Here is part two of Cara Strickland’s interview with Out of Sorts author Sarah Bessey. Miss part one? Check it out here.
I love the way you work with story in your writing. What are your favorite stories (fiction or nonfiction) and who are some of your favorite storytellers?
L.M. Montgomery was my favorite, always. I mean, I’m a Canadian kid, right? Anne of Green Gables was a huge shaping; the whole series was. But there are some of her lesser-known works that were probably just as much a favorite, like the Emily books. They were a little bit darker and a little bit more spiritual and I really loved them. Then some of her books that were written more for adults, like The Blue Castle or A Tangled Web, had really complex people and were funny and quirky. I really got into Austen and the Brontës more as a teenager.
I was an English Lit kid, and I always loved story more than anything else. I don’t think I started reading nonfiction until probably ten years ago. I don’t think it was until I discovered a body of spiritual writers like Madeleine L’Engle, Kathleen Norris, Lauren Winner, Luci Shaw, even Anne Lamott in her early days. I think it was really those women who gave me the permission and gave me an idea for the kind of writing I wanted to do.
I didn’t feel like I found myself in most theology books; they were too prescriptive and I didn’t need three bolded headers and here’s the checkboxes to tick when you’ve accomplished stuff. I was just like, “My brain doesn’t work that way.” I feel like it makes the box too tight for me.
When my publisher wanted to do discussion questions for the book, I was like, “We need to put those at the end of the book. It will interrupt the flow of the narrative and the story and I don’t want them doing that. Just put them in the end of the book and if people want to do them they can do them.”
I think one of the things that helped me find my voice was realizing I didn’t have to do one or the other. I could really grapple with theology and deeper things of God, which I really, deeply cared about. But I’ve always believed it’s very easy to pontificate, to just knock off your opinions and to make big strident, generalized statements like they’re fact. And it’s easy to do those kinds of things. Facebook tells us that’s an easy thing to do. The hard thing is telling your story.
I remember once, a long time ago, hearing that all of our theology has its roots in our autobiography, and I have never heard anything more true in my life. I feel like even the people whose theology I sometimes find offensive, oftentimes when we start storytelling and we start figuring out why you think that and how you got there, I feel like there’s a lot more understanding and compassion and points of connection and shifting and change in both of us that needs to happen. So I do love that part of it.
I think, in terms of story, I feel that Scripture has really profoundly shaped how I think about these things because that’s where I first saw it or learned it, this idea of your theology being couched in how you live and how your life is. Your awarenesses and your learnings happen on the ground. What does the story reveal about God? What does it reveal about us? What does it reveal about the ways we’ve misunderstood God? So I think that learning to read Scripture better helped me appreciate that. It helped me read it with a bit more understanding of saying, “Oh, okay, I think God is using story here and showing us not necessarily always prescriptive things.” I don’t really believe that God told people to dash babies’ heads against rocks, for instance, but here’s what we see about how people encounter God and how they understood God, and then what did Jesus come to show us about that very thing happening?
Even the language of Scripture really, deeply informed me because my roots are more within the Word of Faith movement, which really highly elevates Scripture, sometimes in an over-realized way. But that meant that I spent a lot of time in the Scriptures and I spent a lot of time absorbing the language of Scripture, the poetry of Scripture, so those things were really formative. I think that really profoundly changes you.
Let’s talk about community, inside and outside of church. What would you say to those longing for community?
First of all, it’s completely normal and good and inherently marks health in you. God is inherently, by nature, communal. That’s what the Trinity is; it’s this communal dance and it’s incredibly beautiful and we’re created in the image of God, and so of course that’s what we long for. We long for that communion with God and we long for that communion with each other.
I think that sometimes I almost got this idea that if I was really strong I wouldn’t need people, and that’s crap. I often think the stronger you are it’s because you recognize that you’re connected, and deeply connected, not only with your people but with people, period.
When I was outside of church for six years, it was a relearning of how to do community. It was a relearning of, “Okay, when we’re not all centered on this one thing, on showing up at the same place at the same time, how do you make a friend?”
For me it was things like talking to my neighbors. It was mind-blowing. Because I had little kids, oftentimes it was through things like the gym time at the rec center and community stuff, because I was a really young mum at the time. But for other people it might be different things. My brother-in-law plays rec league hockey sometimes and that’s a way that he’s found to connect with people.
Online I feel is a great place for people. Oftentimes I feel like it’s a starting point that then informs the rest of your life. It shouldn’t be the only thing, but I think it’s a real thing. It always kind of bugs me when people sometimes are like, “Get off your computers and go out and meet people.” Wherever you find community, find it, and celebrate it, and be thankful for it.
One of the things that I always find a bit disingenuous is whenever people say that they’re lonely and people say, “Well, just get plugged into church.” And sometimes that can almost make you feel more lonely because you feel like an outsider, or you feel like maybe no one else has the questions you have, or has the story and experiences you have, and so then you leave feeling almost lonelier because you didn’t really feel seen or you didn’t really feel connected.
I think that for me a lot of this was tied to my evangelical hero complex. Part of the way that I used to meet people was by doing all the things, so if there was something to volunteer for I’d volunteer for it. If there was something to do I’d do it. And you know what? It works. It gets you meeting people, and sometimes you’ll meet people and sometimes you’ll click and sometimes you won’t, and it does, it works.
But sometimes you just lose your appetite for that and you don’t have the energy, or the time, or the inclination, or you’re in a season of your life where you just can’t. So then what?
For me, for my church, it’s not perfect and there’s things about it that drive me nuts just like it does any other person who is committed to intentional Christian community. If you’re not getting your toes stepped on then you’re not really engaged. To me that’s a good place to start: just being there. But honestly, I have found that it’s slow. And I think that that’s something that people sometimes don’t want to hear. They want it just to be like magic. They want to show up and they want the angels to sing and they want everybody to fling their arms wide open and say, “Yes, now, let’s all sing around the campfire.” And when that happens that should make you nervous because that’s a cult.
When you have human relationships and interactions, then you have to give things time. It’s going to take showing up; it’s going to take a lot of the small talk before you get to the heart talk; it’s going to be once in a while I show up at a Bible study or maybe I invite someone out for coffee if I think that maybe they laughed at that inappropriate joke just like I did.
You don’t need an army; you need one person to feel less alone. That’s it. You just need a friend, and you can find a friend in a lot of different places.
I definitely have felt very welcomed and very affirmed and loved, but every single person I’m friends with and I go to church with is not necessarily my kindred spirit friend. We’re in community together and we do life together and we show up for each other, and that’s enough. I have really deep, meaningful friendships with maybe a handful of people. The whole church is not my deepest darkest confidante.
One of the things I had to learn is that nothing is going to meet every need. I feel like I was really able to love church when I was able to release my expectations of church, when I didn’t go on a Sunday and expect, you know, it’s going to be epic every single time, but made room for things like, “Oh, I didn’t really like that sermon that time,” or “That person was kind of lame,” or “I didn’t really know what was going on there,” or whatever.
I have found that people respond really well to being listened to and people respond really well to being seen. So maybe it’s a bit kindergarten-y, but I find that if I’m really lonely and I’m really wanting connection and conversation, there’s usually someone that you can find who looks a little bit lonely and looks like they could use a friend, too, and it’s just kind of easy to sit down and listen or ask some questions and just make sure they feel seen. And the more we make other people feel seen the more seen we feel ourselves too.
Do you have mentors in your life?
I feel like I have a wealth of mentors because I cut the idea of mentoring out of this prescriptive format. Sometimes when people talk about mentors they’re like, “You have to meet once a week and you’ve gotta do homework,” and if that was what mentors were I would never have one nor could I ever be one. And I think that it’s important to have both functions. I think it’s important to be one and it’s important to have one.
I do have women who are leading me and leading me really well. I have women (and sometimes it’s men but more I’ve often found a greater connection with women writers and women thinkers, women pastors and women within my life) who are leading me well when it comes to marriage. I have people who are leading me well when it comes to being a mum, and when it comes to being a writer, when it comes to vocation and work and how all those things work together. But even about things like how I think about God or how I wrestle or how I move through my life, how I encounter God, let alone things like how I show up in the world and how I want my life to look, and the work that I want to do, and how all those things connect.
The rare thing is for one person to be all those things. I find that having rich relationships from different generations both above and below and alongside of me is probably one of the best things that has ever happened in my life, and I cannot imagine the kind of woman I would be without really rich relationships like that. But then there’s times when women mentor me and they have no idea—writers, people who I would read.
I feel like there’s just something about someone embodying what I yearn for, and that’s kind of how I identify it. I’m like, “You’ve got something figured out,” or “There’s something happening here and I love the way that you’re doing that.” I just . . . I need to learn. I think that’s part of the whole thing of being a recovering know-it-all is that when I was a know-it-all I was a lot more isolated, and when you are in recovery from that and you practice humility and teachability like a spiritual discipline, you are amazed at the richness and depth and friendship that it brings to you.
You talk quite a bit about your experiences with both charismatic and liturgical practices in Out of Sorts. How would you advise people seeking spiritual formation and to encounter God in new ways?
That was one of the things I grappled with as I wrote the book, because there’s not a lot of people who write about the charismatic movement in a way that either doesn’t make me nervous or make me feel like crap. It’s either cult-y and weird or that it’s the only one true way and everybody needs to get on board. Writing about it was a really tender part of the book for me, because there are some people who have some pretty big wounds from some of those practices and some of that language and you really want to tread softly there. And yet it is a huge part of my own story and a huge part of how I encounter and experience God even today.
A big part of the story is that sense of almost the odyssey, of leaving just to find yourself in the end returning, very different, and encountering those things very differently and understanding them very differently. But even so I am back at a small charismatic church in a school gym with flags; that’s just where I am. And yet I’ve gathered all these other expressions and ways of understanding God and experiencing God.
I have such a tremendous confidence in the Holy Spirit, and so I never really feel this urgency to police that for people or to say, “Here’s the right way to do it,” or “Here’s the only way to encounter God,” or the only way to pray, or the only way to worship, because the truth is that I have worshiped and prayed and encountered God in such vast and different ways and in ways where some people would say, “You shouldn’t have been able to.” And yet God continues to transcend and meet us wherever we are, whether it’s dark or light, or candles or big stages.
Wherever it is that you are encountering the Spirit of God, lean into that, is really what I believe. If where you are finding God the most right now is by going to the big sparkly light shows with Jesus on the Jumbotron, then go. It’s fine! Go and sing your heart out and lay on the floor and cry and do all the things that you want to do, but then carry that home with you and live that.
If the way that you’re encountering God is through poetry and through liturgy, or through the Hours, or through silence, or through walking, or even through serving the poor or serving your family . . . God is never really withholding from us, and I tend to believe that anywhere where you are seeking God and wanting to encounter God, you will meet with God.
Oftentimes I have found the most transformative things in my life have been things that are far from churchy stuff. So there may be expressions of worship that I really love or where I’ve really encountered God, but oftentimes the most transformative things happen in the mess, and in the dirt, and in the relationships, and in the wrestling, or in a therapist’s office. You know, whatever it is, wherever you are encountering God and finding freedom and transformation, that’s something to celebrate, that’s something to be thankful for, that is something that is moving you deeper into God’s purposes and heart and wholeness for you. Anything that makes you more loving, I think that’s something that’s really beautiful, and God’s in the midst of all that.
I remember John Ortberg talking about this in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, where he’s talking about how our spiritual disciplines, whatever they are, are just ways of setting up and that really we have zero control. So it’s like a sailboat, and maybe praying the Hours and going to church every Sunday and doing communal worship with your community is putting up the sail. Showing up and singing songs maybe doesn’t sound like that big of a thing, and yet every time I encounter God—because the Spirit is present and that’s what the wind is in this metaphor, right? —the wind in the sails is what moves the sailboat. I just tend to believe that God is not a punitive parent who’s withholding presence, and so I feel like if you are open and you are seeking, you might be surprised what you find, but you’re gonna find.