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Thursday, September 20, 2018

"A Bigger Table" (John Pavlovitz)

TITLE: A Bigger Table
AUTHOR: John Pavlovitz
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (188 pages).

Our table of understanding and tolerance is way to small. There is only space for people of similar thoughts, similar skin colour, similar political beliefs, and similar cultural distinctivenesses. Beginning with a lament about the state of the American political scene, and the way the Trump presidency had divided many communities, the big question is: "What does it take to expand that table?" How do we create a more inclusive, diverse, and accepting environment? According to author and pastor John Pavlovitz, this book is "about humanity, about the one flawed family that we belong to and the singular, odd, staggeringly beautiful story we all share." The first part of the book details his journey from being hired to getting fired. He shares his background as a young "insider" experiencing within a community that makes stark distinctions between people inside and people outside. Such "faulty biographies" were handed to him and he was expected to toe the line. Raised in a Catholic home, and seeing how his community has become such a "gentrified, sanitized, homogeneous" one, he aspires to become a pastor to all people, to learn to break bread with the broken, the marginalized, and the lesser ones around. He chronicles his journey through many different shakeups. From his brother coming out as gay to moving to a Protestant Church; from seeing the Church as a place of acceptance to a place of rejection; from outspoken faith to "conspiracy of silence" when it comes to navigating the tricky terrains of truth and love. When he tries to push back against the way Christians use "clobber verses" to push through their views, it marks the beginning of the end for his role as pastor. The price of honesty is steep. That sets him up with a conviction to start building a bigger table.

Part Two shows us how he goes about doing that. He reflects on Jesus being welcoming of all people, especially the outcasts. This contrasts with many communities around us content only to preach to the choir. Go beyond mere tolerance and acceptance toward genuine hospitality. This table is a table of authentic connections. It comprises the four legs of hospitality; authenticity; diversity; and relationship. Radical hospitality is that perseverance of welcome in spite of opposition. Total authenticity is about creating that space to be honest. True diversity means being able to see all our differences as beautiful manifestations of God's grace. Building relationships is about building an agenda-free community. These four legs represent the foundations of building a bigger table.

Part Three shows us the challenging paths forward. We are urged to show the need to put our words into practice. Understand what unconditional love means. Don't become a Bible bully. For the heart of the construction of the bigger table is essentially an "apologetic of love." He sees too many people ready to speak but slow to understand or empathize. Pushing a theological agenda seems to be more important than accepting persons as they are. Overcome the perceptions of bigotry through leading change for the better, such as increasing diversity and welcoming differences. Let the diversity of opinions be a rich reservoir of material for greater understanding. These and many others help us expand our awareness of the huge distance we need to cover not just to speak but to live out the truth in love.

My Thoughts
First, this must have been a painfully difficult book for the author to write. Many of the experiences are from his own. Being fired for one's own personal convictions is not something easy for anyone to stomach. Not only that, to speak out at the risk of excommunication from family and friends show us the high cost of open sharing. While conceptually, sharing is a good thing, practically, it could make or break any relationship.

Second, from pain comes the frustrations in writing. I sense several moments of sarcasm and disappointment, especially the part about the predictable "template and sequence for birthing Christian faith." He goes on to list the key influencer, the expected ministry teams, and the way typical churches emphasize buildings, budgets, and bodies. Calling it "top-heavy," he laments at the way many typical churches are built upon. While it is true that such a strategy is predictable, he doesn't offer a practical alternative apart from his own journey of starting with a "one-night table gathering." Honestly speaking, is there a more understandable alternative to the predictable church? Perhaps, starting an alternative from within the conventional church might very well be something more possible. Understand that changing mindsets might take generations. Thus, patience and generous outlay of gentle teaching and guiding might help bridge any divide. Letting negative experience drive one's strategy is not the best way to start with. In fact, such negative experiences would require strong facilitating, something that only people who had gone through harsh setbacks and who had been healed are able to do.

Third, for all the exhortations to change and to encourage the building of the bigger table, this book is limited in terms of its effectiveness. The best that it could do is to increase awareness and propose a way different from our conventional church model. I like the title of the book which captures the picture of inclusiveness. I appreciate the openness the author has with regard to his painful personal journey. He is also spot on with regard to the multiple levels of fear as our default setting in many church ministry circles. Like going against a huge tidal wave, unless one is secure and stable, be prepared to get drenched. One's shipload of ideas may also be easily overturned. This calls for wisdom and discernment about how to communicate the ideas of radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community. The best people to effect such change would be influential people from within. Don't forget that the Church is God's and with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, we can make our petitions solely to God and trust that He will create spaces and difference makers sooner rather than later.

John Pavlovitz is a former megachurch pastor who was fired for his progressive liberal beliefs. He has developed a following through his blog articles. He is thankful to be free to express his personal views more openly through the public platform.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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