Searching for Sunday

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans's newest book Searching for Sunday.

First, Searching for Sunday is such a well-written book. Rachel's writing is always smart, funny, soulful, honest and warm. When you read Rachel you're going to learn something in one paragraph, laugh in the next, and get self-reflective after that. That's what I've always liked about Rachel's writing, the combination of heart and mind, intellect and soul, erudition and passion.

Overall, here is what struck me about Searching for Sunday.

The narrative thread that runs through the book begins with Rachel and her husband Dan, who live in the small town of Dayton, TN, struggling with and eventually leaving a loving but conservative evangelical church. This is a painful leave-taking because this church loved Rachel and Dan and Rachel and Dan loved this church. But the theological and political tensions grew to be too much.

Let me pause here. I grew up in a small conservative church. And I still attend a church that is more conservative than I am. How am I able to tolerate this?

I think a large part of it is due to the fact that the churches I attended, while theologically conservative, were Anabaptist enough to be apolitical. Presidential elections came and went and we never talked about them. Preachers never treated the congregation as a voting block to be sent to the polls.

As I reflect on this in light of Searching for Sunday (I'm thinking here especially of Chapter 8 "Vote Yes On One"), I'm wondering if this isn't evangelicalism's fundamental mistake, the politicization of the church. Evangelicalism has become more concerned with elections than with the gospel. Rather than proclaiming the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus evangelicalism has devolved into a raw, Nietzschean will to power.

No wonder Millennials are disillusioned.

Anyway, after leaving their church Rachel and Dan work with others to start a new church called The Mission in Dayton. That church plant never reaches the numerical and financial "tipping point" to take off, eventually exhausting the small group who started the work. The Mission closes its doors.

A season of disillusionment for Rachel follows. We've all felt it. Maybe we should just sleep in on Sundays and give up on going to church. And if we do go back to church where should we go? Most churches have some sort of baggage that disqualifies them given the "must have" checklist we bring to the table as we shop around. No church is perfect.

Eventually, Rachel and Dan find their way back to Sunday, finding community at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

This journey of leave-taking and reunion is told through the lens of the seven sacraments--baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick and marriage. While Rachel and Dan are "searching for Sunday" we are introduced or, rather, re-introduced to the church by reflecting upon these seven sacraments. Rachel's reflections upon the sacraments are biblical, theological and historical. You learn a lot of bible and church history reading about each sacrament.

But the thread that holds it all together is how each sacrament, as Rachel experiences it in contemporary contexts in her own life and with fellow believers, brings Rachel back to that grace we call the church. As Rachel writes in her Prologue "Dawn": "It seemed fitting to arrange the book around the sacraments because it was the sacraments that drew me back to church after I'd given up on it."

That is the part of Searching for Sunday that I'd like to dwell on.

In many ways Searching for Sunday is the continuation and sequel to Faith Unraveled (formerly Evolving in Monkey Town). If you read Faith Unraveled you know that it was a book about doubt and questions and Rachel's quest to find a faith that would welcome and embrace those questions.

Those doubts are still very much with Rachel in Searching for Sunday. In fact, to this reader, those doubts seem even heavier.

A lot has been made about Rachel's relationship and conflict with evangelicalism. And much of that disillusionment with evangelicalism is on display in Searching for Sunday, related mostly to Rachel's more "progressive" or "liberal" views regarding gender roles and the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church. Those two issues are a large part of Rachel and Dan's "break up" with the evangelical church they were attending in Dayton.

And yet, as I read Searching for Sunday, doubt remains the deeper issue. Disagreements about gender and sexuality are a part of the problem, but what haunts Rachel from the beginning to the end of the book is doubt.

For example, early the book Rachel laments (emphasis her's),
What if none of this is true? What if it's all one big lie?
In the chapter "Easter Doubt" Rachel tries to describe what it is like to go to church full of doubts. She writes,
[T]here is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you've mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home:

"What if we made this up because we're afraid of death?"
In the chapter "Wayside Shrines" Rachel is visiting a Catholic monastery looking to pick up the pieces after the failure of The Mission church plant. Rachel finds herself in a conversation with a monk in residence there along with a Catholic woman also on a retreat at the monastery. The conversation turns to a recent tornado in the area that did a lot of damage. Both the monk and the woman express praise that the Blessed Mother protected the monastery from the tornado. Rachel is crestfallen, thrown back into doubt. She writes:
They looked at me, expecting some kind of a response, but I didn't know how to tell them this was exactly the sort of thing that made me doubt...What kind of God pulls storm clouds away from a church and pushes them toward a mobile home park?...

I studied my plate, feeling both guilty for asking these questions and resentful of those who don't. No matter where I went to church, I realized, doubt would follow, nipping at my heels. No matter what hymns I sang, what prayers I prayed, what doctrinal statements I signed, I would always feel like an outsider, a stranger.
Finally, I think it's telling that Rachel begins the book with "Dawn" and ends the book in "Dark." Not your typical progression in a Christian memoir. Maybe Rachel has "found Sunday" by the end of the book at St. Luke's and in the church universal, but the trajectory of the book is from Dawn to Dark.

Doubt still haunts.

All that to say, again, much has been made about Rachel's lover's quarrel with evangelicalism regarding gender and sexuality (see the chapter "Evangelical Acedia" for a status report regarding her relationship with evangelicalism). But I think focusing on that quarrel misses what I think is the deeper story of Searching for Sunday.

Searching for Sunday isn't a story about someone breaking up with evangelicalism to become a mainline Protestant. Searching for Sunday is, rather, a poignant memoir about our desperate struggle to find and hold onto faith in the modern world.

I see this struggle every day in the lives of my students. I feel it in my own life.

Recently I found out some friends of mine have stopped coming to church because, well, they just don't believe anymore.

Maybe we have made all this stuff up because we are afraid to die.

Listen, if you focus on Rachel's squabbles with evangelicalism you'll be missing what I think is at the heart of Searching for Sunday. To be sure, evangelicals aren't helping the doubt-filled all that much, but as Rachel's story in the monastery shows this is a story that transcends denominational lines. Searching for Sunday is a story about doubt nipping at your heels no matter where you go on Sunday morning.

Which is why, to end on a positive note, I think Rachel's focus on the sacraments is so helpful and important. In my own way I'm making the same journey Rachel is making.

Recently, my friend Mark described me by saying that I've practiced my way back into faith. I think that's right. I've practiced my way into faith.

My faith, to connect back to Rachel, has become sacramental. Tangible, communal, relational, physical and incarnational.

As Rachel says near the end of her book,
The purpose of the church, and of the sacraments, is to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point in its direction. When we put a kingdom-spin on ordinary things--water, wine, leadership, marriage, friendship, feasting, sickness, forgiveness--we see that they can be holy, they can point us to something greater than ourselves, a fantastic mystery that brings meaning to everything. We make something sacramental when we make it like the kingdom. Marriage is sacramental when it is characterized by mutual love and submission. A meal is sacramental when the rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, sinners and saints share equal status around the table. A local church is sacramental when it is a place where the last are first and the first are last and those who hunger and thirst are fed. And the church universal is sacramental when it knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture, and when it advances not through power and might, but through acts of love, joy, and peace and missions of mercy, kindness, and humility.

Tonight, as I write this, I'll be going to my own little dysfunctional church family called Freedom Fellowship. There rich and poor will share donated soup. Addicts will break bread with college professors. Criminals will clean up with business owners. White, Black and Hispanic will embrace as brothers and sisters.

Tonight we will anoint the sick and raise our hands in praise. We will celebrate the sacraments. We will confess Jesus as Lord. We will practice resurrection.

Is that faith? I don't know.

But I'm with Rachel on this.

Whatever it is, it is searching for resurrection, it is searching for Sunday.

We are pointing ourselves toward the Kingdom of God.

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