There were many compelling voices back then. For me, it was a season of tons of reading, watching, secretly examining all the comment sections, clicking links and following hashtags. Consuming podcasts in the secrecy of my own headphones. We were still in the era of blogs, and I had twenty bookmarked, alerts set so as not to miss a single new post from the thought leaders I was privately listening to.
But if I had to pick one voice, the primary influence on my then-evangelical life that led me into a fully affirming position for my LGBTQ+ neighbors, it was Rachel Held Evans.
I could honestly sob typing it. We lost her in 2019 just before her 38th birthday. I can’t overstate what Rachel’s leadership meant to me.
As we steer into Pride Month, my community knows me now as an outspoken ally, practically draped in glitter and purple satin at this point.
But I want to take you back to 2013 or so, when my head and heart were misaligned and my evangelical edges were fraying. I was desperate to find a faithful, thoughtful hermeneutic who made sense of the Spirit I knew — one that didn’t leave the LGBTQ community exiled or begging for crumbs. I just kept thinking: “This can’t be right. The fruit of the tree is too rotten.” I was in full spiritual crisis and couldn’t bear the cognitive dissonance anymore.
Rachel, if you knew her or followed her, was this academic, brilliant thinker with a backbone of steel and a heart of gold. I’d never encountered anyone like her and haven’t since. She patiently, thoroughly examined every verse, every context, every biblical argument, every interpretation. She led her community with care and courage, but she would go to the mat to defend the marginalized communities she loved. The theology bros absolutely hated her, primarily because they couldn’t best her.
Meanwhile, evangelical darling Jen Hatmaker was listening, listening, privately listening. I read her words like:
“What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.”
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver. This glorification of gender binaries has become a dangerous idol in the Christian community, for it conflates cultural norms with Christian morality and elevates an ideal over actual people.” (The False Gospel of Gender Binaries)
“I affirm LGBTQ people because they are human beings, created in the image of God. I affirm their sexual orientations and gender identities because they reflect the diversity of God’s good creation, where little fits into rigid binary categories. I affirm their (healthy) relationships. I affirm them because theology that refuses to accept their personhood is deadly.” (LGBTQ+)
Finally, I sent the barest DM: “Hello. I am Jen. How is…the weather?” or some nonsense. She took the obvious bait and let me into her orbit. As long as I live, I’ll never get over the patience she showed me as I fumbled my way through womanist interpretations, sexual and biological science, original biblical language, historical context, all information she diligently curated.
Rachel held open a door for my questions and ignorance making room for evolution. She held generous assumptions for those of us mangling our way through the early stages of forbidden curiosity while never once allowing her space to become unsafe for LGBTQ folks, the hardest needle to thread. Her brilliant mind and pastor’s heart paved a way not around the Bible but straight through it to an affirming position with a clear conscience.
I was stumbling through the dark, and she held up a lantern ahead of me, lighting the way.
And when I got there, and my evangelical world crumbled, Rachel mentored me through the storm. She told me to stand in the raging wind, plant my feet, and do not move. She reminded me that no one suffers more than our LGBTQ beloveds at the hands of non-affirming theology. Included in one of her many emails, she wrote this to me: “This work is hard. Stay faithful.” It now stands in my entryway.
This brings me to us. For every one of you who has responded to my leadership in your life toward spiritual evolution, know there was a Rachel in mine first. And there were mentors in hers. And more in theirs.
There comes a moment when it is our turn to hold up the lantern.
This has nothing to do with fame or notoriety; the lantern-bearers don’t need to have a blue check. Those are the minority. We hold up lanterns in our own real lives — for our kids, our neighbors, our parents and siblings, our faith communities, our colleagues, our nieces and nephews, our best friends. As we’ve been guided by the lanterns ahead of us, leading us down unfamiliar paths and cutting through the fog, it is now ours to do the same.
It is our responsibility.
Our work means saying out loud what we’ve learned. It means standing unafraid with communities beloved by God. It means planting your feet in the storm if need be. It often looks simple like “this is what I’m reading” and “these are the questions I’m asking” and “this is what I am rethinking” and “this is what I believe.” Some lanterns include just living our convictions out loud, right on the surface for all to see, no additional commentary needed. Others sound like “that language isn’t welcome in my home” or “I won’t debate the dignity of human beings”, because remember, sometimes lanterns are being quietly observed by onlookers, not necessarily by the person debating.
Lanterns matter all along the spectrum of curiosity; near the beginning when permission outranks knowledge, the disorienting middle, definitely later when courage is required. I searched for lights at every stage of spiritual evolution, and thanks be to God that so many people were holding them high.
Wherever you are, look for the lights. There are faithful lanterns up ahead if you need the path illuminated. If you are further down the road, don’t forget the folks behind you; hold up your lantern so they can see even as you continue to move forward.
The lanterns are needed at every mile. They all matter. Yours matter. This is how we get there together, light by light, step by step.
As for me, I sit here in utter gratitude that I shared planet space with Rachel Held Evans. Her leadership, her counsel, her encouragement, her intelligence…she quite literally changed my life. Her lantern was so bright, and it continues to burn. Her legacy is great. Well done, good and faithful servant. The work was hard, and you were faithful. You made the church and the world safer for my daughter and all the sons and daughters. The deepest bow. Thank you. I miss you.
Happy Pride, beloveds.
(I urge you to block off an hour or two and go through Rachel’s archived blogs. What a brilliant, thoughtful, generous leader and writer. She had no equal. Her lantern lives on.
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