I heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber before I ever saw her in person or read any of her stuff. Nadia is the ELCA mission developer of a new congregation in Denver – House for All Sinners and Saints. She is brash; different; tattooed; foul-mouthed; and growing in popularity. People like the sensational. We can’t keep our eyes off a train-wreck. To be honest, when I first heard of her I thought that was what she was – a train wreck in motion we couldn’t help but watch. I also believed she was being used as this new face of relevance took center-stage until she either collapsed or someone needed a poster-child for something else. “I don’t need the sensational,” I thought. I was busy trying to have conversations that took a good look at ourselves as the church, gave thanks for our history but moved us forward into renewal. So I shrugged and went back to work.
Nadia came to our Bishop’s Convocation a few years ago in the New England Synod. By then I had read a few of her blog posts and sermons – I didn’t always agree with her conclusions but I liked her creativity and the way she thought through her context and her people’s encounter with Jesus. I went into those couple of days eager to see how she interacted with us. Some people were starry-eyed around her, laughed at all her jokes, enjoyed the fact that she swore a lot, and wondered how they could do exactly what she did in Denver. I wasn’t about to go out and get a tattoo – I’m prejudiced in this regard – I know a lot of people like them, find deep meaning in them and utilize them to tell their own story – but quite honestly I’ve always found tattoos to be kind of gross. I wasn’t about to start swearing in sermons either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no purist (ask my son as we play video games), but after hearing a professor say GD in a sermon after 9/11 when I was in seminary – it just struck me as unprofessional as though he was pushing for a reaction. I didn’t want to go there. I enjoyed Nadia’s sermon as part of our convocation’s worship – but wasn’t blown away. I don’t know what I was expecting, but she read from her notes behind a podium and I thought rock stars (she was certainly one among us) were cooler than that. I was glad I saw her. I respected her ingenuity, and I found her to be a real person of substance (which was refreshing). But after the event was over I again shrugged, and went back to work.
Then Nadia’s book, Pastrix came out. I like Nadia. I still read her sermons occasionally when I see them posted on Facebook and I figured some of the stories she told on her speaking tour would probably wind up in the book. Some friends of mine started getting it, and giving brief Facebook or Twitter quotes and reviews of it, so I ordered a copy from Amazon and waited the few days until it arrived. Once I got it, I didn’t put it down. I read half of it in one night. The back half of my reading got stalled a little since we had Tammie’s parents come stay with us for a week, but since then I finished it rather quickly. Her book is fantastic. As I said before I don’t always agree with her conclusions on how to do this thing we call “ministry” – but grace – God’s overwhelming and unexpected love and reconciliation given to us undeserved in Christ – flows through each page. She is brutally honest in her shortcomings and doubts that are unique to her experience but also translate to everyone I know that has ever been part of a faith community or called to lead one. What strikes me most about this book, is that her story – isn’t one about her rise to fame and influence. She isn’t a poster-child being used for someone else’s agenda. She isn’t a train-wreck; but a really great pastor. She is not a side show when we should all be working harder to save the church. She is the real deal. Her life is a story of Jesus seeking a person he loves and will do anything to help them see it; even if it means making a pastor out of them. I was wrong to dismiss her so easily.
There are lots of stories in this book that shape the life that is wrapped in the life of grace she has come to know in Christ. My favorite story is when she meets one of her detractors called the Pirate Christian.
…With an openness that felt like spiritual waterboarding (Jesus holding my head under the waters of my own baptism until I cry uncle), I had a long conversation with my enemy. Since the Pirate and I were in the middle of a fellowship hall at the conference, the crowd around us who knew about our feud and expected a showdown. But instead, they saw us share a thirty-minute public dialogue about our own brokenness and need for confession and absolution, why we need the Gospel, and what happens in the Eucharist. And as he talked he cried. Twice. I found him to be hurting and really smart. I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Chris, I have two things to say to you. One, you are a beautiful child of God. Two, I think that maybe you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from each other.’ (Nadia Bolz-Webber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. [New York: Jericho Books], 2013, pp. 112-113.)
Sories like this fill the pages of Pastrix. Yet my favorite line in the book is in the acknowledgements. Like most books there is a page of saying, “thank you” to all the people who helped publish the thing – from editors to patrons to family members who put up with writers on a deadline (especially when they have a day job too). The last line of thanksgiving is given to her start-up congregation – with whom she struggled to get off the ground, keep going, and continue to lead. She simply said this:
To the beautiful broken people of House of All Sinners and Saints – thank you for letting me be your pastor and allowing me to tell your stories. It is an honor and a privilege. You make me want to be a Christian and that’s saying a lot. (Ibid., p. 206.)
Whether you are tattooed and wearing jeans, a Pirate just hoping to be understood, or sit in a shirt and tie (as I am now) – I hope anyone can relate to that sentiment. Our communities help make us who we are – just as much as we help people see Jesus through our stories and actions. We all need grace. We all need a savior. Nadia reminds the rest of us – it is not we who are here to save the church; but Jesus at work through us all continuing to save the world. When we can see God’s grace happening around us we can become less dismissive of each other, and more embracing of the Savior Christ who keeps chasing after us every time we run away; because we belong to God, and need a constant reminder that we are beautiful for it.
I needed that reminder. Nadia defines repentance as, “Something much closer to ‘thinking differently afterward’ than it does ‘changing your cheating ways.’” (Ibid., p.193.) I’m not sure I’ve had cheating ways mended, but I am different after reading this book. I have seen grace in a whole new way. My tie is a bit looser, and I have Nadia to thank for it.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:1-6)
Rachel Held Evans