The God Squad: Who knew hoops could teach spiritual lesson?

Q: I play basketball at a local gym. You pay to belong. Four-on-four pick-up: you win, you keep playing. Certain guys are just horrible, beyond belief; if you get stuck with one of them, you're playing three on four. They have every right to play, yet they drag down the team and you have a long wait to play again. When do the rights of the community come ahead of the individual? These players are not stupid; they know they're harming the greater good. Are they being selfish, or are their rights as important as those of the 'community' as a whole?

— R., via

A: Clergy guys like me seldom get sports questions, but yours touches on the way the values of faith affect other areas of our life. The ethical issue here is clear. You signed up for a particular play format knowing its limitations, so you must bear the consequences. If you don't like it, don't play ball at that gym.

Could you come to the game with three other pre-selected players, like Lebron, Carmelo and Dwane Wade?

Another way to look at this with a more spiritually based ethic is that you're doing a good deed for the lousy players because you're giving them a chance to practice with better players, get some exercise and enjoy the camaraderie. I knew a high school kid who was a great athlete and purposely picked a lousy player first for pick-up games to let the kid feel included.

Remember Jesus' teaching in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:24-25, and Luke 18:24-25): "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a basketball player who cares more about winning than helping some child of God who happens to be a lousy player feel better about himself, to enter the kingdom of God."

(I think I got the quote right, but I'm a rabbi and I'm relying on my memory, which could be a bit off.)

Q: My mother died at home this past June while under hospice care. It was her wish not to go to a hospital. I'll never forget the look on her face the morning after placing her on morphine. She sighed, and with a huge smile said, "No pain" when asked how her night had been. She'd endured terrible pain for months.

At one point, my 11-year-old grandson (her great-grandson) asked me: "Grandma, can't you just give her a pill? They do it for dogs for animals." I explained that it was against the law to take a life. "She doesn't have a disease, she's dying," he answered. With tears in his eyes, he said, "Grandma, there's no cure for dying!" I'm so glad that we chose to ease her pain. Any thoughts?

— J. via

A: Your grandson spoke the truth. There is no cure for dying, and our faith teaches us to recognize when we've passed over the line that divides healing from hospice care. I know many people of faith, and of no faith, who were comforted in the knowledge that they did everything to heal, but when the time came they did nothing to impede the arrival of a peaceful and painless death. May God comfort you.

Q: I e-mailed you a question two years ago and you printed an answer in your column. I drove a New York City taxi for over 20 years, then retired to take care of my wife of 39 years, who was dying of esophageal cancer. Your reply was beautiful and helped me cope with the loss of my wife.

I'm now writing to give you an update on my life. I'm 67, and for the last two years of my wife's life, the volunteer fire/medic unit of the local volunteer ambulance company was at our house at a moment's notice, transporting my wife to various hospitals. When I drove her home each time, they'd come by to help her back in the house and upstairs to bed.

A year ago, I decided to give back to my community and volunteered with the ambulance company as a medic. I took a year of classes and just this week received my certification as an Emergency Medical Technician. I now try to help and comfort other people in need. All the best to you and your family, and have a happy and healthy holiday and new year.

— L., via

A: Thank you for your kind words and may God comfort you the way you now comfort others. Many people who are grieving write to me seeking spiritual counsel, and your letter is a fine example of how tragedy can be turned into an opportunity for service.

The right question is not, "Why has God abandoned me to grief?" but rather, "What does my grief teach me and show me and open for me so that I might use my brokenness to help make other people whole?" What the wonderful people at your local volunteer ambulance service did for you was not so much to lift your wife into her bed, but to lift you out of the loneliness of grief.

Like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 (based on Leviticus 19:18), these good Samaritans were there to remind you that you and your beloved wife were not suffering alone by the side of the road. I encourage others to follow your fine example and shed their burdens by taking on the burdens of others. Sadness converted to service is the best healing I know.

If I fall, I intend to call your ambulance service just so I can meet you!

(Send QUESTIONS ONLY to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or email them to

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