A stop-you-in-your-tracks story of grace from the first chapter of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s new book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, involving her dealings with a rather hapless newcomer to House of All Sinner and Saints. There are a lot of wonderful stories in the book, but this may be my favorite, for no other reason than the mundanity of the infraction. So true to life! Anyway, those who were at the NYC conference in April may recognize the episode. I read it at a class the other night and we all had ourselves a good cry. Posted with permission:

JerryI never knew what to say to Larry. It felt like he was at church because he thought he could connect with me, not because he was hoping to connect with God and other people, and while I may very well have been wrong about his motivations, that kind of thing makes me uncomfortable whether it’s real or not. Plus, I just didn’t like him. And not for any interesting reasons, just age, gender, zip code, breath, waistband. You know, the shit horrible people judge regular nice people for because we are miserable bastards. So I kept Larry at arm’s length, never doing much to try to connect with him, never bothering to help get him connected. And soon it would be too late.

When Larry dies of a brain tumor shortly thereafter, Nadia is stricken with guilt and makes an appointment to confess to Caitlin, a colleague and friend. NBW continues:

I hadn’t killed Larry. I just hadn’t been a very good pastor to the guy, even though, unlike myself, he was really nice. And now he was dead and I had to comfort his widow and I knew I couldn’t be present to her grief if all I could think of was that stupid thing I did to him recently, which wasn’t very nice.

Product9337_Photo1It was a thing no one would ever know I’d done but that I simply had to confess and be absolved of: I’d purposely left Larry’s address off a mass email I sent out, reminding people to register for the spring retreat. Seriously. Who does a thing like that? It had weighed on me ever since, even though in the grand scheme of crime and betrayal it was, at worst, a misdemeanor.

There’s the horrible feeling you get when someone you love has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and there’s the horrible feeling you get when someone you’ve thought bad things about, someone who is actually a really great guy (though you are an asshole and tried to make sure he wasn’t going to bring his too-baggy pants and his halitosis to the church retreat), has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was something that weighed on my conscience, something I would be ashamed of if anyone else knew. Actually I was plenty ashamed just being the only one who knew. But we all hide things for ourselves–that time we spanked our child too hard, the times we have to erase our browser history, the time we lied about ourselves to get a job, the times we flirt online with people who aren’t our spouses. Whatever it is, we all carry secrets.

Nadia goes on to list another slight she’d leveled at Larry, unbeknownst to him. After receiving his diagnosis, Larry and his girlfriend decided to get married, and approached Nadia to do the honors. She declined, citing a church canon about necessary pre-marriage counseling, when in reality if she had really wanted to do so, she could have made it happen. Back to the confessional:

c6daf398f0caa1b72266392963ba15d6Thinking back, I can say that maybe my sin toward Larry doesn’t rank up there with embezzling tithes or schtupping the choir director, but if someone comes to your church and you make up excuses to not serve them with grace and love, it’s still despicable. And that fact that I “learned” from it all and haven’t done that kind of thing since doesn’t make up for it, because I’m sure if I had a minute, I could come up with other things I’ve done in its stead. Which means that I am in perpetual need of grace.

Quietly, Caitlin took it all in. She took a drink of her water, then reached out for my hand and said, “Nadia, Jesus died for our sins. Including that one.”…

I wish I could say that, after the absolution Caitlin proclaimed to me, I was totally freed from any burden of conscience, but that’s not entirely true. It didn’t totally happen until a middle-aged white lady came up to me and said, “You’re Nadia, right?”

She took my hands and looked startlingly straight into my eyes. “I wanted to thank you for having a church where Larry felt so welcome. He spoke so highly of you and your congregation, and I know that having you as his pastor meant a lot for him in his final months.”

There it was. A blessed exchange. My crap for Jesus’s mercy…

There is absolutely no justice in the fact that Larry loved me and that church. But if I got what I deserved in this life, I’d be screwed–so instead, I receive that grace for what it is: a gift.