she placed her head on his shoulder and stretched her iPhone hand so that their faces were covered in the line of the camera fire. Click. She pouted her lips. Click. She stretched her neck. Click. She bared her teeth. Click. This, click. That, click. Click, click, click. While these photo shots rained, John stood like a tree. Not that she needed his participation. She would take selfies by a rock. She even managed to place a kiss on his chin, click.
The ordeal over, John picked up a Sidney Sheldon’s novel on a convenience stool. The cover page torn off, it resembled an Amplifier Bible version. When the service became boring, John would open this and enjoy thriller and everyone would be the fool, thinking he read the word of God. Armed with Sheldon, he followed Viva out like a puppy on a leash. Outside, Viva slipped her hand into his. She loved the neighbours to think them a happy couple. Even when they fought, frequently, she tried not to raise her voice too much. When he amused her, rarely, she laughed too loud. For the neighbours. John’s suit had made him look more matured, adding two years to his 29. And they looked like a matching couple, when seen from a distance. His unsmiling face lent him authority, making it seem he was in charge.
‘I wish I own a car,’ she said when they stepped out of the gate into the potholes majority street lined with stinking gutters.
‘I so hate arriving church on bike.’
Bikes were hard to see on Sundays as okada men take the day off after a week of unfruitfulness under the merciless sun. John silently prayed that no bike showed up. He feared they would have to trek it but it wasn’t all that bad, wasting time on the road. But Viva’s God was more alive, He sent a good neighbour with a Toyota Highlander and gave them a lift. The car had known happier days but it was a lot better than okada. When the car stopped right before the church door and John circled the rear to open her door, Viva stepped out, like a goddess.
Viva. Her real name was Vicky but John had taken to calling her Vivacious Vicky (although some times he secretly meant Vicious Vicky), and she had taken to the famed short version even using it on her BBM.
It was a great service, today (to Viva at least), great music, beautiful choir, high class members swerving graciously to the rhythm of God’s love. John was indifferent. Then the preacher stepped unto the pulpit. John was intrigued by the shady fry of his hair. His striking suit did worse to John, making John conscious of his own striking old suit. It was his best suit but the man of God made it look like the worst suit in Port Harcourt.
The preacher spoke on sacrifice. He read 1st King Seventeen about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, how she sacrificed her last morsel of flour to make Elijah bread. But she never lacked after that. ‘Most of you are poor, jobless and in perpetual lack not because of any crime but for your lack of sacrifice!’ he boomed into the microphone. A series of hmmms swept across the pews. ‘You want miracle, you must sacrifice your last flour for God.’
John tried to smile this off but the words wouldn’t go off in a whiff of smile.
The preacher stepped down the pulpit. ‘While praying this morning, God told me that My people are dissatisfied because they don’t have a sacrificial heart. And here as I look at you, I see millionaires, tycoons and world shakers’–he clenched his fist–‘but your hearts are strong and stingy!’ And he hissed with righteous pity.
John crossed his legs and opened Sheldon to give himself a fresher occupation. But he was forced to look up when the preacher said, ‘I see someone here flying in a jet’ and Viva and the rest drowning the last syllables in a wild chorus of ‘I claim its’.
‘I see opportunities, divine favours, miraculous connections coming your way! Someone… I see someone stepping into a lush office and secretaries running up and down to please you, chorusing sir sir.’ Half of the church were on their feet claiming it but the man of anointing was unmoved. With Kingdom arrogance, he pointed to the audience. ‘I am talking to you!’ Just before the audience went crazy and obstructed his view, John saw that the man was pointing at him. He is pointing at me! Could this be the answer to his joblessness?
‘… It doesn’t matter how little you have in your accounts. Today, God is looking for people who will empty their accounts for Him. Are you ready?’ His voice broke the heart of the loud speakers. ‘Will you let this untold favours pass you by?’
John closed Sidney Sheldon.
‘I am not here to cajole you,’ the reverend continued. ‘It’s for your good. Look at me,’ he spread his arms. ‘Do I look like I need your money?’ John narrowed his eyes critically. The man didn’t look like he needed their capital. ‘Elijah could have gotten food elsewhere but he went to the widow. Sometimes God makes outrageous demands on you because He wants to reward you outrageously. I weep for those who will close their heart to their breakthrough.’
John tried to analyse this harshly. He couldn’t. He forced himself and judged but his judgment lacked his trademark venom. He needed his harsh evaluation now, he quest for it like a hunter would his gun at the sight of a dangerous animal. John was continually distracted from his thoughts by visions of himself riding exotic cars, drinking wine in a luxurious sitting room, walking hand in hand on the beach with a younger, really beautiful girl…
‘Bring out your cheque books and write out all you have in your account, put it in the envelope with you, come boldly and drop it at the alter.’
Thank God I didn’t bring my cheque book, John was visibly relieved.
‘If you don’t have your cheque book with you don’t worry, your ATM card can serve. We have our standby POS machine.’
John felt like a cornered rat as he listened to the messenger of God instruct them, ‘Write out your pin on the envelope and put the card inside and come drop it here. You can come anytime in the week and pick up your cards.’
John fought a drug desire to look at Viva, see her thoughts, feel them, shield himself in it. But he suppressed this design. It was easy to suppress because he was painfully distracted by his debit card burning a hole in his hip.
‘We don’t have the whole time in the world for this,’ Preacher man, ‘I am not asking you to do what has never been done before. Ten years ago, while living in Jos I was so broke and shabby I couldn’t even afford a sachet of water. Then one day, on a Sunday like this I heard a message that changed my life. I acted upon it and here am I today. Look at me.’ The whole theatre studied him.
‘I am stinking rich. I have more than 700 thousand dollars in my Forex account. Not counting my shares, stokes and assets…’
John brought out his ATM card and stared at it with rugged affection. He had 120,000 naira buried in here, which no one knew about, his last card, kept for the rainy day when Viva would throw him out of her house. Of course she loved him but, you see, Viva was like a faulty electrical appliance, presently docile, dutiful but would one day spark and shock. Could he risk this, his only security net, and happily move to the gutter at Viva’s appointed time?
‘You have ten seconds.’
John brought out a pen. All around him people were writing or leaving their seats and making to the alter. A large woman stood on the aisle sweating over the cheque book she wrote on, her enormous backside taking three-quarters of the way but faithfuls joyously squeezed by to go submit their life savings at the foot of the Cross.
John wrote his secret pin on the envelope.
‘Seven seconds to go.’
People fell on people to get to the alter. John put the card in the envelope.
‘Your future is in your hand. You may keep it if you like, but I urge you to listen to the wisdom of God’s word.’
John rose to his feet.
‘We will pray now, after the count of four.’
‘Run,’ Viva whispered.
John wanted to do this, to beat the deadline but couldn’t bring himself to obey his will to do this, run. Perhaps the tower he was carrying in his envelope weighed him down. It wasn’t easy for him to lift his only hope for the future and throw it into the sea with the hope that the sea would rapture, surge forward and drown him in the wealth of naira and glory. Each step he took was painful, each step was a brick off the wall separating him with the very homeless. He dragged on.
Mercifully, the Privy of God waited for John to drop his seed before he slammed the grace of God shut.
When John waddled back to his seat he felt empty, empty as though his body was a mere sheet of clothing that hung on the space where his carcass used to be. Now he was 100% dependent on the mercies of his girlfriend. This reality hit him hard making him bow his head in rude resignation.
After the transaction involving millions of naira, the preacher took his seat, his routine Sunday morning job done. The senior pastor came up the pulpit and for half a second, John had a wild suspicion that this clergy man would void the stock exchange that had just taken place, and order everyone to come reclaim their wealth.
‘The grace of God is sufficient,’ he announced. For those who didn’t come to church with their cheque books and ATM cards, they could still bring it after service. The church would be open till 6pm, dot. God would embarrass you with success as you complied. Hallelujah.
John smiled. The grace of God has been extended till 6pm. After this, the grace would be taken away, wrapped and stored in the cooler until the day of another harvest; then the grace of God would be brought out, dusted and unleashed on the congregation.
John laughed out. The whole church turned to look at him, shocked. Even the senior pastor stared. John laughed on, a metallic sound that rocked his life and mocked his intellect, rubbing his gullibility on his face like a rag of stale urine.
The senior pastor soon took charge of the denouement. ‘He laughed with the joy of his testimonies. May you find your laughter of testimonies in Jesus name!’
The relieved children of God shouted amen.
John continued to laugh. The senior man of God resumed his talk. The people continued to believe John laughed for his testimonies. But John knew why he laughed. And, perhaps, we know.
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