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It’s age. Why not tell it like it is? I wouldn’t be ornery if I were 24 or even 48. I’m not. I’m 65, and that’s got a lot to do with being cranky about an NPR story featuring the latest tattooed and tousled dominie to do Christianity right for once. She’s got this bruising past that toughened her up enough to go to war with those vile establishment Lutherans Garrison Keillor lovingly lampoons; but up there in Seattle, where her congregation sits in cheap plastic chairs, no pews, she and her fellowship finally, after 2000 years, are doing the Christian faith right. That’s the story line.
If I had a dime for all of those stories in the last fifty years, I could cure Haiti’s ills. They’re all alike, every last one of them, sweeping the detritus of rank tradition out of the aisles or doing away with aisles all together for God’s sake, creating a contemporary worship space for authentic Christianity.
We just want to be authentic, she told NPR. So what am I, phony baloney?
This fellowship happens to be Lutheran, but they come in garden varieties, each of them carrying a petulant sanctimony they’d vehemently deny, a saintliness both repudiated and earned in this preacher’s nifty collection of blue-black Christian tattoos. I mean, I’ve read just about everything from Anne Lamott, but even her shtick gets old.
Here’s a Christmas story. Couldn’t be more tradition-bound, more inauthentic, I suppose.
We go, off and on, to a local Presbyterian church, where, on a good Sunday morning, there’s all of forty people, mostly fewer than all of. The singing is nothing to crow about, the preaching is fair-to-middlin’, and the liturgy is, in the language of the CRC, authentic Samuel Volbeda, circa 1928—every week we sing “Glory Be to the Father.” You know. No praise team up front, no power points—which means, of course, we actually hold hymnals. It’s like worshipping in a museum.
The church is close—that’s why we go. It’s just up the road in town, but it’s also close in a way that most churches work blame hard to be: close, as in, when we greet each other as worship begins, we greet everybody. You get out of your pew. Everyone does. Then again there are only 35 souls, sometimes less.
There’s a childrens’ sermon, but only three kids, floppy-haired, pudgy brothers who sometimes wear really short ties. They live with their grandparents because their mom—well, she lost ‘em somehow. I don’t how because I don’t know the story, and I’m glad I don’t.
What I do know is that my wife and I have often marveled at the boys’ grandparents, who got drafted to raise an entirely new family after suffering endless hurt with the first one. Honestly, at 65 years old, I don’t know how Grandpa and Grandma do it, but they do, 24/7, and the youngest grandson, it seems, qualifies as special needs. Where on earth do they find the strength?
Anyway, when I was a boy, we went to church on Christmas Eve, in the kind of darkness where “Silent Night” makes a sanctuary feel like the Judean hills. But even in churchly Sioux County, Iowa, you’ve got to look hard and long for a fellowship that gathers on Christmas Eve.
Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was because we’re alone, but we decided to go up the block to the little Presbyterian church where everyone gets greeted. They were going to have a choir, for pity sake. We wondered how many ringers they’d have to draft.
It was wonderful. It was great, and those three boys who live with their grandparents sang a special number, decked out in matching white shirts and skimpy ties. Someone in the back turned on a piped-in pop rock tune off a CCM disk, and those three boys sort of sang along. Sort of. It was the first time I remember thanking the Lord for piped-in music.
They had some trouble remembering the words. For that matter, they had trouble with the notes. But their mother was there I think, a woman who looked like she’d known some hard times. She had a little camera up, recording everything, a trio of her own boys singing a song about what Christmas isn’t about—and, bless his holy name, what it is.
But that image wasn’t what jerked my heart strings, not the boys’ singing, although what they gave the rest of us was really “special” music because they looked greatly happy to be up there entertaining. And it wasn’t their mom’s close attention with that pocket camera, which was touching too.
The real gift I got last night on Christmas Eve at the little Presbyterian church up the block is the way that Grandma mouthed the words, every lyric in that rockin’ number, every sentence, every last phrase, every line of chorus, because she knew ‘em and she wanted her boys to remember. She knew the words because this grandma had been been the one, all week long, doing the coaching, doing the practicing, doing it all.
Real and righteous pride was lighting her face as if she had hold herself of that big candle right square in the middle of the advent wreath. Love was in her eyes–and thanksgiving, which is, really, what Christmas is about, what the Christian life itself is all about.
Nothing’s hip at the Presbyterian church up the block. They don’t try to compete with what’s being done across town. They had no live nativity, no stringed orchestra, no theater, not a bit of hoopla, nothing to make the news. They didn’t even advertise. I had to call the preacher.
But last night, Christmas Eve, as sure as I’m sitting here this Christmas morning, with my own eyes and ears I saw and heard a real, live chorus of angels, three pudgy boys.
And in case you’re wondering, we sang “Silent Night” in the candlelit darkness, just the way it should be sung. So there.
What’s more, I came home with a paper bag of peanuts, a half dozen or more chocolate stars, an apple, just as if I were, once more, a kid.
Go ahead, roast me for being hopeless and cranky. Go on.
I hope they were just as authentic in Seattle.
How Joseph spent Christmas Eve, keeping the area clean around the manger. Keeping the animals at bay. Coming to terms with the cattle, dealing with the sheep, negotiating with the shepherds, and cleaning up again. That was you, Schaap, being Joseph.
James, I can appreciate the childhood story that you offer and the grandmother's actions. It truly is touching. Praise God for that! But if you are upset with Nadia Bolz-Weber for that kind of pride that insists, 'my Christian experience is better than yours' I think you're doing a good deal of the same thing here.
And here church is in Denver. She was visiting Seattle.
I appreciate you being ornery. And cranky! I tend to be that myself most of the time and I don't have the same excuse of age. And to be sure, the media and our culture do participate in hype of religious leaders and groups, trends and the next big thing, and that certainly brings my disdain. The truth is, the story of authenticity that you lifted up in my opinion is spot on to the kind of ministry Rev. Bolz-Weber and her congregation, House of All Sinners and Saints, attempts to practice. I imagine that she, much like you and that little Presbyterian Church, would as you say, not "try to compete with what’s being done across town…have no live nativity, no stringed orchestra, no theater, not a bit of hoopla." OK, to be fair, she has become a kind of hoopla herself and does make the news quite a bit. She's snarky and cranky and foul mouthed and might not be your cup of tea, but I imagine her authenticity and yours are not so far apart.
Was out in Denver a couple years ago and worshipped at the RCA church there in the city Sunday morning. It was cool and young and trendy even, with a jazz music accompanied liturgy in a funky restored and rented auditorium. The congregation looked the part too. But since some of them are my dear friends, I will vouchsafe their authenticity. Worshipped at All Sinners and Saints then in the evening. It too was cool and young, but with much much more variety, more hipster, more edgy, and also much more traditional and liturgical. At least then, they were renting the fellowship hall of a local episcopal church and their congregation numbered probably only half as many more than your Presbyterian description above. (They have since grown in numbers) Still, I was thankful for both congregations.
All this to say, even if I don't much care for the rock star status some are giving Rev. Bolz-Weber, I wouldn't cast aspersion upon her and her genuine attempt of being church authentically. Because its trying to be the kind of church that not only feeds and sustains the grandparents and that trio of singers your story celebrates, but also really works hard at trying to connect with the boys' mother, a "woman who looked like she’d known some hard times." Maybe it was a throwaway line in the NPR report and the comment about the Elks Club but I believe it points to something central to this entire conversation and I too agree; Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church should be more than just the Sons of Knut with eucharist.
I think one of the differences here has to do with humility.
I never heard of Nadia before reading this post, but a quick Internet search displayed the kind of results that are cultivated, er, "marketed," if you will. No matter what she preaches, Ms. Bolz-Weber's ministry is already more about herself and her approach, her personality, her tattoes, etc. than it is about God. In this way, she is like so many others who have gone before and who will arrive after she is forgotten.
The scene Mr. Schaap describes has none of that, and to me is what makes it compelling and refreshing. It is humble.
Let me beg forgiveness. I was far less annoyed by the preacher and her fellowship than I was by story line's unspoken takeaway that those who worship traditionally are, well, the Sons of Knut. The news story made clear that her fellowship may well have met more fully with Martin Luther's favor than a phone book full of other Lutheran congregations, conservative and liberal. Still, what's suggested in all such stories just gets old, especially when you are–you know, when you're not cutting edge, you're what's peeled away. I wouldn't trade my worship experience on Christmas Eve with anyone's. 'Twas "authentic." My apologies to Ms. Bolz-Weber.
Lurker … I am about halfway through her book and enjoying it very much. There may be a big difference between her own propensities and the desire of her publisher to market what has been a very successful book. I heard her speak twice at a conference recently and the gospel came through loud and clear, as it does in her book. And she draws the interest of non-church goers in some remarkable ways. There is a great deal of substance and solid theology in her work.
Thanks for pointing me to your essay here, Jim. I happen to love our little Presbyterian church & especially the family of boys. (angels with piped-in music!) And their grandparents are — you're right — full of love, but tired. (The person taking the photos, by the way, was the auntie, I believe. The mom is still struggling in more ways than most of us.) And I'm probably one of the few in our congregation who has heard of Nadia B-W. I was introduced to her by some Lutheran friends, & I've been touched by what I've heard & read. Yes, it's the gospel. There's lots of wisdom there that I don't hear often enough. I don't feel like it's threatening to me, or to our church. Cuz we're authentic too. I'm nervous for Pastor Bolz-Weber though: My prayer is that she and her congregation won't let the fame lead them astray. And our church? Well, my prayer is that we'll continue to love & welcome others (the many 'angels' around us)…