Here If You Need Me: A True Story
Kate Braestrup (Little, Brown and Company, 2007)
Having committed the minor error of reading the jacket copy, I put off reading Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, because it sounded like it might be a little sappy. It’s the story of a courageous woman who went to seminary after her husband, a Maine State Trooper, died in a car accident. She took up his dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, and emerged as chaplain to the Warden Service, the law enforcement agency for the woods and waterways of Maine. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for lyrical descriptions of the beauties of nature, or heart-rending stories of the rescue of children lost in the woods. No worries, friends. Braestrup’s book is indeed moving, (too moving to read in public,) but there’s nothing sentimental about it.
For one thing, Braestrup is too self-aware for that. Being the human at the heart of a human interest story (“The Tale of the Plucky Widow”) gives her a perspective that is both engaged and detached. She finds all the human stories interesting, but she’s learned to avoid projecting her own fear into every potential tragedy. She will witness what happens, and stand by with prayers, hugs, and Kleenex; or sometimes just small talk to make the frightening time go by.
There’s also an earthiness about her daily round. Here are the glories of Maine, from a small plane: “I like to look at Maine from this new angle and from the sky rediscover its familiar features--seacoast, church spires, winding roads, huge tracts of forest, silver lakes, trailer parks, rolling meadows.” She loves it all, the trailer parks just as much as the lakes.
She loves the forest rangers, too. Her ministerial charges (shining though their disguised identities) are accomplished outdoorsmen, and great cooks. They are funny, generous, and tender-hearted. “I tend to listen more actively to the police radio than the wardens do, because I’m nosy and like to know what everyone’s doing, and because it pleases me to hear a familiar voice and hold its owner, however briefly, in the prayers of my heart.”
How does prayer work? What can Braestrup pray for, and count on God to deliver? It’s a big question. She can’t pray for the rain to stop and the clouds to clear (“I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We don’t do weather.“) She can’t change nature, and she can’t bring everybody back alive--even if she could, it wouldn’t be forever. She’s enormously respectful of the intimacy of asking people to pray, but she’s willing to risk it. Giving an invocation at a warden’s banquet, she muses: “In a civil society that rightly separates church authority from civil authority, I must tread humbly and gently when I speak to and for God here. I hope that my prayers are not experienced as an imposition or an irritant or as simply stupid. I hope those moments feel loving to the wardens, whatever it is they believe or do not believe.”
The whole book feels loving. Braestrup doesn’t tell people how to answer the other big question, at times of tragedy: “Where is God in this?” The wardens may have religious answers to that, or they may just, angrily, have the question. Her own best answer runs all through these stories. Over and over, in myriad ways, God is in the hearts and hands of the people who show up: the neighbor on the front porch with tears in her eyes and a still-warm pan of brownies; the ranger and his dog, searching the undergrowth; Braestrup herself, standing ready to show, by her faithfulness and care, what God’s love looks like.
Thanks be to God.
Email edition, September 2009