Sometimes I find myself smiling when I think back 10 years ago, sitting across the table from a stern-faced Elder who told me straight up that my “eternal soul was in jeopardy” because I was questioning the role of women in the Church. Specifically, that women had a role in the Church. Say what you will, but this guy never beat around bush or left any room for ambiguity. Women couldn’t be leaders in the church. Period. Any visible role – even public reading of Scripture or passing communion trays – was de facto leadership. Period. Therefore, these actions were the exclusive, God-ordered realm of men (and select boys whose consciences were sufficiently bothered by thoughts of eternal hellfire that they got baptized at age 6.) Period. After subsequent meetings with the whole board of Elders failed to assuage my doubts, I was asked to leave, which was a bit traumatic at the time, but looking back, was in fact, a blessing.
About a year or so later, I was regularly attending an Episcopal Church, and received communion for the first time outside of the church I was raised in, and from the hand of a female priest no less. Another year or so still, and the Rt. Rev. (and awesome) Catherine Waynick, Bishop of Indianapolis, would lay hands on and pray over me, confirming me in the faith, and receiving me into the Episcopal Church. So anyway, I smile now when I think back to that Sunday afternoon.
I admit to being a little jealous of Rachel Held Evans. She and I are close in age, and faced similar crises of faith as young adults. When confronted with questions and doubts about biblical inerrancy, literal readings of Genesis 1, theodicy, salvation and more, she wrote a book and started a blog, tackling these issues head-on and with more humor, grace and style than I could ever muster. Her new book, Searching for Sunday, follows in line with her other work – thoughtful, smart, candid, funny and all with her distinctive voice shining through. Like I said, I’m jealous.
My jealousy aside, the first thing I liked about Searching for Sunday was Rachel’s decision to structure this book around the sacraments. Though we usually associate talk of sacraments with the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Evans makes a good point that nearly all Christian traditions hold that God can be encountered in and through the physical. Most churches have some sacramental understanding of even if they don’t often use that word. Her vignettes at the start of each section
could be should be republished as a teaching aid for catechumenate classes. When people ask why I ended up in the Episcopal Church, I say, “the sacraments, the historic liturgy and Book of Common Prayer, the sacraments, the middle way of Anglicanism, the sacraments, women in leadership, the sacraments, my questions are welcomed, have I mentioned the sacraments? Water, bread, wine, oil, incense, bowing, kneeling, touching, saying – all become, within the community of the church, conduits of God’s grace and salvation.
When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again….[the sacraments] reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church. [p. 18]
The other thing I greatly appreciated about this book – and Rachel has taken some heat for this, which, frankly, baffles me – is the esteem she holds for the people and churches that formed her faith early in life, even as she wrestled with serious questions along the way. Some have read this book as a denominational spat, evangelical vs. mainline. This is a serious mischaracterization of the book. [Confession: I smiled and gave a little ‘Woo, TEC’ when I first read, a month or so ago, that Rachel and Dan were regulars at an Episcopal Church.] But my blithe denominationalism isn’t found in Rachel’s book. Again, my jealousy. I’ve wrestled for the last 10 years with how to honor the places and people who first taught me about Jesus and Bible, who baptized me, prayed for me, formed me in ways I likely haven’t yet processed.
I realize I can no more break up with my religious heritage than I can with my parents. I may not worship in an evangelical church anymore or even embrace evangelical theology, but as long as I have an investment in the church universal, I have an investment in the community that first introduced me to Jesus. Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the game. [p.196]
Besides being jealous, I am glad Rachel Held Evans wrote this book. As she’s discovered through her blog, her experiences of doubt are shared by many, many people. She’s brave for sharing these stories with us and working through a process of moving forward – doubts still with us, for sure – with integrity and hope.