Rachel Held Evans, 37

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I’m thinking about my mortality a lot lately. More than I wish I were.

Today, my sister gave me the news that Rachel Held Evans, the author and blogger, died this morning. She had lived thirty-seven years.

If you hadn’t ready the news, this is how she died: [Rachel] entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning. (quoted from Slate.com)

I loved her writing. Not everyone did. Some were offended that she had such a strong voice, that she had/was given authority to speak so loudly to so many, just one individual woman, not a trained theologian, not a pastor of a big church.

I read her books and her blog and I loved them. I just reread her very last blog post. She wrote it for Ash Wednesday. Paradoxically, it speaks both of readiness for death and of her plans for the series she would write for Lent. Rachel did not know she was about to die. Read the post. She probably had outlines of a few of these posts, at least in her mind if not yet on her computer. She was going to draw from Rilke and Lisa Sharon Harper and Barbara Brown Taylor. She intended to write about grieving over the loss of our faith and the hope of finding it again, not in the exact same form but reborn, something both old and new.

But then she died. She had no idea it was coming. She got the flu, then had an allergic reaction, and then she didn’t recover. There was no plan for that. Her little boy is three and her little girl is one.

I want to honor Rachel Held Evans by saying I think she was a great writer, but she was a great writer because she was a great person. In her last post she wrote

Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t reach out to me, in person or online, to tell me they feel betrayed by their family of faith—by what has been done, and by what has been left undone.

You can glean her compassion and her humor, her imperfection–about which she is more than forthright–and her grace through what she wrote. But this, between the lines, tells us that when they reached out, she responded. She loved and listened to people, including strangers. She gave of herself. This is so clear in her blog.

People don’t get to demand real spiritual authority. Positional authority is something different. You can be given a title and decision-making power. But spiritual authority comes when people see they can trust you and invite you to speak into their lives and lead them. Pastor them. Spiritual authority is given by those who follow. Some people are misled and deceived and Jesus warns about wolves pretending to be shepherds so they can eat the sheep. But Jesus also teaches that you will always know by the fruit they bear, by the impact of their lives on their followers, by what you see in their character.

Rachel Held Evans did not take spiritual authority, she was given it by people whose trust she earned, by people she loved well. She shared her life and her griefs and joys. She spoke truth to power and confronted evil, both inside and outside the church, and received exactly the backlash you would expect for that. She wrestled with the Bible and took it more seriously than most and came back around to loving it. Of that she wrote:

 Anyone who has loved the Bible as much as I have, and who has lost it and found it again, knows how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend.

 Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.

This is a funny thing to quote, but as I am grieving, I have been reading through the comments on her blog from her readers. They tell the story, both of how friends and strangers received love from her and the blowback she got for daring to say this things. So here was her comment policy:

Comment Policy:Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

That doesn’t mean we hide from the negative things in life or sweep them under the rug and focus solely on rainbows and unicorns. But don’t be constantly negative or a general ass. Stay positive. If it is critical, pleae make it constructive.

If it is critical, please make it constructive.

That’s what I see in Rachel Held Evans’ writing. She wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood not to mock Scripture but to make sense of it from the inside, to find for herself what was true. Consider the titles of her books:

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

She had doubts and anguish and the abuse and politics she saw in the church drove her to leave evangelicalism in 2014. She describes it here. It’s a painful experience that she lays wide open. But, to my amazement, she takes what is critical and makes it constructive:

So rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion, those who have, for whatever reason, been “farewelled.” 

Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars. 

I’m in.

Today, I am grieving the loss, the shocking, nightmarishly-too-early loss of a voice of grace and hope for the Kingdom of God for all the people God loves. I’m honoring a brave woman, a powerful writer, and a true shepherd of a self-selected flock of misfits and broken folks. How many people have felt a little closer to God and a little closer to sanity when they have read her words? That is good fruit.

Today, I am also realizing that life is too short and I have been letting myself be censored for too long. I’m angry, as I’ve mentioned on here once or twice, but the remedy for my anger is not to self-gag nor to stew. Rachel taught us, for the precious few years she had, “If it is critical, please make it constructive.” Oh, and don’t be a general ass or a troll. It’s time to speak up and help build that community.

Life is too bloody short. I think about death, how I have less time left than I’ve already spent. I think about how in Nicaragua I could make some small difference while here I am floundering…and the clock is ticking. Sometimes I also think how it would be nice just to be done. Depression and discouragement and feelings of failure can swamp my little boat.

Instead, I’m remembering, and I’m telling you, today is the day. Today is the day because tomorrow is promised to no one. Rachel Held Evans ended her post with this:

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.

Lord, hear our prayer. Thank you for Rachel’s life. We commit her spirit to you. We commit our spirits to you. Help us to live and love while we still can. Life is short and death comes too soon…

and death is a part of life.