I was raised in a fairly conservative Baptist church community that
was loving, kind and felt like home. I value and deeply respect my
evangelical roots that grounded me in the Bible and helped me fall
in love with God’s Word. It was in this Church home where I was
inoculated in believing that my church had the corner on God and
that they held all the answers. I was a girl with lots of
questions, doubts and uncertainties, but I never felt safe to ask
them. When I was 14 years old, I saw a small inconsistency in my
church in regards to women in leadership. Our worship pastor moved
away and we needed someone who could lead on Sunday mornings. It
was the first time I had ever seen a woman on the church stage who
wasn’t singing the solo during offertory.
It was clear Pauline was an interim and simply filling space until the church found a man. But seeing her on the stage was enough for me to wonder why women never occupied that space. This small inconsistency helped create some cracks in the fence keeping me in.
I was 27 the first time I preached a sermon, even though I saw it as “sharing my story.” In that moment something sparked within me and I instantly felt like this was what I was born to do — I was meant to preach the good news truth of God’s love to anyone who might listen. However I was overwhelmingly confused on why I would feel so strongly about something I was never allowed to do. Why would God design me in this way, give me these gifts, and make me a woman who isn’t allowed to teach men?
I had to seek answers to these questions. So I studied the scriptures regarding women in ministry. I sought out commentaries and theological scholarship and cultural aspects of those Biblical passages and found how backwards and limited my understanding was. I discovered women leaders in the Bible who were praised by the disciples for their guidance - women like Mary Magdalene, Pricilla, Junia and Lydia.
Even though I felt called to preach deep within my soul — even though I knew this was a spiritual gift — I needed biblical affirmation. And much of this biblical affirmation came through the guidance and leadership of Rachel Held Evens, a Christian writer and speaker. Her life influenced me greatly, but her recent death has gutted me.
When someone close dies, it’s hard to understand. Even though death is a guaranteed part of life and something that will happen to us and around us, it’s still a shock. We turn to someone nearby and with our voice catching in our throats, we whisper “but I just talked to him yesterday.” It feels impossible that the person we just interacted with last week or hugged at Starbucks or high-fived in the hallway is no longer present on earth. Their body remains but their life has left.
It feels even stranger to lose someone you never really knew, and certainly never knew you. I feel ridiculous deeply mourning a soul I never had an actual relationship with. But you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? When Bobby Kennedy, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson or Prince died, you felt it. You might remember where you were when you heard Robin Williams died. There are many deaths of people who affected and influenced you that rocked you, even though you never knew them and they certainly never knew you.
I had just attended a gathering Rachel put together back in April. About a week later she was hospitalized for complications from antibiotics for the flu and a UTI. The doctors placed her on a medically induced coma to help stop the seizures and a hashtag began trending: #prayforRHE. A couple weeks later she was dead.
Growing up Protestant, sainthood wasn’t something pursued deeply or recognized with weighty reverence like our Catholic siblings. According to Catholic teaching, one becomes a saint after death and only after meeting a handful of measurable qualifiers.
While Rachel was certainly a saint on this side of eternity, she has truly been set apart for holy use on the other side of eternity. Since her passing a month ago, she has been on a New York Times best-selling list and featured in many mainstream news sources. On Monday I woke up to New York Times podcast called The Daily emphasizing Rachel Held Evan’s life, story, and influence. The podcast closed by referencing Rachel’s last blog post she put up at the beginning of Lent. She wrote:
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 was a person who, like me, grew up as an evangelical Christian who knew all the answers to all the questions. The Biblical boundaries were clear and it was her responsibility to strongly uphold them. But as more questions rose, her faith began to unravel a bit and the boundaries and fences of right belief began to crack. Piece by piece the walls she felt were necessary to protect God and right belief were torn down and she could see how God wasn’t bound by the fences we keep God in. God may have never been held by that fence in the first place.
I recently heard an example about our human relationship with God compared to a large pasture full of cattle. To keep the cattle in the pasture, one could put up fences and walls. By putting up clear boundary lines of rules, laws and whatever correct behavior that faith community has championed, we can easily see if you’re in or out — if you are included or excluded because of how you live in or out of the fence. The fences become what defines the faith instead of the good news of Christ’s love. If you remove the fences and simply provide good, clean, running water, the cattle never travel too far. The water source is what keeps them close by, not the fence.
Rachel was a person who helped remove the distracting fences and kept pointing people to the Living Water. She made sure every person belonged imperfectly before believing perfectly. She embodied grace and good news and she will be forever missed. But her influence carries on in the lives of those on the margins. She created spaces for the voiceless to have a voice. She let go of her platform to give platform to those often excluded. God used her to help me become a better pastor and for that I am forever grateful.