Women of Valor: Rachel Held Evans

Written by Brianna Lantz
Aug 29, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a “Women of Valor” series. For the next few months, we will be spotlighting courageous female reformers around the globe and throughout history. We pray that their stories will inspire you, dear reader, to boldly take up the mantle of gospel love and radical transformation in the name of Jesus.

“We never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.”

It was written in her “chicken scratch” handwriting on the back of a 3x5-inch index card, and it had fallen out of her Bible as we were sorting her belongings. I quickly tucked it away as a memento of who I knew her to be. I clutched it tightly as a comfort for that day, the one I had been dreading since I said good-bye three weeks prior—the day of my grandmother’s funeral. 

“She gave me a ride once when she saw me walking home in the rain.” 

“She brought me a homemade casserole after my father died.” 

“She took me into her home when I had nowhere else to go.”

For nearly an hour, the stories flowed. Person after person—many of whom I had never known—stood up and shared anecdotes like this. My family and I glanced at each other in disbelief over the sheer amount of lives she quietly touched with her own.

That’s my grandmother: her M.O. is making people feel seen. As a child she would take me “frogging”—FROG, her acronymed reminder to “Faithfully Rely on God.” I remember afternoons with her at the Dollar Store, buying up whatever froggy paraphernalia we could find for care packages that we could leave on the doorsteps of the downtrodden. Yes, my grandmother taught me how to ding-dong dash.

It was surreal to witness the culmination of those days and all the days she went about her business of “seeing people” in secret, without recognition. The convergence of all of these folks from all walks of life, gathered together in a tiny sanctuary—it was holy; it was God’s kingdom kissing earth. 

That was nearly six years ago, and I haven’t been to a funeral since. But those memories came flooding back when Christian writer and champion of the marginalized Rachel Held Evans died at age 37 of complications from an allergic reaction to antibiotics. I can usually handle news of high-profile deaths with varying degrees of detachment, but this one hit hard.

For those struggling to see the imago dei within themselves, for those who have been endlessly excluded and ostracized, for those who didn’t know if they had a place in a faith community, Rachel’s words were a balm to the soul.

Ever since I began writing about faith, Rachel has been somewhat of a North Star for me, a steady voice grounded in the teachings of Christ when everything else felt like madness. I counted on her words to remind me on the heaviest of days that light will prevail and darkness will not overcome it. I didn’t want to imagine a world without Rachel in it, and I couldn’t believe we faced that reality. We needed Rachel now more than ever, “for such a time as this.”

“What makes the Gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in,” Rachel wrote in her 2015 book, Searching for Sunday. Rachel engaged her share of critics because she truly believed—and lived—an offensive Gospel of radical inclusion. She made space for everyone at the table, even if it meant offending the powers-at-be, just as Jesus enraged the pharisees for the company he kept.

As so beautifully summated by her friends Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, “Rachel was ‘for’ an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept-aside.”

For those struggling to see the imago dei within themselves, for those who have been endlessly excluded and ostracized, for those who didn’t know if they had a place in a faith community, Rachel’s words were a balm to the soul. “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more,” Rachel said.

Rachel’s funeral looked exactly like that—a holy convergence of those very folks whose lives she touched with her subversive hospitality. As I watched the live-stream through teary eyes, I thought of my grandmother’s funeral six years ago. I thought about that index card and all of the lives we touch with our own. I thought about what it means to leave a legacy, whether you get 37 years or 77 years. I thought about a phrase that I’ve loved ever since Rachel re-introduced it to the modern Christian lexicon: “woman of valor.” The phrase is a translation of the original Hebrew “eshet chayil,” a reference from Proverbs 31:10-31. “Eshet” is a form of isha, meaning woman. “Chayil” suggests bravery, courage, strength. I thought about the many women of valor in my own life: my grandmother, my mother, Sister Alison McCrary, Jacqueline Isaac, and Ekhlas Bajoo, for starters. 

And as the funeral concluded, as we went back out into a world without Rachel Held Evans, I wondered, where do we go from here? How do we honor the bold faith of those who came before us; how do we carry on the torch as women and men of valor?

I have a few ideas: 

We elevate the voices of the marginalized.

We see and call out the imago dei in everyone, no exception.

We build more bridges and work to dismantle the walls between us.

We add seats to the table because there is always room for more.

We make casseroles and care packages and show up for one another in small, quiet ways. 

And we take Jesus at his word when he said, “What you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

How do we honor the bold faith of those who came before us; how do we carry on the torch as women and men of valor?

Be blessed, women and men of valor. Be blessed to go out into the world armed with great love and radical inclusion. Be blessed to live well for others, and be blessed to hear those sweet words at the end of it all: well done, good and faithful servant.

Photo by Tim Mossholder.

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