Tag Archives: church

review: Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday

searching for sunday review

Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday is about church: its triumphs and failings, its hypocrisy and grace. Rachel, like me, grew up in a well-intentioned Evangelical community where the Bible is accepted as fact and the “plain truth” is within easy reach. It’s a culture of black and white morality, where spiritual cliches are a dime a dozen, rolling off the tongue the second something happens that doesn’t jive with the accepted worldview. Naturally, it has its limitations. Suffering is not easily alleviated with a dismissive utterance of “it’s all in God’s plan.” Rachel, like me, was encouraged to have a sense of ownership over her personal relationship with Jesus and, when the questions she wrestled with in the quiet started to gain momentum – when she started to ask them out loud – the church was unequipped to answer in anything but cliches.

Rachel, like me, flailed around, trying out new churches and new denominations, but the questions burned unanswered still, and she left.

Searching for Sunday‘s framework, quite fittingly, is the Sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing the Sick, and Marriage. These themes, like the Sacraments themselves, act as a jumping off point for a journey of faith. They encourage exploration and mystery; they don’t operate in spiritual cliches. One begins to realize that sometimes, the best answer to our questions is simply the space to wrestle with them. Rachel deals eloquently with this wrestling, acknowledging that the hurt sometimes makes it impossible to be in community, but always seeking the Truth of Christ’s unconditional love. She never gives up on that, and I think that’s the key to learning from the dark times in our spiritual lives. You may feel directionless, but you are moving forward if you are oriented toward love.

Searching for Sunday is memoir, but it is more than that. It’s theology. Steeped in the Gospel narratives, deeply respectful of those first disciples, and appreciative of the long, tumultuous years of violence perpetrated by and against the institutionalized church, it seeks to explore and understand what it looks like to do church now. It reminds us that Christian community was essential from the very beginning, that we don’t get to do Christian life on our own. 

Searching for Sunday gave me closure. I’d been hurt so badly by the church years ago, and I thought I’d moved on. But the truth is that I needed this reassurance that my pain was real, that my concerns were legitimate, and that the dark path I trudged through in the aftermath of leaving was not in vain. I needed someone to say, simply, “me too.”

As I sit here now with the sunshine streaming through the window and the birds singing and a cool spring breeze hitting my legs, I can tell you that I’m no longer searching for Sunday. I have found home in church community again. I am thankful for the path, and the hands that held me in the darkness, nudging me forward. I am thankful for space for the questions. I am thankful that God gave Rachel Held Evans the voice, and the heart, to tell her story, because it is my story, too.

I received an advance copy ofSearching for Sunday Searching for Sunday for review. Searching for Sunday is available for preorder here. It’ll hit store shelves this Tuesday, April 14.

*Artwork: Baptism by Ruth Catherine Meharg; used with permission.

homily: Abide Here

church pews

The Reading (John 15:1-11):

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Homily: 

In John 15, Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to describe the Christian life. He tells us that he is the “true vine” planted and tended to by God. He goes onto say that we are offshoots, or branches, of that “true vine” and that we only live abundantly through our connection with Him, saying “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Well, that’s all well and good, but, practically speaking, what does it look like to “abide” in and with Jesus when he’s not exactly walking around on earth waiting to come to our dinner parties and church services?

Though it may not be immediately clear, I think this passage is rooted in a simple concept:

Growth happens in relationship.

I’m not presenting a new theological idea here, but I think it’s one we often take for granted. Paul helps us understand what relational faith looks like in 1 Corinthians 12, when he tells the people of Corinth that God’s church acts as the “Body of Christ” on earth.

He says: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He ends this section with this: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I love the phrasing of that last verse – though I read this passage over and over in my daily devotions as a young Evangelical, I’d taken it for granted. We don’t lose our individuality when we join a community, but we do become something different – and better – as a collective. Like the human body, we work together to survive and thrive. But we’re not just any body – we’re the Body of Christ – and we do His work when we band together.

That understanding helps clarify John’s passage – it helps us find a way to put into practice what Jesus suggests. Jesus is not present on earth as an individual entity – we can’t hold onto him like branches on God’s vine – but we do have the church. Through the church – Christ’s Body – we may find a life source, and a connection to God our planter and sustainer, while simultaneously offering the love of Christ to others.

A rewording of John 15:1-11, replacing the pronouns for Jesus with “the church,” becomes a powerful statement of the church’s relationship to us:

“Abide in the church as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in the church. The church is the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in the church and the church in them bear much fruit, because apart from the church you can do nothing.

…if you abide in the church, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you

…abide in the church’s love

…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

God can work through you or me on any given day, but the work God does is always relational. God’s children must join together for the work of the Kingdom to be done. We prune off the bad fruit in each other’s lives when we ask hard questions and hold each other accountable. We bear new fruit by creating welcoming spaces for everyone – not just the people who are easy to get along with – and by joining together to solve issues within our congregations and the larger community. Conversely, when we resist relationship, we stunt our growth.

I thought for a long time that I could go off by myself with my beliefs and convictions and be just fine, but that mindset fails to grasp the awkward, fulfilling, annoying, life-giving power of church. And I don’t just mean the formal church – I mean the miraculous spaces that allow us to be seen for who we are, to hurt and to hurt others in our confusion, to just be – that don’t give up on us. We cannot fully participate in the Christian life – we cannot build a Kingdom! – apart from Christian community.

My own life is a testament to the church’s work. I attended a highly patriarchal evangelical church through much of college. Though I majored in Religious Studies, I was barred from teaching Sunday School classes if men were in attendance. It was a congregation that privileged the opinions and perspectives of men over even the informed perspectives of women. It tore me apart. I had decided to major in Religious Studies precisely because I wanted to understand my tradition and share it with the church, but everywhere I turned, I saw people who once seemed to love and welcome me slam the door in my face.

I wanted the church, but it didn’t want me. It was a horrible loss; the worst kind of break up. I wasn’t wanted, so I left.

When my husband and I moved to Charlottesville in 2012, we hadn’t been attending church for over a year. We haphazardly church hopped once we arrived in town, but I knew there was still a lot of pain and bitterness in me and I wasn’t sure I was ready to come back.

Ultimately, it was the newly formed Women’s Prayer Group that restored my soul. For the first time in a long time, I was experiencing Church. Not the smug, scared, resistant face of some organization calling itself church, but the welcoming, intentional, safe haven I needed to come back to life. I was free to ask hard questions or say nothing at all. I was allowed to be vulnerable, to be human. But I was also a part of this tiny Body of Christ in the basement of the Canterbury House, and that meant I was called to give the same love and offer the same restoration to other members. We couldn’t do it alone. We had each come as individuals to be healed by one another, but we had also become something different, and better. We had become church.

The church is why I left and the church is why I came back.

There will be pain in this place. There will be hurt feelings and rash decisions and ignorance. But we are called to ABIDE here, in each other, in Christ. We wither and die when we go it alone. In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans says it this way: “Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.”

I need you to be Christ for me and, though you may not always feel it, you need to have access to the tangible, living Christ on earth, here in this community and in the universal church.

open arms

church

I stopped going to church for nearly a year for a variety of reasons. I didn’t feel that my academic knowledge was appreciated, I was limited by my gender, I wasn’t at all comfortable with opening up about real struggle, I didn’t fit in. I think Daniel and I feared that we would never really feel at home in any church despite wanting to fellowship with other Christians, despite having chosen our majors because of our faith, despite it being a daily topic of conversation and reflection.

When we got to Charlottesville, we went to a few churches and sat in on a few small groups and just didn’t feel it. I grew up in various evangelical churches, so I know the whole rhetoric about not leeching off the church, about how “feeling” it isn’t enough. But, honestly, after struggling so much to fit into a church in college, I think that mentality covers up a real problem. People in the church, very often, are exclusive in their friendships, judgmental, and afraid to engage issues they deem too controversial. Even for two, born-and-raised Christians, the church began to feel foreign.

But we put in the effort to stick it out somewhere. We started going to an Episcopal Church, a denomination neither one of us grew up in. Known for its progressive/liberal (you choose the connotation) policies, we didn’t really consider it until we sort of fell into it. We found a group of young people who are willing to deal with controversy, doubt, and all the complexities of Christian thought head-on. We found thoughtful, compassionate, loving people who welcomed us in. We found community.

I realized last weekend, as a large group of us sat around the table at a local restaurant sipping drinks and talking about theologians, Russian television, feeling accepted, and avoiding cynicism, that I feel unencumbered – accepted – at last. Really, I laugh without inhibition, I listen, I reply, I learn something new, I think about things in a different light. I feel weightless and unimposing. I become a part of the moment instead of an acutely self-aware bystander. I realize that I’m finally fitting in. I’m at home. I don’t have to fight anymore.

The church needs to stop crossing its collective arms and start opening them to embrace all who enter in. I really believe that there is a place for doubt and skepticism in the church, that it’s a part of everyone’s spiritual journey. Without transition and struggle and stagnancy, there is no incentive to push forward and keep developing as a follower of Christ. I’ve found a group of people who know that, who walk with me in that, who lead me forward to hope and faith again.

I encourage you to seek out a community of followers who love without inhibition.

people, look east

A selection of verses from the Advent hymn, People Look East:

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen,
God for fledgling time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today,
Love the bird is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
one more light the bowl shall brim,
shining beyond the frosty weather,
bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today,
Love the star is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
with the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today,
Love the Lord is on the way.

faith and feminism, part 1

I attended college in North Florida, the southernmost point of the true south. As a Religious Studies major, I learned about my Christian faith and its heritage within a much wider scope than my evangelical upbringing had provided. I studied history, literature, ancient languages, and ethics. At some (I suppose, inevitable) point, I found that I possessed more academic knowledge than many pastors who had lead my congregations growing up, and that I was respected for my thoughts and given a voice within academia.

I attended a conservative Protestant denomination affiliated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. They followed the Bible literally, which included not using instruments in the main service and not allowing women to take part, by speaking or leading, in the main service, or assembly. I ignored the obvious tension between my undergraduate expertise and the church’s interpretation of the Biblical text for nearly a year. But when women (and men) within the church began to discuss giving greater leadership privileges to women openly, I could no longer ignore their stance. When the elders ruled that it was best not to forsake tradition and stir up controversy just to let women pass the offering plate, the tectonic plates within my chest began to crunch together, grinding and sparking, forcing words and cries and change out of me. Something had cracked and I couldn’t stay silent.

That being said, I didn’t begin prophesying in the assembly or tearing my garments. I really liked the friends I’d made and the a Capella singing and the fun weekly hangouts. I tried to move past the pain, and the anger, by venting to those within the group who would willingly, and lovingly, provide a listening ear. One night, we invited several people over to our apartment to learn some new hymns. After the worship portion of the evening was done, we began to casually chat. Someone mentioned that “where two or three are gathered” there Christ is also. I remarked that our group, in effect, was an assembly. Yet women were speaking! A few female long-time attendees began to argue that women could speak, lead, and participate within this context, but not within the context of the larger, whole church assembly. I couldn’t face the contradiction, the injustice, the lack of critical thought. I blew up. I shouted that I couldn’t stand the denomination, began to weep, then ran to my room like a small child. Within the week, I had been formally chastised for my behavior on the grounds that it could discourage newcomers’ in their faith.

I couldn’t help thinking that my faith had been manipulated and shattered by the undercurrent of sexism labeled as Biblical adherence, and that no one cared. I mentally disconnected myself from the congregation after that talk. Although I worked to forgive those who believed they had spoken the truth in love, those who had meant me no harm, I could never go back with an open and full heart. Near the end of my attendance there, the worship leader sang the wrong part, and I recalled that there were formally trained female vocalists in the congregation who could have lead with both heart and knowledge. But they weren’t allowed. Implicitly – and there’s no satisfactory way to get around this – women were secondary to men. I got up and ran out of the building, down to a creek on the church property. I cried, and felt at peace, away from the church. I felt God. Away from the church.

I didn’t attend church again for almost a year. And my faith grew.

This is the first part of a series on faith and feminism.

lately.

Things have settled into a rhythm of relative normalcy lately. Work, church, pick Daniel up from school, thrift, eat, clean. It’s not bad, but I don’t want to get stuck. We still have a lot to see and do in Charlottesville and we need to prioritize exploring over sleeping in, I think.

We’ve become regular church-goers again after a year long hiatus. I had little hope of finding a church full of friendly people with which I could be open and honest about my beliefs, doubts, and criticisms. In Tallahassee, we seemed to find one or the other, but not both. Or it’d be a Goldilocks situation: we were too liberal for many churches (theologically and politically) and too conservative for others. Here, so far, we feel just right. The members in our age group are almost all Religious Studies nerds, too, so we have a lot to talk about. Charlottesville is a well-educated city, which makes for a positive daily environment and promotes many thoughtful conversations. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

September here apparently signals an almost immediate turn to fall. Although a few more days in the low 80s have been forecast for the month, summer is clearly departing. I’m excited, as the season change is supposed to be incredibly beautiful. And my new boots should be arriving any day now.

I’ve been working hard to make my online store a success, and I’m seeing positive results so far. I really like where I am in terms of work. The coffee shop atmosphere is a positive one and working for myself on the side is empowering.

I also signed up for adult ballet classes at the local Rec center! One of my short term goals was to start taking ballet. I’m surprised that it actually happened. I tend to make plans and then excuse myself from them.

Life is good here. I have days of loneliness and doubt, moments of sadness, but I can see and appreciate all the blessings. Moving has been good to us.