Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Tattoos, Tradition, and Grace
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the pastor and founder of the Denver-based church the House for All Sinners and Saints. Her spiritual memoir is Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.
October 23, 2014
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The church Nadia Bolz-Weber founded is called the House for All Sinners and Saints. At six feet tall with spiky hair and a body covered in tattoos, she is an original voice in a loosely defined movement called the emerging church. Across generations, theologies and social passions, these are people reimagining Christianity. Nadia Bolz-Weber was raised in the conservative Church of Christ.
She spent years as an addict and a stand-up comic before being surprised by what felt like a call to be a minister to people on the underside of life. She created the House for All Sinners and Saints with eight people in her living room in Denver. These days, convicted felons and elected officials join teenagers with pink hair at this church and others like it — redefining what church is — and with a deep reverence for tradition.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I really feel strongly that you have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. So, for example, we celebrate the Easter vigil, where you start with a new fire and you light it and you have this paschal candle and you parade in chanting, and we have these baptisms and we have the Eucharist and it’s like amazing. And then we end it. When it’s done, we have a huge dance party, and we feel like nothing says he is risen like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font, right?
So we are taking these traditions and we’re living them out and then we’re tweaking them in ways that are super meaningful or funny or relevant for us. So it’s always both for us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the author of a spiritual memoir called Pastrix. I interviewed her at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, a gathering of the emerging church. We spoke in an outdoor tent before hundreds of her fans on a vast campsite on a stormy day.
MS. TIPPETT: OK, so this is the only live event I’ve ever done where I think I might have mud on my toes. If I do, forgive me.
I’m thrilled to be here with Nadia Bolz-Weber, who I — people ask how we find the voices for the show and a lot of what happens is I become aware of someone and they get on the list and then I start following them. So I’ve been following you for a long time.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, that’s creepy. I peek in your window. (laughs)
MS. TIPPETT: No, so when we got invited here and I saw that you were on the schedule, I said, well, this is it, this is the time. So you were raised Church of Christ and how you described it as it mostly meant being good at not doing certain things.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, right. Like not smoking, not drinking, not dancing, not mixed bathing, which sadly is not as kinky as it sounds. It just means boys and girls in the same swimming pool. That was not allowed. No musical instruments in church.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah, the Church of Christ has that: no musical instruments in church. I remember that.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Which is actually, to tell you the truth, one of the really beautiful things about the tradition. I serve what might be the only a cappella Lutheran church in the country. So even though I have a Lutheran congregation, that’s the piece of my heritage that I imported into my church plant.
MS. TIPPETT: That is really interesting.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Um-hum. It’s like sitting in the middle of a 140-person choir. They all sing in a cappella four-part harmony. It’s beautiful.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I could not say the very first word of your book on public radio (laughs). I’m not going to say it here either. Here’s a sentence I can just get away with: “The mystery of the universe (the same universe that sometimes still makes me wonder what the here I’m doing and that maybe this really a is fairytale), close, was created by God.” I wonder with all the distance you’ve traveled in your life, also away from that origin, that place you started, is that a sense that this was created by God, this sense of mystery? Is that something that was with you early on?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER:Yeah, it’s funny. I never — with everything that happened and all of the stops along the way, I never really managed to be an atheist. I couldn’t pull it off. I think the fact that there is a God is something that never left me no matter where I sojourned to. And so that particular piece I’ve never struggled with, I think. But I have struggled with what that God looks like. You know, I was told that God was a man, for instance. So I think that there’s this really insipid message to girls when you use the exclusive male pronoun for God, which is that God is male, but you’re not. But you know what, Jimmy is.
So whenever you sort of attribute a human characteristic to God that some people have and some people don’t, it becomes problematic. And I’m not opposed to them. I do use male pronouns for God. I’m not opposed to that, but it’s like saying, dear redheaded God, we just (laughs), we just praise you for being a redheaded God. And that’s great for the redheads, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, when I was getting ready, preparing to interview you, there are a lot of interviews out there where people ask you — I mean, I believe you have the entire liturgical year tattooed on one of your arms …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Correct.
MS. TIPPETT: And there are a lot of interviews where people ask you about those tattoos, and that as a way into your theology now. I wonder how the other tattoos tell the story. You know, you don’t have to tell us about all of them, but a little bit of the story of your life up to then through your tattoos.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, for sure. When I was 17, I grew really fast, like, I even have stretch marks on my back because I grew so fast. I’m 6’1″. And for a while, I would try and slouch. And if you know me, I’m not a sloucher, right? And that’s because my family told me to be proud of my height and so — but it was a struggle for me for a while. And I was at — my father is a military officer and I was at some kind of military banquet and slumping over. The man next to him said, “Your daughter is really tall and beautiful.” And my father said, “Thanks. She’s a little self-conscious about it.” And he goes, “Well, she’s just a long-stemmed rose.”
So, I know, when I was 17, I got my first tattoo, which was a long-stemmed rose. But I had a boyfriend at the time who had tattoos, really beautiful tattoos, and so it was 1986 the first time I got tattooed. So to be a teenage girl getting tattooed in 1986 was not a common thing. I was like a little — thought I was like a little outlaw. I had no idea at that point that, if I hung out long enough, I would just be mainstream.
MS. TIPPETT: Which might have disappointed you …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, it’s like now in places I hang out in Denver, I just look like a soccer mom.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: So, and I have a cover-up on my back. I do have a tattoo that some junkie gave me when I was laying in his living room that’s just gross and it’s basically scar tissue that I carried around in many ways on my back. And it’s in the process of being covered up right now with a huge image of the annunciation of Mary finding out that she’s pregnant with Jesus. So it was time.
MS. TIPPETT: So that was from those years where you did everything that the Church of Christ had told you not to do.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: That was like two years ago. No, it wasn’t.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So you are now demonstrating the fact that you spent time as a stand-up comic.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah …
MS. TIPPETT: And you said in the book that you got less funny as you got more healthy, but you’re still pretty funny.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Aw, thanks, yeah. I actually have no idea how people manage to be preachers without being stand-up comics first. I mean, that’s the path I took and I just don’t — it worked for me because, actually, comics see the reality from the underside, right? It’s like dinkinson. You know, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” So I think that comics do that. They come to the truth from a different angle than most people, but people can still recognize that it’s the truth. And I think a good preacher does the same thing.
MS. TIPPETT: But those years that you were a stand-up comic were also years of — I don’t know if you felt despairing at the time, but, I mean, those were years of addiction and when you were getting things etched on your back by junkies. And I feel a theme running through your story of — you use the word “the underside,” right? Seeing the underside and seeing God at the same time. And that “and” is really important. It’s not a “but,” it’s an “and.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Right, correct.
MS. TIPPETT: You also really emphasize the Christian themes of death and resurrection. And I’d like you to talk about really what those words mean for you.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah. I mean, I feel like the Christian life is a life of continual death and resurrection. Also, I think some sectors of Christianity think, well, you’re saved and then you’re good, right? And then you just lead a really nice life and you’re a good person and you’re redeemed and you sort of climbed this spiritual ladder so that you’re close to God. And that’s just not been my experience.
My experience is of that disruption, over and over again, of going along and tripping upon something that I think I know or that I think I’m certain about, and realizing I’m wrong. Or maybe fighting to think I’m right about something over and over and over again until I experience what I call the sort of divine heart transplant. You know, it’s like God reaches in and, the prophets speak of this. It’s not a polite experience, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell — give me an example. Can you think of …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, gosh. OK. So when my church was mostly young adults, and it was sort of, you know, hip, urban young adults. And then I preached at Red Rocks Easter Sunrise services — 10,000 people. And The Denver Post ran a front-page, full-page picture and story about me on preaching at Easter, and about my church and whatnot. And we only had about 40, 45 people every week at this point. And the next week, we doubled in size like overnight.
And we were excited because we were really struggling to grow, but what happened was it was like the wrong kind of people. I mean, it was the wrong kind of different for us, right? Like some churches might freak out if the drag queens show up, but these were like bankers wearing Dockers, right? And we were like …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: It was not — it wasn’t like — I freaked out. This actually isn’t a joke. I freaked out. And I kind of went on this little rampage about, like wait a minute. They could show up to any mainline Protestant church in the city and see a room full of people that looked just like them, right? And like, why are they coming — it was almost like, oh, well, this just so neat! Oh, this church is neat! They’re so creative! You know, and I just thought you’re ruining our thing, man; you are like messing it up. And at the same time, we got evicted, this whole story. We moved …
MS. TIPPETT: Did they come with you?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: No, no. So we moved and then that was the first service with all the new people, right? And it was like this stately, historic neighborhood instead of the like grungy hipster neighborhood we came from. And I turned to this woman who’s like my deacon, and I was like, “We got to get the here out of this neighborhood because it’s attracting the wrong element.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Like this is — and I would call my friends and I’d rant about it and what am I going to do, and I called one of my friends who has a similar type of church in St. Paul, Minnesota, called House of Mercy. And I called up Russell, and I was like, “Dude, have you ever had normal people take over your church?”
And so I go on this — I tell him the whole story expecting him to be like, man, that sucks, and instead he goes, because our community holds this value of welcoming the stranger, and he goes, “Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger when its a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.” I was like, you’re supposed to be my friend! Click! You know, and so I had scheduled this meeting to talk about the demographic change in our community so that the people who are new …
MS. TIPPETT: So just to be clear. So this to you felt like a bit of a death of the dream of what the church had been about.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yes, no, completely, because I thought, well, then the people who showed up will find out what the church is about and leave. And then what happened, thank God, is I had that phone call with Russell and had this like God reaching in and pulling out my heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, like something that was actually warm and beating again.
And we had the meeting and I told that story and the people who were new told us who they were and why they were there so that the people who’ve been there from the beginning could hear what the church is about. And then everyone went around in a circle and Asher said, “Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and dad here, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, you’re clapping, but like that sucked for me, like, I was sure I was right, I was going to fight the fight, I was going to do what needed to be done and then like my heart gets just cold and stony the longer I go on that path every time. So that to me, that’s the Christian life. It’s always death and resurrection.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. I’m outdoors at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina — today with Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I guess, I’d love for you to just kind of walk us in to the House for All Saints and Sinners. I might start with this introduction from the Gay Denver blog. This may be…
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: From the Gay Denver blog?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. “House for All Sinners and Saints. With a name like that, why wouldn’t you try it? … They rocked a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font for Easter, they do a blessing of bikes, and they have something called Beer & Hymns. Amazing.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, that’s us.
MS. TIPPETT: You like that?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah. It’s this quirky blend of tradition and innovation. I actually have this — I really feel strongly that you have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. So I feel like that congregation is an example of that. So, yeah, for example, we celebrate the Easter vigil. And this is an ancient liturgy in the church where you start with new fire and you light it and you have this paschal candle and you parade in chanting and …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you go all night the night before?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, no, but it’s a good three, three-and-a-half-hour-long liturgy and it’s at night. And then you chant the Exultate, which is an ancient chant about the Easter vigil. And we have baptisms and we do all these readings.
We do this litany of the saints where we go outside and read the names of the dead and invite the dead to witness the resurrection, which is awesome because I’ll chant like “St. Peter and St. Paul.” And everyone says, “Come celebrate with us.” We have this book of dead that people write names in and I always forget to read them in advance because inevitably there’ll be like “Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And we come inside and like all of a sudden — well, you bang on the door first of all and it opens up and then all the lilies are out and the lights are on in the candles and we sing “Hallelujah” for the first time since Lent started. And then we have a Euchar… We have these baptisms and we have a Eucharist and it’s like amazing. And then we end it, when it’s done, we have a huge dance party. I mean, huge. And we feel like nothing says he is risen like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font, right? So we are taking these traditions and we’re living them out and then we’re tweaking them in ways that are super meaningful or funny or relevant for us. So it’s always both for us.
MS. TIPPETT: So did you know — this sense you have about innovation and tradition going hand in hand. I mean, I believe that for you — and this is true for me too. I grew up Southern Baptist — that liturgy when you discovered it later in life was a discovery. It was not something that you had been exposed to. So, I mean, just tell me how this developed in you, this love of tradition. How did that come to you?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I love that it has its own integrity and it doesn’t demand mine in order to be meaningful, right? And I love …
MS. TIPPETT: Did you start to discover it in seminary?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: No, it’s when I was dating my husband, so I was not Christian when we met, even though, you know, I was raised Christian, but I left for 10 years and I was decidedly not Christian. And we met playing volleyball, which is like the sacred breeding grounds of tall people …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And he was, like, this really cute Lutheran seminary student. He introduced me to a whole different form of Christianity I didn’t know existed. Liturgy, people who actually care about the poor, you know, all this stuff that I didn’t experience at all in my background. And I just slowly fell in love with it and, yeah, I love the integrity of the liturgy. I think that’s the thing I go back to and I feel like me and my fellows are sort of more comforted by mystery than we are by certainty and so there’s this mystery you get to enter into in the liturgy and in the Eucharist that we find very comforting to go back to again and again.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I have to say, when I started hearing about you and when I saw your picture, I wasn’t surprised that you were a Christian minister. I was surprised that you were Lutheran.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And so I started digging around. I said I have to figure this out and, of course, it was a love story. It’s a love story.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: It is a love story. I mean, becoming Lutheran for me, because being somebody who got clean and sober, it really felt like this rather rude interruption of my life by God, like I was really OK being dead by the time I was 30 and I had this tragic sense of who I was and God — it was like God plucked me off that path kicking and screaming and went, “That’s cute. I’m gonna put you over here …”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And, so then I was all of a sudden on this completely other path that it didn’t feel like I chose. And when I discovered Lutheran theology, one of the things I loved was that it felt like this beautiful, historical articulation of things that I’d already experienced to be true in my life, like, I already experienced the fact that I was simultaneously sinner and saint. That’s like a doctrine in Lutheran theology because I have this enormous capacity for destruction of myself and other people, and I have an enormous capacity for kindness as well. So I felt like someone was finally able to say, yeah, you’re simultaneously both of these at all times.
I loved the emphasis on grace, the fact that God always is coming to us. There’s nothing we do to make our way to God. God is continually coming to us and interrupting our lives and wanting to be known. And I had experienced that to be true. And I was so grateful when I stumbled into a place where I didn’t have to like remove half my brain in order to believe the things that they were telling me to believe. And it just felt true to me already.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s something that maybe seems counterintuitive about a church like this. I mean, I think “modern” would be too small a word to describe it. You know, “post-modern” as well. But there’s something a little bit counterintuitive about a place, a community like yours, so valuing liturgy and tradition. But I sense — I mean, what you’re saying is not only do they value liturgy and tradition, this kind of breadth of humanity gathering in one place, that liturgy and tradition becomes a bridge also where, as you say, you’re not responsible for what they believe and yet there’s something that happens.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And they all get to enter into it and be a part of it. A huge difference between this congregation and most is the way we do liturgy. We’re in the round, which is really important, because it democratizes the space. So the altar is quite literally and metaphorically at the center of our lives together as a community.
And so being in the round, there’s an accountability of presence, you can see each other, it facilitates the singing more, and it democratizes the space. If you go into most churches, really a third of the space is for the two special people who get to stand up front. So like if you walk in the door suspicious of institutions, suspicious of presumed authority, you already are turned off. You walk into the space and one-third of the space is for the two special people, you’re like, why are you special, right?
So I wear clerics, I wear clergy collar, but I sit among the community with everyone else. And then liturgy means the work of the people, and yet we’ve relegated almost every part of the liturgy to the priest. It makes no sense. And so people walk in and they get to decide when they walk in if they want to do one of the jobs in the liturgy and they just grab that booklet. And so they can go, “Oh, I’m going to do the greeting” or “I’m going to do the prayer of the day” or “I’m going to say the Benediction or the post-Communion prayer or serve Communion.”
Nobody has to deem them worthy of it or good at it, and so the whole liturgy is led by within the community from the people who are there. I say the absolution, two out of the three Sundays I preach and I say most of the Eucharistic prayer, and other than that, nobody hears from me. We’re anti-excellence, pro-participation is how we put it. We don’t do anything really well, but we do it together.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s another way you said it. [laughs] You said that you’re super participatory, but High Church.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, yeah. I call it informal High Church/tent revival.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You talked about how when you were first getting piercings and tattoos, it wasn’t all the rage. Soccer moms didn’t have them. We didn’t have soccer moms then either. I have a daughter who has some piercings. And when I’ve gone with her to do that, to me the piercing parlors, they have this real sacramental feel to them.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yes. Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: I just wanted to ask you about that.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that to sort of willingly go and modify your body is almost always attached to a deeply meaningful story for people. Not always, but quite often. And so I think it’s a place where you’re saying, I’m going to submit to another human being who is going to do something that’s going to modify my actual body. And so there’s an element of trust to it that can feel sacred in a sense, sometimes scary.
And I think that there’s a — I mean, if we believe that Christianity is incarnational, it’s important to pay attention to human bodies. And human bodies carry stories and some of us choose to carry those on the outside and not just on the inside. And I think that’s what you see in a lot of tattooing and piercing.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and the people who are doing the tattooing and piercing, I’ve experienced them. It feels like they carry this as a sacred trust.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: So do you think about what this rise in tattooing and piercing and body work says about this age we’re in? Is there anything bigger going on?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I think we’re used to personalizing everything. This is a generation that grew up with choose your own adventure stories. They got to choose how a book ended, they got to personalize their home page, they personalize their Facebook, they personalize everything. And so I think it’s the personalization of the body in a sense as well. It’s like you used to just doodle on the outside of your Trapper Keeper, you know, [laughter] and now we doodle on the outside, so I think there’s a personalization of the body as well because we’re just used to that.
[music: “King of You” by Psaap]
>MS. TIPPETT: Go to our website, onbeing.org, to listen and see my entire live conversation with Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a strikingly charismatic figure in the flesh.
[music: “King of You” by Psaap]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, Mary Magdalene as the patron saint of showing up.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “King of You” by Psaap]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is the founder and pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. I spoke with her at the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of a loose movement sometimes called the emerging church, which is reimagining the face and voice of Christianity in an evolving world. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s path to being a Lutheran minister wove through addiction and recovery and a few years as a stand-up comic. She’s six feet tall, spiky-haired, and covered in tattoos. And her captivating spiritual memoir is called Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.
MS. TIPPETT: So one thing I really like that you name and elaborate on in your book is a real reality check about churches, even your church, as a place that is going to disappoint people, where people will get hurt, because it’s full of human beings. And we know that these things happen and they take us by surprise and they’re so devastating because it’s church. You’re very clear that this community will disappoint people. “It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And experience has proved that this is true, yes. (laughs) Yeah, I just I’m not idealistic about any kind of human project. I try and always keep that in check. I’m completely idealistic about God’s ability to redeem our stuff and our mistakes, but I think if we aren’t open about the fact that we’ve made them, that can be a barrier to experiencing that forgiveness and that redemption and that grace.
So I think in a way what might sound sort of cynical about, don’t trust us, don’t be idealistic about this community or about me, to me that just opens a door for grace in a sense. Because what I say to people, I mean, I literally say that as our welcome to house brunches — like, I’m glad you love it here, but like at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.
MS. TIPPETT: Have you had experiences, I mean, what that looks like three-dimensionally — how that plays out — that you could talk about?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to talk about specifics because I don’t have permission from the people in the parish, but I can say that they are not unfamiliar with me apologizing for being wrong. [laughs] And they have forgiven me many times for mistakes that I have made. And I’m exceedingly grateful for that.
Also, I will say that I think that the fact that I don’t find it a threat to my authority to say that I’ve made a bad call or that I’ve made a mistake, I think that actually allows this population to let me have authority for them. If that makes sense. Because I feel like there’s a lot of defending and protecting of authority that keeps us from apologizing when we’re wrong or admitting that we made a mistake and people see that.
Like here’s the thing about admitting your mistakes: Other people see them, right? [laughter] By pretending that we didn’t like completely screw the pooch does not in any way keep other people from knowing that we made a huge mistake. So, if you’re somebody who just has that transparency, people tend to just trust you more rather than resent you for making mistakes.
MS. TIPPETT: But on a little bit of an angle at that, you talked this morning — and I know it was helpful for people — about being humble, also not always being apologizing. So it’s a different, I mean, you’re talking about actually apologizing for actual concrete mistakes.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Correct, not for your — who you are.
MS. TIPPETT: But, then there’s this line to walk, which can be especially tricky for women to walk.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Correct, yeah, I don’t apologize for who I am. I am not self-apologetic. I always try to apologize for mistakes I’ve made. And I try not to think of everything that happens in the world as a mistake I’ve made as well. [laughter] Like that could be a trip-up as well, right? So I think there is that sweet spot, because I think sometimes women especially, if they’re in positions of power or authority, feel like they can’t afford to apologize for their mistakes, because it’s too close to apologizing for who they are, and I think that’s a misstep.
MS. TIPPETT: Or, as you say, they apologize for everything and take everything on, and then you give your authority away.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, which is just annoying. Don’t do that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah, I’d like to come back to the underside, the pain and suffering and despair that’s out there. You talked about the sense of being picked up by the scruff of your neck. But everybody doesn’t get carried away from addiction, from being suicidal, from mental illness, and those were all things that you saw up close in people you loved for a number of years. How do you work with that theologically?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I think that we’ve sort of glamorized certain types of brokenness. You know, there’s like the big ones: mental illness, addiction. And in a way, it can be very tempting to allow those people who are so obviously broken to just carry all of the brokenness for us. And I think that’s not honest, because I just have never met a human being who has not experienced some kind of suffering, some kind of brokenness. Maybe it has to do with divorce, something that feels so common we’re not allowed to, like, really consider it to be brokenness anymore. Or maybe it has to do with body image. Or maybe …
Everybody has something that they — like it might not be a huge addiction, the really kind of big sexy ones, but it might be there’s something that we feel powerless over, that we feel like has a hold of us, that we don’t feel like we have much choice in, like we’ve lost the ability to choose whether we’re going to do this, or think this, or be in this relationship, and then our life has a certain element of unmanageability because of that. I think that is very, very, very common, even if you don’t have one of the big sexy problems that we sort of identify.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you’re saying that’s just the human condition, that you have those dark places …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Whether you’re …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: I mean, maybe some people don’t, but I don’t find them very interesting.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: You know, maybe some people are just perfectly fine, but I don’t want to have coffee with them.
MS. TIPPETT: But so again, you know, the theology question. I mean, how do you make sense of God in light of that? It’s the theodicy question I guess.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, it is. Well, I think that really always comes down to my particular Christology, my idea of Jesus, because I think a lot of people, when there’s suffering, when there’s tragedy, they say, well, where is God in the midst of this? Most of God is unknowable, and we should probably be grateful for that — it’s in that like I want to know, right?
But so if you look at Jesus, to me the greatest revelation of who God was was actually at the cross. Because to me that’s not God’s little boy, like God is some sort of divine child abuser sending his son — and he only had one, you know — like, come on, give me a break, right? You know, God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this sort of divine child abuser, or as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding his pound of flesh, you know, he’s sending his little boy to the — what hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, that’s God saying, I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business that you’ve put me in.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: That from the cross, you know, there’s all this stuff about the final judgment. You know what the final judgment is to me? It’s God dying on the cross and saying: forgive them; they know not what they’re doing. That’s an eternally valid statement to me. That is God’s judgment upon us. And so, to me, if God could bear that kind of suffering and only respond in forgiveness and love, that’s the God who is present in a devastating hurricane, in that room with an abused child. So to me, God has come into the world and is bearing that, not causing it.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m going to do one other question and then I’d like to open the conversation up to the people in the room. Mary Magdalene, [laughs] who you’ve called the patron saint of showing up. Well, first of all, tell us about your Mary Magdalene tattoo. And then tell us what Mary Magdalene means to you.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: I do have a tattoo of Mary Magdalene. It’s from a 12th-century psalter in the British Isles, the St. Albans Psalter. And this is only part of the depiction, the other part. So she’s standing there with a finger up in the air kind of going shut the here up and listen to me for a minute. And then over here in the part that I didn’t have room on my arm to show …
MS. TIPPETT: She’s not apologizing for herself.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: She’s clearly not apologizing for herself, A., and then, over in this part of the depiction are all the apostles huddled with befuddled looks on their faces, like pointing at scrolls, very confused.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And so, she is announcing the resurrection. She was the one, this woman who was delivered from so much, who was broken and could do nothing but follow Jesus and provide for Jesus and care for Jesus, and show up. She didn’t hightail it out when things got hot. She showed up. And she was the one who was chosen to be the first witness of the resurrection. She was the one who was told to go and tell. I don’t know what other authority I need than that story to be a preacher. So I very much love Mary Magdalene, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. I’m outdoors at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina — today with Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Wild Goose is a Celtic-Christian metaphor for the unpredictable spirit of God, and this is a multigenerational gathering around music, justice, spirit, and art.
MS. TIPPETT: I think there are some microphones, uh, somewhere.
MIC HANDLER: We have one right here. I’m just going to go around.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I’m curious about your kids. I’m the mom of double PKs and I’m often asked — and they’re now all out of the house and people ask me questions about how did that all work. So can you just say something about how your ministry has enhanced your parenting?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: You’ll notice in the book I almost never talk about my children, which is very intentional. My editor tried to get me to write about my kids, and I’m like, this is not the life they chose. They didn’t choose for their mom to be a public figure. So I really try to protect their privacy as much as I can. I mean, it’s not like I’m, you know, Angelina Jolie, clearly, but, you know, but I do try and protect that. I can say that they’ve always been part of community, which is something I hope has really formed who they are.
We are not the kind of family that does a lot of like family devotionals. We don’t pray together as a family. We don’t do this faith stuff in our home. You know why? My kids are around it all the time, and so I just feel like they need a break at home, you know. So like we — I know it’s like a big deal to like build faith in the home and do all that stuff. We don’t do that.
MS. TIPPETT: There was a question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: You’re in a liturgical church, very structural, that sort of stuff, but you’re a planter and you’re doing your own thing. What was your experience being under authority? You have authority to speak, but what’s your experience having to place yourself under authority?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yes, because I have a bishop. So here’s what I have to say about that. Somebody like me should have a bishop.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: That is — I am why we have bishops.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: And I only say that half joking because, you know, I wrote a book. It was not an important piece of work. It was in 2008, called Salvation on the Small Screen? — where I watched 24 consecutive hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network. So my friends signed up for an hour each to watch with me. It’s funny. It’s not whatever. But what I realized was I was watching these TV preachers and I asked myself the question, like did they at the beginning of their ministry love the Gospel? Like did they have this intention to really spread this beautiful good news? And if so, what were all the steps it took to become what they are now? And like, you know what they don’t have? Bishops.
They don’t have people looking over their shoulder to say, “Are you still on the Yellow Brick Road?” Do you know what I mean? And so like you know what? I have been able to get other people to do things my entire life, and that can be a good thing and that can be a dangerous thing. And so I need somebody to be watching to make sure I’m still on the Yellow Brick Road. So for that reason, I am grateful that there are bishops.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Nadia, it’s great to hear from you directly. My friend and I drove down from Indiana. I drug my son along just for this occasion. I am a Lutheran pastor, ordained 14 years, and I wanted to thank you, because your boldness has inspired more boldness for me. But I so appreciated your recent sermon/blog post on why you named your depression. I can’t remember the name now.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Frances.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Yes, Frances.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: My husband was hospitalized at the time that that came out, and it’s a real struggle in Lutheran circles, as I’m sure it is in other denominations, to be up front about mental illness. What has been your experience of that and any advice for those of us in the trenches?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I …
MS. TIPPETT: Why did you name your depression Frances?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: I named my depression Frances because it was like a really bad roommate who would never leave. And at the time when I really suffered from depression, it was when Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had their child named Frances Bean, and so I named my — at the time they named their child, I named my depression Frances.
But I always pictured her more like Courtney Love, kind of emaciated in a vintage nightgown with like smeared lipstick and a gin bottle and a cigarette. Like that was Courtney. I mean, that was Frances, my depression. And like at first, she was kind of interesting to hang out with, but then she just never moved out.
And I have this thing about being a preacher who reveals things about herself, and it’s that I always try to preach from my scars and not my wounds. So, talking about depression is not in any way a wound for me. I don’t suffer from it nearly as much, thank God, because I just take Wellbutrin every day, but, um, yeah, a big fan.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: But I think that, as a preacher, it’s good to tell the truth about yourself, and it’s a hard line to tow. I mean, it’s difficult. It’s hard to hold the office of word and sacrament if you’re struggling too much with your own personal stuff. That’s just hard. And it’s all about holding that office to me.
MS. TIPPETT: How many members of the church are there?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Well, we don’t have membership, so, you know, in the Lutheran church, somebody is a member if they show up once and commune once and give money once. So we have thousands of members, if that’s the case right, because approximately all of the people visit the church, right? But I would say active people, there’s probably 200 or 250, something like that. And it started with eight people in my living room five years ago.
And it’s such a freak show. I mean, not in the fact that — you know that story about I was worried because the normal people were coming to my church? OK, the thing is, is literally you walk in now and you will see a convicted felon serving communion to a statewide elected official next to a teenager with pink hair holding the baby of a soccer mom from the suburbs. And I thought the weirdness of my congregation was going to be diluted, right? It is only weirder now. You walk in, you go, “I am unclear what all these people have in common.”
MS. TIPPETT: So a sermon of yours I wish I could have heard is “Loving Our Enemies Even If We Don’t Mean It.”
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, I think meaning it is overrated. I mean, I think …
MS. TIPPETT: I think this is profound. I really do.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: No, I’m serious. Like, my gosh, if God’s going to wait till I mean it, that’s going to be a while, right? So I think that the key is praying for them, not like feeling warm feelings towards people who’ve hurt you or towards your enemy. I don’t think it’s about feelings. I think it’s about an action. And I think that action is commending them to the one who perfected the love of the enemy. That’s prayer, right?
And that is what we — I think that’s what the sort of love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you means. I will actually ask other people to do it for me sometimes, like it doesn’t always have to be us. And so it’s like this thing like I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals necessarily. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities. The same with that whole thing like God will not give you more than you can bear. I don’t think God will give you more than a community can bear. And we’ve individualized this thing of faith so much …
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: In a way that makes it inaccessible to people because they’re like, well, I don’t know if I believe this. Like the Apostles’ Creed. I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: So this is Western individualism run amok in religion. It’s not your creed. It’s the church’s creed and I think we’ve really lost track of that in this like personal me and Jesus, how I feel, what my piety is, my personal prayer life, all of that stuff, and we’ve lost the beauty of — this thing is really about community. It always has been the body of Christ.
MS. TIPPETT: You mentioned your parents and to me there’s an image in the relationship that you have with your parents and by extension with that tradition that you grew up in, which you left and rejected in some senses. That they embrace you, at a certain angle to their beliefs, right?
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Um, and that you learn about God, you know not necessarily through what people believe about God or not what they say about God, but by how they are to you. And it seems to me that your parents’ love for you, and how they’ve reacted to you all along the way, is such a picture of that.
MS. BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah. My parents are really extraordinary people and they love me fiercely. And I haven’t always been the easiest person to love. And I felt really called to start a church for my people, in a sense, and I had to tell my parents that I was going to be a pastor. And I was scared because I thought I didn’t want them to beat me with the scripture stick. I didn’t want them to shame me.
And then I felt horrible that my parents still could shame me and I was in my late 30s. And so I told them the whole story, and my dad gets up and he grabs his Bible, and I thought, oh, no. But he turned to the Book of Esther, and all he read — it was this point where she knew that she was supposed to do this thing and she was scared and didn’t want to do it, and she was talking to her uncle.
And my father read this: “But you were born for such a day as this.” And then he closed the Bible — and I still tear up thinking about this. And my parents embraced me and they gave me a blessing and they prayed over me. And like it’s very scriptural that you need a blessing to go and do what you’re going to do and to be who God’s called you to be. And the fact that my blessing got to come from my Church of Christ parents is one of the most profound gifts in my lifetime.
And so if people feel that God has called them to something and you have trepidation, you need to get a blessing from someone. And if it can’t be your parents, find somebody else, because I cannot tell you how that released me and freed me to go and do the work I did. And I feel like it’s this thing in the Bible that we’ve forgotten about. And for me, it ended up being really critical and profound to go with a blessing.
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Thank you all for coming.
[music: “Green Grass of Tunnel” by Mum]
MS. TIPPETT: Nadia Bolz-Weber is the pastor and founder of the Denver-based church the House for All Sinners and Saints. Her spiritual memoir is Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.
[music: “Green Grass of Tunnel” by Mum]
MS. TIPPETT: To get the full Nadia Bolz-Weber experience, watch the video of our unedited conversation on our website, onbeing.org. This is one conversation that wants to be seen and not just heard. And you’ll find some impromptu tent revival-moments like this one, where a passing train interrupted our conversation and she got the crowd to their feet, singing hymns.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: All right. Everybody. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost …”
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, David Schimke, and Bekah Johnson.
This week we’d also like to thank Russ Jennings, Jeff Clark, Russ “Rooster” Ware, Angel Huertas, Julio Marin, Aaron Marez, Gareth Higgins, Rick Meredith, Brian Ammons and all of the people at the Wild Goose festival.
Special thanks also to Karen Moore and Karen Nagle of the Laughing Heart Lodge in Hot Springs. You made us feel at home.
[Audience sings: “Amazing Grace”]