I had recently written a blog to discuss some of my thoughts around death and dying and living as a missionary in a Buddhist culture. I started the blog stating that I haven’t had much experience dealing with death. Unfortunately, that statement is no longer true.
About a month ago my Thai teacher’s brother—Khruu (teacher) Gung, unexpectedly died.
Khruu Gung had been my Thai teacher for six months prior to my beginning to study with his sister Khruu Naamrin. Khruu Gung is the teacher who painstakingly taught me how to read and write Thai. In those six months as Gung’s student we became dear friends. [Dear friends here essentially means that I poked and teased him constantly regarding anything from his food choices to his singleness (shame on me) and that he quietly sat back as I adamantly professed that I knew more about the Thai alphabet than he…at his funeral his sister introduced me as ‘the student Gung loved’.]
We just *got* each other.
After learning how to read and write with Gung I began studying with his sister Naamrin and have been her diligent student since. While I was no longer studying with Gung, he was still a constant in my life. He was there whenever I went to study and we would spend at least the first hour of my two hour class chatting and arguing about current affairs.
His passing away came as a complete shock.
I was in my last class of the semester getting ready to do my biggest presentation of the year when I got the news. Honestly I thought it was a cruel joke. I swiftly left class and began the process of clarifying information, informing Tracy and changing our plans for the next week.
I was sick to my stomach and felt so alone on the campus… far away from anyone who knew and loved Gung. I gave the worst presentation of my academic career and headed home.
Tracy gives a good description of what came next on her blog, which you can read here, but I want to spend the rest of this blog talking about Gung’s death amid christian theology.
Khruu Naamrin is a fairly new believer. While she has told her students that she is a christian for nearly 10 years now, she just recently encountered God in a real way, was baptized and has really begun to understand the love of God and what being a christian really means. Gung had not.
Though Gung had been evangelized countless times by his well meaning students, Gung never said the prayer or outwardly confessed allegiance to God.
Gung’s death was a double hit for Naamrin. Not only did she lose her brother and best friend, but he is now, in her mind, spending eternity in hell.
Naamrin, looking for consolation, brought this up to many of the christian funeral attendees and she received plenty of the customary, ‘we just have to trust the Lord’ responses with looks of sadness that could be easily read as ‘he’s in hell’.
But, from me (and Tracy) she received something a bit more controversial.
I told Naamrin that I sincerely believe that Gung is with God.
And I do.
No, Gung did not outwardly identify as a christian. If you would have asked him what religion he was—Gung would have said buddhist. And I guess that is as cut and dry as some of us like eternal salvation to be.
Outward Confession of God = Heaven. Any Other Option = Damnation.
I cannot accept this.
As Americans, growing up in a nation built upon christian morals and ethics with the separation of church and state fully in play, it is nearly impossible for us to understand how intertwined religion and culture are in other nations. In Thailand, to be Thai is to be buddhist. These two facts are not separable. When Thai people take the brave step of outwardly professing Jesus, they are, at the same time, loosing status, reputation and relationship. This is a big deal. We Americans can so easily shrug that off and say, ‘it’s worth it for the sake of the gospel’ or ‘Jesus said we would be hated by the world’ and go back to our cushy lives and our religious freedom, but Thai people do not have that luxury.
For this reason, there are many people (not only in Thailand, but all over the world) who hear the gospel, accept the gospel and believe the gospel, but who do not—and may not ever— outwardly identify as christians.
I cannot accept the idea that the cross and all that it represents: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, only covers salvation for those who say a prayer in the allotted amount of time. And if we are to believe that Jesus wants all to be saved and desires that not one of his children perish—why does this free gift expire with our bodies?
The more conversations I have with Western Christians about death and the after life… and the more people I piss off with my ideas… the more I realize that Western salvation theology is really nice and neat… when it stays in the west, but it gets really convoluted when you believe that God wants the WHOLE world to know Him.
God made so many unique people with unique cultures and languages… God’s world is so much bigger than nice, neat, clean Western christianity… and yet, for some reason, we seem to want to make the whole world fit into our neat box.
I believe that Gung is with God.
I believe that when he died, he saw Jesus. I know that Gung knew the gospel and I believe that when he saw Jesus face to face, that he fell to his knees and repented.
And I guess, from there… Jesus gets to decide whether or not Gung performed the scared ritual in time…
I’m sure this blog post has ruffled a few feathers. I know it’s uncomfortable to talk about things like this. You can write me off as a heretic or just assume that I’m not thinking straight because I’m grieving.
But in the end, what I desire to communicate, is that I can not be the judge of ones salvation. And if I am asked to make that decision, I will always lean on grace and will always believe they are with God.