Who wouldn’t want to read a book that includes chapter titles like "Eunuchs and Hermaphrodites" and "He’s a Fuck-up, But He’s Our Fuck-Up.” Oh right, a lot of people who want to pretend those types of people don’t exist, or if they do, they aren’t in our churches.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong in church. I’ve been a follower of Jesus (or “Christian”) for 12 years now, but I still feel awkward and out of place at church. People who grew up in church don’t necessarily look or speak like the people I grew up with. I don’t think I’m off base when I say there are a whole lot of people (not just Catholic-turned Agnostic-turned Protestant like myself) who feel they don’t belong when they attend church. In fact, my awkwardness, my biases, and previous experiences have made me extremely cynical and judgmental when it comes to church, especially when it comes to how and what churches communicate to those who have felt left out. I’ve jumped around between five different churches in the past decade. So I’m thankful we have pastors in this country like Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is willing to share her experience of feeling like she doesn’t belong and stories of dealing with the messiness of building a sincerely welcoming congregation.
“Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint” is Bolz-Weber’s recently released memoir about how she went from being a cursing, tattooed, alcoholic stand up comedian who rebelled from her conservative upbringing, to a cursing, tattooed, sober Lutheran (ELCA) pastor who now leads a welcoming congregation in Denver that straddles the line of orthodox and relevant. Her first foray into ministry came when she was asked to lead the funeral service of a friend who didn’t necessarily live the cleanest or most inspirational life. Bolz-Weber had come to be known by her friends as “the religious one.” She writes about this story early on in the book:
“The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: These were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor…”
She went on to say that even though she doesn’t feel she’s a nurturing person, she saw God in that moment “among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.”
The thing that really struck me while reading Pastrix is how unapologetically honest Bolz-Weber is. Not once did I interpret her stories as being patronizing, arrogant, or self-righteous, yet she does have very strong feelings about faith and the dichotomy of good and evil in people, and was able to weave in some fascinating theology as well. She is effective at expressing her feelings bluntly, no matter how hard the message is to hear, while also being able to recognize her brokenness and the mistakes she’s made. Her humility never comes across as pious. It’s raw, often painful, and always reflective. In fact, the book is a bunch of stories tied together, written in such a way that the reader has no choice but to wallow with her in anger, sadness, frustration, as well as inspiration, joy and love. Then the reader can reflect on those lessons learned together, relating it back to their own situation.
“Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, 'Screw you. I’ll take the destruction please.' God looked at tiny, little red-faced me and said, 'that’s adorable,' and then plunked me down on an entirely different path.”
If anything, Bolz-Weber’s story should provide other pastors with inspiration to take off the masks and stop trying to seem perfect all the time. People are broken. As the name of her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, describes, we are all sinners and saints. Jesus’ followers are simultaneously broken and redeemed. This includes pastors, church leaders, and just regular folks. Additionally, the more “real” church leaders are, through being vulnerable and transparent about their weaknesses and their past, the more likely people will want to listen to what they have to say about God. Why would anyone follow or listen to someone they can’t relate to?
One of the reasons people are leaving church in droves is hypocrisy. Bolz-Weber flips that on its head by proclaiming her own hypocrisy time and again. She even speaks to times where, despite her leading a church that preaches inclusion, she judged those who walked through the doors and admitted she thought they didn’t belong.
In her mind, it is inevitable. We are all going to end up hypocrites at some point. But church has less to do with putting on a show of false righteousness, and more about being in the presence of God by being present with others. We’re not going to get it right all the time. Presence also means providing grace and being willing to receive it when we screw up or when life just hurts. She puts it all out on the table when she tells a story of her time as a student chaplain at a local hospital:
“Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore… God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant at the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but instead God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as shitty as the rest of us. There is simply no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus – Emmanuel – which means 'God with us.' We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”
If you are looking for a book about faith, brokenness, redemption, God’s presence and grace, that doesn’t pander to the established conservative Christian subculture, but instead speaks to the constant, painful pulling within your heart to be open to God’s presence in your life… or not… than this book is for you.
“The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can't, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.”
If you are looking to hear from a Jesus follower who knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to not belong, and to feel like they often don’t live up to the expected holiness proclaimed in the Church, than you would benefit from this book as well.
Lastly, I would recommend this book as a new perspective on how to deal with disappointment, tragedy, and disagreement. Bolz-Weber shares how she and others have benefited from finding God’s presence in the darkest moments and in difficult conversations with people who were considered enemies. She is a fresh voice in a Christian culture that’s been saturated with self-righteousness and disingenuousness for decades. She’s part of a new wave of prominent voices in the Church who are fully dedicated to following Jesus while also remaining fully aware of their imperfections and weaknesses, and not scared to ask questions or admit doubts.
To listen to Bolz-Weber is to look into a mirror for many, and I think that is what the church needs more than anything right now: to reflect on our roles as “sinners and saints” in this world and recognize that through God’s grace there will always be a seat for us at the table.