Telling the Truth About Ourselves | Have a Little Faith
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber takes on the cult of perfectionism. Real is what matters
[MUSIC PLAYING] I was in a Q&A session recently with a somewhat earnest, young seminarian whose hand popped up and said, Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God? And before I even realized I was saying it, I was like, what? Nothing. That sounds like a horrible idea to me.
When it comes down to it, my spirituality is most active not in meditation, but in the moments when I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I'm an asshole. When I am unable to judge the sin of someone else, which let's be honest, I love to do because my own crap is too much in the way. And when I have to bear witness to another human being suffering despite my desire to be left alone. And when I'm forgiven by someone even though I don't deserve it. Getting close to God sounds awesome, but it can feel pretty rough.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Jesus didn't look very impressive when he was resurrected. Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails. Of course, the depictions in churches of the risen Christ never showed dirt under his nails. It's as if he needed to be tidied up so he looked more impressive, and no one would be offended by the truth.
I would have never agreed to work for God, if I believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsciously knew was that God was never about making me spiffy. God was about making me new, and new doesn't always look perfect. New is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics.
New looks like reconciliation between family members who don't actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I'm right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness. And every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn't live without and then somehow living without it anyway.
New is the thing we never saw coming, never even hoped for but ends up being what we needed all along. God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig ourselves through our violence and our lies and our selfishness and our arrogance and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life, over and over.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I think at its best and most useful, faith allows us to speak the truth about our lives.
Like, here's one. I think that whole "we can have it all" thing is bullshit. I don't actually hear the message "you can have it all" as a liberation. I hear it is an accusation.
Several years ago, like many women my age, I was trying to not disappoint my family, not disappoint my job, not disappoint my friends. I wanted to prove that I could have it all, and it was important to me that nothing got dropped.
And if the occasional need for sleeping pills and Netflix and chocolate-induced catatonic states was the price I paid, then so be it. But as it was, I decided on six days a week of CrossFit and an 8:30 PM bed time.
But that was the problem. On the outside, my plan looked like "good self-care" but really, it was just a list of habits I adopted to ensure I could over-function.
Until the day I seriously disappointed somebody I loved, and their response was to say, "That really sucks, and I forgive you." Which immediately made me cry, because I didn't need to "have it all." I needed to be set free.
I needed someone to say, "Nadia, let the fucking plates drop." Because fear of dropping them was torturing me, and in the end, was way worse than having them drop.
And faith is the thing that tells me that I am already enough. Faith tells me that I am loved quite apart from anything I do or not do. Faith tells me that my worthiness is not in my busyness.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I really believe that when someone else does us harm, we're connected to that mistreatment like a chain. Because forgiveness is nothing less than an act of fidelity to an evil-combating campaign. So it's not an act of niceness. It's not being a doormat. It really to me is more badass than that. Maybe retaliation, or holding on to anger, about the harm done to me doesn't actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it.
Because in the end, if we're not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and on some level, even start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being like a pansy way of saying, it's OK, is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters and snapping the chain that links us? Like it is saying, what you did was so not OK that I refuse to be connected to it anymore.
Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter, and free people are dangerous people. Free people aren't controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments.
That's worth fighting for. There really is a light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: As a clergy person, I'd like to welcome you all to the apocalypse. Pull up a chair, and make yourself uncomfortable. If when you think of an apocalypse, you picture a scary, doom-filled punishment from above, you're not alone. Originally, though, apocalyptic literature existed not to scare the bejesus out of children so that they would be good boys and girls, but to proclaim a big, hope-filled idea-- that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. Empires fall, tyrants fade, systems die, God's still around.
In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover, to peel away, to show what's underneath. That's what this country has been experiencing in recent months. There's not been a sudden uptick in sexual misconduct and assault in our country. The MeToo and Time's Up movements are simply exposing what was already there. The male domination at the center of the sexual harassment issue is being revealed apocalyptically and in prime time.
Wokeness and policy change are a start, but not enough to dig out the full infection. This is why I welcome our moment of uncovering. We need to see how deep the heresy of domination runs, and then remind one another that dominant powers are not ultimate powers. So if those who came before looked to the Bible to justify their dominance, then let us look to it to justify our dignity. It's in there. Theology and liturgy are just too potent to be left to those who would use them-- even unwittingly-- to justify and protect their own dominance. And sometimes the origin of the harm really can be the most powerful source of healing.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: As someone who stumbles through faith and life in general and who has never managed to feel spiritual for any extended period of time, who is snarky and selfish and sometimes downright petty, the truth is I only really feel connected to other people who are also like that. I mean, it feels good to be inspired by other people, to admire their accomplishments and be dazzled by their virtues.
But what I really want is to not feel so alone. And while I might feel inspired by someone who is good. I only feel less alone when someone shares their failures with me, the things they struggle with, the parts of themselves that are more jagged than smooth. And I guess I've always suspected that so much of religion and spirituality, so much of what is offered is a way to sand down the edges of ourselves. Like it's all a program for making ourselves into something less janky and more pure, as if with enough yoga or bible study or organic foods we can spiritually improve ourselves into purity of heart and mind.
And if you find that it doesn't work for you, if you find that all the new age meditation doesn't do the trick and you still experience road rage or maybe just a tiny bit of hatred toward your boss, and you still binge watch too much Netflix and can't seem to manifest everything in your life that you should, just know that you are totally not alone. You don't have to fake anything. It just so happens that the jagged edges of our humanity are what actually connects us to one another those. Wounds and failures and misconceptions and mistakes, those are the things that actually create enough texture on us that god and our fellow human beings have something to grab onto.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt, those who aren't sure, those who can still be surprised. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are they who don't have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore. Blessed are they who can't fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who still aren't over it yet. Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are those who no one else notices, the kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables, the laundry guys at the hospital, the sex workers, and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the under-represented.
Blessed of the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burned out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro-bono case takers.
Blessed are the kindhearted NFL players and the fundraising trophy wives. And blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn't deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: No matter if you believe the devil is an actual being or the human forces of evil or just the shadow side of our own beings, we all know the voice of the accuser. The voice of shame in our heads-- that's the accuser, the accusing voice that tells me that I am what I've done, or that who I am is wrong. The accuser is the voice that continually updates me on the current distance between my ideal self and my actual self, between my ideal personality and my actual personality, between my ideal weight, like my driver's license weight, and my actual weight.
It makes us go to ridiculous lengths to try to prove it right or to try to prove it wrong. The accuser may try and convict us of the distance between our ideal self and our actual self. But the truth is, no one has ever become their ideal self. It's a moving target, a mirage of water on a desert road. The more we struggle to reach it, the thirstier we become, and yet we come no closer to actual water.
And I'm not saying that God will get you to the mirage. What I'm saying is that the self who God loves, the self who God is in a relationship with, is your actual self. God isn't waiting for you to become thinner or heterosexual or married or celibate or more ladylike or less crazy or more spiritual or less of an alcoholic in order to love you. Also, I would argue since your ideal self doesn't exist, it would follow that the you everyone in your life loves is your actual self too.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I'm pretty sure we all carry secrets. As the old chain smoking guy in my 12 step program says, you're only as sick as your secrets, kid. We all hide things for ourselves, like the times we have to erase our browser history, or the time we lied about ourselves to get a job, or the times we flirt online with people who aren't our spouses.
It's a common thing people do. We make lame excuses to get out of commitments, or we blame other people for the fact that we can't show up. The list kind of goes on. Often, we fool ourselves with these excuses, but there are times when the truth won't let us go.
I mean, sure, I can avoid other people's scrutiny by telling my bullshit story over and over to anyone who will listen, but I know the truth. The last thing I want is for any light to be cast on the darkness I've spent so much energy curating, and protecting, and actually enjoying.
There's a popular misconception that religion, Christianity specifically, is about knowing the difference between good and evil, so we can choose the good. But being good has never set me free the way truth has. I have to think about all the times I've substituted being good or maybe just appearing to be good for truth.
When someone like me will go to superhero lengths to avoid the truth runs out of options, when I'm found out, or too exhausted to pretend anymore, it feels like the truth might crush me. And that's right. The truth does crush me. But the instant it crushes me, it somehow puts me back together into something more real.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: The practice of curating parts of oneself is something many of us do to some degree. We carefully create a persona, but it's always only one that's partially true. And maintaining this created personality, this assembled self, can be pretty exhausting.
Facebook is the perfect medium for this bit of artisanship. It allows us to present an image of ourselves from just the parts of our lives and personalities we wish to project. This is why we almost never see updates on Facebook that say things like, "I spent that evening alone again last night" or "I just manipulated my spouse to get my own way."
I often think that the effort we put into pretending is based in a fear of really being known, of truly being seen as we actually are. I mean, perhaps we each have a wound or a vulnerable place that we have to protect in order to survive, and yet sometimes we overcompensate so much for the things we're trying to hide, that no one ever suspects the truth. And then we're left in the aloneness of never really being known.
In the end, the only real love in the world is found when you let yourself be truly known. And faith, to me, isn't about belief, it's about the fact that I am most known and most loved by God, the one who created me to begin with.