Q: My question is about heaven, and in particular the belief that we're united in heaven with the souls of our departed relatives. My late wife of 59 years had a father who was a sadistic pedophile. Not only did he destroy her self-confidence but also her idea of marital life. She confided to me that she tolerated sex only because she wanted to be a mother--and she was a great one! I can't imagine that reuniting with him would be her concept of heaven. Any thoughts? -- G., via email@example.com
A: Your question is about hell, not heaven. Although I've never checked MapQuest for the Pearly Gates, I believe that heaven is a place where God gathers in the souls of the righteous, and not a place where the righteous are tormented forever by the souls of their persecutors.
For those who've used their free will to kill their souls and the souls (and bodies) of others, hell is their destination. Hell is not their punishment, but their destiny. They have extinguished the holy spark God placed within us all at birth. You need not worry that your tormented but courageous wife will suffer in heaven the presence of her father. Rather, the image that consoles me most and shapes my hope for what I call The World to Come is from Revelation 21:4, with its first iteration found in Isaiah 25:8:
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away."
I believe that is the heaven where the soul of your dear wife waits for you.
Q: I grew up in the Lutheran church, but left because they were so exclusive. I'm currently a member of an Episcopal church with a beautiful but aging building and a dwindling congregation. Our current priest lacks leadership skills.
We have an endowment that's keeping us going, but the money will run out in about seven years. Church meetings about this issue are not good and I'm fed up with the whole situation. At 78, I don't need this aggravation in my life.
In general, I feel that religious institutions, including many churches in our town, are problematic. Therefore, I'm thinking of leaving the church and becoming, as they say, simply "spiritual," by which I mean following the commandments, helping others and trying to live a good life. However, my wife is worried. She asks me, "What will God think?" Can you help us? -- Anonymous, via firstname.lastname@example.org
A: Listen to your wife! Obviously, I can't speak for God, but I can speak for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who've given their lives to build and sustain communities of faith. The key to understanding your agony is to pray about and think about the role of community in your faith life.
You absolutely do not need a community of faith to live a good life, a compassionate life, a virtuous life. There are wonderful atheists and horrible religious people, and vice versa. However, there is a singular benefit to being a member of a religious community: What God wants us to do here on earth is way too difficult to do alone. This is the reason we come together in faith. We give and receive courage and hope when we pray together and do good works together and study God's word together.
For those who become spiritual loners, this communal support vanishes. The work becomes far too daunting and hope becomes elusive.
Your aging church building is important for the same reason your body is important; it encases and protects your heart. Giving time to sustain that building is critical to sustaining the community that dwells there. In the Bible, when God commands the people to build the tabernacle that held the tablets of the law given to Moses, we read (Exodus 25:8): "Let them make me a sanctuary that I might dwell amongst them." It does not say, "Build me a sanctuary that I might dwell in it," but rather, "amongst them."
God is in the community of believers, not in the bricks and mortar. However, the bricks and mortar provide a holy place for a holy community to gather and build up the faith, hope and love to do holy works in the world.
We live in a perilously individualistic age where any institution that demands sacrifice, compromise and hard work is suspect. I'm a communitarian, not an individualist and that's the message I hear from God. I pray every day that this is the message God intends. Help your priest. Help your church. Help fix your church building and fix the world. Then take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
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