You’ve probably heard by now. One of my favorite Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans, 37, passed away on May 4th from complications from the flu. She is survived by two small children (ages 1 and 3) and her husband Dan. As the days pass, I still find myself processing this news, having to remind myself after a couple of hours of not thinking about it, that she is gone and there will be no more books. I will never get to meet her in person. The truth of it is starting to sink in. Her books on my nightstand look different now, and I keep thinking of her children.
Another thing that is coming to the surface is the realization of just how deeply Rachel’s writings affected me, how I hear her voice in my head sometimes as I write. (I liked to listen to her read her own books on audible because of her southern accent.) The hashtag #becauseofRHE is trending and I can see why; everyone is sharing the ways her life made a difference in theirs, and I am right there with them.
As for me, she gave me permission to have doubts, she gave words to my fears and angers at the church. She helped me see that you don’t have to give up on the Bible even though people have used it to oppress people for centuries. She confirmed for me the knowledge that their was truly room at the table for everyone and that church should call us ALL into community to love one another, not just those who look and act like us. And when that process is uncomfortable, we can look to Jesus who knew something about discomfort and sacrificial service and radical inclusion.
I never felt called to be a pastor, but I longed to have conversations about my questions about the Bible and felt deeply moved towards Christianity...yet I didn’t know what to do with that, how to translate those needs to real life. Rachel Held Evans’ books were like having conversations with someone who had thought my same thoughts, but then had fashioned them into the most beautiful, thoughtful, insightful prose, right there on the page for all to enjoy. She had a profound effect on my writing, and to be honest, she’s why I’m writing this blog in the first place.
You can listen to the podcast we recorded about her this week here.
I wanted to share an excerpt of hers that is probably my most favorite thing she ever wrote. This is from her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding The Church and is taken from a chapter entitled, "Body."
Rest In Peace, good and faithful servant.
"You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
—1 Corinthians 12:27
“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” The quote is attributed to St. Augustine, but no one’s really tracked it down. I’d venture to guess it originated with a man, though, and an unimaginative one at that.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment—that despite her persistent wanderings and betrayals, the church births us and feeds us and names us children of God—it’ s just that when we leave men to draw all the theological conclusions about a metaphorically feminine church, we end up with rather predictable categories, don’t we?
Virgin. Whore. Mother.
But what might a woman say about church as she? What might a woman say about the church as body and bride?
Perhaps she would speak of the way a regular body moves through the world—always changing, never perfect—capable of nurturing life, not simply through the womb, but through hands, feet, eyes, voice, and brain. Every part is sacred. Every part has a function.
Perhaps she would speak of impossible expectations and all the time she’s wasted trying to contort herself into the shape of those amorphous silhouettes that flit from magazines and billboards into her mind. Or of this screwed-up notion of purity as a status, as something awarded by men with tests and checklists and the power to give it and take it away.
Perhaps she would speak of the surprise of seeing herself—flaws and all—in the mirror on her wedding day. Or of the reality that with new life comes swollen breasts, dry heaves, dirty diapers, snotty noses, late-night arguments, and a whole army of new dangers and fears she never even considered before because life-giving isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s a thousand times more beautiful.
Perhaps she would talk about being underestimated, about surprising people and surprising herself. Or about how there are moments when her own strength startles her, and moments when her weakness—her forgetfulness, her fear, her exhaustion—unnerve her.
Maybe she would tell of the time, in the mountains with bare feet on the ground, she stood tall and wise and felt every cell in her body smile in assent as she inhaled and exhaled and in one loud second realized, I’m alive! I’m enfleshed! only to forget it the next.
Or maybe she would explain how none of the categories created for her sum her up or capture her essence.
If the church is like a body, like a bride, then perhaps we ought to take her through what Barbara Brown Taylor’s calls the “spiritual practice of wearing skin”:
Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important to your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address. After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.
“When I do this,” she says, “I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing.”
So let’s turn the mirror:
This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe its time to embrace her, flawed as she is.
Maybe it’s time to smile back.
Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church is telling ourselves the truth about it—acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.
Perhaps there is more to the church than mother and whore. And perhaps we might learn this from a woman