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Ask Pastor Paul: Can I Offer Words From My Pagan Tradition at My Christian Mother's Memorial Service?

01/31/2012 12:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2012

Ask Pastor Paul Paul: Spiritual Advice for the Real World.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to askpastorpaul@huffingtonpost.com.

Dear Pastor Paul,

My mother died recently and we held a memorial service for her in a Christian church. I am an adherent of Asatru, which is characterized by some as "Germanic neo-paganism."

I would have liked to say a few words from my faith at the ceremony, but I felt that since the overwhelming majority of attendees would be conservative Christians, there would be hostility to hearing such a message. In the end I felt that the confusion and anger generated would be counter to the spirit of the gathering, so I opted not to speak. I performed my own ceremony later that evening at my mother's gravesite.

However, she was MY mother so I feel I would have been within my rights to say something. I imagine this type of thing comes up frequently with other pagan faiths, like Wicca. What is the purpose of the funeral -- to respect the harmony of the majority or to allow each individual to grieve in the manner that best fits them?

Dear Friend,

Your question reveals a fine sensitivity. You say memorial service rather than funeral, which is an important distinction. A funeral service is often a sacred rite within a specific tradition that has strict guidelines and probably will not have room for additions from an outside faith. Memorial services, on the other hand, can be more flexible in their effort to honor the life of the one who died, as well as console the living.

As her son, it would have been appropriate for you to honor her in the memorial service with a reading or blessing from your own tradition, especially if the blessing or prayer you offered was worded in such a way as to benefit the entire gathering.

This is not just a question of pagan beliefs. More than one tradition is often represented at major life events, such as a weddings or memorial services. The important rule is to have the different readings and rituals compliment one another rather than compete; and participants should never use these settings to teach or preach their beliefs. This requires a deft approach by the person planning the service and willingness on all parts to accept the spiritual diversity of those present.

In the end, the approach you took was admirable. You put the feelings of others before your own and demonstrated that your mother raised a fine son.

* * *

Dear Pastor Paul,

I grew up as a Methodist minister's son. As a kid I really liked the story of Jesus confounding the religious leaders in the temple with his questions because I had questions too.

I came upon a real conundrum with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. When I looked around at all the "Christians" they didn't seem to follow much of what he said at all. How many were selling what they owned and giving it to the poor, how many would really love their enemies and turn the other cheek, how many would forgo praying loudly in public to be seen by others as opposed to what Jesus said about keeping it private unlike the "hypocrites"? It seemed to me then, and even more so now, that most "Christians" either had never read The Sermon on the Mount or didn't really believe it applied to them.

So I began to lose faith in the whole thing. While I was deeply moved by the words of Jesus, the church didn't seem to think that was enough so they created Super Jesus. Born of a virgin, able to perform all sorts of magic tricks, even able to overcome death -- which I still believe, but only in the sense that we still remember him. It's hard for me to see the sense in this as I thought his remarkable words and thoughts were enough.

So I find myself now approaching 60 as an atheist. My dilemma is that research shows that folks who believe in God tend to be happier. Do you think I should try to overcome my belief that most of religion is delusional and try to believe in things that might make me a happier soul?

Dear Friend,

As the sociologist Robert Putnam summarizes in his fine book "American Grace," the research* on happiness shows that it is participation in a community with regularity that leads to happiness, more so than any one religious or spiritual belief. So, while I understand the desire to be "a happier soul" I am pretty sure that willfully quashing your own feelings won't get you there.

That said, the fact that you are still asking the questions means that there remains a tug at your soul. Many people in the pews of churches (and synagogues and other houses of worship) have similar skepticism about the supernatural aspects of faith, and some churches such as the Unitarian Universalists welcome atheists who wish to be part of a community of people from many religious backgrounds. Likewise, many people wish the church would practice more what Jesus preached and are committing collective time and energy to living out the mandates of the Sermon on the Mount.

Your journey of questioning that led you to leave the church does not have to end with you standing outside the doors with a wistful gaze through the windows. You may find more kindred spirits than you think if you venture back inside, and your soul may find happiness among them.

Have a spiritual question, ethical dilemma or religious curiosity? Don't be shy! People of all backgrounds, ages and creeds are encouraged to submit questions to askpastorpaul@huffingtonpost.com.

If you are in spiritual or emotional distress, please contact a clergy person or mental health professional who can help you. If you are in crisis, please contact the crisis hotline.

*The published source is Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam, "Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction," American Sociological Review, vol. 75, n. 6 (December 2010): 914-933.