Have you ever seen people wearing those bracelets and tie clips with the letters WWJD? You see those letters on bumper stickers, T-shirts, posters, belt buckles and necklaces. Even Teddy Bears have WWJD. WWJD stands for the first letters in the sentence “What Would Jesus Do”. Now some use them to mean ‘We Want Jack Daniels”, but I am not talking about them. Sincere Christians wish to pattern their lives after Jesus. They wonder, “If Jesus was in my shoes what would he do?” Often we Christians face conflicts in our consciences. We are not always sure what Jesus would do.
In my first year of serving as pastor in TIC, I offered a baptism preparation course. One young woman enrolled for baptism training. She confessed a dilemma that caused her concern. “I want to be a Christian, but when I return home my parents will want me to go to the Buddhist temple to offer the bai bai for our ancestors. What shall I do?” To some the dilemma is simple. Once one becomes a Christian he or she must not attend the temple or perform the family duties of the bai bai. “Just say no”. This brings up a serious matter Christians often leave unaddressed and unmentioned. Once one becomes a Christian, what should he or she do about the bai bai and other family religious practices?
Our Bible presents the story of the Syrian military commander as a man caught in a conflict of conscience. We do not always know what God wants us to do. Difficult moral dilemmas confront us. Now and then, we face crises of conscience. Today I will not present a formula to solve our tensions and answers all of our questions. I will present the story of Naaman as an invitation to explore a range of responses to issues of family loyalty and Taiwanese religious practices. Let us rehearse the story of Naaman the Syrian military commander and the prophet Elisha.
Scene 1 Naaman and the girl in Syria: Concern for Cleansing
Naaman was a warrior, a military commander. He was top brass. He was also an enemy of Israel. He was a powerful man but Naaman had a problem. He suffered from a skin disease. Sometimes life throws us a curve ball. Some flaw, some humiliating or disturbing circumstance catches us right in the prime of life. Cancer, a debilitating illness, or disappointment with our children pokes it head up at the worst time. “Jim, our company is downsizing and I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.” A brain tumor or breast cancer strikes right when you thought you had the world by the tail.
A Jewish slave girl served Naaman’s wife. She wanted her master well. She whispered to her mistress news about the prophet in Samaria. Word reached Naaman. He wanted to try for healing. Sometimes people will go to great extremes to get help. They may even go to the enemy. People try anything in times of illness. Sometimes they’ll try conventional healing methods and sometimes those we deem questionable. They try medical science, but if that doesn’t work they’ll try traditional medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, grass enemas, massages, herbal cures, aromatherapy, magnets and even crystals. Pain and illness drive people who have never prayed before to their knees. Folks send chain emails asking for a million prayers for their child struck by leukemia or spinal bifida. We will do most anything for a remedy that works. Pain and threat of death drive people to desperate measures. Naaman was willing to give this prophet in Israel a try, even if the information came from his slave girl. The king of Syria (Aram) wrote a letter to the king of Israel requesting safe passage for Naaman so that he could seek healing for his leprosy. The Israeli king read the letter with suspicion. He feared the Syrian king was looking to pick a fight.
Scene 2 The King and Elijah: Crisis of Capability
The king of Israel knew he has no power to heal. He sees everything as a threat to his power. Power does not reside in the official kings but in the Word of God. This material serves as a critique of kings. Sometimes people are fascinated and enthralled by the power of the ‘powerful’. People sit glued to the television watching the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Power and fame intoxicated King Herod. Pilate believed that the Empire gave him power. Jesus set him straight. “You would have no power at all unless it was given you by my Father in heaven.” Elisha caught wind of the king’s dilemma and urged the king to allow Naaman’s visit. Elisha said, “…so he will know that there is a prophet in
Israel”. What the king cannot do, God can do.
Scene 3 Naaman and Elisha: Clash of Class and Culture
Naaman arrived with and impressive entourage bearing gold, silver and expensive clothes. These were appropriate gifts for the occasion. He came with pomp and ceremony to wow the backwater Jews. He flaunted his superior status by displaying plumed horses, polished chariots, uniformed soldiers and a wagon full of money and expensive Syrian garments. Elisha remains unimpressed. None of it means a thing to God. It is all outward show. Elisha did not greet him but simply sent word through a servant that he must bathe in the Jordan River seven times.
Naaman’s pride, his class-consciousness kicked in. Elisha’s slight enrages this Five Star general. “I expected the man to work some dramatic hocus pocus, to wave his hands around and heal me.” Then an ethnocentric response manifests. “We have better rivers in Syria than this muddy little Jordan!” He left in a huff. However, his servant, a mere nobody private, urged him to reconsider. “You’ve got nothing to lose…sir.” He reluctantly tries the remedy. He plunged himself seven times in the muddy Jordan. As he emerged the last time, to his amazement he discovered his skin restored to look like that of a young boy! No wrinkles, no scars, and none of those horrid age spots! Best of all the leprosy was gone.
Scene 4 Naaman’ Conversion: Conflict of Conscience
Naaman offered to reward the prophet with exorbitant gifts. Elisha declined all payment. Unlike many faith healers today, the prophet refuses to turn the word of God into something peddled for money. Religion can be an occasion for the crassest financial schemes. Beware of the Health and Wealth Gospel! It is a perversion of true Christianity and biblical faith. (Holy Water from the Jordan, pieces of the cross, blessing plans, pilgrimages, etc.) Naaman acknowledged the LORD God of Israel as the only true God. He declared allegiance to the LORD.
Yet, Naaman’s faith was imperfect. He believed this God must dwell in the land of Israel. He believed that this God is connected with Israeli soil and potent in the land. He requested of Elisha a two-mule load of Israeli earth to haul to Syria. With this soil, he will build an altar to worship on holy ground. Notice the change in Naaman; at first, he disdained the water of the Jordan, now he reveres even the dirt of Israel! Nevertheless, his view borders on magic.
Naaman made an astonishing confession of monotheism. Yet he knows that when he goes Syria he has to work out what his new faith means for him. Naaman has one more request. He has a conflict of conscience: Can he still attend his master’s need and bow down before the Syrian god Rimmon, though he no longer believes in Rimmon? That was his question.
We must all learn how to live out faith. We negotiate our faith in the every day world. Naaman knows that when he returned home he would still serve as the commanding officer in the Syrian military. His king will still require that he bow down to Rimmon, in their local god’s temple. He asks Elisha’s permission to go through the motions of bowing although he no longer believes in this god. Elisha simply states, “Peace be with you”, as a passive approval. Naaman may depart in peace knowing that God understands his dilemma.
There are no moral conflicts in a perfect world. However, we do not live in a conflict free world. Christians often face moral and spiritual dilemmas. Let me offer you a few examples and see if you or someone you know as been caught in such conflicts:
Christianity and ancestor homage in Taiwan
One young woman in our congregation believed on Christ while in her university studies while abroad in the USA. She wrote to her mother explaining her newfound faith and informing her that she planned to receive Christian baptism. A few days later, she received a telephone call from her mother just prior to the scheduled baptism. You can imagine the mother’s distress. Her mother felt her daughter was leaving the family fold. The college student insisted that this was her decision. In the exchange, the mother became increasingly angry and hung up on her. This gave her pause. She wondered if she was doing the right thing. She counseled further with her Christian friends who helped her think through her commitment to Jesus. She decided to go through with the baptism. She spent an additional two years in the USA before returning home. Her conversion to Christianity became a topic that she and her mother avoided in conversation. Upon returning, her mother told her, “Now that you are back you need to go to the rooftop and worship the ancestors at the shrine. Tell them you are here and ask for their help.” She went to the roof with her Bible and sat before the altar. She spoke as though to the ancestors. She informed them, “I have become a Christian. I will no longer pray to you or worship you. Good bye.” Later her mother asked her what she did. She told her mother that she went to the rooftop and informed the ancestors that she was now a Christian and would no longer offer them worship. Her mother acceded to this. Now she still attends bai bai and tomb sweeping with the family to show respect and family solidarity. She prays to God and says Christian prayers of gratitude. Yet she refuses to offer the bai bai in the prescribed way. At first, her grandmother chided her mother for not forcing her daughter to perform the bai bai in accordance with the custom. However, they decided it was OK because she was a woman and not the firstborn son, upon whom the obligation of filial piety rests more firmly. She maintained her Christian witness and through devoted service to her mother, she was able to heal the wound that had developed between them.
Religion and religious practices have ties to custom and culture, to family and even nation. Christians repudiate any form of worship of another god. Many sincere Christians in Asia wrestle to distinguish between Christ and Western Culture and again between culture and custom and religious devotion.
As I stated earlier, I have no final answers. The Bible story of Naaman invites us to make a few distinctions that may prove helpful as we seek as Christians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Phil.2:12-13
Filial piety is strong in Taiwan and in most of Asia. Parents teach children to honor their father and mother. If you recall, the Ten Commandments include one such commandment. Respect and honor for the elders is woven into the fabric of the society here. The custom of bai bai is one way a family reinforces loyalty to kin. Many Asians feel the obligation to honor their parents and grandparents by taking care of them in their illness, and old age. Some give up lucrative careers to care for their family members when duty calls. In Asia filial piety calls for caring even for the ancestors who went before. The bai bai originally was a practice to remember them with gratitude. The ceremony acknowledges the connection to those who went before. Honor is not bad. Respect and gratitude are not evil.
There are Taiwanese Christians who feel duty bound to attend family religious ceremonies like the bai bai, not because they are worshiping the ancestors, but because they wish to show proper deference and respect to their parents, grandparents, siblings and, of course, to their ancestors. They do not believe that it is necessary or obligatory. One man in our congregation told me that he attends and even holds the incense sticks, yet in his heart, he prays to the Lord giving thanks for the ancestors. He honors them but refuses to worship them or seek their assistance. He no longer believes in their immanent presence or ability to respond to requests.
What are we to do? Some dear souls I know have postponed Christian baptism until after their last parent had died in order to show respect and not to offend them. One young man told me that his mother warned him, “If you get baptized I will kill, myself.” He postponed baptism for years to keep family peace. He attended church and demonstrated remarkable filial piety towards his widowed mother. In time, he was baptized. He told me, “I will get baptized, but I might not tell my Mom or it will upset her.” However, on the day of the baptism he told me, “I told my mother last night that I would be baptized today.” “How did it go?” I asked. “Well, she wouldn’t talk to me. But this morning she made me breakfast; I guess it is OK.”
I feel for those caught in this dilemma. In counseling sessions, I listen to a few whose consciences bother them about these issues. They worry about the practice. “My family demands that I go with them to the temple and offer the bai bai. Can a Christian do that?” I may not have the clearest understanding of the issues at stake but here is what I think. I believe that I have the Spirit of the Lord on this matter, too. We may disagree, but let us disagree as brothers and sisters and be open to new light and fresh perspectives. If a dilemma like this has never come your way, I hope that you can at least empathize with our Taiwanese brothers and sisters as they work out their salvation in these matters. Let us show respect and honor those among us who struggle with this.
Christianity does not reject anything or condemn anything unless it is untrue or harmful.
First, Christianity does not reject anything or condemn anything unless it is untrue or harmful. Respect for ancestors is good. We find many passages in the Bible acknowledging ancestors. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!” Notice how the genealogies recorded throughout the Bible connect the people with the ancient fathers and mothers. They may be dead but they still live in our hearts and we hold to their memories fondly. Even a Christian in America will go to a graveside and lay flowers in honor of a loved one. Cultivating memories of our loved ones is a good a decent thing to do. It is not harmful or untrue. Christianity affirms gratitude and remembrance of those who went before. We can sing “Faith of our Fathers living still, in spite of dungeon fire and sword” in a spirit of thankfulness. We can sing, “For all the Saints, who from their labors rest who thee by faith before the world confessed.” with gratitude. Christianity does not reject or curse the ancestors. We are grateful for them. We thank God for them. Taiwanese believers can be thankful for their ancestors who bore the brunt of hard labor to feed, house clothe and carve out an existence for future generations. We plant where they plowed. We reap where they sowed. Filial piety is good. It is not repugnant to God.
Can we help the ancestors?
Over time a good practice can become distorted and add convictions and beliefs that deviate from the original intention. Like barnacles, beliefs and superstitions attach themselves to a customs over the centuries. We inherit those misguided beliefs. As Christians, we must evaluate them according to what we believe God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
However, some approach the bai bai with the belief that the ancestors benefit from our earthly activities. We Christians think that untrue. We do not possess the power to increase or decrease the ancestors’ pleasure or well-being in the next life by activities done by us. Christianity rejects any teaching that holds that the happiness of the departed depends upon the actions of the living. We commit the dead into the loving hands of God who alone holds their ultimate destiny. We entrust them only to God to judge, reward or punish. God is perfectly loving and perfectly just. We cannot benefit the ancestors by our prayers and intercessions, incense burning or food offerings. From our perspective, paper money will not reach them. They do not need it. We can commit them to the God who loves them and will take care of them appropriately.
Can our ancestors help us?
A second misguided belief is that by demonstrating respect by offering incense and burning money or offering food sacrifices the ancestors will be favorably disposed to us and will send us luck and good fortune. Some believers offer prayers to the dead as though they have been elevated to the status of a demigod and are positioned to answer prayers like minor deities. One woman told me, “We pray to them as though they have godlike qualities and can grant answer to our prayers.”
We Christians reject any notion that the dead are elevated to a status of deity. Ancestors do not become demigods nor do they participate in divinity. Ancestors cannot answer our prayers or bring us good luck. To look to the dead as sources of blessing, luck, or good fortune proves untrue, from a Christian perspective. Christianity rejects as untrue the need to seek favors or luck from our ancestors. They cannot help us. We have direct access to the Living God who bids us pray to him. God answers prayers, not the departed dead.
Can our ancestor harm us?
Another notion that developed over the centuries was that if we deprive the ancestors of the necessary respect, food, or money they will become malevolent and return to haunt and harm us. They will strike us with bad luck. Christianity rejects any notion that the dead are able to curse, haunt, torment, or send us ill health or ill will. We should neither worship nor fear the dead. The dead do not become angry nor do they become malevolent spirits to haunt and torment the living. Christianity rejects those ideas as untrue and harmful. To believe that the dead haunt us or can cause us harm is the very form of demonic bondage that Jesus came to break. Jesus shatters the oppression of false belief in controlling spirits that torment the living. Our destiny is not in the hands of the dead, but in the hands of the living Lord Jesus Christ who is for us. He ever lives to make intercession for us. He protects us from evil spirits.
How does Naaman help us process this? As I read the story, I see how a man affirmed the one true God of Israel, and yet lived in a world in which he found it expedient to go through some motions to maintain peace with his master. According to the text, God allowed it.
Now not everyone will sense the conflict. I know some will have a world already divided neatly into black and white and everything is so clear. When I was younger, the world was that way for me too. I knew the answer for everything. However, as I have grown older and ministered to people in six different countries, I began to notice grey areas. I realized that not everything fits into the neat boxes that I had arranged. Sometimes I learned that we had to “march off of our maps”. For example, when Stephanie and I served in Africa we faced a new and growing church there many of whose members and ministers were polygamists. They had come to faith with more than one wife. What do you do? Do we tell them to get rid of all but the first? The prettiest? The favorite? That is not how the church treated the matter. The issue called for great pastoral wisdom and sensitivity.
I learned long ago that when I am safely outside of the conflict it is easy to judge and pontificate, and issue unbending decrees. However, the human condition is not so simple for many people. I like the 1969 song sung by Joe South which as the refrain had, “Walk a mile in my shoes, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”
Perhaps you oppose the sale of beverage alcohol. What if you are against smoking cigarettes? What if you stand opposed to pornography? Opposition to those commodities can be admirable and present a faithful witness in a world of darkness. However, suppose your livelihood depends on a job in a little chain store that decides to stock its shelves with alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and even pornography. You are required to sale those items to willing customers. What would you do? It is possible to lodge a complaint. It is possible to make your convictions public in protest. However, not everyone is stationed in life to do that. It is possible to quit the job, for some people, but not all. Somehow, the Naaman story helps me see that God may indeed be working in us and through us even when we are caught up in conflicting values. People want to survive and keep family peace. How to do that is something that we work out in our own context.
Some principles in summary
So let us hear the words of Elisha. “Go in peace”. Trust in the God who saves heals and delivers. Let us devote ourselves to him with all our hearts, always. Amen.
Let us pray together,
Almighty and eternal God,
So draw our hearts to yourself,
So guide our minds,
so fill our imaginations,
So control our wills,
That we may be wholly yours,
Completely dedicated to you;
Then use us, we pray, as you will,
And always to your glory
and the welfare of your people;
Through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)