Saturday, November 8, 2014

That time I Met Rachel Held Evans

I had the good fortune to attend the Imagine What's Next mini-conference at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL a few Saturdays ago.  I had seen it advertised back at annual conference in June, but with Harper still needing mama so much I just  didn't think I'd be able to go.  

But then this happened: 

I still almost stayed home.  I woke up late.  I didn't want to drag my stupid breast pump with me.  I was anxious about driving 2 hours by myself.  I didn't really know anyone going. But something made me go.  Call it the power of personal invitation. I'm so glad I did.

The morning started with worship music from My Anchor Holds, a married couple from Bloomington/Normal by way of Nashville.  I'm not usually a fan of contemporary worship music, but these guys were great.  Her voice was so pure and powerful. You could tell her heart was in each lyric.  

After the morning worship, Rachel Held Evans spoke about her A Year of Biblical Womanhood book (which I reviewed here).  I was reminded why I loved that book, and the author, so much. And it was encouraging to see many young male and female heads nodding in agreement as Rachel Held Evans spoke about living "biblically" and what the Proverbs 31 woman really means to us today. 

After Rachel Held Evans spoke, we broke into small groups to discuss how to better engage millennials in the church through interfaith engagement, worship, and authentic relationships. I missed a portion of my session due to doing my "mommy duty", but when I joined the group they were discussing worship experiences that were formative in their lives.  Like, ones that shook them up, challenged them, or strangely warmed their hearts.  

People were openly sharing their most moving worship experiences, and as the casual observer, I noted that authenticity and personal relationship combined with tradition and a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit seemed to have the strongest effects on those who shared their experiences.  

After the session I wandered out of the Evelyn Chapel. It was time for lunch.  Because I came by myself, I was scanning the room for someone, anyone, that I knew or that would make eye contact with me.  I'm an extrovert, so eating lunch alone is not something I enjoy.  And because I was raised to believe that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet, I would rather take he opportunity to meet someone new than eat by myself.  

I found one of the women who had organized the conference.  She knew my husband from seminary at Garrett, so maybe, I thought, I could join her for lunch.  I walked over and sheepishly asked about her plans for lunch.  There was a small group of people my age-ish wearing Garrett shirts gathered near her.  She kindly said I could join her, so I moved to the side while she coordinated plans and found transportation. I look to my left and, I kid you not, I was standing next to Rachel Held Evans herself.  

Now, let me explain something to you.  I get stupid around smart people.  And famous smart author people?  Forget it.  I was frozen.  And I realized I had just set something into motion I couldn't easily stop. 

My inner voice went something like this:

Stupid brain voice 1: You moron!  You just invited yourself to lunch WITH THE AUTHOR.
Stupid brain voice 2: Wait, what?
SBV2: Um...if you run now, you could be back home in 2 hours.  Just for good measure, while you decide to fight-or-flight, I'm going to make your stomach lurch, face flush and palms sweat. 

And before I could run, a car pulled up to take us to lunch.  So I climbed in and sat next to Rachel Held Evans.  I could barely breathe.

We had a lovely lunch.  We had an adult conversation. I didn't have to cut anyone's food or clean up a spill. I listened. I spoke. We laughed. I could barely eat, but choked down my salad as best as I could with shaky hands.

We drove back to campus.  I helped the event organizers move some materials from one location to the next.  As soon as it was appropriate, I left the group and hid in the bathroom.  

In the excitement of the afternoon, somehow my bag of mommy milk had begun to leak.  So I went to the restroom to clean up the mess.  I deeply exhaled and tried to wrap my head around the past hour's events. 

I had been welcomed into a group of strangers.  I had eaten lunch with a writer I deeply admire.  I had a great time.  I could feel empty places filling up in a way I don't feel everyday.

Of course, though, shame began to creep in, too. I didn't deserve that experience.  I had been rude to inject myself into their group.  I did not belong there. 

As I sat through the next conference session about the future of the church, it hit me.  This is what newcomers to our churches feel like.  And it's not a good feeling.  

The people at lunch, including Rachel Held Evans, gave me absolutely no reason to believe I wasn't worthy.  I did that all by myself.  This experience makes me more compassionate to people who show up for the first time in a new place asking to belong.  It's such a brave thing to put yourself out there. 

Remember that combination of authenticity and personal relationship coupled with tradition and a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit I mentioned earlier?  That's the key.  Those are all the things that kept me there that day.

I had met new people that I wanted to get to know further.  I wanted to hear more about Rachel Held Evans' new book, which was one of the presentations in the afternoon session.  And I knew in my heart that the Holy Spirit had put me there for a reason that day. So I stayed.  

And I think that's the key to keeping anyone, not just milennials, engaged in church.  

What makes you go to church?  What keeps you going?
If you don't attend church but are thinking of finding a church home, what are you looking for?  

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