Because she was not angry, we could be

A tribute to Rachel Held Evans

This is in memory of Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer whose writing I found in 2011, when I was a newlywed and fighting to keep any semblance of faith when my group of churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries, was being exposed for egregious abuses of power--everything from protecting child molesters to blackmail--and my family and my in-laws and many of my friends thought that my grief and anger about what was happening in our churches was “scary” or “too much.”

When everyone encouraged me to “wait and see, let’s wait for more information,” Rachel took my writing about the abuses in the church seriously, and eventually offered to host an essay of mine on her blog. Because she was such a gentle, tempered voice, because she exuded kindness, when she offered me that platform, my anger was suddenly legitimized, and my community was able to eventually support me instead of criticizing my grief.

Rachel passed away yesterday morning, May 4th, at the age of 37.

Because Rachel was not angry, they listened to to her. When I was angry and said the same things as she did, they learned to listen to my anger. Because, when we spoke, she listened to my anger and took it seriously, they, too, listened to my anger. Because she was not afraid of my anger, they grew were less afraid of it, finally able to hear the why behind my anger.

“Anger is a sin,” my mother would say, over and over. “It means you’re rebelling against God’s will, that you think you know better than him.”

I was angry. And I didn’t think that I was wrong to be angry--the reasons I was angry were all embedded in truths I believed because they had been taught to me by the same authorities I was angry with. I was angry that the values they instilled in me were values that they were willing to discard easily in private. I was angry that the values that required an emotional toll to uphold were values that they preached every Sunday and felt nothing for on Monday.

“I think this book is important,” I said to my husband. “I think we need to give a copy to your parents so they understand why we’re so upset about Sovereign Grace and the blogs.”

Her book had a title that would age badly, but the idea behind it was familiar: outgrowing the ideas you used to believe firmly in, while staying in the same place that gave you those ideas. She wrote about the slow unraveling, the feeling of needing to burst out of confining ideas, the feeling of commitment to and love for the people who still held to those ideas with a white-knuckled grip.

I think about my houseplants when I think about Rachel. I think about how some plants, when they become root-bound, when their roots are compressed and coiled tightly in the container that they’re growing in, how those plants are happiest that way. If you transfer them to a bigger container, they’ll produce more leaves, but they won’t bloom. They won’t actually be happy--they’ll need to grow to find and replicate the same levels of compression, the tension with their boundaries that they love so much. Others are happy with measured expansion. A larger pot, a happier plant, and then when they start feeling cramped, they struggle. Move them to an even larger pot, again, and they’ll return to their bliss. These plants like margins.

“I don’t understand how Rachel can stay,” I would say. “We’re upset at all the same things.”

“I don’t understand how Rachel isn’t more angry,” I would say. “It’s all so unjust.”

“I read Rachel’s book,” my mother said. “I think I see why you’re so angry better now. She explains it all so gently.”

“I think we’re going to stay in the church despite all the horrific things that have come to light,” said my mother-in-law. “Rachel helped me see that there could be hope for growth from this. I want to help make it better. I’ve been writing letters to the pastors every week--I never thought I would do such a thing!--and they’ve been really taking me seriously. I think they’re going to take some of my suggestions and use them so that they are more transparent about what needs to change going forward.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “I think I need to find a space where I don’t feel like my anger is being held against me. In my new church, when I’m angry, the pastor listens and is sad with me. I think my anger is a form of grief.”

Some plants just refuse to adapt to circumstances that aren’t their ideal--most will adjust to lower light or alternate climates if you catch them early on and introduce the environment before they’ve settled into maturity. But there are a few that remember what their ideal climate should be like, and they refuse to thrive outside of that climate.

“Our churches don’t have space for us to grieve,” I said and Rachel said and Nish said and Elizabeth Esther said and Sarah said and Ashleigh said and Bethany said and Joy said and Emily said and Becca said and Ed said and we all said, “Amen.”

“Do you want to write a blog post for me about this?” Rachel said.

“It’s going to be pretty angry,” I said.

“I can help with that,” she said. “Write it out.”

I have one of these idealist plants, one who who demands low light and humidity. She was struggling in the living room, because while the light and the temperature was good for her, the heaters in the winter dried her out--and she doesn’t like being overwatered, so every watering was a shock to a parched root system. She couldn’t thrive there. I tried the kitchen, but the light was too much--she was more humid and happier with that, but she was getting burned by the exposure.

I could not thrive in the low light of my old church. I could not thrive in the sunny hopefulness of my new church.

Rachel stayed in the old containers, and used the pressure of those spaces to grow things that hadn’t been allowed to thrive there in centuries. She made space for our grief, gave us words for the things we needed, and hosted all of us at a table of her own making, so that when we spoke in unison, we understood that there was no such thing as sin in our anger, that there was no crazy to our grief, that there was no phantom behind our pain. It was real.

As we shifted into different climates or larger containers, she stayed. She kept writing, talking, welcoming.

“I’m glad she’s still writing,” I said. “I couldn’t stay and keep pushing gently on all those things. It just hurt too much.”

“She’s doing the reforming work that so many of us are too traumatized to do,” I said. “I don’t think I could have stayed to do that work. But it needs to be done. And they listen to her because she’s so gentle. That’s so important.”

I’m still angry. I still want my ideals. I don’t sound like a good church lady, so sometimes they don’t want to listen to me.

I found your writing through Rachel’s blog.

I just wanted to say that I thought I was the only one.

Found you through Rachel, it made getting through that hellscape at my Christian college easier. I realized I wasn’t crazy after all.

Thanks for this. I read your piece on Rachel’s blog and it was just like my experiences.

Rachel’s writing kept me alive. Thanks for sharing her with me.

It’s been a mass exodus. When she and I started writing about it all, it was like a trickle of refugees in the wilderness. When her book got published, it became a stream. By the time I came back to see what I had missed after three years of silence in the wilderness, it was a river, and she was one of many voices. But she was one of the very first, and the people who are leaving now are her intellectual grandchildren. I didn’t know her but you did and your writing got me out, they say to the new trail guides, the new generation of reformers who point to the way out, as well as holding the door open for a return home.

“I’m so angry,” said my mother. “I just wanted to call and tell you about it. It’s so unfair.”

My idealist plant and I finally found a compromise on the bathroom windowsill. The shower fills the air with humidity and I don’t have to overwater her. The light is filtered through trees and roof overhang. After a year of struggling to get her to grow any new leaves at all, she has now become bushy with new growth.

Last week she put out her first bloom.