Stumbling stones and tombs

Stones on the AltarThis Sunday, I noticed a dozen large river stones sitting on the altar. Its the first sunday of Lent and I was reminded of the stone moved from Jesus’ tomb. This started me thinking about stones, caves and tombs, about stumbling and resurrection. Stumbling brought other images into my mind including stumbling block, mental block, writers block, and then start blocks. Can the same block/stone that causes me to stumble also be used to help me push off for a new stronger beginning? What about the stone at the tomb? What does stumbling really look like, when does the stone become a new beginning versus the heavy seal on our tomb? Is the difference between stumbling and starting a matter of perspective?

I was reminded of three writers.

Theologian Father Richard Rohr wrote a book titled, Falling Upward.

The message of Falling Upward is straight forward and bracing: the spiritual life is not static. You will come to a crisis in your life, and after the crisis, if you are open to it, you will enter a space of spiritual refreshment, peace and compassion that you could not have imagined before.

Rohr does not offer a syrupy evasion of this crisis. But he does underline two crucial points. First, God has not abandoned you, even if you are sure that God has. (“All the books of the Bible seem to agree,” notes Rohr, “that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.”) Second, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” That may be cold comfort during the crisis—when your house has flooded, who wants to think about spiritual growth? But later you will notice. You will wonder how you possibly could have come to where you are without that flood. –Read the full review on Christian Century

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath, he outlines a question that arose for him as he wrote his previous book Outliers. He noticed that many of the people, thought of as exceptional, also had experienced a difficulty. He discovered people rarely felt they achieved in spite of their difficulty. They achieved because of the difficulty. The difficulty acted as a catalyst or reason for learning uncommon strengths.  As an example, he notes there is a high percentage of entrepreneurs who have Dyslexia.

The stumbling block becomes a seal on our tomb, not when we trip, but when we pick up the stone and continue to carry it with us. Trying to fashion a badge of honor, not realizing it has become a stone around our neck. Gather enough of these and we become buried in a tomb of our own making. A tomb defined by our failures and our misfortune. Why do we carry these around? When we recall the resurrection the tomb is empty, the stone is removed. The women leave the tomb. They leave the place where they experienced deep pain, as they buried their friend and teacher AND they leave the place where he was resurrected. 

Gladwell and Rohr are exploring the same depths as Brene Brown, revealing for us how we learn from our vulnerability, from our stumbles, and our difficulties. We learn more than just how not to trip, we learn our true strengths, we learn the depth of our communities, and sometimes gain clarity about our direction. When we look back we see the distance we have traveled. Gladwell, Rohr, and Brown do not shy away from the trauma these failures hold, they simply call us to remember all that we learn and gain, if we are open to that vulnerability.

Looking at the stones I also remembered the tradition where people leave stones to mark places they encountered God, gained an important spiritual insight, and as a guide in the wilderness. The stones act as reminders and as a ritual to mark a moment in time. A moment that may mean nothing to anyone else. Or may guide them through the same wilderness you traveled. When I look back on my life I hope to see many stones, many places where I encountered God and gained spiritual insight. Even though I now fully comprehend the tremendous amount of pain that may accompany those moments.


Read more about Brene Brown and Vulnerability in a previous post.

Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Pastrix CoverJust glancing at the tattoos on her arms you wouldn’t notice anything in particular. You may wonder why a person wearing a clerical collar has tattoos, or you may wonder why someone with tattoos is wearing a clerical collar. Either way the first glance is a bit jarring.

Look further, and the tattoos aren’t of mermaids, butterflies, or even flames; they are one of the oldest Christian art forms, iconography showing Byzantine images of Christian saints. One in particular of Mary Magdalene seems somewhat faded.

Describing the tattoos and bumpy faith journey in her recent book Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and author, claims Mary Magdalene as her personal teacher and guide in her life.

Mary Magdalene was saved when Jesus cast out her demons and is someone who shows up in the moments of Jesus’ life and death, when the others cowered in fear. The title itself Pastrix is an insult by conservative critics defining female pastors. By claiming Mary as her teacher, she further redefines herself in opposition to the conservative church of her childhood, which refused to allow female leadership.

Pastrix is not a typical narrative of a tattooed addict who found Jesus and rose above her ashes to become a respected and much-loved pastor. It is the story of an addict who reluctantly found sobriety, stumbled into Christianity and fell in love with the Lutheran church. Her tattoos are not from her life before recovery. Rather, they are the spiritual lessons of recovery engraved on her heart, revealed in the beautiful collection of icons now tattooed on her arms.

Living into the growth of leaders who are allowed and encouraged to share their vulnerabilities, Pastrix mixes the anticipation of a mystery, a comedy, a book of prayer, and a confession.

Lightly seasoned with profanity, the book literally begins with “shit” and ends with alleluias. She tells her story with a lens only bestowed upon survivors who have wrestled with addiction—a lens that allows its users to face the human vulnerabilities, failings and everyday victories with grace and deep humility.

Bolz-Weber conveys this beautiful duality of sinner and saint by setting the tone with humor, sometimes irreverence and disappointment, and with the brashness of an urbanite who has managed to turn a tattoo into a sacred art.

The book is a reminder of just how messy resurrection and recovery can be, and how it deeply changes the way life is viewed.  At the heart of Pastrix, the author retells a conversation with a church member about recovery and resurrection: “The Hold Steady . . . describes a girl who crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass and tell(ing) the priest, ‘Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?'”

Without being heavy-handed, Bolz-Weber frequently returns to her recovery as a source of strength and as a constant reminder of her frailty. As many people have confessed after the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction is a demon they wrestle with every day. It is why the phrase “one day at a time” is the source of strength for so many. Pastrix reminds people that faith and humanness is an act of recovery, living one day at a time, between moments of victory and moments of failure—each beautiful reminders of life, with each moment capable of resurrecting them.

Pastrix is a collection of vignettes, retelling moments when Nadia was struck with the contradiction of her humanness and the calling to be a minister. Some chapters give you a glimpse of her former career as a comedian, while others still raw, describe her friends who didn’t find recovery or of Bolz-Weber struggling to preach about forgiveness on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when she wasn’t really sure what it meant.

Those moments reveal her vulnerability, compelling the reader to slowly read each word, carefully turning the page and allowing the words room to breath, to heal, as if by reading the book you are participating in her resurrection.

This is the tale of so many conservative Christian refugees recovering from restrictive theology. It is the tale of an addict recovering from self-medication, facing the rawness of life. It is the tale of someone falling in love with a 500-year-old tradition, drawn into its deep ritual waters. Pastrix is also a reminder to people who have lived in that tradition of the beauty and call to face their vulnerabilities.

I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books

Author(s): Nadia Bolz-Weber
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Publisher/Imprint: Jericho Books
Pages: 224