Grieving and Celebrating Rachel Held Evans

Grieving and Celebrating Rachel Held Evans May 6, 2019

 By Becky Castle Miller

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.


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  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thank you, Becky, for sharing this remembrance of Rachel (and Scot for posting it). My wife, Paula, introduced me to Rachel’s blog years ago, in the early days of my wife’s ministry as a pastor. While I don’t tend to be one who follows blogs, I did appreciate the kinds of questions Rachel was asking and the way she was able to wrestle with those questions in a winsome way. By the time I read her first book “Evolving in Monkey Town” (a brilliant title!) I had already traveled the path through questions that she was trying to find about a decade before, after having left my fundamentalist upbringing behind and wandered away from the church for several years (my help came from the Lord–and the Catholic intellectual tradition). I then used her book in a Religion and Science course to give my students a picture of what it might look like to ask good but hard questions of their faith–while keeping the faith and asking God to help our unbelief.

  • This is a beautiful remembrance, and the last paragraph is especially honest, beautiful, and appropriate.

    I have never actually read any of Rachel Held Evans’ books, but the people I love to read have been very influenced by her and/or interacted with her a lot. She sounds like an amazing person who actually did a lot of good for a lot of struggling people.

  • Glen Shellrude

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute to an exquisite woman.

  • Thanks for sharing your story and remembrance, Darrin! Blessings to Paula as she serves in the tough but beautiful role of pastor.

  • AHH

    Nice tribute for someone who was a vessel of hope and encouragement to many who might otherwise have given up on Jesus due to disillusionment with what Evangelicalism has become.

    Speaking of that mess, of course one blogger on Patheos Evangelical has already used this as an opportunity to basically call Rachel an unrepentant heretic. I won’t give it the dignity (or page views) of linking to it — and the writer wasn’t your first guess (that guy hasn’t posted a blog in over 6 months).

    On the plus side, there was a nice piece at the Anxious Bench:

  • Wayne Miller

    I was struck by your comment on wishing God would do a miracle in saving her life through this tragedy. I think that’s where those of us who grew up in the evangelical church go in our heads when things like this happen. But that too, is thinking that did not match with this view of God that is complicated, and that includes awful things happening to truly good people. Thank you for your words. I have not been reading Rachel up to this point, but I will be now.
    And thanks for giving me a description of myself, “exvangelical”! Love it!

  • As an aging white male, living far away from the USA, I was raised in very much the same Xtian framework as Rachel, and found my way, holding the hand of God, to a safer place. As a vital part of this journey, I thank God for having been introduced to this remarkable woman ‘s challenging writing. She has been a bright light shining with the hope of Jesus. Rest in peace but rise in joy and new energy to continue building his glorious kingdom! My prayers are with Dan and those who were close to her.

  • B.E. Miller

    Lori Alexander is also ‘rejoicing’ at RHE’s death. She seems rather gleeful about the idea of RHE being in hell. It’s folks like “Aunt” Lori who drive people away from Christianity.

  • Al Cruise

    The evidence that Holy Spirit was using RHE to further the Kingdom of God is clear and abundant. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is dangerous ground to be on. Fundamentalists go were angels fear to tread.

  • AHH

    And now I see that another Patheos Evangelical blog has a very long post that ends up throwing around the word “apostasy”.

    It could be OK to express that somebody had views on some issues that you consider to be incorrect. But it is wrong and evil that conservative Evangelicals so easily use the words “heresy” and “apostasy” for devout followers of Jesus who differ on secondary issues like inerrancy and homosexuality.

  • B.E. Miller

    Consider yourself lucky that you’ve never heard of her. She seems to have a large following on her sites. She also has a book “The Transformed Wife” about how her marriage was rocky and unhappy, until she read Debi Pearl’s book, “Created to Be His Help Meet” and learned to buckle down and be a good submissive wife.

    Reading the reviews on her book on Amazon can be interesting. She can’t go censor them, like she can on her web page. Like some mom wrote Lori about feeling depressed, and Lori’s response was something along the lines of “read your Bible more” and “be more positive”. Someone left a comment with the suicide and depression hotline number, and Lori deleted it. (And why do women write her for advice anyway? It would be like asking Serena Joy for advice.)

    Spiritual Sounding Board is a good place to start reading about some of her dangerous advice. Also, No Longer Quivering is another blog where the writer follows her blog and FB page, and criticizes Aunt Lori.

    There’s a reason why her ‘anti-followers’ call her “Aunt” Lori. It’s like she’s wanting the Republic of Gilead…. I can’t remember where I saw someone post that “Aunt” Lori thinks she’s a Wife, but she’s really a Martha.

    And why do people follow Aunt Lori? It’s like seeing that “To Train Up A Child” (which endorses spanking babies, and spanking children with implements) and “Created to Be His Help Meet” have sold over a million copies. Who reads such books? I can see reading CtBHHM for any humor, but reading a book about spanking babies? I find myself worrying for some unknown kids being raised like this…..