Rachel Held Evans and Jean Vanier
It’s been a hard week. Two of my Christian heroes, Rachel Held Evans and Jean Vanier, have passed away.
First, was Saturday’s shocking news of Rachel Held Evans. 37 years old, she died tragically and unexpectedly after going into the hospital for the flu (the flu!) and what they thought was an allergic reaction to antibiotics. A little over a week later, she was gone, leaving behind two small children, a husband, and a legion of fans for whom she gave voice to what it means to be a Christian. She was funny, pointed, and prophetic in her understanding of the Gospel.
Then yesterday, word came out about Jean Vanier. At 90 years old, Vanier’s death was not shocking nor tragic but, nonetheless, it still felt like a seismic loss. Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche Community movement, started in the mid-60s. Vanier had the audacity, the vision really, to see that people with and without developmental disabilities might be able to live together as equals in community. There are now 154 L’Arche communities spanning 38 countries. Until yesterday, he was, as Fr. James Martin said, “A living saint.”
These two amazing souls ministered to me at very different times in my life.
I was introduced to Vanier as a young woman when I was a US-2 missionary in Richmond, VA. I previously wrote about that time here. Our small community read Vanier’s Community & Growth: Our Pilgrimage Together. Truth be told, much of the writing went over my head, but I gamely highlighted the passages in the book that seemed most important. One was this (which is quite apt for the church today):
If people decide to live together with neither specific goals nor clarity about the “why” of their common life, there will soon be conflicts and the whole thing will collapse…The more authentic and creative a community is in its search for the essential, the more its members are called beyond their own concerns and tend to unite. The more lukewarm a community becomes towards its original goals, the more danger there is of its membership crumbling…Its members will no longer talk about how they can best respond to the call of God and the poor…
Vanier pushed me to live my faith earnestly, with intention, with love.
I was introduced to Rachel Held Evans in my church book group a few years ago. We read two of her works, the last one being, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.
Even though we were years apart in age, Evan’s spiritual journey felt similar to mine. She went to a small evangelical college that had lots of rules about what it meant to be a “real” (i.e., evangelical) Christian. I went to a similar college. At mine, it meant no drinking, dancing, or smoking, doors open at a 45 degree angle if guys were in our rooms, and chapel four times a week – yes, really.
As time went on – especially as I got to know people who didn’t identify as Christian – those rules and the other ones that defined who was “in” and who was “out” of God’s favor became problematic. For years, I wore the evangelical badge with pride until it began to feel vaguely unlike what Jesus was all about. But if I wasn’t an evangelical, what was I?
Evans gave words to that unease. In the prologue to Searching for Sunday she said,
We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus – the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.
Evans, wise beyond her years, made it possible for many of us to find a way to redefine ourselves. She helped us to find a way to honestly love God and love the church, all the while making God’s table span as far as the eye can see.
Two of my Christian heroes, one in the prime of her life and one in his twilight years, have died. The lives of Evans and Vanier remind me – remind us – to keep plugging away at what it means to be people of faith, to keep examining how to live out that faith, and to keep asking the important question: “why faith at all?”
May God usher these two inspiring souls into the gates of heaven with arms open wide.