Books: Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey

One of my blogs is about to disappear, and in the interest of saving it I am copying some of my previous posts into this blog. This post was from February 19, 2016.

I have been a Christian for many decades now, but all of you probably know that it has not been an easy path for me. I have struggled with my own questions, as well as the questions of people I love. Actually, using the term “I have” is probably incorrect. It’s more like “I do” struggle. I’m not a social Christian, one who goes to church for social reasons, to meet friends or get involved in service programs (although I think both of those are wonderful things!). I go to church to worship God. I go to church because there I hear at least some of what God has to say to me. But church attendance itself has never been what it’s about either, and for that reason I actually read the Bible, pretty much on a daily basis. And I pray. I talk to God and do my best to let God talk to me.

It would be easy to get dressed up and go to church on Sunday, and listen to a charming, charismatic preacher give sermons about love and self esteem, but that is not what my spirit seeks. I want to follow the narrow path, even though it sometimes leads through the brambles, sometimes across oceans, or through storms, and sometimes even just drops off a cliff to unknown places! There are a lot of Christian books out there that can help in negotiating this path. But I have another problem. I wander sometimes. And because of that, I really, really enjoy a good, thoughtful book written by another wanderer who found her way back.

 Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey is such a book, and it has the benefit of being one of the most beautifully written books of its kind, one that makes you stop occasionally just to savor the words, which has phrases that stick with even someone with a really terrible memory, like me. But don’t take my word for it. Let me treat you to a quote that kind of sums up the whole book:

But most of us, at some point, will encounter the second state, which he called “critical distance.” This is the time in our formation when we begin to … well, doubt. We begin to question. We hold our faith up to the light and see only the holes and inconsistencies….

Yet he writes, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” I remember crying out to God once while in the midst of what I called my wilderness, what Ricoeur calls the critical distance, because I was longing to “go back.” …. I found it was not enough to live without the magic and the beauty, without the wonder. I couldn’t return to my first naivete and I missed the simplicity of it. I wanted to be called again, to hear the voice of God again, perhaps never more wildly than when it felt like the God I once knew was disappearing like steam on a mirror.

But those who continue to press forward can find what Ricoeur called a second naivete. I didn’t know it, but I was pressing through my wilderness to deliverance, toward that place on the other side of rationality, when we reengage with our faith with new eyes. We take responsibility for what we believe and do. We understand our texts or ideas or practices differently, yes, but also with a sweetness because we are there by choice. As Richard Rohr writes, “the same passion which leads us away from God can also lead us back to God and to our true selves.”

Bessey’s journey is not my journey, but she captures the essence, the heart that I feel beating in my own chest. This is what I have said, why I am a Christian in spite of my questions, because of the spirit, because of the call, because of the heavenly magic of belonging to God.

Jesus. His name felt like every question and every answer. There was a strain of something like unearthly music to His name, and part of me still believes that my desire to be like Jesus was the Spirit’s call — deep calling unto deep, as the psalmist wrote.

My broken heart — cynical, jaded, frustrated, angry, wounded — somehow exhaled at every mention of His name. 

In my wanderings and wonderings I have changed. I judge people’s lives and faith less. Instead I trust God. I trust him to know the hearts of people, which I can’t know. I trust him to be able to call to those hearts. I trust him to speak to people and tell them what he wants them to do. There have been times when people didn’t seem to trust that I had heard from God, because what God was telling me was different from what they judged to be right, but time and life proved that what I’d heard was true, for me, in that time and place. Exactly what Sarah does, exactly what she believes … I have to tell you, I can’t even remember those things. There is plenty of the mind present in this book, but what captured me was its heart.

And then I open my Bible, just like my father did every morning of his life. I know that this very morning, he was also in what he still calls “the Word.” And I am my father’s daughter. I am in the Word, just not quite in the same way anymore. I spend these moments reading Isaiah and I pray. I write and refill my cup, I bow my head over these sacred words that I love all the better for the wrestling to release them from the prison I built for them. 

I begin to read, jotting down verses as the Spirit illuminates them to me…. Sometimes I write the names of my four tinies and then I write down a few words from Scripture that correspond with what I am praying over them….

So here I am, my father’s daughter, as the light breaks through the forest, writing down the names of my children and my husband, my friends and even the world at large — like our brothers and sisters in Iraq or Haiti or Burundi — and beside these scrawled names, I am writing the words of Scripture. Not like promises or talismans, not like magic spells, no. But to give language to what I yearn for, what I believe, and even what I hope. 

If your faith is strong and firm and neatly defined, then perhaps Bessey’s book isn’t for you. But one of my pastors once swept his hand around the church in which we were standing. He said, “Do you see all these people? All those people whose faith you admire most have asked these same questions that you ask.” That was a revelation to me, but it makes sense. If he is right, then this book would be right for every person whose heart longs for faith. You probably won’t walk Bessey’s paths. You may well not reach the same conclusions she did. But I think you will feel the love of the Lord and the moving of the Spirit.

How many stars are there in the rating system here? I don’t know, but I award them all.

Sarah Bessey has a blog, by the way. You can find it at http://sarahbessey.com/. Her description of herself kind of says it all: “Happy, clappy Jesus follower. Recovering know-it-all.” Sounds like someone I know!

Books: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

One of my blogs is about to disappear, and in the interest of saving it I am copying some of my previous posts into this blog. This post was from March 6, 2016.

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women is not a book that would ever call to me from the bookstore shelf. It just feels completely irrelevant. I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, when the feminist movement was at full throttle. It has always been a part of me. But it is not something that I have ever felt to be in con
flict with my faith, and never anything that has been an issue in my life or relationships. I know there are a few iffy scriptures and the arguments back and forth that might revolve around it, but I just never really cared about that particular question. Honestly, this book sounded like something that would be kind of dry and, well, boring.

I picked up Jesus Feminist, however, and I read it because I completely love the author, Sarah Bessey. She did not disappoint me. It was captivating.There is not a writer on earth who stirs my faith, and my desire for faith, more than Sarah Bessey. At first glance this might seem odd, since Bessey is possessed of a wandering, questioning heart. But it’s not so odd, because I possess the same heart, and so I identify with her words … words which also happen to be beautifully, exquisitely written, with ink blended from her tears, her sweat, her blood from the battle for her faith. This book is not a dry treatise on the place of a woman. I will tell you, I cried several times when reading this book, and I am not a cry-er. I cried over for-real things, like the girl who hanged herself because of rejection, like the orphans in Haiti that Bessey visited. I cried over Bessey’s miscarriages. But I cried much more when she wrote of the pain of having questions.

Bessey is the author also of Out of Sorts, a book I reviewed recently. As with that review, I think that there is nothing like Bessey’s own words. I can tell you what she said, but I can never tell you in the way she can. So just a few excerpts, if you don’t mind.

She described briefly the falling from faith that she had described more fully in Out of Sorts. I heard it in a different way this time, though.

I was drawn toward a life of redemptive peacemaking and justice seeking, yet the churches of my context and tradition were in a strange collusion with politics and just-war philosophy as the Iraq war began. I struggled with the cultural rhetoric against immigrants, homosexuals, artists, welfare recipients, the poor, non-Americans, and anyone who looked different or lived differently than the expectation. Cultural mores were passing as biblical mandates…

The more I learned about the life and world and tragedies thumping along beyond our seemingly missing the point building programs and Christian schools and drive-by missionary work, the more I ached and grieved and repented of my own sin and blindness….

The cracks were ricocheting and multiplying across my heart now, and when I turned to the Church for answers, I did not feel my questions were welcome. This may have been my own pride and willful blindness, but there didn’t seem to be room for me as a questioning woman within the system, as a seeker….

Bessey tried to keep her questions stuffed into her mental closet where they wouldn’t cause problems, but she reminded us of the over-stuffed closet in the cartoons, whose contents build up until the closet simply explodes. And this is what happened when Bessey’s closet of questions exploded.

Crash.

I know nothing for sure. Is God even real? What about my Bible? Church? People? Life? Meaning? Loss? Grief? Disillusionment? Soul weariness? Goodness? Evil? Tragedy? Suffering? Justice? Women? Equality? Politics? I know nothing, nothing, nothing.
And it’s not because I didn’t have “answers” — oh no, I had all the photocopied apologetics cheat sheets lined up in a neatly labeled three-ring binder, paragraphs highlighted to respond to the questions of the ages, all in three lines or less….
I have sincere regrets about the way I processed much of the shifting and changing; I’ve had to ask forgiveness from several friends and leaders. But the questions were legitimate, and now, I embarked on a journey through the wilderness of my wonderings with a seen-it-all-before smirk on my face and a profound ache in my soul.
But God set up a banquet in the wild places, streams of water flowed in the desert, and I walked and walked and walked right through the pain of disillusionment and despair, leaning into the wind….

The wilderness transformed me in a way that no ‘spiritual high’ or certainty or mountaintop moment had ever done…. I sought God, and he was faithful to answer me. I came to know him as ‘Abba’ — a Daddy. He set me free from crippling approval addiction…. He bathed my feet, bound my wounds, gave rest to my soul, restored the joy of church and community to our lives. I learned the difference between critical thinking and being just plain critical. And I found out that he is more than enough, always will be more than enough — yesterday, today, forever….

I know you have questions, and they’re much bigger than the whole curch-women-feminism-equality issues. I know. Me, too. Still. So I’ll carry you in my heart. Stay as long as you’d like; I’m in no rush. Hurry wounds a questioning soul.

My water in the desert arrived in cups fashioned by the hands of those who love the gospel. I found, right under my nose, people who love God and love others; their lives were a smelling-salts wake-up experience of grace. Sometimes they were the same people I lived alongside during those years of wondering and isolation in Texas. My loss is that, in my pride, I didn’t seem them there at the time.

I identify so closely with this, as a bleeding heart liberal who belongs to a conservative Christian church. I want to be sure that the government has programs in place to help those who are not able to help themselves. I’ve heard church leaders say, no that is not the job of the government; it is the job of the church to take care of the poor. But I know full well that all those people are not going to get the assistance they need from the churches. I mean, come now, many of these churches are made up of the same people who are talking about welfare recipients as being lazy bums. There is no room for judgment in the offer of assistance to people. I’ve been around and around with good Christian people about whether they should spare a dime for the beggar on the corner, because he might spend it on drugs or alcohol. And I say, if he does, that is on him, but if he needs help and I don’t offer it, then that is on me. And sometimes the help he needs can’t be met by a sandwich. I want also for my country to offer refuge to those who are fleeing the oppressive violence in Syria, but the conservative Christian response seems to be, “Uh, no. They might be terrorists. And we need to take care of our own people before taking care of people from other countries.”

Really? I mean, really? This is not what Jesus preached.

Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you? And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

Then he will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, Sick and in prison and you did not visit me.

Then they will also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then He will answer them saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

Matthew 25:34-45

Clear, no? Is there any way to argue against it? I don’t think so! And how about this one?

Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not and you shall not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you. 
Luke 6:37-38

Is it Biblical to believe that we have a responsibility to care for our own first, and that because of that it would be wrong to care for the Syrian refugees? That’s what the disciples thought, when they wanted to send away the 5,000 who had come to hear Jesus teach. They had just a few loaves and fishes, just enough for themselves, not enough to share with that massive crowd. But we believe, don’t we, that Jesus blessed the loaves and fishes and they turned out to be enough to feed the crowds with baskets full left over. Do we believe this, really? Really?

Perhaps I have crossed Bessey’s line, from critical thinking to critical, but I have been absolutely floored to hear these arguments coming from the mouths of some of the nicest, kindest, most God-loving people I know. I believe this happened because of the weird marriage that has occurred between conservative Christianity and political conservatism. But they are not the same, and political conservativism is not consistent with what was practiced in the Bible. In fact, according to acts 4:32, the early church was a socialist community.

Now, I can have fellowship with Christians who have different political viewpoints, and it does not affect my love for them at all. The thing is, I don’t do a very good job of keeping my mouth shut. I post on Facebook. I write this blog, with things like this very blog entry! I And when I blabber away, it doesn’t always feel like it’s okay. And, as Bessey said, this could simply be “my own pride and willful blindness.” Could be my imagination, or my feeling of guilt, or it might simply stem from my need for love and approval and fear that I won’t get it. I will admit that. But it hurts anyway because I kind of feel as though there is a part of my essential self, my essential faith for that matter, that is not quite acceptable, and maybe never will be. I don’t know if there will ever come a time in my life when I will stop asking questions. Just the Bible itself is a complex and difficult book, and I will have questions about it as long as I keep reading it. I have come to the point where I can hold onto my faith over, under and through the questions. I can take the questions to God in prayer. Sometimes I get an answer that is different from the answer someone else interpolated from their reading of the Scripture, but I believe that God can speak to me, and I can hear him. Another Bessey word: “We must obey God, and our obedience to God may be perceived as rebellion and pride by some; others will see it as giving in or not giving enough.” 

But back to Bessey and Jesus Feminist, the happy ending is Bessey’s heartfelt faith. Speaking of women’s ministries, she says:

I kept coming back because the truth is, I wanted what the world could not give me. I wanted Jesus, and I wanted women in my life who loved Jesus, too. Isn’t that is? We are seeking Jesus — we want to smell him on the skin of others, and we want to hear tell of his activity. We are seeking fellow travelers for this journey. We are hungry for true community, a place to tell our stories and listen, to love well, to learn how to have eyes and to see and ears to hear.

She describes herself as a “happy clappy follower of Jesus,” and she is in a fellowship of happy clappy followers of Jesus as well. She still has questions. She tells us that. But she has faith, and that is why I find her so inspiring.

Me? I can see the lights of that city on a hill growing bright, and it makes me want to fling open the doors. The Bridegroom is coming. Can’t you feel that? In the ache and struggle and evil of our imperfect world, no wonder we long for the Kingdom of God’s shalom right down to our marrow. The tears are pricking; my heart is beating; something is happening here: Aslan is on the move. God’s dream is coming true, day by painful push-back-the-darkness day.

Bessey has come full circle and found her place in the the body. It sounds like a good place, a happy place. I so long for that. I want to dig in so deep into God that there is no crawling out again.  I want to worship, and I want to serve. I want to love, and if I have a fault it is that I want to love, love, love, exceedingly and above all. Thanks to Sarah Bessey for pioneering through the wilderness and assuring me that there is a destination, and it can be reached.