Guard your gates

October's Field Notes Round-up

It’s time for the monthly round-up for Field Notes. Today, by popular demand, we’re sharing a reader-favourite essay1, followed by links to all the Field Notes I’ve written over the past month. I hope you find something here that brings you a bit of hope and goodness. - S.

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Before I begin, just a reminder for those of you who are paid subscribers: you can listen to me read this essay as part of our Secret Field Notes Podcast. It’s not ‘word-for-word’ as I can go off script at times but it’s mostly the same. Mostly.

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Hi friends,

We have a few good phrases we say in our house a lot, little catchphrases or sentences that carry a lot of meaning in just a few words. They are the phrases that distill a lot of conversation into one sentence. For instance, when our kids were once known as “the tinies” we repeatedly said “calm your heart” and “we use our words to love each other.”  This is one still in circulation around here: “Guard your gates.”

The origin story is this: it was Halloween and we were at my parents’ house helping to hand out candy since we lived in a tiny apartment that never saw a kid trick-or-treating. Brian and I aren’t really into Halloween and so we never make a big deal out of it. At the time our now-fifteen-year-old daughter Anne was barely two and Joe was only a month old so the idea of trick-or-treating was more daunting than delightful. So we stayed inside and handed out candy with my parents. Anne was off and about, playing here and there but she happened to wander past the front door right at the moment that I opened up the door to a gaggle of teenagers decked out as zombies and witches. And Anne was terrified of them. She didn’t even scream and cry, she just froze in absolute fear, her eyes swallowing her face as the colour drained.

My mother saw her reaction and quickly scooped her up and away from the door. By the time I finished with the teens and shut the door hurriedly, Anne was perched on my mother’s lap. I was privileged to overhear my mother helping my daughter learn how to deal with fear. As best I can remember it, this is what she said:

“Annie, that was scary, wasn’t it?”

Anne nodded, her mouth quivering.

“Well, you know what? You don’t have to let that fear into your mind and into your heart, sweetheart. Just because there are scary things, it doesn’t mean you need to invite them. Let’s pretend your heart and your mind have a gate, okay? And we can either open the gate to scary things or bad things. Or we can shut that gate. Sometimes we still see things over a gate, right? That’s what just happened right? We saw something we didn’t really want to see. If scary things come into your mind and heart, it’s hard to get rid of them, I know. Your eyes and your ears are your gates, Annie. So if you ever see something that makes you feel really scared or makes you want to do bad things, you just shut your ears and your eyes to it. You need to guard your gates, baby. If you guard your gates, then nothing will come into your mind and heart that you don’t want in there.

You want to open your gate up to the good things, sweetheart. You open your heart and your mind up to the things that make you laugh or make you good or make you think. Let’s open up the gates to those things.”

And then she led Annie through some of her favourite things like a grandmotherly Maria Von Trapp and helped her to carry on.

Annie got it. Since then, all of the tinies have gotten it. In her childlike trust, she believed my mother and the thing is, I did, too. Tinies are so sensitive, so easily influenced, so perceptive. Of course I wanted to guard her gates and teach her how to do the same thing. We are careful about what we allow the tinies to watch and experience and listen to – we know that it can become part of their very selves.

In a way, it’s become a bit of a family joke. If we’re watching Hockey Night in Canada and a commercial for a horror film comes on (seriously, HNIC, why do you do this? you know kids are watching, fine, big babies like me are watching, too), someone will holler “GUARD YOUR GATES” and then the tinies would clap their hands over their ears and screw their eyes shut. They knew that if they see that terrified girl or that blood dripping down an arm, it will become part of their mind and their heart, haunting their dreams.

We still have some little ones here and now the teens are the ones teaching her to “guard her gates.” I’m sure that when they are are all grown up, they’ll laugh themselves silly over how we all used to holler “guard your gates!” during the commercial breaks of Chopped on the Food Network because an ad for a primetime show came on. Whatever. What’s parenting for if not to give them a few ways to laugh at you later on?

As we discussed last week in Field Notes (seriously, those comments are a gold mine!), one of my own personal policies is still akin to this little home phrase. I still guard my gates. I’ve admitted at long last that I’m not immune either. I’ve learned to guard what I watch or listen to even in movies and television and music. Not because I have some weird legalistic thing about it, but because I’ve finally admitted what most everyone who loves me has known for a lot longer: I’m a big tender baby heart. The tinies came by their sensitivities quite honestly. I take these things into my mind and heart and they latch on. I’d rather not open the doors of my heart wide to fear or violence, for instance.

It’s funny how much I’ve tried to pretend that I’m beyond being influenced. Like I’m supposed to be so past it, so over it, that it doesn’t bother me or impact me. Sophisticated people don’t need to guard their gates perhaps. I could pretend to be that sophisticated, like what I listen to or watch doesn’t affect what I think and how I speak and how I move through my life, how I view humanity and violence, sex and God. But I’m just me.)

HOWEVER, as the tinies grow up, the simplicity of that instruction has shifted. As we dealt with friends and challenges and new influences, we’ve had more conversations about what it means to guard your gates beyond just slapping your hands over your ears.

Guard your gates now means that we get to decide who influences us – how we think, how we feel, what we do. It’s not a blanket statement against television shows, it’s a guide for how we move through our lives.

As in most things to do with parenting, I find I’m learning right along with them.

Years ago, one of the tinies asked to listen to some quiet reinterpretations of old hymns after our bedtime prayers. “It feels like someone is still praying over me as I go to sleep, it keeps the gate open to good things,” they said. Another time, we had to have long talks about the influences of certain friends and how these friendships had opened up the gates to some unacceptable behaviours and habits. It was time to practice guarding the gates against those influences while still being kind and friendly.

When we have the agency or choice (which we don’t always have), we want to be careful about who and what takes up residence in our minds and our hearts.

I think this is the hard thing about parenting – okay, who am I kidding? one of many hard things –  this whole “finding a way to help lead and teach and model nuance and wisdom” thing. When the tinies were toddlers, it was as simple as “shut your eyes and shut your ears” to scary things. Done and done.

But now that they are getting older, guarding one’s gates has to become an act of Holy Spirit lead discernment. 

Because there are times in our lives when we damn well better open our minds and our hearts to things that make us uncomfortable. In fact, I think sometimes that a lot of good Christians take the Toddler Approach to “guard your gates” – they just don’t listen to or hear anything that might be difficult or complex or heart-breaking. They go through life with their fingers in their ears and their eyes screwed up tight against anything that might challenge them. I can tend that way myself as an Enneagram 9 - anything that disturbs my peace is immediately suspect which isn’t exactly conducive with being a peace-maker, is it?

Indeed, I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of listening to the stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our peace. Just because something is terrible to learn, it doesn’t mean that I need to guard my gates against it. As Christians, I think it’s our responsibility to carry each other’s burdens and be a part of restoring justice for one another. Sometimes that means being able to carry truly terrible truths without letting it bury us whole. We grow in these places of challenge and hardship. Guarding my gates doesn’t mean shutting out the cries of our neighbours.

Sometimes the most holy work we can do is listen to each other’s stories and take their suffering into our hearts, carrying each other’s burdens and wounds to Christ.

So, no, I don’t guard my gates against simply terrible or scary things anymore. Instead, I want to guard my gates against what diminishes wholeness and holiness in me.

I guard against the influences that make me the worst version of myself, the influences that feed my natural tendencies towards sin and bitterness, rage and cynicism, seeing the worst of people and being quick to offence.

This is a hard thing to write about without sounding like this is an exercise in boundary-marking and legalism. I’m not really into policing anyone else’s standards. I tend to trust the Holy Spirit in you. But it’s also a good bit of common sense to me now.

Sometimes it is this simple: is this influence – whether it’s a book or a movie or a friendship or a Facebook page – bringing life and wholeness and the fruit of the Spirit to me and others? Is it challenging me to be fully alive, to be more compassionate and human, to be more wise and loving?

It doesn’t have to be pleasant, oh, no sometimes the things that bring compassion and wisdom and wholeness into our lives are the very things that break our hearts or make us angry or challenge us.

Even in the face of terrible and terrifying things, I want to open my gates to the influences that will help make me whole and holy. I want to grieve and lament, push back against evil and darkness, challenge injustice while still, as Paul wrote, “filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”2 And I want to open wide the gates of my heart and my mind to the influences that bring life and light, goodness and holiness to me.

I want to fill my heart with those things because then when I encounter the terrible and the terrifying, my true life will brim over into true words and deeds that bring life.3

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This month’s Field Notes Round-Up

Sorry, That’s Against My Personal Policy: A Community Conversation

For our community conversation today, I share ten of my own “personal policies” and open up the comments for you to share your own with us. If you struggle with setting boundaries, this will be a great exercise and you might even get a few ideas.

Personal Policies

Sharing faith with our kids, good words, holding onto hope, why we left Abbotsford, and so much more: Answering your AMA questions this month

As I am wont to do every few weeks, a couple of weeks ago I opened up an AMA (which stands for “Ask Me Anything” in Internet-speak) on my Instagram Stories for your questions to build this week’s Field Notes. In this AMA, I answer questions like:

  • Book recommendations for daily prayer/devos? Other than A Rhythm of Prayer, obvs.

  • I’m wondering how biblically you see LGBTQ matters. I want to have a better understanding.

  • Movies, music, shows for an autumnal vibe?

  • Advice to a pregnant, first time mom (it me!)?

  • How do I share the faith with my young children?

  • How do you hold onto hope when everything globally and personally *everything* is bad?

  • What is your favourite quote(s) that gets you through hard times?

  • Why did you leave Abbotsford for Alberta?

  • And so many more…


I would pray but I think I already am: I promised to tell you more about our real lives again, like the old days, so here I am.

Our giant ginger cat Rory is snoring in the chair beside me. The sun shines, like, all of the time here. All of the day. Brian can’t get over it. The blue of the sky is so different in September, isn’t it? I’m wearing a scarf I knitted this summer, the colours are called Deep Fall - I’m still charismatic enough to claim that as a word and hold out for a deep fall for us all. After I send this letter to you I’ll finish reading Maggie Smith’s new poetry book called Goldenrod because it’s overdue at the library. We will watch election results roll in slowly tonight. The wind is in the aspens, it sounds like music to me now. I love to write these letters.

I would pray but I think I already am

All right, let's talk about hell: Back to the Bonfire Part 1

This is our new series called Back to the Bonfire, where we gather around a metaphorical bonfire to have conversation about theology. You can click here to read more about the origin of this series. You might end up with more questions than answers and that’s okay.

In this inaugural edition, we’re starting with something nice and easy: hell. In the essay I cover different views of hell and explain where I’ve landed. This essay also includes an audio version with The Secret Field Notes Podcast for subscribers.

P.S. I’m working on our next Bonfire topic and we’ll be tackling the question, “Do we really need to go to church?” I hope to have it ready for you soon.

Back to the Bonfire

Do Good Together: Preemptive Love

Many of you know, support, and love Preemptive Love with me. They're on the frontlines with food and medicine for those on the run from war. They're creating jobs to help refugees reclaim what violence took from them. And they're bringing people from every background together, across enemy lines, to heal what's tearing us apart. We’re building a world where everyone rises. Together.

To support them, we’ve been invited to shop their ethically made, refugee-made goods - plus they’re giving us 20% off with the code BESSEY20 (candles! apparel! toys! soap! accessories!). Or you can just straight-up donate to their important work.

Donate to Preemptive Love

Preemptive Love Shop

Out and about on social media

The most-liked posts of the past month, in case you missed them. (For these Instagram ones, you’ll need to click through for the captions, I’m afraid.)

A new family photo! Look at how my tinies have become like, real people!

A post shared by Sarah Bessey 🇨🇦 (@sarahbessey)

(I’ve recently deactivated my Twitter account. I don’t think it’s forever but it certainly was the right choice for now. So alas, no tweets from me. I know, you’re devastated.) Check out why in this caption:

A post shared by Sarah Bessey 🇨🇦 (@sarahbessey)

My post for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation:

This prayer in the caption:

A post shared by Sarah Bessey 🇨🇦 (@sarahbessey)

Upcoming Events

Join me and Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes for the 2021 Annual Women’s Forum event, “Spiritualities of Joy in the Midst of Persistent Pandemics.” This Zoom webinar, open to the Candler/Emory community and the general public alike, seeks to nuance conceptions of joy in an effort to develop effective strategies for current challenges evident in nature, communities, and social systems.

Details - dates, times, registration info - are all here:

I’ll see you back here next month, friends. Thanks for trusting me with your inbox.

Guarding my gates but not, like, in a weird toddler way anymore,


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In our recent Field Notes survey, there was great interest in revisiting some of these old blog favourites and making them available yet again for readers. This is one way we’re doing that as an early-version of this essay originally appeared on my blog in 2014.


Philippians 4:8-9


Luke 6:44 MSG