You Belong | Have a Little Faith
It’s not about what your family thinks or how many friendsgiving dinners you attend. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber shares a powerful message about how your sense of self is really connected to your spirituality this holiday season.
The Narcissist's Footnote | Have A Little Faith with Nadia Bolz-Weber
[MUSIC PLAYING] - I once sat at the death bed of a woman who was dying of emphysema and in need of a priest. And I'm unclear if the fact that the priest was me was just poetic or ironic, since 20 years earlier, it was the same woman who had saved my ass.
I was a messed-up kid trying to get sober. And Suzanne offered that I could live for a while in her spare bedroom while I got my act together. She believed that I was not irredeemable, that I was more than the sum total of my mistakes. And two decades later, I would sit by her bed in a senior high rise and give her a space to confess her own brokenness.
Suzanne, I would say, would you like to tell me the things that weigh on your conscience? She gave a raised eyebrow and spoke the things she had done which had troubled her. Some were funny. Others were sad. And one was particularly painful.
I heard her secrets while holding her bruised, papery hand and then asked her if she believed that the word of forgiveness I was about to proclaim to her was from God. And she said she did. And then I just told her that she's forgiven. I assured her, as she had assured me, that she is not the sum total of her mistakes and that our higher power, that powerful force of love in this universe, has the ability to redeem all of our crap.
As we sat there, Suzanne wiped away her tears and adjusted her oxygen tube and said, I feel unbelievably lighter, in a whisper. She was so beautiful in that moment, so free. I too felt comforted by the knowledge that no matter how much of a distracted ingrate I had been when she took me in that a higher power could somehow redeem me and redeem her and redeem our stories and all our broken mess of a beautiful life.
This is the life we get here on earth. We get to give away what we receive. We get to believe in each other. We get to forgive and be forgiven. We get to love imperfectly. And we never know what effect it will have for years to come. And all of it-- all of it-- is completely worth it.
[MUSIC PLAYING] - We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but that difference accounts for quite a bit of brain. And with these freakishly large brains, we can reason, and argue, and create art, and obsess about lovers. And some of us can even do calculus. True.
But what do we tend to do much more often with that extra 2% of brain? Worry. We even fool ourselves into believing that we need to do this, like if we worry enough, it will keep bad things from happening. Now, the human brain is a powerful thing, but it ain't that powerful. You know what I mean? Not to mention, Jesus said, consider the ravens. They neither sow nor reap, and yet God feeds them. Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, and they're freaking gorgeous.
And I wonder if he mentions birds and flowers in his tricky little diatribe against worrying. Because he knows what worrying costs us. He said to let go of our anxieties about tomorrow, because-- and here he gets a little snarky, and I love me some snarky Jesus. He is like, who, by worrying, can add a single hour to the span of their life? Because who, by worrying, can ensure their children make good life choices? Who, by worrying, can add a single dollar to their rent check? Who, by worrying, can make a spouse love you more?
When all of this swirls through my brain on an endless loop, it does nothing to ensure I'm safe and loved. But what it does do is make me miss every good thing that's in front of me. Namely, it costs us the present moment. I guarantee that if I'm in my head worrying about something, the last thing I will notice is if a bird is singing around me. And the second to the last thing I will notice are flowers.
So I like to think that Jesus thing about not worrying is both permission to let go and an invitation to enjoyment. It's like God's plan to avoid burnout. Because the gift of the president is the only thing that's real. Maybe you, too, live in anxiety or fear of the future. So I invite you into the reality of this very moment, the place where God is always hanging out. This present moment is a gift to you from God. It is happening right now. And it's more real and more powerful and more eternal than anything you have to fear or resent or regret. It is life eternal.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: If the Lord is my shepherd, I guess that makes me a sheep. But the truth about sheep is that I don't want to be one. I mean, given the choice, I'd be a wolf or maybe a shepherd, but never a sheep. I want to make my own choices and go my own way.
So the truth about sheep is that sometimes we are rebellious. Our insistence that we aren't like other sheep keeps us from the one thing we really want, which is to belong and feel safe. And it is the complete lack of belonging and feeling safe that has made us turn, instead, to more black eyeliner.
We are the sheep who deplore our sheepness. And so we search for our belonging in things that don't really matter. But the truth about a sheep is also that sometimes, sometimes, we can shine. We do unbelievably tender and perfectly sheeply things for our fellow flockmates. We show them where the best grass is. We nudge them with our noses, helping them stand back up when they fall.
We are all these sheep. We are. And it's OK, because here's the truth about the shepherd. The shepherd never bases their protection and love and concern for their sheep on how the sheep look, or feel, or behave. That's just shit we created as a basis for belonging.
So we've made religion into the High Commission on Sheep Behavior and Worthiness. But the truth about the shepherd is that, despite all of this, they call a sheep by name. We know the voice. It's always there, under the clamor of insecurity and the cry of wolves and the murmurs of our own internal High Commission Unworthiness. The voice of the one who lays down his love for us rebellious and smelly sheep is always right there saying, you belong to me. You belong, you.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA: There were a few months of my life I came down with like, just a touch of hypochondria. I was a stay at home mom with a baby and a toddler. I was exhausted all the time and got sick a lot. And I started to think that something was seriously wrong with me. And secretly, without being totally conscious of it, I really hoped something was seriously wrong with me, nothing fatal.
And then I could kind of get a hall pass. A hospital stay started to look awesome. I mean, someone else would bring me food and I could lay around all day watching TV and taking narcotics. What's not to love, right?
But after ending up in my doctor's office for the third time in six weeks, my doctor looked me in the eye. And god bless him he said, Nadia nothing's wrong with you. You just have to deal with your life. So as a side note I never went back to that doctor. But I've remained grateful that he dared to not play along with my story.
So there's this story in the Bible where Jesus encounters a man who was ill. And had been sitting next to a pool of healing water for 38 years. And Jesus asks him this really harsh question. He goes, do you want to be made well? And the guy just says that he tries to get into the waters but other people always get in his way.
I've started thinking about how hard it is to be honest about the payoffs we get from the things we say we want to be free from. When I was drinking I'd bemoan my hangovers and the fact that I couldn't manage to keep a decent job. But there was a payoff. I got to live without any real responsibility. And I got to be inebriated whenever the results of my bad decisions started feeling bad.
Some of us spend money we don't have on things we don't need. Which boosts our mood until we get the bills, which is then so depressing we have to start the whole damn thing over again. And shop more just to boost our mood again. All while we complain about being in debt. It's like clutching our bills and having Jesus walk by and say, do you really want to be free from debt? Jesus is just the worst sometimes.
But to the man who was sitting at the healing pool for 38 years not only does he say, do you want to be made well? He also says, stand up, take your mat, and walk. You already have everything you need. Stop waiting for someone to carry you. Stop waiting for other people to not be in your way.
I'm not saying that with enough faith you can heal yourself. Or somehow pull your life up by the bootstraps. Sometimes there's not much we can do about the shit life hands us. I'm just saying that one aspect of faith is that we get to heal even from the story we tell ourselves about why we don't have what we say we want. In other words, we get to just deal with our lives.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I used to think that prayer was like the quarter you put into God's vending machine so he would release the gumball you wanted. Like prayer is handing God some kind of wish list of everything you want, and if you're a good little boy or girl, then Santa, I mean, God, will make sure you get the presents. But now in my life, I mostly pray for my friends and family. And I pray for the pain and violence in this world. And I pray to not be an asshole. I can't say I'm good at it. But I do what I can.
Even though I'm not always sure how prayer works, I know that when someone says they're praying for me, it matters in some way. So I've started to think that our prayer is less how we get what we want and more how God gets what God wants because prayer isn't an individual sport. If anything, it's more of a relay race. It's what we do for each other and what we do for the world. When we pray, we hold ourselves and our loved ones and the world up to God. And then we pass it off for the next person to do the same.
And these prayers, these times when we mindfully hold others in the presence of God, are like gossamer threads connecting us to God and God's children. When we pray on another's behalf, we become connected to that person through God. And we become connected to God through that person because maybe these silken threads of prayer which connect us to God and to one another and even to our enemies are how God is stitching our broken humanity back together. So definitely pray without ceasing because God has work to do.
[MUSIC PLAYING] - When I have a<br>relationship that's broken and I have tried to do<br>what was mine to do-- apologize for my part, try<br>and keep an open heart-- and they won't go for it. When I offer them peace<br>and they do not receive it, I don't then tend to just<br>peacefully walk away. Usually I become obsessed with<br>all the ways they're wrong and all the ways I'm wrong. Neither of which<br>feels too great. And I tend to think about<br>all of it way too much. It's like I rent out free<br>space in my head to them, free rent for a hostile tenant. But Jesus said this thing<br>that gives me pause. He said, whatever house<br>you enter, first say, peace to this house. And if anyone is there<br>who shares in peace, your peace will<br>rest on that person. But if not, it<br>will return to you. Which makes me wonder. Man, how much do we<br>allow other people to be the source of our peace? Like, you have peace when your<br>boss gives you enough praise. You have peace when you're<br>sure none of your friends are unhappy with you. You have peace when<br>your teenager is making all the right decisions. You have peace when<br>you just completely isolate yourself from<br>others, and that way they can never hurt you. But it's not helpful<br>to make other people the source of our peace. Because they were<br>not really the source of your peace to begin with. Because God and God<br>alone is our real source. And, I mean, that's not<br>just religious jargon. I mean it quite literally. You came from the breath of God. There is that within you. The very image of God that<br>can not be hurt by rejection, it does not mean that the<br>rejection that happens in our lives won't hurt. It means it simply<br>cannot hurt what matters.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: I know this is a little weird, but I spend more time wondering what Thanksgiving dinner at Pontius Pilate's mom's house might be like than I probably should. Pilate was a fairly powerful guy, being the Roman governor over Judea and all. He was like a big fish in a small pond, as we say, and he acted like a big deal in front of Jesus. But I started thinking about what he'd act like at his mom's house at Thanksgiving. Would he be relegated to the kids' table in the kitchen and like a chair too small for his status in the world? Would he irritate his siblings by starting all his sentences with, "Well, as the governor"? Would he stay as briefly as possible, waiting until he could get away to his friend's house and drink beer and watch the game?
How would Pilate's identity change in the context of his family of origin? Now, of course, that's a thoroughly modern and mostly American question, but I'd argue, it's still ours to ask, the point being that identity comes from a sense of belonging. See, we all have to know where we belong in order to know who we are. And if there were a time of year that we are faced with this, it's definitely during the holidays, capital T, capital H, a time when issues of belonging and identity and family come up for so many of us. Like maybe you still feel obliged to spend holidays with your family because you're supposed to belong with them, but belonging is never what you feel because your family can't love you well the way your friends can, and it's painful to realize that.
Or maybe, you lost your parents too soon, and you quietly fume this time of year, when your friends complain that their mom is a chain-smoking neat freak, and their dad watches too much football, because, well, you do anything to have one more Thanksgiving with your parents, despite their shortcomings. Regardless, the reason I think about belonging and identity as we enter the holidays is that Jesus said this weird thing to Pilate. He said, "Those who belong to the truth listen to his voice," which to me, means that we belong to God in a different way than we belong to our family or our church or our gym.
So as we enter the holidays, remember that your belongingness to God is simply not determined by your family of origin, or economic status, or friend group. It's not determined by religiosity, moral purity, or political category. Your belongingness is determined by the voice of the One who created you, and really, nothing else gets to tell you who you are, not even at Thanksgiving.
NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: At different times in my life there were forces that felt so powerful and totally in control-- my addiction, my unhealthy relationship, my horrible boss, my anxiety, and depression. At the time, these things felt inescapable, like they would always rule me. So back in Jesus' day, there were these emperors who've ruled for a certain number of years, and then they didn't. It's one reason I'm kind of obsessed with how the story of Jesus is set up. When the Bible says, in the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee-- and during the high priest of these dudes who were high priests, the word of God didn't come to a damn one of them. But during their reign, I imagined it also felt like they would always rule. Those whose power, at the time they were alive, felt so absolute are only a footnote to Jesus. Given that list of emperors and rulers, I wonder if he was preaching to an anxious people needing some hope in that context-- real hope not platitudes or cheerful sentiment. I say this because there are things happening in our world right now that make me and a lot of people I love very anxious. So maybe we can pray for the conversion of our anxiety. Because when anxiety is converted, you know what it becomes? It becomes hope. Which means if you have anxiety now, you are almost hopeful-- you're like super close. You remember that list of emperors and rulers at the beginning of the gospel, the ones who were so feared and powerful at the time. The only reason these tiny, so-called "powerful" men are even remembered at all 2000 years later is as a footnote. So here's my prayer for those of us who are so anxious that we're nearly hopeful. Let's all name every single thing and person that seems so powerful right now as to feel inescapable-- rulers, tyrants, societal forces, et cetera-- name them and then say footnote. Pontius Pilate-- footnote. Your depression-- footnote. Student loans-- footnote. The gun lobby-- footnote. Power hungry narcissists of every variety-- footnote.
[MUSIC] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: We can say some really dumb stuff when we don't know what else to say, like that nonsense you hear in hospitals and funeral homes, God has a plan, we just don't know what it is. But when I've experienced loss, and I'm feeling so much pain, that it feels like nothing else ever existed, the last thing I need is a well-meaning, but Nadia, when God closes a door, he opens a window. Because then that makes me want to ask where that window is so I can push them out of it. And usually, when you're grieving, and someone says something so optimistic to you, it's about them. It's about the fact that they simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the finality and pain of death. And so, instead, they turn it into a Precious Moments greeting card. In moments of grief and loss, we're afraid and doubting. And we want answers, kind of like the disciples did three days after Jesus died. They were scared. And they were doubting. And this is understandable. And then, suddenly, Jesus was standing there right in front of them. And in their fear and disbelief, he didn't rebuke them. He didn't try and convince them of the truth. He said, see my wounds. I'm here. Don't be afraid. After rising from the dead, Jesus turns to his completely freaked out friends who have no idea what this can all mean and ask them the really crucial and deeply theological question, so, do you guys have any snacks? I wonder if what this says to us is, one, if, in the moment of someone's loss, you get all transcendent, and spiritual, floating above this disappointing world like a Precious Moments angel, you may just miss Jesus altogether. Because that's him over there at the snack table. And two, in the midst of grief, all anyone can really do is be with us and make some casseroles. See my wounds. I'm here. Don't be afraid. Let's eat. And this is what we get to do for each other, as well. This is what we get to do for the world God loves so madly.
[MUSIC PLAYING] NADIA BOLZ-WEBER: There's a story told a gazillion times in the gospels were the disciples are in a boat on the sea and a storm hits and they freak out and Jesus calms the storm and then asks them where their faith is, which has always felt a little unfair to me because they were in real danger, not made up danger. Their boat was literally filling with water. So if they were freaking out, it was not due to neuroses or an anxiety disorder. I think that when Jesus calmed the storm and asked, "Where is your faith?", maybe it wasn't an accusation. Maybe it was an invitation, an invitation to reflect on what it means to be alive on the other side of a situation we thought would kill us-- a divorce, an illness, the death of a parent, a loss of a job, depression, middle school, all the things that feel like they're going to kill us. But honestly, if it does kill us, then we're dead and we're not really worrying about much anymore. But if it doesn't kill us, then maybe we get to ask questions like where was my faith? What did I fear? Because being people of faith doesn't give us special dispensation for an easier, storm free life. But if we just have enough faith or we just think positively enough, we will draw only good things to ourself. But honestly, life doesn't work like that. We all know that bad things happen to all people and to think that storms happen because we didn't think enough positive thoughts or practice the right kind of religion is just spiritual narcissism. Faith is a way to find meaning in a life where storms are just inevitable. So here's the thing. I have a goal. You know how you'll be in a personal storm and you think this might kill me, but when you look back on it six months or a year later, after everything worked out, or didn't, but you're still alive and the world didn't end and you think, I don't know why I was so freaked out. Well, I want someday to get to the point where I can trust God in the moment and not just in retrospect. [MUSIC PLAYING]