I’ve been trying to put into words all that Rachel Held Evans meant to me. That’s a hard thing to do. She was extremely instrumental in reshaping my own faith after I’d begun to deconstruct.
So much of my life over the last 5 years has been trying to make sense of a faith that left me with scars and wounds so deep that every time I think I’ve found healing, the bleeding starts anew. I’ve spent so much time trying to hang onto a God that I’ve worshipped longer than I can begin to remember. This faith that has been so precious to me my entire life, which has been the environment that simultaneously nurtured me into the woman I became and placed a stumbling block between me and my God.
After some personally traumatizing events several years ago, I went through a period where, if I am to be honest, I was agnostic.
I still attended church. I still sang worship songs on Sunday morning. I still discussed theology with my church friends as if nothing had changed. But I knew that I no longer experienced God. I knew that I no longer trusted that anyone or anything greater existed. I stopped praying entirely, and I allowed myself to imagine what my life would look like without my faith or my God.
I forced myself to continue going through the motions, terrified what it might mean to give up on finding Him again.
I had no one at the time that I could talk to about my feelings of doubt and loneliness and the loss of my faith. Anyone I could’ve spoken to in my church would have been dumbfounded that I could speak about such things. I knew my honesty would bother them and that I wouldn’t really be heard. I knew that I’d only be told to have faith, though my faith was gone. I knew that my feelings and what I was experiencing at the time would be dismissed.
I knew this because I’d witnessed this same thing happen with others. To admit to struggling with faith was seen as a failure, if not a sin. To admit to questioning was a sin. I had no safe place to turn to process what I was experiencing. I was forced to push through the process and hope I’d be okay.
Eventually, I found a form of faith again. Which was, entirely, by the grace of God. But my heart had completely changed during this process. I could no longer find safety in my evangelical circle. I had to re-envision who God was, and I began to pick apart my beliefs to weed out what was toxic from what was truth to me. This is a very hard and long process to go through.
I took a year off from attending church. My new community became a mixed bunch of Christians, agnostics, and atheists. The people in my new community showed me more of Christ than a lifetime of sitting in evangelical pews ever showed me.
And then I discovered Rachel Held Evans.
I’d heard of her years earlier when she released “A Year Of Biblical Womanhood”. But, unfortunately, I was heavily bought into the conservative evangelical narrative around me that saw the book as a way of mocking Christ and “Biblical” faith. In my mind, I wrote her off as a heretic who was probably preaching a different gospel.
I put her quickly out of my head and didn’t think of her again until years later when I somehow came across the book, “Evolving in Monkey Town” (Also known as “Faith Unraveled”). I began to really read to understand her views.
She discussed her upbringing as a conservative Evangelical who excelled in apologetics. She studied her Bible faithfully, and was convinced that she had all the answers to all of the questions.
I identified so deeply with the way she described her faith as she grew up. I related when she discussed her intellectual passion for the Word of God. I, myself, spent many hours reading books about the Bible and listening to lectures. I poured a lot of time into understanding how to properly debate theology and apply apologetics in order to arm wrestle “non-believers” into my version of faith. I grew up having doctrine, narratives, and certainty drilled into me so deeply that it would take some pretty extraordinary things to make me question any of them.
She discussed her crisis of faith. The doubts that began to seep into her mind that she could no longer ignore.
And I felt like I was reading my own life story.
Rachel gave me permission to feel all of the feelings I’d ever felt in my internal conflict with faith and church. I felt like it was not only okay to question the doctrines and narratives that had led me through my life – it was good and healthy! I wasn’t living in sin. I was rebelling from a culture that refused to let me fully live my life and my faith.
Rachel gave me permission to doubt. She gave me permission to not have the answers and to just not understand how faith or God or any of this religious stuff is supposed to work. She gave me permission to be agnostic about so much about my faith. To be okay with not knowing if Hell exists or how salvation works. To just love people as Christ loves me, without an agenda.
She made me feel safe to question and still rest peacefully within the arms of my God. She helped me understand that my standing with Christ was secure no matter where my doubts or questions may lead me. He would never be angry with me. He would never reject me. I am His child, and nothing could ever take that away from me. I felt peace in my soul as I gradually began to understand what Rachel had already learned and was passing on to those coming up behind her.
She made me feel like I was no longer alone in the path I was walking. She not only had walked the same path, she had never left it. She was only further ahead than me. But she was still walking in faith and in doubt, in love, in passion for her God and for the people around her.
Over time, I’ve read two more of her books: “Searching For Sunday” and “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”. I loved both so much.
I currently have a copy of “Inspired” sitting in my living room, waiting to be read. I expect to learn so much more from her when I finally begin to read it.
She’s gone. It’s not fair. It hurts.
Why does this person, someone who taught me so much about how to authentically worship my God and live in faith (even while doubting)… Why does she have to leave us so early and so suddenly?
I don’t know.
I’m angry about it.
I’m heartbroken about it.
I want to weep when I think about her babies growing up without this inspiring woman by their side. I want to weep for her husband who has lost his partner in life. I want to weep for her family and friends who will never speak to her again, this side of Heaven.
I never met her. I never knew her, and yet I want to weep because she will never have any more words to share that validate hard feelings, and teach a new and powerful way to have faith.
I want to weep for those stuck in conservative evangelical narratives that still only view her as a heretic who preached a false gospel. I want them to see what I eventually came to see in her. I pray that they will.
This is hard and painful stuff, and nothing will ever make it okay. We all want her back.
But, at the same time: I do believe there is some form of life after death. What that looks like, I don’t know. But I do have faith that, at this moment, she is sitting with her God and Saviour. I have faith that she is truly and deeply happy.
I also believe that we are not left empty-handed.
We have her words to remember her and to continue to learn from.
We have her example to follow to create a sanctuary within our churches where everyone is welcome. Where the table is always open to whoever wants to come, no matter their background, race, sexual/gender identity. Where the wounded and persecuted will always find safety. Where the judged and alienated will always find community. Where doubt is embraced and questions are welcomed. Where mystery isn’t a threat to faith, but an invitation to grow closer to Jesus and to each other.
Let’s keep her mission going and, in so doing, keep her memory alive.
It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or your doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Death is a part of life.
My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
– Rachel Held Evans, Lent for The Lamenting