Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, a former stand-up comic, an author of two best selling New York Times list books, and a speaker.
She served as the founding Pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denver, Colorado. Most recently, she finished writing her third book, Shameless, a challenge to the antiquated ideas our society views sex, gender, and our bodies.
*Please note that this episode explores mature themes and has minor profanity.
Dave brought Nadia in as a guest after he heard her speak at the Nantucket Project and was incredibly impressed with her and the parallels of her words and our No Barriers messaging.
All three hosts sat down with Nadia in our studio in Golden to talk about her own journey to become a Pastor for House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denver, Colorado. From her struggles with alcoholism and feeling lost in the world, Nadia found a community when she entered the world of comedy and became a stand-up comedian. Using humor and her faith as therapy, she eventually began to heal and transformed her trauma into a passion for helping others.
“There is something in us that can’t be harmed… It’s a protected thing within us…when tragedy happens it’s a reliable thing that we can draw upon.”
Now, she has two best-selling books and most recently released her latest book, Shameless, an examination and takedown of the “harmful and antiquated ideas about sex, gender, and our bodies.”
The hosts and Nadia discuss the concepts of forgiveness, faith, trust, and spirit in this hour of reflection.
Jeff: Hi, everybody.
Dave: This podcast is a little different because this guest, Nadia, we decided to bring her on because a previous podcast guest sparked some ideas in us. That was Angie Shireman. If you haven’t heard the Angie Shireman podcast, please go listen to it. But during that podcast, Angie talked to us about some of the darkest moments in her life, and she had this one pivotal part of that conversation where she talked about when everything was taken away from her in her own mind, she had to find what else remained. She talked about what that thing is that might remain that you can find strength in when you feel that everything else is taken away from you.
Dave: So I had heard Nadia speak at an event called The Nantucket Project and was really impressed with her message and her life’s work. As we all listen to this, Jeff and Erik, I thought, Erik, first thing I thought of was when you’re talking around the world, you talk about the light inside of us that people can go to. So I thought maybe we can start there before we bring Nadia in. Talk to us about when you talk about that light, what are you talking about? Because I see some parallels between Angie’s message, that light, and I think what we’ll talk a little bit about today with Nadia.
Erik: I talk about that light in a secular way, just interpret it however you want. What is that thing inside of us that we grow and nurture and use to blaze into the world to make our way forward? So we’re not always external, always blaming and attacking and reacting and responding. How do we dig into something that we have inside? So that’s definitely one thing that I’d like to come away with today, some perspective on how to talk about that thing if at all.
Dave: Yeah, and, Jeff, I know you’ve been thinking about this for quite a while in this conversation.
Jeff: Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by Nadia digitally because she really taps into a lot of the themes that I percolate on often. Being an anthropology major and traveling around the world, and you’re fascinated by religion and culture and the juxtaposition that this life that we live here and this secular place and how it plays out in the world. I think she’s going to be a great source of an opportunity to dive in. Really, the other thing is this idea of the purpose-driven life, right? I think we’ve tried to get into that a little bit with our Warrior’s Curriculum, and I think that Nadia probably has a really nice insight into that as well.
Dave: Well, great. Well, Nadia is joining us now, and thank you so much for being with us, Nadia.
Nadia: Oh, you’re welcome.
Dave: You’ve got such an interesting background. It involves being everything from a standup comedian to a pastor to a writer to a speaker. So maybe just tell us how you got started in this space and got to start this incredible church and went on to become-
Jeff: House of All Sinners and Saints.
Jeff: A great title. Good job there.
Nadia: I don’t know. When I think about to who I was in my early 20s, I just feel like you can’t get here from there. The math doesn’t work to be somebody who was … I just had nothing going for me. I was trying to quit drugs and alcohol, and trying to get sober, and hadn’t seen a dentist for six years, and was making $800 a month. I didn’t go to college when everyone else did and all of that. So who I was then and what my life is now, there’s no vision board I could have created 27 years ago to go, “Oh, this is what I think I should do, and here are the steps I’m going to take towards it.”
Nadia: To be honest, there’s a lot of ways in which my life has just been a series of me saying yes when things were presented to me, rather than me having this … People talked about setting intention and having a vision and a five-year plan and a mission statement. I never had any of that shit. My church never had any of that shit, and it’s really successful. So it’s been this weird thing of just saying yes.
Dave: What’d you say yes to?
Nadia: Well, I said yes to this thing about getting sober in a weird way, but my yes was delayed. I really fought it for a while. People who get sober often talk about having a pink cloud, having this really almost euphoric experience early on, and I didn’t have that.
Jeff: Did you do AA or did 12 steps?
Nadia: Yeah, I still go to meetings every week, and it’s been 27 years. People had asked if I would write about certain things when I was in seminary. They were like, “You should start a blog with some of this stuff.” I did this thing where I would do this theology pub, and I’d go down to the Mercury Café when I was in seminary. I would just be there once a month, talking about different stuff and hosting a conversation around topics I was learning in seminary that I felt that anybody could learn, but just most people don’t have the benefit of graduate theological education. I loved the challenge of putting these ideas into language that was super understandable for anyone and then listening to what they had to say about it.
Nadia: So I started doing that, and people were like, “Well, you should put some of this online.” People just kept saying things to me, and then the Episcopal Publishing House when I was in seminary said, “Hey, we want you to watch 24 consecutive hours of bad Christian television and write about it because you’re both theological and funny, and we think that would be great.” So I said, “Well, will you pay me in advance?” Because we needed a new furnace. I literally wrote my first book because we needed a furnace. It wasn’t much. It was like $4000, and so I said yes.
Dave: A practical reason.
Nadia: Yeah, no. People are like, “Why’d you start writing?” Well, I needed a new furnace.
Nadia: So then an agent kind of approached me. It’s been this series. I never did something like, “I’m going to put up an aspirational website calling myself a speaker and a writer, hoping people will click on the book meets.” I just didn’t do it. Therefore, I can’t actually explain how I got to where I am.
Dave: But isn’t there like an openness, though, that you have to have for opportunities like that to come into your life? Otherwise, you just shut them down.
Nadia: Yeah. I think that there’s a part of my brain that didn’t fully develop. I think that’s actually what happened because I’m pretty self-effacing and self-incriminating, really, in my writing and my speaking. My dad’s like, “Oh, honey. You just have something special.” I’m like, “Oh, no, daddy. I think I technically have something missing, which is called shame.” That part of the brain that says, “I can’t do that,” never fully developed.
Jeff: Wait, so it’s the lack of shame that gives you the open door to do and say whatever you want?
Nadia: Yeah. If I had a superpower, that might be it.
Jeff: Oh my gosh. I love it. That sounds awful. Okay, but can you fill in that gab between sobriety, the 12 step program, and then going to seminary and going the theological route?
Nadia: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Erik: And being a comedian. Is there some connection?
Nadia: Well, yeah. Okay, so the comedy stuff was right when I was getting sober, and honestly, it was because I couldn’t afford therapy. So being on stage and being really angry and caustic was the next best thing. There’s a catharsis to it, and so it was fine. I’m glad I had the experience, but what happened was when I’m unhappy, I’m super funny. I got sober, I became more healthy, and suddenly, I didn’t really want to hang out in a comedy club green room because it’s just like a bed of social Darwinism in there. It’s just not the healthiest space. So as I became more healthy, I think I become less funny. Also, it wasn’t like this big dream I had and I was just going to work towards it. As soon as it became hard where I had to actually work, I just stopped doing it.
Nadia: Having said that, I don’t know how anybody manages to be a preacher without being a comic first because it taught me a lot about preaching and economy of language specifically. Anyway, so I got sober and I was raised really very fundamentalist Christian, very strict, almost sectarian form of Christianity. I left that when I was 16, but there’s this thing about when you’re raised a church kid like that. It just forms who you are in such specific ways that when I look back on it, I spent 10 years outside of Christianity, but in a way, trying to find its replacement.
Nadia: So when you’re used to being in a community, we were around the same group of people several times a week. We sang with them. We prayed with them. We shared our lives together. If somebody had a need, it was met, right? Say what you will about the doctrine or the teachings that might be harmful, and they are, when you’re raised with that, you go out into the world and you’re like, “Oh my God. Something doesn’t feel like it’s there.”
Nadia: So I did try and find replacements for it, and I ventured into other forms of spirituality, for which I’m really grateful. I learned a lot from women spirituality and Wicca and things like that. But eventually, I found a form of Christianity that didn’t feel like I had to remove my brain in order to be a part of it and that I didn’t have to edit parts of my story. It just felt like … Lutheran theology felt like it gave me language for what I already experienced to be true. It’s very different than other forms of theology. They really believe in paradox, and also that we’re all simultaneous sinner and saint. I thought, “Oh my gosh. Well, that explains so much.” We’re all good and bad.
Erik: And there’s no shame. Is there shame?
Nadia: Not really. No, because the whole center of that theological system is grace. That’s the point of gravity in Lutheran theology, and when that’s the point of gravity, there is no basis for shame.
Dave: So it’s like purposely logical, right?
Dave: That’s good, right? That’s our life.
Nadia: Yeah. I think that’s right. That paradox.
Dave: We live with paradox.
Jeff: So the recovery from addict into theology, was there a connection or a segue way between the 12 step and then finding your way there, or was it hearkening back to your youth and your fundamental Christian background?
Nadia: No, I think that it really aligned with my experience of somebody in recovery instead of being this thing I had to try to believe in order to belong. It just aligned so beautifully because in the program, we talked about how God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves or your higher power does for you what you can’t do for yourself. That just really fit with my understanding of Lutheran theology.
Nadia: I discovered the Lutheran church through my now ex-husband, and he is the Lutheran pastor as well. So it was just this entree into this whole world I didn’t know anything about, but I loved the theology. I thought it was so beautiful, but I looked around the church and said, “Man, no one looked like me. Nobody looked like me.”
Dave: Tell our listeners about the church that you started. You were talking a little bit about it before the podcast began because I think a lot of the writings that I’ve read and the stuff that I heard previously when you spoke stems from the kinds of people you’ve met as you started to build that community.
Nadia: Yeah, for sure.
Erik: I hear that you don’t look like a traditional pastor. I wish I could see your tats.
Nadia: Yeah. I’m 6’1 and I have sleeved tattoos.
Nadia: I have my own thing going on. But yeah, nobody looks at me and thinks, “Oh, I bet she’s a Lutheran pastor.” So I just wanted to be a pastor for my people.
Nadia: The way I ended up feeling the “call to ministry” honestly was the suicide of a dear friend of mine, who was also a comic and also in recovery, went to the same meeting I did, and who I loved very dearly. When he died, our friends just looked at me and went, “Well, you can do his funeral, right?”
Nadia: Now I had not been to seminary. I was just the only religious person in my friend group. So I gave his eulogy at the Comedy Works in downtown Denver to this packed room. He was an academic as well. There’s all these academics and comics and recovering alcoholics and queers, and I just looked out at them and I thought-
Nadia: “They don’t have a pastor. These people don’t have a pastor.” Then my second thought was, “Oh shit, I think I’m supposed to be-”
Jeff: They were your congregation.
Nadia: There was this moment of, “Oh no.”
Nadia: So I did. I started a congregation with eight people in my living room, and there’s probably, I don’t know, 600 members of the church now. I handed it off. I didn’t want it to have founder’s syndrome, so after 10 years, I gave it to the next generation of leadership. It was a very love and gratitude filled leave-taking. The fact that I managed to leave while they still loved me feels like a great win.
Jeff: Do you go back?
Nadia: No, I’m not allowed to. No, in the Lutheran church, you have to really give a lot of distance. I’d love nothing more than to go and worship with them again. I can, maybe after a year, but you have to give them at least a year to be them without you, especially when you’re the founder.
Jeff: Oh, so this is a very recent development, then?
Nadia: Yeah, I left in July.
Jeff: Oh, I got you.
Nadia: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Erik: So being pretty non-traditional, what are the things that you tried to do with your community? Yeah, so you rejected this really traditional kind, but I read that you really tried not to let the right and the left, the political stuff, get in the way. What was your world view of how you were going to start things out?
Nadia: Yeah. It’s interesting because I just know from living in the different worlds I live in that it feels like people are speaking truly honestly about their lives and connecting to God and one another more frequently in our church basement than in our church sanctuary. So having been somebody who goes to 12 step meetings in church basements, I saw what that level of absolute honesty about our struggles and our shit can do in a community, and I thought, “I want that aspect in a church.”
Nadia: So I was that honest in my preaching and when I offered pastoral care to people, and I think that kind of vulnerability is invitational. So then it’s a place where … A lot of times, you might go to a church and what you hear in the prayers might be true, but it’s almost never honest. So I really wanted it to be a space where anybody can show up.
Nadia: We don’t talk about what you believe or what you don’t believe. What people believe is not my business. I care what they hear, and so you’re going to hear a particular type of message here. Now what you believe is between you and your higher power when you leave here. It’s not my responsibility. I wanted people to show up and not have to hide their brokenness, not have to hide their humor or their story or their queerness or whatever. That’s what that community is.
Nadia: The interesting thing is that there’s certain ways it’s more traditional than most Lutheran churches. We use this really traditional liturgy, beautiful liturgical language, but we do it in a … It’s traditional but not conventional. It’s high church, in a way, but my dad says it’s like high church in the Star Wars cantina is what it’s like. It’s not conventional, but it’s like-
Erik: A church for misfit toys.
Nadia: 100%. Yeah, yeah. You look around. You go, “I am not sure what all these people have in common.”
Dave: Well, Nadia, one of the reasons I really was interested in having you join us today is we’ve had a lot of folks on this podcast who talk about the traumas that they’ve been through in our lives, and often go to some dark places in our conversations, and try to get to the heart of what do people do in that space to suffer well or suffer poorly? How do they get through it?
Dave: In a recent podcast with Angie Shireman, she got to this point in her life where she said she had to think about herself no longer as her disease, as the person who’d been abused as a child, had to think of herself as not the person who might die from her disease, but had to go to some other thing that still remained after all these labels were applied to her. It was a powerful moment. We’re going to replay it here for our listeners. We’ll go ahead and do that now.
Angie: I had to disassociate my “self”. Whatever my self was going to be was not going to be related to the breasts that came off, or the empty brain that was left behind, or even all of the symptoms or the fear. I had to disidentify with that body so that I could get in touch with my spirit and my soul because that is who I know I am.
Angie: I am the woman or the girl that says, “All right, I’m 14 years old. I don’t feel safe here. I’m leaving.” I moved out at 15. It took the same thing that that young girl had to do that as it did to say, “Okay, so if I have to stay in this bed and my world is going to be dark, then I better fill it with anything that I can.”
Dave: Obviously, this feels very spiritual to me.
Dave: You’ve talked a couple times about turning inward and really tapping into whatever that thing is. What is that thing?
Angie: It’s hard for me to put it into words, but I think it’s the same thing that we … I know it’s something that we all possess because I know that if we didn’t all have it, I wouldn’t have had it because I had so little faith and belief in myself that whatever it is, I believe it’s intangible. I believe it’s a thirst and a knowledge of, “I can do this. I can make it.” Even if I am falling, even if I slip, even if anything, my real life is in that ability to choose to try. What’s the other option? I’m going to just stay home? I don’t know.
Jeff: But you’re convinced that everybody has that.
Angie: I believe that everybody has that to a certain level. I believe everybody has it, but I think that not everybody has found their way to see it within themselves. I think perhaps sometimes people look externally, because I was one of them, for what is intrinsic, what is inside. That is a connection to that strength, the same thing that shines through our breath, the light that comes in through the cracks in the hospital room. That’s why. That’s what we’re all doing here, I hope.
Dave: So hearing this piece, Angie, talking about, “Gosh, when everything is laid bare, there was still something left …” We talked in the intro. Erik calls it that light. Angie said she doesn’t know what to call it, and I’m sure many people would call it God.
Dave: I guess my question for is you’ve worked with many folks from all different walks of life who’ve experienced a lot of trauma. Have you seen that ability when all is laid bare that there’s something else there that they can tap into?
Nadia: I think theologically, for me in my tradition, we call that the imago dei, the fact that Genesis says that God put God’s own image within us. God created us in God’s image, male and female, which is interesting because in the Hebrew, it’s more like ‘in God’s male and female image’ rather than ‘male or female’. For trans folks or people who are genderqueer or intersex, I think that’s important to go and dig into the etymology of some of this stuff. If it’s the same source that hurt them, it’s often a great source for healing.
Nadia: Anyway, this idea that every single human being is an image-bearer of the divine, that to me means that there’s something within us that actually cannot be harmed. It can’t be made sick. It can’t be harmed. There’s no abuse that can get to that part. It’s a protected thing within us, and so subsequently, when things like abuse or illness or tragedy happen, it’s a reliable thing on which we can draw because it can’t be harmed by anything.
Nadia: So I think just theologically, that’s the space that I go to. Then just practically, I feel like I’ve just seen that in the stories of so many people that I’ve pastored, this extraordinary resiliency that didn’t come from a platitude they saw on a coffee mug. It didn’t come from memes on Facebook. It came from something within themselves. There was actually that thing within them that was drawn out.
Nadia: Even though it comes from within us, sometimes it does take that being called out by other people, drawn out by other people, seen in us. There are times in my life that somebody has seen something in me I didn’t see in myself, and it was the only way I could glimpse it was to trust that they saw it in me. So that’s some of the sacred work that we get to do with each other that if we see something in someone we might not see in themselves, it’s our sacred duty to name it out loud to them because a lot of times, that thing we see that might be obscured to them, it really does come from that divine image within them. To me, it’s a sacred thing to say these things to people.
Erik: Is that how you flesh it out of people? Dave and Jeff and I, we’ve worked with a lot of folks with trauma and depression, addiction, and sometimes I find maybe one of the hardest things we do and maybe the thing that I’ve never cracked the nut on is how do you get people to turn into that thing?
Nadia: Well, I’ll put it this way. When people talk about “having faith”, it feels like the onus is on the individual. “I have to have faith in a sufficient quantity and the right quality, both at the same time, in order to have enough faith.” I’ve always seen faith as a team sport and not an individual competition, meaning we take turns. I believe in creating a culture of turn-taking in the sense that there have been times where other people in my life have had to believe something for me because I just couldn’t believe it in that time in my life. They were going to just take that for me and believe it for me.
Nadia: So sometimes, I think we just hold out and we are believing something for someone else on their behalf. That’s this beautiful, sacred work that we do, and then they do it for us. I can’t hold enough hope or enough faith for myself in my life. Other people just take it for me sometimes, and then I take theirs for them. So that’s one of the things that’s powerful about relationship and community is it takes the onus off the individual to have to be and do all things for themselves.
Erik: So you believe in them, you share it with them, and bring it out in them over time.
Nadia: Yeah. I’ve done that in the program with people who are trying to get sober who just think it’s not going to work for them. I hold that. I’m like, “I promise you that this is possible. To take these steps, I promise it’s possible,” even if they can’t believe it.
Jeff: I think it goes without saying that a lot of the things that you … I don’t want to use the word preach, but share can remain non-secular and it can touch people-
Jeff: … no matter where they go, no matter where they’ve been, and no matter where they want to go. So am I right in saying it’s the backbone of everything you’re doing within your congregation and into the universe? It has less to do with God and more to do … What word would you put there?
Nadia: Yeah, it’s interesting because that whole thing about, “I don’t particularly care about what the people in my congregation believe,” is that I don’t know why, but I believe all the crazy shit in Christianity. I do. I’m down with the miracles-
Jeff: Noah’s Arc.
Nadia: … the virgin birth, Noah’s Arc, whatever. I don’t know why. I just believe all the crazy shit. Now I know it’s crazy, but I think that Jesus resurrected from the dead, all this stuff. But I have no interest in trying to convince other people to believe the crazy thing.
Nadia: It’s dear to me and it’s foundational to all of my work. As an individual, that belief in God and the whole of story of Jesus is absolutely foundational to every single thing I do. I’m a Christo-centric universalist, which means whatever God is up to in that story, I think it’s for the redemption and for the renewal and the bliss of all creation, of all people. Now how God accomplishes that in atheism or in other symbol systems or other religions or other times is just none of my business.
Nadia: I just believe there’s this source of redemption and renewal that is there. It’s so embedded in the foundational teachings of Christianity, and I don’t care if people believe the crazy stuff or not. Those basic tenets, I think, can be a real source of transformation for people.
Nadia: I’m doing a lot of stuff in the wellness community, which I never thought I would do. I do practice yoga a lot, and that’s been really healing for me, but in the wellness, I just see what … I feel like Christianity could be learning from wellness, and wellness could be learning from Christianity. For instance, what I see offered in terms of transformation in the wellness community, I think is beautiful and always, I think, limited.
Nadia: The reason it’s limited is I think they have a woefully underdeveloped sense of what I call human sin or what Frances Buffer, a genius writer, just calls the human propensity to fuck things up. I know sin is a hot word for people, so we don’t have to use that. We’ll just call it the human propensity to fuck things up. But if we can’t take that shadow side, the darker part that’s part of every single human being, if we can’t look at it without shame, it will come out sideways. I think in a lot of systems that are offering transformation, they bypass that because they don’t want people to feel bad, and yet I think that we can remove the shame from it and have us just look at the reality of it.
Nadia: That’s what I think the 12 Steps does. The 12 Steps does not shy away from our propensity to fuck things up. It looks straight at it and says, “Hey, let’s draw on a power that’s not just our will in order to not live like that anymore, a power greater than ourselves.” And to your point, I think the theology non-specificity of the 12 Steps, it’s genius. It’s just like, “Can you imagine a power that’s even just slightly greater than you?”
Jeff: [crosstalk 00:30:30].
Nadia: That’s it. That’s a low bar. So in a personal way, yeah, all of that Christian faith stuff is foundational, but in a bigger way, I don’t need other people to believe it in order to have some of these messages about forgiveness and about different stuff offer transformation.
Erik: So in your books and sermons and TED Talks and stuff, you talk about about forgiveness and redemption. I love this because I guess I don’t really understand what … I’ve heard it described, and I think you described grace better than anyone I think I’ve ever heard describe it. But even before that, I want to talk about this idea of forgiveness because I meet a lot of people who cannot forgive themselves. I guess that’s one of the paradox that you’re talking about.
Erik: Shame is okay, but … Not to get too personal, but I guess I am. My brother, he died of stuff around alcoholism, but really, he had obviously done stuff in his life that he couldn’t forgive himself for and it killed him. We’re talking about life and death here.
Nadia: Absolutely. Yeah.
Erik: So how do you get people to live that paradox?
Nadia: Right. Well, I think to be able to look at the truth of who we are and what we’ve done and to do it, like I said, without all of the shame about it is where transformation happens.
Nadia: So the first time that I read what’s called the fifth step out loud … That’s where you make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself. You do a sex inventory and a fear inventory, and then you have to sit with another human being and in God’s presence and the presence of one other human being, you read all of it out loud.
Nadia: The fact that the woman who listened to all of it was such a non-anxious presence, she was judging me for absolutely nothing, she did not react in any sort of harsh way to anything I said, allowed me to go on with the rest of the process. It allowed me to keep reading the next thing because she really, truly was this space of compassion for me.
Nadia: I had so much shame before that when I was writing all of it that honest to God, the person who I chose to listen to my fifth step was somebody who was dying from AIDS. It was 1992, and she was not going to be alive two to three months later. That’s the only way I trusted to tell all of the stuff I did. That’s how much it weighed on me. But there was something about her sitting in this space of real compassion that allowed me to have it for myself.
Nadia: So again, that’s that sacred work that we get to do with each other. I’m really interested in compassion right now, which I never have been. I’m obsessed with it right now because I’m interested in its effect. What’s the effect of compassion? I started thinking about what was the effect of that woman having that space of compassion when I was doing my fifth step?
Nadia: At the Nantucket Project this year, they asked if I would have a conversation on stage with Lance Armstrong. I said yes. Right beforehand, people knew I was going to be the one having the conversation, and so they’d come up and they’d be like, “Hey, don’t let him off easy. Go get him.” I’m like, “To be clear, Lance Armstrong has never done shit to me. Literally never done one thing to me, and I’m a pastor, not an investigative reporter.”
Nadia: Anyway, so I was sitting on-stage, and I knew the first thing I wanted to say to him was I said, “Lance, I see from my notes that you took some drugs you weren’t supposed to and then you lied about it.” And then I said, “Oh my God-”
Erik: I can relate.
Nadia: “… I did that shit so many times.” So I [inaudible 00:34:31] people in the audience. “Raise your hand if you ever took drugs you weren’t supposed to and lied about it. You know you did that shit.”
Nadia: Then somebody had given me this image. It’s a theological image, but I can’t get over it, which is when you’re sitting across from somebody who’s talking about their trauma, or their pain, or their propensity to fuck things up, or stuff they’ve done, she keeps this image. Now I’ve adopted it. She thinks of having God’s heart right behind her heart so that everything that they say, she feels it, but it doesn’t land there. It goes to her heart, but it doesn’t stay there. It has a place to lodge.
Nadia: Then when she is expressing something back to them, it doesn’t originate necessarily in her own heart. She doesn’t have to find the space within herself. It comes from a divine source, but it comes through her. It doesn’t leave her depleted to do it. I just thought, “What a fascinating image for the effect of compassion.”
Dave: We have folks in our no barriers community who are secular. They don’t rely on faith to believe in that higher power, and I do think sometimes when the dark moments come for individuals who don’t have that belief, there’s … I’m curious. In your mind, how does the process differ for those individuals if they need to find strength somewhere and they don’t have this higher belief?
Nadia: I have no idea. A friend of mine, Frank Schaeffer, his dad was Francis Schaeffer, so he was raised in this crazy Evangelical family. Frank said a line that I will forever hate him for because I wish I said it, which is, “If what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be an atheist, all I’d know to do is to just pray to God to make me one.” It’s so embedded in me that it’s really hard to conceive of what it would be like if I didn’t have the psalms to recite or I didn’t have that thing that is there when nothing else is to lean on.
Nadia: So I don’t know, but man, would I love to be in a conversation with people who truly are atheists who have had those moments. I would love to hear what they’ve drawn or what language they have for that.
Jeff: You had to have had … You’ve had conversations with non-believers over your career, I’m sure.
Nadia: Yeah, but not about that. Not that specific thing.
Nadia: Not that thing of what’s left when there is nothing else to rely on. I think it would be fascinating.
Jeff: I would imagine you would run into some folks who would maybe challenge as you are asking them to join you in this journey where they say, “I don’t have God. I’ve never had God, and matter of fact, I want to distance myself from God, but yet I need something.” What would your answer be to that? I think that builds on what Dave’s saying. Is there anything?
Dave: One thing I would add to that, because I was reading this week some recent research from the Pew Center about religion, is that in the United States, at least, there’s only about half of the population that say, “I believe in God,” but nine out of 10 people believe in a higher power.
Erik: Right, something spiritual.
Nadia: Or prayer. They’re fine with prayer, but they’re agnostic.
Dave: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So I think it’s an interesting thing. I do want to get to your question, but I do think yeah, that’s true in the US, and this doesn’t necessarily apply globally. There is a trend towards that more agnostic approach, but there’s still a belief in a higher power, and so you still can connect people.
Dave: I think we saw that in Angie’s talk. She didn’t say God. It was like-
Jeff: She used an example-
Dave: … there was a light. There’s a spirit. There’s something. I don’t know what to call it.
Jeff: She didn’t want to name it.
Dave: She didn’t want to name it. I think that’s what a part of what I see in my own community is a desire not to name it.
Nadia: Right, right. I guess in my estimation, we need something. It doesn’t have to be a theist … It doesn’t have to be this single monotheistic being who’s created the universe or whatever. There’s part of my tradition that just says God is love. You want to know where God is? God’s in love.
Nadia: So could love be the thing? Could it be the fact that maybe we all originate from some of spirit? That’s where we come from, and that’s what we go to. There are a million ways to image this thing. I’m not attached to it having to be for other people what it is for me, but to have some language for that. It doesn’t have to be language. It could just be an image or something when you’re in meditation that you feel.
Dave: Yeah. I’ve been in, let’s say, the outdoors, and you just experience something with your friends, and some beautiful love and mentorship, and something beautiful in the outdoors, and some transformation. You connect with this bliss and you say, “There’s something that is so powerful, I don’t get it, but I connect with it.”
Nadia: And can I trust that that is still there and still a force in my life when I don’t feel it?
Nadia: That’s faith. That’s faith to me. That’s what it is.
Dave: You’ve tapped into it. You have access to it.
Nadia: That’s right.
Erik: I think that’s actually an interesting thing if we could learn how to include that because it’s that period when you come back from being in the wilderness and have this sense of camaraderie.
Erik: We see it a lot. We have these really magnified experiences where people come together and have these super powerful expeditions for 14 days, and then they come back. If we could somehow figure out the sustainability of that, what we found there needs to then accompany us. We have to have the instrument within us to be able to get back into it. I love that idea.
Nadia: There’s this great story in the New Testament where Jesus is up on a mountain, speaking of wilderness and mountains. They’re up in the wilderness. They’re on a mountain. He’s there with two of his dudes. Suddenly, he’s transfigured. He’s talking to Moses and Elijah, and it’s this bright white light. Just this crazy, blissful, transcendent, ineffable thing happens up on the mountain. They’re just watching it, and then it fades.
Nadia: Their response is, “Hey, should we maybe build some shacks here and we can just hang out?” Because it was so amazing. Jesus is like, “Are you kidding? The whole point is to have this thing that you can take when you go down the mountain.”
Erik: Bam. That’s it.
Nadia: So that wisdom that you just spoke of, I’m sure there are stories of it in so many different traditions.
Dave: I love that because something tells me I don’t have to go off on some wilderness adventure. I should be able to experience that on my couch.
Nadia: Right. Yeah.
Dave: That’s what Jesus is saying.
Nadia: Or trust, like I said earlier. Or just trust. Hey, if I did have that mountaintop experience, how do I live in a space of trusting that whatever it was that was resonating within me, I get to keep it? It’s not just only located there. That was just a way for me to see what was inside me I didn’t know, but it’s not like the thing inside me stays up at the mountain. I still get to have that. No one takes that away.
Jeff: Amen, sister.
Nadia: So the work is how do you access that and trust it when you’re not feeling the mountaintop experience?
Dave: Yeah, and that reminds me. You guys might remember when we talked to Diggs, a veteran who shared some stories of his personal trauma. He talked about this idea of you get up in the mountain, you have this pivotal experience, and then you go back to your real life. Part of what he was trying to learn is to feel the train wreck coming before it overtakes him again, the train wreck of all that.
Dave: For him, it was about forgiving himself. To me, what I hear from Nadia that’s very powerful that I think applies to our community is you’ve got to feel the train wreck coming, because it’s going to come again, and you’ve got to know there’s somewhere you can still go that doesn’t require you to go back to the mountains with anyone. I think that is a hard thing-
Jeff: It’s not easy.
Dave: … to teach people.
Jeff: No, it’s not easy.
Nadia: For you to keep that.
Dave: You get to keep it.
Nadia: I’ve talked to people who were really in a hard, painful place after a breakup about the similar thing. The thing you miss might not actually be them. It’s the part of you that you’ve got to access with them. They don’t get to take that. That’s still you. That’s still in there. They don’t take that with them. So the thing you’re missing is the part of you that got to be expressed in the relationship, not the other person so much.
Dave: That’s great.
Dave: Well, I want to make sure before we close out that we talk about your new book. You’ve had a couple of bestselling books already, and you’ve got this book coming out, Shameless. Tell us a little bit about it and what sparked you to take this new topic on.
Nadia: Yeah. I just think the sexual shame that is created from religious messaging just has to be called out whenever we possibly can because sexual flourishing, it’s a right of human beings. So much of that has been stolen from us because of messages that were given us in God’s name.
Nadia: So I just told some of my stories and the ones that were shared in my parish. Whenever I say vulnerable things about myself or I call myself out about something, I’m self-incriminating, it’s to create a space around me that is safe enough for other people to step into to maybe say what those things are for them. I’m just trying to be invitational. It’s a form of leadership I call, “Screw it, I’ll go first.” I put things out there and then I just hold my breath, hoping I’m not the only one who’s thought that thing or done that thing because I want more than anything to feel less alone.
Nadia: So I asked my boyfriend, who’s not Christian. I was like, “Why do you think the Church has tried to control sex for so long?” Without skipping a beat, he goes, “Oh, I just assumed that the Church saw sex as its competition.” Then I went, “Oh, I’m writing a book.” That was it, that one thing. I was like, “It’s done. This is what I’m doing.”
Nadia: It’s a way of saying, “Look, if the teachings of the Church have harmed people, and they have, we should rethink those teachings.” [Elaine deBatanda 00:45:10] the philosopher said, “Religion is one of the only spaces that takes the power of sex seriously.” Now you might not agree with its conclusions or its tactics, but it takes it seriously more than the culture does, in a way. So my theory in the book is that if religion is the place in which so many shaming messages came, can it also be a location in which a new conversation about sex arises?
Nadia: So that’s my just shot across the bow, I think, culturally. Yeah.
Dave: Yeah, and as I read the book, the thing that struck me is how difficult it is to move large institutions with hundreds of thousands of years of history towards where a lot of humanity moves and how long it takes to get there. I’m like, “How do you move an institution?” Because of all the things in that book make so much sense to us now, and yet to move the institutions to support that-
Nadia: But to be fair to people who are more conservatively minded, there is a function in that place in that if everything moved as quickly as more liberally minded people wanted it to move, there might be a negative effect in society. I think the fact that … We need the right and the left wing to fly anywhere. So I think that there is a function that more conservatively minded institutions serve to create a stability that’s not going to topple easily.
Nadia: There’s a brilliant book called The Righteous Mind that Jonathan Haidt wrote that I really encourage people to read, which really talks about human beings have a moral palate. Conservatives care about five different areas of the moral palate, and liberals care about two. When I read that, I went, “Oh, that makes so much more sense.” It was more descriptive and not judging. It gave me an appreciation for conservative-minded ideology and liberal-minded ideology in a sense that really, our society needs both to balance each other.
Nadia: So I get why institutions are slow-turning boats. But at the same time, there’s something to be said for that as well. I wish we were in a place culturally where we could honor the fact that we need each other as people who differ ideologically and to see the gifts that each other brings out of respect rather than the moment we’re in now.
Dave: When does the book release?
Nadia: January 29th. Yeah, and then I have, I think, a 13-city tour.
Erik: I have one question more just to change tactics a little bit back to that thing we were talking about earlier about forgiveness. So forgiving, but also, you were saying it’s hard to forgive a-holes in the world. I like that.
Erik: I experience a lot of people that are stuck because bad things have happened to them. Their parents have treated them horribly and they bullied them. They have all this trauma, and they’re just in constant blame mode like, “If the world hadn’t done this to me, I would be different.”
Nadia: Yeah, that’s bondage. Yeah, yeah.
Erik: I think you have a lot of insights and so forth there about how to unchain yourself from those experiences.
Nadia: Yeah. I think the thing about that is to be angry about the harm that other people have done to you is a perfectly reasonable place to be, but it’s an absolutely wretched place to stay. So I think that to honor the fact that to have anger about stuff, to say that wasn’t okay, to be in that space of understanding where the harm came from, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Nadia: But people do get stuck in that narrative. They’ve written a play in which they play a certain character, and that person plays a certain character, and the plot is decided, and it just runs and runs and runs and runs. There’s no freedom in that. There’s a way in which I’m in all of the stuff for the freedom. That’s what I want. I want to be less alone and I want to be free of this kind of bondage.
Nadia: So if you look at ‘where is my freedom’, it’s never going to be in continually being a victim of what other people have done to me. The thing I’ve been saying a lot is that sometimes to think about forgiving another person, we don’t want to do it because it comes perilously close to saying that what they did was okay. It feels like a betrayal of the self that was hurt by them to forgive. So do we get freedom from the bondage that we’re in about playing that play over and over again without feeling like we’re betraying the part of ourself that was hurt?
Nadia: The thing I’ve gotten to is that idea of forgiveness isn’t saying that what they did was okay. Forgiveness is a way of saying, “What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be defined by it anymore. I refuse to be attached to it anymore. I refuse to be chained to it.” Because what happens is that when we’re still chained to that harm somebody else did to us, it infects us. It’s like this weird, disgusting umbilical cord that’s connected to them, and then we’re in danger of becoming them. We’re in danger of that evil, dark stuff infesting our own hearts and metastasizing.
Nadia: So forgiveness isn’t saying, “What you did was okay.” Forgiveness is saying, “I don’t want to be connected.” It’s bolt cutters. It’s cutting that chain between me and that person or that institution or that teaching and saying, “You don’t get to define me. That’s part of my story, but I get to decide what that story means now. I don’t get to decide that it happened, but I get to decide what it means.”
Erik: I think so many people want to be free in that way. That’s so powerful to express it in that way.
Dave: How do you take those bolt-cutters to yourself if what you need to do is forgive yourself?
Nadia: Yeah. Honest to God, that is almost always harder. It’s almost always harder, but I think in my experience, having somebody in my life to be that space of compassion for me who looks at what I’ve done or what I’ve thought or the thing I can’t forgive myself for and in this loving way go, “I know enough of your story that of course you did that thing.” You know what I mean? In that space of compassion, what is it like to then go, “Oh, how do I have compassion for myself that of course I acted like that? Look at all of the story. But it doesn’t mean that’s who I am even though I did the thing.” That difference between what I’ve done and who I am.
Nadia: So I don’t know. When somebody else has had that compassion for me, it’s allowed me to go for myself, to put my hand over my own heart and to think, “Of course I did that.”
Erik: That’s why it’s so important.
Nadia: I’m that hurt girl. For myself, my own story has been that I had this disfiguring autoimmune disorder from ages 12 to 16. I had Graves disease, and it caused my eyes to bulge out of my head. It looked like they would fall out of my face. Most of the eyeball was visible. I had to sleep with salve in my eyes so that it didn’t dry out because my eyelids didn’t close.
Nadia: So I had this disfiguring thing about how I looked from age 12 to 16 before they could fix it surgically because they had to wait for the bones to stop growing. Children are vicious, and I had four years of my life in this really development time when people were absolutely vicious and hateful to me because I was different.
Nadia: I think that one of two things could’ve happened. You can either become this diminished self that tries to disappear, or you can go, “Oh yeah? Fuck you guys.” The anger that I developed, I’m so grateful to it because it saved me. I’m so grateful, but it’s taken me the rest of my life since then to know when it’s not needed anymore. It became my default because it was my coping mechanism. It was my defense mechanism. It’s the thing that protected me.
Nadia: Yet sometimes, the thing that helps us, we don’t need anymore, and it very soon starts to harm us. When it happens, what do we do? How can we say, “I’m so grateful. Of course I acted like that, of course, because of my story, but I don’t have to default to it anymore.”
Nadia: So it’s really taken … I’m still softening. I’ll be 50 in a couple months, and it’s still this process of softening for me from that hurt kid all the way back there.
Dave: I think so many of our participants will have shared stories like that with me personally of those things that happened so many years ago that they’re still struggling through, so.
Nadia: How do we [inaudible 00:54:28] that gratitude? You know what? Yeah, I drank a lot, and that’s how I survived. How can I have gratitude that something protected me or got me through and go, “I don’t need it anymore, and now it’s hurting me. It’s not my friend. It’s my enemy, but I’m so grateful for the time it was my friend.”
Dave: Well, Nadia, where can our listeners learn more about you and the work that you’re doing?
Nadia: Www.hereticalbitch.com. No, that’s [inaudible 00:54:57].
Erik: You own that URL, though, don’t you?
Nadia: No, but I-
Jeff: Go ahead and get it. It’s our parting gift. We’ll get it for you.
Nadia: No, nadiabolz-weber.com has a lot of stuff there. Yeah.
Dave: Okay. Great. Well, thank you so much.
Nadia: Yeah, it’s been a pleasure.
Dave: It was a great conversation.
Dave: We really appreciate you taking the time to join us.
Jeff: I don’t want it to end. I put a pot of coffee on. That was amazing. Holy cow.
Nadia: Thank you guys.
Dave: Well, Erik, Jeff, another great conversation. What did you guys hear that’s standing out for you now?
Erik: Well, it’s a bit like after you hear this amazing talk or read an amazing book. You’re overwhelmed. But I love this idea of as you soften throughout your life, you’re trying to have gratitude for the dumb shit that you’ve done and to have gratitude for those mistakes that you’ve made, but also to say, “We don’t need that now. That was good for that time, but now it’s starting to hurt me and I need to change.” I think that is just so powerful, especially for me too. I’m 50 as well, so I’m softening as well.
Dave: How about you, Jeff?
Jeff: Well, she said, “I think it’s the thing that we use to protect us can in time become caustic.” I ad-libbed that, but we all use things to insulate us and keep us from harm, whether it’s a dependency or whether it’s an addiction to whatever source. We use those things and they feel good, and then they can sabotage us. Ultimately, they do. It’s just a matter of, like Nadia said, knowing when. Most of us can’t define that because we go too long with those things.
Jeff: The other thing was this idea of forgiveness. Man, I was just blown away by that. It’s so perfectly, wonderfully delivered, and I’m grateful to her for that. I learned so much from that. But programmatically for us and our community is teaching our people how to access the bolt-cutters because I don’t know how. I want to know how to do it better, and I think that we should consider that. Even that metaphor was fantastic.
Erik: Everyone’s striving to become free from the chains and the prisons that life puts them in or they put themselves in partly, so that’d be great. That’s all what we’re talking about in terms of transformation, in terms of redemption, in terms of forgiveness.
Dave: The bolt-cutters was something I thought, yeah, how do people access them?
Dave: And I loved the Biblical story about the light at the top of the mountain, and then the desire of Moses to … “Well, let’s just build a camp here and stay here.” Because I think a lot of our participants go through these transformative moments, and they’re like, “I don’t want to leave this because I’ve never felt this in so long, or never before.”
Dave: How do you give them the faith that they can tap into that when they’re not on the mountain or they’re not in Cambodia with us or they’re in our camp? That, I think, is good work for No Barriers to think about is how do we continue to have people have that faith that they can tap back into that?
Erik: Otherwise, you’ve got to be a hermit on the mountain. Stay on the mountain the rest of your life. You can’t do it.
Dave: Well, another great conversation. If you liked this podcast, please do us a favor and support us by liking it on wherever you’re listening to it because we’d like to grow our community and grow the size of our community. Your action to simply say that you enjoyed it and to rate it is helpful to us. If you’d like to learn more about the work of No Barriers, you can do so at nobarriersusa.org. Thanks so much.
Jeff: Thanks, you guys.
Erik: No barriers.
Dave: (music) Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.
Dave: Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Dietrich Jonk and Pauline Schaefer; sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman; graphics by Sam Davis; and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnolly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.