Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday at the age of 37, leaving behind her husband and a 1 and 3 year old. Life is precious and fragile indeed.
Never heard of RHE? That’s okay. Now is a great chance to check out her writings. I confess I have not read any of her books, or her very popular blog, over the years. Nor have I kept up with her often provocative Twitter activity. My connection with her is through our mutual appreciation for and interactions with Scot McKnight, whom she turned to for guidance and an example when she began blogging the same time I did over a decade ago. Some years back she posted an open letter of thanks to Scot.
Well, I’m paying tribute to her very influential and honest voice in the Christian writing world by listening to her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church (2015). She is as winsome and funny, honest and piercing, profound and thoughtful as advertised. The audiobook experience is even more emotionally charged as she chose to narrate it herself. She speaks for so many people who grew disenfranchised with their experience of church, finding themselves wandering in the wilderness, a sort of self-imposed exile, while hanging onto Jesus and hope for a more Jesus-shaped church. While I don’t share all of her conclusions, I do resonate with many of her frustrations, and I admire her honesty and courage to wrestle with her struggles out loud.
I commend this book as a great introduction to Rachel and her spiritual pilgrimage. For now, let me share a couple excerpts that display her gift for writing and prophetic voice. She is well-known for her long, slow and very public departure from her “evangelical” roots (eventually ending up in an Episcopal church). Here’s what she wrote the week she publicly stopped calling herself an “evangelical”:
Finally, you can take the girl out of evangelicalism, but you can never take evangelicalism out of the girl. And that’s fine by me.
I will forever be grateful for all the beautiful gifts evangelicalism gave me—a high esteem for and knowledge of Scripture, a heart for activism, and a deeply personal experience and expression of faith. It was, after all, evangelicals who baptized me, evangelicals who taught me to read and pray and cook. It was evangelicals who first called me a Christian, evangelicals who first told me I was beloved by God. And it was evangelicals (my parents) who let me sob in their arms yesterday, evangelicals who risked their reputations to reach out in peace last week.
Evangelicalism has been and always will be home. I suspect a part of me will always miss it.
But there’s something strangely liberating about standing in the middle of this scorched earth terrain with the resolution to stop fighting, the resolution to give up. I am reminded of the one thing all we Christians have in common, whether we’re Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Anabaptist, Quaker, or something in between: We are Resurrection people.
Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if we want in on God’s business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in our own hearts— because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens.
There’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.
Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me.”
Anyone who knows my (Jeremy) view of church as a grace-filled community for misfits who lovingly embrace the mess of each other’s lives, knows that I could have written the following paragraphs (in a less beautiful way):
“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”
“The church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”
“I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
“But the modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! At its best, such a culture generates pews of Stepford Wife–style robots with painted smiles and programmed moves. At its worst, it creates environments where abuse and corruption get covered up to protect reputations and preserve image. “The world is watching,” Christians like to say, “so let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Let’s throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.” But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil. It’s not the real thing.”