What I learned by answering questions
After six years, the author of the “Light for our path” column shares his insights.
James F. Pope
Six years ago, I knew my life was going to change. What I could not envision is how much change there would be.
I was asked to be a new contributing editor for Forward in Christ (FIC)—the person responsible for answering questions each month. My only concern was, “Where do I get the questions to answer?” That question brought significant change to my life.
Backstory to learning
In years past, a group of professors and others responded to the questions submitted to the synod’s website. Past FIC contributing editors selected some of those questions and addressed them—as well as those submitted by FIC readers—in print. But I agreed to be the one person to write the monthly column and respond to the questions online.
Realism suggested that I try to fill that position for one year and then have all parties involved assess the situation. As that first year came to an end, I was encouraged to continue the work for five more years. As of this writing in September (for the December issue), I have written more than 70 columns for the magazine and responded to more than 2,025 online questioners. By far, most of those individuals asked multiple questions, so the total number of questions asked/answered is easily two to three times that.
Answering those questions was a terrific learning experience for me. The current staff of Forward in Christ asked me to share some of the lessons learned.
Lessons learned about the questioners
I learned that WELS members want to be sure of their church’s teachings. “I have a non-WELS Christian friend who spoke to me about Abraham’s bosom as a holding place for the dead before Jesus’ resurrection. What does WELS believe about Abraham’s bosom?” “My wife recently passed away, and she had wanted to be an organ donor when she died. There were a few church members who did not approve of this and would not attend the funeral service. What is the position of WELS on a person being an organ donor upon one’s death?”
I learned that people are interested in witnessing about their faith. “How can I explain to a nondenominational pastor why WELS baptizes infants?” “Most of my friends are Mormon. Is there a way to share the gospel with them so they stay interested in my faith and remain my friends?”
I learned that people desire to apply the message of the Bible to life’s circumstances and challenges. “How do you survive when your 27-year-old son announces he is gay?” “Do we need to give up something for Lent?” “Is there any scriptural basis against cremation?”
I learned that Sunday is a popular day for people to submit questions. “I feel this is a silly question, but today’s sermon talked about Jesus being baptized. Why wasn’t Jesus baptized as an infant?” “I have a takeaway from Bible study this morning that has left me troubled.” “We had the first Bible reading from Acts 1, and in that reading it states . . ..” As a former parish pastor, I get it. Parishioners may not have the time or opportunity to speak to their pastor after church or Bible class.
But there’s another side to it, “I went to my pastor to ask him something, but he said I should contact you.” My role was not to supplant the questioner’s pastor. Many of my answers included an encouragement to contact the local pastor. I am convinced that particular message got through. “I know from other posts the answer is most likely going to be to go talk to your pastor and go to counseling, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.” This questioner was spot on: Talk to your pastor.
I learned that people in other church bodies are also interested in receiving answers to their questions. In fact, 20 percent of the questioners have self-identified as members of non-WELS churches throughout the world or said that they do not have a church home. “I am inquiring into the WELS Lutheran faith. Could you describe what saving faith actually entails?” “I live in the Netherlands and am looking for churches that offer online Bible studies.”
Lessons learned about the answerer
While fielding questions from anonymous people might seem like impersonal work, it is anything but that. How can emotion and concern be absent when people pour out their hearts to you? “Even though I’ve attended a WELS church for 44 years, I have no peace that I will be saved.” “I am a high school student, and lately I have been struggling with my faith. I have been questioning my beliefs and whether or not Christianity is the true religion.” “I know that Jesus died for my sins, but I’m worried that I don’t actually have the Holy Spirit. How do I know?”
Not knowing the questioners does not invalidate the biblical truth: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). I would submit that, because of the anonymity of the questioners and the lack of knowing any outcome of their circumstances, this shared suffering can be greater than that experienced in face-to-face relationships. A fair number of answers included the thought that I would remember the questioner in my prayers. Many responses prompted my prayers. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that even a “digital ministry” can be emotion-filled because it concerns people.
I also learned that many questioners were looking for specific instructions and answers when the real answer was “Christian freedom.” “What is the proper way to display flowers during the Lenten season?” “Where in the Bible does it state that we are to celebrate Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and the Lenten season?” “I was wondering what WELS’ stance was on donating our earthly body to science.”
I learned that I still have a lot to learn. Many a question sent me to my personal library or the Martin Luther College library. “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) is an instruction applicable to every Christian.
Lessons learned by readers
If the questions mentioned here are of interest to you, you can find the answers online at wels.net/questions, as well as answers to many others.
That is the beauty of the Questions & Answers portion of the synod’s website—you can read the questions others have asked. You can learn from their questions and the answers they have received. You can even use these materials for Bible classes, as some churches are doing.
Continuing lessons learned
Six years ago, my challenging journey began. This month’s “Light for our path” column marks the end of my term as a contributing editor for Forward in Christ. I will continue answering online questions for another year and a half. David Scharf will begin his term as author for the Forward in Christ question-and-answer column. That means that there will be more lessons learned for all involved.
And in case you are wondering, yes, I do have my own questions about the Bible and the Christian life. If we meet someday, perhaps the roles will reverse, and I will ask you one of those questions!
Contributing editor James Pope, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 12
Issue: December 2019
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