Saturday, 12 December 2015

Accidental Saints: A Book Review

I love a good book recommendation. Recently my son told me about an author that the pastoral team at his church was reading. Apparently they all were quite enthralled with this writer. Who was the author? It was Nadia Bolz-Weber. Despite having been featured on CNN, the BBC World Service, the Washington Post, and others, I must confess that I really didn’t know anything about her. As it turns out, she is the author of New York Times bestseller Pastrix and the founding pastor of House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. Based upon my son’s pastor’s recommendation, I purchased her latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. I wasn’t disappointed.

From the very first chapter, I liked Nadia immensely. From stories of her tattoos to her questionable language, from her openness with anger issues to her embracing God’s grace through her love of Jesus, I found the candor of this Lutheran pastor, who was once apparently mistaken for a burlesque dancer, very refreshing. She writes, “I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile” (p.7). 

So what’s the book about? Here are a few random take-away’s:

One of the things that made this a refreshing read was that throughout the book she seems to be preaching to herself as much as she does to others. In fact, I thought I had read somewhere that others had a similar testimony concerning her pulpit style as well. I like that. The fact is, ultimately we’re all (pastors included) “accidental saints” and can only come to the throne of grace because God first chose us and not because of any merit of our own. Jesus’ “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16) comes to mind, and it is just as we really are, warts and all, that Jesus chooses each of us. Nadia’s storytelling reveals a woman who comes just as she is, a person who appears to wrestle with many of the same things that a lot of us wrestle with, and in the midst of it, time and again, discovers God’s grace.

Therein also lies the difference, I think, between her and many other popular authors today. Whereas many others sometimes come across as elevating themselves in some twisted form of pseudo-perfectionism, although I’m sure not deliberately, Nadia seems to choose to remain vulnerable and humbly reveal her real self. In the process we get a sense that she is also indirectly reminding us all that, perhaps ironically, our perfect God has always chosen to use the imperfect for His purposes. As she writes, “Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for” (p.39). It takes courage to confess one’s shortcomings and to lay oneself open like that. The more I delved into the book, the more chapters I read, the more I personally felt blessed, even to the point of shedding a few tears with her along the way.

Theologically speaking, a cautious smile came across my face as Nadia took a couple paragraphs to describe her take on that confusing and often misunderstood doctrine of the rapture. She writes,

I am certain there are more gracious ways of explaining the rapture, and not everyone who believes in it fits this description, but to believe in the rapture feels to me like it’s the same as believing that when Jesus comes back, he will do so as a judgmental, angry bastard who apparently underwent a total personality transplant since his resurrection. Or as a selective magician who will make all good people float up to the sky like a million Evangelical Mary Poppinses and force the bad people to be “left behind” on earth to suffer terribly. 
There are some Christians who talk about the rapture as if the good people in heaven will be given these awesome box seats from which to watch the bad people suffer on earth. This is the good people’s reward for never having any fun while in this earthly existence. This sort of fear-mongering bullshit sells like hotcakes. People eat it up. And why wouldn’t we? It panders to the selfish, hateful, vengeance-seeking parts of ourselves, like God himself is cosigning on it all. Which, come to think of it, is what so much bad religion does for us. (p.55)

Wow! I am not suggesting that I agree or disagree with her position on the rapture, but I am saying that I’ve never heard it explained quite like that before. She went on to say that “rapture theories are nothing I’ve ever taken very seriously.” Fair enough. As I heard someone facetiously say, “I’ve survived many raptures.” Accidental Saints goes much deeper though, than semi-serious rapture discussions.

As I write this, we are only two weeks from yet another Christmas, and I was struck by a chapter entitled: “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Sandy Hook Elementary.” Remember that tragic event in Newtown, Connecticut, only eleven days before Christmas back in 2012? The author talks about her feelings and trying to minister to others in the aftermath of those dark days, and in the process we are also reminded of another slaughter of the innocents under the reign of Herod way back at that first Christmas (Matthew 2:16). She muses of being infuriated with what we’ve done with Christmas and “getting pretty snotty about ridiculous commercial versions that have no basis in the biblical text” (p.73). One doesn’t have to look long before seeing some of the weird stuff that has crept into our crèche scenes, such as a pious little Santa kneeling at the manger. Still, I’m thankful that, though more biblical, figurines of the slaughtered innocents aren’t there too.

In the chapter entitled, “Judas Will Now Take Your Confession,” I had my theology challenged yet again as I was reminded of my tendency lately to often gravitate towards reclusiveness whenever possible. I justify it to myself by saying that I’m an extrovert on the job, but after that, introversion and solitude suits me just fine. Unfortunately - or better yet, fortunately - that’s not how Christ designed his church to work. Peter, after denying the Lord those three times, still received grace and forgiveness, and he did so in community. The chapter reminded me that he could never have received that alone as a lone Christian apart from fellowship, because we’re called to preach grace and love and forgiveness to one another. While Peter received it on the beach over breakfast (John 21:12), Judas in his solitude went away alone and hanged himself. Nadia wrote, “How might that early Christian community have been different if Judas had received forgiveness, as the rest of them did? Again and again Jesus had said they should preach forgiveness of sins in his name” (p.169). Could Judas have been saved? Was his sin really any worse than Peter’s or the rest of the twelve? Was Judas beyond redemption? Or did he lose out on receiving forgiveness by ostracizing himself (or being ostracized) from, or by, the community? I confess that I have a hard time with this line of thinking, as John 17:12 does speak of Judas Iscariot as "the son of perdition" (Amplified), or "the one doomed to destruction" (NIV). Maybe forgiveness was not an option for Judas after all. However, one thing seems certain, belonging to a community of believers that loves one another, forgives one another, and gives grace to each other, is the way that God often chooses to bless each of us. This concept comes out loud and clear in Accidental Saints.

Not having been raised in the Lutheran tradition, and having been a Baptist before renouncing denominationalism all together, I was challenged by some of the traditions and practices of House for All Sinners and Saints as depicted in this book. Having said that, I do not mean this in a negative way, as if to suggest that I’ve somehow cornered the market in understanding the ways of God. Obviously I have not. My own personal spiritual pilgrimage has also undergone its own metamorphosis over the past dozen years or so, from being a Baptist pastor, to leaving the traditional institutional form of Christianity all together for a more organic form, to once again being more open to occasionally visiting other faith communities, to hopefully even being a little more gracious along the way when it comes to those little religious idiosyncrasies. The point is, having been all over the religious map myself, who am I to say anything? While in a different context, maybe Paul said it best when he wrote, "So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God" (Romans 14:22; NIV).

To quote author Rachel Held Evans’ praise for Accidental Saints, “This is one of those rare books that will make you simultaneously wince with recognition and sigh with relief. A must-read for every screw-up and asshole caught up in God’s grace” (taken from back cover). Being a “screw-up and asshole” myself a time or ten (or a hundred), I can relate. Today I sense the need for God’s grace too, perhaps in some ways, maybe even more than ever before. Perhaps you can relate as well.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s definitely worth a second read, and I highly recommend it. Peace and Blessings.