Deuteronomy 26:14 “I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done everything you commanded me.”
This particular verse seems strange and irrelevant to most Westerners, but that’s not the case in Japan. The phrase that jumped out at me as I read it was, “offered any of it to the dead.” Most Japanese households have a Buddhist altar, and its purpose is very specifically veneration of the dead, which includes offering various foodstuffs. It is considered one of the duties of a good wife to offer a bowl of rice to her husband’s ancestors every day. If you take a gift of fruit or the like to a Japanese family, they are likely to place it on or in front of their Buddhist altar for a while at least, offering it to the ancestors before eating it themselves. Sometimes they forget it, and it has to be thrown out because it’s rotted! The whole matter of veneration of the dead is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and is a major stumbling block for Japanese Christians. Graves are of the utmost importance, and families go regularly to clean around them. With cremation, most graves have the ashes of multiple people in them, so each urn has to be identified in writing. Japanese Buddhism has been described, by multiple Japanese people I know, as a “funeral religion,” or “a religion of death.” That thinking has so permeated the culture that most Japanese churches have an annual memorial service to commemorate church members who have died. This illustrates the whole problem of separating faith from culture. In the West the majority of people are cultural Christians, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are saved. In Japan, the majority of people are cultural Buddhists, while at the same time being cultural Shintoists, even though they may have no personal faith in either religion.
This has been a major issue for me all my life, since I was raised by American Christians in Japan. It has bothered me a great deal to go to Buddhist funerals and see people I knew were Christians offering incense to the deceased person. We have a widow in the church who automatically puts food gifts in front of her husband’s picture as soon as they are given to her (though she has disposed of her Buddhist altar). I have had to deal with how much of my faith is cultural, and how much Japanese culture does or doesn’t interfere with following Christ. It’s easy to say that I leave people’s salvation in God’s hands, but I am charged with leading people to salvation and living as Jesus’ disciples, and that puts me squarely in the middle of this issue. I frankly don’t have definitive answers, which keeps me humble. I am to speak the truth in love, not drawing back for fear of being rejected, but also not projecting that I have all the answers. I need to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit, both in me and in the people to whom I minister.
Father, this is a real headache. Help me rest, relax, and rejoice in You, allowing You to speak Your truth and manifest Your wisdom and love through me, though I certainly can’t do it on my own. May Your truth indeed prevail and set people free, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!