“Something in my core will be different: my body was broken and I nearly lost myself in the mending. Something about God will be reset along with my bones. I will learn what it is to be an ordinary miracle.” –Sarah Bessey, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things : A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God
by Sarah Bessey. Howard Books (imprint of S&S), 2019.
Hardcover Nonfiction, 219 pp.
Put the kettle on, grab some tissues and plan to read this one all the way through. Remember the footnotes, memorize the epigraphs, and engage with your own underlines and margin scrawls, but this is one to enjoy the act of listening through first.
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is the story of a devastating car accident, the Pope and other unexpected encounters in Rome–and the aftermath of both. It contains the stories Bessey told herself and was later forced to confront and set aside; the process modeling a greater, continual process of a faith deconstructed. She knows her anchors (Jesus, family, community) and finds her metaphors (herons, lakes, gates) amidst the uncertainties After (aka Life) brings.
“I remember church services where healing was spoken of as a certainty, as a formula to enact. […] We simply needed to expect the bombastic, supernatural, eleventh-hour miracle because we all knew God is never late or early, only right on time.
[…] I began to realize we valued the victory, not the struggle. We wanted the testimony of God’s faithfulness so badly that we didn’t know how to engage in the work of miracles and healing. The victory either came or it didn’t by God’s magic—there was no middle-place theology, a theology of tension, of “yes, and” for those of us who, yes, believed in the supernatural and in miracles and needed a muscular theology of suffering and unanswered prayers.
[…] a theology without language for lament and sorrow was insufficient. (128-9)
If you like Bessey’s earlier books, writings, talks…you’ll continue to delight in Sarah. These books are travel logs, sharing both the experiences and the wisdom she has gleaned from both her life and those with whom she has intersected. Her conversational style deeply resonates, even as it charms the reader. Bessey continues to strive for authenticity, concerned with the gloss spiritual leaders apply to mask the unpleasant and/or inconsistent.
I don’t know if we are doing folks any favors if we act like when we become Christians or when we follow Jesus, all we do is win. I think it’s okay to say that we mess up, that we let people down, that we overpromise and underdeliver, that we go to therapy, that we take our meds, that we go for walks to remember everything good and true, that we’re still in the midst of figuring out where God is in the middle of all this, that we’re learning our capacity and God’s goodness the real way: by living our lives and experiencing both victories and sorrows in the midst. (130)
She demonstrates her own impulses to minimize her suffering, “I’m fine, so very fine.” Much of the book is her coming to terms with how her mind resides within matter. She doesn’t just live in her head, but in a body that also exists in a physical relationship with her environs and other people.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul that will rise but the body, glorified.” This has always astonished me, too. I used to feel a guilty sort of understanding for the gnostics […] After all, how could the divine be part of this—our flesh, our dirt, our mess, our urges, our desires, our pain, our slobber, our curves, our hunger, our orgasms? Is my body…blessed? As it is, right now, blessed? Part of shalom’s community? (193)
Miracles moves to talk about embodiment with a lighter, seeking touch than I’d encountered with others and so Bessey will continue to be one I recommend for new seekers of a voice and idea outside of their more conservative traditions. I especially love sharing Sarah Bessey with women. In Miracles, she tells stories as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend; as a woman of faith seeking other women both ancient and present to thrive alongside. She gestures with and towards things deeply understood…familiar.
While Miracles and Other Reasonable Things will feel familiar to fans in the way it explores as much as asserts, Miracles will read more like a story than the previous books, which read closer to collections of essays. That said, placing the story into IV Parts allows for a shift in how the story is told/recorded. Bessey shares her experiences and then her reflections and as the book builds its narrative context the reflections take greater focus. It is self-conscious of the fact that we create narratives, tell stories following any experience.
I ticked all the boxes in public, portrayed myself as resolutely fine, performing not only what I felt Christians expected of me, but also what I expected of myself. I had wanted to have more control of my narrative of God; I wanted to get ahead of the story, to set the time lines and parameters of my own healing. But I couldn’t’ fake my way to the narrative I wanted to believe. I couldn’t heal myself. I couldn’t fix myself. I couldn’t rescue myself from the darkness. (156)
I had failed to be curious about my own healing. I had returned to a one-sided, narrow, restrictive story of miracles. (157)
Miracles is also self-conscious of the fact that we hide in narratives and spiritual explorations—which can prove impractical.
In this turn of transformation now awaiting me, a transformation into the self that would be able to live in the tension of God’s Both/And instead of our human need for Either/Or, I needed to figure out how to embody shalom practically. (168)
Bessey shares moments and offers insights valuable to stepping into a more abundant life. I know I will be revisiting her conversation on Self-care versus Self-comfort. Her son’s drawing. Her realization and subsequent confession leaving the lake. That moment in the early hours in her kitchen taking that bottle off the shelf. The story of the birth of her youngest…. Bessey is vivid, deep in imagery. I know I will be thinking on the metaphor of the heron for a good long while. As well as that exhilaration of the coastline and the wind.
Bessey’s courage to step through the gate into the wildness of God is inspiring; as is the reminder that God resides on both sides of the gate and is ready and able with a “tender acknowledgement of [our] pain” (171).
While the style of Bessey’s writing is approachable, it doesn’t mean it makes light difficult subjects. I appreciate how she navigates the differences of wallowing and grief. Bessey speaks of surrounding herself with friends who are both comforting and ass-kicking (that unicorn card is the best); she does the same in the book as a friend to herself and her readers. She, too, is a mother and her addition of God as Mother into her relationship with God is marvelous. I love her approach to it (and her footnote). An excerpt:
Knowing my own father […] gave me a straight path to run on to see God as a good and loving father. But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression. Her energy, her nurture, her fierce mama bear protectiveness, her joy and laughter, the ministry of her hands in my hair smoothing away the stress. (172)
[…] I began to picture that strong, wise, capable, patient, non-nonsense, deeply loving mother present in my choosing of life. After all, a peer might indulge my avoidance or self-neglect or selfishness, encourage me to do what feels good instead of what creates good.
But the sort of mother I envisioned—the way my own mum had mothered me when I was small—would make sure we ate well, drank water, went for walks, took our medication, read good books, challenged ourselves intellectually and spiritually, cared about others, managed our money responsibly, all of that good stuff. A mother who truly loved us would establish boundaries and offer wise counsel and tenderness of rest. Perhaps you picture Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series. Or Sister Julienne from Call the Midwife or Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables or Marmee from Little Women. Or maybe you’ll imagine Maya Angelou in your ear whispering that when you know better, you do better. Maybe you imagine your own mum or a Sunday-school teacher or the mother of your best friend—whoever makes you feel safe and secure and cared for in your mind—and then simply do what they say. (173)
As it warns us in the title, Bessey’s book is a story of Unlearning and Relearning God in all the places God can be found. She writes in her love-letter introduction: “We place a lot of emphasis I our culture on “right learning,” but there is something to be said for the value of “right unlearning” and “right relearning.” We have to be committed to unlearning the unhelpful, broken, unredemptive, false, or incomplete God if we want to have space to relearn the goodness, the wholeness, the joy of a loving God” (5). She offers inspiring glimpses of how that commitment looks and works. It is a messy, vulnerable life; but it looks like a life; there is something miraculous about that because it isn’t what we’re sold; it isn’t traditionally what we’ve been buying.
Bessey closes the book with a Benediction. Her final aspirational pages, turn outward to embrace the reader. The journey is still in progress, but there are things knowable…sealable with that humble touch of anointing oil. She moves to do for the reader what has been done for her. She was drawn out to remember that she was not alone and she draws out the reader and into her own embrace, into her own story. She does what she always so generously does in her writing: she invites us to walk alongside her and the good company she has found and continues to find along the way. We will unlearn and relearn both together and in our own ways.