Gate or River?

May 26, 2019

Series: May 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Acts 16:9-15

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

 Gate or River?

          In the first part of April, Rachel Held Evans, popular Christian writer, New York Times best-seller, was hospitalized after having an allergic reaction to antibiotics she was given for an infection.  She was in good enough spirits, and good enough health, to joke on Twitter about her disappointment in missing “Game of Thrones” on TV.  Well, her allergic reaction turned serious, turned into seizures, which led doctors to turn to a medically-induced coma in an attempt to protect her brain.  They made several attempts to safely bring her out of the coma, transferring her to two additional facilities, but were having little success. 

          This sent shockwaves through at least certain branches of the Christian family tree.  During Evans’ illness there was a massive movement on social media, where Evans had a strong presence, to muster prayers on her behalf.  What began as gentle supplications to God morphed into raw pleas and eventually angry cries.  Nadia Bolz Weber, popular Christian writer in her own right, and colorful figure, at one point prayed, “We’re not asking nicely, anymore, God.”[1]  Honesty is at the heart of prayer.  Then, in a moment it happened.  The hashtag—the way Twitter posts are grouped—changed from “Pray for RHE” (Rachel Held Evans) to “Because of RHE,” as people moved from asking for divine intervention to save her life to paying tribute to what her life had meant to them.  That moment occurred on May 4, when Rachel Held Evans died.  She was 37 years old, and left behind two small children.

          That’s when it got me.  I had never read any of Evans’ work.  You may be wondering why, if she was such an important figure.  Evans had an enormously popular blog, was a published author, and sought-after speaker.  I had a distant sense of what she had done for others, but the issues helped people work through weren’t ones that were the most pressing for me.  She was enormously helpful for women who were from traditions that didn’t allow them leadership roles, much less a sense of equality; LGBTQ persons who’d been told they were going to hell by the tradition of their rearing; those who accepted the legitimacy of science, the recognition of evolution; those whose faith simply included doubts and questions.  We have plenty of our own issues, I have plenty, but these are largely questions that have been resolved in communities such as ours. 

          When I saw just who was paying tribute to Evans, and the impact they were telling she’d had, I realized I needed to hear more.  So, because of these testimonies—and you can read them yourselves under the hashtag “Because of RHE”—and because there were too many unsorted Legos on our living room floor, one night a couple weeks ago I downloaded her audio book, Searching for Sunday:  Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  If I couldn’t give her my attention during her life, the least I could do was listen to her from beyond the grave, which is precisely how it felt, with her own voice narrating her words from the other side.  I sat there putting the Legos away piece by piece and listened as Evans—it’s her voice narrating the book—talked about working through the scattered pieces of her own faith, trying to find a way to put them together in some new and workable form.

          I learned that Evans’ place in the Christian world, as prominent as it became, did not come without cost.  She took massive amounts of criticism.  She left behind the tradition of her childhood and was demonized by some within it for her views.  She ended up starting a church with friends that was a labor of love.  It never had more than 20 or so members, which ultimately petered out with everyone exhausted and broke, and maybe a little broken.  It would be more than two years before she found herself back in any regular worshipping community, an Episcopal church in Tennessee.  She never stopped wrestling though, in her writing and in her being.  There’s something admirable in that.  We have to remember, there was a time when it was easy to go to church and hard to leave it.  Now, it’s easier than ever to leave church, to walk away, to pick one that is more comfortable (and there is value in that), or just go away altogether.  No one is going to scold for choosing to read the paper on Sunday morning instead of going to church, shame you for being spotted at Peet’s, or watching “Meet the Press” in your slippers.  Evans didn’t take the easy route, though.

          She persisted, not in going to church—that’s not the point—but in wrestling with a faith that was increasingly hard to define or define with such hard lines, clear definitions, unchanging patterns.  She continued to write, no longer from the center, no longer as the girl who had exceled in memorizing Bible verses and winning youth group awards (What a weird thing, to have youth group awards?!).  Now, she resided firmly on the edge.

The edge, of course, is where so much happens. 

I once took a class where we spent the entire semester exploring the Book of Acts from the perspective of spatial dynamics.  Where did certain things in the narrative happen?  It was amazing how much of the action happened on edges, in contested spaces—doorways, roads, in between places, places just outside the gate.  Outside the gate is precisely where we meet a woman today named Lydia (Acts 16:14).  Lydia is stationed “outside the gate by the river,” where the disciples have come supposing it “was a place of prayer” (v. 13).  That’s interesting.  It’s outside the gate, outside defined bounds, the safety of the city walls, by a river, a body of water, which by definition is in perpetual motion.  That’s its stability.  A river flows, and while maintaining the same general heading it shifts its path over time.  Lydia is called “a worshipper of God” and is moved by the movement of the apostles, or maybe more accurately the movement of the Spirit through them.  As many have said, Acts of the Apostles would be better named Acts of the Spirit.

The passage for today ends with the proclamation, “And she prevailed upon us,” meaning she succeeded in having the apostles of Christ come to stay in her home, to dwell there for a bit, to come to her world.  That’s a powerful image.  The whole story is full of powerful images.  Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of the gate and the river.  It leads me to ask: Is your faith one that resides firmly inside the gate, or does it walk barefoot upon the soily banks of the river?  Do we make our collective faith home inside metaphorical immovable foundations or do we risk dipping into the flow of the stream?  There is great comfort, clear direction, in gates, walls, and boundaries, and there is a place for these things, but the walls and all that’s within them have to get moved around, downright shaken up, from time to time, and they do because of what happens at the river.  What happens in gated buildings is the accumulation of wealth, the hatching of strategic plans, the designation of power, each too with its place.  What happens in rivers is baptism, the reckless spilling of grace, the descent of the Spirit, the pronouncement of heavenly coronation, and the critique of misused power.  Where does our faith lie, in the certainty of knowing certain things about God inside the gate or the feeling of the soil from walking with God, whoever God is, down by the river?

The world needs people who report in from the river’s edge, just as it does who speak well from within the city gate.  Maybe you, maybe we, could be one of those voices.  Rachel Held Evans was.  She spoke about how searching for Sunday is not the same as searching for a church.  Sunday is a concept, a way of being, a way of leaning into the mystery of the resurrection.  These are some quotes I like from Searching Sunday:

“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”

“…the gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.”

“what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.”

“Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy.” 

“people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”

“Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God.”

“There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection.”

“They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”

“The good news is you are a beloved child of God; the bad news is you don’t get to choose your siblings.”

In the foreword to Searching for Sunday, Glennon Doyle Melton writes, “Whenever I want to scare myself, I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing.”  Sometimes fears come true.  When we lose someone who has stepped out on a ledge on our behalf, who dared to go to the edge, it can feel as though we are falling.  May we land safely, that we might kick of our shoes and make our way to the banks, to dip in, to receive, and to offer up hospitality to all who are in search of it.  Amen.