I don’t think I will ever hear the story of Mary at the tomb in the same way again. Writer Sarah Bessey, dear friend of Rachel Held Evans, read from the Gospel of John at Rachel’s funeral. Sarah, like all of Rachel’s family and friends, has been absolutely shattered by her death. Never had I considered how grief-stricken and shattered Mary Magdalene would have been to discover that Jesus was missing from where he was supposed to be. Sarah read the words “So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know here they have taken him’” with such raw grief in her voice. Sarah understood the desperation of searching for a missing friend who was so deeply loved.
I’ve never spent much time considering Mary’s grief. I have always quickly moved on to the part of the story where Jesus appears to Mary and assures her he is not gone. It’s easier to move on to the light of the good news than to spend time in the darkness that is grief. Kind of like “whew, that was scary for a minute, but it’s all good now.” Sarah’s reading reminded me that we MUST spend time with the Mary part of the story. Rachel understood that, as well.
“Mine is a stubborn and recalcitrant faith. It’s all elbows and motion and kicked up dust, like cartoon characters locked in a cloudy brawl. I’m still early in my journey, but I suspect it will go on like this for a while, perhaps until my last breath.” When Rachel Held Evans wrote those words for her book, Searching for Sunday, I suspect she didn’t think her last breath would come so soon. None of us did. I was surprised by how sad the news of her death made me. I didn’t know her, personally. Most of us didn’t. Honestly, I am not even particularly qualified to speak about her life—her family and friends will do and have done that. But her story is our shared story.
Rachel Held Evans has been described as a writer’s writer. Several of her writer friends have said that she kept a note on her laptop that said, “Tell the truth.” She told the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may have been to hear. She was honest about how difficult it is to be a believer every single day-- how she sometimes wondered if we had made this whole thing up because we are afraid of death. And yet…and yet, she thought the risk was worth it. Rachel spent time with Mary Magdalene in her grief, AND she experienced the good news. Mary Magdalene, eshet chayil. Woman of valor.
Rachel spent time attempting to take back Proverbs 31. In recent years, she felt it had become a “to-do” list of what it means to be a biblical woman. In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she noted that “many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavors of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith.” This interpretation was not the original intent of the text. It was meant to be a blessing. “The Proverbs 31 woman is not a star because of what she does, but how she does it—with valor. So do your thing. If it’s refurbishing old furniture—do it with valor. If it’s keeping up with your two-year old—do it with valor. If it’s fighting against human trafficking—do it with valor…leading a company…or getting other people to do your work for you—do it with valor.” Eshet chayil. Woman of valor. Rachel Held Evans, eshet chayil. Rachel told the truth, even when it was uncomfortable. Rachel gave the marginalized a voice. She recognized when she needed to listen. Eshet chayil. She spoke the truth with valor, but never with malice. She was fierce AND she was kind. Eshet chayil.
Rachel understood that this story, while for you and for me, was not meant to be experienced alone. We are meant to experience this story in community. She understood that that is why Jesus called his disciples together for a meal on the night of his betrayal. He knew they were going to need to rely on each other to tell the story. “Do this in remembrance of me.” He knew they could not break bread or drink from the cup and remember him in isolation. Remembrance was meant to be experienced in community.
Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded us in her sermon on the text from John at Rachel’s funeral that death is not the final sting. That does not mean it doesn’t sting right now. Christ’s resurrection is not a prescription for never feeling grief again. The resurrection sits adjacent to the grief. It reminds us that despite the grief, Christ’s story goes on. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s benediction reminded us that Rachel’s story is not over, either. And neither is ours. Rachel understood that her “faith coalesced into a single tangible call: Repent. Break Bread. Seek Justice. Love Neighbor.” Christianity seemed at once the simplest and most impossible thing in the world. It seemed to me confirmed, sealed as the story of my life—that thing I will never shake, that thing I’ll always be.” (Searching for Sunday) Rachel told that story over and over again, using beautiful words. The benediction reminded us that we must continue to tell our own story.
As I write, I frequently feel as if the words I am writing have already been written more beautifully by someone else. What could I possibly add? The benediction reminded me, that my story is my story. And your story is your story. We need to tell those stories and share them. Together, they make up our collective story--the one where death does not triumph. We need to be bold enough to tell the truth and bold enough to listen. Bold enough to be uncomfortable. Bold enough to sit at the tomb with our grief for a little while. Eshet chayil. May we know them, may we be them. With God’s help, may we all be people of valor.
Kimberly Carswell contributes regularly to our blog, as well as keeping her own on faith and running. She is training for this fall’s Richmond Marathon, one of several she has run up and down the east coast. She and Scott have three cradle GPPCers, now teenagers.