Several days a week I go for a short run before breakfast. As I pass the homes, often the first scent that reaches my nose is not bacon or even grilled fish, but incense. Many Japanese—even those who don’t consider themselves religious—have a butsudan, a Buddhist altar. They offer prayers to (or for) family members who have died. They believe that they can both enlist the help of the deceased and help their loved ones continue on to the next life in peace.
Even those who don’t take Buddhist teaching very seriously and may even look with some suspicion on the activities of the local temple or priest are usually careful to look after the butsudan, at least while the memory of the deceased is still fresh in their minds. Prescribed Buddhist rituals at appointed times after the death of a loved one reinforce this dedication to ancestor worship.
Kenjiro* had professed faith in Jesus and was going through baptismal preparation. When we talked about standing up to persecution and opposition, he said his family was not religious and would have no problem with his becoming a Christian.
However, before I had discussed with him how a Christian should deal with the issue of Buddhist funerals, one of his close relatives died. I apologized later for not having prepared him for this and once again emphasized the need to abstain from praying to the ancestors. I loaned him a book about ancestor worship written by a Japanese pastor and asked him to read it so we could discuss it later.
One night a few weeks later the phone rang. Kenjiro said, “I’ve decided I can’t be a Christian. As a member of my family, I have to protect the family grave.” To most Japanese this means continuing to offer incense to the deceased for many years to come.
I believe God is not done with Kenjiro. Please pray for him and many Japanese like him to recognize the difference between being thankful for our ancestors and worshiping them. Pray they’d have the courage to resist ancestor worship, and the wisdom and leading of the Holy Spirit to show appropriate respect to their families in ways that honor the Creator of us all.
By Joel, an OMF missionary
*Name changed for privacy