October 21, 2017

Jesus blesses all the wrong people, even pastors

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Note from CM: I had the privilege of going downtown to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber speak tonight. She did a couple of readings, took questions and answers, oversaw her signature “ham raffle,” and signed books and took pictures with folks afterwards. I found her humble, funny, and thoughtful. Yes, she used some words we don’t normally hear in church. No, it didn’t bother me.

Her overall message was the pure grace of God in Jesus, who welcomes us as we really are. She let us know it’s okay to be sinful, flawed humans who need God. That’s not failure, that’s life. In fine Lutheran form, she reminded us that Christians are 100% sinners and 100% saints, and there has never been one of us for whom the percentages shifted. In her benediction, based on the Beatitudes and from the final chapter of her book Accidental Saints, she left us with the wonderful good news that God in Jesus blesses all the wrong people. And aren’t we glad God does?

In the following excerpt from her book, she describes how pastors need this kind of grace as much (sometimes more) than anyone else.

• • •

Absolution for Assholes

“Hello?” Caitlin answered her phone. Thank God.

“Can you meet me for confession and absolution? Like, now?” I wished I had one of those old phone cords so I could twist it around my hand. Sometimes a good fidget can transfer the shakiness from your voice to your fingers.

…Caitlin is my “mother confessor.” She knows me. Really well. And she is unimpressed with my sin. I’ve told her things about myself that I’ve not told anyone else and she still wants to be my friend. Not because she is magnanimous but because she believes in the power of forgiveness and the grace of God. You’d think this would be true of all clergy, but trust me when I tell you it’s not.

“A parishioner of mine died today,” I told her, “and I can’t go comfort his wife until I confess something awful.”

“Come on over,” she said.

An hour later, as I walked into her office, she joked, “Wait. You didn’t kill him, did you?”

Nope. I hadn’t killed Larry. I just hadn’t been a very good pastor to the guy, even though, unlike myself, he was really nice. And now he was dead and I had to comfort his widow and I knew I couldn’t be present to her grief if all I could think of was that stupid thing I did to him recently, which wasn’t very nice.

It was a thing no one would ever know I’d done but that I simply had to confess and be absolved of: I’d purposely left Larry’s address off a mass e-mail I sent out, reminding people to register for the spring retreat. Seriously. Who does a thing like that? It had weighed on me ever since, even though in the grand scheme of crime and betrayal it was, at worst, a misdemeanor.

…Okay, fine, so there was one other thing I’d done to Larry. Hardly worth mentioning…

A week after Larry was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he had e-mailed me saying that he and his girlfriend were afraid of him dying and they wanted to get married the following week, and would I do the wedding? Fortunately, I had an out. As I explained to Caitlin in her office, my policy has always been to undergo a series of premarital counseling sessions before officiating anyone’s wedding, so I said I’m sorry but I couldn’t. In the end they got a shaman who was a friend of his fiancée to officiate.

But the fact is, if my longtime parishioners Jim and Stuart, or another couple I love, had become deathly ill and wanted to get married right away, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I just didn’t want to do this wedding. So I gave them the excuse about premarital counseling and even got my bishop to cosign….

…Thinking back, I can say that maybe my sin toward Larry doesn’t rank up there with embezzling tithes or schtupping the choir director, but if someone comes to your church and you make up excuses to not serve them with grace and love, it’s still despicable. And the fact that I “learned” from it all and haven’t done that kind of thing since doesn’t make up for it, because I’m sure if I had a minute, I could come up with other things I’ve done in its stead. Which means that I am in perpetual need of grace.

Quietly, Caitlin took it all in. She took a drink of her water, then reached out for my hand and said, “Nadia, Jesus died for our sins. Including that one.”

…I wish I could say that, after the absolution Caitlin proclaimed to me, I was totally freed from any burden of conscience, but that’s not entirely true. It didn’t totally happen until a middle-aged white lady came up to me and said, “You’re Nadia, right?”

She took my hands and looked startlingly straight into my eyes. “I wanted to thank you for having a church where Larry felt so welcome. He spoke so highly of you and your congregation, and I know that having you as his pastor meant a lot for him in the final months.”

There it was. A blessed exchange. My crap for Jesus’s mercy.

I will never know Larry. I’ll never know what it is like to love him, to see him, to know what the source of his tenderness toward his wife was or from where he drew his strength in his final days. That is all lost to me. But for some reason our congregation was a place of comfort for him.

Sometimes God needs some stuff done, even though I can be a real asshole. There is absolutely no justice in the fact that Larry loved me and that church. But if I got what I deserved in this life, I’d be screwed — so instead, I receive that grace for what it is: a gift.

• Accidental Saints, pp. 13-19
By Nadia Bolz-Weber
Published by Convergent Books
© 2015 by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Comments

  1. My favorite NBW quote: “A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing, NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing” “Insignificant” “worthless” and says “Ha! Now thatI can do something with”.

    • senecagriggs says:

      Where would I be without grace

    • –> “…NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.”

      We writer/creator types get to experience that in a rather cool, profound way. I once wrote a two-page stream-of-consciousness poem that began with essentially “nothing” (that was the gist of the beginning of it, basically “Here I am, writing about nothing…”) and by the end of it I’d concluded that God LOVES “nothingness”! That’s where He begins His creation! And since we know He creating brings Him joy (we creator types can relate to that joy), then He must LOVE “Nothing” as a starting point.

      • Christiane says:

        ‘NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with’

        makes sense then that He chooses the humble to be full of grace

  2. Amen to grace. There is nothing like the experience of it. In the words of Jackie Gleason, “Oh how sweet it is.”

  3. David Cornwell says:

    Amen. I don’t know what else to say! Except that I am thankful I attend (more seldom these days) a church where we sinners of all kinds gather to sing praise to Jesus and to partake, once again, of the Bread of Life around his table. And it brings assurance to this old sinful Methodist heart of mine.

  4. Amazing grace how sweet the sound

  5. On my bucket list is to visit or even attend regularly her church. I’ve been looking to move to Denver for many years, haven’t found or made the opening yet, but her church is high on my list of places I want to be.

    • That’s an awesome bucket list item, Stuart. I hadn’t really thought of it myself, but when I read it, I was like, “Yeah, that’d be cool!”

      • @Stuart: happy, blessed, Friday… FWIW: I stumbled upon “Accidental” @ half-price books and didn’t blink: out came the $7.95 and tax. WELL WORTH IT. Yes she swears like a sailor with tourettes…. but she has a Brennan Manning like quality to her. I would also gladly visit her church, probably leave the wife with the Anglicans for the afternoon. Thought I’d plug the book to ya, if you hadn’t had time to get it yet.

    • I’d like to visit there too. I listened to the audiobook version of “Accidental Saints” recently; at the end of the book I believe she requests that people don’t visit. I don’t remember if she gave a reason.

  6. “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” Heb. 4:16
    I think our time of need is…..ALL the time.
    Thx for posting this. I need to get and read her book.
    (See my confession yesterday?)

  7. –> “…but if someone comes to your church and you make up excuses to not serve them with grace and love, it’s still despicable.”

    Facebook, here I come! That line’s a keeper!

    • My own confession regarding this…

      Our church has a food pantry. It’s open every Saturday, 9-noon. I was one of its founders, but an older couple primarily runs it now. But I still have a key and can get in any time at all to help. I’ve never turned anyone away. If someone comes in Tuesdays or Thursdays, when I’m at the church running the coffee house, I’ll open it and give them food.

      However, there’s one woman who comes almost EVERY Tuesday. I noticed about 6 months ago that I began getting really annoyed with her. I began dropping the line, “You know, we’re really only open on Saturdays, not Tuesdays.” (In other words, “Take a hint, lady, and come back on Saturdays so I don’t have to be bothered.”)

      The Lord and I had a good talk about a month ago. Basically, “Rick, as long as the food pantry is there as a ministry and you have a key to it, serve cheerfully.”

      I greeted her with a smile the other day. First time in a long time.

  8. I was thinking about that title, “Accidental Saints.” I think it was in one of the discussions at iMonk just this week someone said (paraphrased), “Saints aren’t people who do good, saints are people who love God.” (Or “…are loved by God”…?)

    So in the realm of “doing good,” there are no “accidental saints.” There is purpose and intention to the “doing good,” and thus no “accidental” to it.

    But in the realm of “loving God,”…wow, I think of my own testimony! I’m an “accidental saint” if there ever was one! No plan or intention in me at all when I first came to understand God’s love for me!

  9. Burro [Mule] says:

    I cannot help wondering what Larry had done, or what he was, that Rev. Bolz-Weber had such a strong antipathy to him. She seems like an accepting sort of person, in her acerbic way. At first I imagined that he was a Republican, or a Missouri Synod Lutheran trapped in a place where Rev. Bolz-Weber’s parish was the only Lutheran expression, or some other sacrilege, but his wife knew a shaman so that doesn’t seem to fit.

    Anyway, the story was about Rev. Bolz-Weber’s sin and how she processed it, and I cannot fault her for refusing to pander to my curiosity.

    There was a girl in my school. I liked the looks of her, but she always seemed to be dating the traditionally pious types of guy that were preparing for the ministry. Towards the end of my senior year, I finally got a date with her. She turned out to be a lot more fun than I imagined. Almost immediately I heard that she had been conducting an affair with a married man, and had been carrying his child at the time of our date. i didn’t see her again until a couple of years later. When she saw me coming, her face lit up, but in my hurt pride and Pharisiaism, I looked straight ahead and passed right by her.

    I never felt closer to Hell than I did at that moment.

    • –> “When she saw me coming, her face lit up, but in my hurt pride and Pharisiaism, I looked straight ahead and passed right by her. I never felt closer to Hell than I did at that moment.”

      I pray you bump into her again, and that that moment is a joyous one for you both.

      • Christiane says:

        how often are we mercifully given ‘another chance’ . . . . it may come to us disguised as a different kind of situation with different people, but we recognize it as ‘another chance’ because we have lived for a long time haunted by our past failure

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    I mostly cannot stand reading “Christian” books. Church history? I’m in! Theology? Occasionally. But anything that smacks of spirituality? I’m outta here. I made an exception with Bolz-Weber because I suspected that her congregation was going to be the Next Big Thing in the ELCA, with everyone trying to replicate this, most likely with painful results (much like the 1970s, when we had roomfuls of persons of Extremely Northern European ancestry singing negro spirituals–badly). There is some evidence of this happening, but that isn’t my point here.

    So I downloaded Accidental Saints and was very pleasantly surprised. I found it engaging and insightful, enough so that I followed it up with Pastrix. She writes about Lutheranism as a convert, giving enough of an outsider’s view to point out to me that water I have been swimming in all my life. She brings out in particular the doctrine of simul justus et peccator. I am persuaded that this can be Lutheranism’s great contribution to the conversation, and this had never occurred to be previously.

  11. Agree Richard–I don’t read ‘Christian crap’ (my terminology). Love church history and theology–both on occasion. Can’t see the point of someone else telling me what God is telling them to tell me–seriously? Also, Christian literature is an oxymoron.
    Have recently (2 years) been attending the Lutheran church around the corner from us when we left our Baptist church, and had really, nowhere to go. Walk to church, It’s the Pacifica synod…ok….whatever. it’s the best church I’ve ever attended in 50+ years…raised evan-fund. What a breath of fresh air. My mom is convinced i’m going to hell in a handbasket–named Lutheran church. haha. Gospel & Eucharist every week–ahhhh, i’m finally home.

  12. What would happen if Nadia was made presiding bishop of the ELCA?