Wednesday Wisdom: Rachel Held Evans

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In the midst of division, hatred, and fear, let us remember Rachel’s words as we work towards unity (not uniformity), love (not apathy), and hope (not naivety).

The God who didn’t “wreck” me

I knew I was a bad Pentecostal when I was 15.

Traditionally, Pentecostal conversions involve weeping, speaking in tongues, and losing motor control.  Sanctification, or the healing of one’s soul, also occurs in these experiences, so the God who “wrecks” and “slays” the believer also heals what he just shattered.

This God scared me, but I wanted that healing for my anxious, insecure, and fatherless soul.

I wanted to know this God, but he sounded too wild. I wanted healing, but I wanted God to meet me where I was instead of forcing me into his heavenly realm so he could tear me to pieces.

Yet in my Pentecostal tradition, a charismatic experience was the only true way to encounter God, and Winterfest was the best place to find him.

Winterfest was the ultimate Pentecostal revival and unofficial initiation for the high school members of my youth group. I remember seeing videos from the previous Winterfests, showcasing fun days spent at Pigeon Forge adventure park and passionate nights being “slain in the Spirit.” Despite my initial discomfort with such public displays of spiritual affection, my curiosity got the better of me, and I signed up my freshman year.

However, despite my surface level of eagerness, I was still skeptical. There was this wrestling within me between my desire to encounter God and my fear of God’s nature. Besides a life-wrecking God, this God was also known as Father. I figured if my real Dad could decide to leave me, this Father God could, too. When we finally departed for Winterfest one early Friday morning, our pastors promised us that we would experience great things from God. I secretly doubted that God would show up for me.

The weekend culminated in an intense sermon given by a fiery pastor, his powerful message amplified by four JumboTron screens. I knew the man had set the stage for a true Pentecostal conversion and felt the passionate emotions rising within me. I saw the people around me reacting properly, rushing to the altar, falling on their knees and stomachs, sobbing and speaking in tongues, some too overcome by the Spirit to make it to the altar and collapsing in their seats.

But the Pentecostal switch didn’t flip in me. Despite the passion and conviction I felt, the “real” experience wasn’t happening. I was on the outside looking in at this ecstatic group as the Spirit rained down on them, thinking God had abandoned me once and for all, just like my Dad years before.

I was lonely in this crowded arena, so I sulked away to an emptier part of the stadium and made my own solo efforts of prayer, petition, grumbling, and probably swearing to God. I begged for the love and presence of God that supposedly never failed, left, or gave up on me. I had lost my earthly father; had I lost God, too?

Eventually I did find myself on my knees and crying, but instead of tears of spiritual ecstasy, mine were tears of abandonment and loneliness.

In my desperation, my high school small group gathered around me. I felt their hands upon me, heard their whispers of encouragement and love, just as I had during our weekly meetings. I found myself surrounded by the ones who knew the pain of my father’s absence, my own insecurities and crushing anxieties. When I opened my eyes and saw them around me, I heard the words in my heart that began to heal my wounds of abandonment: You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.

These were the words of God, who I so desperately wanted to meet but feared. And instead of wrecking me with his presence, he quietly met me where I was in my stadium section, surrounded by a group of people who loved me.

Compared to the people around me, this experience was unremarkable, but I finally felt the peace of the God who met me where I was. I realized I never needed to go to Winterfest, because God surrounded me in the love of this little community before I even left Virginia.

Although I didn’t remain in this spiritual ecstasy, or the Pentecostal tradition, forever, the God who surrounded me that night never left. That night, I learned that God is bigger than the Church’s expectations. This God showed me that I didn’t need to be wrecked; I needed to be loved, and my pain needed to be held. Today, this God reminds me that healing is a life-long process, not a once in a lifetime event. This God stays with me through it all, and sometimes, this God shows up in small groups instead of JumboTrons.

My journey began in healing. And in healing it will continue.

“You Have Stept Out of Your Place!”

I never thought I’d experience empowerment while doing a research paper for class. Then again, I’d never written a paper about a trail-blazing woman like Jarena Lee, the first female African-American preacher in the States.

Imagehttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/02/jarena-lee-the-pioneering-female-preacher-you-never-heard-about/

Her story is incredibly powerful to me. A woman who spent most of her young life struggling with guilt, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, Jarena Lee had a powerful conversion experience at the age of 20 that inspired her to embrace the call of God to preach the Gospel. With great fear and trembling, she approached her pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination born of a desire to flee oppression, with the news of her calling from God. Unfortunately, Allen told her that the denomination knew nothing of ordaining women as preachers.

God didn’t let that stop her, though. As years went by, during which she married a pastor, bore six children, lost all but two of them, and then lost her husband, Jarena felt the call to preach burn fiercely within her. Eventually, Rev. Allen gave her permission to preach, and she became a widely popular traveling preacher throughout the 13 colonies and even in parts of Canada. Although she was never ordained, it is safe to say that Jarena Lee made a path for women in leadership in a strongly patriarchal and racist society, and she used her conversion story to validate her message along the way.

And then suddenly, as with the stories of so many other women in the church, she vanished. Neither I nor many of my Methodist friends had ever heard of her, despite her influence in and beyond her time. And I cannot help but ask, as I have many times before, why? Why has the voice of Jarena Lee, and the voices of so many other passionate women in Church history, been silenced?

While doing further research on Jarena Lee, I found a book at  the EMU library called “You Have Stept Out of Your Place:” A History of Women and Religion in America by Susan Hill Lindley. The quote from the title comes from an indictment made by a Puritan minister to Anne Huthinson, a woman who had the audacity to believe that God could reveal God’s self personally to anyone, even a woman, without the mediation of another.

Imagehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson

This incident happened centuries ago, but the minister’s message is still alive and well today.

I heard the message when Ephesians 5:22-33 was first preached to me and, at the age of 18, I was taught that this female submission was ordained by God. I heard that message when I looked at my church bulletin one Sunday, and the only names and contact information listed under the various ministry opportunities were those of men, not including their wives or other women in the ministry. I heard the message at Campus Crusade for Christ “Men’s/Women’s Time,” in which the men learned about discipleship and leadership, while I and my female companions were lectured on how to maintain our physical and spiritual purity as we prepared to (inevitably) get married to adventurous, Godly, authoritative men. I heard the message very loudly and clearly in the absence of women’s voices behind the pulpit.

But the most consistent, and the most heartbreaking, voices who spoke this message to me were the women of faith around me, the ones who told me that my desire to preach and lead was beyond my proper, God-ordained place. The women I revered and looked up to, who simultaneously told me I could be anything I wanted to be yet told me to squelch the fire within me, did more damage than any man behind the pulpit ever could.

This faith community that had provided me with spaces to experience and grow more aware of God’s love also told me to sit quietly behind the barriers that kept me from fully pursuing God’s calling. I, like Jarena Lee and Anne Hutchinson before me, felt empowered by God, Christ, the Gospels, and the Church but had the doors to leadership slammed right in my face. The same community that propelled me forward in my faith journey hung millstones on my neck that dragged my eyes and heart from heaven.

And so throughout my college years, I wrestled with these two contradictory experiences and messages. I wrestled with tradition and dogma, conservatives and liberals, culture wars and calls for ceasefire, all in the hope of better discerning God’s call for me as a woman. There were days of encouragement and hope, and days of exhaustion and despair. There were days I remembered why I fell in love with the Church, and there were days that I wanted to pack my bags and move to greener pastures.

But I did not wrestle alone.

I had many mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, before and with me, who journeyed with me and spoke love, life, and strength into me, and fanned the flames of my passion until they could no longer be contained.

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 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/12/review-of-rachel-held-evans-a-year-of-biblical-womanhood.html

Because the truth they have helped me realize is, I have not stepped out of my place. I have stepped into it. I have been called into this place and embraced it like a lover. My place and I are one, just as the God who called me to this place is one with me. My place is wherever I go. My place burns within me. How, then, can I step out of my place?

You may call me into my place. You may call my place out from within me and draw it out like water until it runneth over. You may help me give birth to the place within me until the Love of God expressed through my calling is born into the world.

But you cannot call me out of my place. You cannot take my place from me, nor can you kill the flames that burn within my soul and course through the blood in my veins. You cannot tell me I have stepped out of my place. Because you cannot tell me to step out of my skin. God has given me this. And neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor demons, neither the past, present, nor future, nor the powers that be can steal from me what God has given. 

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 So, like the women who have gone before me, from my spiritual grandmothers and mothers like Anne Hutchinson and Jarena Lee, and my biological grandmother and mother pictured above, I will continue to blaze the paths ahead of me, claim my birthright from God, and proclaim God’s love, grace, mercy, and justice from the mountaintops.

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 And I will share the journey with some amazing sisters in Christ, like my good friend Michaela, who was one of the first women in my life to share in and embrace the calling from God.

ImageAnd I will continue to forge the paths for the women who will come after me, like this beautiful, spunky child. God has not given up on me, nor shall I give up on you, my mothers, sisters, and daughters.

And just as God has not given up on me, neither shall I give up on you, Church, the Bride of Christ. I will not give up on you who have hurt me, although you may continue to stifle my voice and try to put me back in my place. No, I will not give up on you, even though you may want to give up on me. I cannot abandon my own self, and my own self is inevitably drawn up in you, this big, beautiful, broken body of Christ. And what God has joined together, I pray God will continue to hold together, in a way that only God can bind that which is broken, in love.