It was a sultry night on Manhattan’s East Side when I went to hear the unconventional musclebound preacher last week. The hot and sticky September weather gave her an excuse to remove her overshirt and show off her tattoos.
The crowd went wild.
Bolz-Weber was in town to promote her latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People (Convergent Books), full of lively, amusing, and touching anecdotes about the boundless love of our merciful God who finds beauty in everyone, including profanity-prone recovering alcoholic former standup comedians like Bolz-Weber. She’s now the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints (Evangelical Lutheran) in Denver and a best-selling author.
I was skeptical. I know lots of people with tattoos. Yawn. As for swearing like a sailor, um … I indulge now and then myself. So what? And I’m leery of liturgical gimmicks that do little more than entertain.
Bolz-Weber won me over, not with her tricks and swagger, but with her vulnerability, authenticity, and damn good anecdotes bolstering the progressive, social justice Christian theology I already endorse. In the end, I was on my feet, hooting and hollering my acclaim with the rest of the crowd.
A HYMN WRITTEN BY ONE “PRONE TO WANDER”
It was probably coincidence that, at the conclusion of her talk, Bolz-Weber chose a hymn for us all to sing, one that was written by a hoodlum-turned-holy-man — “COME, THOU FOUNT OF EVERY BLESSING.”
Robert Robinson (1735-1790) was only 23 when he wrote this hymn. Just a few years earlier, he’d been a rascally teen living on the poor side of London with his widowed mom. Some sources say he was bookish, others that he lived a “life of debauchery.” All seem to agree that he was apprenticed to a barber/hairdresser to help his mother make ends meet.
One night, hanging out with some bad boys, Robinson went along to crash a meeting of Methodists who had gathered to hear the great evangelist George Whitefield.
He’d planned on mocking the wide-eyed believers. Instead, he became one of them.
Robinson’s hymn honors God as the fount (source) of every blessing from which flow “streams of mercy, never ceasing.” We, in turn, are to sing “songs of loudest praise” and keep our attention fixed on the mount (the hill where Jesus was executed by Roman lackeys).
My favorite line is, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love …” Each singer can fill in the blanks here on when we’ve felt ourselves drifting away, discouraged, our attention turned elsewhere. Some hymn scholars think this is a reference to Robinson’s restless inclination to wander from one denomination to another — Methodist to Congregationalist to Baptist to Unitarian.
And then there is the line “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”
What’s an Ebenezer? It’s a stone or stack of stones, erected as a sign of gratitude for God’s presence during times of trouble, sometimes called a “stone of help.” (See 1 Samuel 7:12 for the biblical reference.) It represents a pause to reflect on the hard times you’ve come through, thank your merciful God, and embrace a new beginning.
WHY I LOST IT AS WE SANG
I was at this book launch on what would have been my mother’s 95th birthday. I’d spent the day wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visiting her friends Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, writing poems about her, celebrating her memory, missing her.
What were the odds that Bolz-Weber would chose this very hymn, the one my off-beat mom used to sing when she exercised, doing sit-ups and leg lifts! It seemed like a “sign.” I imagined my mother, with an amused wink and nod, whispering into Nadia’s ear, “Sing ‘Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ for me.”
I totally lost it, flooded with childhood memories and gratitude.
TO GO DEEPER
Lyrics for “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Website: Nadia Bolz-Weber
“Why Every Church Needs a Drag Queen” by Emma Green, The Atlantic, Sept. 3, 2015
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Convergent Books, September, 2015
YouTube clips of “Come, Thou Fount”
Oakwood Aeolian Alumni Choir
As sung at the Wild Goose Festival 2014, “Beer and Hymns Saturday” gathering
“The Story Behind the Hymn”
Okay, so this is a misnamed clip. There’s nothing here about the story behind the hymn. Nevertheless, it does have a bit of time travel, with old Robinson himself appearing on the subway to a young woman listening to his hymn on her i-pod. In the end, he returns to church after “wandering.”
Singalong with Phil Wickham, hymn accompanied on guitar