Last Tuesday, mum and I visited Dad”s grave. (He is buried at Western Road Christian Cemetery, Penang.)
The permanent granite structure had not yet been built. We were told we should wait for about a year to allow the earth time to settle.
In the meantime the gardener had planted some flowers on the grave. The flowers were beautiful, tiny flowers of white, blue, red and purple.
I realized, again, that I missed my father very much. His presence/absence is palpable every time I visit the family home in Penang.
I looked up and saw the graves of a number of people I knew. I saw Rev. Hwa Chien’s grave just across the pathway. I went over and stood beside his grave for a while. And realized how much I missed him too. How much he had blessed me.
This is the “Cheng Beng” season in the Chinese religious calendar. (“Cheng Beng” is “Qing Ming” in hokkien Chinese.)
It is that time of the year when the Chinese remember their loved ones who have passed on. Confucius taught that one honoured one’s family even after they had died and not only when they were alive.
So at least once a year one had to visit the graves of family members. During “Cheng Beng”.
It is a time to clean up the grave sites. It is a time to remember the dead. It is a time to commune with them, to assure them that they had not been forgotten.
Indeed such “Cheng Beng” visits were like extended family picnics of the extended family, involving those still alive and those who had passed on. During such visits one would catch up with the dead, give them updates of happenings in the world of the living, and ask their blessings on those still struggling in this mortal plane.
Christians have said no to “Cheng Beng”. There is nothing in Scripture that supports any possibility of communication between the dead and the living. More than that we are taught that God should be our only source of blessing. The dead do not have any quasi-divine powers to affect the living. Beyond that, necromancy is specifically forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).
The bible does teach that we are to love and care for our families. Indeed failure to care for one’s own makes one worse than unbelievers (1Timothy 5:8).
So family piety is a Christian virtue as long as we remember that our ultimate loyalty and obedience is owed only to God. And that we practice a “living” family piety, caring for family as best we can while they are still on this earth.
Therefore we don”t buy into “Cheng Beng” theology as it is popularly practiced by those who follow traditional Chinese religious beliefs. Some of us avoid any sort of “Cheng Beng” observances. Others follow along but just to place flowers, to help with cleaning up the gravesite, and to remember those who have gone on before us.
But as I stood before my father”s grave it struck me that there is great value in remembering the dead. And that here is another instance where we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.
No, we have no justification to talk to the dead and definitely we are not to pray to them.
But we do have clear biblical teaching to remember those who have gone before us.
After listing out saints both famous and not, who have gone on before us, the writer of Hebrews reminds us to be encouraged by their testimony and to press on with our own pilgrimages. (Hebrews 11-12:2)
Later he instructs us to remember the leaders who have passed on so that we can imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
And of course there are the many genealogies scattered throughout Scripture that serve to remind us that we are here only because of those who have gone on before us. And at the very least we owe them gratitude.
Encouragement, imitation, and gratitude, three very good reasons to remember those who have passed on.
No, I am not advocating that we romanticize the dead. They were not perfect. And neither are we. But Christian or not, some did their part in helping us to come into the world. And they all have lessons to teach us. And some of them have lives that powerfully inspire us.
Its not as though we don’t have training in how we should honour the dead. Every time we come before the Lord’s table we remember His crucifixion and death. We remember His life. Of course we also remember His resurrection.
And we are moved to encouragement, imitation and gratitude.
We do so on a different scale when we remember those who have gone on before us.
I think this needs saying since the modern mindset has little patience for history. We are all obsessed with the next big thing. Our eyes are always looking forward. We end up denying ourselves so much that we can learn from those who came before us.
No wonder our lives are often shallow and impoverished.
We need to look backwards as well, at the lessons and the legacies left by those who have passed on. And find some of the encouragement and models we need. And in remembering those who have gone on, and how they have blessed us, to continue to cultivate a heart of gratitude.
So thank you dad. Thank you Chien. Thank you all my dear ones who have passed on.
You have given me so much. You have taught me so much.
And you continue to encourage me to run my race faithfully.
I truly thank God for you all.