Over the past month, I’ve been talking to people all over the country and across the United States about my little yellow book. And people always ask me, how can you still be hopeful?
Pastors, preachers, bloggers, professors, students, random questions from the audience, interviewers, friends, readers, reporters, podcasters, they want to know: how can I – me, who knows better! who hears the truth every day! who is the target of a lot of vitriol and push-back at times! – possibly still be hopeful?
After all, I know the stats and stories. We all see what’s happening in the world. We all see what’s happening in the Church as a resurgence of “true womanhood” and “true manhood” gains steam in some vocal enclaves. Women have been wounded, not only by the secular remnants of a patriarchal culture, but the ways in which the system is practiced within their churches or faith communities. That’s the problem with bad theology: it has consequences. The interviewers pointed to the apparent popularity of writers and pastors and theologians who baptize secular patriarchal systems in sacred language and then preach the gospel of headship, power, and hierarchy. They point to Jonathan Merritt’s exposing post on the sexism that is practiced by many popular leadership conferences.
In my own town, there’s a gigantic church that has, in just the past couple of years, changed from affirming women as pastors and elders to forbidding it entirely. I have spoken to several women who had to leave the church – and the ones who chose to stay – and it’s a tragic thing to watch a body of believers strip one another of dignity and vocation and calling in the name of God. And yet this church continues to grow even after this gigantic step backwards: I drive by on Sunday mornings and the parking lot is full of cars.
Whether it’s something major like the fight for something as basic as an education for girls in the developing world or something seemingly minor like major Christian bookstores who won’t stock my book, people want to know, aren’t you discouraged by this?
There’s the danger of a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly put it. But there is also the danger of listening to just one side of the story. I think we need to be able to hold both in our hands: the stories that hurt and wound and discourage us AND the stories that breathe hope and whisper of a new world and bring light to our souls.
I think one of the most important things I can hang onto as I walk through this world is hope.
I’m not always hopeful. Sometimes I’m downright discouraged and angry, wanting once again to just peace out and leave the crazies behind. Sometimes the idea of starting a commune somewhere in the Interior where I can spin yarn, homeschool, and make my own soap all while having my fingers stuffed in my ears sounds pretty good.
Yet I am overwhelmingly hopeful. I am even more compelled to learn, to listen, to stay, and to remain engaged.
If I am intentional about holding space for the stories of pain and despair and wounding, I am also intentional about holding space for the hope and the victory.
I have hope first of all because of, well, you knew it was coming…..Jesus. (Everything always comes back to him for me.) Because I believe in the redemptive movement of God, moving the story of humanity further into God’s purposes and heart for us, one story at a time. Because I have faith in the soon coming King, because I believe we know how the story ends – all things restored, all tears wiped from our eyes, love wins – and because of the millions of places where Heaven is already breaking through on earth.
But I also have hope because of my tender-warrior mother. Because of my strong and brave sister. Because of my father and my husband. Because of my beloved son and daughters. I might have given up, over and over again, if they weren’t there with me. My husband and my sister plotted a surprise book release party for me last weekend and, in addition to the beautiful evening, they made space for my parents to come up and pray over me, commissioning me and sending me out with their blessing. It was a sacred moment for me.
I have hope because of the women I meet in church basements and coffee shops all over North America, and the ones I hear about in the UK and Ireland, in Australia and South America, in Dijibouti and Burundi and Holland. I have hope because of my own pastor who, when he asked me to preach on a Sunday morning, flat-out told me that I didn’t have to preach a message about why it’s okay for women to be up there. I didn’t have to “earn” my place on our platform, it was already settled as far as he was concerned, and so I could just get up there and preach like anyone else, no need for a “lady-sermon.”
I have hope because of every single person in this video:
I have hope because of the young women who are entering seminary with such motivation and hopefulness, and the women who are already there and have blazed a trail for the rest of us, and the churches who are eager to hire them and are changing their job descriptions to include female pronouns. I have hope because in the middle of that list of conferences who ignore or marginalize women’s voices there was the Wild Goose Festival as a stark contrast with nearly 50% representation. I have hope because of the Q Ideas conference about women. I was watching the live stream on and off all day and I watched as woman after woman presented beautifully and prophetically about vocation and calling. And then I watched as Gabe Lyons lead a panel discussion among a couple of the husbands about what it means to have two callings under one roof and how they navigate that. I listened as each of those men – pastors! white men! in nice suits! – spoke so positively and lovingly about their wives’ callings and vocations, about how they work together as a team to see mutual support manifested in their homes, and it was a breath of fresh air to me.
I have hope because of Christena Cleaveland, Carolyn Custis James, and Austin Channing Brown. I have hope because of Rachel Held Evans and Shauna Niequist and Lynne Hybels. I have hope because of the Junia Project and Christians for Biblical Equality. I have hope because of Diana Trautwein and Christine Caine. I have hope because of Kathy Escobar and the Refuge Community. I have hope because of Her.meneutics and D.L. Mayfield and the Livesays.
I have hope because of my own beloved church and community and the thousands of other healthy and imperfect local churches all around the world (I am a local church girl, can’t deny it). I have hope because of Mercy Ministries of Canada and Heartline and Help One Now. I have hope because of Jen Hatmaker and Deidra Riggs and Nadia Bolz-Weber.
I have hope because of Malala. Because of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Because of Maya Angelou and Madame Curie. Because of Aung San Suu Kyi and Brené Brown. Because of Arundhati Roy, Fawzia Koofi, Adéle, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I have hope because of Katie Makkai, Sabatina James, Anne Lamott, Sheryl Sandberg, Lauren Winner, and Leymah Gbowee. (We haven’t even begun to talk about the men whose names should be here, too. This list is already rather long.)
I have hope because we’re all so different, and yet we’re uniting.
I have hope because I believe in the power of the grassroots, because I believe in the little ones and the little ways.
And perhaps most of all, I have hope because of the hundreds of unnamed and unnoticed and uncelebrated disciples who simply get on with it. Far away from the blogging and the slick websites and the fancy microphones, they are engaged in the reality of living out the hope of glory in their real, right-now lives in the trenches. The ones who are serving their communities, teaching kids to read, taking meals to the elderly and sick, inviting immigrants to share their Thanksgiving table. The ones who are leading Bible studies in prisons and praying for the sick and rescuing girls from brothels in Thailand and passing Kleenex across the kitchen table.
Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! – Hebrews 12:1-3 (The Message)
I asked on Twitter and Facebook about who gives you hope. Your answers have overwhelmed me.
Here are just a few from Twitter:
@sarahbessey Inspired by: women in seminary, women in ministry – doing the daily hard work.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 18, 2013
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 18, 2013
@sarahbessey the 8 60+ yr old women at my church who volunteer at a wkly after school program in a low income neighbourhood.
— Lindsay Tweedle (@lindsaytweedle) November 18, 2013
@sarahbessey My wife. My kids. The people who email/comment and say “I thought I was the only one. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone”
— Micah J. Murray (@micahjmurray) November 18, 2013
@sarahbessey My weekly book club. 7 years later, we’re still grappling the church together.
— Annie Rim (@annie_rim) November 18, 2013
— Kelley Nikondeha (@knikondeha) November 18, 2013
— Austin C. Brown (@austinchanning) November 18, 2013
And over on Facebook:
Sharideth Smith: When I was a child, my father’s best friend left his family for another man. When my dad’s friend was dying of AIDS, my father sat by his bed holding his hand. When “Bill” asked my dad if God would let him in, my dad’s only response was, “I will see you when I get there.” That is the best example of grace I could have ever asked for.
Jennifer Lee: Pastor Liz Moss, from the Reformed heart of northwest Iowa. First Reformed female pastor (or one of the first) in Sioux County. And now, very active in the Ethiopia Reads program. Amazing woman of valor.
Abbie Kampman: Carl Medearis, Ann Voskamp, Bob Goff, my husband, Mary (sis of Martha), a couple we support serving in Saudi, and countless others.
Brandi Goff McElheny: Soooooo many people. The women I walk with who are leaving abuse inspire me to remember wholeness. The authors who give us permission to be broken and not have all the answers, but to seek the kingdom. Kathy Silveira Escobar and the work at the refuge as they seek to live and love in the margins. The folks at Oasis India and their work in the red light districts of Mumbai and how they continually bestow dignity on the women they walk alongside. James IndianRescue Mission and his team who investigate brothels night after night and who’s eyes shine with tears over the little girls they see. Akwango Anne Grace who started Beauty for Ashes Uganda and now has 850 mamas in our program – and this is her volunteer work on top of her full time job! And the two people who stay at the forefront of my mind to keep me going in the work of redemption are: 1) Adeke Loy – a mama in Uganda who faces horrific abuse and is slowly seeing beauty and redemption & 2) Reeshma, a 12 year old girl who I met while on investigation with Indian Rescue Mission. Her virginity was on the market and when I get tired of this work in the margins, fighting for justice, I remember her and how very worth it she is.
Or you can let me know in the comments. Who gives you hope?
All photos in this post are by Tina Francis Mutungu. You can see a few more from that book release party over here.