EXCERPT: A Religion Called Love

Adored by her twenty young students, Kathryn James is a young kindergarten teacher whose good intentions were never meant to be controversial—yet controversy follows her at school and home, even posthumously, when a manuscript titled A Religion Called Love is discovered. Her mysterious death at age twenty-eight raises questions about faith that divide a community of believers and nonbelievers. Among them, Detective Robin Noel is determined to find the party responsible. Her investigation centers on three men who knew Kathryn well, each suspected for different reasons. A Religion Called Love explores themes of friendship, lust, and loneliness through a humanist lens—it tests the boundaries of belief and leaves the reader feeling unexpectedly satisfied.

[From Chapter 2]

PASTOR WARREN STEPPED UP to the pulpit and expressed his profound sorrow at the crime that was foremost on everyone’s minds. He offered condolences to Kathryn’s grieving parents, who were not in attendance, and assured his faithful congregants that Kathryn had moved on to a better place. He pointed out the rare opportunity that tragic circumstances offer a grieving community—a chance to reflect upon the love of God, whose purpose may be questioned during such times, but should never be doubted. He said:

The Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

He reminded his congregants about the end of days—the rapture that would divide good from evil:

The sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the sky will be shaken; and then they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send forth his angels and he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of earth to the end of heaven.

Nearly two hundred people filed out of church that Sunday morning, stirred by the pastor’s venerated words. They paused briefly to share a kind remark and a handshake before heading into the parking lot. Two school teachers greeted each other warmly and agreed to carry on in Kathryn’s absence.

The following Monday morning, Cody didn’t want to get out of bed. He had complained of a belly ache and pleaded to stay home, but his mother was running late for work and did not have time to get a babysitter. On their way to the bus stop, Cody’s mother tugged at his hand to keep them moving. Everything felt wrong that day. A substitute teacher found Kathryn’s classroom silent as a tomb. A cryptic announcement over the loud speaker was tinny and garbled and made little sense to the children, who knew that something awful had happened. Though most of them had been insulated from the harsh truth, a few were told the bloody details, and the rest were simply told that Ms. James wouldn’t be coming back.

The funeral took place less than a mile from Kathryn’s childhood home. Friends and family parked their cars along a narrow lane and stepped over a length of spongy grass to the burial site, where they gathered amidst tearful smiles and hugs of bittersweet reunion. Those who knew Kathryn best were curious to know why she was being interred, fairly certain that she would have preferred to have her body cremated or donated to science. Her grief-stricken parents acknowledged this in principle, explaining that everything had happened so quickly and that Kathryn was too young to leave any instructions.

When a quorum had at last arrived, all discussions ceased. A woman with waves of dark, graying hair stepped forward to identify herself as a humanist celebrant. She made a few introductory comments about Kathryn’s life and embarked on a secular service that was perceptibly devoid of biblical reference—there was no inference about heaven or the afterlife, no platitudes about God’s greater purpose for Kathryn’s death, and certainly no assertion that she was resting in a better place. She said:

Death has come to our dear friend, Kathryn James, as it comes to all living things. We now find ourselves in Kathryn’s absence and look to each other for guidance and comfort. In this way, love and understanding can triumph over pain, which is what she would have wanted.

Let us always remember Kathryn as a unique individual, who gave so much to her precious students. May our memories of Kathryn bring delight to our hearts and strengthen us in times of need. Let us always be grateful for Kathryn’s presence in our lives. As living memories, we now possess the greatest gift one person can give to another, to honor her by living peacefully and productively in the days ahead.

Her mother briefly spoke and thanked everyone for being there. Her father, bereft as only a loving father can be, read a sampling of Kathryn’s personal musings. He quoted directly from her handwritten manuscript, A Religion Called Love, to the delight of her friends, who laughed and cried at the warmth of her self-effacing humor. It was during this moment that the tragedy of Kathryn’s death was most palpable. Her words were inspirational to those who had never heard such things—she explained that all people, regardless of wealth or personal circumstances, deserve a spiritual vehicle in their lives, a source of hope and comfort without the pretense of worship. She went further to suggest a more sensible faith to unify people of all cultures, and that faith, she asserted, without fear of reprisal, is love. Powerful as anything in the scripture, Kathryn insisted that love is the force that makes life worth living—the love of a child, the love of country or a dear friend, a team or a beloved pet. She described the passion one feels for another, the eros, driven by romance and physical attraction, and she wrote about platonic love, the philia that reflects one’s affection for a friend or a thing. She even included agape, the love of God, documented by centuries of worship, the passion driven by religious belief.

After the funeral, a dog-eared copy of A Religion Called Love was disseminated by Kathryn’s dissenters in an effort to ridicule her, but instead the opposite happened—her ideas gained traction that generated widespread discussion and debate. Not even Kathryn would have predicted the irony of a new movement taking form this way, a vehicle for kindness and tolerance that would spread posthumously despite the efforts of a watchful clergy to the contrary.

To be sure, Kathryn James had never thought of herself as a transformative figure, though history would record her as such, and biographers would rummage through the details of her life to make sense of who she was. Her beliefs were secular yet wholly spiritual. Her boundless faith in humanity called attention to the resilient core of human goodness. She regarded miracles and tragedies as random events that occur despite improbable odds and saw no reason to attribute them to a higher purpose. Rather, she cherished the ordinary events of daily life, the precious moments that slip away.

In matters of romance, Kathryn recognized the capricious nature of love—that people willingly expose themselves to hurt but acclimate to the situations that serve them best. People accept the love that’s available to them. They mourn the loss of love and welcome new love with equal passion, whether the event is a birth, a wedding, or a funeral. Kathryn recognized the merits of religious ceremonies during such times, but insisted that a belief in one faith or another had become extraneous in the modern world; the more vital part, she insisted, was the gathering—being there, together—to amplify the experience. She admitted that organized religion had long been the chosen vehicle when there were few other resources, but not anymore.

She acknowledged the timeless questions: What is the meaning of life? What happens after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? She freely posed these questions but didn’t consume herself with a search for the answers. She found little need to dwell upon the unknowable notions of heaven or hell or the unlikely explanations posed in the scriptures; instead, she embraced the more reasonable aspects of religion, such as peaceful congregation, charity, and self-examination, and she brought them closer to reality—not with incense but common sense, not with the holy spirit but with the spirit of humanity—to promote prosperity without greed, and good deeds for the sake of good. Kathryn’s classroom was an incubator for these ideas. Her students learned to love and respect one another, and thrived by following her example.

Even in her absence.

Standing behind the mourners at the funeral were watchful detectives and curious neighbors whose emotions were held in check by the shock of what had happened. Detective Robin Noel watched carefully for clues, alert to those whose expressions did not quite match the mood of the funeral service. The school principal and most teachers came to pay their respects. Even Kathryn’s brazen assailant was there; he stood with the others and bowed his head at the thoughtful words of her remembrance.

The humanist celebrant continued:

Kathryn wrote in her manuscript that a prayer is a wish and a blessing is a gift, and any deeper meaning would be speculative at best. She believed that happiness comes from within, not from riches or reward, and that a healthy perspective can bring joy to any moment, even in the setting of sickness, poverty, or bereavement. In fact, it’s the acceptance of life’s impermanence, she wrote, that soothes the pain of loss when it inevitably happens. This is why she referred to life as a roller coaster, not because of the ups and downs or twists and turns, but because of its limits. Eventually the ride comes to a halt for everyone, no exceptions, no repeat rides. How prophetic.

Let me share in closing that Kathryn generously gave to others and asked for little in return. She brightened the lives of those who knew her, and we are all better for it. Let us always consider Kathryn’s example and continue to learn from her. There will now be a moment of silence.

When the last few handfuls of dirt were ceremoniously tossed onto the casket, the service uneventfully ended. A solemn retreat to the parking area was followed by a procession of tail lights through the cemetery gates. Two gravediggers came forward with shovels in hand to finish the task left for them. As they slashed their blades into the earth, one man—Dr. Reed Palmer—stood by watching, waiting until they were done, as if Kathryn might still awaken from her slumber to announce the truth of what had happened.