Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
HarperOne (November 2, 2021), 229 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99
I was unsure whether I wanted to read Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans’s final book. Evans died in 2019 at the age of thirty-seven due to complications from a strange infection. She left a body of writing on her computer that she intended to develop into another book. Her husband gave her frequent collaborator, Jeff Chu, access to those writings and Chu formed them into the book that was published as Wholehearted Faith. After listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Chu on her radio program and podcast On Being I knew I needed to read the book.
I knew of Rachel during her lifetime, but I regret that I never read any of her work while she was still alive. In December I listened to the audiobook version of Searching for Sunday, which she read herself. Although we come from very different backgrounds, in reading that book I shared with her the quest to discover what, exactly, my relationship is with the church. It is a complicated and nuanced question.
Evans grew up in an evangelical home. Her father was involved in Christian education and the family attended a conservative evangelical church. As a child she was passionate about her own beliefs and made herself into the best evangelical she could be. She won the Best Christian Attitude award in her parochial school four years running, a streak that was only broken when her family moved and put her in public school. At her baptism by immersion as a teenager her primary concern was that the white baptismal gown clinging to her maturing body might lead a boy in the congregation to have impure thoughts.
As an adult she began to be bothered by the prejudice and intolerance in her evangelical tradition. She was unhappy with the secondary role such churches gave to women and their condemnation of LGBTQ+ individuals and those with other alternative lifestyles. She came to believe that it was all right to doubt and to debate and discuss the Bible.
She starts the first chapter with a series of paragraphs that begin, “On the days when I believe…” For example, “On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints.” After those positive and joyful paragraphs she writes, “And then there are the other days.” She goes on to write about how she copes with those other days. Rachel says that when she doesn’t have the words for her own prayers she can return to the ancient prayers in the Christian tradition.
Rachel writes, just as I have experienced, “Early on I sensed a profound disconnect between what I was supposed to believe and what I actually believed.” She admits, as do I that, “My so-called spiritual journey still continues to meander.”
Although she moved in her own direction as an adult she is not bitter or angry about her parents, her pastors, or her childhood churches. Rather, she states they allowed her to become the person she turned into as an adult. In the face of harsh criticism for the content of her blogs posts and her tweets she developed a mantra of “Thick skin, tender heart.” Rachel writes about people with other lifestyles and states, “I thought God wanted to use me to show queer people how to be straight. Instead, God empowered queer people to show me how to be a better Christian.”
Jeff Chu includes a passage in which Rachel writes about how she and her husband were building a new house. She says that like in her old house her study would be in the basement, but that, unlike the old house, the new study wouldn’t have 1970s wood paneling and would have windows out of which she could watch her children playing in the back yard. That she never got to experience that house and her new study brought a tear to my eye.
Near the end of the book Rachel riffs on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” She provides several iterations starting with that phrase including this one: “For God so loved the world that God empowered us to love even our enemies, even the worst person on Twitter, even those who seem incapable of love themselves.”
Damn. That’s hard. It’s true; I know it is. But I struggle with that more than nearly any other aspect of Christianity. I’m supposed to love the guy with the orange hair who incited the insurrection at the Capitol building? Really? But Rachel does not shirk from laying out the hard stuff for her readers.
It’s a huge loss that we no longer have Rachel Held Evans with us. I am grateful to Jeff Chu for giving us one last book from her.
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel Held Evans
read by the author
Thomas Nelson, April 21, 2015
$20.96 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
I had long known of Rachel Held Evans when I read of her hospitalization in 2019 with a strange infection, and was, like so many others, saddened by her subsequent death at a time when we needed her wisdom and insight. I had, however, not read any of her work.
I was interested, therefore, to learn of the posthumous publication of a new book entitled Wholehearted Faith. Her husband discovered she left behind extensive notes and unfinished writing on her computer, so he called on her writing collaborator, Jeff Chu, to craft what was there into one final book. When looking at her books, however, I was attracted by an earlier work of hers, Searching for Sunday. She writes about her own spiritual path; it seemed to me to have parallels to my own.
She divides the book into seven sections, corresponding to the seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage. (The Episcopal Church considers communion and marriage to be sacraments, while it calls the remainder sacramental rites.) Within each section she writes both about her spiritual path and her reflections on church and society. A couple of the chapters amount to her own liturgical litanies.
She writes about growing up at the evangelical Grace Bible Church in Tennessee and being baptized there as a teenager. The pastor at Grace later presided Rachel and her husband’s wedding, and they attended the church until leaving when the doctrine there became incompatible with their own beliefs. The members of their church and others in their small town made this a topic of conversation. When someone emailed Rachel telling her she had heard that Rachel had become a Buddhist, Rachel responded, “I’m not disciplined enough to be a Buddhist!”
She and her husband did some halfhearted church seeking, but she admits that on many Sundays they ended up television binge-watching. When the former youth pastor at Grace decided to form a mission church in Dayton Rachel and her husband joined in. The mission didn’t last, and after its closure she and her husband didn’t spend a lot of time in church search. Rachel’s weekends were busy meeting with church groups and attending conferences resulting from the popularity of her first two books. (I’m sorry to say that her California hosts could not convince her of the sacred nature of the In-n-Out burger.) She writes about a stay at a monastic retreat house, where the guestmaster was completely accepting and her lunch table-mate was taken aback that Rachel had doubts (and that she wasn’t Catholic). Ultimately, Rachel and her husband found an Episcopal church a half hour away from their home which they attended semi-regularly.
It was delightful listening to Rachel tell her story in her light Tennessee accent. She makes you think she is the kind of person with whom you would like to have a long after-dinner conversation. Not that everything is upbeat and pleasant about the church for Rachel. She suggests that the church should be a place where a person feels safe but not necessarily comfortable.
It is a tragedy that Rachel Held Evans is no longer with us, but if you have ever had doubts about your own spiritual path get the audiobook and listen to Rachel’s comforting voice. You will feel better about your own struggles.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61
Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.
She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.
If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.
Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:
The search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.
Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”
She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”
And for me too.
We preempt our regularly scheduled blog to bring you the royal wedding sermon by The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. It is well worth fourteen minutes of your time. You may want to have a Kleenex handy.
My former rector, Fr. Phil at St. John the Divine, Morgan Hill, tweeted this the other day:
Faith involves the humility of living with mystery
since an infinite number of things are in relationship
with an infinite number of things
I re-tweeted that. I’m always trying to figure stuff out. And sometimes things can’t be figured out. Science is important and critical and essential. We need science. But sometimes we simply need to make room for the mystery.
follow me on twitter: @MikeChristie220 I tweet whenever I publish a new blog entry.
I first encountered Pot Shots by Ashleigh Brilliant in the fall of 1971 when I first began attending Pitzer College in Claremont. They were postcards and the drugstore in downtown Claremont carried them. May favorite is someone looking off at the horizon, and the caption says:
Who will take care of the world
when I’m gone?
They are all digitized now, and you can find them daily on gocomics.com. Right now they are offering Pot Shots from that 1971 year. I don’t remember this one from those days, but it is unsettling that this sentiment is as applicable today as it was in 1971.
Appropriate, I think, given Wednesday’s blog entry. And, of course, I love the seventies milieu.
For me there’s a lot of church doctrine in which I don’t believe. Take, for example, the bulk of the Nicene creed, which we say every Sunday. Fortunately, I am part of the tradition of the Episcopal Church where doctrine is not crucial.
That tradition goes back, of course, to Queen Elizabeth I, who, while she had no reservations about telling people how to worship, was not interested in what people believed. Tradition holds that she said:
I would not open windows into men’s souls.
(I quoted the statement as it has been preserved. There was, of course, no concept of gender-inclusive language in her time.)
It is a practice that most of the Anglican Communion has continued to honor. That’s nice, because I love being able to receive Communion without feeling that I need to subscribe to a particular doctrine.
Yet another reason I love being an Episcopalian.
I’ve long been familiar with Coffee with Jesus, since a couple of my Episcopal Facebook friends tend to share it frequently. It’s only recently that I’ve clicked Like on the source for the comic strip, Radio Free Babylon. The reason I did so was because of this one, which hit a bit too close to home (which CWJ frequently does). I’ve written about the house two doors down, where the wife has created something of a boarding house to make the mortgage, since her husband (whom I have not seen in ages) is not providing income due to his substance abuse. The boarders are not exactly young professionals, or even college students. They are, my guess is, mostly involved in recovery programs of one kind or another, and I tend to turn up my nose and look the other way.
That’s not quite what Jesus would have done.