This Sunday at church I was struck by how fear/power language permeated everything.
In the children’s program…
great attention was given to scripture memorisation. Last week’s memory verse, which the children were reciting was 1 Thess 1:6-7:
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
Do you hear the fear/power language there?
‘Powerful angels’ is fairly obvious, and ‘blazing fire’ adds to that, but it’s also in the first part. Westerners naturally read the language of ‘just’ and ‘paying back trouble’ through our guilt/innocence framework: it’s about sinners before a holy God. And it is, but in a fear/power context this is far more about an authority, one whose good side you want to be on, and one who is able to relieve you. There is an authority, and he is mighty to act for those who belong to him.
This week’s memory verse is 2 Tim 4:18:
The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
It’s not like they chose the only two fear/power verses in the epistles: they’re chockers with stuff like this!
There was a prayer they got the children to repeat after the leader. It went like this:
Dear Jesus, thank you that you love me. Teach me to follow your ways. Help me to live a victorious life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
My first reaction was one of shock: it’s quite different from the kinds of prayers I hear in Australian Sunday schools! My second reaction was suspicion: language like ‘victorious life’ tends to do that for me. But notice how discipleship is on view, and how the whole prayer is enveloped in the love of Christ. This is a full-bodied theology of the good kind of prosperity: God has given us everything we need to live well in his world.
The children were exhorted to pray only in the name of Jesus, which ties in with what was happening in the adults’ singing.
Up in the main auditorium…
the first few songs were along the same theme: there is no God like you. Since we arrived in Dodoma four years ago, this has been a prominent theme. It seems every second song makes a statement that there is none like God. In a fear/power context, it is a big call. It is not only a statement that, ‘my God is better / more powerful than the rest’, it is also an oath of fealty. No matter what happens, this is the God I am sticking with. It’s a common way to open worship, as if it’s the first affirmation that must be made.
Later on, though, my hackles were raised by a song that started “I am born a winner, more than victorious” and had the refrain, “more than conquerors.” I kept wanting to add “through Christ Jesus” or “when I’m born again.” But this song also stood alongside songs like “Blessed Be Your Name”, with its pledge to continue to praise whatever befalls, and its acknowledgement of God who gives and takes away.
This is pretty close to home for lots of congregation members. One was in a car accident this last week; she survived but her colleague died at the scene. Tanzanians are not naive about life’s troubles. In this context, the statements about being a winner or victorious take on a more perlocutionary tone. They’re meant to bring something into being, but as part of a larger picture of discipleship and wise practice rather than a presumption.
It reminds me of the time I asked when I asked a cultural mentor Joyce about her belief that God will always give you the desires of your heart eventually, if you are patient – What if he doesn’t? Do you lose faith in him? She replied, “Well, God is still God, Tamie, He can do whatever he wants!” The confidence with which Tanzanians pray and invoke God’s name does not necessarily indicate a view that you can manipulate God, though that is how it is often interpreted by westerners.
One thing I love about church in Tanzania is being exposed to this very different way of theologising, and having the opportunity to see its sophistication, and how poignantly it addresses the concerns of the culture it’s in.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.