Monday, April 24, 2017

Meeting a fellow blogger

Rachel Held Evans

I  was at the Crossroads Church of All Saints and Sinners in my hometown of Jett, Kan. (pop. 4,000 in the '70s). I laid my books on a plastic table in the adult Sunday School class while I refilled my coffee.

"Oh Rachel Held Evans," Sandy, the children's Sunday School teacher said when she saw Evans's book, Searching for Sunday lying in my spot. I returned to my spot and Sandy said, "Oh, it's Jeff," as if she were suddenly no longer surprised. I think she might've initially thought the book belonged to a more conservative member of the church. There is a mixture, which I think is great.

"I met her," I told Sandy and showed her where Rachel signed my book. "She was in Wichita this weekend."

For those who don't know her, Rachel Held Evans is a blogger and New York Times best selling author who writes about God and Christianity from the perspective of someone who questions and fights doubt. Born in 1981, she comes across from the viewpoint of a millennial, albeit one of the older ones. (I'm a Generation Xer.) She has been featured in the Washington Post, the BBC, NPR and been a guest on The Today Show and The View. Rachel makes appearances across the country. I saw her give a lecture Friday night at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita.

She's both loved and reviled. I don't go for labels such as "liberal Christian," or "conservative Christian." I'd like to say, simply, Rachel is Christian and Episcopalian. But in today's polarizing climate, I guess we have to make distinctions. There are people who take literally Paul's statement about how women should stay silent in church. To them, she is downright heretical

Rachel was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt in Alabama. Her father taught theology in a Christian college, her family attended an evangelical church and she and her younger sister attended a Christian school. As a child and through her teens, Rachel was "on fire" for Jesus. Every year, her school gave out a Best Christian Attitude award and Rachel contrived a strategy in which she would receive it.

Her family later moved to Dayton, Tenn. where her father was hired to teach at Bryan College, the evangelical school where Rachel would go on to get her degree in English and journalism.

Dayton is known as the town where the "Scopes Monkey Trial" took place in the 1920s. In the first so-called "Trial of the Century," high school science teacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching the "heretical" science of evolution in the classroom. Today in Dayton, there is a statue of William Jennings Bryan, the famous orator who prosecuted Scopes.

Rachel began to have doubts and questions in college after she'd seen on TV, a Muslim woman in Afghanistan who had been persecuted and executed. Was this woman, who had suffered so much on Earth, going to hell for not accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior? Were Ghandi and Anne Frank in hell? Rachel couldn't accept the "God's ways are higher than Ours" idea.

She and her husband, Dan, made a painful separation from the evangelical church she had attended since childhood. The doubts and questions had been simmering in her mind for some time, but for her, the final straw came when a sign was posted in front of her church (as it was at nearly every other church in town) -- VOTE YES ON ONE. Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman."

Recently, Rachel tweeted, "Too many stories of LGBT people & their family/friends/allies getting treated like crap at their churches. Too. Many. Stories."

Meeting Rachel

I walked into the gymnasium of College Hill UMC. There were rows of fold-up chairs on both sides with a walking path down the middle, leading toward the lectern and microphone from which she would be speaking. People were standing in line to shake Rachel's hand.

"Hello Ms. Evans," I said, shaking her hand. (It was a petite hand.)

"Rachel," she said.

She was quite affable. Later, she got into a conversation with a fifty-ish couple sitting a few chairs from me. I tried to focus on reading her book and not listening in. After she left and made the rounds, talking to other people, I talked to the couple, told them I'd kept Rachel's first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, overdue at the library. Their names were Larry and Jenny. He was a Nazarene pastor. They had driven two-and-a-half hours from Oklahoma City to see Rachel Held Evans.

When she spoke to the audience, Rachel talked about "keeping the church weird" -- about maintaining the traditions of the sacraments -- communion, which Episcopalians call the Eucharist.

This is Christ's body, broken for you

Churches didn't have to market to young people by being hip -- the pastor wearing skinny jeans and T-shirts with Christian messages used ironically, the rock band, the fog machine, the coffee shops.

"I'm not saying, 'don't have a band,'" she said. "I love praise and worship music. I love coffee."

But if having those things isn't compatible with a church's personality, that church would be better off just being itself, she said.

"Millennials have been advertised to our whole lives," she said.

She had kind words for the evangelical church she'd grown up with and broken from.

"These are the people who first told me I'm a beloved child of God," she said.

She read from Searching for Sunday and talked about her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood in which she would separate from people while going through the "manner of womanliness" as commanded in the Old Testament.

Rachel said she has been invited to talk to teenage audiences and was worried about what she would say. "Teenage boys aren't my audience," she said. "I've written about menstruation."

A church cannot have social justice without Jesus and cannot have Jesus without social justice, she said. A church is wrong to quote Jesus's words about caring for "the least of these," then to turn its back on refugees.

Then there are the politics that have given Christianity such a bad name in America.

"The people who taught boys sexual morality supported a man for President who bragged about sexual assault," she said.

With all the problems, all the doubts, Rachel could just hang it up and not believe. I can hear the cynics saying belief in God is like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But Rachel needed to connect with something divine and bigger than herself. She had to believe there is a just God in the universe. For me, I guess my reasons are selfish. I can't make it through life without a Higher Power. I've accepted that it's all right, not having all the answers. Rather than a severe father who sends people to eternal damnation, I choose to believe God is love.

After her presentation, I was like, the third person in line, to get books signed by Rachel. I had Searching For Sunday, which I'd bought at Wichita's Watermark Books and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I'd peeled the .50 cent sticker off the cover of that one so she couldn't see I'd bought the book at a thrift store.

"We met earlier," she said. "What's your name again?"

"Jeff. And I'll tell you, Rachel, I was a mischief making kid. There was no way I was ever going to win a Best Christian Attitude award."

She laughed. "You've read my books."

She signed Searching For Sunday, then A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

Personalized autograph

"I read about menstruation," I said, almost apologetically. "Of course, I'd first read about it in the Old Testament. I read the book, The Year of Living Biblically. Don't remember the fella's name."

"Oh, A.J. Jacobs," she said. I'm sure she knows him.

"Yeah, A.J. Jacobs. I just thought your book would be a good companion to that."

"Getting the woman's perspective."

I told her I'd been divorced for around a year. "I'm so sorry," she said.

"I could've never made it without my faith and belief in God."

Not one to pass up an opportunity, I told her I was a blogger too and handed her a manila envelope filled with print outs of five blog posts I'd written that somehow touched on faith.

"My blog isn't specifically a faith blog and it's not a political blog, but I'll write about those things if that's what's on my mind," I said. "I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you, would you be willing to write a guest piece on my blog?"

"Oh, you'll have to ask me that after my next book is finished," she said as if she were exhausted.

I wanted to get a selfie taken with her, but there was a long line of people behind me and I felt I should go on. I accepted that she might not have time to ever read my blog or respond to me on social media. Rachel communicates with thousands of people online.

"Keep in touch," she said as I walked out.

                                           Rachel Held Evans