God Squad: Was post-Newtown sermon a misfire?

Q: Upon retirement, my husband and I moved to the sunny South. We began attending services at his family's church. They're quite unlike what we're familiar with, in that the church is conservative and fundamentalist. We agreed to accept this in the interest of family harmony. However, we weren't prepared for the sermon delivered Dec. 23, 2012, just after the school shootings at Connecticut.

First, we heard a brief eulogy for the 26 victims, followed by a 20-minute defense of gun owners and the NRA. While in shock, we looked around and saw that everyone else was nodding in agreement. We're having a hard time sorting this out. Your thoughts? — P., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: Thank you for your question, which, as I read it over and over again, is not really about gun control but about finding a new spiritual home. My first reaction to people thrown into new religious surroundings is perhaps a bit unconventional: I'm happy that you're uncomfortable.

One of the surest ways for our beliefs to become ossified and stale is for them never to be challenged. It's a good thing for you to be confronted with radically different opinions on the ethics of public policy. People such as yourselves who believe in stronger gun control laws have good reasons, but so do those who believe that an armed guard at Sandy Hook Elementary School might have done more to save lives than 1,000 new gun laws.

We need to hear each other, and your experience offers an opportunity to hear and to be heard. I'd suggest you make an appointment to speak with the pastor. He won't agree with you, but if he's caring and wise, he'll listen to you and sensitively respond to your opinions. If instead he's gruff, dismissive or even insulting toward you, you need to abandon family unity for the higher good of finding a church where you can pray in serenity and respect.

I would also strike up conversations with others in the church to see if there really is unanimity of opinion on gun control among parishioners. You may discover the range of opinions is more diverse than the nodding heads led you to believe. I often tell my own congregants that my job is not to tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. I often fail, but the trying is all that matters to me.


Q: In 2000, my wife and I fulfilled the commandment of planting trees in Israel, by hand, alongside you. If a Jewish friend/relative/acquaintance dies, we plant a group of five trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. The recipient family of the departed gets a memorial certificate with our sentiments: "May this serve as a living memorial...."

Everyone seems to appreciate these symbols of memory, and we believe we're enhancing both the land of Israel and the Earth by planting these trees. Now the quandary: A friend dies and the family requests: "In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to XYZ church or a charity that proselytizes heathens."

I don't view living trees the same as cut flowers, nor do I wish to support charities with which I disagree. So what do I do? Contribute to a cause I don't believe in, or hope the family of the deceased will appreciate the living memorial? — S., via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: I've long since washed away the dirt under my fingernails from our planting ceremony, but the beautiful memories of that day remain in my heart. I absolutely agree with you that you need not give to a charity that violates your values or beliefs.

When the family suggests contributions to a charity, as I often do when I conduct funerals, they're merely offering a suggestion, not issuing an inviolable order. I'm certain that your contribution of planted trees in Israel would be received with the generosity of spirit with which you make the contribution.

When my father passed away more than three years ago, many Catholic readers sent me Mass cards in his memory. Although this is technically inappropriate for a deceased Jewish man, I was touched by their kindness and took their gifts as signs of sincere compassion.

If possible, it's indeed preferable to donate to a deceased person's favorite charity, but sometimes that's just not possible. The important thing is to reach out and tell the mourners that they're not alone in their grief, and that even death can be the occasion to support the causes of life, healing and hope.

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