Drawing Beauty and Decency From Loss
by Krista Tippett, host
I like to say that what we do with this public radio program, one conversation at a time, is trace the intersection of grand religious ideas and human experience — theology and real life. Kate Braestrup embodies this exercise, this adventure.
I discovered her beautiful memoir, Here if You Need Me, somewhat by chance and encountered a bracing wisdom and beauty that are more than borne out in conversation with her.
Little in Kate Braestrup’s early life pointed to the vocation she has now. She grew up the daughter of a war correspondent for The New York Times, living all over the world. She became, first, a writer. But after she married her husband, Drew Griffith, they moved to a small coastal town in Maine, had four children in eight years, and found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism.
Drew became a state trooper and was preparing to train for a second career as a chaplain to law enforcement officers. Then one day in 1996, he died suddenly in an accident in his squad car. Within a year, Kate had enrolled at Bangor Theological Seminary in his stead.
Kate Braestrup tells a story in her book — a prism of her theology, really — about the day her husband died. She had just gotten the news, and her best friend was with her. The doorbell rang and her friend answered. There on the doorstep was a young man “clad in a spiffy dark suit” holding out a pamphlet. “Have you heard the Good News?” he asked, at which the door was closed in his face. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was an elderly neighbor, pot holders and a pan of brownies in her hands, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“That pan of brownies was the leading edge of a tsunami of food that came to my children and me, a wave that did not recede for many months after Drew’s death. … I did not know that my house would be cleaned and the laundry done, that I would have embraces and listening ears, that I would not be abandoned to do the labor of mourning alone. All I knew was that my neighbor was standing on the front stoop with her brownies and her tears: she was the Good News.”
Recounting story after story from the work she does now, Kate Braestrup finds the “Good News” — God if you will, love incarnate — in casseroles, in impromptu search parties, in the law enforcement officers who put themselves in the position hour by hour, day by day, to be there and be of service precisely in the midst of danger and disaster they cannot make right again.
From the human dramas in which she becomes implicated, Kate Braestrup gleans and shares insight into the raw processes of human grief and healing — the fact that waiting for news of a missing person is “aching physical labor” the way in which the officer who has just discovered a young woman’s body in the woods becomes “acutely aware of the feel of ordinary ground under the soles of his boots”; the simple, stunning, recurring experience that human beings are equipped, preparing unconsciously in all we do, to deal with unimaginable loss. These losses are final, and yet they have a power to draw beauty and decency into relief, to be tended and redeemed on some level, by the practical care — the human concern — that arises to meet them.
Kate Braestrup makes me think of the formation of Dorothy Day, the 20th-century Catholic social reformer and activist. She was galvanized to create practical everyday communities of care by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which she experienced as an eight-year-old girl living in nearby Oakland. She stood on the street watching for days as the people of Oakland helped each other and helped the people of San Francisco who were coming across the bay in boats. She wondered: Why can’t we live this way, treat each other this way, all the time?
After cataclysmic events both natural and man-made, accounts of courage and help accompany the news of tragedy. Yet they are reported as extraordinary and rarely followed up. Kate Braestrup suggests that this human instinct and capacity to care is more normal, and more reliable, than we imagine.
Among her many bracing reformulations of basic truth, Kate Braestrup notes that we only use the word “miracle” when improbable events go our way. But she inhabits a world where improbable things go wrong, go badly, all the time — and so do the rest of us. Her Unitarian Universalist sensibility is reflected in her sense that Christianity has spent too much time focusing on death as a problem to be solved. This is our culture’s instinct, certainly; and yet as it turns, notions like “solution” and “resolution” are meaningless at the “hinges” of our lives.
Of the deepest lessons she draws from her work in the wilds of Maine, Kate Braestrup writes this: “Sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”
How We Wait
by Peter A. Friedrichs, guest contributor
Awaiting Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee at Disneyland. (photo: huffmans/Flickr)
Advent is a time of waiting. For Christians, it’s a time of waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. For others, Advent is a time of waiting for a hoped-for future, waiting for the time of bleakness to pass and for new joy to arrive.
We spend a lot of our time waiting for a “hoped-for” future. Waiting for the arrival of our own newborn child. Waiting to get that promotion at work. Waiting in line at the checkout counter. Waiting for the light to change. One writer I know said, after returning from a recent trip to Disneyland, that she realized that an amusement park is 10 percent thrills and 90 percent walking and waiting. “I realized,” she writes, “that that same equation works for most of life … including Christmas. So one of life’s greater challenges is to enjoy the 90 percent.”
We can wait with eager anticipation, like a child who can’t get to sleep on Christmas Eve. We can wait with boredom, allowing our mind to wander and even forgetting what we’re waiting for. We can also wait with frustration, like the driver who honks his horn at the car ahead of him because the light turned green two whole seconds ago. We also can wait with supreme patience. There’s a reason we call that “the patience of a saint.” It’s very hard to achieve and sustain. How we wait says a lot about who we are.
While it’s good to look ahead to some hoped-for event, there’s a danger in all this waiting, too. The danger is that, in waiting, we become so “future-focused” that we forget the gifts of the present moment. We overlook what we have in anticipation of receiving what we want. And then there’s the danger of disappointment. When we pin our hopes on a wish or a dream, we can be crushed if it doesn’t come true.
In the spirit of the season, Simon John Barlow, a British Unitarian minister, urges us to wait for a particular gift in a particular way: “Prepare the way to welcome your inner-Christ child — the being of love and light, the spark of holiness that lies deep in us all. Seek the signs of hope and promise in your life and the world around you — the stars that point the way to the Light of God. Make your way to the stable of peace and acceptance in the secret depths of your heart.”
In this season of Advent, I wish you good waiting. Waiting that allows your hearts to soar to a longed-for future and your feet to stay planted in the goodness and gladness of today. May this season bring you joy in your present, in your presents, and by and through your presence.
Reverend Friedrichs is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Media, Pennsylvania. After working as an attorney for nearly 20 years, he followed his call to ministry and was ordained in 2006. You can listen to his sermons on his congregation’s website.
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Unitarian Universalists in Focus
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Earlier this summer, Unitarian Universalists convened in Minneapolis, Minnesota for their General Assembly. The “GA” is an annual event where UUs gather for worship, learning, and fun. We showed up with a video camera in tow to pose a few questions to roughly a dozen “UUs” on the very first night of their gathering:
- What’s a UU?
- Why did you decide to attend this year’s General Assembly?
- How did you become a UU?
We’ve posted shorter video excerpts of people’s candid responses here and here. Now, for the first time, you can watch the fully produced 8-1/2 minute extended remix version that includes all three questions, plus a few other surprises.
How Did You Become a Unitarian Universalist?
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Following up on last week’s video post, here’s a 3½-minute video snack where a mix of UUs explain how they came to this tradition. Listening to these voices, it’s clear that each person’s journey is unique and doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path. Some arrived through predictable channels — friends, marriage, family — while others had more surprising stories — and why they decided to stay.
Later this week we’ll be posting a longer-form piece that caps this video series of interviews from the Unitarian Universalist 2010 General Assembly. And, next week, a video showcasing a sped-up procession of beautiful quilted banners for the opening day festivities!
What Is a Unitarian Universalist?
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Thousands of Unitarian Universalists recently descended upon Minneapolis for their General Assembly, an annual event where “UUs” tend to a mix of congregational business, learning, worship, and fun.
On the first evening of festivities, we put several questions to about a dozen attendees:
- What’s a Unitarian Universalist, based on your lived experience?
- How did you come to this tradition?
- Why are you here?
We thought we’d change up our usual, straight-forward approach to video editing for this two-minute segment featured here. We’ll be posting a longer version of this footage next week, including a procession of UUs carrying stunning, hand-crafted banners representing their home congregations — from Bismarck/Mandan, North Dakota to Brooklyn, New York.
Producing “Presence in the Wild”
by Colleen Scheck, producer
I love this week’s program with Kate Braestrup, chaplain to the game warden service in Maine. Simply, her practical theology just makes sense to me — a daily translation of spirituality into caring, useful, deliberate action. And I’m glad we were able to add a Unitarian Universalist voice to the many diverse religious perspectives we delve into, just in the way we like to, exploring that perspective through a person’s “lived theology” (Krista Tippett phrase).
This was one of our programs that came together randomly and quickly. Krista saw a reference to Braestrup’s memoir a few months back, and she was curious about her story and her journey to Unitarian Universalism. We got a copy of the book, and as I read it I was immediately absorbed by its reality and humor, and by Braestrup’s wisdom, searching, compassion, and gutsy movement between grief and hope.
We booked the interview, grateful that our guest was willing to drive almost two hours from her small coastal hometown to Portland, Maine, so we could record her conversation with Krista via ISDN (the best broadcast-quality audio connection possible). Right after the interview, we decided it would be a good balance to the other voices, viewpoints, and topics we’ve done in recent weeks, so we front-burnered it into production. You’ve perhaps read other producers’ accounts of how some shows take time to find the right voice or precise approach, brewing like sun tea to get the best flavor. Others are like good espresso — best when ground fresh and served immediately. To me, Kate Braestrup is like that fine espresso, giving me a jolt of optimism and inspiration. (Full disclosure: I don’t drink coffee, but I was a barista for a short time).
We edited, wrote, listened, edited again, tossed around titles, planned content for the Web site. Mitch took cues from the interview and laid in Cole Porter music, but he wouldn’t give in to the “Sweet Home Alabama” reference near the end. And we laughed questioningly at Kate Braestrup’s description of a t-shirt one cop wore in a D.C. bar crammed with law enforcement officers — words I’m sure have never before been uttered on a Speaking of Faith program. Not suitable for radio, so you’ll have to listen to the unedited interview to hear them.
I exit this program with a new appreciation for the work of law enforcement officers of all kinds who are theologians in their own way, as Braestrup describes:
“Law enforcement officers, like all human beings, are presented with grand questions about life’s meaning and purpose. They consider the problem of evil, the suffering of innocents, the relationships between justice and mercy, power and responsiblity, spirit and flesh. They ponder the impenetrable mystery of death. Cops, in short, think about the same theological issues seminary students research, discuss, argue, and write papers about, but a cop’s work lends immediacy and urgency to such questions. Apart from my familiarity with and affinity for police culture, I was sure working with cops would take me right up to where the theological rubber meets the road.”