War Photographer: Sarah Bessey
It's been more than ten years since I was introduced the terminology of "missional church." Hey, what do you know? we are meant to live out the Gospel in our daily, walking-around lives, as missionaries in each and every context. Amazing, right?
As a refugee from the mega-church movement of modern church life and fame-seeking Christian celebrity marketing, the missional living conversation was a timely lifeboat for my journey. I loved Jesus, I struggled with the circus, and this was a call out of a churchy-ghetto, and into the real world with a message of Love. Now my life, even here in a prosperous corner of Canada, is a missionary life, a life of embodying God's hope and good news. Justice and mercy, hope and goodness, love and peace, are desperately needed. My friends were not going to church and were suspicious (even hostile) of labels like "evangelical" but I was going to my friends, and so the idea of missional living made sense in my context.
I was reading books from seminary academics and interacting with emerging church thinkers and theorists. But it all felt rather like an ivory tower to me, divorced from real-life application and living out. I often thought to myself, well, that sounds great but what does it mean in my real life?! At the time, there weren't a lot of bloggers writing about missional living (well, in those days there weren't so many bloggers, period), story-telling hadn't become the saturated scapegoat medium of Christian writers, and the terms "ordinary radical" and "missional" hadn't jumped the Christian publishing shark.
So I decided to start writing about how this whole "missional thing" actually looked in my life, right here, in Vancouver. I was full of ideas - I would write stories about my interactions with my neighbours! with my co-workers! with my friends! with strangers at the park! with the poor and marginalised in my city! I would be the "voice on the ground" from the front-lines of this whole missional life, these stories would be valuable and needed. I could share real-life conversations with real-life people. Church people would learn from my arguments disguised as stories. I had an agenda for justice! and maybe I could be, like, the VOICE of missional living in real life! People would learn and understand how to actually apply the theories now!
Clearly, I had missed the point. But I wrote a few posts over the period of a year or so. Then I stopped writing those stories. I ended up deleting every single post.
The very nature of arguments require simplification. When we are arguing, we go to our base lines. We turn people into props, interactions to proving grounds, theology into theories, because we have a point to prove. We make arguments for good reasons - I have no doubt about that. And arguments have a place, perhaps. We have an end game in mind: we want to raise money, we want to do good, we want to change the world, we want to make a difference, vivé la revolution of love! But agendas turn our lives into arguments and proof-points, instead of invitation.
Arguments and agendas require simplicity. Relationships make room for complexity and nuance.
Arguments and agendas require a clear story arc: setting, conflict, climax, resolution. Relationships allow for ebb and flow, for intimacy and redemption, for non-sexy work of showing up over the years, for the working out of God's goodness already worked in. How does it glorify God or embody the Kingdom of God to use people as props "for the greater good."
I deleted those essays because the more enmeshed I became in the actual "living" part of the missional living theories, the more I realised one thing: these are my friends. These are my neighbours. These are my co-workers. I loved them. And when I loved them, I didn't want to use them as props anymore.
I hadn't written anything terrible, anything revealing. But I had written about them as if they were props, I had used them to make an argument. In my rush to tell stories about missional living, I had dehumanized my friends and my neighbours.
Talk about missing the point of the Gospel.
I remember the day someone found out what I had done. She came across my blog by chance. She was devastated by my "stories" from the "front-lines" recounting our conversations. Understandably, she felt used and she felt betrayed by me. And she has never forgiven me. I lost a friend. I still can't think about this without a deep sense of guilt and grief. I was absolutely in the wrong.
All of these things were in my mind when I was invited to join the Help One Now blogger trip to Haiti last year. Too often, we bloggers and writers use the excuse of storytelling to advance our own agendas and arguments. That feels false to me, both as a writer and as a follower of Jesus. We can all tell the difference between a real story and a creaking morality tale: we can all tell the difference between a friendship of mutuality and a clumsy attempt at following the agenda. There really isn't a way to make someone feel loved and valued while simultaneously using them as a prop for a purpose.
I was afraid of extreme poverty, afraid of leaving my family, but mostly I was afraid of screwing up and hurting someone in my heart to do some good. It seemed easier to do nothing, than to risk damaging the dignity of Haitians. Yet I felt very clearly and strongly that God had wanted me to do this thing. So I went but I went in "fear and trembling" with a tremendous desire to honour Haiti, and a cautious sense of calling. I was committed to people, not arguments, even for a good cause. I wanted to learn from them. I knew the likelihood of my return to Haiti was small but that didn't give me an excuse, not anymore. Even if my new friends in Haiti would never read my blog, even if they never saw a picture I took, even if they never heard a speech I gave on their behalf, I needed to write and blog and talk about them like they were sitting right here in the front row.
No more two-faced storytelling for the purposes of argument. That excuse won't fly anymore.
I don't know if I did a good job. Only the people of Haiti can tell me that. But I tried and I wrestle even now with relating these stories because aren't I doing this very thing again? I don't know. I tried to figure out how to do some good and even build a school from the standpoint of relationship instead of argument and agendas. I've learned by now that God is just as much concerned with the means as the end.
Even now, six months later, when I write about Haiti, or I write about Mercy Ministries of Canada, and particularly when I write about my own small life here in British Columbia, I wonder: relationship or argument? It's a cheap use of my stories - let alone my friends or my family - for the purposes of arguments. These are lives, not theories; souls, not vehicles for setting, conflict, climax, and tidy resolutions. I don't always get it right. I make apologies often.
I want to be faithful to nuance and complexity, to the light and the shadows, in both relationships and story-telling. I am still learning to embrace wandering truth in favour of crisp arguments. I want to make it my ambition, as Paul admonished the church in Thessalonica, to live a quiet life of profound consequence, focused on embodying God's kingdom way of life here and now and loving others well.
Because the very nature of missional living is indeed the embodiment of the Gospel. And the Gospel is good news, the news that God is for us and God is with us and God is Love and Life. So our living out of the mission needs to reflect the heart of our Sender: it needs to look like respect, like secret-keeping, like relationship instead of arguments, to even begin to hint at the vast love and affection of our Father towards us.
Sarah Bessey is a writer and an award-winning blogger (www.sarahbessey.com). She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with her husband, Brian, and their three tines, Anne, Joseph, and Evelynn. Her first book Jesus Feminist will be published by Howard Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in 2013. Sarah is an editor at A Deeper Story (www.deeperstory.com), and a contributor at SheLoves Magazine (www.shelovesmagazine.com). She is a happy clappy Jesus lover, a joyful subversive, a voracious reader, an unrepentant hashtag abuser, and a social justice wannabe.
(psssst, Sarah's book can be pre-ordered here. Yay!)
The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?
For more in the series, please click here.