Note: I didn’t personally know Rachel Held Evans, and I am just one of many, many Christians and fledgling writers who benefitted from her work and the generosity of how she used her platform. Because I am currently writing a book about how American Christianity perceives suffering, I’m grappling with the question of “Why her?” more than I already would.
In the early hours of Saturday, May 4th, 2019, my phone vibrated on the nightstand next to my bed with a text from my friend Hannah. “Have you heard the latest update on Rachel?” it read, referring to one of our favorite Christian authors and bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, who had been hospitalized on Easter weekend for an allergic reaction to medication for an infection.
“Last I heard, she was being weaned out of the medically-induced coma,” I wrote back.
“You need to check her website,” Hannah replied. But I knew before I finished reading that sentence: Rachel had died early that morning, at the age of 37 – leaving behind a devastated husband and two small children, the youngest of which was weeks away from her first birthday.
“I know her from the Internet” used to be something people said to be tongue in cheek, as in, I don’t really know her at all. While social media communication is certainly no substitute for in-person relationships, the dynamic of “internet friendships” has permanently changed what it means to know someone “in real life.” For many of us, but especially those of us who make a living from our words, the Internet is“real life.” We form relationships with readers, which builds up a platform, which helps sell books and drive website traffic. It’s good, strategic marketing, but it doesn’t have to be just that.
For Rachel, you could tell that her online interactions, mainly via Twitter, were definitely more than fame-seeking. I’m sure her close friends and family can vouch for this: she’d have rather used her notoriety for the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth than for personal accolades. I didn’t know her personally, but when I sent her a tweet asking about writing for a niche audience in the Christian publishing world, she was quick to respond with advice. I remember how it made my day when she followed me back on Twitter, and even retweeted one of my blog posts.
She didn’t just help me out as I struggled to find my footing as a fledgling Christian writer; her willingness to lay bare every faith-related doubt that I was too afraid to bring up in Bible Study is what really earned her my admiration. Her book Searching for Sunday in particular was a lifeline to me after I dropped out of seminary with my faith running on fumes. And when certain Christian acquaintances lectured me about how I needed to make sure my dad accepted Jesus as his savior before the cancer took him, Rachel’s words helped give me permission to feel anger: both at them, and at God for allowing what seemed like a very corrupt cosmic system.
Rachel didn’t provide any answers to those doubts and questions, but I don’t think she intended to. Rather, hers was a community of people just looking to feel validated for being imperfect, human believers.
Additionally, I was struck by just how generous and humble she was when virtually sparring with Christians who challenged her beliefs on everything from gay marriage to abortion to substitutionary atonement. She never resorted to insults or pettiness. She’d even apologize if she came across as overly harsh, or if she was in any way wrong about something. That kind of humility in a public figure, Christian or not, is rare gold these days.
Finally, the openness of her spiritual journey helped enable me to give the Episcopal Church a chance when I considered turning my back on church altogether. It kills me that I will never be able to personally thank her for that.
She never got to finish her fifth book. She never got to celebrate her little girl’s first birthday. She won’t get to see that little girl, or her little boy, grow to adulthood – and they are too young to have any solid memories of their mother. Her husband is now a widowed single father. It’s all just so heartbreaking and cruel.
On Facebook, one of my pastor friends updated his status to simply say, “What the fuck, God?” That encapsulates my feelings perfectly, even though a part of me can’t help remembering that Rachel’s untimely death is just one of billions that have occurred throughout history: why would I doubt God’s goodness and be angry with him now, when these tragedies happen every day?
It’s always difficult to swallow my own logic when tragedy affects me personally.
“I can’t make sense of this, either,” wrote one of my friends from seminary in a private Facebook message. “The only thing that makes sense is that her message had to be heard. It had to be! I can be angry, but she’s not suffering right now. She’s probably the happiest she’s ever been. And more people will read her work now.”
I replied back, “All I have to do to be angry at God is imagine her motherless children and devastated husband.” Couldn’t God have advanced her platform and put her books in the hands of those who need them without letting her die?
My friend responded, “I know – that’s heartbreaking. But I also know that God takes away what the enemy intends for evil and brings good out of it, somehow. She may change the face of Christianity forever, for the better, while the enemy was trying to take her out so she wouldn’t.”
Having known this friend for years, I know she wasn’t dishing out platitudes that you hear so often in circumstances like these. She didn’t say anything that isn’t part of Orthodox Christian theology. Perhaps one day, I can get to a place where I believe that. I want to believe that. And yet, and yet, and yet…it’s all so horribly unfair. I never actually met her, yet my heart still tightens every time I came across a tribute to her legacy. I cried all weekend long when I heard the news, and tear up still, thinking about the much-needed voice that the world just lost. Meanwhile, people like Donald Trump live into ripe old age. What was God thinking?
I can understand why some people find it easier to believe that none of this is actually real: that there is no God, no supernatural purpose behind everything that happens, no real purpose to life beyond eating, sleeping, reproducing, and dying for the next generation to do it over again until the next asteroid or global warming wipes us all out. It’s almost more comforting to believe that than believe in a God who is powerful enough to save someone from an allergic reaction, but for some reason, opted not to.
But it wasn’t fair what happened to Jesus, either: for an innocent man to be so brutally killed the way he was. I have to go back and preach to myself this basic fact, that suffering – even, from our perspective, unjust suffering – is part of this whole package we call faith. We don’t have the perspective that God has, from the audience’s seat: we only see slivers from behind the stage curtain.
It helps, too, to remember that Rachel probably wouldn’t want her untimely death to turn people away from God. Rather, I believe she’d want the opposite: to draw more people nearer to him, because sacred mystery is part of the overall beauty of the Christian faith.