The scribes and the pharisees said to Jesus, “Who are you?”
On May 4, our church lost one of its most thoughtful, articulate young leaders: Rachel Held Evans, dead at age 37. Her family and the millions who loved her are in shock and deep grief.
Evans came to national prominence through her writings–chronicling a faith journey that began at her parents’ kitchen table, an upbringing in a theologically conservative church, and education at an evangelical college known for promoting belief in a literal, six-day creation. After a time of deep searching, Evans found her way to the Episcopal Church.
“Along the way” as one of the articles written in her honor described her work, “she chronicled her faith, doubt, honest questions and evolving beliefs with a sense of humor.
Rachel won the hearts of Episcopalians with a piece she wrote in The Washington Post back in 2015 entitled, “Want Millennials Back in Church? Stop Trying to Make Church Cool.
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts.
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.
I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I read her words. Maybe being who we are as the Episcopal Church would be enough. But I also worried that Evans’ words might encourage us in some ways of being ourselves that unwittingly serve to undermine our witness and keep us shallow.
At clergy conference this week, one of our presenters, Nancy Beach, talked about the importance of self-awareness. She made a pitch for one self-awareness tool in particular, the Enneagram, because of its power for transformation. In each of the nine personality types the Enneagram describes, she said, there is the best expression of that type, which is creative and evolved, and there is its opposite, an immature, unaware, shadow expression of each type. The Enneagram is one way to grow in spiritual awareness toward the best expression of how God created each one of us.
What Rachel Held Evans described in her 2015 article is the Episcopal Church at our best. But what do we look like when we are in the shadow, unaware, less-than-creative expression of ourselves?
We can be complacent, focused on ourselves. Ours is often not a particularly compelling expression of the Christian life. In our shadow expressions, we look like our rusty blue Episcopal Church signs that can be found on far too many roadsides and street corners. While we’re not hesitant to pray to Jesus with all the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, in our shadow expressions, many of us are not practiced in leading people to a relationship with Jesus or feel any urgency to go deeper in our faith. Many of us have never told our faith story. Sometimes we worry that we have no faith to share.
One of the things we are learning in the discovery phase of our strategic planning process, Becoming Good Soil, is that while there are good things to celebrate in our congregations and in the diocese as a whole, in general, our overall sense of mission, our identity as Christians, and our purpose as Christian community is not clear. While we perceive ourselves as being welcoming, warm, inclusive congregations, we do not communicate a desire to share our faith with others, particularly if that would involve making significant accommodations or sacrifice on our part. In far too many parishes, the work of survival is exhausting us.
I remain committed to the Episcopal Church and our diocese because I believe that when we are at our best, we have a compelling expression of Jesus’ gospel that can feed hungry souls, that Jesus’ way of love is hope for each one of us and hope for the world. But in full disclosure, I gravitated toward Tony Morgan’s notion of stuckness because I was feeling stuck as your bishop–working harder at this job than I have ever worked in my life alongside other people also working very hard and not convinced that those efforts would bear much fruit. I began to ask myself, “Is there another way?” What is our purpose, our work now in faithfulness to Jesus?”
As the discovery phase of our strategic planning comes to a close and we move toward the work of defining mission, core purpose, and identified goals for the next three years, I ask for your prayers and reflection on this two questions, in this order: Why Are You A Christian? Why are you an Episcopalian?
In the last book Rachel Held Evans wrote before she died, she describes a conference she and the wondrously irreverent Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber organized that they called Why Christian? The most eclectic, diverse people from across the country and the spectrum of Christianity gathered together to ask each other that basic question. “As each speaker approached the microphone to share their stories,” Evans writes, “it became clear that there simply remains no greater apologetic for the Christian life than a life caught up in the story of Jesus.”
“We can know a person for decades, share a pew with them in church every Sunday, without ever knowing their testimonies, without ever asking them, ‘Hey, why Christian?’ We can spend a lifetime singing hymns and reading the Bible without honestly answering that question for ourselves.”
Will you take a moment this week and write for yourself, and share with me, why you are a Christian? Doing so may strengthen your faith in ways that surprise you and help us as the Episcopal Church in our communities better understand who we are, why we do what we do, and what being the best expression of ourselves can look like.