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A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

by John Pavlovitz


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No one likes to eat alone; to approach a table filled with people, only to be told that despite the open chairs there isn't room for you. The rejection stings. It leaves a mark. Yet this is exactly what the church has been saying to far too many people for far too long: "You're not welcome here. Find someplace else to sit." How can we extend unconditional welcome and acceptance in a world increasingly marked by bigotry, fear, and exclusion?

Pastor John Pavlovitz invites readers to join him on the journey to find-or build-a church that is big enough for everyone. He speaks clearly into the heart of the issues the Christian community has been earnestly wrestling with: LGBT inclusion, gender equality, racial tensions, and global concerns. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, Hopeful Spiritual Community asks if organized Christianity can find a new way of faithfully continuing the work Jesus began two thousand years ago, where everyone gets a seat.

Pavlovitz shares moving personal stories and his careful observations as a pastor to set the table for a new, more loving conversation on these and other important matters of faith. He invites us to build the bigger table Jesus imagined, practicing radical hospitality, total authenticity, messy diversity, and agenda-free community.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664262679
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 10/06/2017
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John Pavlovitz is a blogger, author, and pastor based in North Carolina. His blog, Stuff That Needs to Be Said, recently surpassed one hundred million views. His previous books include A Bigger Table, Hope and Other Superpowers, and Low.

Read an Excerpt


Finding My Place

Before I knew better, I assumed that everyone had a seat at the same table that I did. For nearly the first two decades of my life in perpetually snow-blanketed Central New York, I'd been a fairly well-behaved, white, middle-class, suburban, Italian, Roman Catholic boy. I had supportive parents, a loving family, and by most measurements a young man's dream childhood, filled with pool parties, pizza binges, playground football, farting contests, spontaneous backyard campouts — and epic air-guitar battles. When I think about those days now, I recall laughing a lot, paying way too much attention to comic books, neighborhood girls, and rock stars, and generally feeling safe and secure in my cozy little half-frozen corner of the world.

Being both Italian and Catholic meant that I was raised on gluten and guilt. I had lots of pasta and lots of repentance (and decades later I still have a healthy appetite for both). As is true for so many of my tribe, our kitchen was a holy place, the continually simmering heart of our family. It was a place of sustenance and communion and belonging, thick with the sweet aroma of basil and frying meatballs and the sound of Frank Sinatra. From an early age, religion, rules, and rituals were the bedrock of our weekly family routine, woven into my daily studies and athletics and even my social life, by parents who valued the structure and moral values they hoped this would instill in me. As a result, faith formed the steady background noise of my daily life, with God always hovering overhead like the Spirit over the water, at Creation — or maybe more like a stern, matronly grandmother making sure you washed properly. Either way, my hands stayed clean and I didn't cuss all that much.

For as long as I could remember, I had two really great stories planted within my heart, stories that not everyone has. The first was the story of a family that loved me. They spent time with me, told me that I mattered, that I was adored, that I could be anything I dreamed of being — and that they were for me. Home was a sanctuary. It was belonging. It was a soft place for my soul to find rest. Second, I had a story about God. In my God story, God was real, God was good, and I was fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of this very good God. (Admittedly this was a particularly tough sell during puberty and middle school breakups.) My faith story told me that God was massive and made everything, yet this same God knew me intimately and loved me completely. It was and is a beautiful and (I believe) true story, one that for most of my life has yielded the awareness that I was never alone and that God was always present. This realization has been at times comforting and at other times terrifying, depending on the day and my agenda.

Yet along with my stories about a big God who loved little me, and an affectionate family who was for me, I also inherited some false stories too, about people of color, about gay people, about poor people, about addicts, about born-again Christians, about atheists. In my handed-down narratives, these people were all to be avoided or feared, or at the very least approached with great skepticism, because something about the stories I'd learned told me that I was just a little bit more deserving of the love of this big God than they were. Some of these folks I looked at with pity and others with contempt, but I saw them all as surely undeserving of the close proximity to God that I as his favorite son had been blessed with. Most of us are raised in a similarly self-centered faith story, asking, "If God is for me, who can be against me?" and assuming that there is some competition with others that we are required to win in order to secure our acceptance. Such thinking forces us to quickly become experts at exclusion and at crafting a God who plays favorites. This is far easier when everything around you tells you that your skin color, gender, or orientation guarantee your place at the table.

My story told me that I was a beloved child and those whose lives were seemingly foreign to me were at best barely tolerated foster children who needed to do some work in order to earn a seat. I couldn't have described it that way then, but I remember how it felt to think about God and to count myself close and cared for, while believing so many others remained distant and disregarded. The truth I would later come to learn was that I was a just another begging roadside leper who wrongly imagined himself a righteous Pharisee. False stories and small tables will do that every time. In fact, the source of the greatest dissonance in the modern Church is the belief that there are clearly defined insiders and outsiders; that God is somewhere up there keeping score like a cosmic Santa Claus, and we all need to figure out how to separate people into allies and adversaries, lest we align ourselves with the damned and not the saved, and guarantee our damnation.

These faulty biographies handed down to me weren't the result of targeted, sinister indoctrination by the adults around me or delivered through any specific verbal instruction. They were simply the predictable by-product of being around people who looked and talked and believed the way that they did. When this happens, your table is going to be small. That's what uniformity usually breeds: an inherited affinity for the familiar and a fear of what isn't. When the table you're used to sitting at is small, so too is your understanding of those seated elsewhere. Over time I'd quietly developed a subtly narcissistic religious worldview where God gradually became the God of the Good People, and conveniently the "good people" tended to always look and sound and believe an awful lot like I did. This was my spiritual incubator during the first eighteen years or so of my journey, and for most of that time it worked for me. Privilege usually works for those who have it, unless they are so roused that they are able to see with fresh eyes and notice their blind spots and the great advantage in their experience. Like a stain on the back of your shirt: you usually can't easily see your privilege and you need good, honest people around you to tell you — and then you need to listen.

Sometimes life tries to teach you and you have the good fortune to be paying attention. Age can illuminate things that used to be in shadow. The older you get, the more clearly you see that all of us are the products of our individual stories: the place we're born, the home of our youth, the experiences we have, the education we receive, and the people who frequently speak into our lives. Our specific, never-to-be-duplicated history shapes the way we see the world, the way we understand ourselves, the way we think about God. In both beautiful and disappointing ways, this had been my story. It came with blessings and liabilities that were mine alone. Although I had an image of a God who was towering and loving and present, I had a view of the world that was frighteningly narrow, where far too many people were disqualified from intimacy with that God. I wasn't a bad kid, I was just misinformed. Chances are, had I stayed where I was geographically, I would have continued to be loved and encouraged and cared for. I would have remained comfortably nestled in the narrative of my childhood and had that story reinforced by people who genuinely treasured me. I would have probably become a fairly decent, responsible adult with a tidy, albeit terribly selective narrative about the world — and my table would have stayed far too small for the God I claimed to believe in. Then God gave me Philadelphia. Hallelujah.

When you win a goldfish at the fair by tossing a ping-pong ball into his tiny bowl, you know you can't just dump the poor thing from his cozy little temporary Ziploc home and into a massive tank, because the system shock will likely kill him. Too much change too soon is a certain death sentence, and so you need to gradually ease the little guy into the bigger world, or that world will quickly overwhelm him and invariably leave him permanently swimming sideways — and you'll be flushing your newly earned trophy down the toilet. Thirty years ago I was a wide-eyed, suburban goldfish dropped from thirty thousand feet, straight into the churning heart of Philadelphia's murky Schuylkill River. Looking back, it's difficult to comprehend how my head didn't simply explode upon arrival at the corner of Broad and Pine, but I suppose this is what grace actually looks like, practically speaking. It allows you to find quite tolerable, even enjoyable, what might otherwise kick the living snot out of you. As my feet first hit the rugged, blistered pavement of the City of Brotherly Love, I stepped unexpectedly into a waiting Technicolor ambush of God-sized diversity, and though I couldn't know it then, my table was about to be expanded and my calling about to be born. Had I realized it all at the time, I would have removed my shoes, because these loud, weathered streets were indeed most holy ground. The ordinary always is.

I had no aspirations to be a pastor in these days, no inkling that ministry was even an option. In truth, I was at best a hopeful agnostic, barely having anything resembling a working faith except a few randomly strung-together remnants from my childhood Catholicism: stubborn, sacred holdouts loosely strewn through an ever-growing disbelief. On a scholarship to the University of the Arts as a graphic design major, I was suddenly surrounded by and living among artists, musicians, dancers, and actors, for most of whom theology was a late, lingering afterthought if it was a thought at all. This wasn't church as I recognized it, but it was a decidedly bohemian alternative congregation, where I regularly began working out my big-boy faith with fear, trembling — and lots of cheese-steaks. There were no Bible study groups or Sunday worship services or midweek prayer meetings, none of the familiar trappings of religion that I'd grown up with, but stuff was happening in me just the same — deep, fundamental, soul-renovating stuff. Back then, from the outside I would have probably been what modern traditional Christian culture identifies as unchurched: nonreligious, lost, and needing to be rescued. In the all-or-nothing battle lines that the modern Church has carved out, my lack of participation in a recognized local faith community would have ensured this label. But labels rarely do justice to those on which we affix them.

In the eyes of the faithful, I was simply off God's grid. But the deeper truth was not as easily distinguished. I couldn't even see it myself at the time, but the place was absolutely teeming with the things of God: the pungent bouquet of brightly colored gobs of oil paint slathered across canvases, the rhythmic stomps of synchronized dancers' feet hitting the hardwood studio floors, the meandering harmonies of impromptu choirs rising from the stairwells to mix with the street noise outside — a jazz fusion of humanity that Miles Davis would've marveled at. There was creativity and discovery and collaboration, and some of the most authentic community I'd ever known or would ever know. I realize now that this wasn't just an inner-city art school; it was a covert cathedral wrapped in concrete and fluorescent lights, a strikingly diverse masterpiece by Divinity's hand, even if I couldn't recognize it or name it at that time. During those first weeks I spent glorious nights perched on high-rise balconies with new friends talking about life and love and the future. I began living alongside people who my story had previously kept at a safe distance. And with every new relationship and every stereotype-busting exchange, I was slowly being pulled from the tiny, climate-controlled Ziploc-bag bubble of my childhood God story and into a wide expanse that would make way for what was coming. My soul was being tilled like rich, hard-packed soil in preparation for something new and beautiful to grow, something far greater than what I had understood religion to be and something far more suited to the One who I had been taught spoke the very planet into being and who gave consent for my very heart to begin beating. Philadelphia was giving me a crash course in the stunning breadth and creativity of the maker of color, light, and sound. God was using a wonderfully odd collection of painters and piano players and comic book artists to rewrite my story. I was in the middle of a stunning plot twist — and was largely oblivious to it all. I just knew it was beautiful.

Turns out that this was Jesus' vision of the world too: life as cathedral. He moved through the streets and fields and homes of Palestine reminding people of the staggering glory that was beneath their feet and around their tables. He called people's attention to a "kingdom of heaven" that was in their midst if they could only become aware of it. It was a holistic understanding of divinity, where nothing was untouched by the hand of God; one where, as the apostle Paul would later describe, everyone was a living church, a breathing sanctuary (1 Cor. 3:16–17). Our modern understanding of spirituality is a far more binary endeavor, strictly dividing the world into the sacred and the secular, into religious life (which usually happens in a building for an hour on Sunday) and life outside religion (usually the other, more fun stuff). This makes building a bigger table a real challenge.

Things outside my college campus were no less revelatory, no less jarring, no less disorienting to my previously cloistered religious operating system. Philadelphia offered a free master class in beautiful, messy diversity. My first off-campus apartment was just off of Broad Street right in the loud, crackling heart of things, and my second-floor window overlooking Pine Street gave me the perfect perch to watch the daily ragamuffin parade. I had a front-row seat to life beyond the edges of the small table of my youth and childhood religion, as if I'd reached the edge of an old world and was blazing a trail to something previously untouched in my mind and heart. I may as well have been an alien because everything felt foreign to me, but in the best possible way. It's true that a change of environment gives you new eyes to view the world through, and I was seeing like never before. During my first year there I spent countless hours meandering through the city, over the weathered cobblestones from the first days of our nation as they intersected swaths of scalding, freshly paved asphalt. In the same block I'd pass pristine, hundred-year-old brownstones, nondescript Chinese restaurants, surprising preserved green spaces, and hand-painted murals on repurposed shuttered storefronts. This was the city I was falling in love with in its completeness: not a series of sharply delineated separate entities to be received on their own, but a stunning, continuous mosaic of disparate pieces that together made something new. Without any of those pieces it would cease to be the community that it was; its true identity was fashioned from that very specific diversity on display.

What I stepped into there each day was stark-naked life, stripped of the glossy veneer of my suburban past; jagged-edged, urine-soaked, graffiti-tagged, unsanitized reality I'd never experienced before. I found myself to be a new, tiny, irregular piece shoved awkwardly in a massive mosaic of need and affluence, of diverse dialects and unfamiliar spices, of street vendors and corner prostitutes, of young families and elderly beggars — and I found every second of it thrilling, if not regularly terrifying. I rubbed elbows with people I had no previous frame of reference for and began to wake up to the common ground in our shared humanity. I witnessed violence and poverty not as isolated news stories, but as the regular rhythm of the daily painful existence many people had to experience as their normal, one that I'd never imagined. It all began slowly softening my heart and breaking into new places in my brain, laying the foundation for the kind of pastor I would one day aspire to become — an all-people pastor.

I earned money my freshman year working at the university's café. For a lifelong foodie with a high metabolism and a low budget, this job was a perfect storm of pure goodness. I was able to help prepare amazing meals and to interact with students and faculty each afternoon working the front end. My dad's salesman genes were allowed to come to full fruition in me, and the counter provided a kind of stage where I could daily dispense one-liners, make people laugh, and in general offer the kind of gregarious hospitality that he had instilled in me, bolstered by a shared work ethic in which we both took tremendous pride. Every day I got the chance to literally welcome people to the table and to serve them well. It gave me great satisfaction to be a kind presence in their lives each day, and I loved being affectionately referred to as Café John around campus. In fact, I always felt a little like I was getting away with something by being paid for this gig — and regularly taking home chafing dishes filled with lasagna was a pretty nice bonus too.


Excerpted from "A Bigger Table"
by .
Copyright © 2017 John Pavlovitz.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Wednesday Morning in November ix

Part I Big God, Small Table 1

1 Finding My Place 3

2 When in Rome 15

3 Going against the Family 25

4 Earthquakes and Aftershocks 35

5 The Truth Shall Get You Fired 45

Part II Building the Bigger Table 55

6 Jesus the Table Setter 57

7 Radical Hospitality 65

8 Total Authenticity 75

9 True Diversity 83

10 Agenda-Free Community 95

Part III Under Construction 103

11 Show Them the Ocean 105

12 Bullies, Bibles, and Bullhorns 113

13 Pharisees, Heresies, and Least-Lovers 123

14 The Church Will Be Queer 133

15 Mama Bear Hugs and Mama Dragon Fire 143

16 A Pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam Walk into a Bar 153

17 Fear Less 161

18 Is the Table Really Big Enough? 169

Acknowledgments 175

A Word for Pastors 177

Discussion Guide 183

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