TWO WEEKS AGO, WE RETURNED HOME from a family get-together in Fiji. It was fabulous! For over a year I’ve wanted to gather our family from the four-corners of the earth at one geo-location. We hadn’t seen our older daughter in two years, and it would have been another two if we didn’t go on this trip. We all needed this vacation, and we needed to be disconnected and away from our worlds. Fiji is located half-way between us. It was the nicest and least expensive option. In addition to all the practicalities, the Lord blessed us in a multitude of unanticipated ways.
For many Americans, Fiji is one of those ‘bucket-list’ destinations, but for Australians and New Zealanders it’s just a three-hour plane ride. So, it’s like going to Disneyland or Disney World for us in the U.S., although it’s much, much better of course. For example, there’s something there they call the South Pacific Ocean. The water is 83 degrees, and palm trees gently sway in the warm, humid South Pacific breeze on each of its 330 islands.
That warm, humid breeze turned out to be an unanticipated health blessing for me. So much so, that I ordered a large humidifier. Our home is now humid. Humid enough hopefully, to regain that South Pacific blessing. If not, I may be forced to move to Florida’s Disney World, or better yet, to some South Pacific island.
The trip was all about family, though. We needed to see each other. We needed to be together. My wife needed a break from a frenzied year at work, I’ve been in a tail-spin with health issues for the last three years, and our daughters needed to break away from their responsibilities and challenges. Being together helped us all get re-grounded in terms of where we were in life. We regained a frame of reference that only the four of us can create. How? We sat neck deep in the South Pacific. We hung out. We played games. We went places. We talked. We laughed.
The biggest unexpected blessing came from the Fijian Christians; and there are many. According to a Fiji Sun online article on August 8, 2008: “in 1986, close to 75 percent of the indigenous Fijian population belonged to the Methodist Church.”1 During the last twelve years in America, Christians have been increasing silenced in the public arena. There’s even been an outright battle over wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” In many parts of the world Christian persecution is severe. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Faith is neither easy nor cheap. American culture, like much of the rest of the world, is enthusiastically embracing an intolerant hatred for Christianity. Why? It loves its sin, more than it loves God.
This week, Todd Starnes2 reported that a group in Texas is petitioning the Austin Independent School District to prevent a church from continuing to rent a school’s facilities for Sunday morning worship services – a common practice here in the states. Their motivation is to shut down the church because it does not share their same view of marriage and sexual morality. They say that, “the masses must organize and take the fight to the church doors and oppose their existence.” One of the school district’s trustees said, “I’m not in favor of renting to any entity that doesn’t support our values…” If this goes through, it will be the basis for shutting down many churches. As in other countries, churches and Christians are being silenced for proclaiming the life-giving Word of God instead of reinforcing the accepted and ever changing values of government or society.
So, it was with gleeful surprise for us to hear Fijian Christian praise music playing all day Sundays at the resort’s pool-side restaurant. We also heard it every day where local Fijians sold their hand-made goods. We also heard it playing in taxis. On Sundays, taxi drivers listened to sermons. Most of the music was in the local language, but we recognized the melodies. When we went to Life Theatre to see Mission Impossible: Fallout, there was a big box for prayer requests in the middle of the lobby. When the man at the marina handed me our tickets for an excursion to Tivua Island, I noticed that he was reading Luke chapter five. On the excursions they would say, “God bless you!”
Seeing and hearing public expressions of faith was freeing. Wow! But these weren’t evangelistic efforts. The Fijian Christians were just being themselves. They were listening to praise music while they worked. They were hearing sermons. They were reading their Bibles. They were blessing their customers.
In Fiji, we heard the words “Bula” and “Vinaka” dozens of times each day. Bula means Life! A local taught me that it is said with an enthusiastic emphasis on the second syllable: Boolah! Vinaka means Good! As tourists we were told that Bula is a greeting like “hello” and that Vinaka means “thank you.” But those are over simplifications. To the Fijian Christian, Jesus offers “Vinaka Bula!!” – The good life, the abundant life, and eternal life. To the Fijian Christian, Jesus is life!!
I wondered if it had always been this way in Fiji? I discovered that the answer was a definitive, No! In fact, until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s, daily Fijian culture was consumed with war, cannibalism, and treachery. This is no secret. Next to the world-wide, top 10 bestselling books, found in resort and marina stores, are books on Fiji’s history. One of those books is a diary titled, “Life in Feejee: Five Years Among the Cannibals,” by Mary Willis, 1851, reprinted by the Fiji Museum 1983, 1986, 2010 in Suva, Fiji. Her husband was the captain of a trading ship. She was a Christian, but not a missionary. I bought two others as well. Each of them recounted Fiji’s bloody pre-Christian era.
The Fijian Christians remind me of the woman who washed Jesus feet with the tears of her repentance and dried them with her hair. Of her Jesus said, “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47). Her life was dramatically changed by encountering the love, truth, life, and forgiveness of Christ.
A similarly dramatic change was experienced by the wife of a Fijian chief. The diary entry is March 30th, 1845. His name was Nalela. Under a carefully crafted pretense of peace, that included Nalela’s father in the ruse, Nalela was killed, and then the attackers turned on the father and both were immediately eaten. This story is one of thousands like it.
Children were introduced to cannibalism at the age of five. Normally the wives would be voluntarily, and ceremoniously, strangled to go care for their husbands after death. It was an honor. However, Nalela’s enemies prevented his widow this privilege because they wanted him to suffer in death by being without her.
A chief who had recently made a profession of faith in Christ, also denied her request to be strangled encouraging her to repent of her sin and receive eternal life in Christ. She, however, resolved to starve herself, and despaired that no one loved her enough to send her off to her husband.
The author, Mary Willis, heard about the widow and went to visit her with a missionary named Mrs. Jaggar. The situation they encountered, after stooping into the widow’s dark hut, was too horrifying to repeat here. Amongst the dreadful scene, the widow sat quietly while two women worked to maximize her seventy-day period of mourning by applying pieces of burning cloth to her back. The heads of all three were made bald in preparation for the procedure.
As the burning proceeded, Mrs. Jaggar tenderly encouraged her to eat and to become a Christian, so she may live.
“I do not wish to do that. I only wish to die that I may see my husband again,” the mourning widow countered.
She eventually consented to eat some arrow-root, but later declined saying it had been too long since she had eaten any food, but Mary Willis said she wouldn’t leave until she fulfilled her promise.
“It will do you no good that I eat,” she said, wondering why Mary cared whether she lived or died.
“No, but it is my love for you,” Mary Willis replied injecting love into a setting vacant of it.
“Why do you love me?”
“Because God made you, and I wish you to go to heaven,” Mary explained plainly.
Her short profession of love made a great impact upon the widow. It probably took a few moments for it to sink in, but eventually she said: “I will eat, and live.”
It had been so long since her last meal that Mary Willis writes: “The poor creature suffered a great deal in swallowing at first.”
Many Fijians renounced their “foolishness,” as they called it, repenting of their sin, idolatry, and cannibalism. Instead placed their faith in the One True God. Following a confession of faith they participated in Christian training for several months before being baptized. At their baptism they would receive a “Christian” name; usually a name from the Bible. Some Christian Fijians became missionaries and proclaimed the Gospel of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ, throughout the South Pacific. Verani, mentioned below, would later live up to his namesake by serving the Lord in that evangelistic endeavor.
Less than three weeks later, on April 18th, Mary Willis visited with Nalela’s widow again to inform her that she would be sailing with her husband to another island and would be gone for several months.
“Ah!” the widow exclaimed, “the friend who has loved me is going away, and I shall not see her for a long time, but after she has departed I will learn to love the God that she loves.” She kissed Mary’s hands several times, and asked, “Will you not love me when you are far away?”
Love had indeed struck something deep in the widow’s heart.
“Yes,” Mary answered simply, confident that she would give her heart to Christ during her absence.
Many pages later, the author notes in her diary that while onboard ship she received a letter from Mrs. Hunt, another missionary, explaining how Christianity was growing. In her entry dated September 28th, 1845, Mary briefly shares two significant pieces of news from that letter:
- Verani has been baptized and received the name Elijah.
- Nalela’s widow had renounced heathenism, and received, by baptism, the name of Mary Willis.
To the Fijian Christian, Jesus offers “Vinaka Bula!!” – The good life, the abundant life, and eternal life. To the Fijian Christian, Jesus is life!! The cultural transformation of Fiji was a miracle of God’s grace. They love Christ much, because they have been forgiven much.
I’ve been praying for my country for some time. I pray that God will deliver us from the growing evil of our culture. Yet, Nalela’s widow gives me hope that no one is too far gone from God, if they turn to Him in faith. I ask the Father to convict us of our sin and to bring us to repentance in Christ, so that we too may know God’s love and Vinaka Bula!!
May the peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
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Rob Oberto, D.Min., is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. ©2018 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.