Saturday, June 8, 2019

Remembering Rachel Held Evans

Remembering Rachel Held Evans
June 8, 1981 – May 4, 2019 Appeared in the Cookeville Herald-Citizen on Friday, June 7, 2019.
Back in April, when I heard through friends on Facebook and Twitter, that religious author Rachel Held Evans was in the hospital, I prayed. Her situation sounded serious, yet I also felt with great confidence that she would get through it. I was wrong. Rachel Held Evans died on May 4, and her funeral was held on June 1. June 8 would have been her 38th birthday.

Back when I heard that Rachel was in the hospital, I started listening to her last audio book, Inspired, released in 2018.  Driving the backroads of rural White County, where I am a part-time preacher for a small Presbyterian Church, Rachel’s words, passionate and skeptical, faithful and funny, her words about the Bible strengthened me and encouraged me. Today, they comfort me.  

On a beautiful and warm Saturday night, the first day of June, I was driving back to White County to preach the next morning, and I finally finished listening to Inspired. Earlier that day, I had watched Rachel’s funeral in a livestream from Chattanooga, as I finished my worship prep for the next day. I listened to Rachel’s friends and family members, as they fought back tears, tell stories about her and proclaim the resurrection, the resurrection that even we, as believers in Christ, are part of.

While hundreds gathered in Tennessee for an Episcopal liturgy in a Methodist church, thousands more gathered on Twitter to share their collective love and grief under the hashtag #RememberingRHE, while watching the memorial which the family so generously streamed on YouTube. Somehow in all the sadness, sincerity, and serious call to Christians everywhere to be more inclusive, something else shown through that Saturday, Rachel’s sarcasm and sense of humor. People laughed, and people wept, at the same time.

Back in 2012, Rachel came to Cookeville. She drove herself to Tech from her home in Dayton in a modest car, to give a lecture on her book about biblical womanhood. Please set aside any notion about the successful young author living large, because independent authors do struggle, and you could tell that getting to speaking engagements stretched her. Yet she was so joyful, humble, hilarious, down-to-earth. I think she said something about perhaps raising her modest speaking fee in the future.  

There’s not that much more to write or say about Rachel, that has not already been expressed by her closer friends and by obituaries in places like the New York Times. But having the honor to host and work with her back in 2012, having the privilege to have read all her books, having the pleasure to follow her online and have her follow me back, I feel terribly close to her memory and feel terrible about this loss. So I have just a little more to say.

Coming from conservative evangelicalism and landing in progressive mainline Christianity, Rachel Held Evans modeled for the rest of us how to be a prophet and peacemaker and to allow the love of Jesus to transcend and overcome all our differences and debates, whether petty or profoundly principled, not by avoiding difficult conversations, but by leaning into them with love and grace.

Rachel did this with her great gifts, but she did this more by reminding us who Jesus is, friend of sinful saints and outrageous outcasts. Rachel brought folks together by being generous to a fault, and finally, by pointing us to a table where we find grape juice and bread and Jesus inviting us, to eat and to drink.

So on the first Saturday in June, I sat at my computer with headphones, and I joined the people in Chattanooga in remembering Rachel and remembering Jesus, by taking some grape juice and bread and partaking of this very holy meal prepared for unholy people, breaking down barriers and bringing us all home. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you to Rachel’s family. Rachel is home. Thanks be to God.