Editor's Note: God's Politics contributor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, recently delivered an address to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) Youth Gathering in New Orleans, where she told the story of her spiritual journey from tattooed, alcoholic ne'erdowell to tattooed, 20-years-sober, Lutheran minister. Nadia's is a powerful tale of redemption, God's unconditional love, and staggeringly real grace.
Nadia told the thousands of Lutheran youth gathered in the Big Easy earlier this month:
Some of your parents and some of your pastors were really upset that I was your speaker tonite. They felt like I was someone who should not be allowed to talk to tens of thousands of teenagers. And you know what I have to say to that? They are absolutely right.
Somebody with my past of alcoholism and drug abuse and promiscuity and lying and stealing should not be allowed to talk to you. You know what? Somebody with my present — who I am now — shouldn't be allowed to talk to you because I am sarcastic, heavily tattooed, I swear like a truck driver — they're having a heart attack back there, going, "Please help her not swear."
I am a flawed person. I should not be allowed to be here talking to you. But you know what? That's the God we're dealing with, people.
When Harper was born we decorated the nursery in a Noah’s Ark theme…images of Noah and of animals entering a large wooden boat two-by-two. It’s a common enough decorating scheme for kids' rooms.
I mention it because this week at Bible study we discussed how weird it is that the beheading of John the Baptists isn’t a common decorating scheme for kid’s rooms.
Because this is just too gruesome a tale to show up on rolls of juvenile wall paper.
In case you missed the details, here’s what happened:
So Herod is the ruler of the region, and while vacationing in Rome he gets the hots for his brother’s wife who he then marries. John the Baptist, then suggests that maybe that’s not ok.
Now, Herod likes John, as much as anybody can like a crazy bug-eating prophet who lives outdoors and speaks consistently inconvenient truths. Truths such as it’s not ok to marry your brother’s wife, which, incidentally, is the truth that when spoken, got him arrested to begin with.
It also got John on the bad side of Herod’s new illegal wife Heroditas. She did not like John. Then when Herod throws himself a big birthday party his daughter-in-law Salome dances for him and all the other half-drunk generals and CEOs and celebrities who were there.
We don’t know the exact nature of her dance but we do know that it “pleased” Herod enough that he offered to give her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. So, you know, I don’t think it was the Chicken dance.
Good and gracious God,
Today, like the rest of the world,
when I woke I wrapped myself in myths.
They are comfortable and warming in what can seem like such a cold world.
Yes, they are old and worn but they are familiar
and even the most fashion forward find comfort in this thread-worn garb.
They tell me that while it may not be fair
that 1,600 children die from hunger everyday,
I can do nothing about it.
They silence my own judgment of myself
when I put a quarter in the cup of a homeless man
as I walk on by the lack in his life
to live into the abundance of mine....
I lost my joy. I suspect there are a few of you who feel the same way. Not that you aren't happy, but there is this deep place of celebratory joy which you once knew that really doesn't come around much anymore.
There was a time when I was a pretty joyful guy. Not “blind to the world's problems” kind of joyful, just “blessed to be blessed in the midst of this mess” kind of joyful. Lately though, I've found joy to be an increasingly difficult thing to come by.
The thing is, I have every reason to be joyful. I'm lucky enough to be married to an amazing woman – truly amazing. I couldn't be prouder of my kids who, in an age of “be different just like us” are very much their own kind of different simply because they aren't afraid of being themselves. My personal interests, like my blog, just keep getting better. I have some of the best friends in the world. Yet, I'm not the generally joyful person I once was.
It's a dull malaise that I just can't quite shake. I don't like it. Not one bit.
Recently though, I've been catching little glimpses of my joy making cameo appearances in the storyline of my life. I like it. A lot.
The question is, why now? Why not back then?
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government does hold the constitutional power to mandate that most American's purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. This power is maintained in Congress’s ability to levy taxes.
The justices also ruled that the federal government does hold the constitutional power to expand Medicaid, making more people eligible to receive the benefit, but, like the original Medicaid law of 1965, states can opt out of the expansion if they so choose.
What does this mean? And what does this mean for Jesus followers?
The better way says, if we follow God’s religious values we can use global technology, green economy, and targeted economic and infrastructure investment, total access to education, and creative job creation strategies to address the ugly realities of poverty. If we follow the enduring ethic of love we can beat our swords of racism into the plows that will till the new soil of brotherhood and sisterhood
If we see the poor as our neighbors, if we remember we are our brother’s keeper, then we shall put the poor, rather than the wealthy, at the center of our agenda.
If we hold on to God’s values, the sick shall have good health care. The environment shall be protected. The injustices of our judicial systems shall be made just. We shall respect the dignity of all people. We can love all people. We can see all people as God’s creations.
We can use our resources to develop our minds and economy, rather than build bombs, missiles, and weapons of human destruction.
Do we want to keep pressing toward God’s vision? Values are once again the question of our times.
Do we want a just, wholesome society, or do we want to go backwards? This is the question before us. And I believe that at this festival there is still somebody who wants what God wants. Somebody who understands there are some things with God that never change
There are still some prophetic people that have not bowed, who as a matter of faith know that Love is better than hate. Hope is better than despair. Community is better than division.
Peace is better than war. Good of the whole is better than whims of a few. God wants everybody — red, yellow, black, brown and white taken care of. God wants true community, more togetherness … not more separateness. God wants justice, always has, always will.
Because with God some things never change.
I know I’m cynical, but I didn’t know how dead I got inside.
It was easy to give up on the world. There are way better people than I failing to pull us out of our quagmire.
It was pretty easy to give up on the church too. Pick your disappointment....
So, like I said, I knew I was cynical, but I didn’t know I was about to die from my cynicism. Then I went to the Wild Goose Festival. I wasn’t healed there. Just the opposite. I was playfully wooed to mourn the passing of my younger self.
I want to tell you the story of one brave woman who has given her life to live in the East Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Arloa Sutter is one of my new heroes. Let me tell you why.
I met Arloa through the Redbud Writers Guild to which we both belong. Last month I had the honor of meeting her at our guild retreat. I had no idea what a culture rebel she was.
Arloa didn't begin her days of serving the inner-city poor as the grandmother she is today, but as a young woman. It all began with her church staff not knowing what to do with the many people who came into the building during the week needing assistance. Instead of pushing them out the door, she created a storefront room that provided food,l friendly conversation and a hot cup of coffee to those wishing to escape the cold. This eventually evolved into her gathering a board of directors to form Breakthrough Ministries in 1992.
She didn’t know what she was doing, but she did it anyways. I love gutsy people like that.
A couple hours ago on Facebook, Catherine posted that she had just seen a snake on her hike. As her pastor I thought it best to reply, “If it starts talking, don’t listen”
This likely came to mind since I was editing this very sermon about Adam and Eve. The story of the Garden of Eden is what is called an origin story and every culture has theirs. Origin stories tell us how the world came about and where we came from and other important things like why snakes don’t have legs. We think we might know our origin story really well, but in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, there actually is no mention of sin, or a fall, or Satan, or temptation, and I hate to break it to you but there wasn’t even an apple involved. Which means the cultural understanding of the story of the Garden of Eden is slightly corrupted. This is due in part to the countless paintings throughout the history of Western art which for some reason portray a tree and a snake and an extremely white Adam and Eve holding a Red Delicious.
See, for generations folks have called the tale of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the forbidden fruit “The Fall from grace” or “The story of Original Sin."
That's a little weird to me. Like, God created the heavens and the Earth and animals and it was like, this awesome all-inclusive primeval club-med for Adam and Eve – they ran naked through the warm sunlight of an idyllic paradise and everything was theirs for the taking – except for that one tree that they were told to steer clear of. And this absolute paradise in the garden between God and Humanity lasted approximately 20 minutes. Until Eve had a chat with a talking snake and then disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. And because Eve, ate some fruit she was told not to, now all of humanity is cursed and this so-called original sin of Eve’s became sort of like a sexually transmitted disease.
Because now, according to this version of what the story is about, every person born after that inherited original sin from Eve. That’s right. Eve messed it up for everyone by eating some piece of fruit God told her not to. Which feels kinda unfair to her and kinda unfair to us. But this is what we are told the story is about.
Author Anne Lamott, one of our favorite Jesus-loving subversives, recently delivered the undergraduate and interdisciplinary studies commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley.
Lamott's funny, irreverent, and yes, profound, words of wisdom for the Berkeley graduates included the following, about what she thinks the "truth of their spiritual identity" might be:
Actually, I don’t have a clue.
I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s … well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much — when you’re in nature, when you’ve very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music....
A recent piece on the Huffington Post's Religion page described the death of Pastor Mark Wolford, a Christian minister known for handling venomous snakes during his worship services to demonstrate the power of his faith. The stunt went south, however, after he was bitten on the thigh during worship and died at a hospital not long after.
The practice, though rare, is employed in a handful of Christian congregations in response to a literal interpretation of verses 17 and 18 in the 16th chapter of Mark:
And these signs will follow those who believe. In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
There are several dangers this story raises, not the least of which, of course, is death by venomous snake bite. Such communities require public displays of faith that are meant to test the resolve of the faithful. And such practices are not restricted to backwoods protestant churches; some Catholics (and others) are enamored with the phenomenon on stigmata, where people exhibit physical signs of crucifixion, such as wounds on their hands or feet.
There’s the more obvious danger of putting someone in harm’s way by expecting them to perform a dangerous act to prove their faith. But there’s also the undercurrent of religious one-upsmanship, wherein folks are forever striving to be more daring, graphic or otherwise attention-grabbing. In addition to the potential physical danger, there’s the risk of pressing people to be deceptive in their faith practices, simply to enjoy the validation or admiration they seek, and which is held in such high esteem in these particular circles.
Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time.
The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly endless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane.
The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-sex unions. Pre-, Post-, or A-millennialism. Biblical translation. Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. How best to support the sanctity of marriage. Hell. Heaven. Baptism. Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. The use of “trespass/es” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Whether to use wafers, pita, home-baked organic wheat, gluten-free or bagels at the communion table. What color to paint the narthex.
It should come as no surprise to most Christians that the world outside the church looking in sees it rife with conflict, bickering, arguments and castigation — of the “unbeliever” and fellow believers alike.
Frankly, it also should come as no surprise to the rest of the world that the church — by virtue of being a community of humans — naturally would have such disagreements and discord.
I feel very honored to be invited by this class to give this commencement address, and I asked about the make-up of your class. Most of you, I am told, are going right into the church, or are already there— to ordained ministry and other missions of the church.
So I want to speak directly to you about the vocation of the church in the world. Let me start with a baseball story. I have been a little league baseball coach for both my sons' teams over many years. And I’ve learned that baseball teaches us “lessons of life.”
Just a few weeks ago, our 9-year-old's team was down 5-0, and we had already lost our opening couple of games. It didn’t look good. But all of a sudden, our bats and our team came alive; and all the practice and preparation we had done suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order with our weakest hitters. Two kids got on with walks and our least experienced player went up to the plate. With international parents, Stefan had never played baseball before and you can tell he doesn’t have a clue. But somehow he hit the ball; it went into the outfield. Our first two runs scored and he ended up on second base. Being from a British Commonwealth culture, he began to walk over to the short stop and second baseman and shake their hands! “Stefan,” I shouted, “You have to stay on the base!” “Oh,” he said, “I’ve never been here before.”
Growing up, I didn’t think my mother liked me; I know she loved me, but she didn’t know how to handle me. Mom was quiet and melancholy; I was brash and angry. Melancholy and anger were the mechanisms we each used to cope with the family’s dysfunction. But we had little in common. Well, except for the dysfunction.
But I did know my mother loved me. She said she worried about me, she wanted me to be happy; she wanted me to know Jesus. And she prayed for me every day. Every morning as I got ready for school, I passed the den and caught a glimpse of her reading her Bible and praying.
Maybe she wasn’t close to me, but I saw with whom she was close: God. Over time I saw what that friendship did to her. It made her good and kind, even in the face of disappointment and sorrow.
As an adult I tried to get closer to Mom by sharing the things that mattered to me. The first attempt didn’t go so well. I gave her a copy of my MFA thesis screenplay, which was a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family. She never read it.
“I just don’t get it,” she flustered. I think she didn’t understand screenplay formatting.
To believe is easy. You can fill stadiums with people wanting to believe, either to solidify what they already think or to grasp hold of something because they feel cast adrift and lost at sea.
To doubt, to interrogate your fear, to really question what you believe, that’s difficult. It’s difficult because we want to protect ourselves from doubt and unknowing. Indeed when we encounter somebody who is different from us, our first experience is often to see them as monstrous, as having beliefs and practices which are alien and stranger and historical and contingent. When we encounter them we either want to consume them, make them part of our social body, or we want to vomit them and get rid of them. Or perhaps we want to have some sort of interfaith dialogue where we can talk about where we agree.
This weekend, if you can believe it, marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial that acquitted four police officers of any wrong doing. Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the beating that King took as he was being arrested.
Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the violence that followed. Fifty people died in the riots.
Why do we bother to honor such memories? Why do we hold them up? St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic, writes of a temporal veil that separates us from God. It's an unavoidable separation, he said, that every creature encounters.
We live in time. God does not. He also said, however, that by grace that veil can be torn, time and memory collapsing in upon one another and we are no longer separate from God.
In a video address Tuesday, President Obama told hundreds of young evangelical Christian leaders gathered at the Q Conference in Washington, D.C., that they had a partner in the White House in their humanitarian and social justice efforts.
I know that the sun will rise tomorrow.
With all of the scientific facts and astronomical data we are blessed with today, I can expect to wake up tomorrow and see rays of light shining through my window.
There is also no debating time. Our clocks, both digital and internal, continue to tick onward no matter the circumstances. These are inexorable certainties in life. However, these proven facts of our existence are limited. They are not the whole story.
There are things in life we neither can physically see nor explain, and yet we choose to believe anyway.
When our little siblings place their fallen teeth underneath their pillows, hoping to see a winged fairy deliver gifts in return, they are relying entirely on an unproven belief. When students choose universities to attend, they do not know what the outcomes of their decisions will be, nor can they predetermine their futures after school. But they continue to grow and experiment with life anyway.
Even the wisest of theologians and clergy have very few answers to the questions pertaining to God’s existence that enter our minds on a daily basis. All of these situations represent something many of us hold onto so dearly: Faith.
It had been more than a week since the doctors had moved me into the ICU, and more than a week since I had tasted anything liquid.
My tongue was dry and felt like leather. At night, I would watch the machines around me blink. The IV bags hung next my bed and scattered the light across sterile white walls.
I tried not to cry when I could no longer control my bowels. I lay there in my own filth waiting for a nurse to rescue me.
I came into the world unable even to clean myself and now it seemed I would leave it in the same state.
Finally the nurse arrived to help me.
“I’m thirsty,” I told her. “May I have an ice cube?”
She said no.
“Please? My mouth is so dry. Just an ice cube,” I begged.
Oxygen tubes inserted into my nostrils had rubbed my nose raw. I pulled them out.
I felt relief. I watched the numbers drop on the LCD screen. An alarm sounded.
I tried to put the tubes back when the nurse ran in.
“Mr. King, you need the oxygen,” she chided, skillfully replacing al the tubes and checking all the machines and medicines that flanked my hospital bed — all the things that were keeping me alive.
A note from the poet: Two years ago, our church opened its doors and began serving meals to our community. The immense and overwhelming feelings I felt scared me and so I penned them in this poem. Working with the poor among us has been eye-opening and has really pushed me to re-evaluate my thinking and life, for which I am immensely grateful.
~ The Rev. Dr. Martha FrizLanger