Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, has released her latest book, Out of Sorts. I had the great privilege of putting some questions to her. Please find the interview below. Order her book: poignant and timely, a very real wrestle with questions of life and faith.
Sarah Bessey is author of OUT OF SORTS. Her book has been published by Howard Books. Quotations from Sarah's book are in italics.
QUESTION: 'At some point, we all have to let people live their lives, even if that means they want to live them far away from us.' You use these words to describe the choice that your uncle made to live in independence from family. This approach towards people's personal choices perhaps has helped you to enter deeply into the lives of other people whilst at the same time differentiating yourself from them, their stuff is their stuff and yours is yours – can you say some more about this?
ANSWER: I see it more as respecting each other’s choices and narratives. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, of course, but in the end, I’ve found peace in releasing expectations and even demanding certain outcomes. In our particular story, I continue to hope for reconciliation but even if that doesn’t happen, I have to be willing to release people precisely because I love them and to trust that God is at work with or without my involvement. Sometimes it’s an act of love to let people walk away, but I will say that it’s important to keep the door to return always open.
QUESTION 'I wonder if we’ve forgotten that the Church isn’t simply an institution. It’s us. We’re it. We are all standing in our own homes, looking at all the boxes and the junk and the treasures of our inheritance, and we are thinking to ourselves, “God, what a mess. Someday I really need to do something about all this.”' Your synopsis of the thinking of Phyllis Trickle helps the church to understand the cyclical nature of change and struggle, you speak of this tendency to pattern in your own family, 'we're all just corkscrewing around the same issues.' You describe your own return to the same truths as a corkscrewing – it would seem that there are healthy returnings and less healthy returnings to familiar patterns – can you say somehting more about this? In what ways do you think the church can benefit from becoming more aware of the corkscrewing?
ANSWER: I think it’s quite precious how I thought that I was so unique and original in my struggles and awakenings! Bless. It’s like a university student who goes away from home for the first time and comes home after one course of philosophy with all the answers and all the ways everyone else is doing it wrong, you know? There really is nothing new under the sun. It’s a necessary part of our formation, absolutely, but it’s also part of the story that we need to live into the rest of the story. Even in our spiritual formation, we find some amazing new thing or idea but then we discover that the new thing is actually an ancient thing and there are a lot of people waiting for us on the other side of our shifts and changes. For me, if I had tried to write this book ten years ago it would be an entirely different book because I hadn’t lived into my formation enough yet - it’s likely that is still the case and I’ll look back on this as a snapshot of one moment in my development as opposed to the definitive work. But regardless, I suppose I’ve just grown more comfortable with the tethering roots of our stories and our legacies. We like to think we can cut ties and be autonomous but the very thing that formed us then continue to form us now - we can either recognize and work within it with agency and thoughtfulness or we can be victims of it.QUESTION: You describe the conversion of your family to faith and are unapologetic for it saying 'Maybe I’m tired of finding other ways to say it, to make it more palatable and reasonable and logical. What is this life in Christ like if not a bit of disorderly resurrection?' Do you think it requires a particular kind of vulnerability to tell our testimonies?
ANSWER: Absolutely. I think that’s why it’s such holy ground, so precious to me. Even now at our church’s baptism services, they make space for each person to share their testimony with the community and it never fails to make me cry. I think there is something so powerful and inarguable about a story of how we encountered Jesus. And to speak our deepest truths - I was lost and then I was found, I was lonely and then I found family and friends, I was blind but now I see, I was broken but now I am whole - those are points of connection and their healing ripples out into the lives of those privileged to hear it or witness it.
QUESTION: 'Church became a social club at times, then it became a burden to bear. I’ll write more about Church later in the book, but for now, I’ll just say this: I lost Jesus in there. It seemed one could be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus.' You describe the domestication of your faith as you moved into mainstream church? Were there any redeeming features to those churches that you experienced?
ANSWER: Absolutely and I hope I gave equal billing to that very thing in the book. At the time that I was walking through this season, I was quite prideful and purposefully isolated myself. I know I was also hurt and burned out and other legitimate things as well as having actual worthwhile questions and push back. Now years later I look back with tremendous gratitude for each church and community that was a part of my development.
QUESTION: You describe reading the gospels in your return to faith and how 'Jesus was not what I expected. Not what I remembered. I had expected a comfortable wise man, someone saying nice things about being nice and kind to people. I think I expected a version of Jesus I had tricked out of my memory: comfortable, safe. Clearly I’d blurred the Jesus of my childhood with the real one of the Gospels ...'
What was it that you found most shocking about Jesus?
ANSWER: I had this idea of a comfortable and safe and nice Jesus. Instead I found Jesus was a bit wild and challenging and cleansing and healing all at once. Instead of a placating moral guide, he was curing everything that was sick in us and healing everything that was broken and bringing the dead in us to life. It’s bracing and reorienting. And I think I used to think of Jesus as just another character in the Bible and then I was reoriented to the truth that Jesus is the point of the Scriptures, the axis, and so I needed to reunderstand the rest of Scripture through his teaching. As an example, when Jesus tells us that we used to be servants but now we’re his friends, that is wild to me and completely changes how we read so much of the Bible.
QUESTION: You describe your own wresting with the Scriptures. 'And let’s be honest: being a Christian is sometimes almost at odds with what we read in some parts of Scripture. We can be entirely “biblical” and yet be far from being a disciple of Jesus Christ.' Can you expand on this? In what ways have you encountered this?
ANSWER: We can pick and choose Bible verses and so we are technically “Biblical” but we aren’t being true to the teachings of Jesus. For instance, we can quote things from the Levitical laws such as “an eye for an eye” but then Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies and turn the other cheek and to love and pray for our enemies as we would for our brothers. So if we throw away the teachings of Jesus in favour of something else we find in the Bible, then we might be “biblical” but we aren’t a disciple of Jesus.
QUESTION: 'It started with those clobber verses—anyone who has been on the receiving end, you know the ones—2 Timothy, Titus 2, Ephesians 5, and so on. I did my research long before the day came to write, but as a refresher, I dug out the commentaries and books again. Responsible author, I wanted to make sure I had my hermeneutical ducks in a row. But as I worked my way through the passages of Scripture that I used to hate, I began to see Paul more clearly, to understand Scripture even better. I began to see his wisdom, his subversion, his heart.'
I have a similar journey to you and finding the plain reading so provocative here I then applied a close reading which began a close reading of the rest of scripture which cemented for me both call and discipleship: ordained ministry would be my shape for living out discipleship – to grow churches where people are not afraid to ask questions. How do you conceive of your call?
ANSWER: I think I’m still living into my calling. By vocation, I know that I’m a writer. That’s my sweet spot, for sure, but I’ve been surprised at how following Jesus has lead me into writing about the things I write about in particular. And so much of my calling has actually been articulated and affirmed first by the ones I trust and by my community. For instance, I didn’t think that preaching or speaking would ever be a part of my life but my husband and my family and my church community identified that gift in me and gave me opportunities to learn and practice and empowered me to step out into that gift. I probably wouldn’t have ever done that without their affirmation and empowerment. Now I believe a big part of my calling is perhaps a bit outside of the gates - I’m not ordained, I’m not formally theologically trained etc. - and to shepherd people who are there, too. At the core of everything I write and everything I preach is one thing: you are loved. That’s it. If I had one last breath in my body, it would be spent speaking of the overwhelming welcome and love of God towards us.
QUESTION: 'He even gave me the extra measure: his blessing to explore my struggles and ideas and weaknesses in a public forum through blogging about it or talking about it. He was not threatened by my honesty. We each let the other be wrong for a long time.'
I had this time too, blogging at Revising Reform – because I was literally 'revising' swotting up on what this organisation in the Church of England thought regarding the cross, mainly and women's roles in the church. I could only blog about it because friends at school and nursery pick-up didn't 'get it' or had already too quickly made up their minds. How important do you think it is to find safe places, places where you can be heard and engage and listen? How do you think church might facilitate such places?
ANSWER: I think it’s deeply important! A safe space is deeply important to our spiritual formation. I think that’s part of the reason why people are connecting with the book - they feel less alone and less scared, a little less isolated in their questions or changes. And even though the research shows that these seasons of our lives are entirely normal and healthy, we don’t usually shepherd people well in that season. If anything a lot of our churches are structured around a very literal and early stage of our spiritual formation, they function best if we don’t question and don’t push back or begin to embrace curiosity and complexity. It’s important to be accessible for people in the early stages of their journey, absolutely, but it’s also important to create the space and conversation and companions and guides for all the stages of our faith journeys.
QUESTION: 'My experiences in church ranged widely over the years. But when my husband left ministry and we were both limping home to Canada—burned out, burned up, exhausted—one thing was sure: the reality was pretty far from the ideal. So even though Brian still refused to give up on the Church as an ideal, in reality I opted to stop going to church. For six years.'
You write with great candidness about being 'burned out, burned up, exhausted' and leaving ministry with your husband. What advice would you have for leaders of churches?
ANSWER: My advice would be to walk closely with Jesus, to lean into his rhythms of ministry and life because in Matthew 11:28, he promises that it is a rhythm of grace, it isn’t a burden. So much of ministry can feel like striving and making things happen instead. I’d also recommend that pastors get ahold of everything written by Eugene Peterson on pastoring and start reading there.
QUESTION: 'I think the Church is one of the weirdest ideas and one of the best ideas. If church were just a sanctified social club, I’d be out. If it were just about singing songs or listening to a great sermon, I could do that at home—thanks to the new worship movement albums on iTunes and free podcasts. If it were just about staying busy, I’ve already got that handled rather nicely. So I’ve done my best to figure out the essence of the Church.'
Can you describe the essence of the church is a sentence?
ANSWER: It’s a God-centered and Spirit-breathed community sent to continue the life and ministry of Jesus.
QUESTION: 'We have these moments of transcendence, like the veil between heaven and earth is fluttering. We can’t breathe for the loveliness of the world and each other, and just like that, we remember something. Our skin is made of dust, so we often catch the perfumed scent of the Garden in the cool of the evening, and we know, somewhere inside, that we’re supposed to be walking with God, unashamed still. I wonder if that’s really what happens when we meet Jesus. It’s not that we meet Him or that we believe in Him or that we “invite Him into our hearts” or that we mentally assent tosome nonnegotiable truths that will govern our best life now. No, I think it’s that we recognize Him. I think that part of our souls, our spirits, our bodies, our minds, locks into focus. It wasn’t a dream, no, that is what’s real. When we cross the threshold of faith, we enter into an awareness that the Kingdom of God has already come.'
Your writing is very beautiful and vulnerable and yet uncompromising, who inspires you to write this way?
ANSWER: I’m not sure, really, this is just my voice, I suppose, my way of wrestling and telling stories and talking. I think I can probably credit influence to a few places though - a deep and abiding love of Scripture and my reading habits lean more towards poetry, literature, or spiritual writers whose work makes me weep with the beauty like Madeleine L’Engle or Barbara Brown Taylor.
Thank you, Sarah Bessey!