Friday, September 11, 2015

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Modern-Day Demons, and the Little Drummer Boy

Nadia: “I just want to write a book where I come out looking good in just one chapter.”  
Her husband, Matthew: “You just have so little source material.” 
I arrived at Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book reading in Philadelphia this past week knowing maybe three things about her:
  1. Her strongly muscled and tattooed arms present an interesting contrast to other Lutheran pastors I’ve had occasion to see,
  2. Her church in Colorado offers a safe place for marginalized Christians who haven’t felt at home in mainstream, conventional congregations, and
  3. She has had struggles with drugs, alcohol, and depression, which have informed her preaching to her congregation.
I left her talk having found out:
  1. She feels far more connected to people through her failures than through her successes,
  2. Demons might not be such an anachronism as we might like to think, and
  3. She really, really despises “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, photo by Joni Taylor
In her books, at her church the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, and during her speaking engagements, Nadia talks honestly about the need for God’s grace.  She told us that it is “the jagged edges of our humanity” where God tends to grab hold of us, and that it is our shared brokenness that connects us to God and to one another. Her spiritual leadership style is to connect with people through her failures more than through her successes. 

Churches have become places where we can pretend that everything is “fine,” instead of places to find meaning in the difficult things.  Our real opportunity—the real place of promise, Nadia says—is becoming more and more aware each day of our need for God’s grace, and more and more grateful for its power to transform us. 
Photo by Joni Taylor
Nadia seems to see the sanitizing of Christmas as part-and-parcel of this tendency to deny the hard parts of life.  She believes that Herod should play a role in the Nativity just as surely as the shepherds and angels, and she advocates including Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (recorded in the Gospel of Matthew) along with the other Christmas-time scripture readings. 

We need to remember, essentially, that God chose to enter our world at a time as faithless and violent as our own.  We don’t benefit from hiding the reality of suffering, when what we really want to do is make sense of it, of the world as it actually exists.

I have to laugh at the one part of her talk that got me in a huff: She called The Little Drummer Boy “the worst Christmas song ever.” Now don’t get me wrong:  Like her, I’ve given birth to two children and can assure you, as she did, that the last thing a woman in labor wants in her delivery room is a little boy with a drum—even if he is playing his best for me!  And I understand that the chance that there was a little drummer boy present at the birth of Jesus is slim to none.  

However, I remember my connection to that song when I was a little kid.  Something about the earnestness of a boy’s efforts to please Jesus, to give him the only thing he had to offer—I was really moved by that when I was six or seven years old!  My Aunt Gene gave me a wooden drummer boy ornament back in the seventies that I still hang on my Christmas tree with a smile every year.  So I have to confess that having Nadia declare my favorite childhood Christmas carol “the worst Christmas song ever” actually threw me for a few minutes in the middle of her talk!

I regained my equilibrium, though, in order to focus on the rest of what she had to say.  Her congregation characterizes her as “preaching to herself and letting others overhear.” I think that virtually guarantees an effective message—speaking the words you need to hear is very likely to minister to others’ needs at the same time.
Photo by Joni Taylor
She read a portion of her book related to her sermon on Jesus casting the demons out into the pigs (found in Matthew 8).  (Nadia mentioned a parishioner who wrote on the church Facebook page something along the lines of:  “How can I get behind a religion with all that wasted bacon?”)

A lot of people get a little weird and uncomfortable when talk of demons comes up, because we don’t tend to think of them as a real presence today, and we’re not sure what we believe about their presence back in Bible times.  Nadia said that if we define “demon possession” as being taken over by something destructive, then perhaps in our era of addiction, depression, and anxiety, the idea of demons is not such an anachronism.  She spoke of her demons of drugs, depression, and anger.

Nadia wrapped up the night with a Question and Answer session, before making herself available to sign books.  She fielded questions about church unity, faith labels, homosexuality, personal inspirations, and why God allows suffering—such complex and heavy topics that she was able to handle with remarkably satisfying answers in such a brief allotted time.
Nadia fielding questions, photo by Joni Taylor
One woman asked her about her devotion to Mary, which isn’t necessarily a common feature of Lutheran worship.  Simply put, Nadia said, Mary is “fierce.” She calls the Annunciation “the hidden miracle.” Here is this common girl with no reason to feel special.  But along comes an angel and calls her “blessed”—and she believes him!  “That is beautiful to me,” Nadia said. “We should be devoted to that.”
Photo by Joni Taylor
In closing, Nadia mentioned a Facebook post by one of her parishioners, named Jeff.  He evidently was getting tired of feeling anger and outrage toward all kinds of people he encounters—people in other cars, in stores, on the news.  He has come to understand that we’ve been given the authority, and even the duty, to declare “child of God” to everyone we meet, even those we think we despise.  Jeff wrote that he was changed by the Word of Grace he hears in his church.  This, said Nadia, is why we have Christian community: so we can stand together under the cross and point to the Gospel. 

We are humans among humans, equally messed up and equally forgiven.

I enjoy listening to her speak, and she has a powerful message, powerfully expressed.  She is bringing the gospel message of grace and forgiveness to people who are not finding their place in more traditional Christian settings, and that is an intense need being met by her work. 

I would identify myself as a fairly mainstream Christian with a conventional lifestyle, and as such, I don’t feel like Nadia is trying to speak to me.  I get that; she has lots of folks to reach in her target audience.  She seems to have determined that she needs to reach them by critiquing me, because it’s people like me who have not made a place for them in the past.  

The only problem is, because it isn’t specifically and truly me who has refused them a seat at the table, I sometimes feel unfairly accused when I listen to her speak.  I sometimes feel like she’s created a new table, and this time it’s me who is not welcome.  But when she speaks of brokenness, I have brokenness.  And when she speaks of flaws, I have flaws.  And when she speaks of God’s grace, glory to God, I have God’s grace.  

In her 2012 address at the ELCA YouthGathering in New Orleans, Nadia said that growing up in her church as a child, she felt as though they didn’t want her someone of her flavor in the gumbo.  I guess I just want to hear that she truly welcomes my flavor now that she’s the one cooking a meal!

Nadia came out ten minutes before beginning her talk to encourage us to get our photos taken in front of the “Accidental Saint” poster out in the church’s narthex.  As part of her book tour for Accidental Saint:  Finding God in All the Wrong People,” she is encouraging a social media blitz, using #AccidentalSaint
My friends and I, #AccidentalSaints
photos compiled by Joni Taylor


  1. I found this very helpful in understanding where she is coming from. It is people like you and Michael that have made me feel welcome at MPC and I hope you know that. With all my heart I want us both to feel welcome but we're not there yet so I encourage us to both keep trying.

  2. I enjoyed our serious discussion of her lecture the other day, and I really like the way you so fairly discussed in this post what resonated with you and what didn't. But I took one look at the picture of her fielding questions from the audience and decided if she doesn't like the Little Drummer Boy, well, that's oooh-kay by me and I'm not sure I'd try changing her mind about ANYTHING!

  3. Did Nadia speak about her difficulty when "people like you" Andria began to come to her church? She mentioned that in the Fresh Air interview on NPR. One of her congregation challenged her that she was fine with welcoming the wierd, but not fine with welcoming the "normal." She accepted that critique. I think she is amazing.

  4. Did Nadia speak about her difficulty when "people like you" Andria began to come to her church? She mentioned that in the Fresh Air interview on NPR. One of her congregation challenged her that she was fine with welcoming the wierd, but not fine with welcoming the "normal." She accepted that critique. I think she is amazing.


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