A Wholehearted Faith

On the last book from Rachel Held Evans

You can listen to this essay as part of The Secret Field Notes Podcast, Episode 16. (For new folks, this is a private podcast feed for paid subscribers where I read my Field Notes essays for you.)

Hi friends,

So here we are. It is All Saints Day and tomorrow is All Souls Day, which is the day in our Christian calendar when we remember and honour those who have died. And it’s the day Rachel Held Evans’ last book for adults is being released. It’s called Wholehearted Faith and it was finished by our dear friend Jeff Chu.

Many of you know this story, it was all over the news two and a half-ish years ago. Rachel Held Evans, a #1 New York Times bestselling author, wildly popular blogger, widely known speaker, one of my co-creators of Evolving Faith, wife to Dan and mother of two small children, and the voice of a generation tragically and unexpectedly died after a sudden illness at just 37 years old.

Her two babies lost their mother, Dan lost his wife, Amanda lost her beloved sister, Peter and Robin lost their daughter. The Alabama Crimson Tide lost one of their greatest fans. I lost my friend.

RELATED: Jeff Chu and I co-wrote this article for The Washington Post at that time, if you want to learn more about how we remember her.

What claim do ordinary friends have in such unspeakable, constantly deepening losses? I can’t answer that. But I do stake my small spot at the edge of their wide sea of grief and hold vigil, always.

I’m feeling a bit shaky as I write. I wanted to tell you about her book and ask you to buy it or request that your library buy it or get it for a friend or something, not just because she was my friend but because it’s a really good book. Of course it is.

Links for Wholehearted Faith

But I find that the stubborn memories and the ongoing grief are making it hard to do the typical marketing promo stuff for a pal’s book. You know how there are certain memories that transcend the mind? Like, you literally feel the memory in your body and hold it in your soul, not your head? The day that Rachel died is like that for me.

Even as I prayed and held vigil for those weeks when she was sick in April of 2019 - even as what seemed like a simple thing became ever more serious, even when she was transferred to a bigger hospital and then an even bigger hospital, even when she began to have seizures, even when the doctors placed her in a medically-induced coma, even then - the thought that she may actually be dying never once occurred to me. I could not even think it. So it was nearly the end before the truth broke through to me with the literal words, “This is not survivable.” I think some part of me still doesn’t believe it.

Thanks to donated United airline points from my friend Nadia - I’ll never get over that she did that loving thing for me on that very brutal day - I made it to Rachel’s bedside in time and so was with her when she died. In the early morning hours before dawn broke, after the end, after everyone else left, I was in her hospital room when I finally allowed myself to fall completely apart, hard and fast and alone. Then, like a lot of women will do, I gathered up blankets and photos and notes to bring back to Dan and to begin work, looking for anything I could do.

She was in the early stages of writing Wholehearted Faith when she died. When she told me the working title of her new book, I remember thinking, “Of course.” Rach was pretty much the definition of wholehearted, she lived that way.

I wasn’t surprised when Dan turned to our Jeff and asked him to complete the book. I always say that my friendship with Jeff was one of Rachel’s last great gifts to me. He is one of my best friends now but, even with a front row seat to this experience, I cannot fathom or explain just how much it cost for him to come alongside of her unfinished manuscript and build out a book with her after her death. This has been one of the most sacrificial acts of friendship I've ever witnessed. And not just his friendship with Rachel but his friendship with Dan, their kids, her parents, sister, all of us. I don’t know if anyone else could have done this because it took such strength of character, love, skill, and depth all while still being in that white hot centre of grieving a profound friend.

RELATED: You can read this moving interview with Jeff and Dan about this at The New York Times or this feature in The New Yorker which also checks in with Amanda, Peter, Robin, and her beloved friend Kathleen to whom the book is dedicated for more - I highly recommend both.

I’ve read the book multiple times now (including the first six chapters aloud for the audiobook) and this is her most pastoral book yet and at the same time, it’s wildly radical - which feels like her. At the core it’s about knowing that you are a beloved child of God and then living that out into every corner of our lives. She knew that God doesn’t fragment us or tear us apart, but always knits us back together, not a thread dropped, wholly and holy in Love.

I found these pages to be a bittersweet sanctuary. It encapsulates the familiar themes of Rachel's work: welcome, wry wisdom, compassion, honesty, generosity, brilliance, and love. But not only was she wise, brilliant, prophetic but she was also really, really funny with a self-deprecating sense of humour. (She also really loved Hebrew words, which I deeply appreciated until I had to read them aloud for the audiobook.) It feels like her last feast in the wilderness, like she set a table for all of us wonderers and wanderers to rest in the love of God, before carrying on ahead of us.

I told the reporter at The New Yorker that I think Rachel would be the first person to scoff at any attempt to turn her into a saint. She was relentlessly "alongside" people, never taking herself too seriously but always taking her work and the people she served seriously. She never believed her own hype or the persona of “RHE” that many created, perhaps because she was so rooted in her sense of self, her marriage - God, she loved Dan so much, in her children, in her family, her friendships, her town of Dayton. She was just Rach. She's one of the few spiritual teachers I've known who had the humility to regularly ask herself, "What if I'm wrong?" So many people trusted her because of that. And she was worthy of their trust in every way. How she was in her books and on stage and online is how she really was in real life. I think that kind of humility, intellectual curiosity, sense of humour, and hopefulness is what set her apart from most of us who pretend to be spiritual leaders. 

As Wholehearted Faith goes out into the world to do the work that Rachel hoped, and now Jeff hopes, that it will do, long after she is gone, I have been reminded of that last night in Nashville. I had arrived late and with just one step into that terrifying reality of the hospital, I recognized the abiding and tangible presence of God. Against all odds and reason - and maybe you’ll say this is just me telling myself what I needed to hear which may very well be true - I had a very profound sense that God was with Rachel. I knew it like I know my own name, like I knew my way to my babies in the dark when we were still nursing. Celtic Christianity calls these “thin places” - the moments in time or space or knowledge when we see reality as it truly is, when we are given an awareness of the nearness of heaven and earth at a particular place, beyond and within time. The veil between this life and whatever lies beyond felt whisper thin. She was deeply loved, tenderly held in Love, and on that tragic day I believed it.

I knew it.

Everything terrible was still true. It is still true. This knowledge does not change that.

But at the very end, my hands were steady when I placed them on her head as she left this life and I prayed: “Go forth, beloved soul, from this world in the name of God the Almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Sprit, who was poured out upon you, in the Love that you abide within. Go forth, woman of valour.1

I’ve remembered speaking those words in that moment - “go forth, woman of valour” - many, many times since losing Rach. It comforts me, I guess. Or it grounds me. Maybe both. I was reminded of them yet again as I read the book’s early draft, the final draft, then half of it aloud for a recording (again, I apologise for the Hebrew pronunciation!). And I’m thinking of those words again this morning as I ready myself to send this note to you. Some of the hardest and best work we do is learn to live wholehearted, making room for all that is true whether that is devastating or beautiful and sometimes both.

Being a writer is an odd thing because your words just go on. They keep going forth. This final book for us grown-ups is now going forth. In many ways, Rachel’s wholehearted faith goes forth. Her wholehearted life is somehow going on. Our love for her goes on. We are all, people and pages, still going forth, all of us held in the same Love that holds Rachel always.

What I really wanted to say is that I hope you get a chance to read the book.

It’s very good.

Love S.

Find Sarah Bessey on Instagram | Facebook | SarahBessey.com

P.S. If you want to read the book with people, there’s a Wholehearted Faith book club on Instagram.

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My dear friend Meg Tietz, who is Catholic, sent me this prayer as I was en route to Rachel’s bedside. Being low-church me, I changed them up a bit for my own purposes but I’m always grateful for how Meg knew I’d need words to pray and that I wouldn’t probably have much of my own.