A Tale of Two Ibadah

Ibadah is the local word for religious ceremony. It’s a word we learned early and use often because the milestones in life on our island are commonly marked with the gathering of friends and neighbors for good food and a traditional ceremony. Each type of ibadah is specific to the circumstance: tujuh bulan (literally “seven months”) marks the seventh month of a pregnancy, and another ibadah follows shortly after the birth of the baby; traditional weddings are more like a series of ibadah involving various parties to the new marriage; and a death means not only the funeral, but ceremonies to mark seven days after death, forty days, one hundred days, and one thousand days. Events like these date back thousands of years and are steeped in the local cultural worldview. They provide a great opportunity for us to carefully and pragmatically participate in community life as language learners and observers.

But there is a fascinating nuance to these ceremonies as well: each ibadah is both cultural and religious at the same time. It reflects the traditional cultural worldview as passed down through the centuries, but also the religious worldview of the present. The two – the cultural and the religious – are so intertwined that the expression of one aspect necessarily reflects the other. A cultural ceremony cannot be merely cultural because the minds of the participants are not merely cultural – they are religious also. And a religious ceremony is never merely religious because the participant is not merely religious, but immersed in a cultural context as well. Here is an example:

In the past few months I received invitations to two events in different neighborhoods, one marking 40 days after the passing of a man in my neighborhood and one marking 1000 days after death of a man whose family attends a nearby church. These post death ibadah are very much particular to this island, rooted deep in the animism of ancient generations. And although the basic animistic, ancestor focused, foundation has long been replaced (or at least overtaken and obscured) by various more recently incorporated religious beliefs, the ceremonies themselves live on with their new faces. I had already observed several of these after death ceremonies in my neighborhood, all with families practicing the majority religion of the island.

The first event I attended, a forty-days ceremony was exactly what I have come to expect based on prior experiences. The neighborhood men filter in and find a spot on the rugs which have been spread out on the floor, and a family member makes an opening statement. Following this, a religious leader begins a prayer chant in Arabic and those who can join in do so. This goes on for a short time before a brief pause, and food is served (usually traditional snacks – various fried foods, fruit, etc.) and another round of prayers begin. When I asked what my neighbors were praying, they told me the prayers were offered in hope that the deceased person would be allowed into heaven. After fifteen to twenty more minutes of praying/chanting, everyone is given a small gift (usually food items or a meal for later) and the house slowly empties.

The second ibadah, a one-thousand-days ceremony, though derived from the same cultural bedrock,  was nothing like I was expecting. For this event I followed a local Christian pastor to the home where members of his church were gathering to remember a fellow believer and former member of the congregation. The event started with songs of praise to the creator. The pastor talked about the man’s love for God and his family, and the faithful testimony that had marked his life. Those who were present were given the chance to reflect on the hope that we have in the one who died for us – an assurance that cannot waiver – and to rejoice with one another at the life well lived and the One who gives life. There was no pleading for heaven, as the pastor explained, because we have a hope in the finished work of Christ who has already paid our debt. Finally we ate together and departed.

As I made my way home, I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. This was the same ceremony, and the two were nothing alike. Two ceremonies, two gatherings of people who share the same national identity and cultural heritage holding the same culture-derived event in incredibly different ways with vastly different themes. The sole difference was the gospel – not a gospel that eliminates the culture but penetrates it and reveals what it can be in the light of Christ. This is the impact the good news can have on a community.

And this is the reason we’re toiling away at language study right now: because hundreds of people groups (that use this national language as a second language) have never been given the opportunity to interact with the gospel. Proficiency in this national language will open up opportunities for us to dig in with one of those groups, learn their distinct language and culture, and eventually allow them to hear the Word of God for themselves in their own language and cultural context – and to glorify God within and through that context in new and exciting ways.

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