We like simple stories in the church.
We like us vs. them and righteous indignation. We like the befores and afters of testimonies, proving like a cleaning solution commercial that the blood of Jesus “really works! Guaranteed!” We like sorting orthodoxy into the haves and the have-nots. The right and wrong way to be Christian. The formulas and methods that are “biblically” proven, if only we can pick the right verse to provide an unsinkable defense.
And then one day, we sink.
Something happens and our lives no longer make sense. Our preconceived notions of faith are shipwrecked, and we can barely lift our heads to suck in the breath that was once so easy, so unthinking. I’ve had these moments, and you will too, if you haven’t already.
I just hope when you do, you have the words of Sarah Bessey nearby.
The thing I love about Sarah’s story is she is beloved by so many because her story is not a simple one. Raised Pentecostal, she speaks in tongues and brings an awareness of the Holy Spirit that most progressives would rather not talk about. In her previous books, she writes about how her faith matured with great growing pains and doubts and anger and loneliness, a time in which she found the beauty of the liturgy and a quiet sanctuary. She is affirming and open, setting tables in the wild fields for those kicked out of church buildings. Yet, her language is unapologetically Christian. She loves Jesus, and there is no mistaking that. But she has also provided a home for those the church has not loved well. She has told her own story of “evolving,” as her conference is titled (in its second year this past weekend). She resonated with women all over the world as she told her story of becoming a “Jesus feminist.” And while those were not easy stories to tell, in large part they were stories lived pre-public-eye. They were the stories that she lived mostly before and during an era of blogging and babies, and we all felt like friends on the internet in this wild community of misfits with Disqus accounts and #FollowFridays and blog “link up”s.
This is the intensely personal book that came after. After her name meant something in the sense of theological camps and alignments (I have always found it easiest to describe my own “team” with her name, and those in the Christian Twitter world know immediately what I mean and where I stand). This one was a book I watched take place through the internet as we readers prayed for her after a car accident, celebrated with her as she visited the Pope, as another book died and this one was born. It is the book that comes after, after you thought you sorted out this God stuff, after you have experienced healing and the supernatural, after you settle in with the questions that linger but have enough answers to lead others along the broken way.
This is the story of lingering pain long after your world is shattered. Of faking fine and surrender to not only the care of self but the care of a loving God who speaks in ways you don’t always hear, ways you’re not ready for yet, ways you don’t want him to speak, saying things you might not want to hear. There’s a God in these pages that is not limited by tradition or age or trauma or pain or the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in.
That sounds empowering, but if you have lived it, you know it makes you want to scream and weep and that you heart has been broken by this God who will not be tamed.
Sometimes he heals in a single moment with the laying of hands. Sometimes he heals with time. Sometimes years of medicine and therapy and stumbling aren’t enough, and only in heaven will we be set free.
It hit close to home for me as Sarah talked about experiencing miraculous healing in Rome, a place she hadn’t expected to find God speaking still, and then the despair of living the daily reality of chronic pain and post-traumatic anxiety and a new normal for the parts that weren’t miracled away. I know what it’s like as the word “mystery”–something we woo-woo charismatic progressives usually like–gets paired with the dreaded word “illness.” Though my situation was much different, the darkness she walked though is familiar territory to those of us who have had to wonder “is this my life now?” as another orange pill bottle takes its place on our bathroom shelves.
And yet, there is a reason this is a Sarah Bessey story: Every chapter is interwoven with Scripture. So organically you hardly notice because she just lives it. Her story is one not simply informed by Scripture like a research paper, citations to support statements, but infused with Scripture like a steaming cup of freshly steeped tea.
Her own words too bring life to spiritual truths. She remembers how Jesus calls himself the Gate through which we will have abundant life, going in and out from safety to wilderness. “The notion of movement with God, of the dance going in and out is like the waves on the shore. Perhaps that means God is the ocean and God is sand but also the tide pulling us between them both, and we experience the safety of the land and the danger of the open holy water.”
Too often, I do not want the holy water, with its dangerous waves and its crashing storms. But learning the seas is not for me alone. As a bishop tells Sarah after her healing at the end of her pain-filled trip to Rome, “Yes, you walked these streets in suffering. You suffered with each step. If you hadn’t limped through Rome … you would have missed seeing Italy with the eyes of the grieving and the hurting and the left out. But God is saying, you will go home leaping all as a sign of his grace and his power still available to us all.”
There is so much truth in that. And it ends like the testimony we want to hear, doesn’t it? That our pain is over and our suffering has served its purpose to teach us a lesson. But the bishop goes on:
“This is not over for you. Not yet.”
We all have our own journeys through that wilderness. Wondering why God didn’t heal completely. Wondering what the point of loss or pain is. Wondering why God is silent when we most need to hear his voice. But Sarah’s metaphors, as domestic and relatable as always, ring true. She found a path to hope in her new life as she discovered God as Mother as well as Father (which is a concept throughout the Bible, but also found in the works of Julian of Norwich, whom she quotes). God is found in the art of children and the beauty of nature and flowers on Easter Sunday, accidentally trampled.
“When we have suffered, when we have been bruised and scarred, when our light has been blown out, when we are ground beneath someone else’s heel, I hope to remember we belong to a God who is faithful to restore us,” she writes.
That can be a hard thing to remember, even harder to have faith in. But, as Sarah writes, we were not made to walk through this alone. We have suffered so that we might see with the eyes of the suffering. We have faltered that we might find a new path. We have grieved and learned the feeling of being comforted. And we will be restored with the power of the resurrection, all to the glory of the God who is true to his Word, even when that day for our human bodies is still a long way off. When we are at once miraculously healed and still suffering.
It would be too easy to write that this is a story of chronic illness, or a story of a faith that keeps evolving even after a brand is built and a platform is solidified, or a story of a preacher finding her prophetic voice again after God is silent. Those are all true. But it is a story for you, as well. It is, at the core, a story of hope. Hope that isn’t cheap and doesn’t come simply, tied with a bow and a miracle and an “all you have to do is say this” prayer. This is hope hard-won, from the wilds of Canada to the cobblestones of the Vatican, and it is hope worth holding on to when you’re drowning.