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Grace for our heroes, yes, and grace for the ones our heroes hurt.
In which I try to capture a few thoughts from the messy middle of complicated legacies and navigating public grief
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To my recollection, I’ve deployed the f-word on purpose only once in public life. I’m not a big swear-er and I’m grumpy enough to be bothered by our culture’s constant Level 41 swearing (yes, I am a grandmother in my heart, it’s fine). I mean, sure, I get it’s necessity/efficacy but it’s just never been how I express myself privately or publicly. All of which to say, it was very out of character for me to tell a major evangelical publication to “f—k all the way off” in a public forum.
It was in the very early days after a beloved friend had died. She was a glorious woman, deeply loved wife, needed mother to two tinies, a cherished sister and daughter, and treasured friend to many. She had written multiple bestselling books, navigated a thriving and human social media presence, and had a readership/following that deeply, deeply loved her as she spoke to and alongside their experiences in American evangelicalism with hope, humour, honesty, and fearlessness that felt simultaneously both protective of us and prophetic to us. And of course, because of that, she also had a lot of critics and haters.2
I’ve never written publicly about the experience of navigating my own grief while also somehow trying - and honestly, failing miserably - to shepherd the deep grief of thousands in order to protect those who were closest to her, all while simultaneously receiving “I didn’t agree with her on everything but I’m magnanimously sorry she died…” half-condolences from evangelical leaders who publicly avoided association before her death and a lot more “she’s in hell where she belongs” and “good riddance, she led people astray” conversations happening in the public square from people claiming to be Christians.
All this while picking out funeral clothes and crying my face off in the shower every day, but suffice to say, it was even more awful than you can possibly imagine.
While many other publications memorialized her and her work well, there was one notable exception. In that moment, a major evangelical publication chose to run an op-ed eulogy from a one-time acquaintance who not only profoundly misunderstood my friend and her work but was also just, well? honestly? hot garbage. I didn’t and don’t expect publications like that to ever understand, bless, or honour people like her - or me or you, for that matter, it’s just not in the brief - but the cruelty and self-righteous malice of an op-ed like that, at a moment of deep communal grief ended up being the straw that broke me.3 The bar is so low for being a decent human and they still tripped over it. So I called them out on it, publicly, with a few choice words including a Level 4 swear word.
I don’t regret it.4
I’ve thought of those painful days a lot this week because well-known pastor and theologian Dr. Tim Keller died. I didn’t have a personal connection with Keller. I haven’t listened to a single sermon by him. I read a book or two of his along the way but can’t say that I found it life-changing in the way that I know many others did. But in my occasional public interactions with his deputized family members or followers, it didn’t always go well because well, I was the Jesus Feminist and they were/are staunch complementarians in addition to our difference in affirming LGBTQ+ folks, and well, you get why I didn’t exactly seek his work or his version of evangelicalism out.
But when Keller died last week after a battle with cancer, my heart was heavy for his family, friends, and followers, not only for their profound loss but because I know how it feels to grieve a public figure, who is actually also just a person, in public. I know how to feels to log in to a social media site and be confronted with a litany of condolences, sloppy attempts at proximity through selfies and tweets, anecdotes and blurry new-to-you photos, and then the inevitable “good riddance” adjacent sentiments sprinkled in there, too.
The rhythm of this public grieving of our leaders or heroes is familiar to me now: the initial swell of hagiographic memorializing followed by the backlash and then the backlash-to-the-backlash. It’s as predictable as the tides. Social media is a mess at the best of times; it’s a hard place to be human. But it’s in times like this in particular, when a family is grieving a very real loss while the public is grappling with a complicated legacy that includes both real help to some and real harm to others, that it really becomes a nightmare.5 I doubt we could agree on what community care looks like these days, I’m wondering that myself.
I’ve sat with what this has stirred up in me for a few days now. I have earnestly prayed for Keller and now for his family and friends. I can acknowledge what his work meant to many, particularly a certain generation of Reformed folks, and the good that was done directly and indirectly because of his ministry. I don’t want to diminish the importance and value of that in people’s lives, it does matter.
And I’ve also sat with the realities of his complicated legacy. I hold space for those who were harmed by his influential theology and practice, leadership and even his well-documented winsomeness even while espousing damaging patriarchal and non-affirming theology which has real lived consequences, and his steady lack of accountability or acknowledgement for associations with some truly egregious abusers like Mark Driscoll and others. This also matters.
When I sat down to write to you this week, I was acutely aware that many of you are likely having similar cognitive dissonance experiences this week. We don’t know how to navigate this well yet.
My wise, pastoral friend and Evolving Faith colleague, Rev. Alicia T. Crosby Mack wisely noted, “Not everyone will wish the dead well and that’s alright. Someone’s work and words can inspire some while also deeply wounding others. People are not due in death what they denied others in life. The person whose legacy helped you may just be the architect of someone else’s hell.”6 Sometimes our public naming of harm will be rejected, misunderstood, or mischaracterized by others; that doesn’t change its reality or our grief.
Most of us will leave a complicated legacy in the end, even if it’s a quiet one. For our victories, there are also our sorrows. For our kindnesses, there are our cruelties - intentional or not. For any bit of our wisdom, there is always a record of our foolishness. For those who loved us, there are those who really, really didn’t. For our good choices, there are our ill-advised mistakes. We have all failed to live up to our own ideals. For the good we tried to do, we often caused harm, too. We all carry these complexities, some more publicly than others perhaps, some with more grievous reach and deeper impact.
This acknowledgement isn’t meant to excuse harm, don’t misunderstand me, but simply to enter the troubled waters of our old us-vs.-them certainties swirling together in moments like this. We can make room for our realities while acknowledging our story isn’t the only one in the room.
In the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about James’ exhortation that we should all avoid being teachers if possible because teachers will be judged more severely.7 I wonder now if the burden of that judgement is also borne in the lives of those who live in the fallout zone of our teachings. For what it’s worth, this is deeply sobering for me. We bear the judgement, yes, but often our failures find their worst impact in the lives of those who listened to us. I never imagined how many millstones around how many necks were tied by “well meaning folks” that I would encounter out here.8 It’s a gut check.
Right now, as I write to you, I acknowledge that I’m bringing with me the ongoing grief over the death of my friend and the traumatic experience of grieving publicly someone for whom people had a lot of big feelings, all held in tension with the realities of naming harm and complicated legacies from influential strangers. My instinct is to just stay quiet and let folks bury their dead, to discuss harm and complicated legacy elsewhere, at a different time, but now I know that maybe that just keeps things the way they were. It prioritizes politeness over justice and I get that…but the instinct to give those close to him some room is still there.
So I guess this is to say, I’m mostly just sad.
I’m sad for his family and friends. I’m sad for those who are experiencing this death as a deep loss of a mentor, friend, example, or even hero.
And I’m also so, so, so sad for those who don’t know where to go with their wounds now. I’m sad for those who experienced harm and, when they tried to express it, were called ill-mannered at best.
I’m sad for those who live with the real consequences of kind and gentle oppression especially women, people of colour, and/or LGBTQ+ folks who wonder when the time is right - it never seems like the “right” time - to say out loud, “this hurt me and this hurt people I love.” I’m sad for those whose version of their beloved leader or guide is complicated because that’s disorienting, too, I’ve been there myself.
RELATED: The Pursuit of God: Family, Work, and the Ghost of A.W. Tozer is an essay I wrote a while back on grappling with a complicated legacy from someone whose work once meant a lot to me.
And I’m sad because I also remember how awful it is to grieve for a friend while simultaneously receiving cruel words from others. I carry that like a body-trauma memory to this day. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone who loves someone, no matter what.
So I suppose in the end here, I simply wanted to make some room for whatever you’re feeling.9
I want to grow in forgiveness and grace, even when I fully don’t understand or live into the hope of either.
I want to take suffering seriously and listen to the wounded. I want justice and healing to matter.
I want to bless the grieving, however that manifests.
Grace for our heroes, yes, and grace for the ones our heroes hurt.
Grace for the grieving, yes, and grace for the ones who experienced harm and loss.
Grace for those whose lives were changed for the better and grace for those whose lives were damaged.
Even now, grace for the evangelical publication who loved Keller and yet could not honour my friend. Grace for those of us who need four-letter words for our rage and grief, be blessed because there is a long and holy lineage of this.
Grace for the low bar of being a decent human: grace for those of us who clear it and those who stumble (we’ve all been both of those, sometimes at the same time).
Grace for the ones who found a path towards healing and grace for the ones who ran out of road. Grace for complicated legacies and also accountability for being spectacularly, millstone-levels of wrong on some things.
Grace for the forgiven and for the forgiver and for the maybe-someday-but-not-yet and for the never-forgive-never-forgets, too.
If you’re sad, for whatever reason, I bless you. If you’re angry, I bless you.
If you were helped, I’m truly glad for that and honour the growth your soul experienced. If you were harmed, I grieve with you and believe you, your healing is/will be/is becoming glorious.
And if you need to use an f-word now and then while in this messy middle, trust me, I bless that, too.
Level 4 love for you,
And in case you missed these recent Field Notes:
When you need a lighthouse in the storm: Good words for hard days (for subscribers)
I have this, for now: A few of my certainties at the moment (for subscribers)
Yes, I have somehow created internal rankings of swearing/cursing. No, I will not be sharing those. Yes, an f-word is level 4 out of 5 possible levels. I will not expand on this LOL.
We used to joke that the two most hated women in evangelicalism were my friend and Post-2016 Beth Moore but that joke doesn’t feel funny anymore. (She wrote in one of her books about turning her hate mail into origami swans which tells you a lot about her approach to the constant barrage of criticism from the old-boys-clubs.)
I had handled and absorbed everything up until then but knowing that there were literally dozens of writers available to them who could have - and would have! - memorialized and honoured my friend well even within their boundaries, but instead, they turned to the typically smug certainties of their rightness, patriarchal head-pats for the little ladies, and simplistic misrepresentations, well, no, I wasn’t thrilled.
It’s become a bit of a joke amongst a few of my friends - I think it’s the “all the way off” part that made it particularly delightful to them along with their shared joy when assumed “nice” people go fully public with their rage - but I stand by my expletive to this day.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me: my friend and Keller couldn’t be more different, for a dozen reasons. So it’s not the same comparison in terms of legacy and harm in the least but simply in the experience of navigating public grief of someone who brings out big feelings in people. My friend’s work consistently opened doors and made room, so her haters and detractors were usually mad at her for their perception of her lack of conservative orthodoxy, stubborn habit of making room for the ones they wanted to exclude, or for the crime of having a vagina and an opinion simultaneously.
This is a reference to Jesus’ warning towards those who cause children or the vulnerable to stumble or struggle, it’s in Matthew 18:6.
This might be the most Enneagram 9 energy I’ve brought in a while but here we are.