about rachel and two trees

I

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

— Psalm 1:1-3

II

I’ve been writing and rewriting this in my head for several days. I keep wondering what proximity in the map of our lives is required in order to write about someone’s death. What distance between two points or what rhythm between two spheres in orbit approximates calling someone a friend? When I think about Rachel, I think about graphing sin(x) and inverse sin(x) waves. On a graph, it looks like a series of ovals. There are specific points of intersection, then the lines split apart, go what seems the furtherest distance from each other, then meet briefly again before doing it all over.

Like many people, my origin story of friendship with Rachel looks like her featuring a blog post I wrote in 2010. I still remember it. It was something I wrote about meeting with my spiritual director for the first time. Like many people, I have subsequent years of incidentals—emails, DMs, @s—encouragements and exhortations to keep doing this thing of public faith, of working it out in the midst of everyone else working it out. There are many people, far better than I, and with the voices that Rachel always sought to center, who have written of these things masterfully. I will not attempt to rival what is already beautiful.

Rather, the piece I keep writing and rewriting in my head is about one specific way in which I owe Rachel significant credit. It is true that I am one of the many people who can say that because her name was on my book proposal, I got a book deal. It is also true that I am one of the many people who can say that because she did things behind the scenes, opportunities were made I otherwise would not have had. But it is also true, and perhaps truest, that what Rachel did for me is the hardest thing to name in one word. It requires a story that is in many ways unremarkable, except for the ways in which the Spirit of God is remarkable in its movements within and among us.

III

It seems like another life, but I remember writing somewhere in 2010 about not being sure about women’s ordination. This was my coded foray into testing out the waters of changing belief. Rachel saw it and sent me a quick note. Suggestions for further reading. Some people to talk to. No one knew who I was in 2010 and the post was essentially tossing something into a pit, expecting it to land eventually, somewhere I could not see. But there was Rachel, handing it back to me, saying, “Hey, you dropped something. Looks interesting. Want to tell me about it?”

As many have already attested, that was who Rachel was.

That was the first of those brief intersections, the two waves brought together and then drawn apart. I won’t spend much time writing about the years that followed, the ways in which those conversations and intersections led me to believe differently than I had, except to say what I have said before elsewhere, which is that what resulted from it is that I repented. Because it wasn’t a matter of mere disagreement, but a matter of sin. It had been sin to support the systemic oppression of women by denying their rightful place in the royal priesthood, in the authority to grant absolution, to by water call forth new life, and by gifts of bread and wine present Body and Blood. This is not a small sin to repent of.

How did this happen? Some people will say it was because Rachel made good arguments and I was convinced and went along with it. Those people don’t know me. If you know me, you know I love Scripture. Since Rachel died I have been thinking about two trees. The first, the tree from Psalm 1, planted by streams of water. The psalmist says, their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.

That was Rachel. Rachel loved the Bible. She also loved to fight about it. I cannot give anyone a higher compliment than that. Over the past several years I have been studying Jewish hermeneutical approaches to engaging the Hebrew Bible. Something remarkable about these approaches is how fiercely committed they are to debating about the Text. In the very disputation, the back and forth, God can be present and made known. Learning together and from one another is the avenue in which the Divine may be disclosed. It completely levels the playing field and asks us to believe that God is as interested in being known by everyone as we think God is interested in being known by us.

So how did this happen? Rachel argued the Text. She taught me it wasn’t just permissible but good to argue the Text. Because God is conversational. God wants us to ask questions and try to figure it out. God wants us to throw elbows and wonder and demand and treat God like a partner, a spouse that wants to engage with us.

In arguing the Text, the Spirit of God worked, was present, illumined, and exposed. It was grace. Direct, but personal. Loud in its delivery, quiet in its healing.

On my computer at church, my background is Chagall’s painting, Solitude. A rabbi is holding a Torah scroll and sitting next to a cow with a fiddle in front of it. It’s a potent image for many reasons. The cow signifies that the verbals used in the Hebrew Bible to describe meditation on the Law are the same as describing what a cow does with cud, chewing on it, over and over, ruminating and pondering. The fiddle signifies the emphatic nature of Jewish discourse, in particular the Hassidic spirituality of which Chagall was most familiar.

I think of this painting when I think of Rachel. Emphatic. Ruminating. Delighting, truly delighting, in Scripture. I feel like I cannot count how many times Rachel’s disagreement with someone was less about an interpretation of Scripture and more about whether or not they actually cared about the position that was being held. I always felt like I was talking to someone who took me seriously and who challenged me out of that respect. She was pointed and clever and deft in bringing you up short. Like a good rabbi. You don’t get to be good at that, not like that, unless you love the Scripture, unless you’re like that tree planted by those waters.

IV

I cannot make an apology for or an account of why we don’t all believe the same things. If we all pray to the same God. If we all want to hear from that God. Why don’t we all hear the same things?

But I will not say “I liked Rachel, of course we disagreed on many things,” because among many reasons as to why that’s ridiculous, one is that I love my wife but she hates blue cheese and I do not. However, this is not essential information for you to know that I love my wife. Nothing is diminished in my love by not prefacing every damn thing with a public statement about our differences.

Rachel wanted to hear God. Rachel did hear God. I’m sure of that.

I’m no more sure of anything that comes after than I would be in speaking for myself.

V

We had a number of intersections over the years, up until I abruptly left social media and this blog about a year ago. (More on that another time.) Even then, she would still check in from time to time. She never forgot about Hilary or Jack or Junia or any of the things in our shared orbits that would bring us back for but a moment before sending us out again.

I’m on the staff of an Episcopal church now. A transitional deacon, heading toward being a priest. A few weeks ago we found out that our curate was answering a call to be the vicar of a church plant up north. She hears God, too. It was before Rachel was in the hospital and it occurred to me while sitting in staff meeting how odd it was to be roughly ten years removed from that first tossed question out into the pit. I wondered what might have gone differently if Rachel had not been there to pick up what had been thrown. Here, I sat listening to a woman in her priest’s collar: my spiritual superior, my friend, my occasional mentor. She shared with me how God was leading her and her obedience to God’s call. I made a mental note to email Rachel, to make one more of those intersecting points.

Rachel,

Hope you and kids and Dan are well. Just wanted you to know today I am sitting across from a woman who is so clearly called into the ministry of God. I cannot thank you enough, because you’re so much of the reason why I am here. There’s a prayer from the Siddur that thanks God for allowing us to arrive at a certain moment in time, to have lasted long enough to see something or experience it. You are part of what made that prayer true for me. And I think in so many ways you continue to do so.

Blessings on the work,

P

But I didn’t write the email.

VI

The other tree. I said Rachel makes me think of two trees. The second is the fig tree Jesus curses in the Gospels. I have read a number of commentaries on this incident and none of them have ever proved to me to be convincing or satisfactory. It wasn’t until very recently that I came across an explanation that rings true. It’s the sort of interpretation I think Rachel would have liked, the sort I think gets to the heart of what she always wanted us to understand.

Literal minds! Embarrassed humans! His friends
were blurting for Him
in secret: wouldn’t admit they were shocked.
They thought Him
petulant to curse me!—yet how could the Lord
be unfair?—so they looked away,
then and now.
But I, I knew that
helplessly barren though I was,
my day had come. I served
Christ the Poet,
who spoke in images: I was at hand,
a metaphor for their failure to bring forth
what is within them (as figs
were not within me). They who had walked
in His sunlight presence,
they could have ripened,
could have perceived His thirst and hunger,
His innocent appetite;
they could have offered
human fruits—compassion, comprehension—
without being asked,
without being told of need.
My absent fruit
stood for their barren hearts. He cursed
not me, not them, but
(ears that hear not, eyes that see not)
their dullness, that withholds
gifts unimagined.

— Denise Levertov, “What the figtree said”

VII

Last night, we held the going away party for our curate. I made dinner and the cake. About sixty in the Parish Hall. Punch and toasts and gifts. I cannot account for everything I owe Rachel, but I can say that I owe her for her part in seeing me to this moment. This moment, in which Scripture remains alive to me, in which I meet God in the arguing and wondering, in which I see the ways we are being invited again and again to imagine the gifts. In which I do not feel settled. I feel rooted by the steam of water, but free to grow, to stretch, to reach.

On Tuesday, our curate and I were walking down the hall and she mentioned to me that she knew that Rachel and I were friends, that she wanted me to know so much of the confidence she took in her preaching while being here came from having spent time listening to Inspired on her drives back and forth to the diocesan office. “I want you to know how much your friend gave me to be confident in my preaching,” and I didn’t know what to say, because I wanted her to know how much my friend had given me in leading me to be here in this moment. So I just told the whole story.

After the party I went back to my office. My computer was still on and Chagall’s sad rabbi, clutching fiercely to the Torah, stared at me. I asked God why I lived to see this moment. I did not get an answer back. Not yet.