The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
By Nadia Bolz-Weber
FaithWords Copyright © 2013 Nadia Bolz-Weber
All rights reserved.
The Rowing Team
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
During my early years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self- deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.
We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness—all punctuated with profanity. We weren't a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we'd all have to paddle harder.
In 1992, when I started hanging out with the "rowing team," as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn't afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I'm funny when I'm miserable.
This isn't exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world's comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you'd have left ... well ... Carrot Top, basically. There's something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. At its best, comedy is prophesy and societal dream interpretation. At its worst it's just dick jokes.
When I was working as a comic, normal noncomic people would often say, "Wow, I don't know how you can get up in front of all those people with just a microphone." To which I would reply, "Wow, I don't know how you can balance your checkbook and get up for work each day." We all find different things challenging in life. Speaking in front of hundreds of people was far less challenging for me than scheduling dental appointments.
It was almost effortless for me to do comedy, because the underside was where I felt at home—there, everything is marinated in irony and sarcasm until ready to be grilled and handed to a naked emperor. I got regular comedy work, but never went far in the comedy world for several reasons. First, it was because I tended to make the other comics laugh more often than actual audiences, whom I held in contempt (and maybe that's why). Then there was the fact that I wasn't driven to succeed: As soon as it became an effort, I backed off. But the most important reason comedy didn't work for me was that I became healthier and just wasn't that funny anymore. Less miserable = less funny. In the process of becoming sober and trying to rely on God and be honest about my shortcomings, I became willing to show vulnerabilities. This made me easy prey in a comedy club greenroom, which is basically a hotbed of emotional Darwinism, so it wasn't a place I really wanted to spend a whole lot of my free time. In other ways, hanging out with comics could be kind of great. Next to most of them I was the picture of mental health. I befriended—and by befriended I mean occasionally slept with—a wiry-haired, gregarious comic named PJ who had a keen, albeit incredibly perverted, mind. PJ was one of those guys who wasn't exactly GQ material, foregoing well-cut jeans for a regrettable combination of baggy shorts, button-down shirts, and sport sandals. He had a distinctly feral quality about him that made him seem a bit canine. Despite his almost total lack of style, PJ managed to have a really full social life. He loved women and life and booze and girlie magazines and poker and comedy, not necessarily in that order.
He was also completing his PhD in communications while doing standup, which was made just a tad difficult by his aforementioned vices. One day, I invited him to the rowing team, and he remained a faithful member for the next eight years, often hosting the postmeeting poker games at his house.
If you didn't know PJ well, he didn't seem all that smart, but underneath his foul-mouthed rants was a stunning intellect. His was one of the more filthy acts in Denver, without a lot of highbrow content. He played stupid on stage and he was brilliant at it. I called PJ up once to see how his dissertation was coming along. "Great," he said, "but no one realizes I'm living in my office at the school."
PJ was like one of those cloth dolls with long skirts that you turn upside down and pull the skirt up—and it's no longer granny, but the big bad wolf. The right-side-up doll is a foul-mouthed simpleton, flipped over, a PhD in communications. The right-side-up doll is the fun-loving and charismatic host of a weekly poker game, flipped over, a non-functioning depressive.
PJ was a natural addition to the rowing team, and he infused the meetings with hilarious dark rants. "I wanted to kill myself this morning," PJ would say, "but I thought how much I'd hate providing all you fuckers with a reason to become even more self-absorbed than you already are, so ..." He ended most of his sentences with "so ..." as if we all knew how to fill in the next blank; if he were to do it for us it wouldn't be as funny. He was someone I wanted to be around, as if his juju would rub off, making me witty and smart and likable like him.
Comedy clubs are closed on Monday nights, but PJ's house was open for Texas Hold'em after our rowing team meetings. I'm pretty sure that when he got sober and removed booze from the equation, he just added extra women and poker and comedy. Mondays at PJ's became a dark carnival of comics, recovering alcoholics, and comics who were recovering alcoholics. Rounds of poker went late into the night, but competitive wit was where the real points were scored. Whenever I could, I would shove aside the inevitable pile of PJ's dirty magazines on the piano bench and sit myself down for a few hours of belly laughing, which was well worth the twenty-five dollars I always lost to them in the process.
Still, underneath the academic success, the adoring comedy club audiences, the many women, and loads of friends, was something corrosive. Eating away at our friend PJ, over the course of a decade, was a force or illness or demon that had staked a corner of PJ's mind, and like the Red Army, marched determinedly, claiming more and more territory each day.
PJ was loved by a lot of people who had no idea how to help him. The rowing team watched over his final years, as his mental illness was tugged and pulled by modern pharmacology but never cured. He'd show up less and less often on Monday nights, and each time he would be skinnier. It was as though his body began to follow his mind and spirit, which were slowly leaving. He stopped returning our calls.
Several days before he hanged himself, PJ called me. He wanted me to pray for him. It had been ten years since I'd met PJ, and I had since returned to Christianity. I think I was the only religious person he knew. He wondered about God: Was he beyond the pale of God's love? Throwing all my coolness and sarcasm aside, I prayed for him over the phone. I asked that he feel the very real and always available love of God. I prayed that he would know, without reservation, that he was a beloved child of God. I'm sure I said a bunch of other stuff, too. I wanted to be able to cast out this demon that had hold of our PJ, possessing him, telling him lies, and keeping out the light of God's love.
A week and a half later, I was sitting in a huge lecture hall at CU Boulder (where, as a thirty-five-year-old, married mother of two, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree), when my cell phone rang. I rushed outside, the cold air making my eyes water.
Sean, fellow comic and rower said, "Nadia. It's, um ... PJ, honey."
"Shit," I said.
"I'm sorry," Sean said. We were all sorry. "Can you do his service?"
This is how I was called to ministry. My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: These were my people. Giving PJ's eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It's not that I felt pious and nurturing. It's that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there with the woman climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a "hot date." God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don't get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn't help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn't help but point it out. For reasons I'll never quite understand, I realized that I had been called to proclaim the Gospel from the place where I am, and proclaim where I am from the Gospel.
What had started in early sobriety as a reluctant willingness to start praying again had led to my returning to Christianity, and now had led to something even more preposterous: I was called to be a pastor to my people.
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.
—1 Timothy 2:11-12
Twenty-five years before I would preside at a comedy club funeral, I got baptized. It was a Sunday in the spring of 1981, and I was wearing white sandals. The preacher, in his denim-colored polyester suit, had wound down his sermon and had given an altar call. If you are ready to make your life right with the Lord or if you desire to be baptized, come forward now as we stand and sing.
The people stood and sang, and I walked down the aisle toward the pastor. Another man handed me a card and golf pencil as I sat on the padded pew. After I checked the box indicating that I desired to be baptized, another man approached the pulpit to make the announcement to the congregation. Then I told them which man I wanted to baptize me.
In the church of my childhood it was taught that the "age of accountability" was somewhere around twelve. To hit the age of accountability was to spiritually go off of your parents' insurance. At age twelve the clock starts ticking, spiritually speaking; you know right from wrong now and because of this you are accountable for every time you fuck up. If you sin knowing right from wrong and then die before you chose to be baptized, you burn in hell for eternity. This is when kids start choosing to be baptized. The lag time between entering the age of accountability and having your slate wiped clean through baptism can be terrifying. Many of us would pray not to die in a car crash before we were baptized, like other people pray to not get sick before their employee benefits kick in. Twelve-year-old Church of Christ kids experience a wave of devotion like a Great Awakening comprised only of sixth graders.
Because twelve was the age of accountability, it was also the age at which boys could no longer be taught in Sunday school by women. In accordance with Timothy 2:12, women were not permitted to teach men, therefore a twelve-year-old boy had more authority than a mature woman. Women were not allowed to serve as elders, preachers, or ushers. For some reason, we didn't have the authority to pass a man the collection plate, but we did have the authority to pass the same man a plate of fried chicken and potato salad an hour later at the church potluck.
Dale Douglass was the first man I ever had for a Sunday school teacher. He was soft spoken and funny and parted his full head of thick, sandy-blonde hair so far to the side that it looked like an unnecessary comb-over. Dale started where the woman who taught us the year before (when she still had authority to do so) had left off: testing us to see how many facts we knew about the Bible. I knew a lot of the answers, and it took just three weeks for him to have a special meeting with my parents, at which he informed them they would have to do something about me. I was answering the questions too quickly and it was keeping the boys in the class from having a chance to answer. To their credit, my parents quietly thought this was awesome. They did encourage me to allow space for others, but really they just loved that I knew my Bible and they weren't about to shame me for it.
Precociousness gave way to sarcasm as my ability to analyze the doctrine and social dynamics at church developed. The moment I was able to recognize the difference between what people said (all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is forbidden) and what they did (clandestine affairs with each other) and the difference between what they taught (women were inferior and subordinate to men) and the reality I experienced in the world (then why am I smarter than my Sunday school teacher?), I knew that I had to get out. I was a strong, smart and smart- mouthed girl, and the church I was raised in had no place for that kind of thing even though they loved me.
By the time I left the church, I questioned everything I had ever been told and knew, based on the criteria that I was for sure "not-Christian," but I still didn't manage to be an atheist, as one might expect. I had never stopped believing in God. Not really. But I did have to go hang out with his aunt for a while. She's called the goddess.
My first experience with Wicca was in the mountains west of Denver, on a brown grassy hill above a yurt—a round, nomadic-looking structure inside of which all the lamps were covered with red scarves, making the interior look like an outdoorsy bordello.
I was about twenty years old when my friend Renna (who is as straight as they come) asked if I wanted to go to a lesbian wedding. I replied, "More than anything in the world," so we drove the forty-five minutes listening to the Indigo Girls just to get in the right womany groove, and I held a huge bowl of strawberries on my lap; apparently lesbian weddings are often potluck.
"This is a Wiccan wedding," Renna informed me. I didn't entirely know what that meant, but it sounded "not-Christian," like me, and I suspected that my parents would not approve, and that there would likely be hummus involved, so I was fine with it.
I loved the service and had never seen so many strong women. Women with shoulders back and hair shorn tight and nothing to hide. We stood in a circle and sang some simple chants, and the brides were so happy, like any other brides, only these two wore Renaissance fair–style garb and were marrying each other. There was talk of perfect love and perfect trust, and we fed each other bread and wine saying, "May you never hunger and may you never thirst." It felt like communion.
There was something safe about being around women. They let me hang out with God's aunt, and I couldn't help but think she liked me. I spent a few years with these women, marking the seasons and sharing our lives, and always there were potlucks. We talked of relationships and pregnancies that didn't last and bosses and roommates that didn't appreciate us and how much garlic to add to vegan salad dressing. At one month's potluck every one of us brought dessert and no one thought that was a problem. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Copyright © 2013 Nadia Bolz-Weber. Excerpted by permission of FaithWords.
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