What You Need to Know about the Church and Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts

The church, Sarah Bessey, and Out of SortsI used to think the church wasn’t safe; it was people all cleaned up and perfect – and thereby close to God. But now I think the church is people broken and yet whole – the beautifully imperfect and free.

I sat in church as a teenager, right next to my parents in the dark walnut pews. The seven of us would take up a whole row. And when it came time to sing I didn’t think too much about singing right to Jesus. But I would listen to my dad raise his deep voice, and I would smell my mom’s perfume, and I would stand and hold the red hymn book, heavy in my hands. And I would lift my voice too.

Three rows of pews sloped down to the steps in front, maybe ten rows deep, filled by grandmothers and widows and farmers and families – the family not of blood but of the church. These were the people who cheered me on with smiles and quiet nods when I memorized all the books of the Bible in Vacation Bible School and stood at the altar’s front steps and recited them, one by one, Genesis to Revelation. And then I memorized and recited Psalm 23 too. I earned my own red-leather covered Bible – my whole name, Jennifer Ann Johnson, in gold block letters on the front.  Maybe this was the church’s welcoming acceptance into a different type of knowing God. Looking back it all felt pretty simple, being part of this fold, this family, the church.

This church family also smiled like love when Pastor Rich stood in the water, the tub cut into the blue and green carpet where the altar usually stood. And he held my hand when I stepped down to him. He asked me if I loved Jesus, and he leaned me back with his strong forearms into the water, the white cotton robe hanging wet and heavy as I stepped up and out. And when I went out front afterwards and twirled in my seersucker dress my mom sewed for me, the one with the rainbow stripes, the church followed. They went on out the front red double doors and down the cement ramp and stood outside on the tiny patch of grass and made me feel safe and held.

I had chosen something good, my Jesus, and it never crossed my mind that someday I would think He would leave.

The Church, My Mess, and Out of Sorts, by Sarah BesseyThis church were the people who sat in the pews when I stood up front years later and gave a baccalaureate speech the Sunday before high school graduation, sharing how with God there is always hope and there are good things ahead. I said it all like I believed it, and I wanted to. But something had happened to this heart of mine, to the little girl who had once twirled in her seersucker dress right after getting baptized and the teenager who looked like she had it all together but was, really, doing everything she could to hide a secret she held deep inside.

She was keeping a secret from all the grandmothers and aunts – this church family who had known her since she was little – the secret that she just wasn’t sure if she belonged with them anymore. She didn’t tell them that the year before, two weeks before Christmas of her junior year in high school, she found out she was pregnant. She figured, of course, the church wasn’t going to want her, and there was no way her God could approve of her – especially after she decided that the preservation of her own life was greater than the baby’s inside her and she had an abortion and didn’t tell but one soul.

But she kept going to church and sitting in that pew, week after week, never telling anyone other than her boyfriend what she had done. In her heart she believed she could no longer belong; she was no longer part of the church; she was far now from the love that had held her all her life.

I used to believe church was a place where love shone all around – when you are good, when you are whole. I didn’t know, like I do now, that the church is a place of the beautifully broken, the gathered. It is in our brokenness that the church exists at all, the family of God, the brothers and sisters of the blood of Christ.

The Church, My Mess, and Our of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey

The Church, My Mess, and Our of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey

You see, I didn’t understand it when Laura and Kathleen, my Sunday School teachers, used to stand up front during large group with all the kids, before church started, and sing with joy, like they were singing right to Jesus. And then when the congregation got to make requests of which songs to sing in church, Kathleen would always choose “And Jesus said come to the water, right by my side, I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied.” And Kathleen would cry, and then I would want to cry too. But not because I knew why yet, but because Kathleen was hungering for Jesus in a way I didn’t know I could.

I understand that hunger now.

When you try to pretend you are not broken – that you are already fixed up and everything is fine – the church is not able to be the church.

When we act like we don’t need God –  that we aren’t falling and faltering and desperate for God to come and love us, we are our own gods; we are the idol. We worship an ideal of ourselves, at our own cost, and the church isn’t given permission to rise up, in its beautiful brokenness and show how, with Christ – only with Jesus – it is whole.

Growing up in that little country town church where I was known and I was loved, I wish now that I had tested what it stood for. I wish I had given it a chance. I wish I knew the church is a place of wholeness only when our own brokenness and sin is recognized – by each person, and as a collective whole, too. I wish I hadn’t try to keep the secret my own.

These words here were prompted by Sarah Bessey’s brand-new book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, a book that surprised and challenged me. It gave me a fresh perspective on the church’s role in my story. I had taken the church for granted, and Sarah’s vulnerable wrestling with her feelings about the church spurred me to consider mine. Sarah Bessey’s book, Out of Sorts, is an important one, and I am giving a copy away this week. I think it can bring healing to you too.

Out of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey

You want this book! To enter to win a copy of Sarah Bessey’ beautiful book, Out of Sorts Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, please enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. And here is where you can buy it right now.

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Also, click on over to Sarah’s place to find her inspiring playlist for Out of Sorts. And here, you can download and read the first four chapters, for free!

How has your relationship with the church shaped your story?

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  • Thank you for this thought provoking extract. I once too believed I could never be accepted by a church. For different reasons, yet similar in some way.

  • Thank you for sharing this beautiful message. My story is very similar. I needed to hear this today.

  • Oh, thank you. I’ve spent 20 years wearing a big old mask while also serving in ministry in the church. It’s only recently that God is cracking open those broken places and letting me know that it’s okay to talk about them. We’re all broken. It’s so important to remmeber that.

    • Laura, it took me twenty years to begin to recognize my mask – and then a while later for me to let God come in to heal me. Confessing in community my story was part of the healing, and I am so grateful. It is so good to hear one another’s stories. Praying for you now, sister – loving how God pursues us, so gently.

  • Great article!
    Unfortunately, when you live in the parsonage being authentic isn’t always a possibility. While better than in the past, there is still a misconception that a pastor’s family should have it together. And truth is we’re as human as the rest of the church.

    • Stef, I can’t imagine that pressure – although it is interesting how, even for those not in a position of official ministry, we can feel the pressure to be perfect. Ironically, we hurt each other in our feigned perfection. I think it is so powerful, so beautiful, no crucial, to ask God to help us confess to one another our flaws – then He is on the throne and not us. I am so thankful for you – for sharing your experience, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to flood our hearts and trust him even more, just as we are.

  • Beautiful. Thank you for your raw honesty and the willingness to remove your mask so that we can see in. It is so hard when everyone around us looks like they have it together. But they really don’t. We are all a broken mess.

    • Hi Hope, Yes, it is so hard when we are trying to look okay rather than being real with one another. I liked thinking about the church and what it can be – how then it can exist – when we are not hiding. Love seeing you here!

  • “When you try to pretend you are not broken – that you are already fixed up and everything is fine – the church is not able to be the church.”

    My goodness, God has gifted you with the art of powerful writing. When I read this, I felt this. Thank you for being vulnerable and public <3


    • Hi Becky, I think this is one of those books that can speak to so many people, helping them to consider how their faith has changed throughout their life and the reasons why. I appreciate Sarah Bessy’s vulnerability in sharing her story with the church.

  • Jennifer, I’m sorry for the sad parts of your story. OH, I hope the church has helped you find forgiveness and healing. Sinners saved by grace. But your word pictures at the beginning and your actual pictures throughout, they touched me. You have a way with words. The post was written very well and I enjoyed reading it.

  • Powerful, Jennifer! This has been my experience, too. I railed against the church for not “being the church” to me and yet I didn’t give them the chance half the time. A beautiful and nuanced post. xo