I don’t often tell the story of how I lost my faith when I was 24. There was a six month period, in which I was still directing a youth camp, working on a theology degree and attending a Bible Study, in which I completely failed to believe in God, let alone that his promises held true for me. There were many factors that contributed to my spiritual flight. But they found their culmination in a brief moment after church, one Sunday in 2011.
I was attending a small church in a country town, and we had been without a pastor for about a year. Preaching was therefore being done on a nominate-yourself basis. I was part-way into my theological studies and had a conviction that I was gifted with skills to speak about God and his love, so I added my name to the list at the back of the church. I did it with a little bit of caution as I hadn’t preached in a church before, but I wanted to be brave and to use my gifts to serve the church community.
I won’t forget the speed at which one of the elders moved across the church when he saw me adding my name to tell me to remove it on the basis of my gender. I totally understand that this is a contentious issue within churches, and that his desire was genuinely to be true to the scriptures as he read them. But in that moment there was an immediate dismissal of my voice, and I felt rejected and humiliated as I walked home from church.
I didn’t return for about six months.
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Those six months have been freshly brought to mind for me as I have been mourning the death of Rachel Held Evans (RHE). In the midst of my uncertainty and doubt, she was a voice calling me back onto the path home again.
The way she bravely spoke about her own struggles gave legitimacy to mine.
I don’t remember who put me onto her blog, but in reading it, I found that it felt right. She validated my experience of Christian communities that taught so much that felt at odds with who I am. She was also a corrective voice. She helped me see my own selfishness in how I approached those same communities and gave me a humble path by which to walk back into them.
Above all, RHE’s process was a model of honesty, wit and clarity, and witnessing it gave me the confidence to find, own and use my own theological and spiritual voice. The way she bravely spoke about her own struggles gave legitimacy to mine. Her refusal to find quick and easy answers about God forced me to wrestle with difficult questions and see beauty in the complexity. Her example opened the way for me to ask challenging questions about the theological communities in which I found myself, and to look for the way of Christ in these. She taught me that my voice mattered, regardless of whether or not it conformed to the power structures around me. That it was okay to “be wrong” in people’s eyes so long as you asked questions, reflected on scripture, and were trying to love God and people.
My interactions with her, fleeting as they were, reflected that spirit of celebration and support for women in the Church.
This week I went back and found our three online interactions: two on twitter and one on her blog. All three demonstrate her generosity towards others that I want to emulate. The first acknowledges and thanks my appreciation of her and her book “Year of Biblical Womanhood”. The second is her giving support and a little assistance to a project I on which I was working. And the third, on her blog, an article she wrote in response to a question I had posed in the comments. Many people know her for the phrase “Eshet Chayil” or “Woman of Valour”, a Hebrew term she brought to popularity within the evangelical community. It is a phrase to champion the everyday victories of women, from childbirth, to graduation, to cancer treatment, to making a good dinner, to a job promotion. My interactions with her, fleeting as they were, reflected that spirit of celebration and support for women in the Church.
On the evening of the day we received the news that she had gone to be with Jesus, I had the privilege of hearing a friend, a young woman, preach at her home church. I could make general claims about how proud Rachel would have been of her and her community, and I am sure they would be true. But Rachel’s legacy in this story is much more specific. It is because of her that when I ran into my friend’s minister at an event last year I suggested he put my friend on his preaching roster. Rachel has taught me to make sure the voices of women are given platforms and to use what I can to make that happen.
I stopped following her work closely sometime in 2013, I can’t really remember why. I wouldn’t call myself an unreserved fan of hers either, not in 2011 or in for the following years. There are points where our theologies diverge and sometimes I found her approach hard to understand. But she taught me to own what I believe and then to listen to as many critiques as possible, having the courage to change my opinion if/when I find that it does not conform to the word of the God that I know and love. This is something on which I am still working, people who know me will tell you I fail often. And yet I carry on, and in doing so I hope to honour the life of a remarkable woman, who has gone before us to an eternal peace.
Eshet Chayil Rachel! Mighty woman of valour.