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Ten weeks in Fiji

Hey Ho, Hey Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go

A while back we wrote a couple of articles on guidance for OMEGA magazine. And said: ‘We’re right in the slap-bang middle of a bit of the Lord’s leadings as we tap these words into the computer’.

We didn’t explain. It was still glass darkly time, folks. Now we’ve a bit of a clue, so we’ll fill you in up to today.

When we were in Israel, surviving the voluntary work that was the nearest thing to slave labour this side of a chain gang, God gave us three things to do if and when we returned.

Thing #1: build a great big deck on the north side of the house. (No, Doris, that’s not very spiritual. Guidance doesn’t have to be. Okay?) So we did. It’s nice. Makes our get-togethers on Thursdays relaxed. Informal. Folk can move around. Discuss (which means argue if you know our friends and neighbours) in small groups. It beats sitting in rows, or staring at someone’s knees in a big circle.

Thing #2: lecture on Israel around Northland. Surprisingly, most of the invites have come via Jews. That’s very nice.

Thing #3: visit the Pacific islands, tell them about God’s People and His Land, the history, covenants, prophecy, style of thing. Er, but... Hellooo, God! We might be having a little problem there.

(Now, dear discerning reader, please note that we weren’t giving the Lord a straight ‘no’. We’re too long in the tooth for such unhealthy nonsense. Let’s just say we were pointing out a few snags that He might have overlooked.)

In fact, several snags. Which island? We can’t just arrive; religion is pretty well sewn up across the Pacific; barging into some village is like gatecrashing someone’s home. And... But...

When in doubt, first try being sensible. A call to Korean Air ascertained we had enough brownie points for one return freebie to Fiji. Okay, Lord, we’ll decide to go thattaway. (Both of us. We were agreed on that. Agreement is important. Don’t leave home without it.)

Now, if you do something right, God kicks the surprise-surprise pedal. The same morning as we decided to give Fiji a go, we went to the local cybercafé to check our email. (Have we ever told you we’re too paranoid to be wired at home?) Started talking to a bloke at the next terminal who’d read some of our stuff. All slightly so-what until he said:

‘I’m off this afternoon for a couple of weeks in Fiji. Is there anything you’d like me to bring back?’

Why did he say that? It just sort of popped out. And we found ourselves saying:

‘Yes, please. The address of some believers well away from the main tourist trail. We think God wants us to go and teach...’

Would you believe he came back with just that, and an invitation from the local pastor to teach. The Lord was in it.


We’d struck another snag. Quite a genuine one that even our long-suffering doctor agreed with. Eileen (...George writing this bit...) had an attack of the dreaded gallstones.

Gone are the days when, at the slightest twinge, one was rushed in (why are people always ‘rushed in’ to hospital; cute cliché, somewhat overdone) to be operated on there and then. Now, thanks to restructuring, there are waiting lists that stretch far into the dim future. There are even (we joke not) waiting lists to get onto the waiting list.

Eileen was in continual pain. Which varied from an annoyed ouch to an ear-splitting yaargh. So the medical mills ground slowly (but they ground exceeding small) and checked it wasn’t her heart. Which involved her running on a treadmill whilst hooked up to something futuristic, all under the dispassionate gaze of a clutch of anonymous experts.

No probs. Perhaps it’s just ulcers, said they. The let’s-have-a-look technique is called a gastroscopy (Latin for ‘don’t try this at home’), but to the layman it’s just a matter of swallowing a telescope. Not, according to my beloved, too uncomfortable. And not, according to another clutch of experts, the source of any trouble.

Meanwhile, an ultrasound scan confirmed that, sure ’nuff, Eileen had been assembling and hoarding enough gallstones to make a rockery. Or rosary. Ultrasound is fascinating. I got to watch, and made bright comments as yards of plumbing and weirdly pulsating organs swam onto a large screen - until I was told firmly to hush by the technician and my unappreciative spouse.

Still the waiting list for the operation stretched ever on. So God told Eileen to prepare for a crisis or several. And told me to drive carefully.

The pain, on a scale of one to ten, shot up to lots. We became regular visitors to A&E. Eileen got enough pain-killing fixes to make a junky jealous. (And yes, you can fake the grimaces and the yelps. But nurses look for the sweating, the soaring blood pressure, the chaotic heartbeat.)

To cut a long one short, even the medics were eventually impressed and the Great Day arrived. The name of the game - laproscopic cholesystectomy - was longer than the four tiny incisions they made. And Eileen’s recovery and return to what we laughingly call normal was rapid and complete. We recommend!

(Just don’t visit us on one of our Open-House Thursdays: we have a tendency to produce the appetite-destroying specimen bottle with its twelve boulders for visitors to admire.)

And a nice touch from on high: the surgeon was Jewish and the recovery nurse was a Christian. Very, very nice.

We booked our flight. But, because we’re nervous little folk, we’ve wanted to find out all we can about where we’re headed. That’s a trifle tricky, seeing ‘our’ village isn’t on any map. So we mentioned this to the proprietor of the 4-Square we use, and told him the name of the place.

He glowed. ‘That’s my village!’ he enthused. And submitted patiently to all the questions we fired at him. There are a million things we need to know when we’re living with the locals, far from our geriatric comfort zone.

Two items of news we’ve heard in the past week.

One is that the Fijian military have been put on full alert. The news is sketchy, but it’s one of those bits of political unrest that happens. So? It can’t be more exciting than the Intifada in Israel. Can it?

The other bit of goss is that there seems to be a revival in Fiji. Moslems and Hindus are encountering the power of the risen Saviour and are being transformed. We remember the sixties and seventies in New Zealand and look back fondly to the revival then. And this time? Perhaps we’re not really going there to teach.

God dangles bait; reality can be astonishing. It would be exciting to find we’re going there to learn.


Fiji: the Way the World Should be

Lesson one began as soon as our little feet hit the tarmac. All we wanted was an el cheapo room for the night. It had been a busy day, and our beauty sleep was sadly overdue.

But the tourism clerk had other ideas. Yes, she promptly organised a hotel. And a shuttle. Then I’d mentioned Jerusalem – and she and half-a-dozen helpers kept questioning us about the Holy Land and the return of Jesus for some thirty minutes, finally letting us go with a warm and genuine ‘God bless you’.

That set the tone for our ten weeks here.

Look – when we were in Israel, far too many people were hostile to Christianity and Jesus. Sure, we understand the complex reasons why. But it’s still sad.

Then, in New Zealand... How can we describe New Zealand? Maybe the best label would be ‘post-Christian’ NZ has been evangelised and has known vibrant, genuine revival. Now that’s all settled down into embarrassed respectability. Don’t mention Jesus too loudly, okay? People might get the wrong idea about us.

But Fiji? Sure, the forest fires of revival are no longer blazing high into the clouds. But everywhere the embers glow brilliantly, and threaten to get gloriously out of control at the slightest breath of the Spirit.

Which means that I (George writing this bit) go into an Indian shop to buy a sulu (oh for brown legs to go with it!) and wind up telling all the staff about the nearness of the Lord’s return. People here want to talk about Jesus. Yes, even Hindus and Moslems.

Perhaps, though, our biggest shock was on Sunday.

No, island singing and music is nothing new to us. This was different, though, from anything we’re used to in New Zealand. It wasn’t a polished performance. It didn’t have all the slick, essential, electronic trappings of 21st century religion. Nor did the people come for what is euphemistically called ‘a blessing’.

A hundred or more Fijians of all ages had met to worship God.

And worship they did. That had somehow lived through the problems, disasters, joys, shortages, routines of the week and wanted to give heartfelt thanks to God. Their salvation was a real deliverance from destructive temptations, the utter evil of the Old Ways, and escape from the clammy grasp of the spirit world. God was to be praised.

They sang songs intended for ordinary people to sing; songs that could linger through the week, not the professional cleverness of elaborate musical arrangements that are nearly impossible to remember the next day. Nor did they endlessly repeat the same phrase until the mantra induced a sense of euphoria that need not be from the Holy Spirit. They sang to God.

That was their joy.

And if something in the preaching convicted them, there was no need for a protracted, pleading altar call. There was no need for an altar call – period. Men and women – particularly men, office-bearers even – would stride out to the front, tears streaming down their faces, confessing their needs and failings to the Lord.

To be honest, we’re finding preaching a delight. But also a challenge. Fijian believers know Jesus and check everything with Him and the Bible. This is no place for smart phrases and wheel-spinning. The local ministers have ensured that a good foundation has been laid. Plus, we were thrilled to find many Christians whose spiritual birth dated from a visit by Barry Smith to Fiji, and his messages had remained in their hearts and minds to this day.

It would be – perhaps – unfair to even suggest that the spirituality of these village churches is in direct proportion to their poverty. Surely it doesn’t have to be? But (so far) our fondest memory is of a tiny settlement of some six or seven homes. Maybe fifteen souls to a house. Wedged beside a busy highway where trucks bearing shipping containers thunder by at illegal speeds. Behind us, a river, where a grassy island serves as a drying green for washing and an OSH-free adventure playground. And the church building? A flat framework which locates a few sheets of old corrugated iron a scant two metres above the mat-strewn earth, the whole supported on bamboo poles. No walls. The congregation sitting enrapt, cross-legged on the mats, occasionally throwing stones at a bunch of puppies that want to join us. Afterwards, a cup of tea and a dry biscuit, and questions, questions, questions about the Lord and His people the Jews. Israel will receive much prayer backing from saints who feel privileged to make such a contribution.

Perhaps the Fijian village lifestyle makes trust in God more immediate, less of a cliché. A garden is for food; when there is no money, the next meal depends on the Lord’s bounty. Hurricanes devastate unpredictably yet frequently; an acknowledged wake-up call to backsliders.

A pastor we have lived with was crossing from one island to another with a family. The boat’s motor failed. Nothing they could do would coax it back to life. As they were swept further and further from any sight of land, the scant food the family had brought became rapidly exhausted. One day adrift became two, three – five! All believers, they prayed desperately to the Lord, for they were driven to drink sea-water, which can be as lethal as dehydration.

Incredibly, miraculously, on the sixth day, an Australian couple were sailing their yacht and had spotted on the horizon the craft and its human cargo. Naturally they assumed it was a fishing vessel. But remembering a radio report of a family lost at sea, they changed course to investigate. You can imagine the thankfulness of the hungry, thirsty victims as they were picked up by the yacht, given water and food, and finally taken to land. The local newspaper reported how they had prayed for rescue – and how they had glorified the Lord who had heard their prayers.

We are learning how to live in with Fijian village life. To be led by the chief from house to house and invited in to talk about Jesus – here to a family, there to a group of school leavers. It’s a steep learning curve. Behind the welcomes do we see a burning zeal for the Lord, or is there a wistfulness to get closer? We see sharp differences. On one hand the older, formal churches who are moving into compromise, re-introducing the Old Ways, the acknowledgement of other spirits, the drinking of kava both as a narcotic and as a ritual offering. And on the other hand the newer Pentecostal groups who have made a clean break with the past and any traditions that have so-called grey areas that shade into darkness.

Ten weeks – God willing – we’ll be living side by side with Fijian believers, our creaking old limbs squatting painfully on woven mats beside them, enjoying – or learning to enjoy – the fruits, the dalo and cassava, the octopus and fresher-than-fresh fish.

It will be hard to come back to New Zealand. We have found new family here in God.

It will also be hard for us to return to the land we love and whose people we love with the suspicion – more than a suspicion – that (by comparison with Fiji) the church in Godzone might be the church in Laodicea. Rich, prosperous, with no needs whatever. Neither fired with enthusiasm, nor coldly cynical; simply living a middle line, a balance, that’s all.

But what if we hear the faint sound of Someone...




Fiji: Part Two

Now we're on an island, totally out of touch with civilisation. On the map, it's Naviti, part of the Yasawa group to the north-west of Fiji. For us, it's a ten-hour trip on a cargo boat with a few hundred locals, concrete blocks, drums of fuel, multitudinous boxes and one pessimistic cow.

At various islands, passengers and freight go overboard into a 5-metre tinny powered by a 40hp Yamaha. We chug slowly on, while the ship's longboat whizzes its burden into a bay, quickly offloads and catches up with us.

Eventually (ten hours later, like we said) it's our turn. Everything is a great joke as we two geriatrics and our excessive and oh-so-essential luggage make the perilous transfer into the aluminium boat with a dozen others and their bags and bundles. We rocket to shore. Half a hundred villagers are there to welcome, to help, to splash joyously in the shallows. We jump (think: creakingly, cautiously) into very warm water. Total strangers carry our bags off – somewhere. The runabout speeds off to chase the ship.

We're here. Wherever 'here' may be.

Five days and many preachings later another little runabout hurtles us into open ocean and through a choppy passage between two islands. George isn't sick (Eileen writing this bit) which has to be a miracle. It's Sunday, 11.00am, so we nose into a backpackers' resort and teach on events in Israel, the implant and the return of Jesus, to surprised tourists and delighted staff.

Then on to another village. Wherever.

The church building and pastor's house is in thick jungle. Believers were suffering fierce persecution (think: physical attacks, not just verbal abuse) from local Methodists. Then God sends a rather specific hurricane that only damages the Methodist church and homes. The locals take the point; there is now an enthusiastic working together. In Fijian islands one is too close to reality to risk playing religious games or explaining away God's nudges.

We have a formal audience with the chief's eldest son. Tradition specifies that we offer him a gift of kava. (In fact it's not originally a Fijian custom; the practice was imported from Tonga.) But kava is a narcotic; it is also drunk with acknowledgement to the spirit world. So we make a gift of cash - which means his whole family will benefit. After a lengthy discussion we are given the freedom of the village. This is no tourist trap, so this is no cute formality. It is a serious matter that can and will affect everybody, because a Fijian village is simply one large home for one large family, divided into many dwellings.

And we preach. And they listen. And God is at work.

The remote churches actually expect that God will be teaching them. They believe that their lives will be - must be - changed by what they hear. Yet there is no credulity. No gullibility. No 'it's from overseas so it must be true' mentality. There is courteous, questioning caution. A desire to understand, to probe, to check everything with God and with scripture.

Speaking through an interpreter is a great safeguard. Vague phrases, lyrical descriptions, tangled sentences just won't make the jump from one language to another. The quickfire repartee that wows 'em in Whangarei has to go. And it's down to a clear, simple message from God.

Fiji may or may not be a tropical paradise. It's not a spiritual paradise. Fire walking and turtle summoning are popular Satanic practices that help bring in the tourist dollars. Don't give us the line that it's mind over matter – unless you can give us a demo. Pain control may be a mind thing, but the thickest leathery Fijian foot will burn through on those white-hot stones; a hanky catches fire from one metre above; and if one of the walkers has cheated on the rather yucky ritual beforehand, the whole team gets injured. We're talking demon worship here, as any born again former fire walker will tell you.

Now, ponder that New Zealand is hell-bent on reinventing itself into a post-Christian, neo-pagan society. Only a few months ago on National Radio, Henari Te Ua in Whenua chaired a discussion with three or four tohungas where they described seriously the backlash from the spirit world if Maori artifacts are moved without the correct ritual and mindset. And they told of the problem of finding youngsters to train as tohungas who haven't been contaminated by being born again.

Nobody objected. Few even noticed. We’re conditioned to be Politically Correct.

Anyhow, where were we? Oh, right: on a remote island somewhere in the Fijian archipelago.

It’s tricky, trying to preach when a couple of large land crabs click their way solemnly in front of a squatting congregation. Or when a well-meaning elder puts a burning mosquito coil beneath Eileen’s seat (George writing this bit) and nearly cremates her.

It’s nice to know God is here. We go from village to village – at night – by boat: no moon, so we have only the light of our solar torch to show us the coral heads.

Walking through one of these villages after sundown is unforgettable. If the community has no generator, all we see is a succession of yellow oblongs: doorways of huts or houses, with the gentle light of a kerosene lantern illuminating families clustered on flax mats enjoying the evening meal. Should we be heard and recognised, then voices call to us, inviting the palangis to come and eat with them. Afterwards, it’s easy enough to get thoroughly lost. Villages are a maze of paths that wind between a myriad homes. But there’s always some little kid who will slip a trusting hand in ours, lead us out into the jungle and to the local pastor’s house, then happily scamper off into the pitch darkness back to the family.

And later? Several weeks have passed since we wrote the last paragraph. We say a tearful goodbye to the final village, planning to sail in a small boat to the other side of the island, there to intercept the big tourist catamaran which will whisk us to Nadi.

Nobody has heard the forecast. Hurricane Erica is nearby. All small craft have been advised to stay home.

It is calm enough on the leeward side of the island, but as we round the headland we meet the full force of a rising wind, and finally our tiny vessel is chased by waves that crash over our stern and outboard in a manner that bodes ill for our future.

We are poor sailors, even poorer swimmers. Yet (and the Lord gets full credit for this) we aren’t scared. Even though it is necessary to put three of the larger Fijians overboard to wade ashore to lighten the boat. Eventually the great catamaran pitches and tosses into the bay and we make the perilous transfer – we and our luggage – aboard.

What now? All that is in the past. We are home. Enjoying European food and low humidity. But what have we learned?

Or rather, what are we learning? We’re learning how to handle being materially rich. No, we don’t feel guilty about it. We’ve a nice house with the usual Kiwi goodies. But we’re suddenly aware that many people have almost nothing. No car. No electricity. No income. No money. A hand-to-mouth existence. They live in continual dependence on God – and they acknowledge the fact. To each other and to Him.

What do we take for granted? And what are the scriptures directed at the rich, warning them – warning us – of the pitfalls and temptations of being materially wealthy?

At the beginning of this year we took for granted that it is other people – like Americans – who are rich.

Now? Perhaps we’d better do some serious Bible study. And prayer.


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