Over a warm spring weekend in Sydney, Uniting Church women from throughout Australia gathered to share their expereinces and be part of a bold new story.
The first UCA women’s conference in at least two decades went off without a hitch. When women were asked to come forward during the culminating session of the weekend, each raved about their experience.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado and author of Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint) was the keynote speaker. She shared not only her deeply honest insights into Church and faith, but some of her personal story with generous doses of self-deprecating and tell-it-like-it-is humour.
The focus of her talks – something which was both the premise and ultimate destination of her recommendations around how to live in Christian community – centred around honesty and telling the truth. Something she, and many others, believe to be lacking in Christian communities and society in general.
“People spend a lot of their lives pretending. A lot of the time people go to church and it’s just another context in which they have to pretend. I think that’s a shame – Jesus surrounded himself with people for whom life is hard,” Nadia said.
“Let’s give people one place they can lay that down and not have to pretend anymore. Let’s have honesty in spiritual community.”
Nadia spoke about the importance of feeling safe in order for people to open up and share honestly, particularly in church.
“The God I was taught to fear was basically a judgemental angry bastard with a killer surveillance system who was pretty much always disappointed in me.
“Belonging to the Church of Christ, being a Christian, mostly meant being good at not doing things: not drinking, having sex outside marriage, smoking, swearing… it was your ability to appear to be good. It created a culture where if you couldn’t be perfect you just had to pretend.”
Nadia spent a few years “sojourning outside the Church” in her 20s and found places – in particular, a group of Wiccan women who welcomed her into their community – where she felt safe to speak with total honesty about herself and her experiences, perhaps for the first time.
“They let me hang out with God’s aunt – and I couldn’t help but think she liked me in a way that the God I learned to fear never could. I spent a few years with these women, marking the seasons and sharing our lives.
“There was no doctrine, we didn’t talk about belief. We just shared our lives and spoke of the divine feminine in our self and in the world.”
Nadia told the conference she felt guided by God throughout those years, despite what some onlookers around her may have thought of her experiences.
“I can’t imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand or contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I’m worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.”
Nadia describes the common feeling of being convicted by the accusing voice of the law – the law of ‘shoulds’ – citing the example of a feminist who secretly hates her body or a televangelist who is addicted to porn. She describes the cruelty of the distance between our ideal self, dictated by such ‘shoulds’, and our actual self.
Nadia believes that a place where people can speak the truth about themselves creates a space where “God can do God’s thing”.
“Jesus said ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’. There’s a popular misconception that Christianity is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good.
“But being good has never set me free in the way that truth has. Instead of contrasting good and evil Jesus contrasted truth and evil.
“So my sisters, tell the truth. Be honest about yourself, don’t ever apologise for who you are. For you are a beloved daughter of the most high God.
“This truth of being both sinner and saint will crush you and then put you back together into something real and something beautiful. I say, ‘screw pretending’. ‘It is finished’. Amen.”