This past April, Rachel Held Evans released Searching for Sunday to much deserved acclaim. It’s a book dealing with the difficult questions of faith and doubt, and processes them through the lens and anchor of the sacraments. Ever gracious and generous, Rachel offered her time to an unknown writer like myself, and I encourage you, in agreement or disagreement, to let this be something that challenges you towards unity as believers.
Rachel, thanks for taking the time to talk with me!
To kick this interview off, I would love to hear how this book came to be. Being that this includes so many intimate parts of your spiritual journey, what was the inspiration for you to write this?
Thanks for having me, Michael!
This book, and my inspiration for it, really came from conversations with my readers. I just knew from my blog, and conversations with people at conferences, that the big question on their minds was, “what do we do about church?” So many of us have doubts and questions, and even maybe questions about our pastors and church leaders. It’s a big issue. Should I go to church? Is it even relevant in my life anymore?
Searching for Sunday is my attempt to tap into the questions so many people are asking. Honestly, I somewhat went into this book dragging my feet, especially because I was trying to answer so many of these questions myself. However, when it occurred to me to write it around the seven sacraments, this really helped me give my thoughts, and this book, form.
Honestly, I didn’t know if I could talk about what the church meant to me without talking about what baptism or confession meant to me. These sacraments became the anchor for this book.
Of the seven sacraments mentioned in Searching for Sunday, which has been most significant in your own life?
To add some context, from the beginning, I chose those seven sacraments more for a literary purpose than a theological statement. As many know, they are the seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and I’m neither. In thinking about this, I felt like, as you examine those seven sacraments, you see the presence of them in every day church life, regardless of your recognition of them as a sacrament. From sharing meals together, to baptism through immersion or sprinkling water on their head, or from gathering around someone who is sick and anointing them, they are an important part of what it means to be the Community of Believers.
As far as which one made the greatest impact on me, I would have to say it was the centrality of the Eucharist (communion) in worship. This has become a very important sacrament for keeping me in the church. It’s the one I miss when I don’t show up on a Sunday. Gathering at the table, kneeling down, receiving something I didn’t earn is an important practice to make Christ real to me.
What was one sacrament you learned most about during your journey through the sacraments?
If there was one I learned most from, or one which was less familiar to me, it would definitely be anointing of the sick. I think I always assumed it was this superstitious thing that some people did to “cure” people. However, in researching it, I discovered that the act of anointing of the sick is less about “healing” someone as much as it is about the process of healing. It’s about anointing someone’s suffering as a holy struggle. This sacred act, recognizes that suffering, anoints that suffering, and says this suffering is a big deal and we are here for you. That’s beautiful, and for me, this discovery was really, very significant.
In Searching for Sunday, you write quite a bit about your views on the church and its treatment of those in the LGBTQ community. For you, what was your catalyst moment when you began to understand your worldview, in regards to same-sex marriage, was shifting?
My parents always instilled in me a tenderness of heart for anyone who found themselves left out. It was such a great thing they modeled for us- this loving and inclusive posture. So even in college, I was seeing people who grew up just like me, in the same Christian environment, to loving and devoted parents, who were being ostracized and marginalized because of their sexuality.
This caused in me a questioning that maybe this wasn’t something people chose and could change. Or, at the least, sexuality was more fluid than I once thought, and so as I continued on into young adulthood, I just had this nagging feeling that maybe we hadn’t got it right, and maybe people were really suffering because of it.
I think we have to look at the degree to which a particular system in the church is hurting people. It’s not enough to say, “huh, maybe we’ve got this wrong, maybe not, but we’ll just wait and see.” If it’s really causing this much damage, I felt like I had to explore it further.
It was out of this I was connected with Justin Lee at the Gay Christian Network, and Matthew Vines, and a few others who, through my reading their stories, began to find my mind begin to shift.
This is something that’s a very loaded and complicated question in many denominations. Nazarenes included. There are those in these denominations who are really unsure how to proceed. They feel as though they’re being torn between what the Bible says, and what their experiences have been. This being the case, what wisdom might you offer to people who are currently living in this tension or fear?
I think because I know and love so many people who hold this belief, I would want them to know that I’m sorry folks on the affirming side can be so dismissive in judging their motives. It bothers me when someone says, “anyone who is against same-sex marriage is a hateful bigot.” I get a little bit prickly when this is said, because you’re talking about my dad. Most of the people in my life believe this way. It also bugs me when people think I’m caving to a social whim.
Ultimately, I think we could all do with a little less questioning of motives. About those on the conservative side of the topic, I’m sorry people have jumped to conclusions about their hearts. Everyone is different and they hold their beliefs because of different reasons.
I would also encourage them, though, that if they’re going to error, then error on the side of grace. Especially when it comes to something like baptism and communion. When it comes to who you allow at the table, who you baptize, just remember that you’re a sinner and that nobody comes to the table because they’re worthy. We come because we’re hungry. We all long for a relationship with Jesus. I feel strongly that nobody should stand in the door and keep anyone outside of the kingdom. Jesus spoke strong words against those who tried to dictate who were in and who were not.
So seeing as none of us deserve to be at the table, I would encourage you to remember we’re all sinners saved by grace.
In Searching for Sunday, you spend time talking a lot about healing vs curing. It sometimes feels to me that, when the church discusses the really difficult issues (racism, discrimination, LGBTQ equality, etc), we’re more concerned with curing them, than in doing the really hard work of healing the deep wounds caused by the church. Would you find this to be true?
For me, the church participating in the sacraments became this beautiful picture of people who were wounded coming together to heal. It’s not about curing, it’s not about a simple fix. It involves them coming to terms with the wounds they’ve received, and finding healing together. There is a sense, when it comes to Christians and sexuality, that anything other than heterosexuality must be “cured.” That if we’re anywhere along that spectrum, then we need to be fixed. But people don’t need to be fixed. Really, we’re all just looking for healing. This then becomes more about people coming to terms with their sexuality rather than fixing it.
There is so much healing that needs to happen, no matter if you’re talking about LGBTQ issues, racial reconciliation, or any other division we’re currently working through. It’s not going to happen quickly. There is no quick fix. It’s messy, complicated, and painful, but we all need each other in the midst of it all.
Sometimes the same church that wounds is the very church that will heal.
For me, the pièce de résistance of your book is the section on communion. To me, it’s a beautiful reminder that, as often as we focus on what separates us/divides us, we are still unified by the table. How do you see the Eucharist being the catalyst of the church moving forward?
I’ve found the Eucharist to be such a unifying sacrament. It’s such a unifying experience. It’s where we all come together, with differing theological views, and in spite of these differences, we can come and receive the bread and the wine, reflecting on Jesus, and in this, it all comes together into this powerful, hard to explain, but beautiful way.
The Eucharist is the great equalizer.
It’s like when I get really mad at other writers and thinkers, I often have to pause and ask myself, “Rachel, how would you approach this person after you’ve been to the table? How would that change things?” And the thing is, it would change things.
I would love to see more ecumenical unity. Not just to share in communion formally, but to also share in meals together. There’s something powerful about the act of sharing in a meal with someone new that brings us all together.
One of the things I believe matters most about your book, is that it touches on a very real feeling that many, many clergy have. They silently struggle with questions, doubts, and fears, and there may or may not be a place for that in their current situation. For those within a denomination who are struggling to make their voice heard, what advice might you give to them?
Simply put, you’re not alone.
I think the hardest part of doubt and questioning is that you feel like you’re the only one. It’s a very isolating feeling. I remember worshiping in the church I grew up in, surrounded by those who knew me and loved me best, and yet it was the loneliest hour of the week for me, even though I knew this wasn’t true.
There are so many experiencing the same thing, asking the same questions, and I have been encouraged to discover over the years that those questions and doubters are closer to home than I thought.
So, for those with questions, and to those that struggle, be brave and filled with grace in the midst of your questions, and I think you’ll find that in the midst of the asking, you’ll find you’re not alone.
Rachel Held Evans is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include Faith Unraveled (2010), A Year of Biblical Womanhood (2012), and Searching for Sunday (2015). Hailing from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925— she writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible Belt.