Rachel Held Evans is someone I never met. I never had any correspondence with her and we weren’t pen pals or even Twitter friends. But I knew her. I knew her through her books; books which one-by-one, shifted the makeup of my understanding and expanded the scope of my faith.
Today, she left us.
Of the many authors I’ve come to revere, Rachel was at the top of the heap. She was brilliant beyond measure—the vocabulary words I’ve had to look up and learn while reading her books number in the dozens—and she wrote in a patter that seemed to march with me as I read. As a writer, I looked up to her and felt inspired by her command of her craft. She was a wordsmith of the highest order.
But more than mere vocational inspiration, Rachel has served as somewhat of a literary pastoral figure for me. Her chapters stirred me like sermons and her insights challenged me to reckon with the broken pieces of myself at the altar of my life. Hers were words I returned to and took to heart, even if they pointed out the parts of me in need of repair.
Rachel was only two years older than me and our upbringings were starkly similar in that we were both born-and-raised Bible Belt Super-Christians. Because of that, her references were my references, her thoughts shaped by church ministry were my thoughts shaped by church ministry, and, as I discovered while reading Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, we shared the same concerns with today’s Evangelical establishment. We both wrestled with our faiths in the face of a changing world, both had to leave our home churches in order to meet God again, and both bore deep convictions about unconditional love and the inclusive nature of God.
When I first read her words, every light in my spirit turned on to illuminate all the parts of me, the good and the bad, and I felt someone was finally speaking my language. It felt like coming home. In that book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel wrote, “It seems those most likely to miss God’s work in the world are those most convinced they know exactly what to look for, the ones who expect God to play by the rules.” That resonated with me in such a loudly vibrational way, I knew I’d never be the same (and that I wouldn’t be able to put that book down).
Similarly, Rachel didn’t play by the rules. She spoke out when she felt an injustice was served, even if that meant calling out the church itself, and she wept with those who’d been marginalized by people of power. More than just weeping with them, she gave them a place at her table. She welcomed and made space for everyone, something that in today’s we’re right/you’re wrong culture, was a radical act. She sided with love and championed it in whatever form it took because she knew God is a God of love and where love exists, so does God.
Her legacy is her family. Her legacy are her friends. Her legacy are the books on our shelves which will continue to speak to, inspire, and challenge us to see that God is so much bigger than the box in which we feel comfortable. She changed my life and for that, I will be forever grateful.
The fact that she left us at 37 is gutting, but the truth she spoke was an eternal one: “The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.” (Searching for Sunday)