Remembering Rachel Held Evans

My friend Rachel Held Evans has passed away. The only way that I know how to process this shock and sorrow is to write about her and what she meant to me and to so many others. Rachel was one of the kindest, most creative, and funniest people I’ve ever met.

I can’t remember who first told me about this new blogger named Rachel Held Evans around 2009 before her memoir Evolving in Monkey Town released.

In fact, the only thing I remember is dropping by her blog, skimming a few of her posts, and seeing that goofy monkey picture from her book cover.

The blog was fine, but something about that goofy monkey picture lodged itself in my mind. This wasn’t a “serious theologian.” I clicked away not in disagreement but out of a sense that I was looking for folks who did more “serious theology” writing.

I found out a year later that I couldn’t have been more incorrect in my assessment.

Someone shared a video of Rachel giving a talk at a Baylor University chapel, and in a matter of ten minutes, I got what made her such a gift to the church.

Through weaving her personal story and theology together, she shared a compelling narrative of her evolving faith and beliefs. While my book, published a few years earlier, covered many of the same themes and ideas and struggled to meet its sales goals, she captivated people with her creativity, vulnerability, and command of theology. She wrote for the whole church, but her thinking was deep and substantial. On that day I became a fan of her writing.

Over the the years Rachel firmly established her gift for research and study, digging into one deep topic after another. However, I don’t think we can ever give her enough credit for her creativity.

In my interactions with her, online and in person, she could land the perfect joke. She could make a difficult concept stick because she invested time in presenting it well. She was a kind and compassionate person who cared about people, and she showed it in her writing.

When I look at how I approached the writing of my latest book, there are many lessons from Rachel that I applied to it. She showed so many of us that we could do the heavy lifting of theology and still share compelling stories and narratives.

I don’t think her critics will ever fully appreciate how disarming her A Year of Biblical Womanhood book was. Sure, the one year project book concept was going around, but she used a familiar form to ask deeper questions.

One pastor noted that she had created a work of pastoral performance art that resembled the prophetic tradition. Even if you disagreed with her ideas or disliked the “one year” format, she literally developed a way to interact with the Bible based on what’s written in its pages.

She never lost herself in an idea. She always sought the creative angle, the way to bring it home to her readers. That relentless creativity is what made her such a successful author for one book after another.

When I went to see her speak in Columbus and to go out for Jeni’s ice cream afterwards, Rachel stayed to speak with everyone who lined up to meet with her. She didn’t just sign a book and send folks away. She listened, and listened, and listened. She was a writer, but she had a truly pastoral heart as well. We almost didn’t make it to Jeni’s before closing! (The picture at the top is evidence that  our group managed to make it.)

During her talk that night she frequently mentioned her husband Dan. They were a true team, and her admiration for Dan came through when she spoke. Her ideas benefitted through his thoughtfulness and support, and she wanted the world to know it.

Rachel didn’t just share a message, she also modeled a way of sharing it in her blogs and books that impacted a generation of Christian writers.

When Rachel arrived at a bloggers meetup at the 2011 STORY conference in Chicago (give or take a year), our room of 30 bloggers stopped talking and burst into applause. It was a heartfelt moment of appreciation for someone who helped us find our way forward as writers in a shifting publishing world.

Rachel elevated so many writers by sharing their work on her blog and social media account. She endorsed books, wrote Forewords, and worked behind the scenes to support up and coming writers. I saw just a small slice of this, and many others have shared the same.

I didn’t know Rachel as well as some, but each time we crossed paths she was warm, cheerful, and attentive. It’s easy to think you know someone based on what you’ve seen of them online. Rachel always exceeded my expectations or what I thought I knew of her.

I have nothing but fond memories of her. She set a path of kindness, generosity, and a dogged, honest search for God that is worth imitating.

The loss of Rachel Held Evans is devastating for so many. I cannot fathom the scope of this tragedy for her family at this time. Everything about this feels wrong and unfair for her children and husband.

Rachel left the world a better place because she gave people the words they needed for their faith and she gave writers an example to follow.

May we walk in love with each other as we trust that today Rachel is walking in loving union with her Savior.

You can donate to her family’s Go Fund Me to support them at this time of loss and mourning.