Finding Your Place
After all, death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about; not when our God is in the business of making all things new. –Rachel Held Evans
There is something deeply spiritual about perceiving our faith through fresh eyes. It feels akin to a freshly wiped slate, where the words now written appear simpler, brighter and bolder than before. This is the effect that Rachel Held Evans has when she speaks about her faith journey.
A relatively new Episcopalian, (she was raised Evangelical) Rachel delivered the keynote at the Church Leadership Conference at the Kanuga Conference and Retreat Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina a few weeks ago. An annual gathering organized and hosted by the Episcopal Church Foundation and Kanuga, this year’s conference theme was "Finding Your Place". Designed for vestries and congregational leaders, the conference is a time of learning, reflection, and formation and brings together some of the best resources for leadership, financial and strategic development.
[Save the date! The 2018 Church Leadership Conference will take place on March 2-4, 2018]
While most of the attendees were church leaders from big and small churches across the country, the uniting factor in the room was a unique Episcopal identity. Many identified as “cradle Episcopalians”, and there was a palpable sense of pride in their acknowledgment of the fact. It was interesting then, to hear Rachel’s journey as a new Episcopalian, and both times that she addressed the gathering (keynote and sermon) she spoke about her experience with great candor, humility and most enjoyably, humor.
Keeping the Church Weird
If the sacraments were ever in need of a modern day champion, Rachel would be a strong choice. She recounted some of the things that make the church unique and “weird” – baptism with water, partaking of body and blood, and practicing confession. “These are all things that have made the church unique for 2000 years” she said, and these “gifts of God, for the people of God are enough” as long as we remain “stubbornly committed to them and lavishly gracious with them”, sharing that she loved the sacraments deeply because they are a reminder that it is impossible to be a Christian alone. She emphasized the need to root ourselves in these foundational pillars of our faith and revive them for our modern context – “that is what makes the church relevant today”. Describing the beauty of experiencing the sacraments, she said they “brought God out of her head and into her hands” – seeing, tasting and feeling her faith was a transformational experience for her.
Rachel shared a story of her having to address a large group of Junior High students (not her typical audience!) at a Methodist bible camp, and her anxiety about “doing right by them”. As she was serving communion to the 600 students present, and she placed bread into every pair of cupped hands and spoke the words “this is Christ’s body, broken for you” over and over again, she had an epiphany - this is enough; Christ is enough. This realization that it wasn’t about capability or talent, but about letting Christ lead us in our weakness was significant to her. While we often seek God out in the important, momentous times in our life, the heart of faith she realized, was encountering God in the unglamorous, ordinary, everyday things of life. “We often feel this isn’t sufficient, but it is”, she said.
To my mind, the church must always be kept weird, also because we all bring with us our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our failures, our quirks and our differences – and the church invites us into communion despite all our strangeness. In her most recent book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel shares her difficult and wonderful journey into, away from and back into the church again. In particular she returns to the sacraments, using them as milestones to mark her journey of faith and tell her story.
Finding Your Place
The theme for the Church Leadership Conference this year was "Finding Your Place". In speaking to this theme, Rachel described the Greek word téleios, which means perfection, completion and fulfillment – maturing into one’s intended purpose. “The téleios of a child of God”, she said, “is to love indiscriminately just as God has loved us – this is what we are made to do; this is who we are intended to be.” It is our eternal quest to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.”
Frank Logue, who served as the second keynote speaker at the conference said, “Finding your place begins with realizing you’re in the wrong place!” describing a literal journey he took, a hike across the 2,150-mile Appalachian trail in a single six month long period, learning along the way how each of us are unique, but share universal and timeless struggles and stories. We have to be an example of what we want to see in the world - for church leaders specifically, “what you want the congregation to become, the vestry has to be that in miniature”, Frank said.
The church’s place in the world today, as it has always been, is to be the salt and light, to walk the narrow way, and to love our “enemy”. Rachel spoke candidly about her struggles with enemy love and her realization that "people who are the hardest to love are the most important to love". Focusing again on our everyday lives, she spoke about the arguments she has with people of Facebook, “religious people with whom she has political and theological differences”, and how it is so much harder and more necessary to love the people we disagree with in our day to day lives, as opposed to an “abstract concept of an enemy”.
In our current political climate, the notion of the enemy has many renditions: outsider, immigrant, refugee, Muslim, gay – many different ways of describing people who are different from whoever I am. We can smell fear in the air – fear of change, of loss, of death. Rachel reminds us that the fruit of the spirit is found everywhere, irrespective of our common fears. She reminded us that “nobody ever said the fruit of the spirit is success. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…” and it is found in small and big churches, in growing and dying churches, and in all people. “Following Jesus is a group activity”, Rachel said, and it is more important now than ever, to open our doors to all unconditionally. Speaking unswervingly and powerfully she said, “You can have the best sound system and the most comfortable pews in the world, but if your congregation is complicit in shutting the doors on refugees, the very definition of the least of these, you’re selling something, but it’s not the Gospel. And you might get a lot of people through the doors, but that’s different than making disciples of Jesus.”
She was also added, “If you have found your place, don’t get too comfortable!”, reinforcing the need to resist the urge to take ourselves too seriously all the time, and to trust that God will lead us, with all our imperfections and shortcomings, to where we are meant to be.
A Church For All
Being a millennial herself, Rachel is often asked by church leaders why young people are drifting away from the church in such alarming numbers. Many churches try very hard, extending their time and resources to make the younger generation feel welcome with concert-like music, skinny jeans and other gimmicky “cool” methods. According to Rachel, millennials can see right through this façade. She explains that millennials have been advertised to their whole life and have consequently developed a finely tuned “B.S. meter” by which they can identify a hard sell from a mile away. Instead of peddling Christianity like a new product, Rachel suggests focusing on being authentic. What this generation is seeking out, she says, like all the generations before it and all the generations to come, is “not a hipper Christianity but a truer Christianity.”
While worries about the death of many churches abound, Rachel implores us to not be afraid of death – as Christians, the very root of our faith is resurrection and that which is promised new and eternal life, has nothing to fear of death. In fact, death may be just what is needed to bring our church back to life.
As a church for all people, Rachel strongly advocates lifting up the sacraments, having difficult conversations about social justice, innovating with integrity, and being inclusive. In truth, finding our place has little to do with a finite goal in the future and everything to do with our journey with Christ - ultimately our place is in service to God and to one another. We know that any community that is practicing, wrestling with, and celebrating the Gospel everyday will certainly never be alone – this is the future of the church we have to work towards.
Charis Bhagianathan serves as Senior Communications Coordinator and Editor of ECF Vital Practices at the Episcopal Church Foundation. Before moving to New York, Charis worked at Council for World Mission in Singapore as Communications Manager and at Dorling Kindersley Publishers in New Delhi as Senior Editor. At ECF, she is focused on strategic internal and external communications, as well as the editorial responsibilities of ECFVP . While Charis has always enjoyed working in marketing and communications, her heart lies in social/new media and writing.