The Tattooed Pastor / The Rabbi who Swore at God


Season 19: Episode 12

Mary Magdalene means a lot to Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber -- so much so that she got a sleeve tattoo of the saint.  Pastor Nadia doesn't like emotionally needy people, she swears, and she's a little cranky. In her words: "It's really hard to be a pastor when you're not that good of a Christian." 

For links to our guests, a book giveaway, and an excerpt of the book....


Pastor Nadia believes that sinners play as big a part as saints do when it comes to religion. In fact, her church is called House for All Sinners and Saints.

In her memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, the sarcastic former comedian and alcoholic explains how she was transformed -- but not completely. The sarcasm is still strong, and so is the comedy. You can read and excerpt of her book by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

We're also giving away a couple of copies. Send us an email to enter the draw. Just enter the name of the book - Pastrix - in the subject line.

Later on the show, if Pastor Nadia makes room for the imperfect in human beings, Rabbi Brian Mayer goes one step further. Rabbi Brian says it's entirely possible that god isn't so perfect, either. He's the founder of the online congregation Religion Outside the Box.

Finally, Elaine Chau takes us to 327 Carrall Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Ten years ago at that address, Dave Diewart took an enormous risk to help the city's drug addicts stay alive. 

Excerpt: Pastrix (Warning to the reader: Contains language some may find offensive)

Chapter 1: The Rowing Team

Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

-- Matthew 5:3

During my early years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self-deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.

We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness--all punctuated with profanity. We weren't a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we'd all have to paddle harder.

In 1992, when I started hanging out with the "rowing team," as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn't afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I'm funny when I'm miserable.

This isn't exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world's comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you'd have left . . . well . . . Carrot Top, basically. There's something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. At its best, comedy is prophesy and societal dream interpretation. At its worst it's just dick jokes.

When I was working as a comic, normal noncomic people would often say, "Wow, I don't know how you can get up in front of all those people with just a microphone." To which
I would reply, "Wow, I don't know how you can balance your checkbook and get up for work each day." We all find different things challenging in life. Speaking in front of hundreds of people was far less challenging for me than scheduling dental appointments.

It was almost effortless for me to do comedy, because the underside was where I felt at home--there, everything is marinated in irony and sarcasm until ready to be grilled and handed to a naked emperor. I got regular comedy work, but never went far in the comedy world for several reasons. First, it was because I tended to make the other comics laugh more often than actual audiences, whom I held in contempt (and maybe that's why). Then there was the fact that I wasn't driven to succeed: As soon as it became an effort, I backed off. But the most important reason comedy didn't work for me was that I became healthier and just wasn't that funny anymore. Less miserable = less funny. In the process of becoming sober and trying to rely on God and be honest about my shortcomings, I became willing to show vulnerabilities. This made me easy prey in a comedy club greenroom, which is basically a hotbed of emotional Darwinism, so it wasn't a place I really wanted to spend a whole lot of my free time. In other ways, hanging out with comics could be kind of great. Next to most of them I was the picture of mental health. I befriended--and by befriended I mean occasionally slept with--a wiry-haired, gregarious comic named PJ who had a keen, albeit incredibly perverted, mind. PJ was one of those guys who wasn't exactly GQ material, foregoing well-cut jeans for a regrettable combination of baggy shorts, button-down shirts, and sport sandals.

He had a distinctly feral quality about him that made him seem a bit canine. Despite his almost total lack of style, PJ managed to have a really full social life. He loved women and life and booze and girlie magazines and poker and comedy, not necessarily in that order.

He was also completing his PhD in communications while doing standup, which was made just a tad difficult by his aforementioned vices. One day, I invited him to the rowing team, and he remained a faithful member for the next eight years, often hosting the postmeeting poker games at his house.

If you didn't know PJ well, he didn't seem all that smart, but underneath his foul-mouthed rants was a stunning intellect. His was one of the more filthy acts in Denver, without a lot of highbrow content. He played stupid on stage and he was brilliant at it. I called PJ up once to see how his dissertation was coming along. "Great," he said, "but no one realizes I'm living in my office at the school."

PJ was like one of those cloth dolls with long skirts that you turn upside down and pull the skirt up-- and it's no longer granny, but the big bad wolf. The right-side-up doll is a foul mouthed simpleton, flipped over, a PhD in communications. The right- side-up doll is the fun- loving and charismatic host of a weekly poker game, flipped over, a non-functioning depressive.

PJ was a natural addition to the rowing team, and he infused the meetings with hilarious dark rants. "I wanted to kill myself this morning," PJ would say, "but I thought how much I'd hate
providing all you f- - -ers with a reason to become even more self-absorbed than you already are, so . . ." He ended most of his sentences with "so . . ." as if we all knew how to fill in the
next blank; if he were to do it for us it wouldn't be as funny. He was someone I wanted to be around, as if his juju would rub off, making me witty and smart and likable like him. 

Comedy clubs are closed on Monday Nights, but PJ's house was open for Texas Hold'em after our rowing team meetings. I'm pretty sure that when he got sober and removed booze from the equation, he just added extra women and poker and comedy. Mondays at PJ's became a dark carnival of comics, recovering alcoholics, and comics who were recovering alcoholics. Rounds of poker went late into the night, but competitive wit was where the real points were scored. Whenever I could, I would shove aside the inevitable pile of PJ's dirty magazines on the piano bench and sit myself down for a few hours of belly laughing, which was well worth the twenty-five dollars I always lost to them in the process.

Still, underneath the academic success, the adoring comedy club audiences, the many women, and loads of friends, was something corrosive. Eating away at our friend PJ,
over the course of a decade, was a force or illness or demon that had staked a corner of PJ's mind, and like the Red Army, marched determinedly, claiming more and more territory each day.

PJ was loved by a lot of people who had no idea how to help him. The rowing team watched over his final years, as his mental illness was tugged and pulled by modern pharmacology but never cured. He'd show up less and less often on Monday nights, and each time he would be skinnier. It was as though his body began to follow his mind and spirit, which were slowly leaving. He stopped returning our calls.

Several days before he hanged himself, PJ called me. He wanted me to pray for him. It had been ten years since I'd met PJ, and I had since returned to Christianity. I think I was the only religious person he knew. He wondered about God: Was he beyond the pale of God's love? Throwing all my coolness and sarcasm aside, I prayed for him over the phone. I asked that he feel the very real and always available love of God. I prayed that he would know, without reservation, that he was a beloved child of God. I'm sure I said a bunch of other stuff, too. I wanted to be able to cast out this demon that had hold of our PJ, possessing him, telling him lies, and keeping out the light of God's love.

A week and a half later, I was sitting in a huge lecture hall at CU Boulder (where, as a thirty- five- year- old, married mother of two, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree), when my
cell phone rang. I rushed outside, the cold air making my eyes water.

Sean, fellow comic and rower said, "Nadia. It's, um . . . PJ, honey."
"Shit," I said.
"I'm sorry," Sean said. We were all sorry. "Can you do his service?"

This is how I was called to ministry. My main qualification? I was the religious one.

The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: These were my people. Giving PJ's eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.

It's not that I felt pious and nurturing. It's there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there with the woman climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a "hot date." God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.

I am no the only one who sees the underside of God a the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don't get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic- depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn't help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn't help but point it out. For reasons I'll never quite understand, I realized that I had been called to proclaim the Gospel from the place where I am, and proclaim where I am from the Gospel.

What had started in early sobriety as a reluctant willingness to start praying again had led to my returning to Christianity, and now had led to something even more preposterous: I was called to be a pastor to my people.

Reprinted from Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Published by Jericho Books.

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