Nadia Bolz-Weber stands six feet, one inch tall barefoot. When I met her at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, though, she wore four-inch heels. She’s taller than most people I know. Heels make her taller, but not haughty. Maybe they help her see farther than most people into the often foggy space where church and people meet or, in too many sad cases, don’t meet. Regardless, I’m happy to look up to her, delighted to have heard her describe her calling and ministry.
Nadia evocatively described that calling in an interview and a public lecture at the Festival: to do her God-driven best to bring God and more and more people together. If that doesn’t happen in all churches, it is happening in Denver’s “House for All Sinners and Saints.” She’s the founding pastor of that Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation, but wears that mantle lightly. In fact, she now works half-time at the church, sharing the work with an Episcopal priest colleague to accommodate her demanding travel and speaking schedule. Talk about living ecumenicity.
On her writing and preaching
Despite publishing several books, Bolz-Weber doesn’t consider herself a writer. “I’m a talker with a laptop. I write only when deadlines yank the writing out of me.” Evidently, yanking works for both books and sermons. She preaches from a manuscript, with 1,500 word sermons based on the Revised Common Lectionary, because “it would be uncomfortable for everyone if I preached about what I wanted to.”
This semi-retired preacher believes all preachers should emulate Bolz-Weber’s disciplined methodology for making sermons. “I don’t preach on weeks I travel. I haven’t earned the right, if I’m not with the people in my congregation. Besides, I don’t think I can preach every week; it’s too hard. I wrestle with the text, asking ‘What icky thing in me is this text trying to tell me?’” Small wonder that, after preaching she declares, “I go away limping.” And to think I preached twice most Sundays for 27 years; maybe my parishioners had all they could do not to limp.
Seeing the person beyond the persona
And as far as icky goes, Nadia has plenty of personal experience needing the Bible’s crucible. Recognizing that “what I most want is to feel less alone” is a universal human yearning, “I try to preach from my scars and not my wounds. My goal in preaching is to invite others to have a God-response about themselves.”
Knowing that her physical appearance and style has attracted un-Gospel-like responses, she makes this disclaimer: “If people have a reaction about me, I haven’t done it right. I’m interesting as a tattooed-lady, foul-mouthed minister for about five minutes; those five minutes ended about two years ago.” Bolz-Weber wants people to fix their eyes on Jesus. She tries to do that in preaching by showing the scars.
In both afternoon interview and evening lecture, she occasionally unleashed that notorious foul mouth. By my experienced calculations learned in the U.S. Army and on the squash court, her word choice was deliberate, emphatic, not merely profane. For what it’s worth, no lightning struck the Covenant Fine Arts Center in the afternoon, nor a few hours later did Van Noord Arena roof come tumbling down like Dagon’s temple.
The scars she still has
In the lecture on “Risks and Rewards of Telling Inelegant Truths about Ourselves,” Bolz-Weber described tormented years starting at age 11, as she suffered from Graves’ Disease. That auto-immune illness left her bug-eyed, unable fully to close her eyes. She recalls the malicious names schoolmates tacked on her, touchingly identifying with many youths’ – maybe most people’s – unspoken feelings: “Most teenagers think they look like insects, but I truly did. I couldn’t force my eyes back into their sockets any more than kids can un-divorce their parents.”
Like many wounded teens, Nadia took revenge by leaving church, even though she says, “Too bad there were other reasons that I left church; at least there they called me by name.” She had earlier recalled the poignancy of that simple human event. She cited Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus, mistaking him for the gardener, then hearing him say, “Mary.” “That episode undoes me every time.” From now on, it will undo me too, I’m sure.
Why do we ‘go to church’?
Indeed, there are other reasons for leaving church, but one reason Bolz-Weber and many others may come back to church is that at least there they call our names. That is, of course, doing a little bit of what Jesus does a lot.
Still, going to church is not the same as seeing Jesus. As Calvin College Chaplain Rev. Mary Hulst said while introducing Bolz-Weber, “Church pushed Nadia away from Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t done with her. Jesus called her back from addiction – not to a church, but to him.” Thus, Nadia Bolz-Weber is part of the church she founded. There she has met some of the “accidental saints” she has written about in her book bearing that title. (She wanted to call it Purpose-Driven Sinners; her publishers refused. Wouldn’t it have sold still more copies, had they gone with her title?)
‘Every church needs a drag queen’
One of Bolz-Weber’s more memorable accidental saints is Stewart, the drag queen. Nadia declared, “Every church needs a drag queen.” After that gentle sucker punch evoked the inevitable collective guffaw from the Calvin audience, she explained.
Stewart is on House for All Sinners and Saints’ liturgical team. One Sunday morning as they were planning the service, Nadia received a text from Rachel. She was in Grand Rapids, attending the church of her childhood. Weeping, she wrote, “I’m not allowed to take communion in my own church.”
Not missing a beat after hearing this, Stewart out-pastored the pastor: “Well, then, we have to take communion for Rachel to the airport when she comes home.” So they did – and Grace won the day. I’ve slightly known only one drag queen. If I ever get to Denver again, I’m going to worship at House for All. I’m sure I’ll recognize Stewart.
House for All Sinners and Saints, the church founded by Bolz-Weber, “clings to the stability of liturgy.”
Drawn to liturgy
Having lived and worked all my life in the Christian Reformed Church, which emphasizes preaching, I was struck by Bolz-Weber’s acquired appreciation of liturgical worship. Following prescribed liturgy didn’t come automatically. “I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church. I felt when I first worshiped with my husband Matthew that it was like choreographed sacredness. After that service, I asked, ‘Will they do this next week?’ ‘Well, we’ve been doing this for like 1,500 years. So yes, we’ll probably do it again next week.’”
During the interview, Professor Karen Saupe asked Nadia, “What drew you to liturgy?” Her simple, honest response: “It doesn’t need me. I need liturgy for the stability and structure. My community is full of people with so much chaos in their lives that the stability of liturgy is what we can cling to.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ways of seeing and helping others see Jesus evoke many pastors’ appreciation for her ministry. Yet Bolz-Weber struck a melancholic chord when she said, “They like what they see as the Gospel in House for All. They wish they could have that in their church, but instead, they just have a job in a church.”
Though I know the passing feeling, most of my own pastoral work felt far better than a job in a church. Read her books, look for Jesus beyond her tattoos, past her mouth, but surely in the words she writes and speaks and in the witness of all those purpose-driven sinners.
Jim Dekker looking up to Nadia Bolz-Weber.