Several months ago I responded to a review by Tim Challies (actually a scathing diatribe very thinly disguised as a book review) of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. I had not read it then, but I had a very strong suspicion that it took a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity to get from whatever was in the book to what Challies was saying about it. I have now had the opportunity to actually read the book, and my suspicions have been more than confirmed.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado. There is much about her story to plunge the evangelical gag reflexes into overdrive. For starters, she is a female pastor in a church that ordains female pastors and that may be reason enough for many of you to check out right here and now. She has tattoos. She cusses. For many of you, that is probably not your style. She and her strain of Lutheranism have progressive political commitments which may make your stomach churn. But if you can stick it out, you will be rewarded with a tale of raw, unvarnished grace from one who is desperately aware of her need for God.
The book is a series of stories drawn from Bolz-Weber’s life and the life of her congregation–a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ revealed in their midst through Word and Sacrament according to the Lutheran tradition of which they are a part. In each of these stories God shows up in unexpected ways, through unexpected encounters with the last people you would expect to be used by God. We see a pastor desperately in need of God and honest enough to admit it. We see the process of transformation in her life as she repeatedly encounters God in the last places she would expect, through the last people she would expect.
There is the story of how she reluctantly agreed to speak at a Lutheran youth conference, and then wound up on the plane sitting next to a teenage girl who was on her way to the same conference, and as she was drawn into this girl’s story it nudged her to get over herself. There is the story of how she was sitting with a bishop friend at a denominational convention, snarkily critiquing the air conditioning and the opening music, only to suddenly find herself in way over her head trying to minister to a man who was going through an excruciating season of grief and loss.
And then there is the story which contains the formulation of Christ’s atonement to which Challies objects so strenuously: “God gathers up all our sin, all our broken-ass junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our crap and exchanges it for his blessedness.” This occurs within the larger context of a story of how she had shitlisted a parishioner because she felt uncomfortable around him and was unsure of his motivations for wanting to be part of her congregation. Then she wound up having to officiate his funeral. When a family member came up to her after the service and spoke of how much her church had meant to him in his final months, she describes her reaction as follows:
There it was. A blessed exchange. My crap for Jesus’ 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 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.
It is all well and good to sit in judgment of someone because their formulation of the atonement does not line up with what is in the doctrinal statement on file down at your church’s or denomination’s front office. But at the end of the day, doctrine and theology have to be lived out in real life. For it is in real life that we bump up against real people, who are the means by which God transforms us into Christlikeness. If your theology has nothing to say to the real world in which real people live and move and breathe, then you need to change your theology.
This book is all about a pastor and a congregation who are desperately aware of their need for God, who routinely experience Jesus in their midst in the most unexpected ways, through the most unexpected people. If you can get past the cussing, the progressive politics, and all the other things which cause a conservative evangelical stomach to churn, you will see that Jesus is very much alive and well on the streets of Denver.
And in the churning of your stomach, perhaps you will find God working on you. Surprising you, jarring you out of your old comfortable prejudices, opening your eyes to see His life and His grace in the very last places you would expect to see it.