A healthy day to look at death


spot the difference (Japanese on the right reads "I am the resurrection and the life"

“The veneration of the dead is perhaps the most prevalent cultural and religious practice in Japan today. It is said to be the single biggest obstacle to evangelism and mission work in Japan.” So said How Chang Chua, an OMFer, at one of our orientation sessions last month. In light of that, it’s interesting that recently at our church, the preacher explained why we shouldn’t worship our ancestors … we’ve never heard preached in the UK!

It’s a difficult issue. In the Bible, God commands us to love, honour and obey our parents (Mk 12:31; Ex 20:12; Eph 6:1). But He also says we should worship Him alone, and not our parents (Ex 20:3-5). In fact, compared to our love for Jesus, our love for our parents should even look like hate (Lk 14:26). But how do we distinguish honour and worship. In the West, it’d be considered normal to visit a parent’s grave, clean it, put some flowers on it. Some people may light a candle or even talk to their dead loved one. They wouldn’t think that they’re worshipping their parents! But doing a very similar thing in Japan would be seen as ancestor worship by many.

So we were full of curiosity on our field trip last week to a graveyard, on the “Health & Sports Day” bank holiday Monday (!). It’s a place where lots of local churches have their own burial plots.

It was interesting to see the obviously Christian tombstones among all the buddhist ones. I was really glad it was so easy to tell the difference! Even if the monuments had been similar, the atmosphere is very different. Japanese buddhism (especially when it comes to dealing with death) has a sombre, serious, dour tone. On the other hand, whilst there is still obviously grief at the loss of a loved one, the Christian view of death is of a joyful hope.

I did see one Japanese family visiting their family grave. Later I saw that the latest date on the tombstone was about 2 years ago. (One of the key times to revisit a buddhist grave is 2 years after the death.) I was surprised that the little party of the 3 family members didn’t seem very dour. I even noticed the occasional smile. But perhaps it’s a reminder that…

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor 4:4)

And apart from the unilateral, gracious work of God shining that light in my heart, I’d be in exactly the same position (2 Cor 4:6).


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