Last night for the first time, I hit a safety boundary while I was out walking. Past the small park I’m so fond of, in a dark part of the street, I saw that I was closing in on a man that looked pretty shabby and was weaving as he walked ahead of me. I was going at a fast clip and as I got close to him, realized he was leaving a trail of alcohol breath in his wake. My first instinct was to try to go past him and then I realized how foolish that would be. I turned around and headed back home, did an extra turn to complete my mileage.
I had been listening to a lively conversation between Krista Tippett and Kate Braestrup. Kate Braestrup is a chaplain with the game wardens of Maine. She wrote a beautiful memoir called There If You Need Me. She quotes Tibetan Buddhism and says that how we live our lives is the way we practice for death; her book gave me a glimpse of what good practice looks like. What I learned from her several years ago helped me walk with my mom all the way to the crematorium and then to the Rio Caldera where we scattered her ashes. I was delighted to find this interview.
Last night, some of what she and Krista Tippett discussed converged with two conversations I’ve had in the past couple of days so what had seemed stagnant and turbid in my mind turned swift and clear and energizing.
In There If You Need Me, Braestrup tells a wrenching story about Christina, a young woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time early one morning and was abducted, raped, and murdered before being buried in the woods. As chaplain, Braestrup was actively involved in the events that unfolded over the next 3 days as a team of law enforcement folks worked feverishly to piece together what had happened, hoping against hope that they would find Christina alive. Braestrup is so elegant and eloquent in her description of the miracle of people who do this work, observing that although they all hope that there will be happy endings and in fact, sometimes there are, many times the best they can do is find the body. Braestrup describes beautifully the willingness of people who have this vocation to do what must be done, even knowing that most of the time they are not “superheroes” in any way, sort or fashion, but rather must confront the worst of evil, and still do their work with love and dedication.
In Christina’s case, this was true. The person in charge of the investigation was a young woman detective named Anna Love (her real name—she changed most of the names of other people she portrayed in her memoir to protect their privacy but got Love’s permission because the name was part of the beauty of the story). Braestrup and Tippett marveled together at the intelligence, intensity and determination of Anna to crack the case, and how remarkable it was that Love pieced it all together so that within three days, the perpetrator was leading her and the rest of the investigation team to the site where he had buried Christina. What made Love’s work so poignant was that all through those three days, she had to stop regularly and find an empty, private space where she could use a breast pump to send bottles of milk home for her newborn child. Braestrup summarized all that in one exquisite sentence: “a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death”.
My friend Robin is discerning how to respond faithfully to the congregation she serves out in the countryside of Ohio, a congregation that, like so many others in the mainline denominations, is in decline. In response, a group of us have been exploring with each other the grace of hospice not only at the individual level but at a collective level as well. Our denominations put superhuman effort into “church revitalization” and celebrate the heroes that turn congregations around. Their work is worth extolling with joy. But I am convinced that the kindness with which Robin is exploring alternatives to that approach bears consideration.
My own ministry has taken an unexpected turn. For those of you who follow this blog with any regularity, you may remember that a several months ago we faced an enormously serious financial crisis of such proportions that I relinquished my salary. Right before Christmas, the story took two unexpected turns and just like that, just like magic, we were back on more solid financial ground. The slogging, painful work of improving our fiscal responsibility and accountability, work that a handful of people had done over the summer, will shape the future of this regional ministry for many years to come. But much more immediately, we very unexpectedly regained much of what had been lost. The two pieces that came together as Christmas approached were more magical in some respects and therefore, more illusory and fleeting.
There was certainly a sense of reaffirmation that this ministry is well worth doing. At the same time, embedded in all the “yeses”, some of them fantastic, some of them remarkable for the commitment and dedication they enfleshed, is also the “unchanged fact of death” at least for me and the ministry I had hoped to facilitate. Pieces of the more innovative aspects of a regional approach to ministry have given way to the practical necessities of survival for the institution I am a part of in this time and this place. Though we will continue to make a difference for a long time to come I think, I am not going to get to do some of the edgy work I had been anticipating with great joy.
I am not one of the superheroes. And I suspect that many, if not most, of the priests and pastors I know, love and respect, don’t get to be superheroes either. A lot of the time, our work will be to carry on, aware that the story will probably not be one about astonishing turn-around and transformation; we will accompany communities through the valley of the shadow of death. What runs swift and clear and true for me today is the certainty that if we practice; in other words, if we live our faith as authentically as possible, if we are mindful and observant and if we make ourselves available (si nos entregamos, as one would say in Spanish), maybe we can be so fortunate as Kate Braestrup and bear witness to the miracle of “the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death”.