an excerpt from Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix
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 recovering 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 mag- azines on the piano bench and sit myself down for a few hours of belly laughing, which was well worth the twenty-five dollars 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 CU Boulder (where, as a thirty-five-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 realized 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 antiheroes 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 realized 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.
Reprinted by permission of Jericho Books. All rights reserved.