Nobody likes funerals, but I went to a funeral recently which really blessed my heart. Pastor Sakaun is a national pastor here in Cambodia who was led to Christ about 12 years ago by my good friend, Missionary Rodney Ruppel. You can read a bit of Pastor Sakaun's testimony here.
A couple of weeks ago Pastor Sakaun called me and told me that he had just gotten word that his mother had passed away. Of course, I felt sorrow for his loss, but even more so because his pastor (Bro. Ruppel) had just left for the United States for furlough and was not there to encourage him. He told me that the funeral would be the next day, which was a Saturday. I decided to take a van load of our church folks to the funeral to try to encourage this sweet family, and several things really challenged me.
The first thing that moved my heart occurred before we even arrived at the funeral. We had directions to the village, but did not know how to get to the specific house. I had been told to call when we got to the front edge of the village and someone would come out and lead us to the house. Usually it is not hard to find a funeral or wedding in a small village, because of the portable tent that is set up in the road for the event and the monks chanting over a very loud speaker. As this was a Christian funeral, we knew we wouldn't hear the chanting monks, but I thought perhaps we would see the tent. As we pulled up to the village we noticed the area was thick with trees; thus, we did not see the funeral tent. I pulled to the side of the road to call and ask where to go, and suddenly I heard a beautiful sound wafting through the village - the song "I Need Thee Every Hour"! I turned around and looked at our church people and smiled. "I guess we don't need to call after all." We followed the song straight to the funeral!
The second thing that caught my attention was the sermon. Pastor Sakaun had led his mother to Christ several years previously, and now on the occasion of her funeral he was preaching his heart out to the friends, family, and neighbors who had gathered. His sermon was one of the best I have ever heard at a funeral. He preached with incredible clarity and passion. He was preaching comfort to the many Christians who had gathered, but there was a lot more to it than that. He was also declaring God's truth to the many relatives and neighbors who were listening around the edges of the tent and from nearby houses. Due to the loudspeaker up in the tree (which is a staple of all Cambodian weddings and funerals) he was also declaring God's truth to the entire village. He preached about Christ and the cross, sin and salvation, Heaven and Hell. And when the death of a loved one turned the spotlight upon him (as it so often does), he explained to the onlookers exactly why a Christian has hope in their time of distress. Among the many good things that he said were these three Bible-based principles about death:
1. For the Christian, death is sleep.
2. For the Christian, death is gain.
3. For the Christian, death is going to be with Jesus.
As I sat listening to him preach, I was so thankful for the missionary family who had cared enough to reach out to this man's family years ago. Bro. and Mrs. Ruppel left for furlough just a couple of weeks before this funeral, but this man and others have been so well-trained that they were able to put together a challenging and comforting funeral and preach God's Word with love and compassion.
The final thing I want to share about this funeral is the stark contrast between Buddhism and Christianity that was so clearly displayed at this funeral. Many of the family members of the deceased are not Christians. After Pastor Sakaun's mother passed, he and his siblings sat down and worked out a plan: Sakaun wanted to have a Christian funeral for his Christian mother, and the other siblings wanted to have the traditional Buddhist funeral since that is their custom. Pastor Sakaun told them that he would have a Christian funeral in the early afternoon and after that they could do what they wanted. When we went to the funeral, all of the Buddhist components had already been prepared for the ceremony that would be held later that day. Colorful murals depicting scenes from the life of Buddha had been hung on the walls of the tent. While Pastor Sakaun was preaching, standing in front of those murals, it was almost like an object lesson of the comparison between simple faith in an unseen God and complicated faith in a religious system. Outside of the tent was the customary structure where the casket was to be placed for cremation. When a person dies in a Buddhist family, they rent one of these 15 or 20 foot-tall structures which looks kind of like a boxy pyramid with lots of colorful flags and decorations all over it. After the service, Pastor Sakaun and I stood over by that structure talking and we began to discuss the main difference between the two funerals: the Buddhist funeral is all about the body, while the Christian funeral is all about the soul and spirit.
I praise God for the hope that we have in Christ! And I thank God for the many people in Cambodia who have found this new hope!