Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Getting to Know Rachel

For the last two months, my adult education class has been reading together through G.K. Chesterton's ORTHODOXY, because, well, it's worth doing.  My goal as a pastor is to share the richest spiritual food I've tasted with as many souls as I can, and that's what I'm doing.

It's a whirling, heady, poetic, and often baffling defense of the faith, and it's complicated. 

Wonderful, because Gilbert Keith can spin out some of the most beautiful thoughts, and turns a phrase with a grace that few authors can match. The deep abiding liberality of his soul radiates from so much of this book, as he shows the ability to both disagree fiercely with another, and yet recognize and appreciate all that is good in them. His lifelong friendship/jousting with George Bernard Shaw is perhaps the most noted example, but his is a great warm heart that loves and honors a worthy opponent.

Frustrating, because he can be...well...a little full of himself. And a little meandering in his mucking about with ideas. And a little too delighted in his own thinking, so much so that he often fails to notice when he's lost track of compassion. And just blazingly wrong about some things, a wrongness that he misses as he spins out his words.  But just when you're getting annoyed with him, then, again, suddenly a phrase or paragraph of such radiant grace or whimsy that you love him again.

This book has been great grist for meaty, respectful conversations and laughter.

But it's been something more.  We're not just reading Chesterton.  We're with him, because he's powerfully present in his own words.  This isn't academic writing.  It's the farthest thing from abstract or formal.  His great wit is in the room with us.  His love of life and art and literature, all of his exuberance is in the room with us.  And sure, he's monologuing a bit, and prone to bloviation on occasion.  But that's who he was.  We hear him.  We're connected to this soul, and to his particular story and take on faith and creation.  In an odd way, he remains a living presence with us, as his words tell us who he is and witness to how faith shaped him.

Which gets me to the next book we're reading as a class.  It's SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY, by Rachel Held Evans.

When Rachel Held Evans passed earlier this year, there was a great disturbance in the progressive Christian force.  Seemingly everyone I knew online was filled with lament at her untimely death, and...particularly among those who knew her...there was a deep, physical, personal grief.  I didn't know her at all.  I knew of her, of course, but I'd not yet read anything more than a few blog posts and the occasional twitter argument.   None of the folks in my class had read her, either, although some had intended to.

I understood the cries of common lament, though I didn't participate.  There are loved ones I have lost.  I miss the flesh and bones of them, the present life of them.  The world felt emptier in the knowledge they no longer walked it.  So I got that.

But people would cry, O, O, we've lost her voice!  She is gone!  She is gone!  Even the foreword to SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY presages that cry.  "Whenever I want to scare myself," it begins, "I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing."

I wonder at the root of that sentiment.

Perhaps it rises from the loss felt when a bright creative soul passes, and you realize that you have received all of their words and art and music.  Particularly with one who was familiar and beloved, one from whom more was hoped and eagerly expected, one who on social media was right there, talking about the thing that stirred the day.

Perhaps it rises from those for whom she was tangible, a friend and beloved colleague, a mentor and a sister in the faith.

But as someone who is just starting to engage with her, my encounter is new and fresh.  That, of course, is part of the magic of books.

Books cause entire worlds to wake within us, and make us see things that have never been.  The best books also bear the living imprint of their author's soul.  You can read them, and truly get to know that person, as surely as if that author was right there with you.  It's just scratches of ink on a wood byproduct, or pixels on a screen, but there that person is.  

Again, books are magical that way.  I use that word only barely as metaphor, perhaps not as metaphor at all.  

I never met, spoke with, or personally knew Rachel Held Evans.  Her span of days has passed, as it does for all mortals.  What she is now rests in God.  But she has left us a gift, one that means I'm confident she can still be known, as one encounters her voice and the written memories of her soul.