These are my Rachel stories

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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.

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Shared in Common

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Every once in awhile a piece means something a little bit more than others. This would be one of those pieces.

Shannan Martin is a writer I have admired (and Twitter-stalked) for years – which all started because my BFF texted me one afternoon and was like, “I found a blog I love. You’ll love it too. Get to reading!” (Or something like that. She likes to boss me around like that when it comes to things that are good for me.)  And Jesse was, of course, right. Shannan’s words have been invaluable to me.  So, when Shannan emailed and invited me to write for her about what it has meant to me to be a single woman in church, I enthusiastically accepted.

I can’t tell the story of my singleness without telling the story of how my friends have loved me.  (I can’t tell most stories without telling of how my friends have loved me.) Because that is where I see God most clearly.

I’m grateful to Shannan for the chance to tell this particular story. I hope you’ll join me in her space.

*******

After I was fired at the beginning of last year, I went home to Maryland for a couple of weeks. I needed to hug my mom, pray with the ladies from my Bible study, and eat at my best friend’s table.

Years before, when I was in my last year of graduate school, finishing classes and interning, my best friend, Jesse, worried about me. I had mentioned offhandedly that my days were so busy I didn’t even have time to eat a sandwich, and she immediately bought protein bars for me to keep in my desk and insisted on making dinner Tuesday nights before we went to Bible study.  I didn’t have to do anything, she told me, I just had to show up and be okay eating whatever she was making.

Because of this invitation to simply come, their table became for me a place of sanctuary. It was a respite from the craziness of that busy season. I was allowed to come stressed. I was allowed to be tired. I was allowed to talk about work or school, or I was allowed to not talk about work and school. I had all permission in the world to just come; to not take care of anyone, and instead let my friends take care of me…

To read the rest of it, you’re gonna have to jump over to Shannan’s site. Then stay there awhile. Shannan’s words are life-giving. 

 

What I’m Into – June 2016

Faithful blog readers and those who’ve stumbled here accidentally, hello!

I’m not going to give some big long explanation of why I haven’t been blogging (again), but I will give you a very short one – I just didn’t feel like it.

I think 2016 has marked one of the greatest years of change for me, and so much of the writing that’s been coming from what’s been happening has been reserved for my journals. (Plural, yes.) (Jesse, I’m counting on your to burn them should I meet my untimely demise. Please and thank you.)

What I'm Into

Even writing the What I’m Into posts for Leigh, which I usually have a lot of fun with, felt just a teensy bit too vulnerable. Because it’s not super fun to say month after month that what you’ve been into has been a lot of sitting on your balcony staring off into the trees watching the birds. (A friend reminded me recently that some might call that “being still,” but whatever. Let’s not split hairs.)

But, June 2016 has been a gift. So, let’s just take a hot minute to celebrate that.

Reading

I’ll admit that my actual ability to finish a book this year has been…uh…not so good. I am currently somewhere in the middle of – The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Night Driving by Addie Zierman, and The Alphabet of Grace by Fredrick Buechner.

truth and beauty

And I feel like I will always be almost finishing Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. I started this one back in the Fall, and I’m pretty committed to seeing how the friendship between Ann and her friend Lucy plays out, but I’m just going to say the unpopular thing – I think Lucy is kind of a terrible human being and not a very good friend, and I think I may feel too much for Ann, and reading this book makes me tired. I might just finish it by this Fall, but really, the jury is out.

Listening

I may have struggled to read, but audio books have been my jam this month. (A lot of hours in the car will do that to a person.) In the, like, 400 hours I spent in my Vibe this month, I have listened to in their entirety – Sophie Hudson’s Home is Where My People Are and A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet (which are read in all of her Mississippi-accented glory and I laughed out loud multiple times), Looking for Lovely by Annie F. Downs (which I then texted my best girlfriends and said, “Listen to or read this one to hear only how she talks about her friend Nicole. I love you!” Because I’m nothing if not a little sentimental about my girlfriends, and Annie is too), and Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban. I also made hearty strides in Goblet of Fire, but since it takes approximately half a lifetime to listen to each of the Harry Potter books (they all sit around 20 hours listening time), I will approximately finish the series on my deathbed. There aren’t enough hours in the Vibe, but like I said, I’m making hearty strides.

The soundtrack of my summer has seemed be the favorites – The Indigo Girls, A Retrospective; Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College; and a smattering of Ben Rector. Because really, with all that Harry Potter to listen to, what has time for anything else?

Doing

Of course, we all know that my favorite thing about June was going home for a couple of weeks.

So, I hung out with these goofs, who are my favorite people on the planet. Abby rocked a nice little head cold most of my trip, but that, of course, doesn’t stop aunt and niece-in-love from enjoying an afternoon or two together.

And the neph-in-love and I went on a fun little ice cream date.

*Quick story: On one of the Sunday nights I was home, Jesse and I planned a BFF date. When I went to pick her up before we went out for dinner, Noah was super sad he wasn’t going with us, as much as we assured him that we were taking him and his brother on a breakfast date just a couple of days later. To which he said, adamantly, “No, Mom! A date is two people!” And then told her he wanted to go on a date with Aunt Amber (which she immediately said yes to and may have welled up a little), and is exactly how we ended up eating ice cream that turned our tongues blue a couple of days later.

Also, it was wicked hot so we played at the pool at Nana’s house. And by “play,” I mean the boys had way too much fun splashing me.

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These kids, man. I don’t think I could love them more.

Also, I went out and stood in a wheat field with one of my best pals. Because why the heck not?  And because I feel like we all need to be reminded that I don’t go home just to see the kids. (Yes, I absolutely do.)

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The end of June and my return to Michigan was marked with a baseball game with my favorite. (Sometimes you have to leave home to end up where you need to be.)

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July will bring with it more travels, more chances to hang with my people, and more time to listen to Harry Potter.

This summer is undoubtedly way more fun than sitting on the balcony, staring at the tree line, watching the birds.

On being a social media specialist

I’ve been in Grand Rapids about a month now. It’s a little surreal being back in the same stomping grounds I trudged as a college kid a decade ago. People keep telling me that GR has undergone a “renaissance” over the years, that there are lots of cool breweries, restaurants, museums, and farmers markets; that it’s not the same place it was before.

Thank goodness, I say, because I’m not the same person I was before.

This time I’m in GR for a job – full-time, complete with benefits, and a retirement plan, and insurance. Next time someone asks me what brought me to GR, I might just say, “I’m here for the retirement plan.” This is, I think, a very grown-up reason to move.

But, I want to be clear about something – I’m not here just for a job. I’m not here just for the retirement plan. (Although, holy benefit, Batman!) I’m here for this job at this place with these people.

About a month ago, I moved to GR to be a social media specialist with Our Daily Bread. This means that I’m helping create and manage the online presence for Off the Page and a couple of our other blogs. If it’s tweeted, posted, or shared via social media, that’s me. I’m the human behind the avatar.

And I want to be really clear about this – my job is actually the coolest. I have no idea how I get to be the one to do it, but I think it has a lot to do with God’s grace. Like, a lot. Like, everything.

Because here’s the thing: that I have this job makes no sense. Technically, this position falls within the broader area of marketing, and I have no marketing experience or know-how. I’ve never taken a marketing or communications class in my life, unless you count Speech my freshman year of college, which I don’t because I’m embarrassed by the things that I said in front of people. Eighteen year old me was wrong a lot.

Anything I’ve learned about social media I’ve learned as a blogger trying to build a platform, as a youth leader trying to stay connected to her students, as a person hoping to find other people who are wrestling through some of the same things. My managers and supervisors and co-workers are quick to affirm that the marketing stuff is all teachable, and they want the greater voice that I’m bringing to the conversations that we’re having about Millennials leaving church, and disengaging with God (if they are), and how we can best meet them where they are.

And, let’s be honest, we all know those conversations are my jam. (My apologies to anyone who has stepped into my cube for a “quick chat” and ended up staying for at least a half hour.) The work that I’ve done as a counselor and a youth minister made them my jam, as did the reading and the praying I did right alongside them, and I have a lot of thoughts. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the marketing classes in all the world.

And there are no words for how grateful I am to be in a place that affirms the right things and teaches what can be taught. There’s a lot of Jesus in that, I think.

I’m learning, I think, that the strength of social media is its power to connect people to each other – people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected. It’s what I’ve loved about it for years as a blogger and wannabe writer, and it’s what I experienced as a youth leader with my students, and I’m working hard on figuring out how to do that for Off the Page too.

Because the people behind that blog – our writers and video makers and content producers, and our advisory team, and our content editor – they are all awesome. They’re people who love Jesus deeply, and are intentional to put in a little grace in the world any way that they can. They’re people you should know. And if social media is a means by which we can make that happen, I hope we (I) figure out how to do that well.

(Otherwise, I might get fired and lose my retirement plan. And I moved to GR for the retirement plan.)

Looking for Something Different

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I was mean to a friend in Bible study. We were studying Romans and she was making a misinformed point about the Abrahamic covenant, and I let her know in no uncertain terms that she was wrong. I quoted verses from Genesis and some of the Prophets, and I threw out definitions of Hebrew and Greek words for good measure, just to hammer home the point that I was right and she was wrong. And I lost the argument at the exact moment my friend shut up and curled herself into the corner of her couch, like a dog who couldn’t take being smacked with the newspaper anymore.

My best friend, who is also in Bible study and who sat nearby as I reduced our friend to a smaller version of herself, was quick to hold me accountable that night. She made me get into her car and talk long after the rest of our Bible study members had gone home. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was a jerk and she was baffled that I couldn’t see how I was hurting our friend. She said she was disappointed in me because I had acted so unkindly. She told me we had worked really hard to create a sisterhood in that Bible study, and that it was supposed to be a safe place where we could ask questions and be wrong every once in awhile. She said she loved me for my study of the Bible and the Greek and Hebrew, but she said that if I didn’t learn to do a better job of teaching what I was learning, I was going to undo all that we had built together. And then she reached over and laid her hand on my shoulder and said she loved me, and then she prayed that I would soften and be less of a jerk moving forward so that the Jesus in me and in what I was learning could really shine.

Whenever anyone wants to talk about accountability, this is the story I want to tell. I want to talk about my friend lovingly telling me that I wasn’t being my best self because I wasn’t looking like Jesus…

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There’s a couple hundred more words to this post that you’re going to have to go to Off the Page to read the rest.

I’m writing a new series there this month – to be posted every Monday, though I’ll likely forget to link to here every Monday. Case in point – I’m linking the first piece now, and it’s Friday. Oops!

This is a series I particularly love because my publishing team said, “Hey, we think you should be our person to write about accountability. We know it’s a big topic with a lot of controversial turns it could take, so uh…good luck.”  And after much prayer and stillness, I think I have. Plus, it was fun. 

As I always am, I’m grateful for all of you who take the time to read what I write, whether here or for Off the Page.  You are good friends! 

Sense of my story

A few days ago, my BFF sent me a long text message early in the morning. She’d been reading a book by a blogger we both love and needed to tell me about it:

She writes about their crazy life early in their marriage and her husband’s search for a job after getting his PhD, and she says, “and one afternoon in a sandwich shop tacked onto Walmart, we cried over a phone call that offered him a job that made sense of our story…” It made me think of you. Do you feel like this job makes sense of your story? It seems that way to me.

The job she was talking about was the one I started just about a month ago – one that brings all of my heart’s passions together, one that means I get to write and edit and Tweet for money, but that also means I’ll be moving away in a couple of weeks.

I told her that this job feels like a gift, like God has been working me over the last ten years into the person that could do this job. I told her that I thought God has been stoking in me a passion to make Jesus look good especially over the last three years, so that I can write about those things and live those things without confusion or angst. I told her that I feel like I’m walking into this job clear because I can see it’s where God wants me to be, probably because I can see now how it’s probably always been a part of His plan for me, even when it felt like I was fumbling along toward nothing. I told her that I think it’s really cool that it came at a time I had been praying that if what God wanted for me was to live in my hometown and be aunt to the coolest kids and write the words He put on my heart and keep working toward being a good friend and daughter, then that was enough for me. And I told her that I felt with this job God was like, “Cool. Now you’re someone I can use.”

Then I told her that was my really long-winded way of saying yes, I think this job makes sense of my story.

***********

Today, I had meeting with a new co-worker to talk about a new project we’re both really excited about. We went back and forth for awhile when he interrupted and said, “We’re all so excited you’re coming on board. You have clubs in your bag that we need, as a counselor, as a thirty-something, as a woman.”

I stopped him and I thanked him for saying that because for too many years those things that this place is so excited about have been working against me in the church, and it’s nice to hear them lauded as strengths.

Then his voice got firm, “Let me be really clear on this. We know you are more than – more than a counselor, more than young and single. We know you are the sum of those parts. And the sum of who you are is someone we need. You’re filling gaps we need you to fill.”

And then I thought – no doubt, this job makes sense of my story.

**********

When I was texting with the BFF a few days ago about the book she was reading and the job that I’m starting, I told her that it makes going a little bit easier knowing that she sees too that I have to go because this job “makes sense of my story.” To which she said, Oh, I totally do! From the very beginning. And it’s hard, and sad, but SO exciting and SO happy and SO RIGHT.

Because this job really does make sense of my story. All the years I spent studying counseling, and working in youth ministry, and honing my skills as a writer – the sum of it all comes together in this job. All the time I spent developing my friendships and doing the scary things that go with living into a community year after year has paid off in people seeing God’s movement too. I wouldn’t trade the last ten years of living in my hometown and being an aunt to the coolest kids and writing the words God has put on my heart and becoming a better friend and daughter. Because for ten years, these things have been enough. These things have made up the sum of a really good life. But, being here has grown me into the person who needs to go.

And as she has so many time before, the BFF has it right – my leaving is sad and hard, but my going is exciting and happy and right.

The Gift of God

I’m sure she doesn’t remember the conversation, it happened so long ago, but I sure do. Jesse called after church to explain why she avoided me at the service. Her voice was firm enough to let me know she was serious and soft enough to inform me we were going to talk this out to the end. “I can’t stand being around you,” she started. “Whoever this person is that’s full of sarcasm and anger, this isn’t you. I know you have a lot going on right now and all the reason in the world to be angry, but I miss my friend. Can we get her back?”

I sat on my porch, my friend on the other end of the phone, and I sobbed. Because when Jesse said the words “this isn’t you,” I knew she had told me a truth I couldn’t see on my own. And when she asked, “Can we get her back?” I knew she wasn’t leaving me alone in the mess of figuring out how to unpack that truth…

*************

The last in my series on Spiritual Friendship is up at Off The Page.  Thanks for hanging with me while I get my bearings in a new space and for popping over to Off the Page to make my posts some of the highest trafficked that blog is seeing.  

You are good friends!