Recently I read a book called Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s intrigued me ever since I saw this video of her speaking at a youth conference last year, and actually Ricky and I visited her church in Denver when we were there earlier this year . She wasn’t there that particular Sunday, but that wasn’t really the point I suppose. I count it as a healing experience, something I tucked away in my memory for safekeeping. Church can be like this. Remember.
Nadia’s a good public figure to pay attention to if, like me, you’re fascinated by what church has the potential to be. Her willingness to simply be herself is refreshing, when it’s felt to me for so long that in order to really belong within the Christian subculture I’ve known, a certain pretense is required.
See, I grew up thinking that I would gradually gain more and more control over my bad habits, not-so-lovely personality traits, and temper. That, through the process of sanctification, I would someday “look” like I should as a Christian. Because Christians are salt and light, right? So aren’t we supposed to stand out and be “better” in some ways? I don’t know how much of that to attribute to teaching I received, and how much to attribute to my interpretation of it, but it’s what I believed for a long time.
Life has only shown me that this isn’t the case. Every single day I disappoint myself in some way, and to be honest, it’s exhausting. Even when I respond to frustration in a way I’m pleased with, I still feel burdened by the frustration itself. That pretense I spoke of earlier–this is where it comes from. If people really know me, then I can’t lead the small group/sing on the worship team/teach the kids/mentor the youth. Those jobs are for people who have it together. What ministry can I have if I can’t even get a hold on my own issues? It’s no wonder that we’re really, really good at pretending.
I used to respond to my own behavior vs. ideal conflicts by making spiritual to-do lists for myself. Pray more. Spend more time reading Scripture. Meditate on the fruits of the Spirit. None of these things are bad–in fact they can be quite helpful. But all of my efforts to be better have never yet changed my tendencies. And that has created a nasty cycle of self-loathing that I continue to fall into.
There must be a better way.
Yet despite my experiences of rejection and my years of theological education, countless prayers, an ordination, and a life centered on serving the church, I still have the same personality I was born with. I am often impatient and cranky. And my first response to almost everything is “f__ you.” I don’t often stay there, but I almost always start there. I’m still me. Yet the fact that I manage to now move from “f__ you” to something less hostile, and the fact that I am often able to make that move quickly, well, once again, all of it makes me believe in God. And every time, it feels like repentance. (kindle loc 192)
I almost always start there. Sure, some days are better than others, but we bump up against our true nature repeatedly. Maybe that’s what keeps us needing grace. Maybe the more we need grace, the more we extend it. Nadia tells the story of one of her parishioners, a man named Rick. He’s a con artist who has gone by many names and lied to a lot of people, and eventually shows up at Nadia’s church. She’s not happy to have him there, but she considers how Jesus would respond to someone like Rick. She goes on to talk about human nature and our struggle against it, and this is the part the really resonates with me.
Rick…is trying to be a real person for the first time in his life and he doesn’t really know who that person is anymore. But he sees a glimpse of it at the communion table. He sees it in the eyes of the person serving him the wine and bread, saying, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you.” That’s his repentance. (loc 192)
I love that she places repentance in an act. A movement away from hostility, away from falseness, toward the gift of bread and wine. Here, repentance is simply a movement toward grace. God takes it from there.
My ingrained, childish way of thinking demands a resolution to all of this. Before, after. Good, bad. Black, white. In need of grace, and then what? What is the antithesis of needing grace? Perfection, which is an impossible, exhausting, graceless destination.
“It hurts a little, being loved for who I really am,” he told me recently. Rick has been sober now for six months, he is getting help for his manic depression, and recently moved indoors. He is also one of the loudest people I’ve ever met and is so spastically hyperactive that I often wonder if he’s lying about taking his medication. He could be lying about everything, but that’s true of everybody. All I know for sure is that he’s still unbelievably helpful at every church function and that he is loved and wanted at House for All.
In the fall of 2011, during the Occupy Denver actions, he organized and oversaw all of the food distribution at the hub of the local protests. “Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!” Rick chirped to me over the phone. “Everyone is fed. It doesn’t matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn’t even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break.” He pauses. “The only place I’ve ever really seen that is at communion.” (loc 194)
May my repentance be to move toward grace today, rather than run from it. May the love I feel there enable me to love better, and may I move toward grace again tomorrow. I will need it.
Ricky and I went to see Nadia speak on Tuesday night in Washington D.C. as part of her book tour. There was also a lively conversation with Amy Butler, a pastor in D.C., about the future of church. The perfect church nerd date night, we called it. She read several passages from the book, including one about Rick, and commented that his is maybe not the sort of success stories that one typically hears from a pulpit: he was this way, now he’s that way. Rather, he’s still a mess, but he’s their mess now.
I’d like to be salt and light, really I would. But what is it that gives flavor and warmth? I think it’s honesty. Vulnerability. And perhaps most importantly, kindness to others who are brave enough to embrace those things, and also to those who are still working up the courage.
I’m finding out that church can be as simple, and as miraculous, as approaching the table. All are fed there.