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Teaming up with the underside

01 November 2013

In this extract from her new book, the provocative Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reveals how life as a stand-up comedian and recovering alcoholic helped to prepare her for her ministry


The Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and founder of House For All Sinners And Saints church in Denver, Colorado

The Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and founder of House For All Sinners And Saints church in Den...

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 débutante 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 stand-up 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, whom would you have left? 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 non-comic 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 cheque book 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 any more. Less miserable equals 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 green room, 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 Ph.D. in communications while doing stand-up, which was made just atad 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 post-meeting 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 once to see how his dissertation was coming along. "Great," he said, "but no one realises 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 Ph.D. 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 fuckers 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 likeable, 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 re-covering 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 $25 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 the University of Colorado Boulder (where, as a 35-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 realised that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.

It's not that I felt pious and nurturing. It's that 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 not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of anti-heroes, 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 realised 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.


Cranky, Beautiful Faith: For irregular (and regular) people by Nadia Bolz-Weber is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69, code CT273). This extract appears by kind permission.

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