Sarah Bessey :: The Story That Makes Room For All of Us

You’re here to be light, bringing out the God colours in the world. Matthew 5:14

A few years ago, as I wrote Jesus Feminist, I found myself struggling to land the book – and my own self – in the hinterland between “Everything is getting better! Girl power forever!” and “It’s a cesspool of despair, we going to need way more sackcloth and ashes!” which so often permeates discussions about women in the church and in the world, particularly for people of faith.

For every woman I found who had been empowered, there was a woman who had been terribly silenced. For every woman who had a beautiful and redemptive love story, there was a woman who had been terribly and horribly abused. For every “win” there is a “loss.” For every church that affirmed women in leadership, there was a church that did not. For every story of global women who rose up together to end war or deforestation or cultural evils, there were women who died broken, alone, and unmourned by the world due to civil war or systemic injustice and evil. It’s so complex.

The temptation is to listen to only one perspective or the other. We choose sides, and often that “side” depends on the place from which we engage life. Whether it’s to do with women’s issues or race or religion or whatever.

The temptation is to say that our own narrow experience trumps all other evidence or the experiences of others.

The temptation, particularly for those of us who operate from a position of privilege, is to gravitate towards the good and ignore the very real and true cries of the oppressed and marginalized or even just-plain-different-from-us of our society, to retreat into the worlds of our own making and the brightly lit aisles of a shopping centre, and then point to the good stories as good enough for us. We seek our convenience and comfort and safety. Surely these stories of abuse or injustice are anomalies, right? And we carry on.

Or the temptation is to gorge ourselves on sorrow and anger and victimhood, to fill our hearts and minds only with the tales of hate and evil and horror, until we forget the beauty and peace and justice growing and rising like yeast among us. We keep our face towards the darkness, weeping or raging, and we miss the candles bravely flickering around us.

And then our temptation is to turn the other side into a straw man argument to blithely ignore or burn in effigy. (Either way, we don’t have to listen to a straw man.)  I don’t think that this is unique to women’s issues or to the Church or to the Internet: we do it in every corner of our life or with any issue.

Yet the word “right” or “wrong” isn’t the proper word for our human experience. Whether it’s a story I love or a story I hate, whether it’s a story that grieves me or a story that angers me, whether it’s a story that inspires me or a story that sickens me, whether it’s a story with a happy ending or an unresolved ending, we often don’t get to decide whether or not it’s right, it is simply what happened. It is the story.

It is real. It is true.

In our broken world, injustice is just as real as justice.

They are both true: the darkness and the light along with the reality that most of our lives reflect both. There is no consistent either-or or even if-then to real life.

I find comfort that in Scripture, we don’t see the typical Christian-bookstore version of redemption and justice with tidy bows and fairy tale endings. No, we see the mess of the truth of redemption and restoration.

It’s all true. The beauty and the pain, the suffering and the overcoming, the defeat and the victory, Friday and Sunday and the life lived between, the Now of God’s Kingdom and the Not-Yet of that same Kingdom.

The hard work of peace making takes place in the tension between both stories. I want to be a better listener, a both-and listener, because I believe that listening is an underestimated expression of love.

I don’t want to ignore those who are happy and settled, who are empowered and strong and thriving.

And I don’t want to ignore those who are angry and hurting, who are disempowered and marginalized and yearning.

We can learn from each other. This isn’t a story of one side “saving” another side or of one side “opening the eyes” of another.

The tensions of holding the word “Both” in my heart has changed my definition of a “right” story – not only for women but for a lot of the tensions we see around us in the world today. All stories matter because all people matter.

Listening to both of their stories and holding them all gently with intention – and hopefully a bit of grace – has transformed me because it’s made me realise that the right story is always the real story, God’s overarching story that Love wins.

Love has won, love is winning, and love will win. Hope does not disappoint. Faith comes by hearing or listening to the right story, it’s true: and the story that I look to for context for it all is the story of redemption and renewal, of restoration and hope that rests only in Christ.

To me, the right stories are in the Word of God – Jesus – as revealed by Scripture, by the community, and by the Holy Spirit – and He is a story of life and love and hope for us all, for all the Boths and the Ands and the Neithers and the Eithers. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one!

The right story is the old, old story of heaven breaking through, of redemption arching, of justice rolling down, of deserts blooming flowers, of exiles planting gardens, of swords into ploughshares, of life instead of death.

The right story is the one to listen to because it’s the one that makes room for all of us, this is the story that holds all our stories with the promise of life and hope, joy and renewal.

I don’t want to be swallowed by the darkness. Nor do I want to be blinded by the light. No, I want to be part of a people who see the darkness, know it’s real, and then, then, then, light a candle anyway. And hold that candle up in the winds and pass along our light wherever it’s needed from our own homes to the halls of legislation to the church pulpit to the kitchens of the world. We’re a people who build bonfires outside on the shore and send up a few signals to light the way for the ships still coming across the water and the pioneers weary in the walking from the east. We set up tables in the wilderness and invite everyone to come, we’re the people who listen.

As Michael Gungor wrote in his book The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse, faith comes by listening to the right story.

It’s true. And the right story for me, the ones I turn towards when I’m tempted to choose one side or the other, is the Great Story that holds all of them as precious and worthy of love.

It’s the story that ends with these words: “And then all things were made right.”

*image source: Lightstock.

edited from the archives.

What I'm Into (Spring 2015)
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  • Love this balance. So important. Thanks for saying it out loud.

  • Lindsey Smallwood

    Love this Sarah, it’s so hard to live in the tension, to celebrate when suffering is known. My favorite part: “Listening to both of their stories and holding them all gently with intention – and hopefully a bit of grace – has transformed me because it’s made me realise that the right story is always the real story, God’s overarching story that Love wins.”

    Thanks for writing.

    Also, not sure if it’s just my browser, but your words seem to go into the ads on your sidebar, as in some words in the post that appear at the right end of each line are not readable. Might be worth checking?

  • Sara Bee

    I will forever read your posts because you use words like ‘hinterland’ (and ya know, speak truth as well.) xo

  • Jory Micah

    Love the way your brain is wired Sarah! I have to admit that posts like these make me a little nervous (which is probably good for me…hehe). I so agree that love always wins, but continuously wrestle with the idea that “Love without truth is not love and truth without love is pointless.” I sometimes worry that our generation/culture misunderstands love to some degree. But then again, if God is love, how could we possibly wrap our brains around it. Great post! 🙂

  • ~Brenda

    I so loved this. I wish I could tell you how relevant it is to the book I am writing. You’ve encouraged me to keep shining my little light and forget about hiding it under a bushel. Thank you. ❤️

  • I think you must be an INFP like me. I want to hear everyone’s story, and then I try to hold all those different perspectives and feelings in my heart till some kind of resolve — or poetry or a story — comes out of them. It would be easier to just pick a side and stick to it, but I can’t, and, ultimately, I don’t want to. If my story counts, and I’m really hoping it does, than everybody’s does. Love you, Sarah, thank you — this is beautiful and beautifully written.

  • DJ Brown

    Right on, Sister! Write on.

  • Thank you for this. I only know how to live in this tension, and sometimes it feels lonely when everyone else is taking sides. It’s encouraging to hear these thoughts from other people.

  • Jemelene

    Oh Sarah,
    This is the answer to a question that had been taking over my heart for so long. I have wrestled so hard in this place over the past few weeks as I have felt a hopelessness. Now I can see I am where I am supposed to be, bringing light.
    Thanks for lifting the candle high for all generations to see.

  • SimplySuzi

    This non-dualist, both/and perspective, speaks deeply to my heart and soul. We MUST listen to each other! All our stories are valid and true. God bless us all.

  • Anne Lewis

    Parker Palmer calls this space between th way things should be and the way they shouldn’t the tragic gap. Tricky business to stay in it without fixating on one side or the other.

  • Nancie Chmielewski

    Thank you–to hold all in tension and love is the life journey! Blessings on yours…

  • Oh, yes, yes, YES. If only we could learn to shy away from the practice of classifying things as “right” and hold to the assurance that one day all things will be made right.

  • A “both-and listener.” Me too! My community is one of Talking and Knowing and Saving and Right-choicing and it’s exhaustingly lonely for me. God out-graced me in spite of all my knowledge of him and the women I’m surrounded by are angry and disappointed as their theology doesn’t play out as they supposed it would. Your post today is a reminder of who I want to be!!

  • Mickey

    I loved this and the sure acknowledgement that perception most often flow from the ground on which you stand. I weep that so many have been hurt, broken by others maintaining that they had the “right” story–and wanted to “fix” that “other” with the “right” story-whether that “right” story be one of gender or one of communion/eucharist/mass or one of how much water to use in baptism or who is viewed as “enemy” I love your posts and pray that most of us can hold the paradox and know that great truth that the real Great Story (of which I only get glimpses through a glass darkly) holds, as you say “all” as worthy and precious.

  • Carol Stoutland Andersen

    I love the way you phrase this, “the hard work of peacemaking takes place in the tension between both stories” — while challenging to remain in this tension place, its often where we see God’s love and power displayed most brilliantly!

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  • Ann

    Thanks Sarah. The Australian community has been polarised by the recent executions of 2 men convicted of drug smuggling. Social media has raged with anger, grief and self righteous bitterness. For me the story is less about what they were and more about what they became.. one of those stories of “redemption and renewal,of restoration and hope that rests only in Christ” . Your words helped.

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