When I started reading Rachel Held Evans’ blog years ago, I disagreed with her on most things. Today, as I try to comprehend the news of her death, I realize I agree with her on most things. It was the combination of her kindness and her questions that made the difference.
Rachel was one of the first Christian feminists I encountered, and, more broadly, one of the first Christian progressives. I grew up very conservative, just like she did, and we’re the same age—both 37 this year. But she started asking questions before I did, so that by the time I was facing the deconstruction of my faith in my late 20s, she was ready to be a guide to me.
She was relentlessly kind and thoughtful. She loved God and loved people. She engaged the Bible with respect, curiosity, and enthusiasm. The good fruit of her life gave the lie to the false stereotypes I had been taught about liberals. Though her beliefs on many theological subjects were different than mine, I couldn’t deny that she loved and followed Jesus. This was weird for me. I thought people who weren’t “likeminded” or didn’t have the same “worldview” as the fundamentalist evangelical subculture I was a part of weren’t good Christians…or maybe weren’t even Christians at all.
Rachel’s questions about American Christian beliefs helped me question things I had never even considered before, like what kind of person was I to be okay with believing in God-ordained genocide of Canaanite women and children? She broadened and deepened my view of the church. Followers of Jesus can be quite different from each other, unified only in him, and diverse in other perspectives. Followers of Jesus could believe in evolution or even—gasp—be Democrats!
My work today in an international church, with the greatest diversity I’ve ever encountered in one fellowship, is partly possible because of the ways Rachel opened my eyes. The diversity of the people she connected with and cared for has been evident over the past couple weeks as she has been in a medically induced coma. Since Easter, the least-similar group of people I’ve encountered on the internet has come together to pray for her, using the hashtag #prayforRHE to share their memories and prayers—atheists and Christians, exvangelicals and conservative evangelicals, rich/famous and poor/unknown, gay and straight and bi, black and white and brown—all connected over Rachel, because all had felt loved and touched by her. People wrote that though they hadn’t prayed in a long time, they were praying for her. Others wrote that though they no longer believed in miracles, they were hoping for a miracle for her. Others, still strong in faith due to Rachel’s influence, prayed liturgical prayers, charismatic prayers, fumbling and halting prayers. Others didn’t pray at all but joined in the outpouring of love.
The same astounding breadth of humanity has flooded my Twitter timeline today as we come together again, this time to grieve her death. People are thanking her for saving their faith, and others for literally saving their lives. Tyler Huckabee tweeted, “The sheer number of people on here crediting RHE with keeping their faith alive is just staggering. What a gift.” Nate Pyle replied, “For all the accusations, the fruit is making the case of her faithfulness.” Others who have lost faith or never had faith are speaking with great honor and respect of her caring example. Susan Harrison tweeted that Rachel “was a pastor to a gigantic, building-less church of struggling, sometimes cynical, but ultimately hopeful believers.” She touched so many with her kindness and her questions.
What has stood out most to me is the avalanche of women writing that Rachel was instrumental in their understanding and accepting their call to ministry and seminary. Caris Adel tweeted, “A generation of evangelical women owe their freedom to her.” Pastor Abby Norman tweeted, “I followed her voice right into my calling.”
I am one of those women. Back when I thought “feminist” was a dirty word, Rachel’s advocating for women’s equal place in the church and in marriage intrigued me. After frustrations with the limits placed on me in the church because of my femaleness piled up to a breaking point, I was ready to reexamine what the Bible said about women. Rachel’s book A Year of Biblical Womanhood was the first egalitarian book I read. A moment frozen in memory is the sunny day I sat on the edge of my bed reading her work on Proverbs 31 and crying with relief to know it’s not an impossible standard or an endless to-do list. It’s a poetic celebration of a woman of valor. Thousands of women learned the Hebrew phrase “eshet chayil” – woman of valor – from Rachel, and we’re applying it to her today to honor her courage. I wrote about the impact of Rachel’s words on my egalitarian journey on The Junia Project, a website I first heard about through Rachel’s blog.
I also owe Rachel for helping me get to know Scot McKnight’s work. I was vaguely aware of him because I had seen The Blue Parakeet recommended so many places, and just after I ordered it, Rachel did a Q&A with Scot on her blog. I started reading his blog, where I later learned about Northern Seminary’s MANT degree. Rachel’s and Scot’s books and blog posts helped me see that women could be pastors, which is when my long-time sense of passion for ministry work finally made sense, and I realized God was calling me to pastor. That led me to pursue seminary, which is how I’ve ended up studying with Scot. Rachel was a key part of that whole journey—I wouldn’t be where I am today without her words. As I was searching Rachel’s blog today, I came across this beautiful letter she wrote to Scot, which is emblematic of her generous and encouraging spirit.
Today I was laying on the couch, hot tears pouring across my face and pooling in my ear, attempting to take in this loss and reading the reflections of her friends and family. I am grateful for Rachel’s impact on my life. I am also sad, and I am angry, and I have so many questions for God. I don’t know why God didn’t miraculously heal her. How wonderful it would be, I thought over the past weeks as we prayed, for God to heal her completely, amazing her doctors and all of us! How much that would bolster the faith of those who prayed so haltingly. And God didn’t, and that’s confusing and hard, and I want to know why. So I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, and I’m also upset with God. As I was trying to find words for these thoughts, I found something Rachel wrote on grief in 2012, and I’ll let her have the final word: “So let’s grieve together. And let’s give one another the space to be shocked, to be pissed, to appeal to God, to be angry with God, to find peace in God, to question God, to want to take action, to want to wait, to blame, to pray, to be afraid, to be speechless, to vent, to lament, to speak up, to be silent, to pull our families close to us, to need some time alone.”
Becky Castle Miller is on the pastoral staff at Damascus Road International Church in Maastricht, Netherlands, as Discipleship Director. She is the co-author, with Scot McKnight, of the discipleship curriculum Following King Jesus. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies New Testament in the middle of the night via Northern Live. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @bcastlemiller.