The Voice We Needed: A Lament for Rachel Held Evans


Rachel Held Evans passed away this past Saturday.

Rachel was a writer—she authored books, blog posts, and the occasional Op-Ed—but she was so much more than that. She was a leader, a pioneer, a wife, a mother, a courageous fighter, and an advocate for so many people who often felt as though they had very few allies within the world of the American church. Without a doubt, there are people who are still in church—and even still alive—because Rachel reminded them that they were not alone.

I never met Rachel Held Evans. Outside of a few brief interactions on Twitter, my knowledge of Rachel came mostly from reading her work. That was enough for me to know how much we needed her.

I remember about six and-a-half years ago I was on a staff retreat with the church where I worked before we started Collective. It was a multi-campus megachurch where I found myself feeling increasingly out of place. During the break times, rather than join my coworkers playing basketball or ping pong or whatever they were doing, I sat by myself and read Rachel Held Evans’s first book, Evolving In Monkey Town (which has since been re-released under the new title Faith Unraveled). This was not my first time to read Rachel’s work; I had followed her blog for several years and had already read her more recent book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I had enjoyed Rachel’s work for years, but it wasn’t until I read Evolving in Monkey Town that I realized that I didn’t simply enjoy her work—I needed it. I didn’t know it at the time, but reading that book was the beginning of an entirely new journey for me.

Throughout the book, Rachel articulates her earliest struggles with the faith structure of her youth and talks about how so many of her previous assumptions about God, the Bible, and what it means to live a life of faith needed to be reexamined. I didn’t simply find her story interesting—I found myself reflected back at me. I realized that her struggle was also my struggle—I simply hadn’t found the language to talk about it yet.

That’s the gift of a great writer—they discover a way to say the things we struggle to find language for. They put words to things that we did not previously know we needed words for at all. They give voice to our inner struggles, and they remind us that we are not alone. That was Rachel’s gift to the world (or at least, it was one of them).

Today I am the pastor of a small church in Roanoke, Texas, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I doubt I would be who I am and where I am without Rachel’s influence and leadership. Her writing served as a constant guide and comfort as I moved through the most difficult times as a pastor and as a person of faith. Her prophetic gift of challenging church leaders always found me and forced me to ask myself, “Am I doing enough? Am I really participating in the best possible way? Am I providing grace and peace to the people who feel forgotten by the local church?” Without Rachel’s influence, I might have easily chosen comfort over conviction when I needed to stay in the struggle.

I don’t have Rachel’s courage. I don’t know many people who do. And I don’t know if I will be able to embody courage when I need it most without Rachel’s voice in the world saying to pastors like me, “Don’t sleep on this. Stay in the game. Don’t look away from the work that needs you.” I hope I can, but I don’t believe in myself as strongly as I believed in her.

As I close this post, I also want to express my gratitude to Rachel for constantly elevating new and necessary voices in the conversation. Because of Rachel, I have encountered other truly remarkable and necessary voices, such as Austin Channing Brown, Dr. Richard Beck, Elizabeth Esther, Justin Lee, Jeff Chu, Sarah Bessey, and so many others.

I don’t know if anybody will read this. I think I wrote it mostly for myself, so I could find a way to articulate and remember why Rachel Held Evans meant so much to me and so many others. I know I’m not the only person to write something like this. In fact, I would imagine that there are probably a lot of blogs and sites with dedications like this one today. I think that’s a good thing. The world needs more people like Rachel Held Evans, and maybe we remind ourselves of that by crying out together how significant this loss truly is.

May we hold Rachel’s family and friends in our hearts.

May we remember Rachel by celebrating and revisiting her work.

And may we dare to have a fraction of Rachel’s courage and compassion.

Grace and peace.

"I Asked For Wonder"

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”  -Abraham Joshua Heschel

I tend to overthink most things. I like facts and data and stories--which, according to Brene Brown, are just "data with a pulse." When I have a question and someone can offer a rational, well-researched answer, it scratches me right where I itch.

I like facts and research so much that I recently finished preaching the longest, most research-intensive sermon series I have ever done. It was a series on the book of Revelation, and my hope was that people could find a grounded story of real people in real places in a book that is way too weird and confusing for most people. So I attempted to use historical research and archaeological discovery as a way to give people a new sense of comfort with such a strange book.

But this coming Sunday (October 2), I'm going to start a series that is very different, and it's something that challenges me as much as it may challenge anybody else. The series is called I Asked For Wonder, which is a phrase that was borrowed from Abraham Joshua Heschel (the quote at the top of this post). 

So what is this sermon series going to be?

It will be an exploration of the things that we cannot explain or fully understand. This series will be an acknowledgment that, for all of the things that we can know and control, there are some things that are completely out of our grasp. The human intellect can only take us so far, and it is at that borderline between what we can know and what we could never know that we often encounter God.

It is at this place where our rational understanding begins to lose ground and all we have left is wonder.

It is wonder that makes us fully alive--that tunes us into the activity of the divine within the tangible world.

It is wonder that causes our eyes to go wide and remind us that we can still be amazed in this life and that God might still be able to surprise us in all kinds of unexpected ways.

So this series will be about the intangibles. It will be a sermon series about wonder.

Because sometimes we need answers and data and understanding because it helps us make sense of something that has troubled us for too long.

But sometimes we need to allow space for the unknown and the unknowable--we need to open ourselves up in ways that leave space for the divine surprises in this life.

In short, we are talking about wonder.