Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber admits that she does not look — or act — like a typical church leader. Heavily tattooed and with a tendency to swear like a truck driver, Bolz-Weber was once a standup comic with a big drinking problem.
But she was drawn to Lutheran theology, and when a group of friends asked her to give a eulogy for another friend who had committed suicide, Bolz-Weber discovered her calling.
Bolz-Weber tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that while addressing the crowd of "academics and queers and comics and recovering alcoholics" at the funeral, she realized: "These people don't have a pastor, and maybe that's what I'm supposed to do."
After going to seminary, Bolz-Weber founded a church in Denver called The House for All Sinners and Saints. She writes about the church, which she describes as "Christo-centric," in the new memoir Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People.
Bolz-Weber's congregation includes LGBT people, people with addictions, compulsions and depression, and even nonbelievers. "Some churches might have a hard time welcoming junkies and drag queens; we're fine with that," she says.
Still, Bolz-Weber admits to feeling uneasy when "bankers in Dockers" started coming to her services: "It threw me into a crisis, because I felt like, 'Wait, you could go to any mainline Protestant church in this city and see a room full of people who look just like you. Why are you coming and messing up our weird?' "
Ultimately, Bolz-Weber says, mixing more traditional newcomers with her church's original parishioners has been good for her congregation. "I thought it was diluting the weird; now it's much weirder to have them all together," she explains.
And regardless of who fills the seats, Bolz-Weber's message from the pulpit remains the same: "My job is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they're absolutely loved ... and all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God's mercy and God's ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad."
On why people are surprised she's a pastor
Other than the fact that I tend to swear like a truck driver? ... I don't look like a pastor, I'm very heavily tattooed, I have sleeve tattoos, basically, and very short hair, and I'm, like, 6-feet-1-inch [tall]. I don't actually act like a pastor either. I don't have that sweet, nurturing, "come to me; I'll co-sign on all of your BS problems," like, I just don't have that warm, cozy personality, and I'm kind of cranky and a little bit sarcastic, I guess.
Nobody ever meets me and guesses. The best thing is on airplanes. ... Eventually if you talk to [people], which I try not to do, but if it has to happen, then they'll say, "What do you do?" and I'll invite them to guess, and never once have they guessed. I did get "burlesque dancer" once, which pleased me to no end. If you're a middle-aged Lutheran pastor and someone guesses you're a burlesque dancer, that feels like a win for the day.
On starting her own church, The House for All Sinners and Saints
I had to start a church I'd want to show up to, basically. I really love Lutheran theology and I love the ancient liturgy, but I'd look around Lutheran churches, and no one looked like me. ... I would have to culturally commute to show up to those churches, and I wasn't really eager to do that, so I basically became a pastor to my people. My call to ministry was very particular: It was to do this thing, to start a congregation, because I went to my bishop at the time and I was like, "Man, you could, like, put me in some church in the suburbs or in the country, but you and I both know that would be ugly for everyone involved, so let's just say I start one." He goes, "Yeah, that sounds better."
On basing some of her practice on Alcoholics Anonymous
I think a lot of congregations have a situation where there are more people talking about God in the basement during the week; the basement of their church is more full of people talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in God. I think that happens more frequently in their basements than it does in their sanctuaries. ... You know what organization is not really having a problem is AA; it's doing fine. They're not in a crisis. There aren't meetings in AA where they're like, "How can we get people to start showing up more?" So I think that there's something about people speaking honestly about their lives, and sometimes, I think, church is more about pretending your life is fine, and, I think, less and less people have time for that.
On initially feeling uncomfortable when more traditional parishioners came to her church following a Denver Post article about her
One of the values my community has always held is this idea of welcoming the stranger. ... So having this value — it was really challenged at that point when different people started coming in. ...
The Denver Post ... ran this big front-page story about me with this terrifying picture of me, and so the next Sunday, tons of people showed up. But the thing is, you know who takes the paper are, like, 60-year-olds in the suburbs. That's who showed up. So we're looking around going, "What's happened? Our weirdness is being diluted." I called a friend of mine who has a church with a similar demographic in St. Paul, Minn., and I was like, "Dude, have you ever had normal people mess up your church?" and he goes, "Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad." ...
That's what is challenging to me about Christianity is that exact thing — being forced to look at your own stuff and being pushed into a space of grace that's really, really uncomfortable.
On belief in God
I just don't think that belief should be the basis of belonging to a community like this, and so we don't sort of make that the central reason why somebody belongs. So we don't even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. It's not that I don't care; it's that I don't feel responsible for what people believe. I feel very responsible for what they hear, as their preacher, as their pastor. ...
We have people who are atheist, agnostic, people who are very evangelical in their faith; somehow it's a space where people who believe a lot of different things can come together, but that doesn't mean I'm like a crypto-Unitarian. So I'm not just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in my sermon; I mean, I'm actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian, and it's a very sort of Christo-centric community, but it's one in which really everyone is welcome to come and participate.
On religous leaders monitoring people's behavior
I don't monitor people's behavior, let's put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about monitoring behavior, and so far it has just failed to work as a strategy for making people better. For instance, we're in the middle of this Ashley Madison scandal with all of these clergy, so on some level Christianity became about monitoring people's behavior, like a sin-management program, and that almost always fails and often backfires. I would actually argue that conservative Christianity's obsession with controlling sexuality — I mean absolute obsession with it — has in fact created more unhealthy sexual behavior than it has ever prevented. I really believe that.
On giving the sermon at the funeral of a teenage boy who had committed suicide
When I heard about this kid, and I heard about all of these wonderful things about him, and how queer he was, and how he played piano, all this stuff about him — he struggled with just a tiny bit of heroin and mental health problems. When I heard about him, I thought, "That is exactly the kind of guy Jesus would hang out with." We see the cast of characters Jesus surrounded himself with, people for whom life was hard, and who had some colorful things going on, and rank fishermen, and prostitutes, and tax collectors, and these are the kind of people Jesus chose to surround himself with, and I think that's important. I have no idea how Christianity went from that to what it is now.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In order to have a church where she and her friends would feel comfortable, Nadia Bolz-Weber founded one. It's called the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She's an ordained Lutheran minister and a graduate of the Illiff School of Theology. But before that, she was a stand-up comic with a big drinking problem. She writes that, like herself, many of her parishioners suffer from addictions, compulsions and depression. The church had just a few people attending when she started it in 2008. It's grown, and so has her reputation as a pastor, writer and guest speaker. In 2012, she spoke at the Superdome in New Orleans, addressing an audience of about 35,000 people attending the annual youth conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Nadia Bolz-Weber has written a new book called "Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People." Nadia Bolz-Weber, welcome to FRESH AIR. For listeners who haven't met you, what is it about you that makes people so surprised to find out that you're a pastor?
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Like, other than the fact that I tend to swear like a truck driver, which I'll totally try to not do while I'm talking to you (laughter).
GROSS: Thank you.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, I don't know. I just don't - I don't look like a pastor. I'm, like, very heavily tattooed. I have, like, sleeve tattoos basically and very short hair. And I'm like 6'1''. I don't actually really act like a pastor either (laughter). I don't have that sort of sweet, nurturing, like, come to me, I'll cosign on all your B.S. problems. I - like, I just don't have that sort of warm, cozy personality. And I'm kind of cranky and a little bit sarcastic. I guess so - no, nobody ever meets me and then - the best thing is on airplanes. People will be like - eventually, if you talk to them, which I try not to do - but if it has to happen, then they'll say, like, well, what do you do? And I'll invite them to guess. And never once have they guessed. They - I mean, people...
GROSS: (Laughter) That's great.
BOLZ-WEBER: I - but I did get burlesque dancer once.
BOLZ-WEBER: Which pleased me to no end. If you're a middle-aged Lutheran pastor and someone guesses you're a burlesque dancer, that feels like a win for the day.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you founded your own church, and you founded it back when you were a seminary student. Why did you need to start - why did you feel the need to start your own church? It's a Lutheran church. You didn't start your own denomination.
BOLZ-WEBER: No, yeah, it's like a real Lutheran church. But I had to - I had to start a church I'd want to show up to, basically. I mean, I really love Lutheran theology, and I love the ancient liturgy. But I'd look around Lutheran churches, and no one looked like me. And, like, my friends are not going to those churches, as nice as those churches are. Not to say they're doing something wrong, but I would have to culturally commute to show up to those churches. And I wasn't really eager to do that. So I basically became a pastor to my people. I mean, my, like, call to ministry was very particular. It was to do this thing, to start a congregation. 'Cause I went to my bishop at the time. I was like, man, you could, like, put me in some church in the suburbs or out in the country, but you and I both know that would be ugly for everyone involved. So let's just say I start one. He goes, yeah, that sounds better.
GROSS: So you said you wanted to minister to your people. Who are your people?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I mean, the whole thing sort of started when - so I'm in recovery. I'm a recovering alcoholic. And it all started before I - you know, way before I was in seminary, when a friend of mine had - who was also in recovery and was also a comic - I have a background doing standup - had committed suicide. And all my friends just kind of looked at me, and they were like, well, you can do the funeral, right? And I hadn't been to seminary. I was just literally the only religious person in my friend group. And so I did his funeral. It was this packed comedy club in downtown Denver. And I'd just look out at it these people, and it's, like, academics and queers and comics and recovering alcoholics. And I'm giving my friend's eulogy, and I just realize, these people don't have a pastor. And maybe that's what I'm supposed to do. And that was sort of my call to ministry, in a sense.
GROSS: So when you start your own church, did the Lutheran Church - did the hierarchy of the church - have to endorse that idea? And do you need, like, a special license to start - like, what - how do you actually do it?
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, (laughter) it was - I don't know. It was the weirdest thing. Like, I feel like my denomination really actually broke a lot of rules for me. I was doing an interview live once. And during a Q and A, someone said, you know, you seem to be really independent, and you do your own thing. And maybe you have an issue with authority, but you're under authority, right? Like, you have a bishop. And I go, oh, yeah. And he goes, well, can you tell us about how you've managed to navigate that? And I'm like, what, are you kidding? People like me should have a bishop. Like, I'm literally why we have bishops, right?
BOLZ-WEBER: So, like, I don't have this story of, like, having to fight the man, you know, in order to be recognized. Like, basically, what - a Lutheran identity is a theological identity. And because my denomination trusts me as a theologian, they trusted me as a practitioner. So I've never been - I've never been questioned as a practitioner. So they understood that I was native to maybe a cultural context they didn't understand. But they ensured I had a top-notch theological education. And then they trusted me with it. So they were eager to let me try this weird thing.
GROSS: Well, you mention that, like a lot of the people who have been in your congregation - you're in recovery. You were in a 12-step program. I'm wondering if, at the beginning, you modeled your church on 12-step, in a way.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, I didn't really realize I was doing that. But, yeah, man, I think a lot of congregations have a situation where people are - there are more people talking about God in the basement during the week. The basement of their church is more full of people talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in God. I think that happens more frequently in their basements than it does in their sanctuaries.
GROSS: The basements where the 12-step meetings are.
BOLZ-WEBER: That's right, yeah, because I - I mean, you know what organization's not really having a problem is AA. Like, that's...
BOLZ-WEBER: It's doing fine. That - they're not in a crisis. So there aren't meetings about how - in AA - where they're like, how can we get people to start showing up more? And so I think that there's something about people speaking honestly about their lives, and sometimes I think church is more about pretending your life's fine. And I think less and less people have time for that.
GROSS: How many people are in your congregation now?
BOLZ-WEBER: Approximately all of them. (Laughter) All the people are at my church. Like, we - it's standing-room-only at this point. It's - we're super crowded. I don't know. We don't - we're not so keen on keeping track of membership. We think membership's stupid. So I think we have, like...
GROSS: How many people fit in the room?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, we have 185 chairs. But there's consistently about 220 people on Sunday. So let's see, there's probably about 350 people who are regularly involved in my congregation. That would be my guess.
GROSS: So one of the unusual, quote, "problems" that you had when your church started becoming more popular was that it was no longer just, quote, "your people." It was no longer just people who were the people you describe, people who were recovering alcoholics or who were LGBT and didn't fit into more mainstream congregations. So when people started coming to your church from the suburbs, people who, as you put it, look like the parents of the people who were in your congregation, why was that something of a crisis for you?
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, it was - you know, some churches might have a hard time welcoming, you know, junkies and drag queens. We're fine with that. But, like, when bankers in Dockers started showing up, we're like, wait a minute. Like, I - it threw me into a crisis 'cause I felt like, wait, you could go to any mainline Protestant church in this city and see a room full of people who look just like you. Like, why are you coming and, like, messing up our weird? And one of the values my community has always held is this idea of welcoming the stranger. Like, a lot of times we'll start the liturgy by saying, blessed be God, the Word who came to his own and his own received him not. For in this way, God glorifies the stranger. And so having this value was - it was really challenged at that point when different people started coming in - 'cause what happened was I preached at Red Rocks, which is this amazing amphitheater outside Denver. And there's this citywide Easter service. So I preached to, like, 10,000 people. And when The Denver Post found out about this, they ran this big front-page story about me with this, like, terrifying picture of me. And then...
BOLZ-WEBER: And so the next Sunday, like, tons of people showed up. But the thing is is that - you know who takes the paper are, like, 60-year-olds in the suburbs. And that's who showed up. And so we're looking around going, what's happened? Like, our church - our weirdness is being diluted. And I called a friend of mine, who has a church with a similar demographic in St. Paul, Minn., and I was like, dude, have you ever had normal people, like, mess up your church? And he goes, yeah, you know, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid. But sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad. And I, like, held the phone out, screaming, like, you're supposed to be my friend - click. So that's why - but these are - this is what's hard about...
GROSS: But that's such a great observation, right?
BOLZ-WEBER: It's a terrible observation.
BOLZ-WEBER: That's why Christianity is not an easy thing for me because sometimes, I feel like the Gospel's, like, the worst good news I've ever heard in my life. (Laughter) Like, I don't want to welcome these guys. So anyway, I called this meeting to talk about the demographic change, thinking, you know, maybe if these baby boomers find out, like, who we are and what the church is about, they'll self-select out, you know? But by the time the meeting really happened, I had had that phone call with my friend. And it felt like I'd had, once again, what I call this, like, divine heart transplant where God, like, reaches in and rips out my heart of stone and replaces it with something warm and beating again. So I become human. Anyway, so everyone's going around the room, and Asher speaks up. I tell them the story, the whole room. I'm like, this is what happened. I had this phone call. And Asher speaks up. And he said, look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I want to go on record as saying, like, I'm glad there are people who look like my parents here because they love me in a way that my parents are finding difficult right now. And I was like, oh, man, meeting over.
BOLZ-WEBER: I mean, like, meeting over. That was it. Like, that's what is challenging to me about Christianity is that exact thing - is, like, being forced to look at your own stuff and being pushed into a space of grace that's really, really uncomfortable. And I should say, that same person, Asher, was just ordained. I just preached - the ordination was at our church. And Asher was the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the ELCA, by my denomination. So we, like...
GROSS: That's great.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, he's an extraordinary person. And that day was a huge celebration.
GROSS: So have the outsiders chased away any of the - any of the outsider community that you solely preached to early on?
BOLZ-WEBER: (Laughter) No, thank goodness, because this is what - this is how the story kept going was that now those same people who were a challenge for me to, like, welcome, I cannot imagine us being House for All Sinners and Saints without them. I can't imagine. We are not us without them. Like, they are such beloved, core members of the community. Also, they know how to work. Like, they actually bring food to potlucks. And they know how to, like, clean up the kitchen afterwards. Like, (laughter) they actually, like, know how to do stuff, you know? So I thought it was diluting the weird. Now it's much weirder to have them all together.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she's written a new book called "Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People." And the church that she's founded, which is called House for All Sinners and Saints, is in Denver, where she lives. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. And she actually founded her own church within the Lutheran Church. She's an ordained Lutheran minister. And her church is called the House for All Sinners and Saints. It's based in Denver, and it was initially just a community of people who were in 12-step programs, people who had drug and alcohol problems, LGBT people who didn't feel like they'd find a home in other churches or maybe didn't even want to go to church. And then her community has grown since then and is inclusive in a different kind of way. It includes people who she finds surprisingly (laughter) - surprisingly mainstream. So...
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, at one point we realized we really needed to diversity recruit some straight white guys because we had so few.
GROSS: So one of the things you say about your church is that you don't care if people in your church believe or not. How can you be a pastor and minister to people in a Lutheran church and not care if they believe or not? And what does believe even mean when you use the word?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, that's the thing is that I just don't think belief should be the basis of belonging to a community like this. And so I - everyone - we don't sort of make that the central reason that somebody belongs. So we don't even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. It's not that I don't care. It's that I don't feel responsible for what people believe. I feel very responsible for what they hear as their preacher, as their pastor. So in the liturgy and in the preaching, I feel responsible for what they hear. Now, how that's going to work upon them in their lives is - there's so many things that contribute to that that I have nothing to do with. So I just don't feel a sense of responsibility. So we have people who are atheist, agnostic, people who are very evangelical in their faith. Somehow, it's a space where people who believe a lot of different things can come together. But that doesn't mean that I'm like a crypto-Unitarian, right? So I'm not just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in my sermon. I mean, I'm actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian. And it's a very sort of Christo-centric community. But it's one in which really everyone's welcome to come and participate.
GROSS: Are you more concerned about people's actions than their beliefs?
BOLZ-WEBER: I'm not even really concerned about their actions, no.
GROSS: That wasn't the answer I was expecting.
GROSS: What are you concerned about?
BOLZ-WEBER: Nothing. No, that's not true (laughter). I mean, I'm not concerned about - I don't monitor people's behavior. Let's put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about, like, sort of monitoring behavior. And so far, it's just failed to work as a strategy - right? - for making people better. For instance, we're in the middle of this Ashley Madison scandal with all of these clergy, right? So on some level, the - Christianity became about monitoring people's behavior, a sort of behavior - or like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires. Like, I would actually argue that conservative Christianity's obsession with controlling sexuality - I mean, absolute obsession with it - has in fact created more unhealthy sexual behavior than it's ever prevented. I really believe that. I mean, you actually don't even see that particular level of obsession with, like, the power of sex and how dangerous - it's like the moral bogeyman that's hiding behind every corner and every zipper to these people, right? I mean, it's just like they're obsessed with it in a way you seldom see outside of say, like, 16-year-old boys.
BOLZ-WEBER: So it feels like there's an entire culture that has not developed past this. And we found that it doesn't actually make people behave better.
GROSS: To sum up, your issue isn't what people believe or whether they believe. And it's not their actions either. So your goal is - your job is...
BOLZ-WEBER: Is to preach the Gospel. I mean - so my job is to - is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they're absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late-stage capitalism, for instance, that they are sort of named and claimed by God and that this is an identity that is more foundational than any of the others. And all of these sort of - and that they're, like, completely forgiven and their - all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God's mercy and God's ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad. Like, all of that - like, that message is what I just keep preaching over and over and over. And I think that there's a particular effect. I think when people hear this over and over, they become free. And I think they actually do start making good choices for themselves and healthy choices, self-respecting choices without the church telling them what that has to look like.
GROSS: So we've established that you're not trying to tell people that they need to believe. And you're not trying to be the person who oversees their actions and explains what's right and wrong. But at the same time, social justice is really at the root of a lot of congregations. And for some people, it's at the root of Christianity itself. So where does that fit in for you?
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, the weird thing is we're not really a social justice church. It just happens that most of the people who come are involved in social justice. Like, I think my congregation staffs half the non-profits in Denver. So they're holding the world's most broken realities together with Scotch Tape during the week, you know? Women who experience abuse and homeless teenagers and pregnant teenagers and people who have experienced sexual assault, you know, they're involved in that part of reality. And when they come to church, they don't need a preacher saying, we need to fix the world, and you need to do more social justice. When they come to church, they need a place where they can experience, like, confession and absolution - like, where they can confess the ways in which they can't manage to fix everything and they can't live up to their own values and the ways they've failed and hear that's sort of ringing word of forgiveness and absolution. They need to hear the Gospel and receive the Eucharist so they can go out there and do it again the next day. So, you know, maybe if I was in a, like, really privileged suburban context, I might preach social justice. But that's not - I mean, people are already - they're already converted to that.
GROSS: My guest is Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her new memoir is called "Accidental Saints." After a short break, she'll talk about how she rediscovered faith years after leaving the fundamentalist church she was brought up in. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ordained Lutheran pastor, former standup comic and recovering alcoholic. She started a church in Denver for outsiders like herself called the House for All Sinners and Saints. Their community of about 250 people now includes people who identify as Lutheran, post-evangelical, Methodist, Episcopalian and agnostic. Bolz-Weber has written a new book called "Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People." You describe yourself as having the gift of faith. What does that mean?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I don't - it doesn't feel like I choose it or that I even work for it, to tell you the truth. It's just - I don't - it doesn't really feel like I've had a choice. Like, it feels like God's really come after me, is constantly sort of hunting me down, in a way. I mean, I was in Q and A recently, and this really earnest young seminarian was like, Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God? And, like, before I even knew I was saying it, I was like, what? Nothing. Why would I do that? Like, half of the time, I wish he'd leave me alone because if I'm, like, going to try and get closer to God, I'm going to end up having to love someone I don't like again or give away more of my money or be confronted with some horrible inconsistency about myself and be called to sort of repent. None of those things - I'm not interested in those things (laughter). They keep happening to me, but it's not because I've climbed some sort of spiritual ladder and I'm constantly pursuing God. God's pursuing me.
GROSS: So if you have the gift of faith, how do you draw on that during difficult times when you're having a service in your community?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I've become a very sort of strangely vulnerable preacher. I'm very confessional. I tell sort of inelegant truths about myself as a way of pointing to how God's mercy intercedes for me. I - it's - so, I'm a pastor who believes in leading by example, except for it's by the example of how much I need grace rather than the example of, here, I'm a sort of gleaming example of perfect piety for you to emulate.
GROSS: So we've been talking about how you feel like you have the gift of faith. You grew up in a fundamentalist family. Do you think your faith was such a fundamental part of your upbringing that it was just, like, wired into you when you were young, and you couldn't give it up even when you tried? Because you left the church for several years and did all kinds of things that the church would not have approved of, including whatever the substances were that you were addicted to.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, I - Frank Schaefer once said in an interview that, like, if what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be an atheist, the very first thing he'd do is pray to God to make him one.
BOLZ-WEBER: I wish that was my line, but it's not. I mean, that's how I feel. Like, it's so a part of me I can't escape it. Like, I cannot escape it. It's just a reality, and I believe that God created faith within me. Martin Luther - now, I'm going to get super nerdy here, Terry, so hold on.
BOLZ-WEBER: Martin Luther, in his small catechism, in his explication of the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed, says, I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, come to my Lord Jesus or believe in him but that the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel and enlightened me with the Spirit's gifts, meaning Martin Luther confessed that faith is something that is created in us by God. It is not something we muster up to do God a solid by believing in him, you know? If I could be something other than Christian, especially if it was something than cooler than Christian (laughter), I would totally do that. I cannot escape the fact that it feels like God rescued me through this particular symbol system, this one, even though I had problems with it, you know, in the way it was given to me in my upbringing. It's a very recent idea in human history that you can choose your own symbol system.
GROSS: Yes, I know. I know. It's a kind of radical idea, and you can choose not to have one. So what was your understanding of being a Christian when you were young and being raised as a member of a fundamentalist church?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, it mostly meant being really good at not doing things, especially really fun things other people did. So being Christian meant, like, you were good at not swearing, not smoking, not dancing, not going to certain movies, not swearing. I mean, just, you know, it's a bunch of stuff you were supposed to not do. And we were supposed to be really set apart from everyone else who was doing the bad things. And if you did that really well, your reward for never having fun in this life was that you got to have mansions and streets of gold in heaven. So it was like you were going to live it up in the afterlife if you managed to not have very much fun now. But it was going to be worth it because that one lasts forever. This one, who knows how long it lasts?
GROSS: One of the things that helped make you feel like an outsider when you were young is that you had Graves' disease, which is a thyroid-related autoimmune disorder. And your symptoms included having bulging eyes because fatty tissue had built up behind your eyes. You had to get surgery eventually, and that corrected it. And you write, church was the only place where people didn't gawk at you or mock you. Why was that a safe place for you in terms of feeling comfortable physically with how you looked?
BOLZ-WEBER: (Laughter) This is - when I was writing "Pastrix," my last book, I told my editor I would under no circumstances write about having Graves' disease and all the sort of concomitant issues that came with it. And then she made me do it. She let me write the whole book, and then she handed it back to me. And she's like, now read this, and tell me that it's not missing that piece. No one's going to understand why you're such an angry kid if you don't write it. You've got to write about that. Like, be brave, and tell it. And I thought, if I tell the truth about this, I'm going to - it's going to kill me. So it was very difficult. I mean, my eyelids literally couldn't close. My eyes bulged out of my head from ages 12 to 16. You kind of think you look like an insect anyway in middle school. I literally did. And so I was very, very ostracized. I didn't really have - it sounds so dramatic. And one of the reasons I didn't want to write about it is I thought, if I even approach writing about this honestly, it's going to sound like I'm exaggerating. But I didn't have friends. And I ate all my, you know, meals alone in junior high and whatever. But I would go to church, and it felt like nobody noticed, like that's not the basis on which I was viewed. And so it became really difficult to have the one place where it felt like my - how I looked didn't matter become a place where I felt less and less comfortable because I didn't really develop my personality last month. Like, I just (laughter) - it's just me. So it was just such a hard place for a smart and smart-mouthed girl. Like, women weren't even allowed to pray out loud in front of men in this...
BOLZ-WEBER: Particular form of Christianity, yeah. So, you know, it was so hard to grow up like that because you were - just all the sort of subservience - subservience that was expected of women. And I just - I'm not that girl.
GROSS: So how did alcohol and drugs become part of the picture for you?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, I mean, I was just - I was so pissed off. I was such an angry kid. And my anger - honestly, I feel like if you have the experience of that kind of alienation as a kid, one of two things can happen. You could either become a, like, diminished self that tries to disappear, or you become this person who just kind of flips off the world in anger. And I became the latter and not the former. And so, in some way, my anger preserved me. I mean, I think it saved me, honestly, until I added drugs and alcohol to it. And then it almost killed me.
GROSS: So you went to your first 12-step meeting in 1991. How old were you?
GROSS: And, you know, 12-step meetings are often, in part, about the need for a belief in a higher power in order to kind of get through things. Did you follow that? Did that emphasis on the higher power lead you back to - not to the church that you used to be in, but to the idea of returning to church, returning to the belief system?
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, absolutely, no question. It was almost like a bait and switch...
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah because, I mean, I never managed to be an atheist. I didn't actually stop believing in God during the 10 years that I spent outside of Christianity. I just explored other, you know, avenues of spirituality during that time, which I'm grateful for. But going to - being in a 12-step program that says that you've got to sort of - your only chance is to, you know, is to pray and believe in God and trust that that higher power's going to carry you through, I saw that, again, to look at, like, experience in front of me rather than an idea. If that was just an idea, I'd be like, forget it; I'm out of here. But the thing is I saw it in reality in front of me in people who had stayed sober for a long time. So that felt like it was - it was sort of borne out in people's experience as something that actually worked. And so I stuck around, and I listened to them. And I learned to pray again and to connect and to sort of begin that conversation with God again.
GROSS: My guest is Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founder of the church The House for All Sinners and Saints and the author of the memoir "Accidental Saints." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. And she is an ordained Lutheran minister who founded her own church in Denver, Colo. She's written a new book called "Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People." So before you came to the Lutheran Church, you had tried other paths. You'd tried Wicca and, you know, the idea of worshiping the goddess. You tried Quakers. You tried the Unitarian Church. You ended up in the Lutheran Church. It's within the Lutheran Church that you were ordained and then founded your own church. What was it about Lutherans that made that your final stop?
BOLZ-WEBER: Well, it - again, it's the sort of experience and theology having to go together, an idea and what the reality in front of me has to match. And so Lutherans were the only ones who gave me such beautiful language for what I'd already experienced to be true. So I had experienced that I had an enormous capacity for destruction, both of myself and other people. But I also had an enormous capacity for kindness. And I went to the Lutheran Church. And they said, oh, yeah, everybody's simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both all the time. And I thought, well, that explains a lot. Like, that I get. I have experienced that to be true. And also, they have this unapologetic sort of centering of grace. Grace is the main sort of central focus of Lutheran theology. It's not self-improvement. It's not discipleship or, you know, creating a good prayer life, right? The center of Lutheran theology is grace. And so I had experienced grace because I didn't pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps when I got sober. It did feel like God interrupted my life. I was actually fine with the idea I was going to be dead by the time I was 30, you know? And it felt like God plucked me up off this one path I was on. And I was, like, kicking and screaming. And God's like, that's adorable, but I'm going to put you over here now and put me on a completely different path. So that felt like grace - like this rude interruption, divine interruption to my life. But I didn't do it. It didn't feel like I created that. It felt like this incredible power of grace in my life. And that is the center point of Lutheran theology. And that's what I became so incredibly attracted to. And then, the third thing is really this thing called theology of the cross, this idea that God is so present in suffering. Like, in our suffering, we feel like God's absent, but God's actually especially present in human suffering. And I feel like I had experienced that as well.
GROSS: You refer to a memorial service that you led for a teenage boy - I think it was a teenager - who had committed suicide. And his, I think, parents were quite tormented. And the first sermon that you preached, basically, was before you'd become a minister. It was before you were a seminarian, when you were still a kind of standup comic and recovering alcoholic. And one of your fellow comics, who was part of the circle that you hung out with, killed himself. And what you said at this sermon for this teenage boy, after you were a pastor, when you were running his memorial service, was basically, if love could have saved him, then love would have been able to save your friend 'cause he was so loved and that sometimes love isn't enough to save someone. And I thought, what a comforting thing that must have been for this boy's parents to hear.
BOLZ-WEBER: Yeah, yeah. And again, the reason I was able to say that is I'd had that experience. I mean, that's the hard thing when someone takes their life is - I know what it's like to think, I should've returned their last voicemail or, I should've asked them over for dinner more. But I also know that's not how it works. And that memorial service, it was, like, at a restaurant with a bunch of his coworkers, you know, who had worked - who worked in a restaurant, these young adults. It wasn't a church. It wasn't even a church crowd. And what I wanted more than anything was to give them that message but to also - and see, this is where I just get, like, annoyingly Jesus-y, is, like, I wanted to talk about Jesus in this context but not in an evangelistic way. Like, I'm going to try and get you - I'm trying to save you - but in a, like, here's what I want you to know. I want you to know that when I heard about this kid and I heard about all these wonderful things about him and how queer he was and how he played piano - all this stuff about him - and he, you know, struggled with just a tiny bit of, you know, heroine and mental health problems. When I heard about him, I thought, that is exactly the kind of guy Jesus would hang out with. I mean, like, we see the cast of characters Jesus surrounded himself with, people for whom life was hard and who had some colorful things going on and rank fishermen and prostitutes and tax collectors. And, like, these are the kind of people Jesus chose to surround himself with. And I think that's important. I have no idea how Christianity went from that to what it is now.
GROSS: So one of the things that you do as the pastor of your church is to hear confession from anyone who wants you to hear it, you know, one-on-one. I think for some people, confession seems kind of odd. It's like OK, you could do anything, and then you confess to it. And then you're forgiven. So is that a misunderstanding of what confession is? And what does the act of hearing confession mean to you?
BOLZ-WEBER: To me, it's all about the burdens that people carry. Like, I'm more tortured by the harm I've caused myself and other people than I - and more tortured by my secrets than some, like, list of no-nos, the no-nos I've done in my life. And so I want people to feel free. And so to confess is then to sort of lay these things that are weighing us down, stuff we've done, things only we know, and to sort of speak those out loud to another person and give them the opportunity, a trusted clergyperson, an opportunity to remind us who we are and that God's grace is actually so much more powerful than our ability to make mistakes. So that - it's about freedom for me.
GROSS: Pastor Nadia, thank you so much for talking with us.
BOLZ-WEBER: Oh, it was such a pleasure. Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor. She founded the Denver-based church the House for All Sinners and Saints and is the author of the new memoir "Accidental Saints." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review Grace Potter's new solo album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.