This is the third in a short series of blog posts about Decatur Presbyterian’s journey through the book A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz. This book is on the reading list for Rev. Dr. Todd Speed’s sabbatical this summer. All are invited to join in reading the book, following along in this blog, and joining in the live conversation Sunday mornings in June.
Part three is titled “Under Construction” and Pavlovitz begins to offer ways in which we can begin to build the bigger table he’s been talking about all along. In our discussion on Sunday morning, one person asked if there would be any ‘how-to’ element in this book. I think we’re getting there.
There’s a good chance we all see the need for a bigger table, for being more hospitable, welcoming, and diverse but we may not know where to start. Pavlovitz makes this point himself on p. 107 “I would imagine you’re probably not wondering whether radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community are good or beautiful or needed. I’ll wager we’d all agree that they are, in the same way we all agree that reflecting the character of Christ in the world is a really good idea. The question in matters of radically and tangibly living our faith is usually, ‘Where do we start?’
He begins chapter 11 using the image of trying to explain to someone else what it’s like to experience the ocean. You can’t really explain it. In order to know what it’s like to experience the ocean, you have to go to the ocean, see it, experience it for yourself. The same is true for the love of God, he says. We talk about the love of God and the grace of Christ an awful lot in the church but are we helping others to experience it. Are we showing them the ocean? Do our actions match our words?
“The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God.” (p. 106) He warns against faith being simply a Sunday morning exercise and emphasizes the need for faith to have feet, to be lived out every day of the week. He believes that churches should be organized around the needs of the community, of the people and that these needs should drive the mission, the building, the policies, etc. Are we doing that here at DPC? Do we allow the needs of the community to inform our mission? Do we know enough about the community to understand what the needs may be?
Pavlovitz begins chapter 12 by claiming “Your theology is overrated.” and as a student of theology, I bristled a little at that sentence. On further reading, though, I understand what he means. Too often we let our theology get in the way of our loving others. If, from a distance, we decide that another person doesn’t believe what we do the way we do, we may never sit down at the table with them. He says the example that Jesus sets before us is a theology lived. “He (Jesus) saw them. He offered them the gift of proximity and the invitation to communion. His sermons were never given in a vacuum, but always connected to a life that echoed it.” (p. 115) The gift of proximity is striking to me. How often do I get close enough to people who are different from to even have a chance to know them? How often do I decide about a person before I can know them?
Pavlovitz tells a story about a youth he engaged in conversation and though the youth did not respond much in person it turns out the conversation meant a great deal. She told him later that most people walk by her and take no notice or simply pretend she isn’t there. Noticing is important. Seeking connection is important. I think it’s step one in building a bigger table. We have to notice those around us and then introduce ourselves.
Consider this quote: “If your theology isn’t connected directly and visibly to your daily living and if it doesn’t saturate the relationships you engage in, then it’s merely theory: noble, beautiful, powerful theory, but theory just the same. The table is the practice of living theologically, of simply embodying one’s beliefs rather than leading with them, which is a dying art form.” (p. 118)
Creating proximity, sitting down, taking time, listening to another, these are all key when it comes to building a bigger table. Setting aside assumptions is key, too. And it’s challenging. It means setting aside “false stories” as Pavlovitz calls them. The false stories are the prejudices we hold that prevent us from building relationships with those different from ourselves. He tells a story about going to dinner with former prostitutes and fearing there would be no commonality between them. He found out quickly that he was wrong. Children of God always have things in common with other children of God. Share humanity is shared humanity but we have to let go of our assumptions about others to find out.
Pavlovitz reminds us that in the early days of the Church, the term Christian was not a name that believers gave to themselves. It was a derogatory name given by those outside of the faith. The early church was small, struggling, and squeezed by the cultural powers of the day. It was strange and countercultural. It didn’t make sense to the larger society or those in power. Though intended as a derogatory distinction the term Christian was reclaimed as something a person of faith desired to be. He thinks that we’ve lost that distinction and that the church in North America often resembles the empire rather than being the place where the love of Jesus Christ is made manifest. I’ve heard countless stories of those hurt by the church, deeply wounded by those who claim to be Christian. This hurt is usually the result of judgment or exclusion or someone being told that they can’t possibly be loved by God because of who they are. There can be a great deal of pain inflicted by those who claim to be followers of Christ. There are times when Christians don’t do a very good job of showing the love of Christ. Pavlovitz feels that “The name Christian is no longer synonymous with Jesus out in the world, but with bigotry, with power, with discrimination. This is the script that we who desire the bigger table must flip.” (p. 140) Do you think that’s true? That those outside the faith see Christian as a bad thing? How can we reclaim it for good? Have you experienced discrimination, judgment or exclusion from a church or others who claim Christ?
What he’s advocating here is that we actually live out the faith we profess. In our tradition, we can be good with words but our words must match our actions. If we claim to be hospitable and welcoming, we’d better BE hospitable and welcoming. If we claim the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, we’d better act as though it is. How do we do that? What are some steps we can take?
Again, I’m challenged by his words. I wonder what false stories I need to relinquish, who am I not noticing, is there exclusionary behavior of which I need to repent, do I live out my theology? How can I embody the love of Christ? These are the questions I’m left with after reading this section. What are yours?
Next week, we’ll finish up by reading chapters 15-18. I hope you’ll join me.
Rev. Alex Rodgers