Palm Sunday. About 200 folks of all ages are gathered in the courtyard at St. Thomas Episcopal Church east of Denver's City Park for the weekly House for All Sinners and Saints 5 p.m. service. A row of bicycles leans against the building. Children sword-fight one another with palm fronds.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of this Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, stands tall near the door that leads inside. A bell chimes from a tower overhead. Chatter hushes. Bolz-Weber starts into her pre-procession announcements.
Unfortunately, she tells those assembled, there's no donkey for tonight's service. But, she adds, slightly under her breath and with a sly grin, "we do have a few asses."
Laughter rings out among the mishmash of bearded hipsters and teenagers, retirees and stroller-pushing parents. It may be Holy Week, but there's nothing holier-than-thou about this group or their leader.
The HFASS parishioners file out of the courtyard and into an airy, stained-glass-windowed room. Unlike at most churches, ELCA or otherwise, there are no pews, and service is held in the round, with the altar placed in the center. Bolz-Weber, her new assistant pastor Reagan Humber and visiting ELCA Rocky Mountain Synod Bishop Jim Gonia sit on folding chairs among tonight's attendees, and listen as individuals rise to give Scripture readings, offer prayers, lead hymns, and more generally help run the service.
"We're anti-excellence, pro-participation," Bolz-Weber explains in an interview. "Just you being here, and your voice being part of this, matters more than making sure you're doing it well."
That approach is one reason why the 45-year-old Bolz-Weber has attracted attention in the Lutheran community and across the world since she founded HFASS (an acronym meant to be said aloud) in 2008. Most recently, a reporter from the German magazine GEO flew over to spend four days with her, to produce a multiple-page feature for its April issue. It also helps explain why she spends half her year on the road as a public theologian, and why she'll be in Colorado Springs from April 24 to 26 at First Congregational Church, as keynote for the annual James W. White Lectureship.
But it's not the only reason she's been labeled a "superhero from Planet Alternative Christian" by The Washington Post and a "Lutheran rock star" by NPR. Another reason? Who she is, from her appearance to her history.
She's a formidable presence — a lean, 6-foot-1 CrossFit competitor who sports numerous tattoos, including Mary Magdalene proclaiming the Resurrection to the apostles on her forearm and a soon-to-be-finished back piece of the Annunciation. She wears jeans with her clerical collar, and dark polish on her nails. She, her husband who pastors another Lutheran church, and their two teenagers watch Downton Abbey and Doctor Who together. At least, they used to. "I hate the current Doctor, so we stopped watching," she says very seriously.
When she's cracking jokes, her humor ranges from belly-laugh-enticing to biting — a rollover from her pre-seminary gig doing stand-up in local clubs. The irony isn't lost on Bolz-Weber that after she stopped trying to hit it big as a comedian, she managed to do so as a pastor.
"If you start a band, you know, you're thinking, 'Oh, maybe one day we'll record and maybe we'll get a record deal. We could go on tour and stuff.' That's kind of out there as this sort of possibility. Or if you go to art school, or acting school," she says. "I went to seminary. There's nothing that prepares you for this, and it's never the end goal of it, one would hope. It would be foolish if it was."
If she had any goal coming out of seminary, it was that maybe, someday, she says, "a church will hire me. Or maybe I'll get a big church. But that's where it ends. You're never like, maybe some German magazine will send a writer out for four days to hang out with me."
Or that you'll attract over-the-top commentary of all kinds. Google Bolz-Weber, and opposite glowing media you'll find a collection of people both inside and out of the ELCA community who don't approve of her work. She's been called everything from a heretic (accused of preaching "universalism," the idea that all people are saved) to a "false teacher" (due to a long-ago dabbling with Wicca) to a feminist "infecting scores of younger evangelicals."
"I have ridiculous things said about me, positively and negatively," she says. "Both of which I'm fairly certain are equally distant from the truth.
"My life, my actual life, is very small. I keep it real small. I'm rarely more than two miles from my home. I don't go out much. I have my little life, you know. I stay mainly in this neighborhood, and so the rest of it, I do feel, is a calling."
Bolz-Weber grew up in Colorado Springs, raised in a fundamentalist Christian family with a father who was faculty at the Air Force Academy. At 12, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a thyroid-related autoimmune disorder that caused her eyes, as she writes in her 2013 memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, "to protrude out of their sockets."
Her days at Horace Mann Middle School were rough. While she was accepted at church, she writes, "despite my bug-eyes, the rage and cynicism I had developed as a result of those bug-eyes was decidedly 'not Christian.'" In her teens, she started drinking and doing drugs. She graduated high school with a 2.0 GPA and headed to college, but only managed four months at Pepperdine University.
Finally, in 1991, she attended her first 12-step meeting to prove to a friend that she wasn't an alcoholic. It would start a process of daily meetings. It would also bring her back to God.
"Getting sober," she writes, "never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward self-destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying, 'Screw you. I'll take the destruction please.' God looked at tiny, red-faced me and said, 'that's adorable,' and then plunked me down on an entirely different path."
Over the years to follow, Bolz-Weber would meet a "tall, really cute" Lutheran seminary student, who would convince her to attend church with him, and later become her husband. Over the same years, she would connect with a religious congregation that valued liturgy, an ancient process of worship shared primarily by Lutheran, Orthodox, Episcopal and Catholic churches.
The unifying element of the hymns and call-and-response spoke to her soul, as did the liturgical structure, from chanting the Kyrie and the Psalm to the giving of Communion and the Benediction. As she proceeded to enter Denver's Iliff School of Theology and consider her future, it would play a key role in determining the type of church she ultimately would plant, starting with eight people in her living room even before she was ordained in 2008.
"I wanted a church that I would want to show up to," she explains in person. "And I just didn't find one so I had to create it. I love the liturgy. Love the traditions of the church. I love Lutheran theology, and yet if that's seen as the gift, then the wrapping of the gift was never one that I wanted to have much to do with. The wrapping is the cultural expression of those things, so that's where you get things like pews all in a row and nicey-nice chitchat and that slight formality where everyone's just a bit uncomfortable and watching what they say and how they are and wearing certain things. All of that, right? There's nothing wrong with those things, but that's wrapping. ...
"I fell in love with the gift of it and I thought really it could be wrapped in any way, so what would it look like if those things that I fell in love with were sort of emerged out of the cultural context I'm native to? ...
"This is the answer. This is what it looks like."
Singing at HFASS happens a cappella. On this Palm Sunday, voices young and old fill the parish hall at the congregation's home base of St. Thomas, with a certain reverberation.
Holy, holy, holy. God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
This part of the Eucharistic prayer, the Sanctus, is a part of the liturgy Bolz-Weber is particularly drawn to right now.
"There's a way in which in the Sanctus, because that was first sort of given to us sung by angels, we are joining our voices with all of the faithful in every time and realm, and I find that pleasingly destabilizing with my individualism," she says. "And there's such a lack of unity in the church that I think it's this moment in which joining our voices really matters. And also just sharing our lives in a way that doesn't feel like we're doing it all by ourselves."
According to Bolz-Weber, the liturgy's participatory nature also helps draw younger people, including Millennials.
"It's like, this is a community of producers, not consumers," she says. "And so they can trust what they're experiencing, because they're the ones helping to create it, helping to make decisions about it."
Together, the church community hosts everything from an annual Blessing of the Bicycles (with a community ride, pizza and keg of Fat Tire following) to a Liturgy Guild, open to everyone, which meets regularly to "make creative decisions about [the congregation's] liturgical life." An "Open Space" component in the middle of each Sunday service gives individuals about 15 minutes of quiet time to spend how they choose: contemplating gratitudes to enter in a community Book of Thanks; writing prayers to be read publicly by other church members later; or meditating near a large velvet Elvis painting.
As Bolz-Weber's bishop, Jim Gonia says, "Nadia has a way to articulate the Gospel in a way that we feel is important to be heard. But she also, she's heard by people because she's Nadia, you know. ... I think it's a great gift that her own story starts outside of our tradition because she gets it so deeply and authentically."
The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Broadbent says something similar in talking about Bolz-Weber's upcoming visit to his First Congregational Church.
"My sense of Nadia," he says, "is that she's emerged as this voice that kind of really helps people who feel church and religion are out of touch with the culture." He adds that he loves how she tells her story, with the very vulnerability that one of her local talks will focus on.
"Part of our reason for choosing Nadia as our speaker is to put our name out there as a place where questions and doubts are not just welcomed, but celebrated and affirmed. ... If the church isn't helping us become more fully ourselves, we have a problem."
He does note that since First Congregational is a liberal mainline church, those who hear about and/or attend the lecture series might look at Bolz-Weber and think all she'll do is confirm a bunch of radical values. But, he says, "she's refused to oppose authenticity and orthodoxy," and instead believes these things can speak together and give to one another.
Bishop Gonia says ELCA brings to the table a "willingness to deal with paradox, and the messiness of life." Bolz-Weber, personally, does so openly and extensively: one-on-one, in her sermons and in her writing. Pastrix delves into much of it. For instance: that period in 2011 when, after preaching at an Easter service at Red Rocks Amphitheater and being written up in a Denver Post cover feature, she saw double the number of people walking into HFASS.
"We knew that given the exposure there would be some lookie-loos — people just seeing what HFASS was about, out of curiosity — but what we didn't realize was that they were going to stay, and that they wouldn't look like us," she writes. "I wanted the 'us' to be bigger. What I wasn't prepared for was the 'us' to be different. ..."
"I was terrified that the edgy, marginalized people whom we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think, 'This isn't for me.' And if that started to happen I would basically lose my shit."
She decided to call a church meeting, to discuss the "sudden growth and demographic changes." She figured the long-timers at the church would talk about who they were and what HFASS had always been about, and the newbies would figure out that it was not the place for them. Of course, she writes, "Even as I was arranging the details for this meeting, I knew it was wrong. Exhibit Z: It's hard to be a good pastor when you're not really that good of a Christian."
For two weeks before the meeting, Bolz-Weber struggled. With the plan itself. With her emotions. With her shame. A few days before, she writes, she underwent what she can only describe as a heart transplant in a conversation with a pastor friend. She told him what had been going on, and asked if his church with a similar demographic had ever felt co-opted.
"Yeah, that sucks," he said sarcastically. "You guys are really good at 'welcoming the stranger' when it's a young transgender person. But sometimes 'the stranger' looks like your mom and dad."
It hit her right in the place she needed it. On meeting day, she brought a different attitude, a curiosity about the new folks, and a confession to the group about her weeks of floundering and her conversation with her friend. Newbies told stories of feeling broken and seeking a home where they were welcome, and never feeling closer to God than when they were in her church during liturgy.
And then one of the regulars spoke.
"As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record and say that I'm really glad there are people at church who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can't with my own mom and dad."
As Bolz-Weber writes, "Aaaaand heart transplant healed."
Of course, she says now that her next book, slated for September release, is just as painfully honest. "Oh my gosh, I admit some horrible things about myself," she says, shaking her head. "I would stop telling the stories if they would stop happening, but I've not run out of material to offer people of me being an asshole and what I've learned about it."
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