I downloaded Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book during our Spiritual Autobiography sessions a few weeks ago. I was looking for examples of other people’s spiritual autobiographies, because (true to form) I was procrastinating writing one myself.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (@sarcasticluther) is the founder & leader of a progressive church in Colorado called The House for All Sinners & Saints. As Bolz-Weber proclaims, Jesus’ kingdom is “ruled by the crucified one and populated by the unclean and always found in the unexpected.” She’s buff, she’s bold, she’s progressive, she’s heavily tattooed and she has a really foul mouth. (Possibly even more foul than mine.) She’s also an alcoholic and addict, sober by the grace of God for over 20 years. Married & the mother of two children, Reverend Nadia tells her personal story in frank detail. Her story, like the story of each of us, is of death & resurrection, over & over again.
Reverend Nadia’s story is a compelling one, about the grace of God & the salvation that comes with choosing to pursue the road of faith. I admired the way that she describes her journey, making it clear that despite her accomplishments, she is at base the same flawed and problematic creature she has always been.
How was she led astray in her early years? By doing what we all do in varying degrees: adopting a persona, a false identity. At some point, she decided that she would die young, and behave really irresponsibly on her way there. This persona was like a new outfit she was trying on for ha-ha’s, and she liked the look of it. “I had tried it on, spun around in the mirror, and decided I would choose this look, this image, this identity. But eventually, and without my realizing it, the ability to choose had gone. I had become what at first I had only pretended to be.”
Woops. Trying on this identity ended up being more like that horror movie where the person puts on the Halloween mask & it won’t come off. She was lost along the way, her “show” identity taking over her existence, or at least threatening to.
This idea of identity reminded me of this mock trial training. (I was working as a lawyer then.) There was this guy making a closing argument. He referred to the opposing party’s “thin veneer”. It was supposed to be a way of questioning his credibility. The judge stopped him mid sentence and said, “‘Thin veneer’? Don’t say that. You’ll alienate the jury. Everyone has a thin veneer.” The simple truth of that statement has stayed with me.
In Reverend Nadia’s case, the ‘thin veneer’ was really destructive, and she was lucky to survive. But really, we are all in the same boat, just to varying degrees, with different details in the story. The good news is, that when we try on personas like outfits, we aren’t doing a thing to change the fact that the grace of God is ours for the taking.
“Identity”, says Bolz-Weber, “It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.” It’s when we start questioning the name God has given us that we get into trouble.
In a chapter titled, “Dirty Fingernails”, we are asked to contemplate Mary Magdalene’s experience at Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. There is the part of the story in which Mary cannot recognize Jesus by sight, and only upon hearing the sound of his voice does she make the connection that this is her Jesus. In fact, she thinks he might be a gardener at first.
A common explanation for why it was hard for Mary, and others, to recognize the resurrected Jesus is that the resurrection is a mystery, a spiritual miracle that we cannot possibly fully comprehend or grasp. The resurrected Jesus is usually pictured with squeaky clean robes & light emanating all around him, sometimes floating off the ground a bit.
“(P)erhaps”, Bolz-Weber suggests, “Mary Magdalene thought the resurrected Christ was a gardener because Jesus still had dirt from his own tomb under his nails.” Think about those times in your own life when you were “made new” by God. Those periods when you hit a wall and needed to make a change. Those times when you heard God, and agreed to follow the path set before you.
“Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like those Easter pictures… New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter Story itself, new is often messy.”
This book is a quick read, and definitely worth your time. Lots of food for thought. There are many themes and ideas in this book that I will continue to contemplate, read and reread. Delving into this book was a good spiritual barometer. There is always room to be more accepting, more welcoming. If we’re being honest with ourselves, despite our ‘thin veneers’ and dirty fingernails, we know that Jesus doesn’t let us get comfortable for long.
I give this book: