If you haven’t heard, or if you need confirming that it wasn’t all a terrible dream, Rachel Held Evans—beloved author, truth-teller, and icon for a generous Christianity—passed away yesterday morning, after a brief and unexpected storm of health complications. She was only 37—two years younger than me.
I first met Rachel over a hamburger in Raleigh nearly a decade ago, in the summer of 2010. She was in town to speak at a student gathering of one of our bazillions of local colleges, one of the few women among a sea of guys. She joined four of us whom she knew online, two fellow conference speakers and two locals: Matthew Paul Turner, Jimmy Spencer, Hugh Hollowell and me, respectively. We headed to MoJoe’s. Over burgers and fries we talked about writing—and blogging, specifically—as well as our shared frustrations with the contours of Christianity in early 21st-century America, and what we each planned to do to try to live into a new way of being.
It was a short meal together; Rachel had a bus to catch, if memory serves. We said our goodbyes.
A few months later, I saw Rachel again, and met her husband Dan, as we were all at gathering that George and Tripp Fuller were put together, Big Tent Christianity. Neither Rachel nor I were speaking; we were both hanging out in the Book Room. Me, running the main conference book table, and she, with her husband, hand-selling her just-released first memoir about growing up at the intersection of religion and science and faith and doubt in the shadow of the Scopes Trial, Evolving in Monkey Town. I was hawking the latest from speakers like Brian McLaren, Philip Clayton and Nadia Bolz-Weber (whose own debut about binge-watching TBN, Salvation on the Small Screen?, I had endorsed), and reminding folks on their way out to say hi to Rachel and check out her book, too. At the end of Big Tent, we had the official after-party at my house. Over a hundred folks spilled out of our back-yard, animatedly discussing new possibilities for faith and spiritual practice over drinks in the glow of tiki torches on a warm September night. In the kitchen we were selling raffle-tickets, to support Love Wins, Hugh’s start-up space of hospitality and dignity for those who lived outside, aka ‘the homeless.’ The grand-prize? A signed copy of Evolving in Monkey Town.
Rachel and I stayed in touch over the years, some years better than others. I, like so many of her admirers, marveled at her generous heart, fiery honesty, and ability to both prophetically critique the faith that birthed her as well as advocate for the immense value of re-imaginging and staying true to the same. Rachel embodied something that I personally aspire to, a way of living that I’m convinced is quite counter-cultural in this day and age:
Being spiritual and religious.
Being transparent to my doubts, while utterly sincere in my faith. Aiming to live out both in a flesh-and-blood community dedicated to loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly with God. It’s a challenging, deeply-rewarding path to attempt, fail utterly at, open myself to grace and start all over again. And Rachel was one of the comparatively few voices of my generation seeking to advocate for this ‘narrow road that leads to life.’ And I get it: there are broad roads of religious-nationalist true believers to our right, and nihilist cynics who’d utterly given up on faith to our left.
So when I saw Rachel’s tweet a few weeks ago mentioning not feeling well and asking for prayer, I’m pretty sure I mumbled a somewhat absent-minded ‘flare prayer’:
When I heard, a few days later, that Rachel began having constant brain seizures and was placed in a medically-induced coma because of the same complications she mentions in this tweet, I began to pray more in earnest. And I wasn’t the only one: the hashtag #PrayForRHE began trending on Twitter.
Outpoured prayers, from across the planet, flowing her way. Bathing her in love, kindness, and healing energies.
I fully expected Rachel to make a comeback. Between the globally-trending prayer and the brain seizures, I expected my friend to be more mystical than ever, having breathtaking and difficult-to-decode Divine visions that she’d spend the rest of her long life contemplating and writing about, for the enrichment of us all.
But yesterday morning, I received a text.
This wasn’t to be.
Rachel had gone.
I felt devastated, as I imagine you did. I fought back tears as I prepared my daughters’ lunch. And in the midst of my grief, I wondered:
Why did she of all people have to leave us, God? What about all that prayer?
I wasn’t alone in asking this question. My friend Chris Boeskool asked it, even before she passed away, and I was annoyed at the time:
It feels to me like these prayers for healing paint a picture of a God on a throne… A God who has plenty of water for a kid dying of thirst, but who is like, “Sorry, you didn’t say PLEASE.” It feels like a physician who has the cure for a deadly disease, but requires the sick person to get 10,000 signatures first. Or to get a hashtag trending. It feels like being back at that Holy Spirity, charismatic church, and having to listen to people talk about “Storming the Gates of Heaven,” or “Holding God to his promises.”
It feels like “Everything happens for a reason” and “All part of God’s plan” and “God never gives us more than we can handle.” And if I’m being honest, it feels like the reason I can’t go to church anymore.
It feels like what led me to read Rachel’s work in the first place.
But I got it. Even Rachel has expressed similar wrestlings:
I became a stranger to the busy, avuncular God who arranged parking spaces for my friends and took prayer requests for weather and election outcomes while leaving thirty thousand children to die each day from preventable disease. (In her amazing Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.)
I, too, have estranged myself from this allegedly-omnipotent god who capriciously holds back saving lives, while simultaneously passing out Divine party-favors to the already-privileged.
If this image of God was my only option, I’d surely be an atheist by now.
But is this our only option—to proclaim and pray to this kind of god?
I was chatting about this last night with an inspiring minister friend. Expressing her grief at how cruel it seemed that Rachel passed so close to Easter, we mutually reflected on how her death might impact so many we care about, who are somewhere in a process of deconstructing their faith. I demurred:
“Welp, another few thousand exvangelicals have now been born. Who may never pray again.”
I also admitted to her:
“My Pentecostal roots being what they are, I haven’t stopped praying for Rachel. I asked God to resurrect her, glam-rock style, to restore her to her family and kick off that big end-times revival that was always prophesied at church growing up. Because wouldn’t that make the cynics speechless! Y’know, if God’s even remotely into that sort of thing.”
But as of this writing, Rachel has not yet made her spectacular return…in this mode of perception, at least.
And so: the grief, questions, and doubt keep coming.
In one online group I’m a part of, Carissa Nicole Winn was brutally honest:
“Rachel Held Evans died this morning, and I’m not okay. I really thought she would pull through this. And…I know that this is not about me, but I can’t help but feel like whatever faith I had left in prayer is gone. She had so many people praying for her. what’s the f#$%ing point?”
Oof. I get it. The Psalms are filled with the righteous rage of our finitude in the face of what so often feels so vast and arbitrary. If the Psalmist were writing in 2019, I think they might very well inquire of Elohim: “What’s the f#$%ing point?”
And yet, in the face of losing Rachel—and in the face of losing my grandfather and great-aunt in the two months preceding—I still pray. And not just the “I used to pray to change God, but now I pray because prayer changes me” high-minded iteration of this practice, either.
I still ask for stuff, including healing…even when those dear to me die.
It’s because of what I keep discovering to be true.
As a contemplatively-inclined Way-farer, I agree with God’s affirmation in Creation, and re-affirmation in Incarnation, that this visible world of flesh and bone and soil and air, is “very good.” The sensible and tangible are vitally important in the scheme of things, something that less-healthy iterations of religion and spirituality tend to obscure, maligning matter in favor of the ‘sweet by-and-by.”
At the same time, the sensate world that we know is simply one part of the scheme of things, one instantiation of what mystics have perennially named the Great Chain of Being, what Integral theorist Ken Wilber calls the Nested Holarchy of Being, Gurdjieff the Ray of Creation, and Cynthia Bourgeault The Cosmic Order.
When it comes to what’s contained in the next horizon, I realize that more is Mystery than the religiously-certain are comfortable with. But even so, I simply can’t (with some of my more reductive friends) constrain myself into thinking that the material plane is all there is.
I really do think Rachel is being lovingly guided onto bigger and grander adventures, which include joining that Great Cloud of Witnesses: just outside our ordinary perception, but ever-present to encourage us in “throw[ing] off everything that hinders” (See Hebrews 12:1) as we continue our journeys in this octave of existence.
None of this negates the real sadness we’re experiencing right now, if we let ourselves. If Jesus, upon discovering his dead friend Lazarus, can be trusted as a template for grief, confidence in ultimate resurrection (on this or any plane) shouldn’t be used to spiritually bypass the very real grief that comes with a gut-punch that our loved ones have breathed their last.
Indeed, the unique disclosure of God stewarded in the Christian revelation doesn’t claim that we’re spared from suffering, but that Christ reveals Godself as co-suffering love.
Nobody gets out of this world alive, but we’re all in this together.
And so, I keep praying. My take on prayer might be overly simplistic for some, even clichéd, but here it is:
Because I experience God in the way that Process-Relational theologians describe God, I see God as powerful, but not ‘all’ powerful. As my good buddy (and Process theologian extraordinaire) Tripp Fuller likes to say, “Omnipotence is a compliment Jesus wants you to take back.” (Poignantly enough, here’s a conversation Tripp has with Rachel about this very thing.)
Dropping unnecessary (and unbiblical) totalizing adjectives alone has improved my prayer life a great deal.
Taking the lead of Tripp, Monica Coleman, Thomas Jay Oord and other process people, I experience God’s presence in my life as the Most-Relational Relater, uniquely present in reality while still but one relational being in the Great Chain of Being, effecting and being affected by everything and everyone else.
And so in prayer, I relate to God as I do a lover, or a friend—I can simply be with Them in silence, or dialogue, or (yes) make requests. And, just like requests made to a friend or romantic partner, I can make them known in vulnerability, and the person I’m speaking with also has Their agency intact—their reasons for responding or not responding, including varying degrees of ability to respond.
As I result, I’ve found two clichés from my Pentecostal-Evangelical past to be strangely redeemed. They are:
God always answers my prayers. The answer that comes is either ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ ‘Not yet.’, or silence.
God always heals. Either on this plane, or the next.
Your mileage may vary, friend. And I’m not attempting to short-circuit your anger or your grief.
But by relating to God consistently as real but not absolute, alot of my angst toward the Divine has abated. On good days, I’m able to approach a second naïveté on the other side of deconstruction.
It’s like a sad country music song played backwards: I get the Friend of my soul back, feel my place in the Nested Ecosystem of Being, and even remain connected to my departed loved ones, just on the other side of the Great Cloud of Witnesses.
Whatever cosmology you choose to enact, I’m with you in incredible sadness today. And I’ll be praying for us. ❦
If you can help: Dan Evans and his kids are now facing massive medical expenses from the past few weeks of Rachel’s treatment. You can contribute to help defray costs here.
If you want to hear Rachel’s own voice, and remember the gifts she brought (or perhaps discover them for the first time), you can listen to The Garden Meditation on The Liturgists. She also recorded three of her four books as audiobooks: Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, and Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. If you’re not an Audible member, you can get one of these free by trying it out.
Finally, if you want to explore Rachel’s impact online and share your own story, check out the #BecauseofRHE hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure a ton of blog posts exploring Rachel’s impact will be emerging in the coming days; for now, check out my friend Morgan Guyton’s Rachel Held Evans and the Democratization of Theology and I’m Here Because of Her by new friend (whom I met at Rachel’s Evolving Faith conference last October) Laura Jean Truman.
And please: Share your own reflections on Rachel, or prayer, or both, in the comments below.