Living Redemptively: An Interview with Sarah Thebarge

Sara Thebarge

Sarah Thebarge is a speaker and author who grew up as a pastor’s kid in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She earned a masters degree in Medical Science from Yale School of Medicine and was studying Journalism at Columbia University when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27. Her writing has appeared in Just Between Us,  Relevant and Christianity Today and she recently released her first book, The Invisible Girls: A Memoir. She was voted one of 40 Women Under 40 who are challenging taboos of the Christian faith.

KW: What is the primary message or shift in perspective that you hope readers will come away with after reading The Invisible Girls: A Memoir?

ST: The main message of the book is that there’s hope for broken people.

There was hope for me even after I’d received a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis. There was hope for me in spite of my boyfriend breaking up with me, my good friend dying of cancer, and my church bailing on me when I needed them the most. There was hope for a Somali refugee woman and her five daughters who were on the brink of freezing and starving to death. Even after we’ve given up, God can show up in the hardest, darkest, messiest places and somehow redeem them.

KW: You have written your book as a memoir. How has the use of story been significant for engaging your readers in the message that you are hoping to communicate?

ST: For me, a lot of non-fiction tends to feel two dimensional. But stories, especially memoirs, feel three dimensional. They’re not just information on a page that you can download into your brain like a software program; they’re a doorway into someone’s experiences and emotions and hardships and growth. Because stories engage not only our minds but also our hearts, we can connect to them, and be changed by them, in a unique way. I think that’s probably why Jesus taught truths to his followers in the form of parables rather than textbooks (I guess technically I should say scrolls, seeing as how the printing press hadn’t been invented yet.)

Anyway. I hope when readers pick up The Invisible Girls, they don’t just learn facts about my life. I hope they experience the depth of the heartbreaks and losses — and the grace that met me there.

KW: What would you say is the most difficult obstacle for people to overcome in order to engage in the stories of others?

ST: When we hear someone else’s story, especially if it’s a hard one, we tend to to think we have to fix it. We have to solve the problems, untangle the knots, erase the consequences, alleviate the suffering. But most of the time, we’re powerless to do any of that. So we get overwhelmed, and we tell ourselves that if we can’t completely rectify the situation, we shouldn’t engage with it at all.

When we get caught up in the desire to fix peoples’ stories, we miss the greatest gift we can give to each other — the gift of our presence. If you look at the life of Jesus, he didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He didn’t overthrow the Roman government that was oppressing his people. He wasn’t the God who fixed or changed or healed everything; he was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with us. The God who moved in next door and lived there for more than three decades and gently loved us and promised us that he wouldn’t ever leave us alone.

And that’s what we can do for each other. There are many problems we can’t solve, but what we can do is promise that no matter how dark or hard or messy someone’s life is, they won’t have to walk through it alone.

KW: You have walked in close proximity with suffering – of your own and of others. How do you believe coming into contact with the brokenness of humanity changes us?

ST: I think it makes us realize how much we need God. When everything’s going well in our lives, we tend to take the credit for it. We think we made wise choices, avoided mistakes, or took advantage of the right opportunities. But when things go wrong in our lives or the world around us, especially when the suffering seems unprovoked and random, it makes us realize that the control we thought we had was just an illusion.

The bad news that we all have to accept at some point in our lives is that the world is broken beyond our ability to repair it. But the good news is that God is wildly in love with us, and he promises to take all the broken pieces and make something new — something we couldn’t dare to ask or imagine. 

KW: What is the one thing that you believe Christians in America need to understand about their role in the narrative of redemption?

ST: For a long time I thought of God’s redemption story as a set of historical and theological facts that I needed to impart to other people — as if the only reason why the world was so broken was because people lacked certain key pieces of information.

And then I got cancer, nearly died, and ended up moving 3,000 miles away with just a suitcase of clothes. When I had given up all hope and thought I was destined to live out the rest of my life in exile, God encountered me here in Portland and infused my soul with his grace and love.

A short while later, I met the Somali woman and her daughters who had also fled their home and landed far away with just the clothes on their backs. And my instinct was not to tell them information, but to live for them the story that God lived for me. To find out where they lived, to pursue them, to show them that they were not invisible, but seen and known and loved by God and by me.

In all of that, I learned that redemption isn’t a didactic exercise; it’s a story that God lived out for us — that he continues to live out for us every day, actually. And we need redemption just as much as the AIDS patient and the Somali pirate and the leper in India and the Mexican immigrant need it.

Once we experience the irrational, unconditional love he shows us, we can’t help but go out humbly into the world and live out that story over and over and over again, so others can experienced the love and mercy of the God who so loved the world.

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