Lindsey Abston Painter   |  5 May 2019  |

Once upon a time an Adventist woman began asking questions about her faith. The nagging doubts that she had suppressed for years began to surface. All the meaningful things that she had used to define herself suddenly felt shaky. If she doubts what she’s been taught about gay people, for example, what does that mean about all the other things she was taught about sexuality? What about the things she was taught about creation? Or the atonement? Or even God?

Without warning, the questions and doubts rushed in like a flood, causing everything she believed to collapse in a heap on the floor. In this state of darkness she found herself unable to move forward or backward—unable to see what the future held for her faith, her relationships, her life.

Of course, that woman was me, several years ago. Without the black-and-white faith I had learned as a child, I feared I must become an atheist. What choice did I have? I was “falling away” from the church. Something I had seen others before me do, that had made me shake my head in sadness over their loss. “What a tragedy,” I and others would say to one another. “How tragic that this person has fallen away from the values we taught them.”

But I didn’t want to be an atheist. I loved God (and still do). But I didn’t see a path forward. How can I have faith and also have doubts?

I wallowed in this state of grief and confusion. Many nights I would put the children to bed, and spend the remaining hours crying myself to sleep.

In the moment of my deepest darkness I stumbled across the blog of a woman I had never heard of before. Her name was Rachel Held Evans.

Facing Doubts

Rachel looked her doubts in the eye and embraced them. She forged a path through them and found a faith so beautiful it took my breath away. I spent the next weeks voraciously reading her blog. It was like grabbing a rope when I was drowning. I was floating away, and I found something to hold onto. Something to ground me.

This is what Rachel had to say about doubt.

“There is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud.”

And, again:

“I would argue that healthy doubt (questioning one’s beliefs) is perhaps the best defense against unhealthy doubt (questioning God). When we know how to make a distinction between our ideas about God and God himself, our faith remains safe when one of those ideas is seriously challenged.”

Rachel told me that it was okay to ask questions. Okay to wonder whether you might be wrong. She told me that there is a middle ground between a black-and-white faith and atheism.

A Terrible Loss

On Saturday May 4, 2019, Rachel Held Evans died from complications from brain swelling due to an infection, and a bad reaction to antibiotics.

The world of progressive Christianity mourns, including me. Rachel saved me. She rescued me from the darkness. She showed me the path that she had forged before me. Me, and thousands like me.

I cannot overestimate the gratitude that I have for Rachel Held Evans, and the grief I am feeling at her loss. Her work was not done. She was one year older than I am. She left behind two children, one year old and three years old, and a husband.

The world was robbed. And I am angry. It’s unfair. The world is darker today than it was on Friday.

Let me tell you about Rachel. Let me tell you how she spoke, and what she did for so many of us.

Speaking Gently

Many progressive Christians leave their faith and become fierce warriors. They speak truth to power and they give no ground. They make us stand up and cheer, or rise up and fight. I love them. They make me feel strong. They make me feel righteous anger.

Rachel was not like them.

She did speak truth to power, but she did it gently. She spoke with love, and grace. Rachel was there for those sinking in the mire of their own confusion. She was not here to start a riot: her message to us was intimate. She reached a hand down to those sinking in despair, and gently tugged us out. In perhaps the most polarized moment in human history, Rachel’s humility and vulnerability made her accessible to anyone on a journey to God.

We don’t change overnight from one way of looking at God to another. We need a Virgil to walk us through hell, and for thousands of us, Rachel was that Virgil. She was more than an author. She was a personal friend, helping us as we walked the rickety bridge over the chasm, keeping us from falling one direction or the other. Defender of the weak, companion to doubters, friend to sinners, Rachel embodied the life of Jesus like few others.

In the last two days I have read countless stories of people telling how Rachel altered the course of their lives. She altered the course of mine.

Her last blog post was about Ash Wednesday. These are last words she wrote:

“It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or you doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called ‘none’ (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

“Death is a part of life.

“My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

It is as though she knew where she was going. As though even death can’t keep her heart from ministering to those of us she left behind.

Rachel, you were taken from us too soon. Your family was robbed of your love. And we, who never even met you, but whose lives were irrevocably changed by you, must carry on your work.

But it will not be the same, Rachel. It will never be the same without you.

Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie. 

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