The Messiness of Grace

As a parting gift (before we move to Utah), my wife’s pastor gave her a copy of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor (or pastrix) of House for All Sinners and Saints church in Denver. I quickly scooped it up and was delighted by the read. Though we come from different faiths and backgrounds, we share a great deal in our perspective on faith. Like her, I’ve found “liberal Christianity” approaches to Jesus unsatisfying in their rejection of the literalness of claims about His divine status. But also, like her, I’ve come to a political liberalism that is grounded in a more traditional faith, one that she expresses beautifully in this book, in the church community she’s built, and in her personal practice. So while Jesus Feminist was a lovely and inspiring meditation, this book felt more rich and substantive because of the larger portion of memoir and the kindred feelings it revealed. Definitely something I’ll be recommending and returning too often.


As I did with Jesus Feminist, I’ve include below a few excerpts that touched me, along with some of my own reflections. Though I should emphasize that the real key to this book, it’s real beauty and power, is found in the stories, which teach these principles more powerfully than any excerpts could do them justice.
On her own doubts:

“Suddenly, in that moment, all I could think was: What the hell am I doing? Seminary? Seriously? With a universe this vast and unknowable, what are the odds that this story of Jesus is true? Come on, Nadia. It’s a fucking fairy tale.

“And in that very next moment I thought this: Except that throughout my life, I’ve experienced it to be true.”

This passage from the introduction is when I knew I’d love the book, because it so perfectly captures my own continuing belief. Many of my peers in my own church are leaving over concerns about the historical and doctrinal claims made by its leaders. But for me, even as a historian, those just aren’t as weighty as my own lived experience. Like Nadia, I have experienced it to be true throughout my life.


Her friend’s council about remaining Lutheran, despite the Church’s shortfalls:

“There’s not enough wrong with it to leave and there’s just enough wrong with it to stay. Fight to change it.”

Again, that’s me in my faith. And it’s one that I encourage for others, with this caveat: everyone will have different calculations of “enough wrong” and how much hope they have for change. So while the calculation keeps me inside, that’s largely a product of my experience and my privileged position within the church.


Her husband’s advice on judging/categorizing people:

“Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”

Yep. The leaders in Jesus’s day kept trying it, and He kept dining with publicans and harlots. When we draw lines of piety, we’re most often drawing ourselves right out of the Savior’s company. And yet, we keep trying to draw those lines.


On the true meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross:

“God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is. Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore.”

It seems to me that this is a central message of the New Testament in general and of grace in particular. It’s not about Jesus suffering to balance some giant debt nearly so much as it is about abolishing that “sin-accounting business” altogether. Grace cannot be earned, claimed, or given except by God. And somehow – even though we teach this – we repeatedly fail to live it. Jesus’ death was supposed to free us from all of this accounting, for ourselves and others, so we could get down to the business of living God-centered lives. Nadia Bolz-Weber has done a great job of illustrating how complex and messy and rewarding that process can be.

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