"Once upon a time, you had it all beautifully sorted out. Then you didn't." That's the opening line of Sarah Bessey's latest book, Out of Sorts. It's about faith, doubt, and how to follow Jesus when you're not sure where you're going. It's about the wandering and the questioning. And it's for those who feel disorientated and out of touch with the Church. Those who have been sold all the 'right answers' and figured out how to look and act like a 'good Christian', but have been left wanting.
"It's less about saying 'Okay, I know you don't feel like you have all the right answers, so here's a nice new stack'," Bessey says. "I want people to walk away from the book knowing that God is just as much present in the wandering and in the questions as in anywhere in certainty, and we're really, deeply loved in the midst of that."
A popular Canadian blogger, and the author of Jesus Feminist, Bessey is a passionate believer in giving people the space and time to grapple with the big questions of faith. It's something she's come to terms with in her own journey; the daughter of first-generation Christians, she became disillusioned with organised religion in her 20s, then married a pastor but eventually left the Church for a number of years. She describes herself as now having come "full-circle" back to the Church, but doesn't claim to have figured out all the answers in the meantime – and she's come to the conclusion that, actually, that's okay.
"In certain areas of the Church, people are beginning to learn that it's important to take your mask off, and this mythic 'cookie-cutter' version of what we've decided a good Christian looks like – almost none of us feel like we fit it," she told Christian Today.
"A lot of us have been made to feel ashamed for having questions; for challenging things, or thinking more deeply, but there's a way to think critically without having a critical heart, and there's a way to engage with your questions in a way that honours God and also honours the people that are on the journey with you, as well."
Out of Sorts is, above all, a book of storytelling. It's a demonstration of how Bessey has walked through different seasons in her life, including dealing with the grief of four miscarriages. "Part of the reason why I stopped going to church for a long period of time was that I felt there wasn't room for me there. No room for my questions, my doubts or my grief." she recalls. In the book, she writes: "In a tradition that was filled with victory and the shiny, happy joy of properly answered prayers and neat equations, I felt like I didn't belong. I was lamenting, questioning, I was grieving. I was doubting everything I thought I knew about God and myself and the Church."
Stepping back from church life forced her to reorientate her life around Jesus, "the only one who made sense to my broken heart".
"He was the only one I knew who embodied it all, who welcomed it all, experienced it all without pretence," she writes. "He understood my light and my dark, my hope and my despair; He experienced my suffering."
As a pastor's wife and heavily involved in her community, Bessey says she had become "so caught up in church-y things that I missed the whole point". It was only once she made space for her questions, entering into what she refers to as the "wilderness", that the faith she'd so loved as a young woman began to come alive again.
"Jesus was just as good as I'd ever hoped, and everything I was longing for was there, and it was real, and it was worth turning my life upside down for," she told me. Having lost Jesus in the Church, she says she found him outside of it. "The wilderness was so real to me, it felt like a real place: there I met God," she writes.
In Out of Sorts, Bessey suggests that perhaps our biggest problem is that Jesus was "a bit too wild for the Church". She says we're often guilty of reducing Jesus to what we can understand, and in our determination to create perfectly packaged programmes and show off our gold-dusted version of Christianity, we end up selling Him short.
"We could talk about doctrine all day long, about proper methods of worship, and proper prayers, and meanwhile we're missing the point – the centre of all of it. The thing with Jesus that I realised, was that there was nothing safe about him," she says.
An active, living faith is "disruptive in every way," she added. "Resurrection isn't orderly, and renewal isn't and healing isn't. If our faith and Jesus aren't disrupting our status quo in some way, I've got to wonder what I'm really following...There should be a little bit of a mess to it, a bit of unpredictability, a bit of danger."
Bessey is by no means totally critical of the Church. "It's been incredibly counter-cultural, and there are ways that we are being bold and courageous and speaking into issues and changes that need to happen," she says. "But are there times we've chosen safety? Sure."
We need not be afraid of change, she says, and the Church has to continue to wrestle with big questions, rather than shy away from them.
"We're always being transformed, and there's something really exciting about that. I think if you get to the end of your life and you look and think in exactly the same way as you did at the beginning, then you're doing it wrong.
"So there's this sense of adventure to it, a sense of the unknown. What is unchanging? Jesus – he's the same yesterday, today and forever. And we're always changing in response to that; being sharpened, transformed, and refined. That's the hope of the gospel – I don't have to die the same person I am today; I get to be renewed and grow and become more fully like Christ, and even more fully myself at the same time."
At its heart, Out of Sorts, is really about offering those who have become weary and disenchanted an opportunity to reignite their faith, and know that they are not alone in their struggles. "I wanted to leave a light on for those still wandering a bit," Bessey says.
"I want to say 'You don't need to be afraid'. There's nowhere you can outrun God."