On Saturday I was on a mother daughter trip to Napa, California. It was a beautiful, sunny, just right temperature day. Seventeen moms, daughters, sisters and friends were toasting life on a hill overlooking the valley. The lush green landscape was covered with flowers, hummingbirds and grapevines. Several of the daughters were celebrating turning thirty this year. It was a gloriously fun weekend, at times both ridiculously silly and profoundly deep.
In the midst of our glowing morning I got word of the death of Christian writer and speaker, Rachel Held Evans. I had been following her sudden health crisis that began with the flu. On Saturday morning, I learned she died. She was in her mid-thirties, a wife, a mother of two babies, close to my grandsons’ ages.
I follow Rachel on Twitter and she was a Twitter woman for sure. Tweeting several times a day with her inspiration, her spice, her willingness to take on the Christian stereotypical exclusive wing. She’d been banned from Lifeway Christian years ago for her outspoken, outside the lines honesty. She was radically inclusive and willing to fight for those on the fringes.
News of her death rocked me even though I was in the midst of a trip of a lifetime celebrating women close to her age. Social media had created the illusion in my mind and heart that Rachel and I were close and spoke several times a day. A social media relationship doesn’t seem to allow a way to mourn, no closure, no relief. I really didn’t know her, I just felt like I did.
Once again, I was hit with the bittersweet nature of our lives. Celebrations laced with loss, laughter mixed with tears, daughters, moms and sisters all tangled up in life. Years ago in seminary, my friend Holly and I coined the phrase Sad Laughter to apply to all the situations we faced with tears streaming through smiles. On Saturday, Sad Laughter permeated my day.
I’m still looking for a place to put my grief and shock at Rachel’s death. The progressive Christian community has lost some light right now. We needed her. Her husband and babies needed her. Her parents needed her. I didn’t quite know it but I needed her too.
She had 169,000 Twitter followers. I’m sure very few of us knew her personally. Still, we too grieve.
I read Rachel’s latest book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the minute it came out. It was filled with her humor, grace and insight into Biblical texts. She wrote this book while pregnant and then nursing a newborn…every woman who’s been there knows what a feat this is.
I absorbed every page of the book marking the pages in order to quote her in future sermon illustrations, speaking events or blog posts. She ends it reflecting on how each of our individual stories live inside the bigger story of the Spirit of God. She wrote, The stories we tell with our lives…aren’t meaningless absurdities, tragic in their brevity, but rather subplots of a grander narrative, every moment charged with significance as we contribute our own riffs, soliloquies, and plot twists to the larger epic, the Holy Spirit coaxing us along with an ever-ebullient, And then? And then? And then?
Now this sentence seems to foreshadow the tragic brevity of Rachel’s own life. I’ve been in this place before, shouting at God for the injustice and pain of allowing the good ones to go too soon. Are you kidding me God? Her? Now? No! No way. Just no.
Today I am grieving a Twitter friend. I will miss her daily chatter in my life. I will miss her tenacious Spirit in standing for those on the outside and demanding inclusion and love. I’ll grieve for her family and her babies. I’ll give God thanks for the books and wisdom she left behind. I’ll acknowledge that she was a part of God’s larger story, like I am, like you are.
And I’ll remember what I already knew but often forget. Life is a gift. We only have now. It is filled with Sad Laughter and things we do not understand. Sometimes we stand on a hill and toast and sometimes we stand in that same gorgeous place and cry. Sometimes, amazingly, in the very same moment we do both.
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, wife, mother of three, Mimosa/Mocha to Keller and Pace, breast cancer survivor.