Tag Archives: Nadia Bolz-Weber

The Crucifix Train

A bit over a year after moving into our beautiful new humanities building, there is still a great deal of debate and disagreement for what belongs on the walls. With one notable exception. As I wrote about a year ago, there is one item so omnipresent on the walls in the new building that it is impossible to miss.

Moving day on a Catholic campus is a bit different than on other campuses. The large interdisciplinary program that I direct was moved a couple of  months ago into our new fabulous humanities building, an academic Shangri-La that is the envy of  my academic friends who teach at other colleges and universities. Since my program’s lectures and seminars will constitute the lion’s share of classes taught in this building, I have been referring to it as “my building” since ground breaking a bit over a year ago. The day after we moved, as I wandered the halls of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and thanked the gods of interdisciplinarity for this long-awaited gift, I came across an unusual sight. 15267-4259672-6[1]In the middle of the main floor hall, piled on top of a pushcart such as food services uses to deliver items to meetings, were at least a dozen identical two-foot crucifixes, in living and gory color. “Must be crucifix day—we certainly are keeping some crucifix factory in business,” I thought. More than twenty-five years as a non-Catholic in Catholic higher education has prepped me for sights never seen on other campuses.

089But this was a first, and I mentioned it to the next few colleagues I came across as the morning progressed. One faculty colleague told me, as she was setting up her new office, that she had come across a room on the lower level where dozens of crucifixes were laid out across the floor. “It looked like some sort of weird medieval torture chamber.” Another colleague said  “Oh yeah. You don’t want to get in front of that train. I did that once, and it wasn’t pretty.” 088Apparently this colleague found out a couple of years ago during a discussion about the placement of a crucifix in a new classroom that the crucifix always gets priority because “God is more important than white boards.” Good information to have. A couple of days later, as I was giving my son a guided tour through my new building, we came across yet another very large crucifix. “His halo looks like a dinner plate,” my son observed. “It’s a little known fact that when the Romans crucified someone they didn’t just nail the person to the cross. 100_1976They also made him balance a gold plate on his head,” I replied. You can’t get this information just anywhere.

All this reminded me of a favorite story from a friend and colleague  with whom I spent sabbatical at an ecumenical institute a few years ago. He told me about the large Catholic parish church he and his wife attend when home in Washington D.C., a church filled with expensive and gory religious art. Once at a vestry meeting my friend commented that “during mass we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Anyone visiting this church would have no trouble figuring out that Christ has died; we might want to consider having at least one thing on display that indicates that Christ has risen.”

I must admit that I don’t “get” the attraction of crucifixes; I am quite sure I had made it into my late teens or early twenties before I saw my first cross bearing a corpus. In the world in which I was raised, crosses were empty—that was the point, right? 100_1977But before my Protestant bemusement at Catholic practices gets out of control, let me assure you that Protestants are just as capable as Catholics of getting out of control with religious artifacts. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, mobs of Protestants occasionally stormed through churches destroying all symbols of “popery,” including crucifixes, statues, and often priceless works of art. Several centuries later, there is continuing evidence throughout Protestantism not only of this iconoclastic spirit, green-cross-neon-sign-6867771[1]but also of a remaining, undiluted attachment to religious symbols. Crosses are everywhere, often combining fetishism and bad taste. Neon crosses were particularly popular in the churches I visited with my preacher father as a child, most often an imagesCAP5AG7Dethereal blue, but also coming in Kermit the frog green, red, or laser bright white. And don’t get me started on artist’s renditions of Jesus. Let’s just say that whatever the connection is between religious belief and mass-produced items of religious art, it runs far deeper than the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

I have occasionally written in this blog about the difference between idols and icons, the difference between focusing one’s attention on an artifact, object, or work of art and letting that artifact, object, or work of art serve as a doorway or window to something elseFedorovskaya[1]. The difference between treating something as an idol or as an icon is the difference between “looking at” and “looking through.” To my irreverent Protestant eye, a crucifix is a prime candidate for idolatry, because it is available and oddly attractive. But if I step outside of my admittedly skewed perspective and wonder how a crucifix might be an icon, what lies on the other side of such a sacred window?

Looking through a crucifix brings suffering and pain into focus, which makes a crucifix a complex symbol of a very complex set of beliefs. At the heart of Christianity is the suffering and dying God, a God who, using Simone Weil’s words, offers a supernatural use for suffering rather than a supernatural cure for it. God’s response to the pain, suffering and devastation of our world and the human experience is to enter it with us, to share the burden. In the most horrific of circumstances God is intimately available. Although a crucifix hanging on a wall is just a mass-manufactured religious artifact,Pastrix-cover[1] it can be an iconic reminder that there is absolutely nothing that can occur in this frequently messed up world that does not include God’s presence.

In her recent memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed and pierced former stand-up comic who is the Lutheran pastor and founder of the Church of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO, tells the story of the ten weeks she spent as a hospital chaplain, satisfying a clinical pastoral education requirement during her years in seminary. What is an apparent representative of God supposed to do when regularly placed in the company of people experiencing the worst pain and sorrow imaginable? Bolz-Weber knew instinctively that words were almost certainly the last thing needed.

You hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because He needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, when_god_closes_a_door_he_opens_a_window[1]the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I push him the fuck out of it.

As she would often sit silently with persons in the midst of great loss in a chapel with a crucifix overhead, Bolz-Weber trusted that the God who was there could communicate far better than words. A crucifix as an icon reminds us that God did not look down on the cross—God was hanging from the cross. This truth transcends doctrine, intellect, and even our best tortured questions. From Pastrix once again:

Emmanuel_God_With_Us[1]There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel—which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.


Being Schroeder

Regular or even occasional readers of this blog know that one of my guilty passions is various personality tests that are available on the Internet. Most recently I have found out that if I was a classical composer, I would be Johann Sebastian Bach (great news) and that my personality is most suited to living in Montana (total bullshit). A little while ago, thanks to my colleague Sandra who often shares these sorts of tests with her Facebook friends, I learned that if I was a Peanuts character, I would be Schroeder.Schroeder-peanuts-239733_172_250[1]


My Schroeder description reads as follows:

You are Schroeder. You are brilliant, ambitious, and brooding; you tackle tasks with extreme focus. People don’t always interest you as much as other pursuits, though; you can come off as aloof.

Upon reading this description to Jeanne, she affirmed that my Schroeder description (except perhaps for the “brilliant” part), for better or worse is completely accurate. She’s Charlie Brown, by the way. Until taking these personality tests I did not realize I was in a same-sex marriage, but I’m adjusting.

The one characteristic of being Schroeder not included in the above description, of course, is that Schroeder is most often seen in the Peanuts comic strip seated at his toy piano, playing exquisite Beethoven sonatas while Lucy swoons with unrequited love. Schroeder actually seems to be relatively well-adjusted, fine-tuning his piano virtuosity, fending off Lucy’s uninvited advances, imagesCANEV2RXcatching  on Charlie Brown’s woeful baseball team (I played first base very poorly on a little league team almost as bad as Chuck’s team), and along with Linus being Charlie’s most faithful friend. I suspect that between the strips Schroeder had some less positive experiences—or at least I did.

A bit over four years ago, a couple of months after returning home from a life-changing sabbatical semester, I travelled to Nashville to participate in a three-day workshop called thepp_logo300[1] “Pen and Path Spiritual Writer’s Conference.” I suspected at Friday evening’s opening get together that this was not going to be my cup of tea, as we started with group sharing. This, when strangers are involved, is in a virtual tie with sticking a fork in my eye on my list of favorite things to do. I survived that (barely), then the guy up front said “time for an exercise—focus on an object in the room and write.”  I looked in the corner of the room, and this came out:

imagesCA6H40CUWho knew that a mundane-shaped thing, a box,

could contain all the music there is?

At home, this was my best friend, my solace, my comfort.

But it became my enemy, raising the expectations to a level that could not be satisfied.

I’d like to make friends again.

“Whoa,” I thought, “where did that come from?” Actually I knew very well where it had come from, from a closed internal room that had been closed for so long that I could for long periods of time pretend that I didn’t know about it. But on sabbatical I had started exploring some long-untouched places in writing, and apparently it was time for this one. I typed the rough poem into my laptop that evening in my room and filed it in the “unfinished essay” file, where it has sat untouched for the past four-plus years. Finding out that I am Schroeder reminded of that room and poem once again. hands-keys-music-piano-play-Favim.com-57134_large[1]There is more in that room that could be rummaged through in a dozen essays, but it’s time to start.

My love affair with the piano began at four or five years of age. My older brother had started lessons a couple of years earlier, but never took to the instrument as I did as soon as my parents gave into my impassioned petitions and let me start lessons  a couple of years earlier than they were planning. From the beginning I knew I had met my soul mate. Our piano was an old upright painted a horrible yellow, so old that the blind piano tuner who came once per year was only able to tune it a whole step lower than where it should have been. But I loved it more than if it had been a Steinway. Once school years started I went directly to the piano as soon as I got home, often needing the familiar feel of the keys and sound of the notes to soothe and center me after a bad day. My mother never had to remind me to practice; rather, she had to remind me that there is more to life, even for a seven or eight year old, than sitting by oneself wrapped up in a private world where things made sense.

And I was good enough to become a minor celebrity, not only in my family but also at the churches and schools I attended during my growing up years. I was the regular evening entertainment when family and friends gathered either at our house or at my grandparents’ homesteads which also had old pianos. I was accompanying the church choir and playing for church services by the time I turned ten years old, and was the go-to person for imagesCAM5A96XChristmas pageant accompaniment and solos from the same age at school. I had two piano teachers between when I started and when I graduated from high school—both placed me either at the beginning or end of their yearly student recitals, the privileged positions reserved for students guaranteed both to impress the audience and not to embarrass the teacher by screwing up. In later recital years, I was often afforded the even greater privilege of playing a four hands, two piano duet with my teacher as the closing performance of the recital. My teachers, family and friends helped stoke the internal fire had burned brighter and brighter for years. I was going to be a concert pianist.

It was not easy being Schroeder, though. First of all, Lucy’s infatuation in the Peanuts cartoon with Schroeder notwithstanding, being Schroeder does not make one a chick+magnet_4c006c_4245799[1]chick magnet, even for crabby chicks like Lucy. In my case, the piano provided me with a regular and welcome escape from the normal social awkwardness and challenges that all children and adolescents struggle with. Being Schroeder also, together with my academic success, lack of sports prowess and skinny physique, caused many of my male colleagues in school at all grade levels to regularly wonder whether my testosterone levels were at the appropriate value. I came to believe that I was most acceptable when my musical abilities or academic prowess was required and pretty much unacceptable the rest of the time.

I was well into my high school years before I fully realized that although I was good, I wasn’t that good. I clearly remember when the first seeds of doubt were planted. At age ten or eleven I had just finished perfecting my first Chopin nocturne. Chopin is the Olympics of solo piano performance, and I was thoroughly impressed with myself. hqdefault[1]Then a missionary family making the rounds through Baptist churches in New England stopped by our church for a Sunday. These folks were missionaries to Korea, and with them had a four-year old Korean orphan girl whom they had adopted. After the morning service, she sat down at the old upright piano in our church and from memory played the very Chopin nocturne I had struggled mightily for weeks on end to master. And hearing her play it as effortlessly as breathing, I realized I had not mastered it at all. Not only would I never be Mozart—I never was even going to be this little girl.

But dreams die hard, and with the loving but entirely biased support of my family, friends, and piano teachers, I sustained the hope of concert halls and world travel for many years longer. I don’t remember a specific event that finally slammed the door on my hopes and dreams, but I am glad no one said “when God closes a door He always opens a window.” I would have replied, along with Nadia Bolz-Weber in Pastrix, “please show me where that window is so I can push Him the fuck out of it.” Decades later, I have only begun over the past few years to make peace with the loss of my best friend who literally kept me centered and sane. I don’t know iimages[4]f Schroeder took his toy piano on concert tour, but my bet is that he married Lucy and has made a life for himself doing something he never would have expected. So it goes. I am far happier and more blessed than any human being deserves; my music has even come back in unexpected ways over the last two or three years. But every once in a while, Psalm 90 appears in the daily cycle of Psalms that I read every morning. When reading its closing lines, “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands,” I always wistfully think for a brief moment of how the piano keys used to feel under my hands.large_SchroederLucy[1]

The Connections We Cannot Make

Not long ago a friend and colleague told me, as we were having a beer or two (or three) at our favorite local watering hole, that my blog reminds him of Anne Lamott’s work. That was maybe the nicest thing anyone ever has said to me about my writing.bird-by-bird[1] In Bird by Bird, her excellent book about the writing process, Anne Lamott writes that aspiring writers should write what they would love to find. I remember a number of years ago when I picked up her collection of essays Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith from a table of new paperbacks in Borders. I’m always drawn to any book outside the Religion or Theology or New Age section of a bookstore with the F-word in it, so I took a look. It turned out to be exactly what she described in Bird by Bird—what I love to find. Irreverence, sarcasm, God-obsession, brutal honesty, social activism, a heart of gold . . . what’s not to like? As I frequently do when I discover an author, I immediately purchased everything she had ever published and over the subsequent years have waited anxiously for her next publication. I can take or leave her fiction, but her non-fiction comes closer to what I’d like to be able to write myself of anything I’ve ever read. Pastrix1[1]Knowing that a post or two in my blog reminded someone of Anne Lamott made my day—perhaps my year.

I recently finished reading  Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia is what Anne Lamott would have been had she become an ordained Lutheran minister and started her own church. Bolz-Weber came to my attention when, as we were our way to the early show at church a few weeks ago, Jeanne and I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s NPR show “On Being.” beinglogo_150[1]Nadia Bolz-Weber was the guest on this particular Sunday; she’s the tattoo-and-piercings covered, former addict and stand-up comedian Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints church in Denver. She has a sleeve tattoo of the entire liturgical year on her right arm. Things work a bit differently in Pastor Bolz-Weber’s church, including a blessing of the bicycles liturgy, a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font on Easter, and an occasional event called “Beer and Hymns.” The five or so minutes worth of the show we heard on the way to church prompted Jeanne and me to listen to the whole broadcast on line once we returned home.

The book is part memoir, part popular theology, and filled with truth that alternates between hilarious, penetrating, and heart-breaking—often on the same page. How can you not love a book by a minister whose first sentence is “‘Shit,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be late to New Testament class’”? Put that together with an f-bomb or two in each chapter (Nadia’s vocabulary is a bit earthier than Anne Lamott’s, at last in print), and the book is a roller-coaster from beginning to end. And there are portions of it that are surprising, jerked me up short, and caused me to think carefully about our natural human self-righteousness and smugness—_D3_61511383185352[1]something that I find myself afflicted by on a regular basis.

Bolz-Weber relates an amusing but telling story about how her open-armed and welcoming attitudes toward all comers to her church was seriously challenged once the word got out that Sunday at the House of All Saints and Sinners was something worth checking out. This church’s raison d’etre is to be a sanctuary and safe haven for persons who have been damaged and rejected by all sorts of churches of every imaginable denomination and description. Outsiders of every stripe—race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, drug addiction, alcoholism, you name it—these are the people who are the founding members oflogo_menu[1] HFASS (as they call it). Creative liturgies, each parishioner having the opportunity to do whatever they feel led to do on a given Sunday (including delivering the sermon), create a dynamic atmosphere of inclusion that cannot help but attract attention. Bolz-Weber has become something of a rock star and a speaker in great demand.

Consequently, different sorts of people started showing up for Sunday services—people in suits, soccer moms with well-scrubbed kids in tow, Denver’s equivalent of Wall Street executives—the sorts of folks that one might find in any church on any Sunday morning. And Bolz-Weber was pissed.  “I don’t want these people here,” she thought. “My outsider congregation, the people for whom I started this ministry, are going to feel uncomfortable. The newcomers aren’t going to fit in with our free-wheeling, out-of-the-box liturgies.” As she considered more fully, Nadia realized that she was struggling with a question at least as old as the church itself; as she writes, “Disagreements about ‘inclusion’—about who is in and who is out–began approximately twenty minutes after Christianity started.” Chapiteau Cirque Passion black swirly edge[1]Why? Because no matter how open-minded and loving we think we are, no one is comfortable with everyone being included in anything. As Nadia says, “I will always encounter people whom I don’t want in the tent with me.”

Yet we are admonished over and over again in the gospels to pay special attention to the outsider, the disenfranchised, those who fall through the cracks in whatever social or religious scheme is operative. Why? Is the outsider, the person radically different from those in my tent, better than me?  9780802824967_p0_v1_s260x420[1]With the help of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, I’m beginning to suspect that something different is going on.

Williams suggests that Jesus’s apparent obsession with the outsider is a reminder of our human limitations and inability to create a world in which everyone is included, despite our best efforts and intentions. These limitations show us where the divine resides. “God appears in and through the fact that our ways of arranging the world always leave someone’s interest, welfare or reality out of account. We cannot organize our world so as to leave everyone a possible place. We are unavoidably bound to exclusion as we try to give form to our social and moral life.” Every time I organize my world in a way that makes sense, vast categories of human beings fall by the wayside. If I am willing to include those persons in my world only if they are willing to conform to my agenda for them, I am saying, or implying at least, that my peculiar and particular vision of what is right is the only possible vision. 396px-Rowan_Williams_2007[1]As Williams writes, the greater and holier challenge is to forego any presumption that I know what is best and to realize instead that “the outsider’s very presence poses a question that reminds me that my account of things, my way of making the world all right and manageable, is an incomplete enterprise that is keeping out God because it lets in the subtle temptation to treat my perspective as if it were God’s.”

Strangely enough, the best intended efforts to institutionalize or organize God’s will on earth are always doomed to failure precisely because the divine cannot be institutionalized. Our efforts to bring the gospel into the world must begin with recognizing our own human limitations.  “God is in the connections we cannot make . . . The person who is ‘left over’ . . . reminds me of my own limits; and as I acknowledge the incomplete character of my world of reference and my understanding, I may at least see the seriousness of the question about the fate of those not catered for.”

All Things are Become New

Last Saturday was the official dedication of the beautiful new humanities building on my campus. I shared the speaker platform with David Mccullough! I even got to participate for the first time in my life in a ribbon cutting ceremony, the finishing bookend to the groundbreaking event a bit over a year ago. As the director of the large interdisciplinary program whose classes all take place in the new building, I was asked, as part of a series of speakers, to bring greetings to the several hundred people gathered from the faculty. Here’s what I said.

My father, an itinerant Baptist minister, once told me about a plaque on the preacher’s side of the pulpit in one of the many churches in which he sermonized during my growing-up years. The pulpit plaque challenged the person giving the sermon directly by asking “What are you trying to do to these people?” As director of the Development of Western Civilization program that has just finished its first month in this glorious new building that we are dedicating today, I frequently ask myself this question and bring it regularly to the DWC faculty. liberalartsdegree[1]“What are we trying to do to these people, these students who have chosen, along with their families, to make a Providence College liberal arts education a central part of their plans for a flourishing future?”

Just as I usually start DWC faculty meetings with “Here’s what we are not talking about today,” a good answer to “What are we trying to do to these people” might begin with understanding what we are not doing as well. In DWC, for instance, we are not conducting a four-semester long museum tour, spending last week in the Homer wing, this week in the Herodotus wing, and next week in the Sophocles section, bemused by how quaint and how different things were back then. As I often tell my students, if we can’t find something directly relevant to us in what we read and discuss, something of importance to twenty-first century people, we’re wasting our time. So how do we make the connection between the past and the present in such a way as to shape a better future? nadia-portrait[1]Brief passages from two different authors, a Lutheran pastor and an Anglican bishop, have recently helped me frame this question anew.

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that You have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity. A liberally educated person knows where she comes from. Athena may have sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head, but a liberally educated person is shaped, molded, and formed by continual and intelligent immersion in the greatest works and ideas of the past. A liberal education is not a museum tour. It is a deliberate and extended engagement with where we come from; such an engagement forms the foundation a well-lived and creatively expressed life.

Rowan_Williams_-001b[1]Rowan Williams writes that To read means to reread. If we are to gain any meaning out of the past, we must energize it in terms of the present. Contrary to a favorite phrase among Rhode Islanders, liberally educated persons are never “all set.” The ultimate purpose of a liberal education is to establish the tools and habits of lifetime learning, tools and habits that will help shine a new light on everything, even things you thought you already knew. The past, whether my past or a text from several thousand years ago, becomes new each time it is considered, shining a new light on possible futures. Two weeks ago in a seminar on the Odyssey, I understood a text that I thought I knew thoroughly in a brand new way as a student compared the challenges faced by Odysseus and Penelope once he makes it back to Ithaca with similar challenges faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.004

This beautiful new building has been in full pedagogical operation for a month, and the early returns are wonderfully positive. Students and faculty walk the halls with smiles on their faces. There are students already studying and conversing in the Great Room when I arrive at 7:30 every morning. Several colleagues have reported that they are having the best seminars of their lives. The faculty has not become smarter, the students aren’t necessarily better, but we are teaching and learning in a building whose beauty and elegance matches the beauty and elegance of what takes place inside on a daily basis—preparation for a life of learning and excellence.081407009841[1] Since the DWC offices were moved into the Ruane Center two months ago, I frequently find myself wandering the halls alternating between smiling and pinching myself to make sure that this is truly our building. To take the Apostle Paul out of context, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” On behalf of the Providence College faculty, I have two words to say to all of those on the stage and all those out there who contributed to making this dream a reality: THANK YOU.