“When we held Owen Meany above our heads, when we passed him back and forth — so effortlessly — we believed that Owen weighed nothing at all. We did not realize that there were forces beyond our play. Now I know they were the forces that contributed to our illusion of Owen’s weightlessness: they were the forces we didn’t have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in — and they were also lifting up Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands. O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
* * * * *
The man stood in the middle of the lecture room, haggard and breathing oxygen through a small plastic tube perched under his nose. When he paused, we could hear that gentle wheezing in the microphone. The room was overflowing, so that many who had come to hear him sat on the floor behind him, or at his feet at the front, or stood in the corners, or listened from the hall once they stopped letting people in.
This man, Walt Wangerin, author of some of my favorite books, gave a long, wide-ranging talk that was part sermon, part poetry, part creative reading. He told us the story of his cancer diagnosis, the various reactions of his children, how one of them vanished into sadness, and what it was like to journey into this wilderness, a place the Bible referred to in the original language as “a nothing in a nowhere.”
“And when I die,” he said in a gentle voice. “I will become that nothing in a nowhere.”
Sobs broke out at various places in the crowd as we contemplated the death of this precious man. The silence was a blanket. There was loud sniffling as we pulled back tears.
“But then, in that deep darkness, Jesus will call out, ‘WALT,’ and I will be.”
* * * * *
I sit in stunned silence in front of my computer. Rachel has died.
* * * * *
I told this story once on Twitter, when I first heard that Rachel was in a coma, and I told it again yesterday on Facebook, when I heard of her passing. But I will tell it here for you one more time, if you will listen.
Eight or nine years ago,Rachel Held Evans was in Lancaster researching her second book, and a friend of mine was hosting her. So we all had dinner together at our house one evening. From the moment Rachel and Dan pulled up in their old clunky car, they were both so kind and generous. Rachel was full of life and eager to listen. Dan was quiet and kind and looked at her the way husbands do, when they are amazed that they have found themselves traveling through life with someone remarkable, someone who loves them more than they thought possible.
I know this look. I am always looking at Maile this way.
The next day Rachel and I had coffee together, and when she heard about all the books I had co-written, she looked at me with a smile and asked, “So when are you going to start writing your own books?” The question disarmed me. I can honestly say that question sparked something in me that I needed, an additional motivation to pursue my own writing. In the next few years, she allowed me to guest-post on her blog multiple times, even as her blog became more and more popular.
We didn’t stay in regular contact, but every so often she encouraged me on Twitter and Facebook to keep writing.
* * * * *
It seems that one of the things Jesus did on a regular basis was to call people into their true being. Waking the little girl who was “sleeping.” Asking the man if he wanted to be well. Naming Peter. Calling to Lazarus, deep in the grave, to come out and be.
I realize now that this is what Rachel did. Yes, she wrote and spoke beautifully. Yes, she is one of the smartest people I know. But these things alone were not what made her special – it was her ability to call us into being that was perhaps her greatest gift. Countless stories have emerged this weekend of people who Rachel, with some word, some act, some unlikely invitation, called into their true being. There were voices, previously unheard, who she propped up with her platform, and at no gain to herself. There were women, who after feeling Rachel’s nudge, pursued their calling to preach, to go to seminary. There were writers who had been silent for years, who she encouraged to pick up the pen.
So many of us responded to her gentle call. So many of us, deep in the darkness, feeling like a nothing in a nowhere, heard her voice encouraging us to be, and suddenly we were.
* * * * *
I am heartbroken today, mostly for Dan and their two small children, and also for those who were much closer to Rachel than I. I think of the words at the end of CS Lewis’s The Last Battle and have such a desperate hope that there is indeed a Great Story and that Rachel has finally entered into it. Could it be true that we will see her again? Could it be true that when that great nothingness comes for us, a voice will call our name, and we will, in some previously unknowable way, finally be?
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
* * * * *
Even now, those of us who knew Rachel even a little bit keep praying, O God — please give her back! We shall keep asking You.