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Out of sorts
Sarah Bessey is a writer, preacher and full-time mum. She talks about her latest book, Out of Sorts, which tackles the fact that we all wrestle with doubts and questions – and why that’s okay
This book is born out of your own journey; could you explain what triggered it?
Like most stories, it’s a bit complex and nuanced. It was a thicket of frustrations, questions, wonderings and doubts for a long time and, instead of dealing with them, I thought that it was better to stuff them down and pretend that everything was fine. But the thing that unlocked it for me was grief. Grief distills us to our most essential self. Anytime we find ourselves a bit out of sorts, it’s usually on the threshold of some change and so of course there is grief or fear attendant to that. I experienced a different season of life in ministry as well as in my personal life, culminating in a series of miscarriages which left me feeling like I had no more answers and no more ability to pretend.
Why do you think we can be afraid to question our theology and doctrines?
We like security. We like feeling certain. But we can elevate our certainty, our answers and our doctrines over our faith and the active leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s completely legitimate to start out as a very black-and-white thinker. There isn’t anything wrong with it – it’s the beginning of the journey. But then we progress through other stages. Somehow, we have picked up the idea that this one particular stage is the ‘best’, or it’s the one that our church communities are set up to serve. So we feel like we don’t fit when we start evolving. Plus, there is often a cost associated with change; it can affect our relationships, our communities, our families. Sometimes the cost feels too great and it’s easier to pretend or to stagnate.
You describe how you went in search of who Jesus really is – why was that?
I made a decision that I couldn’t go to church and needed a ‘separation’ from Christianity as a whole in order to heal. I stopped calling myself a Christian, but I was still quite captivated by Jesus. And so I began to call myself a ‘follower of Jesus’ to give myself a bit of distance. Then one day it occurred to me that I should probably find out what that meant! I started in the Gospels – and all of a sudden I had even more questions. Jesus was surprising, wonderful, frustrating – and utterly captivating. I began to realise that I had missed him. I began to read and to seek but none of those things replaced actually deciding that he was worth following and reorienting my entire life around him.
How has finding Jesus drawn you back to the Church?
Well, I don’t think you can love and follow Jesus without loving people. And the Kingdom of God is part of the deal. I began to realise that the Church wasn’t some big nebulous institution but rather it’s us – we’re it. And every person I encountered who loved and followed Jesus was part of my family. So I began there. I wanted to be around people who loved Jesus too because I felt like I knew him better or loved him more when I heard why they loved him or why they followed him. But it was a big surprise to actually find myself back at church every Sunday. I thought I was too mature for that, like I’d evolved beyond church! Hilarious.
How did you deal with the time when your husband and you were pulled in different directions over church?
Well, this is a big part of the story. My husband was a pastor, so our entire life was centred on church and church stuff and I couldn’t bring myself to go. Even when he left full-time vocational ministry to finish a bit more schooling initially, we always anticipated that he would return to pastoral ministry. We wrestled with calling, vocation and identity. But we loved each other and didn’t want to lose each other on top of everything else that was slipping through our hands. We decided to choose each other. Tangibly that meant sacrifices and mutual submission from both of us but, in the end, we found that if we gave each other room to be wrong and if we chose to love well in the in-betweens of our marriage that we would be okay. And we were. We’ve been married 15 years and we’ve landed in a very similar place theologically for the most part, but there are still differences. They just don’t divide us anymore; those differences keep it interesting.
What was it that drew you to your current church community?
I can only attribute it to the Holy Spirit’s leading and the right timing. I think of it like I do marriage. As a young woman, I didn’t really want to get married anytime soon – I had other plans. In the abstract, marriage wasn’t desired. Brian felt the same way – he had other plans too. But then I met Brian and we fell in love. Next thing I knew, marriage was everything we wanted because we simply wanted each other forever. Even now, I don’t want to be ‘a wife’ – I want to be Brian’s wife. Church started the same way. I didn’t want to go to church but then I stumbled into this little community of believers and something in my spirit said, ‘this is it’. I didn’t choose The Church, I chose this community of people to love and to serve and to be transformed.
Why do you think having your "sort out" gave you a passion for justice?
My season of being out of sorts had its origin in heartbreak. I’ve found that when your heart breaks, almost anyone or anything can tumble in. And perhaps that’s right where they belong. My heart was tender and open and then my eyes were opened to the larger stories of the world thumping along outside of my own story and I cared. Following Jesus lead me right into that place of caring about the world and longing to see redemption and reconciliation happen.
Out of Sorts is available now, published by Darton, Longman and Todd.