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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Of Saints, Ancestors, and a Great Cloud of Witnesses

Written by: on June 7, 2018

I grew up in a Catholic parish with quite a few Japanese neighbors. That means my neighborhood looked a little bit like this:

I loved it, but really all I learned about the statues and shrines is that they were ‘wrong’ because they meant the people inside ‘worshipped’ someone other than Jesus. I wish I could go back and tell my childhood self that, as we suspected, it’s all a bit more complex than that.

I didn’t know much about the veneration of saints or ancestors; I only knew that the people who had yards like this put a lot of time and money into creating these mini sanctuaries. I thought they were beautiful, but that’s it.

 

About 8 years ago, we had an international student from China live with us for a year and a half. She talked a little about how important ancestors were to her family and culture. I asked her to tell me why she felt this connection was so important in her culture. She said, “It’s like the way you would love your grandmother and ask her to take care of you. I do that with my ancestors. I honor those who are alive, but the ones who have died are more honorable because they have finished this life.” I thought then about how I had learned from my Catholic students about the similar way they venerate Mary and the saints.

 

In my family, heritage has a significant place of honor. My brothers and I were fortunate enough to know our great-grandparents, as were our children. If things continue to go well, my grandchildren will know their great-grandparents (on my side, anyway) as well. For generations, we have worked hard to keep the cords of heritage strongly intertwined with our faith. Even though our traditions have diverged, every generation has known Christ. We are truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, past and present. We honor our ancestors because of the legacy they have given us. I will admit, though, there are times I find myself looking at pictures of my grandmothers and asking them to pray for me, to lend me their strength. Is this veneration? Maybe. But if you told me that I would need to walk away from my family to follow the “truth,” I have a pretty good idea how I would respond.

 

In Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up, Simon Chan addresses the ways in which veneration of ancestors and family honor systems have been and must continue to be taken into consideration. I struggled with the assumption that becoming a part of the Family of God seems to many to mean that we must leave behind our earthly families. “The new community created by the Spirit at the very least distinguishes itself from the social and familial bonds that have shaped Asian religions for millennia. Frequently it detaches the Christians from their kin and loosens familial and social bonds.”[1] My first response to this was confusion as to how this idea squares with this: “Thus in Asia religion blends seamlessly with family and social life. This close relationship between religion and family reflects the value that Asians place on traditional family structure and corporate life.”[2] How does a faith that pulls people away from their families work contextually in a culture where the relationship between family and religion is traditionally extremely close? I’m not naïve. I know that adherence to Christ can mean leaving behind things that we value culturally and socially. In my own family, I am the “black sheep” because I have stepped away from the right-leaning evangelicalism of my immediate family to embrace a type of social gospel that more closely resembles that of my grandmothers. But that is nothing like leaving behind the deep traditional faiths found in these Asian cultures. For me, that would be more like converting to Islam or Buddhism, leaving Christ completely behind, abandoning the family gatherings that we hold on Easter, baby dedications, and possibly Christmas.

 

Chan does address those parts of Asian Christianity that seek to hold on to traditions while living in a new faith community. My thought at first was that those like the JICM who ascribe to what Chan calls a “postmortem theory of salvation,”[3] are grasping at ways to remain balanced between their old and new lives. That may be true, but it also got me to thinking about why our (white) Protestant culture in the United States would likely struggle to accept anything like ancestor veneration…we don’t honor our elderly, so why would we honor our ancestors.

 

I specifically call out white Protestants here because I have witnessed that those in the African American and Native American communities to which I have been exposed have a deep respect for their elders and those who have passed. (I do not know enough about the general Catholic community to speak to their honor of elders as a whole.) Even with the deep attachment I feel to my own ancestors, I realize that I have not always afforded them the respect and dignity worthy of them. Our culture honors the new, the beautiful, and the young. Our fear of aging and inability to talk about death cause us to feel discomfort when we look at and hear from our elders.

 

Okay, I may have stepped up on my soapbox there, but I think there is something crucial for us to learn from the way Asian cultures honor their elders and their ancestors. There is something important for our faith to be found in the way Asian cultures honor each phase of life, even death. Chan’s thesis that Asian theology is best found among the grassroots Christians tells us that perhaps those of us who are interested in spreading the gospel in Asian cultures have as much to learn from their cultures as they have to learn from our Christ. Chan said, “The gospel must be contextualized, but it must remain prophetic.”[4] Maybe part of the prophetic is allowing the way God is already at work in cultures (i.e. wholistic health and peace with life stages) to speak to the damaging parts of our cultural contexts. Or who knows, maybe it’s not so weird to ask our grandparents to pray for our strength. Mine were always closer to God than the rest of us. I’m pretty sure that didn’t change when they died.

 

 

 

[1] Chan, Simon. Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.) Kindle Edition., p. 163.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Chan, 174.

[4] Chan, 11.

About the Author

Kristin Hamilton

16 responses to “Of Saints, Ancestors, and a Great Cloud of Witnesses”

  1. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Kristin, I agree with so much here. Most Asian countries do not have “old folks homes” for people who are healthy, just old.

    Some Chinese Christian friends really struggle with this. When parents die, Buddhist siblings pressure their Christian siblings to spend thousands of dollars on purchasing items to be burned at the temple to provide wealth in the afterlife. To refuse to do so is a very shameful thing in the eyes of the entire community.

    In most places in Asia, having grey hair and wrinkles gives you status.

    The interesting exception is South Korea. South Koreans have been so influenced by the West that many median adults are doing very well financially, but they are adopting Western materialism and spending their money on themselves.

    Many senior adults in South Korea are disconnected to their better educated, more affluent, Westernized adult children.

    https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/poor-and-on-their-own-south-korea-s-elderly-who-will–work-until-8577758

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I noticed the South Korean exception among some of my students, Stu. One in particular told me that her grandmother died from suicide because she was getting some illnesses associated with old age and, since the society no longer valued elder advice, she didn’t want to be a burden. Heart-breaking!

  2. Mary says:

    Kristin, we definitely need more respect for our elders. Something else you touched on, “Maybe part of the prophetic is allowing the way God is already at work in cultures” touched me too. How many Westerners really believe that God is at work in other cultures as much as here? How many would be surprised to find out that Christianity is growing faster in other parts of the world?
    As to ancestor veneration – I talk to saints all the time. You already pointed out that we have the writing mental illness. When I post stories on my blog about Amy Carmichael or Irene Ferrel or Pandita Ramabai I often look up and talk to them. I tell them how much I admire them and am looking forward to going to heaven where I have forever to talk to the many thousands of faithful women there, some of whom gave their lives for the gospel.
    Guess I’m certifiable.
    I love the pictures you shared!

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Mary, I love that you talk to the saints, especially the women who have paved our way! I’m glad we are certifiable together. 😀

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Hi Kristen,

    I love that you drew attention to the ancestors and culture of the Asian community. Although in our culture, you took care of your elders, the elders did not want to become a burden. My grandmother was adamant about going to the nursing home. She told us which one she was going to. But there are families who turn away from helping their parents. Nursing homes have made it convenient for families to put their loved ones away. They don’t even visit them. This upcoming generation, most have not respect or love for family. We have to pray and teach them that family matters.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      My grandparents went to assisted living as well, Lynda, when they decided living alone was a burden to the family. I completely understand this because it was their choice and we didn’t stop spending time with them or learning from them. But you mention those who lock their elders away and forget them, which is something that breaks my heart. How can we cut ourselves off from our vital family that way?

  4. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Kristin, I liked how you drew the parallels between Asian ancestry and your ancestors. In our culture, we have such low value for our living elderly, much less the deceased. As I age, I’m liking the Asian values more and more. You’ve inspired me to respect my elders more, the living and the deceased. Thank you.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I’m glad, Jen! I’m grateful that my own ancestors valued our history so much that I learned to value it as well.

  5. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Kristin, there are many things the Bruderhof miss about being salt and light in the world, but they do get this right: a love, respect and care for the youngest and oldest among them. As you know, I visited a Bruderhof community for my field research this week. Their strong work ethic means that even the toddlers are “sweeping” and the elders are helping with laundry and placing screws in building projects. Those that simply cannot work are wheeled out to join others for coffee/tea breaks. The elders have young people who care for them, they are deliberately involved in conversations, and are always greeted by everyone. When they pass on, their stories are frequently told, they’re spoken of in present tense (“Elsie loves a good joke”), and murals remind the living community of the others who are now part of the “upper church.” Like the Asian churches, I think we would do well to do a better job of honoring our elders, both living and dead.

    I thought a lot about that today when we invited one of our elders into our SS class to tell us stories about growing up at Englewood in the 30s and 40s. And again when we met after worship to hear stories about the quirky Eva Jones (who handed out stale cookies from her pockets to all the kids) who passed last week.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I would love to hear more about your experience, Katy. It sounds like Bruderhof community carries much of the same ethic as the Amish communities, in terms of respect and inclusion of both young and old. I sometimes wonder if our focus on “retirement” as an end goal creates this idea that people lose their value to society at retirement age and should just wander off to the golf course and then to the ‘home.’

  6. Jim Sabella says:

    Kristin, what a wonderful experience you must have had when the student lived with your family for a year. On the side of the world we live, we tend not to consider the family as the center of life, let alone after-life. But the idea of a long line of family from generation to generation standing together in faith is a powerful image. I am a fourth-generation Pentecostal. I know that doesn’t get me anywhere near heaven, but it does give me a sense of stability in my faith and my understanding of how God works from generation to generation. Family is important. Thanks for another excellent post.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      To be honest, Jim, our time with this student was incredibly difficult, but we learned a lot. She came from a very wealthy family and was not familiar with things like chores, etc. Still, we learned a lot about the culture she comes from.
      You are so right that a lineage and heritage means something. Even though both sets of grandparents transition to the United Methodist Church, they started out with a Wesleyan Holiness tradition and maintained important ties to holiness churches their whole lives. I value it just as you do!

  7. Kristin,
    Thanks for the post.
    Regarding your ‘call out’ of white American Christians and their/our connection to and relationship with our elders.

    I think you were right to site that it is different than other ethnic cultures within America.
    I connected to this piece of the book too. One thing I wondered was if part of this lack of connection has to do with how personal and individual our faith often gets interpreted.

    Now, obviously there is a central element of our faith that is – and has to be – personal. But, and it’s just a thought, but when we take a faith that is intended to be relational at its core and tease out the individual aspects and highlight them over and above the communal relational ones – important elements like family connections & genuine consideration and connection to ‘the great hall of witnesses’ go by the wayside, are minimized and/or forgotten altogether.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I do think that individualism in our culture tends to “take over,” Chip. Somehow we have drifted away from the understanding that part of keeping faith “personal” is having a community surrounding you to help guide the way.

  8. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    WOW!!! Just WOW! this post was so life giving and yet challenged us in a clear and refreshing way! “Our culture honors the new, the beautiful, and the young. Our fear of aging and inability to talk about death cause us to feel discomfort when we look at and hear from our elders.” I will affirm that in the African American culture we do honor our ancestors. We believe that we are standing on their shoulders. Furthermore, I have friends who are of African descent that would take that affirmation a step further. What I find interesting is when I read that we have a great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews I see it as a daily presence, reverence and guiding wisdom that exists as we are fortunate to connect and engage with our ancestors of the faith.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I feel that daily presence as well, Christal. My grandmother’s mom was sick and her dad was pretty distant, so she didn’t have that family heritage the same way my other grandparents had. She told me that she chose people to become her influences and hoped she learned enough from them to pass that along to us. That’s a great reminder that the church must also provide a legacy for those who come after us.

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