Grieving for Rachel as Rachel Would Grieve

There will be many expressions of grief over the loss of Rachel Held Evans and prayers spoken for her family. We join in that grief and those prayers.

At the same time I’m also finding myself deeply saddened for all the disenfranchised Christians who have found a friend in her. I know many raised in evangelical circles, who are barely holding onto their faith and who were, with the help of writers such as Evans, beginning to imagine a way to remain connected to Christ, even as they released their grip on the faith of their childhood.

These folks are in a tenuous place, releasing what they’ve been without having yet taken hold of what’s yet to be. After being raised in a faith which had easy answers for sudden tragedies, will these struggling followers find courage in this loss? Or will this be the straw that breaks the back of their faith?

As a pastor of a university congregation, I watch young people walk away from faith almost every week. I’ll never get used to the grief as I watch the backs of people, some choosing to walk away from church in an effort to find God, some walking away from God entirely.

It’s tempting to despair for their sake. My pain for the lost relationship makes me want to argue them back into the fold. And it’s tempting to despair for the sake of our “movement.” My pain for the statistics of dwindling churches all over the world makes me want to fight to protect our voice, our influence. God promised all would come to know his name but I’m not seeing it.

Rachel Held Evans captured hurting hearts because she understood the very human reality of struggle and the emotional side of doubt. As much as a doubter will argue facts with you, most often they just need a hug. As much as one struggling with the Church will tempt you to justify the Church, most often they just need someone to say, “I’m so sorry you were treated that way. That wasn’t okay. And that wasn’t the way of Jesus.” Rachel Held Evans captured hurting hearts because she understood the very human reality of struggle and the emotional side of doubt. Click To Tweet

If we want to honor Rachel’s memory, one thing we can do is learn to recognize the deeply emotional reality of the statistics and arguments. The best way to respond to hurting millennials and “nones” and “dones” is not to get defensive but listen, even if their hurts are hard to hear. Will we perpetuate the damage by reacting to how their woundedness wounds us? How their questions make us anxious? How their rejection of the Church feels like a personal rejection of us? How will we even respond to their grief and questions as they process Rachel’s death?

When the prodigal son returned to his father, I’m sure there were many things the Father wanted to talk about. But that could wait until after dessert. First, he set aside his pride, drew up his cloak and ran with abandon to bring home his son, still reeking of pigs.

As Evans herself wrote:

The questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart. . . It was not the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.

As we grieve her loss, will we react from the mind, with defenses of God’s goodness, even when mothers and wives and faithful writers die in their prime? Or will we respond with soft hearts (even when they’re breaking)?

She leaves us with many wise words:

The bravest decision I’ll ever make is to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged . . . It means I’ve got a long race ahead of me, but I’m going to run it with abandon. I’m going to run it as me. Because I think that’s what God wants—all of me, surrendered and transformed, head and heart engaged.

Even as we grieve the sudden, seemingly cruel, death of a gifted voice for Jesus, a friend to many who needed a friend, will we take this risk to engage with abandon, with head and heart engaged? In so doing, we may find our own, whole selves, saved. And as we get used to the discomfort of messy emotion, we may make space among us again for the broken-hearted.

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