I share the sadness of thousands who were shocked this month at the death of Rachel Held Evans. The experiences she wrote about in the church and beyond the faith of her upbringing resonated deeply with me. I attended all but one of the “Why Christian?” conferences she led with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. I sang traditional hymns alongside a thousand others at those gatherings, with tear-filled eyes. It felt like genuine worship I didn’t realize I’d been missing, unbridled by exclusivism and dogma.
Rachel’s struggle with loving God and the church while challenging its culture and beliefs was a public one. She endured a lot of flak for it. But her honesty was a balm to many of us who felt what she did as she worshiped in her beloved Baptist church: “I was surrounded by the people who knew and loved me best in the world, yet it was the loneliest hour of my week. I felt like an interloper, a fake.”[i]
Rachel and her husband Dan left the church they had loved and supported for a lot of reasons. Although it wasn’t the tipping point, the church’s endorsement of a proposed Tennessee bill (#368) to condemn same-sex marriage, with the banner “Vote Yes on One” (Marriage = One Man + One Woman) uncovered the dichotomy in herself that led to their departure. She could no longer leave her heart and mind at the door and tolerate her own silence in the face of her church’s treatment of LGBT people. And here’s the thing. Part of her struggle came from suspecting deep down that some people in that congregation would listen and engage with her about it. But she couldn’t deal with her internal tension any more. [ii]
I get it, Rachel.
Your integrity would not allow you to settle on a dualistic mindset. It would be so easy to condemn the people whose minds seem closed to the new dimensions of faith you were discovering in the Bible. Taking off the blinders of your childhood faith, you were letting the Jesus of the gospels question the assumptions you had been weaned on. What inspired my respect was that you also let that same Jesus form your love for the people who keep uttering those assumptions like a mantra. Somehow you could still appreciate them as your spiritual parents and friends.
Thank you, Rachel.
It is that refusal to be defined by bitterness that has meant so much to me. Your books explore the spaciousness of God’s reign but don’t dwell on the drawbacks of other perspectives. I don’t know if it was intentional, but you and Nadia did not allow negativity or snark to hijack your gatherings. It would have been so easy to take potshots at the “other side.” But you stood fast in your commitment to the focus on God’s faithfulness and mercy that promise hope for the whole church, not just your version of it. This is a monumental achievement in our current culture, both ecclesiastical and public.
How many times have I checked my sarcasm because you showed me how to be honest but not mean? How many times have I not reined it in, and regretted it? And then remembered your belly laughs at yourself for such slips and felt forgiven for my own pettiness?
My husband and I were returning from a funeral when I saw the news of Rachel’s death. I was heartbroken. When I got home I was glad to have the task of mowing the yard ahead of me. I had to muscle out my grief. After the yard was done, I picked new rhubarb and made a pie, feeling some of the nurturing spirit I sensed in Rachel. I chopped, rolled, sprinkled, and baked out more of my sadness.
I brought the still-warm pie to the musicians who shared the pit that night with me in our community theater production of “Mamma Mia!” As we did the mic checks, the aroma of lard crust with cinnamon wafted upward, and a few cast members noticed it. They peered into our midst and asked what smelled so good. I smiled and explained, “Sorry. The musicians are having pie before the overture tonight.”
My growing sense of unease at some of the assumptions of my faith and my church has nagged me to the point where I, too, had to take action. I simply could no longer tolerate living in tacet agreement with ideas and practices of my congregation and denomination. Something told me that God is more loving and life-giving than a religion based on transactional atonement and purity rules. I had to respond to the faint but insistent aroma of something more, something fragrant and delicious, like the pie in the orchestra pit.
I have no idea how much Rachel had to wrestle with the temptation to condemn people on the other side of today’s theological arguments. It has taken up a lot of my own time and energy. It seems that the sorting process of changing my thinking comes with the impulse to think in black and white terms: this is good, so the other is bad.
But theology, biblical interpretations, even the church are not so simple to parse. Like the many mysterious aspects of faith, ideas and practices are complicated. There is much to appreciate (usually) even when the assumptions don’t line up with the perspective I’ve gained. We are the church, united in the cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2.14), and we cannot condemn the way other people see that cross, no matter how much we want to.
So I sit with my family in the church I left, whenever I can. I also go to another church down the street, and I preach in pulpits where the diverse understandings of God are represented by the faces turned to listen. I find the islands of common ground among us and stand on them to gently push at the assumptions about God that have proven too small and harsh for me. I try to point out the sea monsters that threaten us all and proclaim the same kind of hope Rachel insisted upon.
Because you have taught me to be gracious, Rachel Held Evans,
I can do it with love in my heart. Thank
[i] Evans, Rachel Held. 2015. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Nelson Books), p.58.
[ii] Ibid., p. 61-62.