****Join us tomorrow, Saturday, May 16 at 6:30 over Zoom for Part 2 of the series. We will view and discuss Jesus in Athens on the surprising work of God among Muslim immigrants in Greece.****
–From Michele S.
Last Saturday (5/8), we watched Let the Sea Resound, a documentary produced by George Otis on what he portrayed as a nationwide Christian revival with widespread political implications. This revival took place between the late 1990s and early 2000s in the archipelago of Fiji in the south Pacific.
Otis is a self described missions researcher who has been traveling the world documenting revivals since he founded the Sentinel Group in 1990. I have watched several of his documentaries. The stories they tell about the work of revival are always jaw dropping. One cannot miss the amazing and, yes, often incredible things God is doing around the world. Otis has interviewed scores of individuals who testify to the events portrayed in these films.
The movie sparked a spirited and deeply moving discussion among the 10 or so of us. At the heart of the story was the theme of how the revival in Fiji happened. The country was suffering from violence, crime, corruption, dying or dead corral reefs, a lack of fish in the sea, sterile land that yielded no crops, poisoned rivers, populations that were diseased and dying for unexplained reasons. Witchcraft was widespread. The deep divisions between Christian churches were rooted in resentment and anger going back to the 19th century.
But revival came after Christians took a series of initiatives: 1) Church leaders came together to seek God’s direction, in unity; 2) Christians prayed and confessed their sins together, with many tears, seeking reconciliation for offenses against God and each other; 3) leaders exhorted their parishioners to repent of practices related to witchcraft and idolatry; 4) they led their churches in rededicating themselves entirely to God; 5) they prayed earnestly for God to intervene and heal their land, the sea, and the people.
And it worked. God responded favorably and the country was transformed. Michael Racine, who traveled to Fiji, testified to the changes that he had witnessed when he was there recently (last year?), traveling with Otis’ team.
Otis is interested in telling the story of the movement of God, not of producing a comprehensive scholarly, critically-minded documentary on religion in Fiji. This means that sometimes his portrayal comes across as stereotypical and uni-dimensional. One our our group underlined the black-and-white way traditional religion was portrayed as wholly evil and Christianity as the prosperity gospel solution to all the ills of Fijian society. The story is more complicated than that, of course but Otis’ account did not reflect on the complexities. It left some of us feeling frustrated, wanting a fuller picture.
When the gospel truly takes root in a culture that is, when “Jesus moves into the neighborhood” (to quote Eugene Peterson’s The Message), there is a process of theological discernment that happens–a culling: keeping the good “wheat” of local practices (eg hospitality, reverence for land, sea, animals) and discarding the “chaff” (evil practices of witchcraft, cannibalism, the worship of local gods, etc). This process creates an authentic cultural expression of Christianity that is not just a replica of Western (missionary) Christianity. It produces contextual theologies, essential to dynamic community witness.
It is always dangerous to fall into formulaic expectations of the way God works. We must not put God into boxes of our own creation. He is not a tame lion. And neither is he safe. Sometimes he does wild things, dangerous things that may greatly disturb us. God chose to act powerfully in Fiji and respond in miraculous ways to the cries of a repentant and humbled people–as he promised to do in Scripture: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14). But we must hold that in balance with this verse: “You don’t know where the wind will blow, and you don’t know how a baby grows inside the mother. In the same way, you don’t know what God is doing, or how he created everything (Eccles. 11:5 NCV).
What can we expect of God when we pray? First, we CAN trust in God’s promise of prosperity to those who repent and humble themselves. But second, we CANNOT predict what that prosperity will look like for different people in different contexts. Repentance in and of itself brings prosperity to the soul, to relationships, to whole communities. It may not bring material comfort beyond that. Nor should we expect it. (God is not an ATM machine.) The act of forgiveness brings healing changes that can transform a person not only spiritually but physically. This is a mystery. Something having to do with our being made in the image of God no doubt. A Triune God who lives in perfect love and harmony in the “community” (inadequate word!) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Let’s not fall into the error of classifying the idea of “prosperity” as a Christian trigger term for abusive, exploitative, money grubbing televangelist type preachers with enormous bank accounts. Here, Global South Christianity has a lot to teach us. The promise of prosperity IS a biblical concept. It corresponds to the Christian hope of “shalom” –holistic well-being, healing, peace for the entire person (physical, emotional, spiritual), not just the intellect or the heart, and for the community, both in the church and outside of it.
Earnest prayer may bring healing but, let’s face it, sometimes it will not. Humbling ourselves before God in repentance means we accept “Thy will be done.” Whether or not we receive the healing we pray for is not a measure of the purity of our faith or a judgment on whether we prayed hard enough. No. Sometimes God just says No. “But why?,” shouts the petulant child in us. “Not for you to know,” says God.
Still, as jealous children, there is nothing wrong with wishing we could also experience God’s miraculous interventions, nothing wrong with longing for revival and social transformation to come even here among us, in the secularized West. So shall we? Long? Hope? Pray? Together?