At the beginning of Lent, I invited the participants in our new member/baptism preparation groups to ask any question they had about church or faith, and I would try to answer them as best I could over the course of our meetings. I didn’t get to all of them in the six weeks we spend together, but a commitment is a commitment and I emailed the answers to everyone. It made for the kind of long, burdensome email I almost never write anymore. But they were big, important questions that, I realized, I often spend very little time answering. I’ve reproduced those questions and my answers here (with minor adjustments) in case anyone is interested.
Question: What is “open” versus “closed” communion?
Some churches, notably the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Roman Catholic Church, require agreement on major doctrinal questions to participate in the sacrament. In our church, we understand all Christians to be baptized into Jesus Christ, and we don’t distinguish between people who share our specific views of salvation, for example, and people who do not.
Question: What’s the deal with hell?
I try to tread carefully here, because I don’t like the way people sometimes get terrorized by their religious communities on this topic. It’s also not the clearest topic, in Scripture and theology. So in thinking about it myself, and in talking about it, I tend to start with the experience of separation from God, from other people, and even from myself. That feeling of profound isolation that we may experience when we do something cruel or selfish, or the human consequences of cruelty and selfishness in the world, is where I can start to imagine what “hell” means. Whether this self-separation from God is, as some people say, “eternal and conscious,” I can’t say with any confidence. The church confesses that the grace and the work of Christ saves us from our own tendency to separate ourselves from God, each other, and our own being like that, so I hope that when we glimpse that feeling or that fear, it turns us back toward faith.
Question: What about heaven? What happens when we die?
Here, too, I don’t want to speak with more confidence than I have. In some places the Scriptures imagine a general resurrection at the end of the age. In other places, they seem to suggest that people go to heaven (or hell!) immediately after death. Christian doctrine has tended to blend these ideas. My own view is that God promises the restoration of the creation and life everlasting, and I can only conceive of that in a very limited way. I imagine it as something like stepping across a line, or pivoting through a doorway and seeing everything from a new and redeemed perspective. We get glimpses of it now (just as we get glimpses of what a total and final separation would feel like), in experiences of beauty, in being forgiven, in family and community, but they are only glimpses.
Question: How do we talk about these things with kids?
There the church (the whole, big church, not just our community) is very helpful. The Bible paraphrases we have for kids are good, and the Small Catechism is useful for grade school-age kids. I try to go easy on heaven and hell with kids, preferring to say that we go to be with God when we die, and telling them that God is present all around us. It’s important to cultivate kids’ moral sense, especially around physical and verbal harm (those fifth and eighth commandments in the Catechism), and important to involve them in worship. They like putting their hands in the baptismal font and saying grace and meals and little ritual things like that, which are more important over time than they may seem.
Question: Why is there anything? What’s the meaning of life?
One thing I love about Christianity is that it gives us a thousand ways of saying the same thing in answer to this question, which amounts to: knowing God, enjoying God, being united to God and each other now by faith and charity, and forever by the grace of Jesus Christ. Or, as I tend to put it, the purpose of life is to be conformed to the image of Christ, who has sought us out, served and healed and cared for us, who forgives and loves infinitely.