These are my Rachel stories.
In the late winter of 2011, I was neck-deep in my internship counseling college students, finishing my graduate classes, youth leading and teaching Sunday school, and trying my hardest to have a social life. I was spread too thin, and I had no margins for anything “extra.”
Still, my friend Jesse told me to write my way through it. And so, I did.
In that same season, Rachel Held Evans’ writing and speaking were just taking off. She spoke at church in Grand Rapids, and she spent time in my friend Racie’s house after. I was supposed to be there, but my aunt died, which meant traveling to Florida, and then my uncle died, which meant traveling to Virginia, so a solo road trip to Michigan that weekend was out of the question.
I was told later that Rachel Held Evans was as generous with her time and herself as everyone expected her to be.
I was also told that I needed to read her blog, buy her book, follow her on social media. I was told she was someone whose story was not unlike my own, and that I would love her writing. I was told, as they had sitting around the table with her after her speaking engagement, I would find a kindred soul.
I took in Rachel’s words tenaciously because my friends’ were right. Rachel Held Evans asked big questions of God, of the community of faith, of her friends, of herself, and then she read and thought and wrote her way to answers. And it was only to my benefit that she shared both the questions and the answers with the world.
I had long kept my own writing to myself. My questions and thoughts and words had long been held in the pages of my journals, though my friends knew that I was always writing. They would sit next to me in church and watch as I wrote on the bulletin, offering envelopes, and random index cards kept in the back pocket of the pews – sometimes, all three in a single service. They recognized that this was how I was making sense of my evolving faith, though we didn’t know to call it that until Rachel Held Evans gave us the language.
At the time I was given Rachel Held Evans writing, I was also beginning to own that writing was the way I processed the world too. The offering envelopes and index cards gave me away.
That winter, when I was spread too thin and had no margins to write, Rachel Held Evans put out a call for guest writers on her blog. My friend Racie, seeing this, sent me a message and link – “You should look at this. I think you need to submit something.”
I called the post “Always a Bridesmaid” because in that season, I was.
In 2010 alone, I was the maid-of-honor in two weddings. For a non-dress-wearer, I was getting quite the collection. I was also getting really pissed about how the evangelical church talked about singleness, touting from its pulpits that “marriage is the single greatest relationship” and minimizing all the good work that was taking the margins from my life. I wasn’t dating, but I was counseling and teaching and mentoring. I was creating long-standing friendships with my girlfriends, and I was giving all I had to support them in their new marriages.
So, I asked big questions of God, and the church, and myself – and I wrote.
I sent Rachel an email with the piece. I was expecting a kind rejection and instead got back:
“This is exactly what I’m after. Thank you! I’ll follow up when I post it, but I think this is going to land well.”
Rachel was right. It did.
Rachel kept writing, and so did I.
I finished my internship and graduated, I kept youth leading, I wrote a blog post here and there. Rachel spent a year studying biblical womanhood, and wrote another book. She left the evangelical church, and wrote another book.
After she published Searching for Sunday, she went on a speaking tour. She packed a church in Lancaster, PA with people who, like me, needed to be reminded that there was space in the community of faith for them. We were people who needed to have Rachel speak over us:
“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of oddballs and outcasts gathered at the table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
I found myself sitting in the front row of her talk after a traumatic experience at my church of twenty years left me homeless, left me battered, left me angry. I was told there was no place for me in the community of faith as a single-educated woman; that all my work was appreciated, but only so much; that I needed to stop asking questions and rocking the boat. Rachel Held Evans, though, reminded me that those who said those things weren’t God, and that God said, “Come to the table. Come find rest.”
I hung at the back of the church with my mom and my friend, Nickie, until the line died down to visit with her. We were three of a handful of people left, and my voice cracked as I introduced myself to Rachel.
“I’m not sure if you remember this, but four years ago I wrote a guest post for you on singleness and the church. My Twitter handle is @AmberWack.”
She yelled, though I don’t think she meant to, “YOU! I KNOW YOU!” then she hugged me as hard as I’ve ever been hugged in my life. She looped my mom and Nickie into the conversation, sure to make space for everyone, and my mom – ever proud of me – told her I was working on a book.
Without pausing, Rachel grabbed my mom by shoulders, looked her dead in the eye, and said, “You’re a really good mom.” And she hugged her, and my mom cried.
With her arm still around my mom, she asked me to tell her about my book. I told her it was a mess of manuscript (it still is), but the ideas were all there. I told her I have always seen God most clearly in the love of my friends, and that the story in Mark about the paralyzed man who lowered through the roof by his friends to get to Jesus is maybe my favorite story in the whole of the Bible. I said that I think that story is a testimony to the reality that sometimes our friends actually save us.
Rachel didn’t take her arm off my mom’s shoulder when she said, firm and kind, “Write that book. And send it to me when you finish. That’s a book I want to read.”
I haven’t finished the book. It’s still a mess of a manuscript. And I’ll never get to send it to Rachel. Because Rachel Held Evans died Saturday morning at the age of 37.
My friend Megan texted me today to check in on me – “I super love you. I know you lost an inspiration and a sister in the writer fight for Jesus. Proud of you, and I’m hopeful that her words and faith will continue to change people’s hearts.”
I have no idea how to make sense of the loss of her. I have no idea how my faith will evolve without Rachel’s words to always point me back to hope and Jesus, although I know I will keep going back to her books as a touchstone – just as I have since I was neck-deep in graduate school. And I will borrow from her faith in the written word to inspire, help, and change people. I think this is, as my friend Megan says, “the writer fight for Jesus.”
So, I will finish my book, the one Rachel wanted to read. I will continue in the work of asking big questions of God, and the church, and my friends, and myself. I will write my way toward answers, and I will share both the questions and the answers with the world.
But, when I don’t have answers, I’ll tell stories. And I’ll start today, telling my Rachel stories.