Best-selling author Nadia Bolz Webber leads a Lutheran church in Denver. It’s called The House for All Sinners and Saints. That covers about all of us.
I heard her speak last week at a conference of folk who serve in churches, a group that does remarkable holy work. It’s also a group that knows well the foibles and failures seen in the pews on Sunday, seen around the table at a church meeting, and of course seen in the mirror. In a season of heightened anxiety, she gave hope for why we do church, why we need church, even with all the foibles and failures.
Ms. Bolz Webber is a big presence, not just because she is tall. She speaks truth to her generation. She has lots of tattoos. She wears a lot of black clothes. Clergy often do that, but this is a bit different with its goth flavor. She cusses some when she speaks publicly. I find that sort of fun and unexpected, but ultimately not that important.
What got my attention was her transparent confessional tone, her witness to the darkness of her own soul, on exhibit when she admitted the twisted nature of her inner life. Just one example she offered: her experience of a kind of religious road rage as she was walking in a prayer labyrinth behind someone who was moving way too slow. I believe she said something like “Get on with it.” And maybe even included an expletive.
The crowd of church folk laughed knowingly. She shone light on the thing that Jesus talked about, oh, all the time. The really religious people are often so tied up in knots, so internally twisted, that they forget that it’s all about love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Jesus needed to remind them that God comes to give us a new heart.
It’s the prayer of David after the prophet shone light on his twisted, murderous, adulterous activity. David prayed: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. It’s the teaching of Jesus in Mark, chapter 7: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.” He said: “You abandon the commandment of God (i.e., according to Jesus, that command is love of God and neighbor) and hold to human tradition.” Then Jesus said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’
Ms. Bolz Webber said that the twisted nature was what might be called sin in some other context. She noted that sin is not simply a list of naughty things we should not do. (Sometimes that would just be easier.) It is this inner disposition that puts “hope in poison as if it was medicine.” That was another line that caught my attention, a corollary to what Anne Lamott has said about the inner life which can get pretty twisted, which is that holding on to a resentment is like drinking rat poison in hopes that the rat will die.
It’s all about the heart, and so I repeat the wisdom of the desert father that I have found both helpful and challenging: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”
She got me when she spoke about why the faith, why church matters. (In a twist, she said she was religious, not spiritual.) We need to come together and be together to share the transformative power of God’s love, love that identifies each one of us as child of God. We need to come together in a place where the gospel is proclaimed (Love wins), where bread is shared, where water is poured, where forgiveness is pronounced. You don’t get all that anywhere else.
She noted that hurt people hurt people. Conversely, she noted that forgiven people forgive people. The key to untangling, untwisting the inner snarl? Remember that each one of us is a child of God. We can’t hear that often enough. Can you hear it this Monday morning? Can you share that good news?
From Psalm 51
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
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