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.
Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love
Yale University Press (September 22, 2020), 481 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $25.99
I have long felt that my religious inclinations are closer to modern Rabbinic Judaism than to Christianity. That is odd, since I’m a practicing Episcopalian, but it’s true. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the Trinity and I’ve been told I don’t understand it. I like the idea of a direct relationship with God, and I’m not sure why we need a Son to facilitate that.
In fact, if things had been slightly different I might have converted to Judaism. My first wife, Ruth, was Jewish and the rabbi at the local reform synagogue married us in our backyard. We were members of the synagogue and attended Friday night sabbath services, which I loved. One year I had the privilege of attending the Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, which I found deeply moving. I felt a real resonance with the liturgy.
At one Friday sabbath service, however, the rabbi came down strong and hard against new age practitioners in his sermon. This was a bit of an issue in that Ruth was a new age practitioner. His comments, understandably, seriously ticked her off. I tried to defuse the situation, but without success. The conversation went something like this.
Me: “He was just trying to say…”
Me: “He was only making the point that…”
Me: “He simply wanted to suggest that…”
As you can imagine, we did not return to Friday evening services. But I had a strong affinity for Judaism long before I met Ruth and I have maintained that affinity in the decades after her untimely death.
It’s no surprise, then, that when I saw Judaism for the World reviewed it got my attention. Arthur Green is a rabbi and a trainer of rabbis. He has had a long career and Judaism for the World includes a variety of his writing over a period of years. He is a student of Gershom Scholem, and as such takes a mystical approach to his religion. He is conversant with Kabbalah and its primary written work, the Zohar, as well as the teachings of the Hasidic rebbes. He is also a scholar and well-versed in the Law.
Green takes seriously the history of the Jewish people having been slaves in Egypt and is therefore critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Green is highly ecumenical in his approach and respects the validity of other religions. He writes, “Religions acting together, in common quest for God—or the One, or Being, or the great Nothing—and fulfillment of the divine purpose in existence, can be a great force for good.”
One of the most interesting passages in the book is Green’s recounting of his own spiritual path. His mother died when he was eleven, and his father was an atheist. However, Green found a great deal of meaning in the small synagogue his maternal grandparents attended. His father sent him to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was not something the father wanted but agreed to it in order to make Grandmother happy. He told the young Green that he could drop out if he didn’t like it. Much to his father’s consternation Green loved Hebrew school and was delighted to receive his bar mitzvah. As a college graduate he nearly declined to be ordained as a rabbi, citing inconsistency and hypocrisy in the religion. Ultimately he realized he could do more good from the inside than from the outside. The rest is… Well, you’ll see what the rest is from the essays and speeches in this book.
Judaism for the World reinforced for me my understanding that part of me is quite Jewish.
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.
I am not a trinitarian kind of guy, as I have more than once noted here. My personal theology is much closer to rabbinic Judaism than it is to a Christian trinitarian perspective. Yet I am an Episcopalian, about as trinitarian a denomination as it’s possible to be.
Nonetheless I do sometimes like the idea of the Holy Spirit, depending on how it is portrayed. Some of the best, most interesting, and fun portrayals can be found in the Facebook page Unvirtuous Abbey. One of my favorites is this one. It reminds me that in those moments when God seems far away one only need wait a short while for the arrival of His (Her!) presence.
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.
We lost Ann Fontaine last week.
Ann was a well-known figure to Episcopalians online. I knew her through her blog, through the Episcopal Café, and through Facebook.
I was aware that she had some lung issues, but somehow I had the impression that those issues were under control. However, Ann announced before Ash Wednesday that she was not going to observe Lent this year – she had enough to focus on with her own health. She, in effect, put herself into self-managed hospice care. Somewhere around Easter she called in the hospice professionals. Her daughter let us know last week that Ann died peacefully in her sleep.
We will miss her.
I loved reading her blog when she actively maintained it. She was a founder of the Episcopal Café and an active contributor until recently. I once wrote an article for the Café in which I described how, though an Episcopalian, I had a big problem with the Trinity and that my theology was much closer to that of rabbinic Judaism. She posted a comment on Facebook saying, “Someone doesn’t understand the Trinity.” That kind of irked me, but she was right. I still don’t understand the Trinity.
Ann was also a Facebook friend. She would occasionally click Like on one of my posts. I appreciated that. She loved baseball, as, of course, do I. She was a big-time Cubs fan. While still in the Bay Area I was a Giants fan, but after moving back to SoCal in 2015 I had no choice but to resurrect my loyalty to the team of my childhood, the Dodgers. There was some discussion a while back about bringing the designated hitter to the National League. Ann posted her outrage to Facebook. A FB friend replied that it wasn’t that big of a deal. And replied, “Yes it is!” I fully agreed with her.
We love you, Ann. We miss you. Rest in peace and rise in glory!
I’m not that old. At least I don’t feel that old. I have to admit that I become eligible for Medicare next year. But still. And if I want to feel young, all I have to do is to do is have lunch at the Bistro here at Four Seasons or go to Sunday service at Good Shepherd Episcopal.
Think back to the first major global event you remember. For me, it was the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
She went on to write: “Others may recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. … Still others will remember the events of September 11, skyscrapers folding in upon themselves and planes being transformed into missiles.”
I was working at the weekly newspaper Metro in San Jose when the publisher’s wife said, “The shuttle blew up.” When the Berlin Wall fell I was working at a small software company in Mountain View. On 9/11 I was snoozing on the commuter train, not learning what had happened until I arrived at Lawrence Station in Sunnyvale.
The earliest events I remember were decades earlier. I remember talk of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a podium and people discussing his statement, “We will bury you.” I remember the events surrounding the 1960 presidential election. I suppose the first specific even I remember was Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight in 1961. I was an avid follower of the space program then on.
But still, I don’t feel that old.
I make a point of taking nothing for granted. And I make a point of being grateful.
I first got my hearing aid in 2010. I was delighted at the difference it made. I was grateful to have it. I had to send it in for repair twice and missed it terribly while I was without it. I never took it for granted.
Recently I lost it. It was, literally and metaphorically, the perfect storm. On Friday 17 February Southern California was hit by the largest rain storm it had seen in a dozen or more years. That same day Terry was scheduled for a procedure at a location about thirty miles away. (You know the procedure. It’s the one we have to get every few years after we turn a certain age. The one where the preparation is more unpleasant than the actual procedure.) When we arrived at the facility it was cloudy and cold but not raining. By the time they released Terry the storm had arrived in full force. I had Terry in the wheelchair and was trying to juggle that and the umbrella. As I often do when going from a building to the car when it is raining I took off my hearing aid and put it in my pouch. I managed to get Terry to the car and into the car, get rid of the wheelchair, and get myself into the car. When I went to get my hearing aid out of my pouch it wasn’t there. The battery was there but there was no hearing aid. Retracing my steps in the pouring rain produced nothing, and even if it had the hearing aid would doubtless have been ruined.
It being a Friday afternoon, there was nothing I could do until Monday. I researched local hearing aid centers over the weekend and selected one that had been in business for a long time and sold multiple lines. I called them first thing Monday morning and though it was President’s Day I was grateful that they were open. I made an appointment for 8:00 a.m. Wednesday. The audiologist was very competent and thorough. I asked him about a hearing aid that would connect directly with my iPhone. He recommended the ReSound brand and as it was only a little bit more expensive than buying the brand I previously had, I decided to go for it.
The hearing aid arrived last Thursday and I immediately made an appointment for this morning. I went in and again the audiologist was very thorough and helpful. The features are somewhat different from my previous hearing aid, but I am getting used to how they work. And not only am I able to use my iPhone directly with my hearing aid (without an intermediate device), but I can control it from my iPhone. I can change the volume and the settings. There is a restaurant setting that I can adjust for the ambient sounds, and then tell the app to remember that restaurant.
It’s all very cool and I am delighted to be able to hear properly again.
I am grateful and I take nothing for granted.
I somehow simply of fell into this. I sit in my chair and read the day’s Forward Day by Day meditation. Then I pull out my copy of the marvelous book, 2000 Years of Prayer, which I have owned for more than a decade and a half, and flip to a random page where I read a prayer or two or three.
Simple and straightforward. And so far it’s working.
I have always thought that the serenity prayer as we commonly know it (“God grant me the serenity…”), made popular by 12-step groups, to be rather trite and trivial. That is no doubt due in part to its ubiquity and for me perhaps due also in part to it being shoved at me in my younger, much more impatient days.
Back in March, I wrote about a new serenity prayer written by James Martin, a Jesuit priest. I have kept it framed on my wall since around that time, and I commend it to you. I have recently been thinking about the original, complete serenity prayer, however. It was written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Given the current political climate and the state of the world in general, I have pulled it out of my electronic archives, and it is now on my study wall directly below the James Martin version. For me it is much more powerful than the oft-repeated version.
For your consideration:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.