Rachel Held Evans is, unquestionably, one of my heroines of faith. Though I’d never met her in person, her life has marked my own.
Hard News and New Opportunities
Two weeks ago today, I spent my Saturday morning getting dressed and psyching myself up for an opportunity that had popped up quite unexpectedly. A few days earlier, within minutes of sitting down to watch Brene Brown’s new Netflix special, my phone pinged with a text message from my friend, Bob Hamp, who wanted to know if I would consider recording a segment with him and his wife Polly. They wanted to interview me about my faith deconstruction for their upcoming Think Differently video series on Reformation.
Before I said yes, I clarified with Bob that I was still deeply entrenched in the middle of my deconstruction process. I had no definitive answers to any of my questions. I had little idea of where I would land on the faith spectrum when all was said and done. It’s still a bit fuzzy. But I’m okay with that fuzziness. Well, at least for today. Tomorrow might be another story. Such is deconstruction.
I told him I would think about it and let him know the next day.
As my mind started immediately weighing the pros and cons, I texted Anna and told her about the invitation. While waiting for her reply, a thought settled gently in my mind. “I trust Bob and Polly with this conversation.”
My answer was yes, but I waited until the following day to accept the invitation.
When Saturday morning came, I was busy talking myself down from my nervous excitement. I paid little attention to social media as I prepared to leave the house. On my way to pick up Anna, who was going to the shoot with me, I turned on my favorite playlist and worked hard to push my anxiety to the edge of my mind.
Then, as I sat in the car waiting for Anna, I scrolled Facebook. That’s when I saw Sarah Bessey’s post.
After a weeks-long hospital stay, Rachel Held Evans had died.
Tears stung the corners of my eyes immediately and the words on the screen blurred. I held the tears at bay to preserve my camera-ready face. But my heart was splitting in two. For Rachel’s sweet babies, for her husband, for her family, for her friends, for her readers. We had all lost something precious. #PrayforRHE, the hashtag that had been trending on Twitter for weeks, told us she mattered. #BecauseofRHE, the hashtag that flooded social media at the news of her death, told us she wouldn’t be forgotten.
By the time I arrived at Bob’s office for our recording session, I had a renewed sense of purpose. I wasn’t only telling my story for my own healing but also for those who were sitting in their own ash heaps. My story might give someone else permission to ask questions and courage to begin rebuilding. Even in the middle of my own process, I have a voice.
I am telling my story for myself and for those who are sitting in similar ashes.
Meeting Rachel through Her Words
I knew who Rachel was before last summer, but I hadn’t yet read any of her books. Then Anna was hired to run her launch team for Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving Bible Again, and in a degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon way, I too worked on the launch behind the scenes. When Anna received her very early ARC of Inspired, I knew it was a book I wanted to read.
When I picked the book up last May, I had no idea that I was headed into a deconstruction of faith and everything I believed. But I did know that Rachel saw the Bible as more than a rigid rule book that could not be questioned. My English major background had given me tools to dissect texts of all kinds–to question, to poke, to test, to re-imagine. But my evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian upbringing had clearly defined the Bible as off-limits when it came to investigating it from any angle other than what my churches taught.
Rachel gave me permission to explore the possibility that the Bible wasn’t meant to be so rigid.
Rachel gave me permission to be curious about the contents of the Bible.
Rachel gave me permission to pick up my literary tools alongside the Bible.
Rachel gave me permission to think critically rather than believe blindly about the Bible.
Rachel gave me permission to explore the Bible as a collection of different literary genres.
Rachel gave me permission to wrestle with the contradictions and discrepancies in the Bible.
Searching for Sunday
Several days before the news of Rachel’s hospitalization became public, I’d ordered a copy of Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. It arrived the day after her illness was revealed. Flipping it open the next day, the first words I read were the first sentence of Glennon Doyle’s foreword:
Whenever I want to scare myself, I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing.
Nearly a year after reading Inspired, I found myself in a desolate season. Questioning everything I thought I knew about God and the Bible. Raising hell against the patriarchy and chains of the purity cultural movement. Closing my Bible and insisting that God find another way to speak to me. Yelling. Weeping. Cussing. Wrestling.
Now, I knew I was in the throes of deconstruction. It’s a lonely place, sitting in the rubble of your beliefs after they’ve burned to the ground. But when I found myself there in the ashes, I knew there were people who had been there. People who understood. People who had a wider vision of faith, God, and the Bible than I’d ever known. And those are the people I seek to learn from.
Rachel wasn’t ashamed to ask hard questions and sit in the ashes without answers. Her bold and authentic personality blazed a trail for those of us who weren’t even sure if were allowed to have the slightest bit of doubt. She, and others, created space at a table much wider than the the one evangelicalism built. Rachel pulled out chairs for the people on the fringes. She smiled big and introduced us to the Jesus who welcomed the very people who the church condemns.
Rachel was brave. She gave us agency to get to know Jesus in the ashes.
Rachel was true. She didn’t pretend to have all the answers.
Rachel was courageous. She stood up for her beliefs in the face of vehement backlash.
Rachel was a woman of valor. She fought a good fight and finished–too early–but well.
Christ Have Mercy…We Give Thanks
Yesterday, I was reading Searching for Sunday. In chapter ten, What Have We Done, Rachel begins by discussing ways the church at large has twisted its beliefs to harm and destroy human lives. Breaking between each paragraph, she offers a line of liturgical prayer:
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”
In the second half of the chapter, she honors a bunch of people who have stood for their beliefs in order to provide more freedom for others throughout history. This time, each paragraph is sandwiched by a different liturgical line:
“For [name] we give thanks.
The chapter ends with a quote from the Book of Common Prayer:
“Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.
Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.”
The list of faith heroes includes Teresa of Avila, Anne Hutchinson, William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth. The section ends with this sentence:
“For all who did the right thing even when it was hard, we give thanks.”
The way Rachel wrote this chapter was beautiful and lyrical. When I came to the end of the we give thanks list, I sat for a moment with the complexity of feeling both inspired and grieved by the paradoxes in the chapter, compounded by the weight of Rachel’s death.
Then I picked up my pen and added my own tribute to the bottom of the list:
For Rachel Held Evans, who made a way for raw questions and messy faith, even when it wasn’t popular to do so, we give thanks.