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