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Out of Egypt: Remembering Rachel

(IT MIGHT NOT LOOK LIKE IT, BUT THE RESISTANCE IS WINNING, an excerpt from Inspired by the late Rachel Held Evans, elaborates on the theme of my RESISTANCE BIBLE STUDY – have a look at her perspective.  PLAN NOW to start a Resistance Bible Study in your church or community for the next program year!)

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On Sunday, at Mt Hollywood Congregational Church in Los Angeles, we it a candle on the altar to remember Rachel Held Evans.  It was communion Sunday, and I was presiding.  After we served everyone the elements, I ripped a piece of bread from the loaf and set it in front of the candle.  And as I did so, I saw tears rimming the eyes of our member Ariel Quist Sprawls, 29, a public school speech-language pathologist and avid member of Rachel’s “fan club”.

One of the meanings of the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is “narrow place”.  Geographically it made sense, given that to this day most Egyptians live on the long strips of land on either side of the Nile.  The escape of the people of Israel from Egypt added meaning to the term.  They fled the constraints of bondage in Egypt, setting forth on an exodus toward an unseen, open Promised Land.

Rachel Held Evans came of age in the Bible Belt.  She went to college at a school named for the champion of six-day creationism, William Jennings Bryan.  (Perhaps subliminally, her politics may have been shaped by the fact that Bryan was also a democratic socialist and three-time Democratic candidate for the presidency.)  A budding journalist and blogger, her writing began to reflect her doubts about the version of Christianity in which she was raised.  Her books, “Faith Unraveled”, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”, and the last, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again”, became compasses for exvangelicals, emergents, and progressive Christians finding their way out of the “narrow place” of conservative Protestantism.

Rachel stayed connected to her roots, even as she embraced the much more socially liberal and theologically nuanced Episcopal tradition.  That she still spoke “evangelicalese” mattered a lot to her faithful readers.

She died last Saturday at the age of 37 from complications of an infection.  The high level of mainstream press attention to her passing is its own story.  For those of us who identify as progressive Christians, it is a wake-up call to the size of the current exodus of young people from evangelical churches.  More than ever, we need to make our identity and our welcome public and explicit.  Otherwise, the exodus will assume that we follow the dominant fundamentalist paradigm – and pass us by.  We may need to change ways we do worship and music in order to welcome them more fully.  But that does not mean we have to copy Hillsong and Mosaic, with their slick production values.  She wasn’t looking for “better-produced Christianity”, but rather for a more authentic and progressive expression of the faith.  Some adjustment to our style may help, but what Rachel’s readers seek most is compassionate, common-sense interpretation of the ancient rituals and traditions.

And that’s what Ariel and her husband were seeking when they showed up at Mt Hollywood Church.  There’s nothing slick about us, to be sure.  Though we’re populated with actors, writers, musicians, and other Hollywood creatives, our church is hardly “better-produced Christianity”.  On the contrary, we’re a respite from production of any kind.  We do wear flip-flops and shorts to worship, but we don’t aspire to cool, curated, artisanal Christianity – old-school Southern Baptist dogma dressed in skinny jeans and expensive tee-shirts.  

In Rachel’s writings, Ariel says “I felt like I was looking at a mirror… like Rachel, I used to derail almost every college Bible study and small group I went to with my doubts and concerns about hell and God’s love… Rachel’s book helped me relive that part of my faith journey that felt so isolating. It helped me know I wasn’t crazy to have gone through it. She helped me recognize that I wasn’t alone.   Her book Inspired opened up the Bible in a new way. She helped me pry my heart back open…”

At our church, Ariel finds herself “moved by hymns that alter wording to encompass  God’s non-binary-ness. I am touched by hymns that broaden the idea of who my neighbor is. I find that Rachel’s books and the sermons of (progressive) pastors fill me with so much more hope, love, curiosity, and compassion than the sermons of my former churches.  I imagine a church might learn that even the rock-headed, Bible believing Christian women who seem so different from them may have doubts and worries that the progressive church can affirm. That those of us who come from evangelical backgrounds are grateful for the models of loving-kindness we find in progressive churches. That we can change our tunes about beliefs that once seemed unmovable. And that it is appreciated when the issues/ideas/beliefs we have to continue to deconstruct and reconstruct are acknowledged by the church.”

Rachel’s death has touched Ariel to the core.  “I have been reading tweets from a lot of people who personally knew her and have just been joining in the grief they are feeling. For her tiny children who lost their mother, for her husband who lost his wife. Rachel showed me that I wasn’t alone when I thought I was, she expanded my understanding of the Bible which is the most important book in my life. I feel a deep sadness as I imagine myself walking through new parts of my life realizing that I will not have her voice providing ongoing guidance, solidarity, challenging ideas, and humor…  I think that the outpouring of love and remembrance of her from the variety of communities she touched could not make it any more clear that she was living out a deep message of the Bible, that of loving her neighbors… even though she passed away much too soon, that the little time I did have with her work has changed me into a person whose life more deeply reflects my Christianity. Her words supported me on my path to the church I currently attend. And for all of those things, I am so, so grateful.”

May the grief that Ariel and so many others feel at the passing of Rachel Held Evans awaken us, as progressive Christians, with a call to gentle, sensitive, welcoming ministry to the millions of souls in exodus from religious “narrow places” today.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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Click Here to Purchase: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, and Loving the Bible Again

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