Season of memorials recalls connections with ancestors
In April the Chinese celebrated Ching Ming, when ancestors are invited back to Earth. A feast might include tea, wine and five dishes representing the five elements. My mouth waters at the mention of pork, fish, chicken, jai (monk's food), oyster, shrimp and duck as well as rice, oranges and buns with sweet fillings. Paper and spiritual money are also offered.
June is a time when those of Japanese ancestry gather at Buddhist temples for the Obon season. Images of brightly colored happi coats amid the sound of taiko drums tell a similar story of how the living can light the way for the spirits of their ancestors to return. Opportunities are provided to purchase saimin and sushi, offer incense to those family members who have died, and then enjoy the variety of dances around a "yagura" tower.
For some Christians it is easy to dismiss these practices as being pagan and of little value. But I believe it is important to study and understand these celebrations that are oftentimes more cultural than they are religious. When the Rev. Robert Thompson, chaplain of Philips Exeter Academy, N.H., spoke at Punahou chapel, he told of instructing a student to first go and spend time with his father and learn the family religion (it could have been Hindu or Muslim) before deciding to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ.
To me this makes sense. Our parents' and grandparents' legacy includes their religious beliefs, and often all we have are cultural practices that link us to our ancestors. As the world grows smaller, our minds and hearts should expand to be more inclusive and accepting of diversity. This is especially important for those of us who follow Christ.
Conveniently situated between Ching Ming and Obon is Memorial Day, another opportunity to remember the dead. In 1868 the Grand Army of the Republic established Memorial Day as a time to place flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers. In Hawaii the call goes out for plumeria leis to decorate the graves at both the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl and the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe. Today, service in any war is honored.
Does this mean that those who celebrate Memorial Day worship our country and elevate the glorification of war? Is it possible that pacifists or those who seek peace instead of war also celebrate with the same emotions of sadness, pride and appreciation?
Tomorrow, at Waiokeola, we will remember those who died since Memorial Day 2007. Not only will we offer flowers and light candles for those who served our country, but also for members, friends and those who have been inurned in the church's columbarium.
At the Governor's Memorial Day Service Monday at the Hawaii State Veteran's Cemetery, I'll remember my late father, Staff Sgt. Frank H. Eng, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and is buried not far from where the ceremony will take place. While Ching Ming and Obon are cultural practices that sometimes help in remembering the dead, Memorial Day is a time to honor those who have given of their service and some with their lives for our country. When we can reflect on those who will not pass this way again, our lives can be enriched. Let us seize the day by looking to the past to give us a glimpse of the future in order to live in the present. For where would we be without our ancestors, and what kind of freedom would we have except for the sacrifice of those we remember on such a day as this?
The Rev. Christopher K. Eng is pastor of Waiokeola Congregational Church in Kahala.