Eternity in Their Hearts

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NKJV)

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.

While you were all playing your parlour games on New Year’s Eve, I was in the middle of a very interesting / weird / surreal experience, due to the fact that my wife’s father had died earlier that day. We had been expecting it for some time as his health had been deteriorating, so it was no real surprise, but his death set in motion the 24 hours of a traditional Chinese funeral, which I not only had to attend, but, as a close relative, that meant not just observing it from a distance, but actively participating in it. 

It’s at times like this, when we know it won’t be a Christian funeral, that we need to especially pray to the Lord for guidance as to how we could be the best witness for Him, disapproving of what was happening without offending anyone unduly, and at the same time not offending our Lord, because there were going to be many things taking place that a Christian simply couldn’t go along with.

I’ve always thought of the Chinese as a very intelligent race. They have a great history. Their country is today very prosperous, developed and far more advanced than we are. So we would expect a funeral service to be a fairly sensible, rational affair. Being an atheistic society, we wouldn’t expect any mention of God, so we’d maybe think it would be similar to the sort of humanist funeral services that are becoming popular in the U.K., maybe a eulogy and a few anecdotes about the deceased before he’s finally put to rest. But it was nothing of the kind. 

It was ancestor worship. That has to be the most backward, primitive religion on the face of the earth. When we think of ancestor worship, we think of lost tribes in the Amazon jungle running around with nothing on. We don’t expect an otherwise sophisticated civilisation to be taking up such things. But that’s exactly what they were doing. 

The shaman in charge (that’s probably not what he’s called, but it was the first word that came to mind) had to walk through every room of the house with a lighted piece of paper to cleanse it of evil spirits. All the mirrors in the house had to be covered up with newspaper, so the spirits of our reflections wouldn’t interfere with proceedings. All the pictures were removed from the walls, and the deceased’s clothing had to be collected up to be burned with his body, including the towels he used (as I found out when I visited the bathroom).

Close relatives, of which I was one, were expected to wear a white paper coat with a matching white headband throughout all the ceremonies, which I refused to do. We were subsequently asked, as close relatives, to fall prostrate before the coffin - a posture of worship, - which we also refused to do. Instead, when it was our turn, we simply stood before the coffin, bowed our heads as a mark of respect to the deceased, and walked on. Of course we want to show respect for father, but we’re not going to worship him. And that was the dilemma throughout all the ceremonies - how far can we go, what can we or can’t we do? And we had to trust in the Lord to show us what to do at every stage, because we didn’t know what was going to happen next. Now, looking back, we can say the Lord was so good to us, and upheld us very well in all of this.

We were supposed to light incense, offer food and bow before two altars, one set up in front of his photograph on the kitchen table at home, and another which had been set up in front of the coffin in the crematorium. We were also supposed to go out into the freezing cold at the dead of night to burn fake money in a large incense burner, all of which, again, we refused to do. I probably managed to get away with my lack of participation, because I was simply regarded as an ignorant Westerner, who didn’t understand the finer points of such practices. But just imagine what it would be like for someone brought up in such a culture and then becoming a Christian. They wouldn’t be able to do any of this any more, and so would most likely be given a very hard time from their families.

And then at the stroke of midnight, as in all the best horror movies, came the traditional coffin-opening ceremony. As it was opened, the shaman took a large swig of Chinese spirits and sprayed it all over the body. The close relatives were then supposed to proceed round the coffin wailing. At this point I successfully managed to slip away from the family and step back to blend in with the onlookers, so hopefully nobody could spot I wasn’t actually doing any of this. People in white paper coats wailing around an open coffin at midnight is not only irrational, it’s downright evil. Superstition comes straight from the devil.

We then had to return to the crematorium very early in the morning for the final ceremony, because the burning of the body must be finished before daylight. As the coffin was transferred to the cremation hall, we had to form a procession behind it, with the eldest son walking in front with a big round red thing on a stick with bells on (sorry, I don’t know the technical term for this device) to ward off any evil spirits as we moved forward. There was a simple ten-minute ceremony which included a brief eulogy, then, two hours later, we were called to the collection window to receive the box with the deceased’s ashes in it (together with the bill), and we again had to form a procession behind it. This time the box of ashes was carried on poles on the shoulders of carriers (think ark of the covenant), still following the big round red thing on a stick (with bells on), together with two out-of-tune saxophonists and a couple of drummers accompanying us to the car park. A minibus then took us to the cemetery.

The box of ashes was placed in the grave, where more incense and fake money was burned, and food offered. Once people started dispersing, my wife and I simply stood before the grave, bowed our heads saying silent prayers (not for the dead, you understand), just to be some kind of witness that we wanted to respect the deceased, but couldn’t possibly go along with all the nonsense we’d just witnessed. Then everybody went to a restaurant for a slap-up meal, like one does after a jolly good funeral. I was so exhausted at being up all night, I had to go to bed with a terrible headache, so I missed that - probably the only part of the whole proceedings I could have fully participated in. And, no, it wouldn’t have worried me whether the food had been offered to idols or not:

1 Timothy 4:4-5

For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.

I couldn’t believe the ignorance and superstition of it all. These were otherwise intelligent, sensible people:

Ephesians 2:12

...having no hope, and without God in the world....

These poor wretches are in desperate darkness:

2 Corinthians 4:4

In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

1 John 5:19

And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.

They wail and sorrow as those that have no hope at all, which indeed they haven’t:

1 Thessalonians 4:13

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.

It’s so good to know that as Christians we have been saved from all of this and brought into the glorious light of the truth:

Colossians 1:13

Who [God] hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son....

1 Peter 1:18-19

Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot....

Our witness must surely be to show others that light - the only light there is in this world, Jesus Christ:

John 8:12

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

John 3:19-21

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

Most of us came down with the flu after the funeral, thanks to being up all night in sub-zero temperatures. But some believe their illness was due to father’s spirit who, like a bogeyman, has come to get them for all the things they now regret saying, doing or not doing for him in the past. You can’t talk sense to any of them about this. They’re now thoroughly in bondage to performing all the prescribed ceremonies, in order to placate him. What a life!

The Chinese government recently celebrated its seventieth anniversary. Atheism is taught in every school. Yet even after seventy years, it hasn’t managed to re-educate its citizens to reject such superstition. It doesn’t seem to be able to do so. It was banned during the Cultural Revolution, along with every other religion, but when those restrictions were lifted, it all flooded back. So instead, the government now allows it to happen under the auspices of it merely being Chinese “culture,” a long held tradition, which makes it acceptable to them.

We are eternal beings. There is an emptiness in everyone’s heart, a sense of our eternity, which people try to silence, but they can’t do it. We must embrace some kind of religion, some belief in an afterlife, something spiritual and other-worldly, to try to fill the void. Not even the Chinese government can re-educate a sense of eternity out of its citizens. Mere education can’t do it.

And if atheism drums it into people that religion is irrational, then that great void is going to be particularly programmed to reject any rational religion that comes along, such as Christianity or Islam (Islam is wrong, but it’s at least rational). That flings the door wide open to allow the devil to come in with baser things, irrational, superstitious things. The devil will have a field-day in an emptied soul like that:

Matthew 12:43-45

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.

So, what can we learn from all this?

(1.) We need the Holy Spirit to convert souls. We can’t do it ourselves. Rational argument can’t get rid of irrational religion. We can tell them it’s nonsense, show them clearly why it’s nonsense, explain the gospel in the clearest possible way, and it will be like water off a duck’s back to them. They’ll continue to do what they do for no other reason than it’s our tradition, our forefathers always believed it, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, we’re not going to change now. Only the Holy Spirit can rid a soul of superstition, and fill it with the truth.

(2.) Don’t wait until after somebody dies to regret how we treated them. Treat them well while they’re still alive. And if we do have any regrets - which we always will have if we think hard enough - we can’t do anything about it now, other than to learn to treat those alive around us a lot better.

(3.) There was something utterly incongruous about, on the one hand, a communist flag being draped over the coffin, and on the other, all this spirit worship going on. The two don’t mix, they are mutually exclusive. Yet it didn’t bother anybody. This must be one of the hardest things we have to face when we try to bring the gospel to people. Christianity is exclusive:

John 14:6

I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

1 Timothy 2:5

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus....

Most other religions would also claim exclusivity. Yet there are so many people who are quite happy to believe that all religions lead to God anyway. Thinking that way doesn’t bother them, even though it doesn’t make sense. Again, we need the Holy Spirit to break through to get them to understand things properly.

(4.) Such primitive superstition plays on people’s fears of meeting ghosts and ghoulies in the night. It scares the living daylights out of them, and they become terrified into keeping the rituals and giving all their money to their religious leaders out of terror. Only Jesus Christ can free us from such an awful bondage:

John 8:32

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

(5.) We must be so thankful for the Lord’s goodness to us. But by the grace of God we could have been born into this way of life. And the Lord can even now save anyone out of such things. All we have to do is simply call on Him.

(6.) Our faith is a rational faith, so to be the best witness to everyone around, we must be sober and rational in everything we say and do. If we, under the name “Christian,” start, for example, bowing down to statues of Mary, lighting candles, genuflecting or rolling around on the floor and roaring like a lion, we’ve lost the witness. We’ve become no different from the backward, superstitious, jungle religion I’ve just experienced.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-10

Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.