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Published October 03, 2013, 08:52 AM

Lutheran pastor preaches Jesus, with tattoos

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber blows up stereotypes of Lutheran pastors. She’s 6 feet 1 inch tall, a former standup comic and boozer now a competitive weightlifter and a best-selling author covered in tattoos whose “F-word” isn’t always “faith.”

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber blows up stereotypes of Lutheran pastors.

She’s 6 feet 1 inch tall, a former standup comic and boozer now a competitive weightlifter and a best-selling author covered in tattoos whose “F-word” isn’t always “faith.”

“I swear like a truck driver,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Denver, not bragging but not apologizing either.

“I refuse to pretend I’m somebody I’m not,” said the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Denver. “I speak like other people. Lots of people want pastors to be examples of shining piety. There are lots of pastors for those people. There aren’t many for people like me.”

She’s got a growing congregation.

Bolz-Weber’s book, “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint,” came out this month and on Sunday was at No. 17 on the New York Times best-seller list. She’s been hitting the talk show circuit.

She’s speaking tonight at “Outrageous Faith,” A night of great music and honest talk,” at the Chester Fritz Auditorium at UND, sponsored by Christus Rex Lutheran Campus Center. Rachel Kurtz and her band and the rap artist, Agape, will perform.

Tickets are free for university students and $10 for others.

Doors open at 6 p.m. and the event begins at 7 p.m.

‘The Jesus thing’

Bolz-Weber might be profane but she says it’s in a sacred cause.

She swears “selectively” during sermons.

“I have not said the ‘F-word’ in a sermon. When I swear it’s really for emphasis or humor, not to be mean or to be foul toward someone. Just colorful and funny speech that is effective.”

It’s all in her ministry to share the gospel with people who might not hear it otherwise, for people like her, a “sarcastic Lutheran,” even cynical, who is sometimes mad at God.

She grew up in Colorado, attending a conservative Church of Christ congregation.

But she left it, rejected it, for more than a decade, worked as a standup comic and got drunk a lot, reaching low and dark places, she said.

Her conversion, or road back was a slow one.

“The Jesus thing always stuck with me, I was always compelled by that. I just walked away from the religion part of it.”

She became Lutheran largely by meeting the man she married, Matthew Weber, also an ELCA pastor. “He has a normal church in the suburbs,” she said. They have a daughter, 14, and a son, 12.

Her call to the ministry came in a comedy club, leading a funeral service for a friend who committed suicide and seeing around her “comics, academics and queers” and deciding they were her people she was called to serve, she told the Religion News Service this month.

Many churches target “seekers” or the unchurched by making church as much like “the rest of our life as possible,” with soft rock music, film clips during the sermon, familiar language, she said.

“I think church should be odd, the language should be a little different, the music should be a little different. You should know there is something about this that is a little different from the rest of your world, that we are entering into a sacred and holy place that should always have something to say about your actual life and about our world, but it is slightly odd. I think odd and holy are sometimes the same.”

Church star

She is star of sorts in the 4-million-member ELCA, traveling monthly across the church to talk about how her church is reaching people most Lutheran churches don’t.

“My congregation is growing at such a rate we are in a crisis,” she said. “We have about 240 people, and between 140 and 200 at liturgy every Sunday in a space that holds about 125.”

Only about 20 percent of them are Lutherans, she said.

She drops a name: Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes rock band big in the 1980s plays banjo for the church’s bluegrass liturgies in the summer.

Bolz-Weber has grown to love Lutheran tradition and thinks many “cradle Lutherans a lot of time have no idea what they are sitting on. That theological system based in paradox is absolutely perfect for postmodern people. And the mystery of the Eucharist — people eat it up.”

But the culture of church often obscures the gospel message, she said.

“In a way, we are taking these gifts of theology and the liturgy wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper and we can’t distinguish the wrapping paper from the gift and we need to unwrap it.”

Bolz-Weber is a walking billboard for her faith.

“I started getting tattoos when I was 17. The ones on my arms now are mostly Christian ones.”

The “church year,” is down one arm, images for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Good Friday, Pentecost.

“On my right arm, I have a big tattoo of Mary Magdalene and of Lazarus. I have a big piece in progress on my back, covering up a rather regrettable one, of black scratches that a junkie gave me.”

Bolz-Weber maybe has more tattoos than all 700 ELCA pastors in northwest Minnesota and North Dakota combined.

But who’s counting?

“From the beginning of time people have adorned their bodies,” she said. “All humans carry stories on the inside and some of us also carry our stories on the outside.”

“In a way, my arms are like the stained glass in a medieval cathedral. They are pedagogical. How many times do people ask you, in a coffee shop, about the Christian faith?

“It happens to me all the time. ‘Oh, my gosh, what do your tattoos mean? They are beautiful.’ And then I’m telling the story of Jesus. It’s a no-brainer.”