In a hotel room in the heart of Culloden, Scotland, I stood dressed to go to dinner. We had enjoyed a long day of sightseeing including the impressive Clava Cairns and a rainy and windy Culloden Battlefield. Before heading down to the dining room, however, I thought I would check the news just once more for the day.
I picked up my cell as I opened the door on the way out and quickly perused Twitter. And there was the news that I prayed would not come.
Rachel Held Evans had passed.
For days, I had been praying for the restoration of her health from a sudden and mysterious ailment that caught her unawares. In the beginning, it seemed as though it was benign, an infection accompanied by the flu. However, each passing day with little to no news brought a scare to the fore. As the days advanced, the updates became more dire. Now this.
I am writing as if I knew her and yet I didn’t. Not physically. Only through her writing. Through her books and her blogs. And Twitter. Reciprocal follows and a few passing comments on Twitter embody the totality of my relationship with Rachel.
I knew her through the written words she used to speak to the world about injustices with the heart for Jesus that she wore on her sleeve. The doubters, the less loved, the abused, the forgotten, the hopeless…Those people that Jesus wanted us to minister to were the exact people that found Rachel at their side, hand-holding them through their own dizzying life experiences.
I knew the path that she followed as she grew from her evangelical roots. Afraid to depart the once firmly held foundation of faith that was given to her by her parents, her family, her church. Yet, clear that more was being asked of her. I read of her angst of finally understanding that a bigger, grander statement of what Jesus bled and died for awakened her soul into a broader understanding of doubt. Maybe it’s not an “or”, maybe it’s an “and.”
And before those sweet babies came, when she questioned whether she would have children of own despite being fulfilled as a childless woman securing her own place in the world, I knew that feeling too. For I had chosen not to have biological children and felt no less loved by my lord.
Yet, my grief at the moment of impact when I learned of her death was palpable. I felt it in my chest. I instantly sat down on the sofa in my hotel room with my phone held tight to my chest shaken by the news.
The mists of that gloomy day in Scotland enveloped me. They described my mood. I wasn’t certain why my grief felt so profound at that moment. The tears that welled up in my eyes and my heart felt unnatural. How could this hurt so deeply?
Yes, I felt gut-wrenching sorrow for her husband, her two babies, her entire family. And those friends whose beautiful outpourings of sorrow washed over me made me feel their own loss. Yet, what was most apparent to me was that Rachel was a stranger. I was feeling emotion that was not warranted. I was feeling emotion that I was not entitled to feel.
I teared up. My husband, immediately concerned, asked what was wrong. I did my best in the few moments that we had before dinner to explain to him who Rachel was and how she was at the forefront of the inclusion-based Christian landscape that we see rising in churches today.
Dinner awaited. The promised pleasures of a long-planned vacation ahead of me. Yet, the sights and smells and sounds of Scotland now muted by a heavy heart and a burden that would not let me go.
Once back in the states, I caught up on all of the messages dedicated to Rachel and the testimony of what she was to an ever-growing demographic of Christians asking more from their churches and their peers. I saw those who had been abused by the patriarchal system of the church laying themselves bare at her feet, thanking her for her dedication to the real Jesus, the one who loved them no matter their flaws, their sins or even the greatnesses in them overlooked by a church unwilling or unable to recognize them.
The weeks that passed after my return had me returning to Rachel’’s books, being reminded of the loss, the deep gaping whole that is now apparent in a world without her words.
I have no real explanation as to the grief that I am still experiencing. The grief that I bear for a woman I never met. Perhaps my grief is related to fear. A fear of what comes when we have one less voice championing the cause of the real Jesus. A fear that brave, smart women may be pushed back into the shadows because they are proclaiming her faith in a way not favored by the traditional church. A fear that we may lose sight of that cross and the real people whose lives Jesus came here to fight for. A fear that any expression of doubt will leave us feeling lost and alone without the hand-holding of someone who has also experienced her own dark night of the soul.
I John 4:18 tells us that there is no fear in love, “but perfect love casteth out fear.” I’m going to hang my hat on that. I’m going to trust Jesus will continue to raise others up to speak to injustices, to speak to doubt, to urge us on the path to more righteousness and holiness. Through Rachel, I came to know a whole host of beautiful writers and speakers who are keeping her flame alive, fighting fear back one precious word and deed at a time. Just like Jesus asked them to.