I should start this by saying this will not be a Mormon guy writing some review bashing Rev. Bolz-Weber for daring to disobey Paul’s council on ladies in the pulpit. I have mixed feelings about that little passage anyway. Nor will this be judgmental because she doesn’t fit some arbitrary standards of what is normal; what is “normal” anyway? No, this will be a review of a book written by a person willing to lay out all of her imperfections for the world to see and while I might not go so far as to say she’s proud of all of them, she’s certainly not ashamed of them. This is a review of someone who has written about a lot of the things that I see when I look in the mirror. This is a book about truth.
I’m going to share a few passages from the book, but not too many because, well, Rev. Bolz-Weber might not like it if I write a review that causes folks to *not* buy her book because it’s all right here.
First, a passage that hits really close for me: “Much later, in my mid-thirties…I realized that what I really wanted…was to be a pastor to my people….But there was one problem with my being a pastor: I’m a lousy candidate. I swear like a truck driver, I’m covered in tattoos, and I’m kinda of selfish. Nothing about me says ‘Lutheran pastor.’ So I was scared. I was scared about the fact that in order for me to be the kind of pastor I would want to be, I would need to look at some of my own personal stuff, which I was perfectly happy ignoring. I struggled with the idea of being a spiritual leader. I struggled with knowing I don’t really like emotionally needy people and, given the opportunity, I will walk the other way if I see them coming. I struggled with being available to people all the time when really I’m slightly misanthropic.” (Bolz-Weber, 16-17) This is pretty close to being word-for-word my story. I felt the prompting to ministry/chaplaincy later than some at the age of thirty. I want to be a pastor to “my people,” that being service members. I also most certainly don’t always like needy people and I’m misanthropic. It’s great for me and other up and coming ministers to read something so honest. Statements like these show that not everyone who ends up in ministry are the ultra-caring, extroverted people, but that some can be the introverts who, given the choice, would just let people go the other way.
Second she talks about her experience getting sober: “Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward self-destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my own collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, ‘Screw you, I’ll take the destruction please.’ God looked at tiny, little red-faced me and said, ‘that’s adorable,’ and then plunked me down on an entirely different path….I’d get a life back, a rich one I’d never have chosen out of a catalog,.” (Bolz-Weber Of course this passage is written today with years to reflect upon what happened, but in some ways, I can see myself writing something like this in a few years. I really have no idea why I feel drawn to the ministry, at least not one I could say with full confidence. But I figure that one day I’ll look and see something great and probably not what I would have picked out of the Sears catalog.
Next we have a short quote that comes from a rather long and involved story involving another minister in the Lutheran church who was removed from the ministry. Rev. Bolz-Weber was considering leaving the Lutheran church and her husband said: “There’s not enough wrong with it to leave and there’s just enough wrong with it to stay,’ Matthew later told me. ‘Fight to change it.” (Bolz-Weber 52) While I have not considered leaving the LDS church over any given issue, it’s not because I do not disagree with things, ESPECIALLY cultural things. It’s just that I go straight from dislike to speaking out and trying to change it, skipping over the threatening to leave part. Folks, we all disagree about things with our churches. Speak out about it. If you think members of your congregation are not friendly, call them out on it. If you’re tired of hearing once a month about doing service but never actually doing any, call folks out on it and try to change it. With the issue that prompted the above quote, I suspect Rev. Bolz-Weber was very vocal in trying to make the change. We can all be the people who demand the change that is proper.
Here is something she does in meetings with new members of her congregation, it’s quite a dose of reality, and one that I wish we would say out loud: “I tell them that I love hearing all of that and that I, too, love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add to or take away from my own story to be accepted….But…this community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.” (Bolz-Weber 54-55) I wish we’d be honest with people (adults) on baptism days that they’ll be disappointed by the church. Because they will. Let’s be honest with missionaries that they’ll probably come off their mission as cynics who see the difference in talk and action in the vast majority of members. I wish we would challenge people to stay around when things happen that they don’t like and, as I said above, have them fight to change those things rather than leaving.
She then goes into a chapter about her work in a hospital for a Clinical Pastoral Education internship. She reflects on some traumatic situations and eventually says “I was the chaplain, but I didn’t have answers for anyone….words of wisdom I had none. I just felt the unfairness of it all….I would stand by and witness the disfiguring emotional process we politely call grief and, yes, I was aware of God’s presence, but I wanted to slap the hell out of him or her or it.” Now that’s realism. Beyond the quaint things we like to say about suffering and misfortune, we come to this. We ask why and we want answers. I wrestle with this often and will likely continue to wrestle with this. I’m coming to the conclusion that suffering is something that simply happens and is neither caused nor prevented by God.
There is a good chapter in the book about how we should take in the people who do not fit in our standard group. I wish we were better at doing that. Another chapter deals with Rev. Bolz-Weber’s disappointment when she planned a big event and only twenty-six people showed up for it. This chapter hit very close for me because I can see my reaction being much the same as hers. Eventually she sits and thinks about it and realizes that it was a very uplifting time even if she was initially disappointed. She goes on to describe her general feelings when she has to meet people and this one hits very close to me: “I tried to muster up the interest and stamina it takes to greet each person with the honor he or she deserves. This always feels like a battle between my misanthropic personality (I don’t actually care about you) and my values (you are a beloved child of God who deserves to be heard) and it’s exhausting.” (Bolz-Weber 111) There are many times that this exact statement fits me.
She moves along and there is a small passage that shows that she has little use for Pat Robertson in the context of the Haiti earthquake. She also talks in this chapter about the fallacy that God causes suffering. Interesting stuff.
The best chapter to me deals with her experience in church after having preached an Easter devotional in front of 10,000 people. Obviously she had numerous visitors to her congregation the next week. It needs to be noted that her congregation and ministry is more or less geared to what we might call the “outcasts” of society. I don’t like to use that word, but it’s true. The ministry is geared to recovering addicts, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, other queer folk, hippies, and other folks that society generally marginalizes. Basically after the devotional, she had a bunch of “middle America” people show up to church and she is not shy when she says that it bothered her at first that these “normal” folks were coming to ‘her’ church. Eventually she had a change of heart and a friend told her: “You guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s a young transgender person. But sometimes ‘the stranger’ looks like your mom and dad.” (Bolz-Weber 184) This might be a post for another day, but I’d ask that you turn that statement around for the LDS church. We’d welcome the middle aged man in business attire all day long but how would we welcome Dennis Rodman? How should we welcome them both?
But at the end of the day her love for the church, God, and Jesus Christ (not necessarily in that order) is apparent. In the last pages she gives this little statement: “This is my spiritual community, where messy, beautiful people come as they are to gather around a story and a table–where truth and molassesy [sic] bread are shared–and it is simply the thing I was meant to do. Once, a seminary student asked to shadow me for two days to see what my life as a pastor was like. At the end, he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re basically a person for a living.’ I get to be a person for a living. A person who every morning thinks about her quirky little church and prays, Oh God, it’s so beautiful. Help me not fuck it up.“
I would recommend this book to anyone considering going into the ministry. It’s a great read and does more to paint a real picture of ministry and the struggles of the profession than most will ever write. She often exposes herself to criticism in the book and might have even irritated some of her parishioners with what she wrote. I think she’d take the realism all day long. It’s refreshing to read something so real and truthful.