Today we hear from award-winner blogger and author of Jesus Feminist, Sarah Bessey. Sarah’s latest book, Out of Sorts, recounts her journey through an evolving faith, ending not with the finality of a concise resolution and tidy list of how-tos, but rather the firmly held belief that while Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, she—and we—should be continuously questioning, changing, and growing in relationship with Christ. Sarah’s raw and honest retelling of her evolving relationship with the Church, with religion, and with Christ serves not as memoir, but rather as Sarah’s encouragement to others to embrace their own meandering paths without fear as they work their way through a hopefully-unending evolution of faith.
1) You write that when you were in your twenties, you stopped being a Christian because you didn’t want to be associated with the Church. It seemed to you that in the Church, one could be a Christian without being a disciple of Christ. How do we put Jesus back into Christianity? Into the Church?
For me, everything was reoriented on Jesus and that changed everything. I think for too long we’ve made Jesus just one character or episode in the Bible. If we want to see God, we look to Jesus. In Hebrews 1:3, the writer says that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father. So I think that if we could recapture that centrality of Christ in our churches through our teaching, our worship, our way of life, well then, what would change? For me, a lot of things changed. My opinions, my preferences, my work, my purpose, my reading of Scripture, my place in community, and so on. We aren’t bringing Jesus into our lives: he’s welcoming us into his life. Years later, I still feel like the only place that makes sense is in his presence, the only place I want to be is in the dust of his feet.
2) You once again consider yourself a Christian, and presumably a disciple of Christ. To that end, how do Jesus’ teachings impact your day-to-day life? Is there a particular area of discipleship you struggle with more than others?
Oh, good gracious, I think if I thought of discipleship as an exercise in trying harder then yes, I would feel like I didn’t measure up every second of the day. Who could? Jesus’ teachings impact my life on the daily, absolutely, in everything from the big stuff like community and church and justice and marriage and family. But also in the small and seemingly insignificant or obscure ways. I think I’ll always struggle with my evangelical hero complex—this big need I have to be a hero, to make big sacrifices for God and to somehow think that only the big, sexy, heroic things are important to God. That’s where the teachings of Jesus reorient me—Jesus spoke so often about the value of the small, the importance of the seed, that sort of thing that it helps me untangle God’s Kingdom from my own gross understandings of what’s “important” to God. But here’s the thing that helps me most of all: Jesus’s words of tenderness, particularly before he faced the cross in John 14 and 15. He talks about his deep love for the disciples, his great hopes for them and for us. And he tells us to simply abide in his love. I think that learning to simply abide in the love of Christ will be the radical discipline of my life.
3) I was intrigued by your discussion of the “spiritual art of staying put.” That’s not a ministry or discipline that we often hear about. Can you say more on your “grassroots theology of place?”
This is probably one part theology and one part autobiography, honestly. I always felt deeply connected to my place here in Western Canada: I can breathe here in a way that I can’t anywhere else in the world. So even when I have travelled and lived in other places, my heart yearned for this place because this is where I belong. These are my people. But in my own story, I moved around a lot and I liked it—I liked the newness, the anonymity, the fresh starts. But that allowed me skate on the surface of community, to be inauthentic, to keep people at arm’s length. So the connection between learning to stay put, to put down roots, to show up for the same people over the years and allow myself to be shaped by them and vice versa has been a powerful experience. I think I always thought that the big heroes of the faith where the ones who upped-sticks and moved far away—and I’m not saying they aren’t heroes now—but I think there’s something incredibly heroic about committing to a community and to a people and going deep in one place.
4) You’ve become an influential person within the Christian community. Your first book, Jesus Feminist, was well received, and now you’ve written Out of Sorts. Despite your position of influence, you’ve said that you don’t want to be “used by God.” Why not?
Well, this might be a trick of semantics but I don’t like the word “used” very much. It just sounds gross to me. I know people mean well when they say it—“I just want to be used by God!” and that sort of thing—but I think our language often tips our hand for what we believe about God. And I don’t think that God saved us because of some need to “use” us. God saved us because God loves us and longs to restore us to relationship with Godself. I think God partners with us, God works with us and alongside of us in co-creation. Really, God wants to be with us because God loves us. With Christmas beginning now, there’s the name Immanuel—God with us—that reminds us of that powerful truth, too. I’ve tried to replace that word “use” with the language of the New Testament: words like grow, disciple, walk in the way, beloved children, co-heirs, co-labourers. And I’m still electrified that Jesus called us friends—isn’t that amazing?
5) Ten years from now, when you look back at the faith journey you’ve chronicled in Out of Sorts, do you think you’ll shake your head and ask, “What was I thinking?” Or do you feel like you’ve pretty well settled into a comfortable understanding and long-term place of what it means to follow Jesus?
In some ways, absolutely. To me the book was more about giving people permission to lean into their questions and their wonderings, to recapture a sense of wonder and adventure and curiosity about God than it was about giving absolute final answers to their questions. If someone feels out of sorts at the moment, like all of their answers don’t work anymore, the last thing I would want is for them to walk away from reading the book and thinking, “Great! A whole new set of answers!” Rather, I was more telling stories of the places where I have evolved and changed because I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to do that. I do have areas where I can’t imagine changing but I hold even those loosely now. My catalogue of Right Answers has grown smaller over the years, for sure, and I see God as much more wild and wonderful and generous than I could have ever imagined years ago. After all, the point of our life isn’t to get to the end with the exact same opinions and beliefs that we had at the beginning or when we were twenty. That’s kind of missing the point. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, absolutely, but we are always changing in response to that and I can’t apologise for transformation.