What's Love Got To Do With It?
Image courtesy of Kate Braestrup
I was just reading Kate Braestrup's latest memoir, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. For those of you who may have been out mowing the lawn or invading the Low Countries back in 2007, when her earlier volume, Here If You Need Me, ascended to bestseller status, let me sum up: Tragically widowed with four young children, Kate embarked on a singular emotional and spiritual journey which culminated in her being ordained as a Unitarian-Universalist minister and chosen as the official chaplain of the Maine Warden Service.
Now I should point out that I know Kate Braestrup personally — she lives just down the road, next door to the house where my kids Callie and Tristan grew up — which, anyplace except Maine, might cast doubt on my credibility as a reviewer. But the fact is that everyone in Maine seems to know Kate Braestrup, who is not just gregarious but virtually omnipresent. If not larger than life, she is considerably more colorful. She dresses strangely. She has knitted a hat for everyone in the midcoast area. If human beings came with an intensity knob, hers would be cranked to eleven. Of course I mean all this kindly.
The thing about Kate, though, is that she takes her religious calling very seriously. And she is as liberal as the day is long. The bright summer day, I'm talking about. That's a combination — religious and liberal — that once upon a time was not uncommon. I remember driving past ordinary churches in my childhood that were adorned with brightly colored banners declaring, as per the Gospel of John (where it appears not once but twice), "God is love."
Remember love? It was big for a while, back in the 60s. You heard a lot about it in the same context as other, now-passé notions like peace, brotherhood, and charity for the poor.
These days, not so much. When I hear the word "love" oozing from the lips of a self-professed Christian, I expect it to have some little barbs attached. Love the sinner but hate the sin (a helpful slogan in the holy struggle against homosexuality). True love waits (i.e., no sex before marriage). And this gem, which popped up as one of the top hits when I googled "god is love": Love not lust.
That page is worth checking out. It just says so much. We are warned sternly not to just go out and start loving people. No, no — first we have to pass a little test. Viz, "The condition for loving others is to first experience God's own love." And how do we do this? By obeying God's "rigid commands." By doing "what He has told us to do." "Love is impossible," we are admonished, "until ... lives are first changed." You know what that means, you sinners.
Now, I'd like to think of myself as a Christian. I was raised in the Episcopal Church. I've spent a fair amount of time reading the Bible, the New Testament in particular, and I've even written a novel about Jesus. But somehow over the course of my lifetime the word "Christian" has taken on connotations that give me the willies.
Kate Braestrup is, of course, a Unitarian-Univeralist, which is its own kind of thing. You may have heard the joke about a fire raging through town, and the members of all the denominations are scurrying to save their various sacred objects. "Get the Bible!" the Baptists are yelling. "Save the Torah scrolls!" shout the Jews. And a fierce U.U. lady is screaming, "Somebody grab the coffee pot!"
That's a joke, people. Jeez, lighten up. In practice, the U.U. folks I've known seem to take the spiritual aspect of their lives at least as seriously as anyone else. But they seem able to do it without need of stern or unyielding dogma. They are, above all, inclusive — is there a Unitarian church in Maine, or anywhere, that is not an important locus of the LGBT community? (My daughter tells me I should be saying LGBTQ. But while I have vague pretensions to hipsterdom, these ever-changing acronyms make me dizzy.)
Other churches are inclusive as well, of course. I've personally felt welcome and comfortable in services at St. Thomas' and the Congo Church in Camden, St. Peter's and the Adas Yoshuron Synagogue in Rockland, and the United Christian Church in my home town. So why don't we think of religion, anymore, as an open or tolerant or all-embracing sort of thing? Why do we have to pass a "test" — a word repeated no fewer than six times on the Web site above — before we get to go out and love one another?
I suspect I know the answer. And it isn't a pretty one. But maybe Kate Braestrup — whose next book, I hear, will focus on her own religious beliefs — can manage to tilt things back the other way. Failing that, maybe she'll make us all a hat. I would love that.