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Monday, September 22, 2008

RevGalBookPals: Here If You Need Me

Kate Braestrup was having an ordinary day. She got her four kids off to school and her husband Drew went to work as a Maine state trooper. Her life completely changed when, two hours later, Drew was killed in a car accident. A year after that, Kate began her course of study at Bangor Theological Seminary; it had been Drew’s plan that, upon retiring from the state police, he’d become a Unitarian Universalist minister and (on the side) a law enforcement chaplain. To honor Drew, and to feel close to him, Kate took his place.

She became the first chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Her funny, earthy, wise writing describes her ministry in that capacity and her adjustment to the profound changes in her world. She wrote,

If anyone needs proof that God has a sense of humor, here it is:
I am a middle-aged mother of four who works primarily with young, very fit men…
And I, a famously loquacious person, have a job that requires me mostly
to just show up, shut up, and be.

I was drawn to “Here If You Need Me” for several reasons:
  • I’m interested in the intersection of the sacred and the secular, with love and service as the ties that bind.
  • I find honest accounts of other people’s faith lives and ministries fascinating and encouraging…as I suspect may also be true for you, my RevGal friends!
  • People I trust said something like, “OMG—READ THIS!!!”
I’m glad I did; hope you feel the same way! It’s about all the real stuff: faith, love, friendship, life & death, service, honor. She has a lot of warmth and humor, and a few insights that rang so true for me, I actually gasped when I read them (more on this later). I also had a few questions as I went through the book; tell me what you think, or raise an issue that I’ve missed in the comments; I'll check in from time to time!

1. Kate was very clear about how she wanted to care for Drew’s body after his death. Her choices were unconventional, by today’s standards: washing and dressing him herself, with the help of his parents and best friend, and then standing by as he was cremated. What is your take on this, and what have you found to be particularly meaningful, with regard to rituals/prayers around grief and letting go?

2. Kate was something of a lifelong skeptic, where institutional religion is concerned; all the same, she gets to the heart of what most major religions are about in her work: love, faithfulness, generosity, mystery, beauty—especially the beauty of creation. I think her story captures some of what it means to be a religious person in this country, in this time:
  • Being approached with a sort of abashed skepticism on the part of the less-churched
  • A circuitous path into her life’s work
  • A fresh approach to Biblical narrative as an adult; she grew up unchurched
  • An openness to the truths inherent in many different approaches to God

3. Kate and the wardens with whom she works are very in tune with the natural world. Whether religious language is used or not, there’s a sense of awe among them at of creation, and a clear “call” to protect it and the "innocent" from the stupidity/misfortune/occasional malice of a few. These people are up to their necks in reality. Does that provide a kind of groundedness that is less readily available to people whose professions take place in other arenas?

4. I have two favorite insights in the book: the story about real-life evangelism on pages 53-54 (the story of the young pamphleteer and her neighbor’s brownies), and her discussion of miracles that culminates on p. 181 with this observation:

A miracle is not defined by an event. A miracle is defined by gratitude.

What were the moments that moved you or offered an insight you liked, and why?

Thanks for taking part in the discussion; I look forward to hearing what you thought!


  1. I did read this book, and now my mother is reading it. A quick answer to number 1 - I found it interesting what she did. We do wipe our hands clean of this culturally by allowing businesses to take care of it for us. I don't really know when this started though.

    And.. I am not sure if I could do it.
    I will be back, but it will be this evening. Work calls.

  2. At my grandmother's request, we prepared her body for burial. It was profoundly beautiful and meaningful. It was hard and sad. I am sure we were all in shock at the time. Not all of us remember it as well as I do, at least one wishes she hadn't been there.

    To me, it is the right thing to do, for closure and for loving my family, and I would want to do it for my people in the future (unless they disagreed prior).

    Per question three: the wardens are ministering to the people they serve, and their ministry intersects with Kate's in a fascinating way. I loved that about the book.

    I read it a few months ago and returned to library, so I can't address specific passages. But I appreciate the discussion and look forward to more!

  3. I read this book right after finishing my summer CPE and I loved it. As it turned out, it also provided information I needed almost immediately for my personal life.

    When our son died 2+ weeks ago, I would have prepared his body if I could have, but it was done by a funeral home in Chicago without any consultation with us. (Someday perhaps I will address that, but not yet.) I did have to make my wishes very clear about seeing him and accompanying him to the crematorium -- for which I was very grateful to have just finished this book -- and about our wanting all of his ashes to scatter them per his wishes. The funeral director was insistent that we would want to inter them so that we would have a place to visit, but we all knew that that was not the case for us or for him.

    It can be quite difficult when your own knowledge of how to care for yourself and your family goes against the established grain at a time like this. The funeral director was on the whole helpful and cooperative, but it did also help to have our pastor get on the phone with him to provide a firm and uncompromising confirmation of our wishes. I am sorry to say that it probably also helped that I told the funeral director that I had been through a lifetime of family losses and just gone through CPE -- I am not sure that someone less "experienced" would have had as little trouble getting most of what she wanted. Something for pastors to be aware of and sensitive to -- as a culture we know little of the practices surrounding death and may have things "handled" by others or in ways that we would want to attend to personally or otherwise if we only knew. A pastor is in a prime position to help a family make knowledgeable choices that meet their own spiritual desires and needs.

  4. I read this book last year just after it was released and Kate was making the circle of talk shows. I too was very moved by her care for her husband's body. It is what I want to do for my husband when that time comes.

    Gannet Girl offers such wise counsel regarding our "prime positions" as clergy being able to help people pursue what they know they need to do. That "prime position" can have impact while families are caring for ailing and aging loved ones too.

    I too have passed the book on, and so cannot speak to specific passages. I did love her quote about miracles, and the opportunity to look at a very unique and specialized ministry. It is one to which I feel an attraction, especially as I contemplate semi-retirement far down the road!

  5. I hope I did not somehow pre-empt the discussion with my jarring reality. I figured a group of clergywomen would be ok with it. It's ok to go ahead and discuss even the most trivial or most significant things about the book. Please - carry on!

  6. I haven't read this, but now I think I need to :-), thank you for such a wonderful insight into this book.

  7. Gannet Girl- thank you for your contribution, and I am sorry that you were not able to do all that you wished to for your son.

    I ask this next question as a Minister from the UK:

    Almost all of our funerals invole close relatives accompanying their relatives to the Crematorium, in fact some services are conducted entirely at the Crematorium, whilst others may include either a service before or after the final committal in the Church. I take it from the discussion that this is unusual, could somebody throw some light on this for me please.


  8. gannet girl--please, no worries. I'm so sorry for your loss, and what you wrote is absolutely germane to the discussion! You have a penetrating insight here.

  9. Sally,

    When I have seen that crematorium thing in British movies (casket goes through the curtains as family watches) it has come as a great shock. As far as I am aware, that does NOT ever happen in the US. It seems much more like reality than we usually are faced with.

    If a body is to be cremated, the cremation is done before or after the memorial service (some people prefer to have the body present for an open casket funeral, I do NOT prefer this). If it's done before the funeral/memorial service, then the cremains (in an urn or other container) are present for the memorial service at the church or funeral home.

    If cremation is done after the funeral, then you get to go pick up the cremains afterward or they are delivered to you.

    We have a columbarium in our church, behind the altar, so often the cremains are in front (where a casket would go) and then inurnment is done as part of the burial service.

    That's my experience.

  10. In our case, the cremation was done before the funeral home visitation and church memorial service. The remains were placed in an urn which was placed in the funeral home and then on the church.

    A dear friend accompanied me to the crematorium; no one else in the family wanted to go and my understanding is that it is not usual here. However, it is not unheard of. There is a room with a picture window for family members to stand in across the entryway from where caskets or containers are brought in; on the other side of the entryway is the crematorium. That is where I stood for 4.5 hours. They do ask you to leave the room and go into the reception area briefly when other bodies are brought in; I believe that has to do with state privacy regulations. I guess it does protect other people's privacy; unfortunately it does not protect you, the witness, from occasional unfortunate remarks made by funeral home drivers as they deal with their paperwork at the reception desk. The crematorium staff were sensitive and courteous, and the funeral director returend later to collect the urn.

    This was not offered to us (neither the funeral home nor our ministers presented it as a possibility, and I might have asked had I not read the book, but I'm not sure) and I was not exactly encouraged to do it, but no one tried to stop me. I am extremely glad that I went. I am also very grateful to the friend of 32 years who had showed up from across the country late the night before and helped me go there.

  11. Disclaimer: I didn't read this book, so feel free to completely ignore my question.

    And before going further, thank you gannet girl for your contributions to the discussion. I appreciate them even though I haven't read it!

    I'm curious about the impetous for her call and change of direction in life. Is much time spent on that in the book or is it just a passing piece? The idea of following someone else's call to ministry as a way to honor that person is interesting and challenging to me. I'm not saying at all that hers was an inauthentic call, I'm just curious about how that sense developed or if "call" language is even the language she would use.

  12. SheRev, I'm not sure I would call entering ministry impetuous on her part. Going to seminary, yes. She went to seminary hoping to understand what had drawn her husband to the idea of being in ministry. The sense of being called to something herself then led to her chaplaincy work. I hope I have that right, I read the book in July and don't have my copy handy. But it's not like she said, "Drew was going to be a minister; now that he's dead, I'll be one instead." Everything about her journey feels authentic even if it doesn't follow a typical path, and maybe precisely because it *doesn't.*
    Gannet Girl, thank you for sharing your story.
    What I loved about this book was the interweaving of scripture and her life at home and at work. I felt like I was listening to a friend and colleague. I appreciated how fresh the stories were to her. As a very "churched" person, I have many layers of impressions built up over many years; I liked knowing that the stories of faith were becoming part of her existence, too.

  13. Songbird - - Oops. I should proofread before I hit "publish". I meant to write "impetus" instead of impetuous (or someting close to it). You answered my question, though. I was intrigued by the idea of following her husband in theological study when ministry wasn't necessarily her own tugging, at least initially.

    Geez - - I really didn't mean to sound as judgemental as my typo made me!! :)

  14. I too read this book some months ago, since Braestrup is in Maine it was well-publicized here. I bought a copy and gave to my daughter's partner for Christmas, and then finished the book at the library. Anyway...question 1. Intellectually I feel that the way Kate B. handled it would be a good thing; I'm just not sure I could do it. The whole casket-sliding-through-the-curtain thing has always seemed kind of icky to me when I've read about it, but then again, it's been mostly in mystery stories and presented in the context of few mourners, presider who doesn't know the deceased, (and probably the murderer is in the group too!) -- quite different I'm sure from anything Sally would be involved in!
    I liked this book partly because it gave me some insight into a different kind of ministry than I'm familiar with. As a layperson who hasn't been gravely ill, imprisoned, etc. my contact has mostly been with parish ministers; Army chaplains outside combat situations, and college chaplains, also fall into this category. It was interesting to see how chaplaincy called on a whole different set of skills -- meeting people at a very difficult time in their lives, with no guarantee that you share even the most basic faith understanding with them, and yet somehow helping them get through it. I'm glad a lot of people outside Maine got to read this book!

  15. My grandparents generation I think was the last in the US to "prepare the body" -- now it is done mostly by morticians. In fact, I think to do otherwise you may have to have a licensed one on hand! My parents never had a desire to do this; my mom's comment was that when she does finally go, she didn't want us handling her and she definitely was going to be cremated.

    As far as the ashes go, we are a non-monument family. We don't go back to "visit the grave," and the ashes of my older brother and my dad were scattered in places where we knew they loved being alive... -- again, something that I think is different based on who the person is and the situation. Culturally there is a huge difference here too. The Muslims in our area are insistent on doing the washing (women doing women, men doing men).

    When my dad died, I was in the room beside him, holding his hand and checking his pulse since he had been doing Chain-Stokes breathing for several hours. I literally felt his heart stop. It was an honor.

    What was actually more of a blessing to us was the immediate presence of his family doctor. He came in a prayed a benediction over the man he had grown to love as "his favorite curmudgeon" and to this day, it still makes me smile and tear up at the same time.

    What I appreciate about this book (see I AM getting to it) is that it takes life and death out of the hands of professionals and puts it back in the hands of the people who love us. A generation ago it happened with birth... now we can be a part of the death. Her words are funny, sometimes sad... but from the heart. And, as my Pastoral Care Prof says -- if you can hear the heart, you hear the person.

    So be it...

  16. I have not read this book; but I just started my first unit of CPE, and it is highly recommended by my supervisor.

    I will probably read it before I finish this CPE unit

  17. Thank you all for your helpful explanations GG, I am so sorry that you had to wait for 4.5 hours, that seems terrible to me.

    Our Crematoriums have Chapels and very often remembrance gardens, the undertakers and crematorium staff are courteous and respectful. I guess I had thought this was th case everywhere.

  18. argh! I can't believe I missed the discussion! I have been reading the book -- and I'll be back.

  19. gg, I appreciated all of your thoughts. just wanted to say that.

  20. Sorry I missed this yesterday...I read this book just before it was widely released--a friend had a review copy--and I liked it so much that I bought a copy. I meant to reread it for this discussion, but didn't get to it.

    There is one part that is stuck in my mind b/c I used a quote from it in a sermon--Braestrup was talking with her son about Christian's view of salvation which was new to him and he had a great insight about what it all meant-- something along the lines of if he was REALLY a Christian he'd had to be willing to give up his place in heaven for someone else--rather than trying to judge who's in and who's out.

    I do remember being a bit surprised by the ease with which she seemed to decide to go off to seminary to honor her husband, and her decision to take up his call. Not that it wasn't authentic or sincere, but it is a very unusual path into ministry.

  21. I, too, missed the discussion. Actually I've never been to a discussion, but I read this book and found it full of insight and startling reality crashing with spirituality.
    Gannet Girl, I'm sorry for your loss.


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