306 NBW: “Panic on the Road to Jericho”
Lutheran Pastor and Author
Description:“I spent the entire time praying, and cursing, and praying and cursing.”
Enjoy this bonus episode featuring a story Nadia Bolz-Weber told live at a Moth storytelling event in New York City in 2015.
The Confessional is produced in conjunction with The Moth, a non-profit dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. The organization hosts storytelling events throughout the U.S.
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Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
Sometimes I think that the only thing that can save us are the stories of other people. That there are times when the only thing that can find us in the dark is the light of another person’s story. It is an old and unbeatable medicine – that we can find ourselves in the words of another. Our stories are torches, the light of which helps us feel less afraid. People who speak honestly about their lives are the people who have most often rescued me in time of peril.
I don’t know when I first heard The Moth Radio Hour on NPR, those true stories told live and without notes and in front of an audience- it just always has seemed like when I needed it, I would turn on the radio and there it was. And I would feel myself being found by the story of a stranger. Which is to say, I would feel less alone, which is basically the one thing I have wanted most in life.
So there are very few things in my life I am prouder of than my partnership with The Moth – with whom I create this podcast. Go to themoth.org to get found. And also you totally don’t have to wait till you hear them on the radio – you can subscribe The Moth podcast wherever you are listening to this one right now.
So…all of this is to say, Today on The Confessional, I’m offering a story I told on stage at The Moth in New York City in the Summer of 2015. Called Panic Attack in Jericho. It is a story about having a hidden anxiety disorder, but really, it’s about having my heart of stone ripped out of my chest, and replaced again with something warm and beating, like an emotional heart transplant. I’m Nadia Bolz-weber and you’ve stepped into the confessional – it’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. Stay with us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber: Basically, the least comfortable situation I can imagine myself in was when I was in a few years ago where I was in a conference room with 500 Lutherans. It’s super uncomfortable for me even if technically, I am a Lutheran pastor.
It’s been most of that meeting in the lobby because I found the other half a dozen misanthropic clergy people to hang out with in the lobby and just talk smack about other people. Then one of them said, “Hey, we should go around the circle,” and say what adjective, if someone used it to describe you, it would be like the worst. Someone said, “Stupid.” I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s bad.” Then someone else said, “Boring.” I was like, “Whew, yeah.” When it came to me, I knew absolutely what it was going to be, which is needy. I would so much rather be described as stupid or boring than needy.
It’s super important that everyone knows that I’m strong as hell and can handle everything myself. As a matter of fact, my mom said that the first time as a kid, that I said more than one word at a time. I skipped two-word combinations all together and went straight to do itself. I will do it myself. Usually, that works out for me pretty good, but not when about a year after that, I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Land. As a Lutheran pastor, I really wanted to go to the Holy Land, even if it was with 20 super nice Lutherans from Wisconsin.
I had a strategy for dealing with being in close quarters with 20 super nice Lutherans from Wisconsin, which was that I decided that I would just really keep my distance and just keep to myself and that I wasn’t going to get close to anyone or really engage with them very much, mostly out of fear that they want something from me, like to laugh at corny puns or look at lots of pictures of their grandchildren. I just chose to keep to myself.
That plan worked pretty well until about five days into the trip when we had this day trip that we were taking from Bethlehem to Jericho. Because I hadn’t really made much of a connection with anyone, nobody knew that I had this horrible fear of driving in mountain roads, an actual anxiety disorder, which is not completely convenient because I’m from Colorado. Nobody knew this.
I knew that Jericho was like the lowest habitable place on earth. I knew that Bethlehem was just like sea level. I didn’t know that the road that we would have to take to get to Jericho was so steep. It wouldn’t actually be legal in the States and that we would be traveling on this road in a tour bus. It was so steep and it had so many hairpin turns and so few guardrails that I spent the entire time praying and cursing and praying and cursing. I kept it to myself, having my little private panic attack.
When we finally got to the end of the road, we’re in Jericho and I had done it, but I knew I had no reserves left. I was going to spend the entire time in Jericho freaked out about the fact that we would have to be taking the same road back up. That time, it would be in the dark. There’s this cool thing you can do in Jericho, which is there’s this little cliff and that’s not a little cliff. It’s a big one, but you take the ski lift gondola thing up this cliff to go to this beautiful monastery that’s just like carved out of this cliff. I’m not afraid of heights at all, unless I’m in a car and on a road.
I was fine with that. My whole tour groups, like in line to wait for these ski lift gondola things, and I systematically go to each person in my group, most of whom this would be the first time I’ve talked to them in five days, trying to be seen as super strong and not needy is hard when you go to each person and ask if they have any Valium.
I went to each one and they all gave me the same Midwestern, tilted-headed, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I can’t help you,” crestfallen thing. It was totally legit. Until I got to the last person and I said, “Hey, Sharon,” and I was like, “I couldn’t believe I got her name right.” I was like, “Sharon, do you have any Valium?” and she said no. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be able to do this. I think I can do it.” I get into a gondola and as it lifts up into the dry air, I can see Jericho. It’s so beautiful there. I thought about the Bible story that Jericho is in.
There’s a situation where the Hebrew people have fought this incredible battle there and the walls came tumbling down. The only reason they were able to win the battle was that the two spies that were sent help from this character named Rahab, but she was the least likely person to give them help. She was a prostitute. I kept wondering as we went and I could see Jericho, if it was humiliating for them receiving help from a prostitute and would they have even spoken to her if they met her on the street otherwise?
We make it to the top and my whole tour group goes and does this sort of pious group activity. I’m not sure, like praying or something, I don’t know. I kept to myself, I would chat with the other people I’d meet along the way. I was friendly enough to people on this trip who I knew I’d only see for like five minutes. I tend to have a really similar policy on airplanes where I disappear into magazines and headphones until the final descent, at which time, I decide to be friendly and ask if they are coming home or leaving home.
That way, if they’re stupid, boring or needy, it’s like a 10-minute commitment tops. It’s not the whole flight. I chatted with a couple of people, but mostly, when we were up at the monastery, I was formulating a plan for how I was going to do this myself to get back up without any borrowed Valium. The plan I had was I thought I’ll just not look out the window and as painful as it is, I’ll engage in small talk with someone and maybe just distract myself so much that I won’t freak out.
I get into a gondola to come back down and it’s filled not with people from my tour group, but with these five Kenyans, all in these bright, turquoise-matching church shirts and we’re in the gondola. As soon as it starts moving, this big, Beautiful black woman next to me grabs my knee and starts rocking back and forth. I look at her friends, like, “What the hell is going on?” They said, “Well, she’s afraid of heights.”
I put my hand on her hand that was on my knee and with the other hand, I rub her back and I go, “You’re okay, I’m right here, you’re okay. I’m right here.” I’m like, “I’m praying.” Her friends are now singing hymns. I say, “If God can bring down the walls of Jericho, God’s going to get this gondola down the hill, I promise you, you’re okay.” I wondered in that moment, like, did she ever think that her need would be met by this heavily tattooed, tall White lady from America? Am I someone she would have voluntarily spoken to on the street or not? I don’t know.
At that moment, I was helping her in her need. We get down finally to the end and my whole tour group’s waiting for me. They see this unexplainable sight of me and five Kenyans pour out of a gondola, all hugging each other, and one falls to her knees and says, “Praise Jesus.”
Now, these were like my best friends, but I haven’t talked to any of the 20 super nice Lutherans from Wisconsin in five days. We get into the bus again, and I think I can do this. I’m going to distract myself. I totally succeeded for like 10 minutes. I was engaging in small talk, feeling super proud and like, no, definitely not looking out the window until all of a sudden, the bus stopped very violently, we all jerked forward and there’s this really loud sound underneath the bus. I go, “What the hell?” I swing around. I looked out and to the left side, we had failed to make a hairpin turn.
Now, the left side of the bus is facing a cliff. The right side of the bus is blocking traffic in both directions on the hairpin turn on this one lane road with two wager pick that our tour bus is on. As soon as the driver tried to re-engage the clutch and go forward, we lurched back about 10 feet and he swung open the door and said, “Leave your stuff and get out.” My vision just blurs all around the edges and I start not being able to breathe.
I ran out of the bus and all I could see was there’s this patch of concrete along the side of the road. I just made a beeline for it. I crawled up onto this patch of concrete and I started rocking back and forth. My knees are like soaked in my tears and I’m shaking. I can’t get oxygen in my lungs that just keeps getting rejected over and over and over, it won’t go in. I have a full-blown panic attack in front of 20 super nice Lutherans from Wisconsin, which is basically the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
I don’t even know when she came up to me, but all of a sudden, I realized that Sharon’s hands were on my shoulders and she said, “You’re okay. I’m right here. You’re okay.” She was keeping the lid on for me. Something didn’t escape that I needed, like my sanity or the ability for my body and mind to be in the same place at the same time. She was so strong, calm, and amazing and everything I want people to think I am and everything I wasn’t in that moment. She was exactly what I needed. Like an asshole an hour earlier, I had a hard time knowing her name.
At this point, the bus was righted and was in a position where it could keep going. Everyone else was getting back on the bus. I saw that and I kept rocking back and forth going, “I’m not getting on the bus. I’m not getting on that bus.” Sharon said to our tour guide, “Under no circumstances Nadia allowed to get on the bus,” for which I loved her. We stopped this Audi, the first car we saw, and these two Palestinian men rolled down the window, they flipped out their cigarettes and they said, “Can we help you?” They agreed to take the shaking, crazy, needy, heavily tattooed, tall, White American woman back up the road to Bethlehem, to safety.
The next morning, I was the first person at breakfast and there was like this light streaming in the window. I felt cleansed, like you do after a cry or a hard rain. I realized that whatever I was trying to protect on that road was taken from me. I saw Sharon and her husband come in for breakfast and I motioned for them to join me. I realized that they had seen me in my most unguarded, raw, needy state in which I couldn’t do it myself. They hadn’t made a big deal about it. They just wanted to make sure I was okay, but I knew I had experienced a spiritual exfoliation by way of humiliation.
My heart was open. Finally, it took five days and my heart was finally open to these people. I mean, maybe not like enough to laugh at corny puns, but when they sat down, I looked at them and I said, “Do you guys have any pictures of your grandchildren?”
A blessing for the human heart.
Let’s just agree that our hearts are such messy, complicated things, and that clichés and greeting card sentiments don’t even get close to the actual reality of them.
So, the most honest blessing I can offer is, may you find yourself surprised by your very own heart.
May you sense it hurting for people you don’t even like very much.
May you feel it loving something entirely unlikely.
And when your heart is full, may you not miss it all by wondering when it will break again
May you welcome it home when it has gone off and given pieces of itself to that which can never love it back.
May it reintroduce itself to you.
And may you discover it is healing from the things you used to think would destroy it.